'I've Had Two Jobs in My Life, Israeli Navy Captain and Cosmetician, and I Loved Both'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An expat explains why she's returning to Israel after 35 years; two Israelis studying in Lithuania talk about the Jewish club that brought them together

Micky Keren.
Tomer Appelbaum

Micky Keren, 65, from Rockville, Maryland; flying to New York

Hello, can I ask how your visit was?

Marvelous. I visited my daughter and grandchildren, and they persuaded me to return home after 35 years in the U.S.

Dramatic.

Yes. We’ve already written to the Absorption Ministry and got their approval. I now have six months to return.

When did you leave Israel?

In 1985. My husband, me and three children.

Why?

We wanted a little change, and my husband also had a medical problem, and we thought the best and quickest treatment would be in the U.S.

Can I ask what the problem was?

He needed a transplant and he would’ve had to wait years. And after you settle somewhere, the time passes so quickly... But not for my eldest. She left me a note every week, since she was 10: “Mom, there’s nothing for me here. The stores are nice but I want to go home. I don’t even mind going alone and living with Grandma.” When she was 23, she went back to Israel, and since then has been trying to persuade me to come.

Where are the other two?

Our son moved to New York, and that worked out; my other daughter went to Copenhagen. There are three and a half Jews there, and she managed to find a whole one! Then my husband’s health began to deteriorate, and both daughters were about to give birth and each one told me I should be with her sister. One says, “It’s her first kid, go to her”; the other says, “It’s her third, she needs help.” In the end, I said, “Wait three months and then both of you will come here.”

And they came.

Yes, and they could also say farewell to their dad and he saw the grandchildren. He died over five years ago.

My condolences.

Then the question came up of who to be with. Now, while visiting my eldest, she said, “Don’t I deserve part of you, too? I’ve been alone since I was 23. Now it’s my turn.” So I decided to come back. There’s nothing really holding me there, just the cemetery.

What about the other two?

My other daughter said that if I left the U.S, there wouldn’t be any reason for her to stay there. My son will stay in New York, so there’s an excuse to go there.

Won’t you miss the stores, at least?

I’ve lived more in the U.S. than in Israel; to say I won’t miss it would be a lie. But as long as I’m in good health I can visit. Besides, I didn’t sell the house there and am renting here, so I can go back. 

Where will you live?

My sister lives in Nahariya and my daughter in Modi’in, so we looked for a place in the middle, in Haifa. When I went out to the balcony of the rental apartment and saw the waves, it took me back 35 years.

Are you from Haifa originally?

No, I was in the career navy and served at a base there. I was a captain in the navy, one of the first women with a senior rank. Women didn’t hold positions like that back then. I felt like I’d broken new ground.

Which you definitely had done.

The commanding officer told me, “Give it a try for half a year, we’ll see how it goes.” I promised that if it didn’t work out, I would resign, but I stayed six years. It was a totally male job, on which I overlaid a feminine persona. It worked. Now, if they’d take me, I’d volunteer for the navy.

What did you do abroad?

I was a cosmetician – a serious change from the military. Suddenly to be with people, to touch, to communicate with the hands. I’ve done two things in my life, military service and cosmetic treatments, and I loved both. When I come back to Israel I’ll do treatments, it’s good for me. Now there’s pressure to decide what to pack.

You’re apprehensive.

I can’t say that I’m not afraid, but what is fear? It wakes you up and proves that you’re still here, still human. And I have three terrific grandchildren here. I didn’t believe I would be so proud. The first isn’t even 15 and he’s a volunteer in Seeds of Peace [a leadership program for Israeli and Palestinian youth]. Just talking to him is a joy.

Natalie Babaev and Eden Ishakov.
Tommer Appelbaum

Natalie Babaev, 23, from Ashdod, left; and Eden Ishakov, 19, from Holon; arriving from Vilna

Hello, can I ask what you did in Lithuania?

Eden: We’re students and we’re both studying pharmacy.

Why in Lithuania?

Natalie: I wanted to study pharmacy, and at the time I tried to get accepted to schools here but it was hard. You needed an average of 710 on the psychometric exam [a requisite for university admission].

Eden: Now they’ve lowered it to 680, but you still need a high matriculation average. This way I also spared myself the psychometric exam. Even after taking preparatory courses and making an effort, I’m not sure I would have achieved a high enough score.

What year are you in?

Natalie: In another six months I’ll finish my fifth and final year. I’m slowly bringing my stuff back home.

Eden: I’m just in my second year.

Natalie: We only met last year.

Eden: Yes, on a “Jewish basis.”

Meaning?

Natalie: There’s a Jewish club in Kovno [Kaunas], run by Rabbi Moshe Scheinfeld and his wife, based on donations from all kinds of Jews around the world. About 200 students go there.

Eden: What do you mean, 200?

Natalie: Okay, maybe more, between 200 and 300.

Eden: And there are classrooms, too, and you can sit and study there.

Natalie: And hot, kosher meals on the holidays. It brings us together – the Jewish students in Kovno.

Where else do you hang out?

Eden: There’s a mall called Akropolis. Great prices.

Natalie: Especially before Christmas.

Eden: All the clothes are 30-40 percent cheaper. That’s how it is in Europe, always a lot cheaper than in Israel.

You look like fashionistas, dressed beautifully. Where do you get your inspiration?

Natalie: Mostly from Instagram. I follow the accounts of all kinds of girls in Europe.

Eden: I also use Instagram – it gives you ideas. And also from my head and from Facebook.

Let’s hear names.

Natalie: There’s a store and a magazine called OOTD, Outfit for the Day, and they upload a lot of pictures and they’re good.

Eden: I follow a woman named Shirel Avrahami [who sells clothing online]. There are also all kinds of religious fashion designers who import clothing from Europe. And there is also mecha’at habasis [“basics protest”] – supposedly a protest against the skirts and blouses religious women wear.

You’ve lost me. A protest of skirts?

Eden: When the clothes are beautiful just as they are, and there’s no need to wear a white blouse underneath.

Why wear something underneath?

Eden: Let’s say you wear a short-sleeved blouse, you will usually put on a long white or black blouse underneath. In the basics protest they say that it looks nicer not to wear the long one, and to wear longer blouses to begin with, three-quarter-length sleeves, say. I prefer that, and that’s the aim of the protest.

Is it easy for you to find suitable clothes there?

Eden: Yes. I buy most of my clothes in Lithuania, because I find dresses that I like there; for example, skirts that are not above the knee, for the sake of modesty, which is something I believe in. I also connect more with the European style.

Your boots are very fashionable, and the royal blue coat – très chic.

Eden: The boots are from last year, and I actually don’t dress according to fashion. For example, there’s a thing now at Zara where pearls are embroidered on everything. Some women won’t buy it, because they’ll say that next year it won’t be in fashion anymore, but I don’t care. I can buy it now and also wear it a year later. And I like royal blue, it’s my favorite color.

Natalie, what do you like to wear?

Natalie: At the moment, I like to wear a lot of black. Lithuania is a cold country, so most of the time I feel like wearing an outfit that’s sporty and dark, and not to leave the house too much.