Every Tuesday evening, throughout the bustling streets of Tel Aviv, the smooth sibilance created by thousands of rubber wheels gliding against asphalt can be heard, even over the noisy din of caf chit-chat, groaning buses, screeching mopeds and honking cars. Pedestrians and motorists alike come to a stunned halt all over the city to watch the serpentine procession of rollerbladers skate by, especially when some of them, in honor of the white nights of Tel Aviv, decide to travel in thongs for the evening.
"We get crazy once in a while," says Moshe Fridlis, the man in charge of bringing up the rear. "This week we decided to skate in our underwear, but as you can see it's not an obligation," he says casually, waving an arm in the direction of the gathering rollerbladers, most of whom are fully dressed.
This week, the decision to skate in skivvies turned a few people away who normally join the group, and many people felt it was inappropriate.
"I had a great time skating - other than the fact that I ended up at the wrong end of a thong once or twice," says Boaz Arad, one of the regular members of the Tel Aviv rollers who also skates with a group in Rishon Lezion on Thursday nights.
"The problem with the thongs is that, most of the time, it's the people who you least want to see wearing one that turn up with them on," says Eyal Zarchi, a rollerblader who lives in Tel Aviv.
Leading the pack on their breakneck adventure is Alik Mintz, the founder of the Tel Aviv rollers group. Mintz says that everyone is welcome, as long as they're on rollerblades. Yet the weekly skate through the city maintains a rapid pace, sometimes moving at speeds of up to 60 kph, and beginners are discouraged from attending.
"If someone can't keep up, I send them home in a taxi," says Fridlis. "It's too much of a liability to have a straggler."
The Tel Aviv rollers meet at Sderot Ben-Zion, across from Habima, on a large tree-lined boulevard at 10 p.m. Throughout the growing crowd, small flashing lights and sparkling reflective gear shine in the penumbra of the faint streetlights, giving the giants on wheels an aura of festivity and excitement. As more and more rollerbladers begin to arrive, rolling to a stop to greet each other and joining small circles to chat, the tension starts to mount.
People begin to murmur about the route, curious which path Mintz will choose this week. At last, with a clap of his hands, Mintz climbs onto a bench to begin his weekly safety briefing about ground rules and the roads they will follow. He explains a few dos and don'ts to the skaters but makes it clear that he is not the police. Every individual needs to behave himself in order to ensure the safety of the entire group.
"Always stay behind the leader - but don't lag behind the tail, no hanging onto cars, no jumping in front of others, and no disruptions in the street. Use good judgment - oh, and most of all, have fun," he tells the antsy crowd. Finally, after the ground rules are set, it's time for takeoff.
The mass exodus begins as a race for some, and they leave the starting line in a hunched crouch, sprinting off into the distance with a graceful rhythm. Others begin slowly, preferring to take their time and warm up gradually. As the skaters leave the area, the line they form becomes narrower and narrower until they are only a thin, sparkling line along the side of the dark road.
The hundreds of participants who wheel around the city these days began as a small group eight years ago after Mintz decided to continue skating despite the closure of a local rink.
"My friends and I used to go to a big area to rollerblade together that played music and had drinks, and when it closed down everyone stopped going," explains Mintz. "But I wanted to continue skating, so I had to find a place to go."
Sidewalk surfaces are rough and cracked, and rollerbladers constantly run into pedestrians and bikers there, so Mintz decided it was time for the asphalt.
"It's actually safer to rollerblade on the streets with the cars than to be on the sidewalks," says Mintz. "The sidewalks and bike paths have a lot of obstacles - mothers with their babies in carriages, dogs on leashes that stretch across the path, driveways with cars coming in and out, etc."
Largely ignored by local law enforcement officials until recently, the group is slowly growing in numbers as more people begin to participate in the sport and use it as a means of environmentally safe transportation. Because the Tel Aviv rollers form the largest group, others travel from cities all over Israel to join them on the streets.
"I feel safer and it's more fun to rollerblade in a group," says Tamar, one of the few women in the pack who skates every Tuesday night in Tel Aviv. "You need to know how to stop before you can start coming here, and it took me about six months of training before I was good enough to join this group," she explains.
Knowing how to come to a full stop and control your speed may be critical to rollerblading on the streets with other people, but lately at least two rollerblading groups have also had to effectively deal with a different threat: the police.
"We were chased three nights in a row by the police," says Mintz. "The summons they served to six different people have all been thrown out in court by the judges, except for one that has yet to be presented, because what we are doing is not illegal."
The police disagree. Six rollerbladers have been summoned to appear in court for breaking two different laws: one refers to an organized sports activity on the roads without permission and the second involves disturbing traffic.
Rather than taking Paris as a model, where every Friday night over 20,000 rollerbladers skate through the streets with a few motorcycle escorts and police on wheels, the Israeli law enforcement officials refuse to budge.
"We are going to operate against them in order to prevent danger," says Aaron Ezra, the chief of police at the Yarkon Precinct in Tel Aviv. "This is not Paris, it's Tel Aviv," he adds.
Ezra explains that the roads here are much narrower and have higher traffic densities, making rollerblading on the streets even more dangerous. In addition, the Israeli budget is far lower than in other European locales, and they simply cannot afford to have escorts for the rollerbladers.
"They are willing to allow us on long roads with no exits," says Mintz. "I don't know any roads like that."
As a mediator in the negotiations between the rollerbladers and the police, the deputy mayor of Tel Aviv tried to help, but the solution requires finances that neither the rollerbladers nor the police are willing to invest.
"They want us to pay them to escort us, but we don't have the money to do that every week either," says Mintz.
The emphatic and unrelenting attitude of the police toward rollerblading in Israel, especially in Tel Aviv and Rishon Lezion, has some skaters up in arms.
