Wednesday, February 07, 2007
The best little whorehouse in Haifa
By Yocheved Miriam Russo
THE JERUSALEM POST - Feb. 7, 2007
Fifteen people were indicted as a result of Sharon's undercover work as a 'Madam' in a whorehouse, but even so, her family was outraged.
Today, three years after her unpaid eight-month stint as a brothel proprietor, she still recalls not only the social stigma and neighborhood harassment but her family's horror as well. "You can take my picture, but please blur my personal details a little," she says. "I was a pariah in the neighborhood where I lived. Even though the whorehouse itself wasn't nearby, when the news got out, my neighbors were angry. They thought I'd be bringing men home, into my own apartment. That was completely ridiculous, but I don't want to live through all that again."
Her family was disgusted. "My sister is a social worker, so I told her what I was doing," she recounts. "I thought she'd be supportive of my desire to help these women, but when I told her, her face went white. She refused to listen to another word. Even after all the indictments came down, it remains a sore subject."
Sharon - not her real name - is 66 years old and looks more like someone's grandma than a Madam. A graduate of one of the US's most prestigious Ivy League law schools, she served in the US Department of Justice, US Attorney's office, under Robert M. Morgenthau. She also holds a Masters Degree in Tax Law. She made aliya in the late 1970s and is now studying for another degree, this one in an offshoot of veterinary medicine.
All jokes about lawyers and whores aside, Sharon apparently excelled in running a house of ill repute in Hadar, the old commercial center of Haifa. "I loved the job," she admits. "I loved taking care of the girls, and enjoyed the business. I'm happy to tell the story because so much misinformation about prostitution exists, especially about the women themselves. I'd like to see some serious reform, and maybe this will help."
So how does a nice, smart, honorable woman - once married, no children - get involved in running a whorehouse? "The roots go back to the US," she says. "I'd been reading about foreign immigrants - or maybe emigrants - to Israel, and became interested in some of the legal issues involved. I packed up and made aliya but once here in Israel, I floundered. First, I was swept off my feet by a handsome Israeli guy, but the marriage was a disaster. Then I was having trouble with Hebrew, so I finally took a job as an English secretary. To practice law, you need both verbal and the non-verbal language, and I was struggling."
She studied hard and finally qualified for legal practice in Israel. "I was practicing law and teaching at one of the universities. There was a prison nearby - it's now closed - where someone I knew was incarcerated. He'd gotten involved in a real mess and because I had a legal license, I was able to visit him more often than other friends. I'd go visit, and while I was there, I met a lot of other people who were in prison. It occurred to me that working with some of them might be a whole lot more interesting than what I was doing."
On one visit, Sharon saw something she'd assumed didn't exist anymore. "There were a number of people walking around rather freely. They didn't look like either prisoners or criminals, but they certainly weren't guards. Then I found out. Do you know Israel still has debtor's prisons? People who can't pay their debts are jailed. And because the courts tend to set the size of repayments according to the size of the debt - not the size of the income - they end up in jail repeatedly, and obviously lose any job they'd had. It also dragged in good-hearted people who'd co-signed loans for others. Needless to say, most of these prisoners were way beyond broke, and basically none of them had lawyers to protect their interests. I decided that even though I wasn't really proficient in Hebrew, whatever I could do was better than nothing, so I began volunteering to represent debtors. Then came other clients, all sorts of crimes, including prostitutes. That was the beginning."
Practicing criminal law carries a stigma all its own. "It makes me laugh," she says with a giggle. "In my law school, no one would have admitted to even thinking of practicing criminal law - that's worse than ambulance chasing. But there I was, enjoying it."
Then the opportunity to be a Madam arose. "One of the people I met was a police informant, a really bright guy," she says. "He was trusted by both the criminals and the police. So one day he came to me and said he needed to open and run a whorehouse in an attempt to catch some of the people involved in the infamous 'trafficking in women' trade. Would I consider being the Madam for the sting operation?
"I jumped at the chance. I'd represented a number of prostitutes, and liked the idea of being able to help the women. I agreed."
Sharon declined to comment on any of the legal issues that evolved from the sting operation, except that the suspects were indeed indicted with 'trafficking in women.' In any event, she added, she wasn't involved. Her 'partner' was the one involved with the legal issues, and her involvement was limited to running the brothel.
