That svelte body comes courtesy of these high protein bars from Israel. That svelte body comes courtesy of these high protein bars from Israel. That svelte body comes courtesy of these high protein bars from Israel. (Photo: Elizabeth Cohen)

How I smuggled 150 energy bars out of Israel

A weight loss plan, an empty suitcase and an audacious plot to pull off the perfect heist.

You could describe this as the heist of the century.

Ok, maybe not the century. Maybe not even the decade. Ok, it was certainly the heist of August 2019. The second week of August for sure. I've watched all the "Ocean's 11" films, have read a book about thieves who duped international museums out of their artwork and I know a guy whose dad served time for repeated bank robberies. I even have a lifetime of sleight of hand practice, thanks to my years as a pimple-faced teenage magician performing card tricks at birthday parties. But nothing could have prepared me for this.

Here I was standing in front of a security agent at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, hoping to board a plane back to the U.S., and I was smuggling something in my suitcase. No, it wasn't diamonds, bank notes or the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was ... drumroll please ... 150 energy bars. Israeli energy bars. The kind you can't buy in America.

Allow me to explain.

About a year ago, I went on a diet and lost 20 pounds. The key to the weight loss was the special food I purchased from the company behind the particular diet I was on. Mainly, they had me eating their 100-calorie protein bars to keep me going throughout the day. They became meal replacements. And – voila! – I was losing weight faster than my scale could keep up. It's amazing what can happen when you starve yourself.

Nobody told me that I didn't need to wear the same outfit for the entire time. Nobody told me that I didn't need to wear the same outfit for the duration of the diet. (Photo: Elizabeth Cohen)

After two months, I stopped the diet. First, because I had reached my goal weight. And second, because the bars from the diet company were crazy expensive. We're talking $3 a bar, and I was eating about five a day. Even though I was off the diet, I wanted to maintain the weight loss, and having a 100-calorie protein bar would be the perfect thing to eat in between meals. I looked far and wide – and by far and wide I mean I spent a lot of time perusing Amazon's vast protein bar selection – but couldn't find something equivalent to those specially formulated bars. And then I took a trip to Israel.

It was March 2019, and everywhere I went in Israel – grocery stores, coffee shops, tiny bodegas – everyone was selling something called "Better Energy" bars. They were virtually identical to the ones I was getting from the diet company: high in protein, low in sugar and only 100 calories. They came in a variety of flavors. And if I bought them in bulk, they were only 50 cents a bar. It was too good to be true. I stuffed a few boxes into my suitcase and returned home.

I remember those first bars fondly. The crunchy granola nougats covered in chocolate provided the perfect antidote to a mid-afternoon malaise. But my stash quickly depleted, and so I saved whatever bars remained for special occasions. On my birthday, I ate two. I felt like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.

And then my golden ticket arrived. Well, a plane ticket, to be precise. I found out I was going back to Israel for a work trip this summer. I called the airline: how much would it cost to bring an extra suitcase?

In my defense, this suitcase would be serving two purposes. My dad and stepmom retired to Israel about a decade ago, and every time my siblings or I visit, they ask us to bring items from the States. In the weeks leading up to any trip, my dad racks up his Amazon orders. The UPS guy looks at me strangely as the amount of boxes at my doorstep increases by the day.

This was the Amazon delivery on the day before my trip. This was the Amazon delivery on the day before my trip. (Photo: Elizabeth Cohen)

For this trip, I would bring my dad a suitcase full of Amazon goodies – some books, wireless headphones, batteries, his favorite brand of American mouthwash and, for some reason, a DVD of the 1998 movie "Enemy of the State" starring Gene Hackman and Will Smith. "It was on sale," my dad said by way of explanation.

A suitcase full of Amazon contraband would mean I'd have an empty suitcase on the way home to fill with my newfound favorite thing: Better Energy bars.

On my first day in Israel, my dad took me to a large grocery store in his neighborhood. While he shopped for passé items like fruits and vegetables and cereal and milk, I quickly grabbed a shopping cart and ran to the far right side of the store where the Better Energy aisle shined bright. I had traveled thousands of miles and crossed an ocean just to stand here in front of these shelves.

I got the occasional odd stare as I loaded up the cart with box after box. I was going to stop at 100 bars, but then realized that if I took the bars out of the box, I'd have room for more. Indeed, I could stash them inside the vacuum sealed storage bags that I brought to help shrink wrap my clothes in my luggage. I decided 150 would be enough to hold me over until my next Mediterranean vacation. The cashier saw my haul and asked if I wanted to split the bill between two credit cards.

Like a shopaholic after a spree, I laid out my collection of goodies on my dad's dining room table so I could fully appreciate what I had just done. Like a shopaholic after a spree, I laid out my collection of goodies on my dad's dining room table so I could fully appreciate what I had just done. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

A few days later, I found myself at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. No, I wasn't there because of a Better Energy bar-induced health crisis. I was there for work to interview a doctor for an upcoming story. But I figured I would use the opportunity to my advantage. After all, how often do you get an hour of one-on-one time with a doctor? I told her about my weight loss and how I was aided by the likes of high protein bars. I told her about my fascination with Better Energy products, and she smiled.

"I love them, too!" she exclaimed.

She grabbed two out of her desk drawer – a pomegranate flavor I had never seen before!! – and threw them across the desk to me.

"Here, enjoy!"

So with a physician's seal of approval, and 152 bars now on hand, I was ready to return home. I just had to make it past the customs agent.

The internet is littered with stories of people trying to sneak bizarre items through airport security: A Haitian man once attempted to bring a dead rooster aboard. (Apparently, he claimed, it was part of a voodoo trinket.) A Japanese woman was caught smuggling 19 live lizards through the Melbourne airport. Baggage handlers have reported seeing a suitcase full of female mannequin parts. One guy tried to find out if he could put a metal detector inside the actual metal detector.

And yet here I was, a short 5'2" bespectacled bandit with an extra suitcase. And not just any suitcase. The only extra one I could find when I was going on this trip was my wife's plaid designer Nicole Miller luggage. I might've felt less out of place if I had an emotional support goose.

After putting the bars into vacuum sealed plastic bags, I realized I could've maybe squeezed a few more into my luggage. After putting the bars into vacuum sealed plastic bags, I realized I could've maybe squeezed a few more into my luggage. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

The security agent looked at my passport, and then looked at me.

"Do you speak Hebrew?"

I told her I did, thinking that would impress her and somehow show that I was not a criminal mastermind. After all, would a nerdy guy like me who speaks semi-fluent Hebrew be profiled as a con man with an energy bar fetish? She was indeed impressed with my Hebrew, and asked a few follow-up questions. Then she looked again at my passport photo.

"Wow!" she said a little loudly so that others could hear her enthusiasm. "You've lost a lot of weight since this picture was taken. Very nice. Congratulations. Good for you!"

I smiled. Should I tell her?

"It's because of all the Israeli energy bars I eat."

She laughed. Had she opened my luggage, she would've seen I wasn't joking. Instead, she wished me well and sent me on my way. Mission accomplished.

As I walked to my gate, I relished the fact that I had pulled off the perfect heist. I passed by a newsstand in the airport and decided to pop in. There on the counter, by the cash register, was a display of Better Energy bars. I bought one for the road.

My two pugs don't seem that excited about my bar stash. My two pugs don't seem that excited about my energy bar stash. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

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How I smuggled 150 energy bars out of Israel
A weight loss plan, an empty suitcase and an audacious plot to pull off the perfect heist at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport.