Photo: Miriam Woelke
Club "Allenby 40" in downtown Tel Aviv has a history. I took the
photo yesterday while passing and the place obviously looks run down
and neglected. Until a few years ago, however, it was a famous
IN place for Haredim who wanted to escape their daily routine and, once a week,
having a great time dancing, relaxing and drinking.
Every Thursday evening, various Haredim from Bnei Brak or Jerusalem put on "civil"
clothes, traveled to ALLENBY 40 and danced or spoke together. Males and
females who didn't necessarily know each other. The Rabbi from Bnei Brak
with a married housewife from Jerusalem, so to speak. No sex but just
talking, enjoying and, for a few hours, forgetting about haredi rules.
I have no clue whether the Chabadnik Mendy still ownes the place because
he and his haredi customers moved to a different spot a few years ago.
I think I know the new spot. Located far away from "Allenby 40" but I haven't been there yet. I usually don't like going to bars and Mendy may have a selection at the door. Should I look haredi in order to get in on Thursdays ? Furthermore, I wouldn't want to take any pictures, as I don't intend stealing anyone's privacy.
w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m
Last update - 15:29 03/03/2005
Mendy Katan, owner of one of the wildest and most successful nightclubs in Tel Aviv, comes from an ultra-Orthodox family from Kfar Chabad, wears a black skullcap and observes the religious commandments. How does he resolve the contradiction?
By Asaf Carmel
Five and a half years ago, Mendy [Menachem Mendel] Katan tried and failed to pass the selection at the entrance to a club at Allenby 40 in Tel Aviv. "There was a small nightclub there called Dream Dance," says Katan, "and Omer Efrat, who is now a partner, was working there as a DJ and had invited me to come. The guard at the entrance looked me up and down and saw a guy with a white shirt, black pants and a black kippa [skullcap]. He said to me, `Sorry, but you don't belong here. You can't come in.' At the same time he passed a hand over my head and caressed the kippa. I explained to him that I had only come to visit a friend, but he didn't even bother to throw another glance in my direction. He only said, `This isn't the place for you, get a move on.'
"Meanwhile, everyone was looking at me, and I felt as though I had horns. In the end I asked somebody who did go in to approach the DJ and tell him that a guy from Kfar Chabad named Mendy was standing at the door, and they weren't letting him in. Only after Omer intervened did the guard deign to let me in." (Kfar Chabad is a village founded by members of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect).
This humiliating experience outside the nightclub had a profound effect on Katan. "I then got it into my head that I had to do something significant in the area of night life. It created a strong drive in me; I felt as though it was me against all of Tel Aviv. Probably if I had removed my kippa they would have let me into the nightclub without any problem, but I swore to myself that I would not take off the kippa just for a beer. The kippa is a value on which I grew up and was educated, and I won't sell my values in order to enter any bar in the world."
Now, Mendy Katan and Omer Efrat, the owners of the Allenby 40 nightclub, are among the most influential figures on the Tel Aviv night scene. Recently the magazine Time Out described their club as "the sleaziest in town," and it wasn't far off. Every night, this wild and hallucinatory nightclub hosts hundreds of partygoers of all kinds. The party begins after midnight and doesn't end before 9 A.M., when the street outside has long been about its daily business.
Last week, at 4:30 on Friday morning, Katan gave a guided tour of his crowded kingdom. "That one over there is a senior officer in the most important Tel Aviv police unit," he boasted, "and beyond the bar are yeshiva students who are resting at the moment from their labors. Do you see that girl? A former call girl. Here's S., he's very nice even though he's a transvestite."
We go outside. Katan knows almost every one of the guests who continue to stream in without interruption. "That one is an important businessman, and the friend who's with him works in the Shin Bet security services," says the king of the night, surveying his subjects. "Look how the guard is politely asking him for the magazine from his pistol. Here's a senior broker and his girlfriend, a chemist at Kupat Holim. The one who came in right after them makes his living as a Chippendale, and the three who just left are Haredi girls from Beitar Illit."
Katan goes back inside to mingle with his guests. He dances with them, generously
distributing smiles and drinks. At 6 A.M., when there is a momentary drop in the tension in the air, the DJ begins to play Mizrahi-style tapes (music of North African and Middle Eastern Jews). The audience responds with enthusiasm. One, a lawyer with a gleaming bald pate and an elegant suit, is dancing close with girls who are a few sizes too small for him. It's a celebration that's out of this world.
Meanwhile Katan is outside again, dealing from a new angle with a problem that is very familiar to him. A Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) without a kippa asks to be allowed in, but is refused. "In other nightclubs you can do what you want," the owner of Allenby 40 makes clear to him. "If you want to come in here, put the kippa back on your head." But in the end, they are reconciled somehow and Katan allows the guest to enter. "This is the last time," he warns. Another Haredi who was standing nearby says, "Me, even when I went to a striptease show in Spain I didn't take off my kippa."
