Departures/Arrivals: A comic artist flies to N.Y., Swiss students come to see both sides
Just as Esther Werdiger started to feel good in Jerusalem, she got a job offer in New York.
Esther Werdiger, 28, from Jerusalem, flying to New York
What’s that on your bag?
It’s a comic strip I draw, “The League of Ordinary Ladies,” and I had it printed on the bag.
Where is your accent from?
I live in Israel but I’ve been offered a job in New York, which I think I’ll take, and in any event I am originally from Australia. I am making this trip for my brother’s wedding, in California.
Wait, slow down a bit.
First of all, my little brother is getting married in California. But I can’t go to the United States without passing through New York. I once lived there and worked as a nanny on the Upper West Side, and I am thinking about returning because I got this job offer. Anyway, I am going for a few weeks and I rented out my apartment in Nahlaot [a Jerusalem neighborhood].
How long have you lived in Israel?
Three and a half years. It wasn’t planned, it just happened. I came to Israel when I was 18 for a year and a half at a yeshiva. I was in a Chabad class in Kiryat Malakhi, of all places. After that I was in Safed, which is a total vacuum. There are a lot of crazies there, which freaked me out a little. Then I went back to Australia and was an architecture student, but I left and went to New York. It’s hard to get along there without a work permit, and in the end my parents came to take me back to finish my degree in Australia, and somehow I got here again.
So you are religious?
Orthodox “lite.” I observe Shabbat and keep kosher. My family is ultra-Orthodox; I have six brothers and sisters. My mother wears a wig [as required of married women under Jewish law], and I only started wearing jeans two years ago. Oof, I hope my father doesn’t read this and get angry.
I didn’t know there is a Jewish community in Australia.
Most of the Jews in Australia arrived [there] after the Holocaust. There is also a Chabad community, but Chabad is everywhere. One of my grandfathers arrived before the Holocaust and lost his whole family in Europe. My great-grandfather, who was from a Hasidic family in communist Russia, was sent to Melbourne by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
What do you do?
I work free-lance in marketing, editing and managing social networks, but my work does not define me. I draw comic strips.
Where can I read your comics?
It’s a series that I’ve been publishing for a year on a New York site called The Hairpin, and it’s mostly about my life, sort of from a self-deprecatory angle. For example, how sad it is to date a guy who has really beautiful sisters. Or why it is that fate is cruel to you and hints that you have to go on a diet just before your brother’s wedding thanks to a juice-making machine that your roommate just bought.
How did you hook up with the site?
At first I sent them articles, which they didn’t really like. Then I sent comic strips and they liked that, and I also really enjoyed doing them. I’ve been drawing all my life.
Would you like to publish a book?
Very much. But it was explained to me that if no one knows you, you need a strong story to connect the whole book, and I am not aiming at that. There are people who know how to make money with their skills. Unfortunately, you can’t make a cent from all the things I really like to do. To my credit, it also has to be said that they don’t cost anything either: It’s just a pen, regular paper and me. I aim low. I have no expectations.
Things happen to people because they are ready to work very hard. And it’s frightening to want something really badly when you are only 20-plus. Wanting something makes you so vulnerable that maybe you should just let things happen. You know, the site doesn’t pay me, but I get a lot of referrals because of it. It’s just like what happened to me now with Jerusalem.
It took me a long time to get to like Jerusalem. At first, all I wanted was to be in New York. But now that I feel good here and have friends and am enjoying myself, I get this job offer in New York. That’s the way it is. It’s like when I was looking for shoes for my brother’s wedding. The minute you find great shoes you have to buy them: The opportunity to wear them will come eventually. You mustn’t be afraid.
Are you afraid?
It’s scary to start everything fresh. I am not married. It’s a problem for my family that I am not married at my age. I always tell my mother that statistically there is nothing to worry about. I’m not so special. If so many people got married, so will I.
So even the Australian Jews are “Polish”?
