Down, Out and Upside Down With Tel Aviv's Street Performers

Traffic light jugglers are taking over Tel Aviv junctions, and they don't mind getting paid digitally

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Dror Liberman performs in the middle of a junction in southern Tel Aviv.
Dror Liberman performs in the middle of a junction in southern Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir

If anyone had any doubt as to where the hottest spot is in Tel Aviv, it would have evaporated on a sweltering, late-summer Friday at the Kibbutz Galuyot interchange, over the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.

At 10:30 that morning, Dror Liberman had already taken up his post near the crosswalk going east to west, just before the big bridge, and was having a cigarette next to our photographer Tomer Appelbaum.

Liberman’s face was covered in a thick layer of suntan lotion; he wore a hat and an outfit that looked as if it had been painted with watercolors. He had a line of bottles with frozen water at the ready, a folding chair, a bag with food and more suntan lotion, and a tall ladder with a sign explaining how money can be transferred to him using the Bit app.

'The reason people are interested in us is that there is a sort of indirect interest in beggars. You are talking to the normative person who is the closest to begging.'

Almost everyone who passes by this main intersection knows Liberman, 34 – the acrobat with the ladder. Once every two minutes, he goes into the middle of the crosswalk, climbs up the ladder, does his juggling routine with clubs, dismounts with an acrobatic flourish, moves the ladder back to the side of the street, blows some soap bubbles, and then moves between the cars with hat in hand. For five years he has been there every Friday and Saturday. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, but not the lockdowns. “That’s the whole story of the stoplights, I smile and let people call for me. I don’t ask, to ask is to pressure,” he said.

Liberman is a dance and performance artist whose works have received quite a lot of reactions and positive criticism, in this newspaper too. It was a long road getting there: The acrobat at the Holtz intersection was actually born into a religious family.

Liberman told us that all his work-related affairs are arranged with an accountant and his bank account is in good shape

He is one of 11 brothers and sisters, studied at the yeshiva in Othniel in the Southern Hebron Hills in the West Bank, never graduated from there, worked as a shepherd, searched for himself for years – and somehow found his way to Tel Aviv's Clipa Theater, co-founded by Idit Herman, who has had a major influence in Liberman's life along with the other co-founder, Dmitry Tyulpanov. At the theater Libman met Kazuyo Shionoiri, a Japanese dancer-choreographer who became his main partner in art and thereafter his partner in life, too.

In 2017, Kazuyo tore a ligament in her knee, exactly when the duo was to participate for the first time at the “Curtain Up” festival at the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater in Tel Aviv. They performed a work related to the injury, got horrible reviews for the first time, and then left to tour in Japan. At the end of the tour, Kazuyo had an operation and began a long period of rehab.

That entire story “devastated me like nothing else had shattered me before, and it was the start of the stoplights,” Liberman explained. “Kazuyo is recovering from an operation, and I’m visiting her and see her with a knee brace, realize that we can’t create together, and tell her: ‘I’m going to the stoplights.’ And since then, it's been every Friday, every Saturday. It was ‘I’ll bring the money from there.’ There was a lot of embarrassment, it crushed me.”

Gil Zirlin and his dual performance at a junction in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

When asked what he was embarrassed about, he began imitating himself collecting donations with his hat. “The embarrassment is for that,” he said.

In general, acrobats like Liberman are concerned with the subject of money and their image. He told us that all his work-related affairs are arranged with an accountant and his bank account is in good shape, but doesn’t go into details.

When we accompanied him on that one broiling-hot, he earned 37 shekels (over $10) during each of two consecutive, traffic-light performance cycles. In other words, 74 shekels in less than five minutes. On the other hand, sometimes he has a run of three cycles that yield just a few shekels each. Every stoplight is dynamic, but in the end – it’s a relatively stable income.

Liberman, who has been appearing in a show at Clipa that relates to traffic lights, called “Nissim the Clown Tells the Whole Truth,” is a sort of captain of the acrobats. “My home is here in Kiryat Shalom [neighborhood of south Tel Aviv], and everybody comes by in the morning to take water and combat rations, and then return in the evening to give the coins,” he said. “I have a machine that sorts the coins automatically, and I check it. I fill bags, and I have a butcher with whom I regularly exchange my bags for bills that I need to pay him.”

He is also the captain of the intersection – he knows many of the drivers, men and women alike, even if not by name. Sometimes they yell at him, especially drivers who are afraid that the soap from the bubbles will ruin the paint on their cars. He was even run over one time; two cars crashed and one of them sent his ladder – and Dror – flying. Everything has happened to him at the intersection.

The acrobats’ code

Liberman happily agreed to be interviewed, although he did hesitate at first. After he agreed and we met at the intersection, he set me up with acrobat friends of his – Gil Zirlin and Uri Yurman – as other interviewees.