The whorehouse was located in a low-rent district, in a four-bedroom apartment that had previously served as a house of ill repute. "My partner set the whole thing up. He knew prostitutes, and put the word out. He had no trouble finding the women to work - they were all prostitutes already. We didn't corrupt anyone."
Most of the women were here illegally from Eastern Europe. "They came from Romania, Kazakhstan and Russia, smuggled in over the Egyptian border, although a few may have had tourist visas. The main point to understand is, these women knew very well why they were coming to Israel. If they didn't exactly relish the work, for them it was a chance to earn pretty good money. On the whole, they'd do a lot better as prostitutes in Israel than they'd do at any job they could get in their home countries. One woman called both her mother and sister in Romania frequently, every time encouraging them both to come to work in prostitution. Compared to life there, they did well in Israel."
There was no compulsion, she notes. "They could leave, get out of the business, anytime they wanted. That wasn't a problem. One woman I really liked had worked in Holland as a prostitute, was imprisoned in Turkey for prostitution, and now was here. Every week, either my partner or I would go with her to the bank where she bought money orders to send to her family in Romania. Both her parents were disabled, and she was their sole support. Another woman had been a literature professor at a university in Russia - she couldn't get a job. Another was very elegant, extremely well dressed. She came because she could make a better living as a prostitute here than there."
Most didn't resemble either Miss Kitty or Pretty Woman's Julia Roberts. "There's a legion of myths about prostitutes. Ours had Russian names - Tanya, Alisa, Nadya. Most were in their 20s and moderately attractive. Many were overweight, a few even obese. When I was a kid, my mother used to tell me that all prostitutes were lesbians and drug addicts, but that's not true. Many had boyfriends or husbands, and several had children. Only one was a drug addict - many used ecstasy, but only one was addicted and I tried to get her into treatment. A few had problems with alcohol. They were all heavy smokers. Most of the men smoked too, and sometimes the air was blue with smoke."
It wasn't Matt Dillon or Richard Gere who came calling, either. "We were in a low-rent district - no high-fliers. Our clients were people from the neighborhood - cab drivers, truck drivers, men who worked in the shuk. Lots of Arabs. In the mornings, we'd get men who worked at night."
Sharon ran the whorehouse like a sorority. "The girls could live there if they wanted. Or they could just come in when they wanted to work. There was a kitchen, and we supplied food, medical care and abortions if needed. I arranged for anonymous HIV testing for them, but only one woman went - I think many of them lived in denial - the 'I always use a condom except with my boyfriend' kind of thing. The girls were supposed to do the cleaning but they didn't, so we had a woman come in occasionally. I answered the phone. We advertised in the newspaper as an 'escort service,' but we'd never have let the girls go out because then we couldn't protect them."
A typical day began in late morning. "I'd come in at about 11:00 a.m. The girls would come in when they wished. Some men would call first and I'd kind of flirt on the phone - which was fun. If they wanted something special - a woman who didn't shave, or two women, or wanted some unusual act - then I'd ask the girls who were there if anyone was interested in accommodating the man. They didn't have to. They could work as much as they wanted, perform whatever acts they wanted, refuse anyone they wished. It's hard to say how many clients each would see in a day, but maybe 10 is average. We insisted they use condoms, but didn't check to see if they did. In terms of cost, Haifa is more expensive than Eilat or Tel Aviv - which might indicate that there are fewer prostitutes in Haifa. We charged NIS 100 for the first 10 minutes, then more for 15 minutes or 20. The price went down with more time -an hour wasn't NIS 200, for example."
"Basically it was very low key. The girls would hear the knock on the door, and the man would come into the living room. If a girl felt like it, she'd come out. Many of the men were regulars, so they knew the women. They sit and talk awhile, relax. It was a very friendly place. Then, at some point, the mood would arise, and they'd go off with one of the women. She'd take him into her bedroom, they'd agree on how much time, and what services. The man would pay the girl, and she'd bring the money out to me, and tell me how much time. It was safer for me to hold the money - all cash, no credit cards. Then she'd go back to the room. If they hadn't come out when time was up, I'd knock on the door. Then the man would come out, he could shower if he wished, and the woman could shower. Then she could decide if she wanted to appear for the next client. At the end of the day, we'd settle up with the girls, who got half - so if it was NIS 100, she'd get 50, and I'd pay the VAT and all other expenses out of my NIS 50. I doubt all whorehouses operate like that. We lost money during my term. But we paid taxes - if we hadn't, we might have been okay."
