'I Was Accepted to Medical School. Then I Saw "The Book of Mormon"'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Israeli whose dream is to help people – whether on stage or elsewhere, and an Indian whose dream is to give his family a better life

Yael Benaya
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Jonathan Hashmonay.
Jonathan Hashmonay.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yael Benaya

Jonathan Hashmonay, 27; lives in New Jersey and arriving from there

Hi Jonathan. What were you doing in New Jersey?

I live there. I came here to visit my grandmother. She’s sick, so I came to lift her spirits.

Good of you. When did you move to the U.S.?

I grew up in Ramat Hasharon. The family moved because of my father’s job, so I did fifth through eighth grades there. At a certain point, they decided to return, so I did high school and army service here. While I was in the army, they moved back. I was a “lone soldier,” and then I went to college in the U.S., and stayed there.

What was it like for you, moving all the time?

Coming back to Israel was a lot easier than moving to the U.S. It’s not easy to cope with the language gaps, and the cultural gaps are also pretty serious. But it opens doors. The fact that I can read English as if it’s my mother tongue really opens the mind. I read and study in English.

Where do you feel more at home?

I have roots in both places. My best friends are here in Israel, and also my grandfather and grandmother, and my aunts and uncles. But my immediate family and my studies are there. Friends in Israel will say I’m an American, and American friends will say I’m an Israeli. From my point of view, I’m totally an Israeli – in directness, in warmth, in my speech. You can call it aggressiveness, but in my opinion it’s passion. Americans have a lot less passion for the things they do.

What did you study in college?

I have a B.A. in musical theater – singing, acting, dancing. For four years I learned ballet, tap dancing, modern dance; I studied singing with teachers who were on Broadway and acting with teachers who were on television.

Wow! What led you to that field?

In Israel I was a singer in the IDF Ground Forces Command chorus. All my life, I had actually wanted to be a doctor. A friend of mine saw the musical “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, and when he got back to Israel he told me, “You’ve got to try it, you already sing theatrically.” I saw it and went for it. So I decided to do a 180-degree turn, after I’d already been accepted to medical schools in the U.S.

What did you like so much about it?

A story on the stage can change people’s lives. When I wanted to be a doctor, what I actually wanted was to help people, and I felt that I could help people with my acting and singing talent. There’s something very different between a singer who sings his songs, and an actor who sings a song. You can actually see how the actor tells a story, undergoes an experience from its start to its finish. The change that takes place in the actor during the song really captivated me.

Did your studies heighten your love for the profession?

Absolutely. I’d been a singer for a few years already, and when I got to school, I suddenly realized there was a whole world I didn’t know, and I only wanted more and more. The studies are really intense, from a math class at 8 in the morning to rehearsals at 1 A.M., for four years.

What have you been doing since graduating?

I’ve been living in New York, going to auditions; I’ve done a few children’s plays and projects. Fortunately, the school prepared me well for life after graduation. We had a show in New York, and I came out of it with an agent.

What’s your dream?

The dream was Broadway. But during the coronavirus pandemic, that whole world shut down, and I spent months at home not knowing what to do. On paper, we had a lot of time – to read plays, work on our singing – there were a lot of things to do that in the end I didn’t do. I understood that there might be something else that interests me a lot.

What’s that?

Now I’m working with researchers in psychology and learning Python [programming language] in order to conduct all kinds of statistical analyses for their studies. So the dream now is to study psychology and to try to help actors with their psychological issues. I know the physical difficulty of being an actor – it’s very tough. There’s no ground in the world of psychology that can catch actors and pick them up. People fall, and they can literally die from it: The suicide rate among artists is very high.

Do you want to work in that instead of acting and singing?

In the meantime it’s all going on at the same time. But you never know – if you had asked me two months ago, it would have been something else entirely.

Dondapati Saro.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Dondapati Saro, 34; lives in Lod, flying to New Delhi

Hi Dondapati, where are you headed?

I’m flying to India to visit my family for 42 days. I haven’t seen them in almost two years. I live and work here as a caregiver.

Who’s waiting for you there?

My parents, my wife and three children – two girls and a boy. They live in Hyderabad. It’s very hard to be far away from them, but there’s no other choice, because I want to give them a better life. They are very sad since I haven’t been with them. They ask why I don’t live with them, when I’m coming to visit, and sometimes I feel guilty. But I explain to them that if I live with them there, I will be with them all the time but I won’t be able to give them a better future. I ask them what they want the future to be, and say I will make it possible. When I come I bring presents, and that makes them happy; that’s how kids are. I brought them chocolate bars – Twix, Mars, Bounty.

What do you dream of for them?

That they will be able to get an education and work in good jobs. I went to school, too, but it’s very hard to find a good job with good pay in India. A regular salary there is only enough to cover a family’s basic needs, but what about the future? So, sacrifices have to be made.

What was your dream as a boy?

To build a life. To make good money for me and for my family. I’m still looking for that and working hard.

What do you miss in India?

As soon as I land there, I already feel better. I feel that something spiritual comes to me. But besides the family, the main thing I miss is the food – it’s impossible to attain the flavor here that the food has there. In an Indian restaurant in Israel you can get the same dish, but you’ll never get the same flavor. The dish that Hyderabad is most famous for is biryani. I cook it for the woman I care for; she likes Indian food very much. I will bring back a few spices that I need from India.

Aren’t you afraid of the coronavirus situation in India?

The coronavirus has been with us for more than a year, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away. I’ve been vaccinated, and I will be careful and look after myself and my family. I think that, in any case, after two years, I must visit.

How will the family in Lod get along without you?

They arranged for someone else to take my place. They understand that I haven’t seen the family for a long time and they are very supportive of me.

Caring for the elderly can be very difficult, can’t it?

It depends on their state of health. But when you work with the heart, no job is difficult. It also helps a lot when you get support from the family. I see that it gives the family comfort, and then I feel that it’s good work for me, too. I was the caregiver for an elderly man who died, and now I am looking after the wife. She is 82, she is in good shape and she is a very good person. She is like a mother to me.

What was it like to part with the man you looked after?

It was very hard when he died, last year. I was very depressed and it took me a long time to get over it – six or seven months. I am still sad sometimes when I think about him. When you work with the heart and not only with the hands, it becomes like family.

And how is your life in Israel?

It’s all right, it’s good for my family, and if it’s good for them, it’s good for me.

What did you do before you came to Israel?

I worked in an airport. But life here is better and the pay is better. I left India for the first time in 2006. I wanted to find a job with a better salary. I thought it would be good to go abroad and earn more. The separation was very hard for my parents, but you have to sacrifice certain things to have a good life. Since I got here it’s improved a little; Israel is a good country, I like it.

What do you like about Israel?

Everything. When you speak with employers they treat you well, you do something and there’s a good response, not like in other countries. I’ve been here for five years already, and I feel that there is respect and that you’re treated politely. Especially the respect, that is very important and it gives you a better feeling.

Do you think about the day when you will go back to India to live?

Not really. It’s still a long way off. I still want to work and do good things for my family.

What are your plans for your vacation?

There aren’t too many. I’ll spend time with my children. I want to devote the time to my family.

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