“I’m afraid you’ll interview some stupid acrobat,” Liberman explained. When said that if I interviewed a stupid acrobat he, Liberman, would only come out sounding better, he retorted: “But our profession will be humiliated! You know what code we are violating now? Acrobats don’t give interviews. Iron-clad rule.” At around 1:30 P.M. I left him to get on with his work and went to meet Zirlin. “If you’re a genius, bring him hummus for lunch,” Liberman suggested.

Dror Liberman on his ladder performing to potential clients.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

At 2:30 I arrived at the corner of Derech Hashalom and Yigal Allon in Tel Aviv with two servings of hummus and lemonade. Zirlin, who's in his 20s, took a long break, to eat and talk. After just a few days, he was due to return to France to his circus studies.

His specialty is juggling with Keter plastic chairs, but typically when he is in Israel he spends weekends at the traffic lights (with other objects). The middle of the week is impossible.

“In Tel Aviv it’s unbearable. The traffic, noise, people being depressed … it’s tough,” Zirlin said. Mid-bite, he was approached by a motorcyclist who offered him work later on in the day: juggling at an event for children. The fee was still unknown. “That doesn’t happen every day,” Zirlin commented.

“The reason people are interested in us, in my opinion, is that there is a sort of indirect interest in beggars,” Zirlin declared. “You are talking to the normative person who is the closest to begging. Speaking to a beggar can freak a person out. I told someone I know a beggar who makes more money than me. People react to that badly.”

Stav Pinto, a 28-year-old female acrobat who works at the same intersection as Yurman does.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Zirlin seemed to be preoccupied with the question of “when does the performance start? When does the labor start? When does the work start? Ultra-capitalist people will say, ‘If someone paid for it, it’s work, it has value, good for you.’ I think we receive money that's beyond our value, but that's also me too, with my lack of self-esteem. It’s not important.” As far as he is concerned, Zirlin added, acrobatics is “the sole artistic act that feels like work, like washing dishes, like waiting on tables.

It was interesting to see Liberman and Zirlin performing, one after the other. Each has their own acrobatic personality. While Liberman stuck to the same routine time after time, and improvised mostly in his responses to drivers – Zirlin varied things once in a while: He made a traffic light cycle-long joke with a water bottle; sat on his boxes and waved at drivers; took a picture of himself that Tomer the photographer printed, showed it to drivers and said he was injured – he wasn’t – to see if he could make some shekels that way, too, and so on. Even Tomer won the honor of taking a juggling ball into the crosswalk for a moment. Anything for the show.

As far as Zirlin is concerned, crosswalk acrobats do a great thing. “There are those for whom it’s easier to give money to a beggar – religious people, for example. But in the end, what we are doing is we are enabling people to give. After all, our brains reward the act of giving, and rewards it much more than our social system does, and people don’t have a lot of opportunities to give. We are really doing it here by means of take-away, as it were, straight to the car. It’s a really big deal,” he said.

But inside the cars, Zirlin sees less pleasant things: “People in cars, with just themselves – there are all sorts of dynamics and poisonous relationships. You just wink at the woman and the gets pissed off, or pushes her hand down when she goes to give you money. I’m exposed to too much,” he said.

Once, when he worked in the middle of the week, Zirlin shared an intersection with a panhandler during a big traffic jam, which led to him performing time after time in front of the same audience. “Because there were two of us, we didn’t make a lot of money, and also because there was an extreme jam, but the panhandler said: ‘Pretty sad bunch, aren’t they?’” Zirlin recalled.

“It’s a story that I’m a bit sorry to share, because it’s knowledge about the world that I earned through a whole lot of sweat. In the end, you can tell your friends how much you earn, but I see you in a traffic jam and know that even the beggar pities you, and if you talk to him outside you won’t manage to convince him that we should feel sorry for him."

'Simple, by choice'

We met Uri Yurman – “a legend,” Liberman calls him – the next day, after the turnoff from Route 4 onto Aluf Sadeh Road in Ramat Gan. He arrived in a shared taxi from Haifa, where he lives and where he usually performs at traffic lights. He began setting himself up while explaining how he got into this line of work. Even though he was a “computer kid,” Yurman said he fell in love with juggling at a friend’s birthday party when he was 17. He taught himself to juggle with four balls in a simple way, and then asked a friend to teach him a more complicated version. This is how he slowly entered this world.

In 2018, he performed on a crosswalk for the first time. Before that, his lack of confidence had dogged him. He got a push from a passerby who noticed him walking with his equipment, asked him to demonstrate and then gave him a coin. In contrast, today the modest, 40-something Yurman has become the leader in the community of street acrobats, who he says number between 15 to 50 at traffic lights at any given time around the country.

He has set an example of how to manage money, was one of the first to voluntarily report his income, and has also helped to create a feeling of cooperation and camaraderie that was lacking when he started out. He organizes tours for acrobats to find good crosswalks. For example, the one on Aluf Sadeh crosses “only” three lanes but the light is particularly long, which is why it is such a successful spot.