Katan says that party-going Haredim feel like "fish in water" at his place, and he really doesn't feel any responsibility for ruining the young people. "I have great respect for the [Haredi] sector," he says, "and I have never advertised myself there. People who come to places like this in any case, come here as well, but I don't bring anyone. We're in Tel Aviv, and there's freedom of choice. These are adults, who got out of bed, got into the car, and made their way here of their own free will."
A party on the lawn
Katan, 28, grew up in Kfar Chabad. His father, a materials engineer who until recently served in the regular army, returned to religion in his youth and married a woman from a well-connected Chabad family. Katan has two older brothers, one of whom serves as a rabbi in a yeshiva, and two younger brothers. He studied in Kfar Chabad in the regular ultra-Orthodox educational system - heder (a traditional religious school for young children) and then a yeshiva elementary school, and at the age of 18 he went to study at a yeshiva in Safed, but he never felt comfortable in the high-pressured Haredi framework.
"Already at an early age," says Katan, "I wanted to break out, but I didn't have the courage. I studied in the heder and I felt as if I were in a bubble. I wanted everything that was happening outside, but I couldn't leave. Something stopped me. Afterward, when I studied in Safed, I used to travel to the yeshiva by bus and every time I looked through the window and saw people in cafes. I said to myself, `Wow, what fun for those people who are sitting at noontime and enjoying themselves, while I'm traveling to the yeshiva."
Katan didn't last too long in the Safed yeshiva; at the age of 19 he headed for New York. He studied a little, but mainly worked in all kinds of small businesses. After a year he returned to Israel, but didn't enlist in the army, for medical reasons. He found work at a textile company in south Tel Aviv. "First I was a porter," he recalls, "but after less than two years I was already No. 2 in the company."
At work Katan was happy to get to know more and more secular people. "When I had a birthday," he says, "I understood that if I didn't organize a party for myself, nobody else would do it. Spontaneously, I invited all my friends to a party on the lawn in Hayarkon Park. I put up microphones, bought some beers and some snacks, and 40 people came, half of them religious and half secular. Only for the sake of politeness, I made introductions all around."
But the event was more successful than expected. "When Purim came," says Katan, "people came to me and asked me to organize a party like on my birthday. Every one of the original 40 guests brought another friend, and we were already up to 80 people. On Lag b'Omer [a minor Jewish holiday a few weeks after Pesach] it was the same story. I eventually found myself organizing parties for groups of 200 people, religious and secular, and I even rented a hall in the Florentine neighborhood [in south Tel Aviv]."
At the same time, Katan began to visit pubs in the big city. "I was looking for a DJ for my parties," he says, "and in one of the places the DJ was a guy named Omer Efrat, who was playing music in a style I really liked, something between hip-hop and punk. I approached him, introduced myself, and invited him to play at my religious-secular parties. I still looked like an average yeshiva boy at the time, and Omer didn't really understand where I was coming from. He demanded a stiff price, but I agreed immediately without bargaining. I think that he finally agreed to come mainly out of curiosity. At the party he was supposed to play until 3 A.M., but suddenly I saw that it was already 7 and he was still playing. I approached him and asked him what was doing, and he told me that he had never seen an audience as good and unpretentious as mine."
Efrat became Katan's in-house DJ, and continued to perform in other places, such as the failing club at Allenby 40. "That club was operating only two days a week," says Efrat, "and when the owner gave up, I decided to take up the challenge. I set up a meeting with Mendy and said to him, `Come, let's open the craziest nightclub in town together.'"
Efrat, 32, is the opposite of Katan. He grew up in Moshav Nahalal in the Galilee, and served in an elite unit in the army. Before coming to Tel Aviv in 1998, he had already managed to run two nightclubs in the Jezreel Valley, Amstaff and In Sane. He had also broadcast music on the Kol Rega and 99BU radio stations. "Mendy," he says, "took only a few minutes to consider my suggestion to open a nightclub. After all, he was dying to do it. But already at the start he told me that he wouldn't work on Fridays, and asked if that was all right with me. Five years have passed since then, during which I have worked almost every weekend without anyone replacing me. It's not easy, but we do a lot for one another."
During the first months, Katan and Efrat's new business had a hard time getting off the ground. "We employed only one person aside from ourselves," says Katan. "Omer was the DJ and I was both the barman and the doorman." After a while, the pair managed to come up with a winning formula. "We invested a great deal in the audience of night workers," says Efrat, "barmen, cooks, nightclub owners, strippers, etc. In Tel Aviv there are at least 300 places that are open every night, and each one of them employs an average of five workers. So it works out that from 2 A.M. on we have an audience of 1,500-2,000 people from the industry, who want to have a good time after work, know how to have a good time, come with cash and most important - don't have to get up in the morning."
