'I Didn't Want to Leave the Israeli Army, but I Was in a Real Crisis'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A young woman who moved to Israel alone as a teen in search of independence, and a couple who felt that even though life in Canada is comfortable, Israel is where they really belong

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Ori Podolak.
Ori Podolak.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yael Benaya

Ori Podolak, 20; lives at Kibbutz Kissufim, flying to Edmonton, Alberta

Hi, what’s taking you to Canada?

Mom, Dad and three brothers. I’m flying home. I haven’t seen my family for a year, and the last time, it was only for three weeks. So I’m really, really excited about seeing them. My brothers are younger, but now they’re taller than I am for sure.

What were you doing in Israel?

I made aliyah with Garin Tzabar [a program that facilitates Israeli army service for Jews from abroad], and now I’ve completed my service. I served as a combat soldier in field intelligence in the Gaza “envelope,” and lived on Kibbutz Kissufim as a lone soldier. I came here because I truly love Israel. I hadn’t planned to be discharged early like this, I was supposed to do two years and eight months, and it came out to be a little less.

What happened?

I suffered damage to my hearing. There are the [incendiary] balloons and drones from Gaza, and my unit is assigned to dealing with that. There were balloons, and my commanding officer fired close to my ear by surprise. I didn’t have earplugs, so I had a wild decrease in hearing. I didn’t want to be discharged, I liked the army.

Then why did they discharge you?

They thought that would be most helpful for me. I was in a real crisis, because I didn’t see myself remaining in that situation for another year. As a lone soldier, I don’t have a mother or father to take care of me after a 21-day stint on the base. You get home and the work never ends: You have to cook, do the laundry, organize your belongings, clean. The army helps with some things, but mentally they don’t get it, even if they try. The company commander threw out lines like, “I understand you, my family lives in Eilat.” What’s a three-hour drive compared to a 12-hour flight?

Tell me, where is your really fine Hebrew from?

My father is Austrian and my mother is Israeli. He served in the United Nations as a helicopter pilot and met her on the Golan Heights, and I was born in Israel. Afterward they moved to Canada, because he had a job there. He would come home every few weeks, so I was with my mother all the time. She spoke to me in Hebrew, brought me up with books and movies and programs, all in Hebrew. “A Tale of Five Balloons,” “Apartment to Rent,” “Yael’s House” – all the classics. Now we live in Alberta. My father is on the farm and my mother lives nearby, in the city.

What’s on the farm?

We raised cattle and horses, and we also had chickens for a time, and ducks and cats. I’ve had two horses for eight years now; they must have grown fat. My brothers participate professionally in pony rodeos – there’s this sport in Canada and the United States where children have to hold onto a bucking pony.

How did you decide to come to Israel?

I was at that stage in life, a teenager, who just wanted to get out of the house. It came from love of Israel and from my wanting to experience life by myself.

What’s written on your hand?

“Memento mori” – to remember that life is very fragile. The literal translation from the Latin is “Remember death.” It’s a motto I adopted chose a long time ago, when I was 16. In simpler terms, it YOLO: You only live once. The first tattoo I did in Israel, about a month after making aliyah, is of two hands with a dove. It’s a sign of liberation from home, flying away from the nest, leaving your comfort zone and going to experience a different life without support from Mom and Dad. I’m the bird.

What are the other tattoos?

I did the lemons a month ago, during the period with the coronavirus and with the army. I had a very hard time in the army toward the end, with the accident and everything that happened. Two days after I was discharged, I sat and thought how life gave me lots of lemons, which I wanted to turn it into something nice, into lemonade, for my next experience. Now the question is, what I do now.

What are your thoughts about that?

If there were no coronavirus I’d be traveling around. Now I want to get my own life going, rent an apartment, work. I haven’t yet worked in Israel, or lived alone. I want to experience “Ori’s life” – not just the life of Ori the soldier or Ori the high-school student. I finished high school and two months later I was here. It was crazy.

