On Shabbat, the Streets are Yours

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Words and photos by Will Jivcoff

A couple years ago I tried to assemble a crew for a similar mission to Israel but the plans were quickly put on the back burner because of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. ‘Conflict’ makes the situation sound tame, but in this case it involved kidnappings, which lead to seven weeks of rocket fire from both sides and ended with thousands of civilian casualties. Messy stuff, to say the least. To this day, Israeli—Palestinian relations and their issues at hand continue to be extremely complex.

Taking that into consideration, it’s pretty rare, if ever, that you hear or read positive news that comes out of Israel or the Middle East as a whole. The media outlets we know and trust rarely make an effort to distinguish between the different cultures in this part of the world, preferring to put out an image of terrorism, violence and western hatred. As a result of this, our respective families and friends gasped at the idea of a trip to Israel and questions like, “Why there?” or, “Do you really have to go?” were abundant.

I understood the concern, but those questions are what originally piqued my interest and I wanted answers about this part of the world. Considering the perpetual state of war and stereotypes about the Middle East, my enthusiasm for the trip still continued unwavered, and I revisited the idea of an Israel trip this past winter. Having no idea what to expect, I felt our crew needed some thick skin in case the trip ended up going sideways. So, with little persuasion, Max Fine, Nick Moore, Drew Summersides, Adam Hopkins, Skylar Kehr and Briggs Ogloff jumped on board for the mission.

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Adam Hopkins, 50-50. Eilat.

The planning began with our point man in Tel-Aviv, Benny Toledo, who offered to help us out with our journey and to our surprise, would later greet us at the airport unannounced. What was originally supposed to be a trip solely to the city of Tel-Aviv blossomed into a massive road trip that would have us driving a clockwise circle around the country for 17 days, starting in Tel-Aviv and hitting the major cities of Haifa and Jerusalem, ducking over into Palestine to visit Ramallah in the West Bank, down to Eilat, and looping back to our home base. At times, I couldn’t have been more unsure of the situation while trying to remotely map out a skate trip in the Middle East. The stereotypes resonated in my head as I furiously typed out emails to Benny, trying to find out if Israel had even the most basic infrastructure like roads or hospitals, and whether or not our safety would be in jeopardy. In hindsight, I couldn’t have sounded more basic, ignorant, and Western.

Even before the original planning began, I mentioned to our crew that this wasn’t going to be a textbook skate trip. Because you spend so much time on the street level, it’s no secret that skateboarding can give you an authentic look into whichever culture or city you’re visiting. It forces you to interact with the flow of the city, the traffic, the person working the café, or the neighbourhood residents cheering you on or scorning you for the noise. It’s like a tour that you can’t explicitly pay for, as the situation tends to present itself organically. Because of this, our trip became a daily re-education about this part of the world that we were taught to be so fearful of.

Israel is a small country and the major cities aren’t far apart, but the customs and the locals vary from region to region. To give you an idea, most Israelis have migrated to Israel for religious reasons; in their minds, it is their God-given right to live on that land. Another large group of people, the Palestinians, live without freedom of speech under a racist occupation enforced by the Israeli military and government, which is often resented by young, liberal Israelis… which is just for starters. For these reasons and many more, Israel is an incredibly dynamic place and it shows on the faces of the people and in every conversation we had with them. Conversations, I might add, that you need to pick and choose to have wisely. 

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Nick 'Nugget' Moore, BS Smith. Haifa.
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The beginning of our trip in Tel-Aviv was an adjustment period for everyone. To our surprise, what we saw as we landed and began driving through the city was a massive metropolitan center with architecture that fluctuated from ancient and historical to modern and new. While most buildings seemed made of ancient, yellowed stone that was centuries old, on the other side of the street a massive glass condo would stick out like a sore thumb.

We arrived in the middle of a February heat wave so the beaches were always busy and sharply dressed people filtered in and out of the shops that lined the streets. What’s more, our experience became really interesting when the military presence we had heard so much about started to show itself. Teenagers that couldn’t have been older than 18 and resembling high school students were dressed in olive green military attire, toting semi-automatic rifles over one shoulder while holding the hand of their lover with the other, of course. On one particular morning while getting breakfast, the air raid siren that signifies an incoming enemy missile went off while we were in a shop. Hurriedly, the shopkeeper ran over to assure us, “It’s just a test, it’s not the real thing.” If you’ve never heard an air raid siren, it’s a bone chilling sound regardless of whether or not it’s the ‘real thing.’

Part of the discovery process was finding out how much Israelis love to party and show visitors an amazing time. Even through the good times, we still heard candid accounts of a depressing summer when air raid sirens were constantly going off, shrapnel was falling from the sky, and the controversy of civilian casualties on the enemy’s side was rampant. This was, of course, the double-edged sword of this beautiful new country we had started exploring.