Katan and Efrat are reluctant to volunteer too many statistics on their finances. Katan is willing to say that "we took a failing business and raised its value by hundreds of percentage points. Up until five years ago I studied only gemara (Talmud), but since then I have done a degree in business administration in the university of life."
Last Tuesday, Efrat was sitting in his Bat Yam apartment, which overlooks the sea. With one eye he was watching a Champions League game between Real Madrid and Juventus; with the other he was constantly supervising what was going on in the club. There are no fewer than 15 cameras placed all over the building, and they all broadcast their pictures straight into the laptop sitting on his living room table. "We're control freaks," he explains. "We have 30 employees, 16 of whom are barmen, every one of whom is a super-demagogue. They usually have three answers for every question, so that we have to be two steps ahead of them all the time."
Efrat and Katan have established an iron military rule in their institution. "Everything is exactly on time," explains Efrat, "and fuckups that are repeated are punished by fines. It's enough to come late twice, to speak rudely to customers or to bring in people who shouldn't be allowed to enter. Nor do we allow our barmen to drink or smoke behind the bar. Do you think it's logical for someone with a cigarette to handle your drink?"
The barmen wear black uniforms, and during an eight-hour shift get only two 12-minute breaks. "Believe me," says Efrat, immediately rejecting any hint of criticism, "for the sums that they earn, you would also be willing to get a break of only 24 minutes in eight hours. It's true that the work isn't easy, and that's why all our barmen are muscular guys, and there are no barwomen. We have only one female worker, and she's the cleaning woman."
Katan, who didn't serve in the army, and Efrat, who isn't very tall, employ almost exclusively men who have served in combat units, and who are at least 1.80 meters tall. "We have three barmen who served in elite commando units," boasts Efrat, "and another three officers who serve as deputy company commanders in the reserves. Unfortunately, we are dealing with a world that sells good looks rather than character, so our barmen have to be handsome and impressive. That's more or less the idea, and also to have people with backbone behind the bar."
A visit from the modesty patrol
The former moshavnik and the former yeshiva student have a wonderful friendship. They have even managed to introduce their parents to each other. "A while ago," says Efrat, "my parents visited Mendy's parents in Kfar Chabad. They came with a house plant, and we felt as though we were getting married. It was quite amusing."
Katan says that his parents have been aware of his colorful profession from the start. "It's true that I didn't run down the street shouting `I bought a nightclub, I bought a nightclub,'" he says. "But my parents knew. They let me lead my own life, and only said `Mendy, don't forget where you come from.' I'm sure that my father would be happier if I were involved in real estate or high-tech or whatever, but he's a wise man who understands me, and knows that at the moment there is a given situation."
Katan took his parents to see the club one day when it was empty. Four years ago, Katan said he had unwanted visitor - men from Bnei Brak's "modesty patrol," a group of militant religious men who take it upon themselves to enforce - sometimes using violence - strict standards of morals, dress and ettiquette. "I was sitting in my office and suddenly one of my workers told me that an SUV was parked outside with four Haredim in it, staking us out. I went outside and out of the car jumps this giant gorilla, and blocks my way. `Finally, we meet,' he says. He explained that in Bnei Brak, it's known that Haredim hang out here, and that if this continues, I'll feel the consequences. To reinforce his threat, he wrapped his hands around my neck."
At this point, Katan says, there was an unexpected turn of events: "All of sudden, a bunch of bodyguards from all the clubs in the neighborhood jumped on them. For each Haredi, there were four bodyguards who just shoved them into the car. They hit the gas and got out of there fast, and they've never been seen again. Since then, the number of Haredi customers has only gone up."
Katan and Efrat's office is in a little niche behind the bar. They affectionately call it "the lair." On the wall they proudly display a certificate of appreciation awarded to the "Allenby 40 family" for a nice contribution earmarked for establishing a Chabad House in Cyprus. On the table stands a big picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe as well as a box for charity donations. "Every week on pay day," says Katan, "I circulate among the employees with the box. At first everyone gave a shekel, but now they give generously, because I explained to them that [giving to charity] ensures a long life."
Last Saturday night he submitted an announcement to one of the newspapers about the nightclub's fifth anniversary celebration. "Please don't forget to write `with God's help' on the top of the page," Katan told the printer.
The holy Shabbat
"The only thing that bothers me about the business is Shabbat," admits Katan, "although I don't take a penny from that day's profits."
Nobody is forcing you to open on Shabbat.