What’s the first thing you’ll do when you get home?

I’ll go to the farm and lie on the grass with my cat. That’s the most important thing for me now.

The Levi familyCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Levi family: Naama, 2, Dana, 39, Alona, 4, Amitai, 8, Amos, 39; live in Givatayim, arriving from Ottawa

Hi, where are you coming from?

Amos: We’re coming from Ottawa, where I spent two years of study at the largest cardiology center in Canada, one of the largest in North America. My specific specialization was interventional cardiology, which treats people who have suffered heart attacks with catheterization.

What was it like being a doctor in Canada?

Amos: The system in Canada is far better for physicians. To make a living in Israel, you need to work in a hospital in the morning and at a clinic in the afternoon. There, it’s a completely public system, so you only work in one place. The service is good, although there are some things that aren’t as good. People wait too long in lines: You can wait to be seen in an emergency room for 20 hours. People who came for a catherization might travel five to seven hours, wait all day, and then, in certain situations, we’d tell them that we couldn’t receive them that day and that they had to return home.

Dana: But the longer they waited, the more polite they became.

Amos: The mentality is different, people don’t complain, you won’t get stabbed. The advantage and disadvantage of Canada is that the [health-care] system is very centralized. The hospital where I worked served a population of 1.5 million people. I had a patient who came from the North Pole, traveling for 12 hours on two flights. It’s an insane logistics constellation.

Dana, what did you do during those two years?

Dana: I dealt with the children and took care of the house in the notorious winter. It was a full-time job, and I missed my own work very much. I’m an architect. When we arrived in Canada, I was in my seventh month with Naama. We wanted for the two older children to be acclimated before the baby arrived.

And how did the children acclimate?

Dana: Quickly. By Hanukkah, they both spoke English, after starting from a level of zero. Amitai began in first grade and Alona was 2 and a half. She is now rediscovering Hebrew. Amitai speaks both languages, but it’s easier for him in English. We spoke to them half and half, they switched to English, and you find yourself answering them in English. It was important to preserve the Hebrew, but in the second year we said that it might be preferable to reinforce the English ahead of our return.

How are the kids dealing with the idea of coming back?

Amos: The little ones don’t remember anything else.

Dana: Alona thinks it’s a vacation, and that we’ll be going back to Canada in a few days.

Amos: Amitai has mixed feelings; he has friends here and friends there.

Dana: He remembers the friends from Israel, we met with them when they visited before the whole mess. During the coronavirus time, he was on the “screens,” and he’s planning to stay in touch with his friends in Canada and to play with them online from Israel, too.

You said before that you missed your work.

Dana: Very much. Canadians could do with some Israeli architects. They have plenty of space, but they don’t know how to plan and take advantage of the space properly. I came from years of planning assisted-living housing and Tama [referring to the national plan to upgrade old buildings to withstand earthquakes], which requires the greatest possible efficiency. Good taste is also not their forte, they’re better at nature. Most of the people there do all their shopping at Ikea; it’s boring.

Was your return planned or does it have to do with the situation?

Dana: Not because of the coronavirus, that’s for sure. The residency was for two years, but there’s always the question of whether to remain or return. There are very tempting things there, you can live very well, but we were born in Israel and this is where we feel we belong. I was in favor of returning. I’ve been a mother, which is good and wonderful, but I missed my world – being me, myself. But it was planned in advance. Since the marriage proposal 12 years ago, we knew we’d go abroad within 10 years.

So, what was tempting about staying there?

Dana: You can live very well there. Where we were, it’s not hard to buy a large house in the city center. Nature is nearby, too; just spit and you’ll hit a lake. We traveled a lot, and in the winter, instead of spending every Shabbat by the sea, in Canada you travel half an hour and you can ski. With the Canadians, from the moment the kids know how to walk, they put them on skis.

And what will you do while you’re in [coronavirus] isolation?

Dana: Freak out, that’s for sure.

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