For his part Liberman also calls Yurman the “high-techist,” and Yurman doesn’t deny it. “I have a high-tech side to me. I worked recently 'by remote' because I'd been laid up with a few injuries,” he said. “I began finding my way in recent years around the subject of crypto currency, so I took a job in that field. I left it in June, and don’t know when the next job will come around. I kind of hope it never will, on one hand, but on the other hand, it does meet some sort of intellectual need. There's a conflict.”

Gil Zirlin at the HaShalom (Azrieli) junction in Tel Aviv, in front of his audience.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The traffic lights are a whole different story for him, he went on: “Here there’s an extreme level of connection. It really, really works; it’s very appropriate for me, it connects to so many sides of me, it fits me like a glove. It’s something that you don’t necessarily find in life, even once.”

He described his general approach to life as “simple, by choice.” He doesn’t want – and doesn’t need – a lot. Since he discovered the crosswalk acrobatics world – suddenly his approach has also become financially worthwhile.

Yufman: “We experienced a strange moment, my wife and I, since suddenly I’d begun to make a little money. In terms of people who have two cars in the parking lot, which is a lot of families in Israel – it’s not a lot of money, but it's something pioneering that I did and we've even gone on to buy an apartment from it. I’m a person buying an apartment with coins! We took out a mortgage and we are buying an apartment in Haifa – in a rundown neighborhood, in an ancient building, not something luxurious. But we are buying an apartment, and doing it properly. Something I didn’t believe I would ever do."

Stav Pinto in action.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A full-on clown

Yurman suggested that we meet Stav Pinto, a 28-year-old female acrobat who works at the same intersection he does, on Shimshon Street in Haifa. It’s a small street, with just two lanes on each side, in the heart of a residential neighborhood, but it has charm. A preschool operates nearby and many families live in the area. A ladder is locked up next to the traffic light, which Yurman brought. A communal ladder for the acrobats of the Shimshon intersection.

Somewhat like Yurman, Pinto is always in character when she works, even on the way back to her corner when the cars have a green light. She is full-on clown, but doesn’t see that necessarily as just a matter of an assumed character.

“In the end, it’s me, bringing a part of me that's very important to others. It’s all communication, the connection is everything. I think that the good so-called character to have at the stoplight is a clown. It is a side of you that you can allow to live here. I bring joy here, I give the spirit of life that I have in me and get a lot in return. I’m physically finished by the end of the day, because it’s a huge amount of work, but it makes me very happy and revitalizes me,” she said.

Like Zirlin, Pinto is enrolled in a circus school. She had been living in Haifa for three months when we met her, but has since returned to the school, in Portugal. She discovered the world of juggling at a party when she was 21; she became a juggling instructor for children at schools and in activity groups before she embarked on her studies.

There are hardly any female performers at the traffic lights. Pinto is the only one who has kept with it since she started, about five years ago. Tomer, the photographer, asked whether she gets unpleasant reactions from men.

Gil Zirlin. 'In Tel Aviv it’s unbearable. The traffic, noise, people being depressed … it’s tough.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“It used to happen sometimes,” she admitted. “On one hand, you want to come to the intersection looking nice and not wearing rags. On the other hand, I’ve heard girls say, ‘I don’t ever want to go work at an intersection alone because of the harassment.’ I experienced it during my first years, especially stupid stuff – ‘Come here for a minute,’ 'my friend wants your phone number,' they honk.” Her defense is her playfulness and childlike nature, "which somewhat neutralizes flirts.”

That doesn’t mean she hasn’t had a tough time, however, “I perform at the intersection and there’s an area there with trees, a grove surrounded by a wall. I once went in there to pee, through a narrow opening, and put down my bag. All of a sudden a big guy comes over and stands next to the bag, with his back to me, and pees, while I’m still there. I finish quickly and stand up, and he asks what I'm doing.

"I told him I’m performing at the intersection, with hoops. So he goes, ‘Ahh, do you work at anything else?’ I tell him no. He looks at me, tries to come on to me ... but I just kept my distance. I waited for him to move away and as soon as he did, I snatched my bag and left. I was frozen. I said to myself, ‘He’s trying to figure out if I’m a prostitute.’ I was alone, in a space where no one could see me or hear me if I screamed because it’s a busy intersection. That was the scariest situation I’ve been in. Terrifying.”

At the Shimshon crosswalk, however, mostly good things happen to Pinto. When Tomer the photographer and she sat down for a rest, someone named Eldar, who apparently lives nearby and had met Pinto in the morning and complimented her, came over again.

Liberman bowing to his crowd in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“She makes us happy all day long, every day, she and Uri too. Really,” Eldar said. “It’s just amazing what they do for the public out of the goodness of their hearts. After all, not everyone really cares about them. But she comes and stands there, works hard. Try and stand in the sun for a minute, you can’t. And she runs, walks, goes up, goes down, it’s just amazing.”

It turns out that Eldad isn’t just a neighbor and the father of two kids who love Pinto: He also runs the nearby kindergarten. “Wow, thank you,” Pinto said. “You bring lots of sweet children here to the intersection. It’s fun. All the parents and the children who come here is thanks to you. It makes this place really great.”

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