"If the business were entirely in my hands, I would close on Friday, but I'm not alone. I'm tied here to all kinds of contracts and commitments. Besides, who am I to tell my partners what to do on Friday night?"
And maybe you also know that in Tel Aviv there's no point in having a nightclub that's closed on Friday night?
"The fact is that I make a good living from six days a week, and even from five. There's one day a year, Tisha b'Av [the fast of the 9th of Av, in July], when I insist on closing the nightclub at a time when all of Tel Aviv is open. I had an argument about that with Omer, but two years ago I managed to convince him. There's a limit. Too many places are open on that day only in order to prove a point."
A few months from now, God willing, Katan and Efrat will dedicate their new business initiative - a strictly kosher Tel Aviv bistro-bar. "That place will be closed on Shabbat," promises Katan, "and I'll have a clear conscience."
Violating the Sabbath is of course not the only sin that takes place within the walls of Allenby 40. Once every few months there's a hormone-saturated contest held there, which is called "the wet shirt." One after another, the female contestants get up on the bar, have jets of water sprayed on them by the barmen, and try to move sensually in front of the yearning eyes of 200 men. On the way to the coveted prize, usually a plane ticket to Turkey or something of the sort, the contestants remove their wet shirts and every other item of clothing as well.
When Katan is asked about this issue, he lights a cigarette and fidgets in his seat, visibly uncomfortable. "All the publicity surrounding this contest," he says finally, "is my partner's idea. I wasn't even present at the contest that took place two months ago; I was on a tour in South Africa."
That wasn't the first time the contest took place, and you are also responsible for what your partner does.
"That's true. It wasn't the first time, but I very much hope that it was the last. I've told Omer several times that I have a problem with it, but he replied with a smile that night life has a price."
Nu, and are you willing to pay the price?
"Listen, I understand that I'm in Tel Aviv and not in Bnei Brak" [an ultra-Orthodox city].
A tourist in Tel Aviv
Occasionally, Katan invites friends from Tel Aviv for an evening of tradition in Kfar Chabad. "I feel a need to show people what I grew up on," he says. "I invite friends from my club, from other clubs, and celebrities, too." Katan conducts a guided tour for his guests in the house of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (a replica of the original house in Brooklyn), and afterward they gather in his parents' backyard in order to hear his father play the violin and give a short Torah lesson.
And of course, one cannot leave Kfar Chabad without putting on tefillin (phylacteries). "I really don't force anything on people," says Katan. "Last time my friends asked to put on tefillin without anyone suggesting it to them, and these are people who were still eating shrimps an hour earlier."
Katan hasn't looked like a member of Chabad for a long time. He is dressed fashionably and wears a knitted black kippa. He lives in Tel Aviv in an apartment opposite the sea, not far from the club, prays three times a day, and tries to observe all the other mitzvot (religious commandments). He has never tried, nor is he trying now, to flaunt his defiance of the Chabad sect; he simply lives his life. Every Friday morning he reigns over the kingdom of sin on Allenby Street, but only 10 hours later he sits at the Shabbat table in his parents' home, and spends the holy day with his family. In Kfar Chabad he doesn't arouse antagonism; on the contrary - the attitude toward him is forgiving and sympathetic. "People like him," says a member of his class. "They see that in spite of the lifestyle he has chosen for himself, he has a very strong tie to the place that he came from."
Katan doesn't feel that he is living with a split personality. "I live in one world that sometimes comes to visit another world," he says. "My base is Kfar Chabad, and in Tel Aviv I'm a tourist. I like to visit here, I feel very comfortable, but I know that it's all temporary. The night is a bubble that will eventually burst."
Katan claims that Allenby 40 is only a way station. It turns out that the prince of Tel Aviv nightlife is dreaming of something else entirely. "Very soon," he promises, "I'm going to abandon nightlife and begin the most meaningful thing in life, which is to raise a family." So far he hasn't found a partner. "I'm very well connected, I go to all the most important launchings and get freebies everywhere," he says, summing up his accomplishments. "I have succeeded in fitting in despite the kippa, but that doesn't mean that I belong here. I belong somewhere else."
Why do I find it hard to believe you that you don't feel you belong to the Tel Aviv bubble?
"If I thought I belonged, I would have taken off my kippa long ago. Look at the results: The fact is that I am continuing to observe what I do, and to be what I am."
Maybe you're only trying to broadcast a sophisticated and wiseguy facade?
"Do you think it's easy to get up every morning and put on tefillin? One can pretend for a month or two, but not for five years."
Do you set aside time to study Torah?
"I study Hasidism once a week in my apartment, or I go to Kfar Chabad. One needs food for the soul too, and everything in the right dosage."