"The police say they would need to completely isolate the rollerbladers from the cars and they would need 1,000 men to do it," says Mintz. "They are too afraid of taking responsibility to learn from the police in cities across Europe, who escort the rollerbladers to ensure safety rather than accusing them of disturbing traffic and causing potential accidents by running after them."
The rollerblading group in Rishon Lezion also ran into trouble with the law after a driver almost hit them by running a red light.
"We were crossing a crosswalk on a green light and a driver almost ran into us. Then she had the nerve to get out of her car and start screaming at us!" says Arad. "That would never have happened if we were pedestrians. She is probably the one who called the police, because they later showed up in three squad cars and threatened to make arrests."
Rather than stir up the authorities even further, Amit Sivron, one of the Rishon Lezion rollerbladers, says the group has avoided the eastern part of the city, opting instead to extend their skate to Holon and Bat Yam, where they have yet to roll into the path of any police.
Sivron, an economist who has been skating for over 25 years, was first introduced to the sport in London. After making the transition from four wheels to two, he skates with a small group of rollerbladers in Rishon Lezion every Thursday evening.
"The Tuesday night group ends late and I have to work, so I prefer to go on Thursdays," he says. "And because we have a much smaller group, we know everyone and we can wait for people."
The Rishon Lezion group, like the Tel Aviv rollers, usually ends its session in a restaurant near the sea for a cold brew and a bite to eat.
The oldest member of the group, Sivron says that rollerblading in Israel has an unfortunate stigma of being a game for small children. "Most of the people rollerblading in Israel are above 30," he says. "It's not just a bunch of teenagers looking for a way to rebel."
In fact, the low-impact, high-speed sport burns a similar number of calories to running, but without the jarring or grinding.
"It's great exercise," says Sivron, who also rollerblades on Saturday mornings with a group in Latrun. "When I skate with the group in Latrun we go about 30 or 40 miles at high speeds, and I probably burn about 1,500 calories. I can eat all the ice cream I want after that!"
The Saturday morning sessions in Latrun begin at 6 a.m. and are reserved for the serious rollerbladers who enjoy the thrill of speed and can handle the long distances the group travels on bike paths and main roads.
Eyal Fink, who is training for the upcoming Berlin double marathon, which includes a 42-kilometer rollerblading marathon followed by a 42-km running marathon the next day, founded the Latrun group because there are few cars there and the roads are in good shape. This combination, along with the rolling hills, allows for high speed and hardly any stops.
Always an amateur athlete, Fink bought his first pair of rollerblades a little over a year ago after his daughter wanted a pair for her birthday. But when he first arrived at the Tuesday night sessions in Tel Aviv wearing his biking Lycra and ready to sweat, he was surprised to see people smoking and to smell the familiar mixture of Red Bull and vodka wafting through the air.
"The Tel Aviv group is not a sporting event," says Fink. "It's more for the social atmosphere and it's a slower pace."
Fink soon discovered a more fitting place in the Sunday evening group, led by Eyal Dankner, also known as "fast Eyal" in rollerblading circles.
The Sunday evening group is small, usually between three and ten people, and made up of the more determined athletes who come to improve their skill and technique. This group also rollerblades through the streets of Tel Aviv, but at a much faster pace than the Tuesday night masses.
For beginners, Leonid Tanuobes teaches a free weekly session in Rishon Lezion and Tel Aviv. He posts the time and meeting place on the Web site in the forum for beginners at www.israel-rollers.net, and usually ends up with between 30 and 50 students.
One of the first three certified instructors to teach advanced rollerblading courses, and the downhill Israeli champion, Nathan Lakonishok leads a Friday afternoon advanced group.
"I see a lot of improvement in the next generation of Israeli skaters," says Lakonishok, who has been competing in the sport all over Europe for the past 10 years. "The sport is taking off here despite the primitive attitude of the Israeli government and the unwillingness of the police to help or understand the importance of the future of the sport for the environment."
According to Lakonishok, the rollerbladers make an easy target for the police, whose time he feels would be better spent trying to stop the trafficking of women or the sale of drugs. Unlike Europe, Israel is not promoting the sport or even trying to understand it.
"They say we are harassing them, but we're worried about safety," explains police chief Ezra. "We are not prepared to approve this activity because it is too dangerous."
Two of the unsafe elements Ezra mentions in association with the rollerbladers are skating without helmets and skating out of control. He says the rollerbladers are crazier than bikers, and that they take more chances without wearing helmets and without regard for motorists. Police do not want any fatalities due to rollerblading on the streets, and they are doing what they can to see that none occur.
The rollerblading groups that take to the streets avoid times when traffic is dense in order to disturb others less and maintain a higher level of safety. Still, police say, the roads, are not made for anything other than cars. In addition, while many of the rollerbladers wear protective knee pads and elbow pads, the vast majority do skate without a helmet.
"I take safety seriously," says Fink, an amateur speed skater. "I always wear a helmet, as do a few others, but most people don't. They probably don't want to look like geeks, but it's much more dangerous without one."
Lakonishok thinks the attitude toward rollerbladers stems from the fact that people need time to adjust to new things, and he hopes that in the future more rights and respect will be given to the sport.
"When cars first appeared in England, they were escorted by a man with a white flag. Today, we need a white flag for rollerbladers," says Lakonishok.
The sport will take a giant leap forward if it makes it into the Olympic Games as anticipated, and many of the serious Israeli rollerbladers hope that happens in the near future.
"Right now there are a few Israelis who are sponsored by K2 and Salomon," says Dankner. "If rollerblading gets into the Olympics, some of us could probably become professionals and make a living from the sport we love. That's the real dream."