'Winter in Berlin Is Very Hard, but Not as Scary as the Terror Wave in Israel'

Arrivals / Departures: A Polish non-Jew explains why he's getting a Ph.D. in Jewish studies; an Orthodox doctor from Canada talks about the importance of believing in yourself – and therapy.

Mariuse Kalczewiak (left) and Irad ben Isaak.
Tomer Appelbaum

Mariusz Kaczewiak, 29 and Irad Ben Isaak, 34; live in Berlin and arriving from there

Hello, can I ask where you met?

Irad: We met in Poland six years ago, and then Mariusz moved to Berlin to live with me.

Mariusz: We met at a seminar for students about Judaism.

Irad: We were in the same room, and one thing led to another.

Mariusz: We’ve been together for six and a half years, and we’ll soon celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary.

Congratulations. Was it important for you to get married?

Irad: We married in the first place for bureaucratic reasons – a visa for me – and it’s also a nice way to celebrate and a political statement about the normalization of gays.

Mariusz: All the explanations are right in retrospect, but at the time we weren’t really thinking about the meaning.

Mariusz, your Hebrew is impressive.

Irad: When we lived in Berlin, we spoke English at home and German outside. In Israel, Mariusz acquired such good Hebrew that it’s become our “house language.”

How did we get to Israel?

Irad: I moved to Berlin about 10 years ago. I grew up in Tel Aviv, but wanted to live in a bigger city. Also, the occupation and the general situation here are frustrating. I’d completed a B.A. in German studies, and originally planned a one-way move.

Mariusz: But at some point, when we were together, I got somewhat tired of Germany. I don’t think that Berlin is such a paradise, and I thought it would be great to live in Israel. We were in Tel Aviv for two years.

Irad: We both went to university here – I did an M.A. in Yiddish literature.

Mariusz: And then came the unpleasant autumn of 2015, with terrorist attacks every minute – one day there were three; I was going to university in Jerusalem, too.

Irad: We’d planned to spend the harsh Berlin winter here, but the situation was shocking.

Mariusz: We were so panicky that we bought tickets and wrapped up everything in two days.

Irad: The Berlin winter was very hard, but not scary.

Where are you living now?

Mariusz: In Germany, Warsaw and Israel. 

There’s always somewhere to escape to?

Mariusz: It’s hard when there’s no single place. There are also bureaucratic issues, such as health insurance here and insurance there, three bank accounts – fortunately, I’m good at bureaucracy.

How do you get good at that?

Mariusz: I like to rely on myself and not on information from clerks. In Israel I needed a residency visa, so I checked out what that means, I read the law ... I think you always have to know how to achieve a happy life. If you don’t know how, that’s a problem.

Indeed.

Mariusz: I want to pay my respects to Israel and say that university scholarships here are really great and it’s not so complicated bureaucratically to get them. You write a request and get a recommendation, and that’s it. In Germany it’s more complex – these are institutions that have existed for a long time, and people don’t have the strength or the will to change things.

Is your research about Israel?

Mariusz: No. I’m doing a Ph.D. in Jewish history.

Are you Jewish?

Mariusz: No, but if there are no Jews to study a subject, goyim will do it!

Why Jewish history?

Mariusz: I have no clear answer. Many people in Poland are doing research on Jewish subjects; I am part of a small wave. But it started with Holocaust literature studies in high school, and with my mother, who teaches Polish in a school where 5,000 Jewish children were burned, and then they rebuilt it. A far-right government won the last election in Poland. They are presenting themselves to the world as good people who did no bad. But we have to look at history critically and speak clearly about what happened. Both the interest in Judaism and the anti-Semitism are the same phenomenon, it’s the presence of the past.

How do your families cope with the past and the foreign origins?

Irad: My sister paved the way – she had an English boyfriend; the shock in my family was that I’m gay. That grabbed the whole focus.

So they accepted Mariusz well?

Mariusz: A Pole who can make pirozhki and who is also a lawyer? It worked out. (Laughs)

Ellen Finkelman.
Tomer Appelbaum

Ellen Finkelman, 65, from Silver Spring, Maryland; flying to Toronto

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

Can I ask you how you got a job like this?

Would you like to interview us?

I’m interested in people. I’m a family physician and I’m used to asking people to tell me about their life. “Where are you headed? What gives meaning to your life?”

You don’t hear that very much in Israeli medicine.

Yes, I know. I have three children who live here, and their experiences are completely different: “Pass the magnetic card, leave as quickly as possible ”

How did your children come to live here?

We are a Zionist family and we spent a year in Jerusalem. The children went to Israeli schools and since then have visited many times. I am Orthodox, but three of my five children are Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] and don’t lead an easy life, not the life of the American suburbs they knew. Living here is their ideological choice, and I, as a mother, want them to be independent, and I’m proud of them.

Did you enjoy living in Israel?

I was on a sabbatical, I had money and didn’t have commitments. My husband took a year off and attended a yeshiva. We had a car and we had relatives and friends to visit; we spent a lot of time with the children. It was the best year of our marriage, but when we got back to America my husband wanted a divorce. 

Oh!

Everything’s fine. He remarried, and so did I. My second husband was in Israel not long ago and told me that whenever he went into a grocery store people addressed him in English even before he opened his mouth. He doesn’t look like a typical American, or dress like one, and when he asked people how they could tell he wasn’t from here, they said, “Because you smile.”

You yourself smile quite a lot.

I am a self-made person. I grew up in a very dysfunctional family in New York, in foster homes and boarding schools, and the winds around me were stormy, and even though it left me bruised, I always knew inside that I was alright. I don’t know where that comes from.

Maybe your faith helped?

It didn’t help, because I didn’t have faith in God.

So what kept you going?

Faith in myself. I was always smarter than everyone around me, and that gave me self-confidence. That’s what kept me alive – that and 40 years of therapy.

Forty years? You have to go that long?

The secret is that there are always 100 problems. In therapy you solve two or three, it’s never possible to resolve them all, but what you learn in therapy is how to deal better with problems.

From your experience, what kind of therapy do you recommend?

Group, because you get different points of view and in a safe environment. But I think you have to combine it with regular therapy. I did everything. At the age of 14 I was even in psychoanalysis with an analyst from Vienna who’d heard lectures from Freud himself – lying on the couch and all that. But to her credit I will say that she inspired me to study medicine.

Are you pleased with your profession?

I love being a doctor. I love the personal interaction, and I think that, in the United States at least, 20 percent of the population is depressed without admitting it. They say, “I have a headache,” a “backache,” a “stomach ache.” Most people go to a physician with an illness as their “entry ticket,” and sometimes the doctor is the only professional with whom they’re willing to share intimate information. Sometimes I help people understand that their illness is actually psychosomatic. And if you succeed and are able to help, it’s grand.

Were you yourself in depression?

My divorce wasn’t easy, and I want to tell you that prescription drugs work great. Many times it’s simply a problem of chemistry in the brain. I call them “pee-pills” when I prescribe them, because they ease things for people.  

And for those who don’t want to take pills?

Well, I never feel guilty and I always take responsibility. I may feel bad when something doesn’t work, but I never think it’s because I’m a bad person. You can’t always know the best choice. And you have to remember that there are always options.