On the corner of Derech Yaffo and Simtat Hashuk streets, in a bar-café at the end of a dim passageway, five friends sit around a table filled with delicacies and talk business.
This is not a unique site in the Tel Avivian landscape on a Saturday night, and yet something seems a bit odd. Three of the group members look like typical Tel Avivian party goers. The other two are the ones who attract attention: One is dressed in black, with a black hat on his head and a long beard. The other wears a Borsalino hat like a 1930s gangster over a face adorned with a thick beard and fringed garments peeking from under his coat.
From time to time they are approached by one of the café visitors, who shakes their hands or whispers something in their ears. Girls approach them from time to time too.
In Tel Aviv of 2011, the ultra-Orthodox world is still perceived as closed and isolated, fearful of any peek into secularism. But David Malach and Eitan Gurion, two Chabadniks who are among the café owners, are undeterred. In the past two years they have opened a number of bars in Tel Aviv with their three secular partners.
"We are revolutionaries, just like Rabbi Lubavitcher," laughs Malach. "We observe 36 mitzvot just like any other haredi, but we look at things differently. That's why we had no problem opening bars and cafés of all places."
Today the five serve as the owners and co-managers of Café Adar, where we meet, as well as Salon Berlin, a bar and clothing store, and Haprozdor, which is far from being a mega-bar in Tel Avivian terms, but is still a well-known and highly regarded place among the city's party goers - a dense and gloomy space where dozens of people are crowded, including quite a few girls in revealing clothes.
What do two Chabadniks have to do with such a place? According to Malach, this is a necessary connection.
"Friction between religious and secular exists anywhere in the country, but not in Tel Aviv," he smiles. "The guys sitting here have no idea what's going on in the news, just like haredim. What we have here is two ends connecting."
It all began in Berlin, Salon Berlin to be exact, which Malach opened together with his father Nissim, 61, and Adir Sharon, 21. The small store at the front of the place sold vintage clothes and personal designs, while the internal room sold drinks and held exhibitions and parties.
Eviatar Manilevitch, 27, arrived to visit a friend who worked in the store, and the joint meeting generated Haprozdor, which opened in February 2009 as a "dance bar". Gurion, 30, who is originally from a religious home but "up to a year ago had no beard", was one of the regular customers. At a certain point he joined a Torah lesson with Malach, and the two decided to set up Café Adar, which was opened – you guessed it – on the Hebrew month of Adar.
On the top floor of the café, on a brown cabinet, lies a small television from the 1970s and three rotary phones which bring back forgotten memories. In the background one can hear the sounds of Greek music and Jo Amar songs. Waitresses in modest clothing, balancing small plates of chickpeas and fava beans on their hands, make their way through the narrow space between the tables.
"We are not open on Fridays and Saturdays and on holidays, we only sell kosher food and on Passover
we remove the leavened bread and don't sell beer," Malach explains how the business works. "Apart from that, everything is acceptable."
Is it accepted by the customers as well?
"There were those who told me that if we close on Fridays we're subject to religious coercion," Manilevich replies. "I explained to them that it was a joint decision."
And were they convinced?
"No. In the end I told them that if they didn't find our way suitable they were welcome not to come here. Such cases rarely happen, but they exist. As far as I'm concerned, such people are fanatics. People who strongly oppose religion or have no respect for secularism have no place here."
The regular customers say the five men's bars and cafés promote Yiddishkite, at least when it comes to Jewish holidays. In Hanukkah, for example, large menorahs were placed in all of their places, and the owners lit candles and handed out sufganiyot.
"A customer who sees the bartender light candles and all the staff singings Hanukkah
songs together has no choice but to join the celebration," explains Manilevitch. "And yet there were times when someone was annoyed by it."
Last year's Lag B'Omer
holiday was marked with a big barbeque outside the bar. "We handed out meat for free," Nissim laughs. "People didn't understand what was going on. They didn't remember it was a holiday."
"In Sukkot we built a large sukkah outside and handed out food and drinks. Even the Chabad people arrived, and they didn't mind the girls who were here," says Malach.
Asked whether their intention is to connect the audience to Judaism, Malach Sr. replies, "There is no coercion here. We're simply trying to celebrate. My son David, who is a Chabadnik and lays Tefillin for people in the Carmel Market, will not try to do it here."
And what about New Year's Eve celebrations?
"This year it was on a Friday, so we were closed anyway. Last year we celebrated like on any other day, just without the Christian symbols. Tel Avivians don't like going out on this day anyway."
Can women perform in your bar?
"Of course," says Malach, "but when they sing Eitan and I leave the room."
Is there something you wouldn't agree to do?
"I won't shake a girl's hand," Malach answers, and Gurion smiles: "At first, when women came to shake my hand I found a way to avoid them. I held things in both hands. Then I started pulling my hand.
"Today most female customers already know us and don't try. They just ask questions. The idea is for us to live in this world and work God Almighty from within it, rather than shut ourselves into a corner. With the tools we have we are doing what is possible."
"We do beyond what is possible," says Malach. "Being a Chabadnik in Tel Aviv requires concentrating more than anyone else. I don't think people are offended when we don't shake hands with them. Instead of that we are nice, warm and smile more than the owners of other bars in Tel Aviv."
"In the café we even had a lesbians' party," Sharon recalls. "They had a closed event, and only after it started we realized that it was a women-only party. It was basically a pretty normal event."
And you all live in peace with it?
"There are mitzvot like 'Love your neighbor as yourself', and I won't only accept any person but also be with any person," says Malach. "Nothing bothers me when I'm with people who are different. Perhaps something bothers them about me."
The target audience is mostly secular, but it turns out that quite a few religious people visit the five men's bars. "They look for kosher places which are open all night," says Nissim Malach. "We even let them say the morning prayer here."
"I even have a convention," the son adds. "It's a Chabad method which says that the most important thing is for Jews to hang out together and have a good time. So I can sit in any of our places until 6-7 am, and then I hold the morning prayer."
Chabadniks, on the other hand, don't come and will probably never come. "There's no way," Malach says. "This isn't their place to hang out or workplace. We are talking about people with families. If they want to have fun, they go on a trip or to a hotel."
Can such places succeed in other cities, in your opinion, Jerusalem for example?
"I'm not sure," says Manilevitch. "Tel Aviv is not as emotionally charged as other cities. As a former Jerusalem resident I know it's all about politics. People talk about politics, secularism and religiousness even in cafés and bars. Our advantage is that we believe people have come to enjoy themselves and are not trying to change opinions."
Malach, on his part, is more optimistic. "I, like other Chabadniks in the world, encourage anything that will help achieve the purpose."
"Bringing the Messiah, bringing people closer to mitzvot and holidays. It advances salvation."