As we were reminded at the beginning of the latest lockdown, Israel’s quarantine hotel situation throughout the COVID pandemic was a disaster.
The people sent there complained of haphazard arrangements made at the last second for guests and a galling lack of oversight or organization approaching anarchy within the hotels — all while half of incoming travelers managed to receive waivers from the government to instead quarantine at home.
In the latest round, the local media reported that some people tried to escape one in Jerusalem — pushing the government to finally outlaw the quarantine hotels and allow citizens to quarantine at home.
But there’s a much crazier sector of Israeli society that has been far less talked about throughout the COVID crisis: the hostel.
In March, I checked into one in Tel Aviv, for story research, and was thrust into a world of enough sex, drugs and denial of reality to fill up an entire X-rated TV series.
Before pandemic times, the establishment — which will go unnamed, along with its residents, out of respect for their safety — was a premier destination for partiers in the city, catering to budget travelers and, occasionally, Israeli couples visiting Tel Aviv for a weekend getaway from the country’s sleepy periphery. Even before the pandemic, party hostels — a self-explanatory subset — were spaces where one could get away from the constant specter of war, from the conflict created by the occupation, from religion, from all politics, and even from friendships lasting more than a few days.
From the moment I entered — the first things I saw inside were photos depicting guests flashing their breasts with a Sharpie ‘x’ drawn over their nipples — I could tell that the place was going to be dangerously far removed from the COVID-19 reality unfolding outside. The manager offered me a wide smile and a high five when I arrived. I washed my hands immediately after.
While the outside world was abruptly shutting down, nobody seemed worried about the perfect storm for infection they resided in. I was known early on in the hostel as “the weird corona guy” who prophesied during each morning of the pandemic’s monthslong wrath while eating my complementary Nutella on toasted bread. I otherwise stayed in my room all day and opened all doors with my elbow, which I’m excellent at by now.
But even quarantined away in my own space, I was trapped by the coughing fits of one of my roommates. I winced seeing her nonchalantly open the door with her hands.
“I think everyone should do what they feel comfortable doing!” she once exclaimed in ignorant bliss, four drinks deep.
There was no social distancing nominally put in place until the police showed up in late March, an experience that prompted one non-Jewish visitor to gleefully note the irony of hiding in rooms from Jewish police in 2020 Israel. But even with furniture rearranged, people’s behavior barely changed. Some guests complained of the mysterious virus no worse than the flu wreaking havoc on their plans. The conspiracy theories unfurled — about the Chinese, the World Health Organization, even the pope.
While most denied pandemic reality, I learned that many in the hostel had actually been very sick in late January and February with fevers and persistent dry coughs, or had lost their sense of taste and smell. When I insisted they had likely gotten coronavirus before it was even known to have spread in Israel, one volunteer shrugged off whatever coughs they had then as a mere result of the joints they all smoked together.
By late March, the hostel, operating in a legal gray area, switched to marketing itself as a “long-term residence” that would not accept short-term guests. During the spring lockdown, and continuing since, long-term offerings at unusually cheap rates — buttressed by the establishment’s well-regarded and party-hard reputation — kept the hostel barely solvent while other establishments large and small foundered.
By April, only a few hostels remained open in Tel Aviv, and the others were largely empty. Along with stranded travelers unable to catch a flight home before air travel halted, the hostel, with about 25 residents total, increasingly became a strange mix of unconcerned Israelis craving Tel Aviv debauchery, the recently unemployed needing a cheap place to stay, and fringe outcasts who thought the Earth was flat or that shadowy forces controlled the world.
One was a stranded Canadian man in his 70s, a biblical archaeologist who was stuck in Israel while searching for the Ark of the Covenant, confident he’d find it in a sealed off cave in Qumran, in the West Bank. He likened himself to Indiana Jones, hat and all, and claimed a billionaire had bankrolled his expedition. He also said that he had secretly worked for the CIA, that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark and that masks kill people.
Then there was the strange 20-year-old Brit who had recently left his insulated haredi Orthodox Jewish community and was learning the basics of 21st century society, like what online forum boards were and how to court a woman (according to the internet). He always wore black and gave a foreboding stare. He once brilliantly called chicken parmigiana “chicken pizza.”
The locked-down party hostel was quite the petri dish to introduce him to society. Early on, the drinks flowed to forget about all the world’s troubles. But with nowhere to go, tensions grew and drunken fights commenced. The heavy drinking was slowly replaced with pounds of marijuana used to dull the existentialism of a two-month lockdown.
“Drinking starts to feel meaningless once you can’t go anywhere,” remarked the self-proclaimed “Asian shiksa” from California with an affinity for Israeli men. During the lockdown, her go-to apps were Tinder and ones that delivered food.