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Skylar Kehr, Ollie over the Bench into Bank. Eilat.


It would have been easy to stay in just one of the cities we had visited, but as things went along, we spent roughly four days in each place, giving us just enough time to dive into heavy plates of hummus and falafel, and to see what each region had to offer. As our days progressed and we bounced from city to city, the Western-created stereotypes we knew so well were slowly eroded. Our trip was still in the early stages, yet we couldn’t help but realize how much safer we had felt in comparison to traveling through parts of the United States or Europe.

Our connection in Haifa, Eran Kaufman, solidified this when he welcomed the seven us into his apartment as we met him for the first time on his doorstep with our luggage in tow. Laying no waste to our day, he made us all coffee and we hit the streets. Locals on the street were fascinated with our group of Canadians and Israelis, swarming around and quickly striking up a conversation with us. Where most neighbourhood residents would complain about the noise we made at a spot, some actually came out of their apartments with bottles of water for our crew and extended invites for us to come inside for Turkish coffee and snacks. To our surprise (and theirs), they couldn’t have been more stoked when they found out a group of guys had come all the way from Canada just to check out the handrail in front of their house. It started to seem that while you have bigger things to worry about, like the potential outbreak of war at any moment, you can still celebrate the little things; like a group of travelling skateboarders having fun in your front yard.

We were all riding high on the amazing treatment we had been experiencing from the start of our trip, but since we were still new, it hadn’t yet dawned on us that this was just the customary thing that Israelis do for any type of visitor. 

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Max Fine, FS 360. Haifa.
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As our journey continued on, we drove our janky rental van through winding desert roads (peppered with the occasional camel rental booth) with a landscape that fluctuated from graded hills topped with green vegetation, to desert flats as far as the eye could see. Slowly they would morph into massive, sharp mountains that, when completely surrounded, made it seem as if we were on Mars.

Our first stop at the beginning of these biblical lands was Jerusalem. Regardless of what you believe in, this is the birthplace of the world’s three major religions and a hotly contested region due to Israel’s annexation of the land from Palestine and Jordan in two separate wars. Jerusalem is a place where you keep your tongue in check and your opinions to yourself if you’re anything but pro-Israel. Because of this, the military presence at street level was the heaviest we had seen up to this point.

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Drew Summersides, Nosegrind. Tel-Aviv.
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While the days were rainier and less skate-filled in Jerusalem, there was never a dull moment as we explored the ancient Arab markets in the Old City and headed to the underground tunnels created by former civilizations. To give you some perspective on what is considered ‘ancient’: Jerusalem is a city that has been through numerous wars and has been completely flattened and rebuilt twice. Back in North America, it’s almost laughable that we consider a 150 year-old building ‘historic.’

We continued on with our journey through the Mars-like landscape, making a pit stop to float in the Dead Sea, a body of water with such high salinity that you float as if you were on an inflatable mattress. We rolled into Eilat late at night, the southern-most city in Israel where the ancient architecture we grew accustomed to had been replaced with hotels, casinos and a main strip lined with neon lights. With little-to-no military presence in sight, the tension from the religious-political mixture in Jerusalem had been washed away as we unknowingly found ourselves in the Las Vegas of Israel. The crew’s energy was waning (unless you were Adam Hopkins) as physical and mental exhaustion kicked in from the trip. This was timely, as we would learn Eilat was a place you visited to relax and let loose. This meant that we would cap our days with swimming inside of a desert crater or our local connections, Avi and Kfir, would bring over a charcoal barbecue to our apartment and set the night off with an Israeli style cook out. Eilat was far from a city we thought we’d find in a country so Holy, but the Israeli code for hospitality still remained unaffected.

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Adam Hopkins, Indy Nosebone to Fakie. Jerusalem.
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What would be our hardest goodbye as we departed from the Eilat locals would also signify the bittersweet end to our trip. We would spend the five hours driving from Eilat back to Tel-Aviv reminiscing about how insanely hospitable the locals were and how safe Israel as a whole had felt. Conversations flew back and fourth throughout the course of the trip about how incredibly skewed the media is at home, and how much of a bubble we had all been living in. Israel, the country we had come to know and love over the last two and a half weeks laid claim to big, modern cities like the ones we were used to in Canada and was home to warm, lovely people, none of whom matched the sensationalized western media portrayals. To put it short, Israel was the complete opposite of what we were told to expect. In the words of an Israeli local with a smug grin on his face, “See, we don’t just ride our camels around on desert roads while shooting guns at each other.”

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Skylar Kehr, Pillar-to-Pillar FS Boneless. Jerusalem.
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Nick 'Nugget' Moore, Kickflip off the Pipe. Eilat.
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