A strip mall in Totowa, New Jersey, U.S.
A strip mall in Totowa, New Jersey, U.S. Photo by Bloomberg
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In 2006, aspiring Israeli singer Rami Feinstein faced a big-time dilemma: Would he sign a 19-year contract with a top talent agent and relinquish 45 percent of his future profits, or take a job selling cosmetics at an American shopping mall?
Feinstein took the job at the mall -- and it worked out better than he expected.

Not only did he make enough money to cut an album the following year, he found inspiration in the most unlikely of places. The sales pitch he used on clients at the Minnesota mall became the lyrics of “Something Amazing,” his first single.

“The song is about a bittersweet memory from that period,” Feinstein told JTA by phone from Tel Aviv. “As a musician I wanted to make music. But in order to do that I suddenly found myself having to sell cosmetics to American women at a shopping mall. That conflict gave birth to my song.”

Feinstein is an American citizen, but many if not most of the Israelis who find easy money selling brand-name cosmetics at mall kiosks across the United States are not. And not all of them enjoy Feinstein's fairy-tale ending.

Last month, 13 Israelis were arrested when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents rounded up salespeople at two shopping malls in Houston. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has been working to stem the flow of illegal workers at the source, producing a video warning would-be Israeli kiosk salespeople that beside the ignominy of being jailed, they faced a potential lifetime ban on entering the United States if they are caught.

“It is true that thousands of Israelis have traveled over the past 10 years and worked at these kiosks," Charles Shannon, an embassy official, says in the video released in June 2011. “The difference is we know about it now.”

In the United States, talk of undocumented workers is more likely to conjure images of sun-parched Latino agricultural workers or nannies caring for the children of the affluent rather than pushy Israeli salespeople in air-conditioned emporiums hawking eye lotions and hand creams.

But increasingly, the flow of illegal Israeli workers is capturing the attention of American law enforcement, which treats them much as they treat any worker caught working illegally in the United States.

Even so, Israelis continue to flock to U.S. malls, judging the rewards to outweigh the risks.

“I earn more money in one month working at a shopping mall in the U.S. than I would in Israel in a year,” said Noa, who recently returned from a stint at a Texas mall and asked that her real name be withheld.

Noa, who spends the Christmas shopping season working at U.S. malls, says she can earn up to $8,000 in a good month -- nearly four times the average Israeli monthly salary. Of her many friends who have worked in the business, very few have been caught, she said. Some use the money to open businesses back home, while others used it to pay for trips to South America.

“You're standing at the cart all by yourself trying to communicate with people around you, but they're all saying 'no, no, no,' ” Feinstein said. “Just like an artist, you're constantly being rejected. But if you're strong and you have something interesting to offer, then eventually you'll be rewarded.”