Departures / Arrivals: How I Dodged Vietnam to Fight in Yom Kippur

72-year-old Jonathan thinks it's time for a vacation in Florida. His plan: To do nothing.

Tomer Appelbaum

Jonathan Ferrara, 72, lives in Jerusalem; flying to New York

Hello, can I ask where you’re going?

For a vacation. I’m tired.

Is it the heat?

No. My wife stayed at home, sick; I’ve been looking after her for six and a half years, and I’m tired. My daughter has been living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for 10 years. I’m going to visit her for six weeks to recover.

What will you do there?

Nothing. I don’t want to do anything. Maybe wander around a little, the main thing is not to work hard. ... I’m an American citizen.

When did you immigrate to Israel?

My wife and I settled here in 1969. We have five children; two live in the U.S., three here. All our children were born here. I was born in Italy.

So you went first to the U.S. and then to Israel?

I was born in Italy in 1942, and the family moved to the U.S. in 1956. Fortunately, my mother went on cooking Italian food. As a boy, I had a tremendous desire to learn English and become part of American society, because in Italy people talked about the U.S. as though it was everyone’s dream.

Were things bad in Italy after the war?

Economically, yes. Ironically, things were better in the middle of the war than afterward; people left Italy in masses. We moved to the Bronx,. As a boy, I found it interesting. A different language, new friends. It was a serious challenge.

And as a young man?

When I was in university, people were being drafted for Vietnam. It was an ugly, unpopular war. At first they didn’t draft the students... and I decided there was no way I would serve. Then the student exemption was canceled, and only married people were exempted. Then that exemption was canceled too, and only people who were married and had a child were exempt. Finally, I said that if I have to fight, I’ll go to Israel – at least I’ll be a good Jew and do a mitzvah.

Were you religiously observant?

No, it developed later, under the influence of Israel and Jerusalem. The atmosphere in Jerusalem affected me deeply. We always lived in Jerusalem, at first in an absorption center.

What did you know about Israel before you immigrated?

We’d first visited in 1966. I didn’t know Hebrew, but I could read and I knew how to pray. In 1969, the flight with El Al was free. They were looking for immigrants and paid for the flight and for our rent. I was drafted in 1971 and served in Gush Etzion [a settlement bloc between Bethlehem and Hebron], but I did it willingly.

You didn’t manage to avoid any wars?

There was a different atmosphere, everyone wanted to be a soldier and enlist. I never imagined that in 1973, I’d be a soldier on the Golan Heights. There’s a difference between basic training and the real thing. My whole battalion was mobilized in 1973, for the Yom Kippur War.

And after the war?

I went back to university and did a Ph.D. in English literature.

What was that like?

There isn’t a lot of work in English literature in Israel. I taught English in a yeshiva and at the Hebrew Gymnasia high school in Jerusalem. But at first I didn’t teach well. I wasn’t in tune with the mentality of the Israeli kids – they’re used to authority and a strong teacher who will  argue with them. But in the end it worked out. I started an English department in Givat Washington [a religious youth village in central Israel], which was successful. I worked at the college there for 27 years. I was the head of the department, and independent. It was by the grace of heaven, because I don’t like being told what to do, how to teach. I also had a second job, training English teachers. One way or another, I made ends meet. I retired six-and-a-half years ago.

And then your wife became ill?

And so did I. I thought I’d enjoy life after retirement, but within half a year I had a heart attack. It was a tough time but I recovered, thank God. To retire from work is not good; you hear about a lot of people who retired and then something happened. I thought I’d enjoy myself, but the accumulation of cholesterol in my blood thought otherwise.

I wish you good health and much happiness.

In the meantime, I have 12 grandchildren. There’s no shortage of happy events.

Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

Ron Zohar, 33, lives in Tel Aviv; arriving from Shanghai

Hello, can I ask where you’re arriving from?

Yes. I went through 24 weird hours. I flew from Shanghai via Istanbul but missed the connection. When they finally found me a flight, I sat next to an elderly woman from Turkey wearing a head covering. In the end, I fell asleep and she woke me up with a croissant. Nice.

What was Shanghai like?

There’s a concept in Japan of “Shibuya girls” – pretty, off the wall, cool dressers. I had the feeling that Shanghai wants to be like those girls. The city is full of huge buildings – they want to be Tokyo, but they’re not. But my meetings were very interesting.

Whom did you meet with?

It was a business trip. I’m part of a startup that makes a medical product that allows people to do a urine test at home, without going to a lab. We met people from a company in Shanghai that we hope to cooperate with in. For a small Israeli startup to talk business with a company that has 900,000 employees is interesting.

So did you do business?

We came to do a trial that would show them that we’re very good. Ninety-two percent of the people who go to ER don’t have to be there. Our tests will reduce the pressure on the health system. That’s why the experiment was done in a Shanghai hospital, where ER is beyond belief, packed with people who have to wait for hours. On the one hand, young Shibuya girls, on the other, elderly villagers. I sent photos to my wife, who’s a doctor, so she could see how many people were there. And we, the two foreigners, sat in the lab with masks and suits; everyone looked at us. In the end they said it was outstanding.

They used that word?

They don’t know English. We had interpreters. You get the feeling that nothing is conveyed properly.

Linguistic disparities, or cultural?

They have this thing with presenting business cards. You have to present the card with two hands, look the recipient in the eyes and bow. And then I always get stuck – how do I hand him my card? But there are also things for us to learn there. They do amazing things. They’re trying to solve their difficult health-system problems by means of the Internet, phones and apps.

Are there apps for health?

There’s an app involving a doctor who is available all the time. Those are revolutions that the Western world has a hard time implementing because of regulations. Google, Facebook and Twitter don’t work there. They have 900 million people who use WeChat instead of WhatsApp. They have search engines and perfect systems; they control the masses and control what gets out. The view in China is: “It’s very nice to have a world out there, but it doesn’t really interest us because we’re so big and strong.”

But they still want to meet with people from an Israeli startup.

We brought them the book “Start-Up Nation” as a present. They have high esteem for Israel technologically, but there is also the fear, the constant risk, that the reason it interests them is so they can steal the patents.

Where does the field of medical technology aspire to get to?

A revolution is underway in the medical world, toward greater ability to control our health and to free people of dependence on the health system and on doctors. The analogy is that once there were huge thermometers with mercury, and only in hospitals, and today everyone has a thermometer at home. I believe the same process will occur with medical tests, with ultrasound and x-rays.

Sounds like something out of “Star Trek.”

There actually is a company that manufactures a product called Dr. Crusher Tricorder, and there’s a competition with a prize of $10 million for the first person who develops a small instrument that, when attached to the head, measures body temperature, oxygen, blood pressure and more.

So you’re making your wife’s job redundant.

I don’t think doctors will be unnecessary. There will always be too few doctors, because there is a great deal of knowledge and data, but they have to get to a doctor in the end. There are many subjects that are talked about in slogans: artificial intelligence, nanobots in the bloodstream, singularities. The future I foresee is close, 20 years ahead at most. Or maybe next year ... I hope by then my son will know how to assemble a house from the new tools I bought him.