'When I Hit Bottom, I Thought, 'You Haven’t Been to Israel Yet!' So I Bought a Plane Ticket.'

Departures / Arrivals: A New Zealand man with 'bad skin cancer' comes to Israel to see where Jesus walked on water; a South African couple and their dog move to Israel for their retirement.

Ron Ashman.
Tomer Appelbaum

Ron Ashman, 73, from Waihi Beach, New Zealand’s North Island; flying to New Zealand

Hello, can I ask you how much time you spent in Israel?

I was here for 90 days, or three months – in any event, a long time.

Definitely.

I’m retired. I worked all my life as a car mechanic and a truck driver, and I liked it, but I couldn’t travel the way I wanted to. Now that I can, why not?

Where were you in Israel?

My goal was to do the Israel Trail.

And did you?

Unfortunately, the trail was bigger than me. I did a total of 101 kilometers. I started at Tel Dan and I ended at Migdal. I was never a big hiker. I trained a lot before coming here, with a rucksack on my back. But I’m very proud that I did it ... It was just too hard a journey, so I made a dramatic decision to forgo the big goal and do a lot of small, beautiful hikes, without killing myself.

What sort of hikes?

I did the Jesus Trail – from Nazareth to Capernaum – in four days; the Kinneret Trail, which is 70 kilometers, because the trek doesn’t follow the water line; and in the final trek I walked from Jisr al-Zarqa to Tel Aviv along the beach. Walking on sand isn’t easy.

How did you manage to hang on?

I talked to myself. I told myself, “Come on, Ron, keep going.” You need discipline on treks.

How did you get along in practical terms?

I have my tent, of course, and the hostels here are terrific, an asset to the country. I bought food along the way and took four liters of water with me every morning, no matter what.

You weren’t afraid of hiking alone?

No. I think you have coyotes in the north, but when I saw them they ran off. I felt very safe, there are enough people here with big rifles. 

Those are exactly the people I would be afraid of.

People didn’t look like a problem to me. My best experience on this journey was people. When I was hiking on the beach, and I thought I’d have to give it all up, I saw a large family tent. A young man ran up to me and said in perfect English, “Come and be with us tonight. Sit, rest, eat.” It was Israel in action. I enjoyed it very much, but I’m sorry to say that I don’t think I’ll be seeing it again.

Why not?

New Zealand is a long way off – 17,000 kilometers away – and I have bad skin cancer in my nose that should have killed me already.

Oh, wow. How did you overcome it?

It all started two years ago, when I retired. I had a small sore on my nose, but I was very busy, so I didn’t go to a doctor. After six weeks I saw that it had grown. It was only then that I went to the doctor, and it turned out that I had squamous cell carcinoma. Three hours later half my nose had been removed.

Scary.

And after the surgery, there were 55 days of radiation therapy, every day. When I was at the lowest point, I thought to myself, “You haven’t been to Israel yet!” So I found a plane ticket for 6,300 [New Zealand] dollars – 12 hours to Hong Kong, 11 hours to Israel – and I bought it.

Why was it important for you to visit here?

I was close to dying, and being here is a huge bonus. I wanted to see the Sea of Galilee – the water Jesus walked on – and Jerusalem, of course. I’m a Christian. When I bought the ticket, I didn’t yet know whether I’d be able to make the trip. I thought the money would be wasted, but it wasn’t, and it’s amazing. I can’t believe I’m here.

How did you cope with the uncertainty?

The uncertainty is still there. There are tests every few months. But I have no regrets. Don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy that it happened. Whatever happens, I had 73 good years and I have three children and nine grandchildren, and I am grateful. It’s hard for me to leave Israel, but they’re waiting for me. I’ll be happy to see the family, and I’ve been promised a new nose, made from plastic, that’s attached in place and removed every night. I didn’t want to get into that before the trip. What’s weird is that you need four noses, in different colors.

Why is that?

Because our skin color changes during the year. I think that if I’d lost the whole nose it would have been too much. It’s not a pretty sight when I remove the bandages. I miss my nose. But now I’ll get a new nose. No, sorry, four noses.

