State of the Union / When Amit met Jo
An Israeli photographer woos an Australian scientist with promises of doing the dishes forever - and gets her to stick around.
Australian scientist Jo Savill was travelling through Vietnam with four friends. It was two couples and her, a set-up that was beginning to get on her nerves. She walked into a cooking class in Hoi An and immediately clocked a fellow red head – “and a decent-looking one at that”– with his friend in the corner.
"What I liked about her was that she just sort of barged in,” recalls Amit Turkenitz, an Israeli photographer with a day job in high-tech, who was on vacation with his best friend from Petah Tikva. “We were chatting with some other girls from England and Jo, without even saying ‘may I sit?’ basically pushed them aside.”
This was April 2009. Jo was 28. Amit had just turned 30 and was newly single. “I was not heartbroken or depressed,” he says. “But I felt like it was about time for something new to happen.”
They spent the afternoon chopping up bean sprouts and crushing peanuts side by side. By the time the vermicelli noodles were ready, they had made plans to meet up that evening by the bridge.
“When traveling, you are open to new experiences and just fall into things,” says Jo.
“I don’t think that applies to Israeli girls,” says Amit. “They are forever stiff.”
That first evening, Amit admitted he didn’t actually like cooking.
“I told Jo that if we ever got married, I would do the dishes,” he says.
He was not sure she was even interested in him. He thought she might like his friend, who had a doctorate in Biology, better - but he went for the flirt anyway.
“I hate doing the dishes,” says Jo.
They liked the same rock bands, it turned out the following day, as they rowed down the river drinking coconut juice and talking about the Shins. The same movies too: Eternal Sunshine on a Spotless Mind and Garden State.
“It was crazy,” she says.
On day three, Amit’s friend turned to him when Jo went to the bathroom.
“Listen Shushu…she is into you!” he said.
“I'm not sure, Shushu,” Amit responded. (The friends – long story - each call each other “Shushu.”)
“You will regret it if you don’t do something,” Shushu encouraged, and, without even trying to be subtle, walked away.
Amit and Jo kissed at sunrise, down on the beach - so starting that kind of unclear "something" that happens with such ease when you are young and backpacking and free.
About two hours later, the Shushus boarded a bus north.
“Come with us,” they begged Jo.
“But I have just come from there!” said Jo, who was heading south.
They exchanged addresses. Amit promised to send an Assaf Avidan CD. She promised to send Marmite. They were sad. They said goodbye. For that is the way these "somethings" (almost) always end.
The next day, Jo reconsidered: “What am I doing here with two other couples, when I could be with the guys?”
She rescheduled flights, packed up, reconciled herself to not seeing the south of Vietnam and 36 hours after the teary goodbye – as the Shushus’ slow bus rolled into Ha Long bay – she stepped off a plane to meet them.
It was only a matter of time before Jo – who is not Jewish and knew almost no Jews and definitely no Israelis growing up – was flying into Ben Gurion airport for a visit.
“I had to see if this feeling was real. There was no point getting excited and putting so much energy into it if it was all in our heads,” she says.
“I think it was the dish washing,” he says.
“I asked him if he saw himself getting married and having kids. I wanted to know that was an option,” says Jo. “It sounds very functional but it actually has a romantic aspect to it.”
“I know lots of people who go to the other side of the world for a relationship and it breaks up because they were never on the same page,” says Amit.
Amit’s dad, who owns a carpentry company, and his mom, who volunteers at the Israeli aid organization Yad Sarah, “lost it when they heard I had met a non-Jewish girl and she was coming to visit,” admits Amit.
But then Jo arrived and they loved her and never said a thing.
“I am not going to convert,” she says. “We are both atheists, so why?” Being multicultural and having two religions in a family is “awesome,” they agree.
Jo moved to Israel this February. Her dad, who guides ships through the Great Barrier Reef, and her mom, a swimming teacher, were cool about it.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” Jo’s mom said.
“Have fun,” her dad said, and asked about the weather in Tel Aviv.
“Parents in Australia are different,” says Amit.
“In Australia, it’s a happy day when your kids move out of the house,” Jo notes. “In Israel it’s practically a tragedy,”
Ulpan was a killer. Amit tried to help by making little stickers with the transliterated names of everything and sticking them everywhere – Shulchan: "Table"; Val: "Hook."
Jo’s friends from class wanted stickers too. And so started a business: “Gingerhood,” which produces “Stick Around” - packages of vinyl language stickers for the Hebrew-challenged – now on sale at all self-respecting hip designer stores in town.
Amit proposed in Park Hayarkon. He set out a picnic blanket on the grass, opened a bottle of wine, lit candles, got out the two diamond rings (he couldn’t decide between them) and summoned Jo. Some kids were having soccer practice nearby and he told them to scram before she arrived so he could focus.
“Their coach came over and said- “don’t do it!’” recalls Amit. “And then the dads watching came over and said I would regret it. It was very encouraging.”
They had two weddings: one in a rain forest in Australia and another in Israel under a chuppa. In Israel, Shushu played the part of the rabbi, reading from notes tucked in a worn copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam. The Australians who came over loved the open bar. The caterers, says Amit, had never seen anything like it and practically had a panic attack.
The honey moon to Jordan was unique mainly in that Amit didn’t go on it. He couldn’t get security clearance from the army, so Jo went with her parents. It was a great trip, she says, but she was happy to return home.
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