The women were free to negotiate side deals as well. "If a girl could get more than NIS 100 for her work, either for extra services or a tip, that was perfectly okay. If the agreement was for 10 minutes, then all I wanted was my NIS 50. If they could earn a good tip, good for them."
Attire was up to the women, too. "They didn't wear anything very much different than what you see on the streets, nowadays. Sometimes a dress or skirt that was too low or too short, or too-tight pants. They were advertising the merchandise, after all. Sometimes in the living room they'd sit on a guy's lap, encourage him a little."
Was there security? A guard at the door? "No - which probably contributed to the fact that we didn't need it. There's a lot of testosterone in this business. If we'd had a big guard standing at the door, we might have had more problems than we did. The truth is, most men are reluctant to beat up a woman - and besides, they tend to value what they're paying for. I was the only guard there, but it worked - I have a big mouth. I honestly think I could be tougher than a man could, and get away with it. We never had fights, never a stabbing. Before I came, there was a death in that whorehouse - a man who'd taken viagra had a heart attack."
Frightening moments did occur. "One time a really enormous guy came. He insisted that because he knew someone, he should be able to see one of the women for free. I said no, I wasn't willing to waive my share, and I wasn't going to ask a woman to waive hers. He started to threaten me, became really unpleasant, but I just stood up to him, defied him, dared him to do something, and he backed down. He didn't touch me."
A couple of times the police came. "One time the police were called in by someone - I'm not sure who - but they said illegal women were working as prostitutes, which was true, of course. So the police arrived and one man decided to stand guard at the door, to prevent the women from escaping. That was bad - the police took all the women downtown for questioning. My partner finally got it all worked out, and everyone was released. At the time, the women didn't know we were running an undercover operation - all they knew was that we had a really excellent relationship with the police. Later on, they knew because some of them testified in the court cases."
There were some awkward incidents, too. "A couple of times, I'd open the door and find a man I knew standing there - maybe a former client. That was awkward. One time, on a totally unrelated case, I went into a different division of the police department to copy a file, and the woman who worked there, with whom I'd had a very nice relationship before, was very hostile to me. I asked her what the problem was. She said, 'I didn't know you were running a whorehouse!' I couldn't tell her - we had to keep it absolutely undercover. Another time at my home, I needed to hire a handyman.
One guy came over, but when he saw me, he refused to do the work. 'I know you - you run a whorehouse! I'm not going to take blood money from you!'"
In the neighborhood itself, people were generally friendly. "Some of the local business owners knew what we were doing, and had no problem with it at all. One day we ran out of condoms. My partner usually bought supplies, but that day, I had to go. I went to the shuk and walked around asking, 'Do you sell condoms?' and finally found a guy who did. I told him I wanted a whole box - like 50 condoms. He gave them to me, then said,'Do you mind if I ask?' and made some remark about my age. So I said, "They're not for me. I'm running a whorehouse.' He was just staggered. Then he gave me a big smile and a thumbs-up. He wrote down our phone number and said he'd spread the word."
The operation ended when the apartment building, which had been in foreclosure, was vacated.
"Most likely the women went on to work elsewhere," Sharon says. "Some may have been sent home, others may have gone back voluntarily, if they'd earned what they set out to earn. Others, I don't know. It's not a business without risks."
In retrospect, how bad is the life of a prostitute? "On the whole, it's probably more pleasant than doing drudge work in a factory, standing on your feet all day. For many, it's better than working in one of the chemical plants. Look at some of the places where people work in Haifa - terrible conditions, fumes, caustic substances, hard work, long hours, low pay. Many women would rather be prostitutes. One thing is for sure: I won't sit in judgment on women who made this choice - their biggest mistake was not being smart enough to choose parents like mine, who saw to it that I had every advantage."
Would you do it again? "You bet," Sharon says with a grin. "In a heartbeat. It was fascinating."