Avraham and Cher Frank.
Tomer Appelbaum

Avraham Frank, 58, and Cher Frank, 50, from Cape Town, South Africa; arriving from there

Avraham: We are immigrating to Israel. We’ve been approved and everything is organized.

Congratulations. Do you mean now, as we speak?

Avraham: No. At the end of March. We have an apartment in Netanya and we’re here to get it ready so everything will be shipshape when we arrive. Now we’re going to Ikea.

Cher: It’s really right next door. 

Avraham: We’ll buy a bed. We brought a toaster with us, a microwave oven and one electric kettle, really nice. There were quite a few things to arrange, bank accounts, electricity, lawyer. What’s left is to hook up the gas to the barbecue and see that the Wi-Fi is on. I’m afraid and excited. I’ve put my life and my heart and my dog, too, into Israel.

“My dog”?

Avraham: Our dog will make aliyah, too. It all started in 1982. I was a volunteer at [Kibbutz] Ramat Hakovesh, and since then I came back to Israel occasionally, but in the past five years we came here every year. We talked about it, and we decided that we would spend my retirement in Israel. 

Cher: We had it comfortable in Cape Town. South Africa was good to us, the business did well, the children’s schools were good, but Avraham just wanted to spend the rest of his life here.

Avraham: There are also plenty of incentives. The tax on the apartment is refunded, you can bring over a container, there’s a bit of pocket money.

Cher: I’m planning to learn Hebrew in an ulpan [intensive language course]. I work in the tourist industry, so I can keep working here and do exactly what I’m doing there, and maybe even bring people to Israel.

Avraham: My aim in retiring here is to do a lot of charity work, not necessarily making money. Walking dogs in the pound, helping the police, volunteer work in an old-age home. I want to give back where my heart is. 

Isn’t your heart with the family?

Avraham: I don’t have a mother or a father – they passed away – and our children are grown. I hope that maybe in the end, they will come here to live. It’s funny, because my son just met a girl from Australia who lives and works in Tel Aviv, and he said he would come here to visit, which is great.

You’re Jewish, I take it.

Avraham: My grandfather and grandmother emigrated from Lithuania to South Africa, and the family stayed there. When I was a child there was a large Jewish community in South Africa, something like 150,000 people, and since then it’s scattered. I see myself as an Orthodox Jew, but more Zionist and spiritual. I like Bibi, and I think that what happened in the United Nations last month was a shame. I think people should live in Judea and Samaria.

You said you were going to live in Netanya.

Avraham: At this stage in my life I want to live by the sea. If I live in Netanya, that doesn’t mean I’m not committed to Israel. Besides, we don’t have any friends here, or family, and we want to be in the center, a place where it’s easy to get invitations from people. There are also a lot of Anglo-Saxon and French foreigners, and I think it’ll be easier for us. I’m thinking about Cher.

Cher: We’ve been married 20 years, and for the past five years he’s been saying that his heart is here. It’s taken control of him and he’s enthusiastic. It’s thrilling to see. I hope it will be an adventure. 

Avraham: Cher is not Jewish, and it’s a big challenge for her. It’s a different culture.

Don’t you yourself find cultural differences here?

Avraham: I remember, back when I was on kibbutz, that when I waited for a bus, people would push me and touch me, and I said to them, “Patience, please.” But I like it that people here are enthusiastic and patriotic and passionate. You don’t have that in South Africa. You can make a good living there, but there’s corruption and theft in government.

Tomer (the photographer): Some people believe that it’s the same in Israel.

Avraham: I know. But I remember 1967. We lived in a small apartment at the time, we didn’t have a television, and the war broke out. I wasn’t even 10, but I saw how my parents and the Jewish community were worried about what was happening in Israel. And I remember the first time I visited Israel. It was in 1973, two days before the Yom Kippur War. We came to visit my grandmother, who at the end of her life lived in Ramat Hasharon, and there was nothing there. A bank, strawberry fields and that’s all. Sand. Today I’m of course sorry that my father didn’t keep her apartment.