What people did with their time in limbo varied greatly. On one side of the spectrum, there was the Russian with red dreadlocks who spent 16 hours every day in a constant state of silent meditation wherever he was. Some simply tried yoga or learning the ukulele. And then there were those like the recently unemployed Israeli who spent every day getting high on ketamine until he began mumbling gibberish on the roof. One night, a volunteer worker found a heroin needle tucked inside a couch.
These characters at times felt like they were out of central casting. I had never met anyone who looked and acted like such an Igor before I met Igor: a big, bumbling oaf in his 40s who dyed his slick hair jet black and had Russian prison tattoos. He seemed to possess only one shirt and one pair of hot pink pants, each of which gradually ripped more with each day he got drunk before 1 p.m. Igor was kicked out after throwing up everywhere on his birthday; he was so blacked out that he only learned why weeks later.
There was also the “professional witch” who apparated in the hostel mid-lockdown. The witch offered unsolicited psychic readings, including one claiming that one guy was secretly bisexual and having an affair with another guest. She kept cat food beneath her bed until she went to the hospital with food poisoning and was never seen again.
A 37-year-old French man with flashy clothing aggressively hit on every woman in the hostel until (and after) he met an 18-year-old American volunteer hoping to join the Israeli army. Everyone was quickly alarmed by the taboo relationship they initiated. His behavior suggested patterns of manipulation and abuse — but she loved him, she insisted after just two weeks. A volunteer later discovered near her bed a positive pregnancy test. She insisted she’d keep their child.
The hostel owner — largely absent in normal times — struggled to balance solvency with dignity as the lockdown wore on and everyone’s minds got unscrewed. One rude Israeli guest, who allegedly had been in prison for three years (two in Israel and one in Japan), was caught trying to steal from a woman’s purse. After calling the victim a fat cow, the thief locked himself in his room, insisting he had signed a contract through the end of the month.
Guests crowded around the security cameras in the office to simultaneously watch mayhem unfold in all directions: police banging at the thief’s door, the victim hysterically crying in another hallway, the Israeli on ketamine shouting everywhere, and the manager running from one room to the next as tempers flared and random altercations broke out among other guests. The reality show had reached its cabin fever climax, and we were both viewers and participants.
It all felt at times as if we were in a state of suspended animation. The lovable manager — practically unable to leave the hostel at all during the lockdown as the only employee left — would play the trumpet every evening on the empty street outside, performing ballads like “Dream A Little Dream,” “The Way You Look,” “Hey Jude” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” as well as “Play That Funky Music White Boy,” about 80% correct. Sometimes he vanished.
“There’s somewhere he goes that nobody can find him,” said a German woman who was in a casual relationship with him. “I think he’s kind of losing it by now.”
But losing touch with reality — or painfully coming to grips with it — together fostered a community whose gossip and rivalries created meaning out of stupidity, as reality shows often do. And like a reality show, it was a guilty pleasure.
A South African woman with a professed ability “to make men disappear” began having sex with the ex-convict thief because of his high-quality medical marijuana. An orphan at an early age with scars on her arms hinting of a dark past, she was hustling now, since all commercial flights back to South Africa were canceled for months.
“My only option is to find a rich man with a private jet!” she said, laughing.
She wasn’t entirely kidding. The zany woman began to sleep with another guest in his mid-40s who claimed to possess 16 Bitcoins — worth almost $150,000 — that he simply couldn’t access. Along with Igor and Canadian Indiana Jones, he, too, inexplicably had Russian prison tattoos. Swiss by birth, he claimed to be an American citizen after serving in the US Army and then as a mercenary for Blackwater, boasting of the time he supposedly executed 36 Boko Haram terrorists in Africa without mercy.
After being kicked out for stealing other people’s food, the 37-year-old French man stormed out of the hostel, taking the 18-year-old girl he impregnated with him. The girl disabled her phone and social media, rejecting everyone’s pleas to abandon him (and their unborn child). A suspense thriller ensued for two months as friends and family across continents tried to track them down in Tel Aviv before they flew off to Paris. She would have a miscarriage in Israel.
In June, as cases began to skyrocket again in Israel following the first lockdown, resignation spread among the hostel’s remaining residents. Some resumed going out in spite of the risks inherent to Tel Aviv’s now-muted nightlife.
“I probably already had corona by now, so it doesn’t matter,” suggested one American with no previous symptoms headed to reopened bars.
While some travelers finally made their seventh rescheduled flight home, new drifters arrived, like the two Israelis who showed up after police ended their weeklong beach protest against 5G controlling society. By the end of the summer, olim hadashim, or new immigrants, seeking local connections were moving in alongside Israelis.
I finally left the hostel in July to move into my own apartment. It was bittersweet. What had emerged out of so many lies and deceptions was something strangely authentic. We were all outcasts one way or another, together. We had bonded under the captive circumstances akin to how I imagine Stockholm syndrome feels like — connected for life through the trauma we shared and sometimes thrust upon each other 24/7.The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.