One time my mother got dressed beautifully to go out and put on makeup. She had also had her hair done that week, and when she put on the wig I told her, “Mom, your hair is so lovely under the wig, it’s upsetting that people don’t see it.” She turned around to me and said, “If you marry a goy, I am not coming to the wedding.”
Barbara Hobi, 22; Isabelle Waldwann, 23; Larissa Bieli, 23; Vanja Gudalo, 21; Patrick M. 23; Yvonne Knoepfel, 27; and Fabienne Lang, 25 – all students, arriving from Zurich
Hello, you look like a jolly group. Who are you?
Lang: We are a group of Swiss students who have come to Israel on a study tour.
Who organized it?
I did, through an organization called Initiative for Intercultural Learning. A friend of mine, a Swiss woman who has been living in Ramle for seven months and has visited here a few times, knows that I am interested in Israel and asked me to help her organize the tour. We have a very full schedule of two weeks with 12 participants. Would you like to see the itinerary?
Does the organization subsidize the trip?
No. The students pay for it themselves.
And they get university credit?
So you chose to come here instead of vacationing in Costa Rica?
Bieli: Costa Rica is boring.
What do you expect to get out of the trip?
Peter M.: Eyeglasses that will make it possible for us to get a perspective on the local culture.
Waldwann: To visit a hospital in Bethlehem and see what the difference is between the situation here and in Switzerland.
Knoepfel: To understand both sides and their approach to the conflict.
I’m afraid there are a lot more than two approaches.
Gudalo: I wanted to get to know the Israeli culture. Israel appears very often in the news in Switzerland, but I wanted to get a picture of my own.Lang: It’s something else when you meet with locals. We will meet with students from Al-Quds University, we will be hosted by families from Bethlehem, there is a lecture by an Israeli professor. The organization behind us specializes in study trips of this kind. There are also trips to Jordan and Croatia.
It sounds a little like the exoticism of war and the Third World.
Usually, when people from Germany or Switzerland come here they want to learn about the conflict and not about Israel, and they mostly have worked out an orderly political doctrine even before they land. Look at your itinerary: You have a workshop only with students from Al-Quds University.
Lang: That is only because no one from the Hebrew University replied when we tried to coordinate with them, and in any event that is definitely not the intention. We had a previous meeting in the Israeli Embassy in Switzerland. It’s true that we will visit Hebron and a refugee village and Bir Zeit University, and that in Ramallah we have a meeting guided by TIPH [Temporary International Presence in Hebron, a civilian observer mission] − but that is not all we will do. We will also visit Yad Vashem, Masada, the Dead Sea and Sderot, and meet representatives of the foreign workers. We also will have a lecture by [history Prof.] Moshe Zimmermann on the challenges facing Israeli society.
It still sounds to me like a tour that is focused on the conflict.
Lang: I admit that I am somewhat political, and there is no doubt that in Switzerland the coverage is pro-Palestinian, but I always try to see both sides.
To be neutral.
Bieli: It’s not simple to be neutral − it’s always simpler to look at the conflict from one side.
Lang: It’s a lot easier to be militant. It is not easy to admit that you have no opinion, that you don’t know what to do and that maybe you are wrong.
Gudalo: It is disrespectful to take a stand if you don’t know enough or understand enough to have one.
Lang: We are also trying to talk about other central issues for Israel: the social protest movement, the problems between the Orthodox and the secular, and the economy, which actually looks quite developed.
Yes. Look what’s happening in other countries in the region. Not to mention the euro crisis that is now attacking Europe. It is very interesting to contemplate its implications for Israel. There might be political tension between Israel and Switzerland, but economically the relations are wonderful.
You think so?
I don’t know whether Israel loves Switzerland so much, even though the nice guy in passport control said to me jokingly, “Ah, chocolate, ah, Bahnhofstrasse.” And now, can I ask you something?
We were told we should go for drinks this evening to the Minzar. Where is that?
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