Departures / Arrivals: An Israeli That's 'Too Italian' for His Own Good

Yotam left Israel after Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, and moved back in 2014's Operation Protective Edge. Has anything changed?

Liat Elkayam
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Yotam Shabtai.
Yotam Shabtai.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Liat Elkayam

Yotam Shabtai, 35; lives in Kfar Sava, arriving from Milan

Hello, can I ask you where you were?

 At Milan Design Week. I went to see the exhibitions and to work – I’m a product designer.

Was it interesting?

The exhibition consisted of all kinds of events; there’s no way to see them all. But it was interesting to see that there’s a return to old-time materials: wood, lots of marble and stone. I also saw that the outstanding trend in design is a combination of high-tech and low-tech – furniture with WiFi technology. Like smart lighting that discovers what state of mind you’re in and provides illumination accordingly. In contrast, everything ecological has disappeared. A few years ago, everything that involved recycling was very much in fashion, but unfortunately that’s a trend that didn’t take root.

Did you exhibit something of your own?

Antonia Bornemann and Shahaf Shay.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Yes. The main purpose of my trip was a new project I created, a coffee table called Nudo – which means “nude” in Italian – for the Atipico company. It’s round, one meter in circumference. The top is made of cement and looks something like a huge pebble. The base is made of iron wire and the cement seems to cover the iron skeleton – think of a skeleton wearing clothes.

How did things go for the table?

I think it was well received. I don’t design only furniture. Since graduating, I have also been working with an Italian company called Vice Versa. They make high-quality designer kitchen utensils, a little like Alessi.

So you’re in Italy a lot?

There are routine visits. It’s hard to leave the children, but it’s interesting, too. Actually, our family – me, my wife and our two children – returned to Israel last August after 11 years in Milan.

When did you leave Israel?

After Operation Defensive Shield [in 2002], because I needed a break from life in Israel. My plan was to study abroad and return. I majored in industrial design at IED, the European design institute, for three years. Afterward, the dean asked me if I’d like to work there, and I said yes. He put me in touch with the Italian company where I started as a designer. I established a design studio and rose to art director and product manager, which is what I do now. I also got married and had kids there.

You married an Italian?

No, my wife Dana is an Israeli whom I met there. She was set to complete her master’s and return to Israel, and I ruined her plans. We got married quickly and have two lovely children. We both worked and had no economic problems, we had Italian friends and the kids were in a good kindergarten.

Then why come back?

It was a very difficult decision. It took us three years. But when our second child was born, we knew things would be hard, from the point of view of being far from our parents and their help and support – and that’s what made us come back. Italy is amazing. The way of life is amazing. Italians simply live at a different pace. That’s why I go on working in Italy; it’s something you have to learn and appreciate. I really hope all that won’t disappear for me by getting swallowed up in the insane Israeli pace of life.

Is it hard to return to Israel?

To certain things. I hear a lot of “You’re too soft,” “too Italian,” “You don’t have the elbows.” But I still think we made a good decision about returning. The children are blossoming here incredibly. My wife found a good job and I am getting along with being half a house-husband. In Italy it was the opposite, but today I work from home and pick up the kids from kindergarten. I am enjoying the family thing very much, and also childhood friends who didn’t abandon me after 11 years.

You’ve immigrated twice – which was scarier?

There’s always fear of making a change. But I had no difficulty leaving Israel; it’s harder to come back than to leave here.

Actually, you left in Operation Defensive Shield and came back in Operation Protective Edge.

We’d already planned the return and everything was in the container when it started, so we went. On the day we returned, there was an interception [of a missile] over Kfar Sava. We were sleeping when it happened, but when I got up I thought that maybe they wanted us to feel that we didn’t miss a thing and that we were coming back to exactly the same place.

Antonia Bornemann, 20, lives in Belgrade; and Shahaf Shay, 19, lives in Modi’in; Antonia is flying to Belgrade

Hello, can I ask you why you’re laughing so much?

Shahaf: We’re hung over from “goggles on.”

Excuse me?

Antonia: I was in Israel for two weeks, one at Shahaf’s and one in a hostel in Florentin [in Tel Aviv].

Shahaf: I’d never heard of Florentin ... There was an Australian guy in the hostel who taught us a drinking game called “goggles on.”

How do you play?

Shahaf: Everyone sits in a circle and when your turn comes you place your hands over your eyes in the shape of goggles, and then you have three choices:

1. You stick out your left hand and say “pa-ka” like a hen, and then it’s the turn of the person to your left; 2. You stick out your right hand and say “pa-ka,” and it becomes the turn of the person to your right; 3. You stick out both hands and say “pa-ka,” and then the turn skips a person.

Anyone that gets mixed up has to drink, of course. You can also stick out your left hand and point to the right with it, which is very confusing, because the thing is the hand you use, not where you point. There’s no way to win in this game, everyone loses.

Excuse the chutzpah, but are you a couple?

Antonia: No, but we’re really good friends.

Shahaf: There was a poof the instant we met.

How did you meet?

Shahaf: In a school in Serbia. I lived there for five years, because my parents were Foreign Ministry envoys.

Antonia: And I lived there two years. My parents work in Serbia, but we’re originally German.

What was it like?

Shahaf: It’s a very different place.

Antonia: There are people on the main street all day and all night, in cafés and restaurants.

Shahaf: There’s a nice main street there called Knez Mihailova.

Antonia: And if it’s summer, you can go to club parties on big boats. And besides that there are the people. We both went to an international school, where there was a community of people from the whole world.

Shahaf: There were 27 students our age. Everyone knew everyone.

Did you want to live in Serbia, or did your parents drag you there?

Antonia: I enjoyed it. In Germany I lived in a small town where not much happens, and I really wanted to spend my last two years of high school somewhere else. Now I’m traveling.

What was it like for you to move to Serbia, Shahaf?

Shahaf: I didn’t have an easy life in Israel before we went. I wasn’t the most popular guy. And you know how it is in Israel – either you’re in or you’re out. And when you’re out, no one gives two hoots about you. I was lonely. Belgrade was a new start for me, a chance to make up for lost time, meet people, decide what I want to do with my life.

How old were you when the family moved?

Shahaf: Just 13, a kid with no idea of what he’s going to do in life.

And now?

Shahaf: I’m at a turning point. I got through the pre-induction tests for the air force and am trying to get into the army’s prestigious medical program. I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was nine.

Why a doctor?

Shahaf: I don’t want to be a lawyer – all they do is take. I don’t want to be a politician – they’re all corrupt here. I want to help people.

What about you, Antonia?

Antonia: I’m starting psychology at a university in Amsterdam – I want to work with children.

Shahaf: It’s a different mentality. Our friends from the international school are at universities in Switzerland, London, America. They don’t go to school in their country. I think that just attending an international school gives you a perspective on life.

But in the end you’re going to go to school in Israel.

Shahaf: I want to be a neurosurgeon or a brain researcher, and I don’t think they have the resources here. I understand Israeli pride, but when you’re outside you see things differently. Maybe I have to leave and then come back. Most Israelis my age, to speak honestly, are very childish. They go out at night and say they’re going to get drunk. In Europe it’s a beer or two. You drink to connect, not to get drunk. Israelis don’t think ahead, and that can be terrific, but I’ve learned to think ahead.