Interview: The cowboy of the Old City

Isaac Braun transports two-ton bags of debris from the Western Wall excavation site every night.

Isaac Braun cowboy 521 (photo credit: Ben Goldman)
Isaac Braun cowboy 521
(photo credit: Ben Goldman)
It’s 10 p.m. on a chilly night in the Old City. Just as the vendors shutter their shops and the last tourists disperse, a battered red truck, driven by an aging man in a black leather cowboy hat, enters through the ancient stone walls and lurches up the short road to the Western Wall. A pair of guards stop to chat with him and, after perfunctorily inspecting his truck, they open the security checkpoint gate and the man drives onto the sprawling white-stoned plaza that stretches out beneath one of the holiest sites in Judaism.
The man’s name is Isaac Braun, and he’s the truck driver and crane operator responsible for clearing out the debris dug up during the daytime as part of the Western Wall excavations, hired to do so by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. To do this, he must navigate his truck through the narrow streets of the Old City, manipulate a crane to hoist two-ton bags of rock and transport the bags off-site, all while avoiding causing any damage to the priceless archeological dig. It’s a critical role in the continued process of excavating the area under the ramp that leads to Mughrabi Gate and the Temple Mount, and one that requires a surgeon’s degree of precision and the guts of a matador.
“You need a lot of concentration to do a job like this,” Braun says. “Working in a sensitive area like [the Western Wall excavation], your heart rate goes way up. It’s like driving at 150 miles an hour.”
After pulling in to the Western Wall plaza, Braun carefully edges his truck toward the dig site, which is located behind a fence halfway down the ramp to the women’s entrance to the wall. Because of the lowhanging wooden Mughrabi Gate walkway above, he must maneuver his truck into the dig site backwards to avoid hitting the walkway with his crane – a mistake other truck drivers have made in the past.
“One guy broke his truck over here on that pole,” he says, pointing toward a metal beam near the entrance to the dig site. “And the other one was banging up on the beams [of the walkway] so the cops chased him out.”
Once Braun has successfully positioned his truck, he operates a series of levers that control a powerful robotic arm fixed to the truck’s rear in what looks like a grown man’s version of the children’s crane games found in arcades. He lowers the end of the crane to a massive sack of rock as his assistant, a wiry young man, attaches the crane’s metal chains to the bags, which are repurposed sugar sacks with the name “NordicSugar” still stenciled on them. When the chains are secure, Braun lifts the bags and twists them over his head and onto the truck’s flatbed, where the truck bounces under the deposited weight. “Each bag is the weight of a car,” he says. By the time he finishes, he has loaded 10 of these bags onto his truck.
Braun then drives the truck to the nearby Rockefeller Museum, where he unloads the bags into a massive mound of bags that has accumulated over months and that towers over him and his truck. After the bags have been unloaded, he hops back in the truck and drives back to the wall, where he will repeat the process. It is only 1 a.m., and he has several more hours of work to go.
Due to Braun’s intense work and his colorful personality, he has come to be known by those around him as the “Cowboy of the Old City.” “People here call me Indiana [Jones] or they call me Cowboy,” he says.
But it’s more than just the cowboy hat and the job that earn Braun his nickname. When he talks about his past, it’s hard not to be reminded of familiar country songs, lamenting lost years and lost loves, mistakes made and attempts to mend the past. “I have a lot of heartaches,” he says. “Outside of my beautiful work, which I love and I’m so good at, I have nothing but heartbreak.”
Braun says he was born in 1950 in a displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen to two Holocaust survivors whose nightmarish experiences haunted them throughout the rest of their lives and cast a shadow over his childhood. He went on to marry an Israeli woman, but his marriage quickly unraveled and they divorced when Braun was just 26 years old. Following a custody battle, Braun lost contact with his children and spent the better part of a decade struggling with drug abuse.
“I started smoking pot, then doing cocaine, and when that wasn’t strong enough, I started cooking it,” he says. “I just couldn’t deal with my pain.”
During this time, Braun bounced around the United States taking on various jobs as a mechanic to make ends meet, a skill he learned by working in his father’s plastics factory as a teenager. But with his life in a tailspin, he knew he needed a change, so in 1997 he decided to move to Israel. “As soon as I got a little bit of money, I ran like hell to Israel.”
Braun says that it was his move that ultimately caused him to clean up his act. “I was struggling with [drugs] for years,” he says, “until I came here, and I didn’t miss it at all.”
AFTER MOVING to Israel, Braun got started in the construction industry before saving up enough money to buy a truck and start his own company. He now works long hours managing his trucking business, with his nights occupied by his work at the wall and his days dedicated to miscellaneous jobs, including one job as the disposal man for Jewish holy texts, which Halacha requires to be buried, usually in a Jewish cemetery.
“I work like crazy,” Braun says. “Most [nights] I sleep four hours. Two nights a week I get no sleep – none at all. I get up in the morning and go to sleep the next day at night.”
Despite his erratic sleeping patterns and the dangerous nature of his work, Braun says that safety has never been an issue. “I’m very good at what I do. Otherwise I would never make it in [the job]. The police would not allow anybody but me in the [Western Wall excavations] and that’s because of my skills. So danger is no issue at all.”
Whenever he is too tired, he never fails to pass on the job. “If I’m too tired, I just won’t work. I’m very alert with my sleeping and working cycles and I’m careful.”
Braun’s intense work schedule is made all the more impressive by the fact that a decade ago, when he was 53 years old, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in a battle that he didn’t think he would survive.
“The [doctors] thought I would die,” he says. “But I had an operation and they took out a piece of my lung, and when I survived I knew I had to do some physical exercise, so I [continued] in this line of work.”
Seeing Braun work, one would never suspect that he had been ill just a few years earlier – or that he is now in his 60s. While on the job, he is constantly moving, climbing up and down off his truck like a child on a playground and choosing to leap over construction beams rather than walk around them. “It’s because I’m so physically fit that I have this much energy,” he says.
And, despite Braun’s troubled past and his bout with cancer, he says that he remains a strictly observant Jew, living in Har Nof.
“I love [God],” Braun says. “I’m so lucky that Hashem has given me a lot of gifts.”
One of these gifts is a lucrative income made from his trucking business, much of which he gives away to charity.
“When I was poor, I was so mad at the world for not helping me,” he says. “And I know there are other people in this predicament. And by me helping them, I can blame the others for not helping. But if I don’t do it, I can’t blame anybody. I’m just as stupid as they are.”
Now Braun says he dedicates his life to Jewish observance and is trying to make up for lost time with his two daughters, both of whom are married and living in New York. “I have hopes that one day I’ll be able to make things right with [my daughters], and that will make it all worth it,” he says.
And in the meantime, he has his work to keep him busy.
“I love my work,” he says. “I’d come to my truck in the morning with a cane. I wish.”