'In Canada, They Don’t Get That I’m Sarcastic, They Think I’m Just Weird'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Israeli research psychologist explains why his field requires a lot of faith, and a young Frenchwoman heads on a quest to find herself in Israel

Youval Aberman.
Tomer Appelbaum

Youval Aberman, 32, lives in Toronto; arriving from there

Hello. May I ask what you do in Canada?

Officially, I’m working on my doctorate in psychology.

Why Toronto, of all places?

In Toronto, people are very open, there’s a cool music scene, and downtown, where I live, it’s very neighborhood-y and bohemian. I did my bachelor’s degree in New York, and there everyone is uptight; they come for a year or two, and then run out of money. I didn’t want to return to Israel, and doing a Ph.D. was simpler than marrying my ex.

What is your doctorate on?

The psychology of sustainability. I’m not a clinical psychologist, and actually, my field is closer to behavioral economics.

How does sustainability intersect with behavior?

People usually don’t care about the environment. They hear the Earth is being destroyed and say “Oh, well.” My research tries to examine if it is possible to change the environment, so that we think that maybe we should do something, so that we will understand that we are all part of a single whole.

Why do you sound guarded?

I am not so optimistic about the results of the research, although I’ve only been working on it for two-and-a-half years. The subject of social psychology is important to me, but I am not necessarily such a social activist. I am one of those people that can make it seem like they really care, even if they only care a little. It’s good for being accepted for studies and places of work, but once you are accepted you begin to suffer from bored-child syndrome.

Not to mention gifted- and discouraged-child [syndrome].

When I just started the doctorate, I idealized it. I thought that maybe it would really be possible to know things about human nature, that it was possible to attain something concrete. I thought I would succeed in giving something to the world, to discover something. But I went through a process, and realized that it’s not like that.

How does it work?

Interpretation of data is simply a way of telling a nice story that has some hold on reality.

I’m not sure I understand.

At the duty-free, I saw a facial cream. The label said they had conducted clinical trials, and that in 80 percent of the trials, it worked. But for sure, the cream was tried on only 30 women at the mall, and as someone who works with statistics and studies, I know that in a clinical trial, half the subjects must receive a placebo. That means that the sample group is 15 women, so of course you’re going to get good results. The woman I sat next to on the plane told me that her grandson was saved miraculously from a road accident because of divine providence. One can always find meaning in things if one wants.

Is it research methods that you reject, or the possibility that their results can change anything in the world?

If you think your research is meaningful, then it’s meaningful. But as time passes, it seems to me there is less that will make a difference. No more than a philosopher with his thoughts does. Social psychology is a very nice thing, but it requires a lot of faith. Just like living in Israel.

And you don’t believe enough to return?

It’s hard to answer. Today, I understand that there is a price for everything. There was a time when I didn’t think about the price of things, or I thought that I would be able to avoid paying the price because I was special and young and very privileged and had all the opportunities. Since then, I’ve come to understand that time is finite and the time has come to give up on the idea that one can have one’s cake and eat it too. The distance has become greater and the longings are becoming stronger with the years. Will I return? God only knows. (Smiles)

Do people ask you a lot if you’re sarcastic?

In Canada, they don’t get that I’m sarcastic at all, they think I’m just weird.

In academia, that’s accepted.

Over time, I believe less and less that I’m meant to be an academic.

So what would you want to do?

I compose music and play in groups. It’s the more important part of my life, and I find meaning in it. My goal is to compose. In recent years, I have primarily played piano, so that I can “fake it” as a mediocre classical musician. I find charm in the small dynamics of the sounds, in hearing the same piece over and over and to discover some little nuance that eluded me every previous time. Maybe this is the reason that I don’t need to stay in the academy. They aren’t really into subtleties.

Fanny Teyssou.
Tomer Appelbaum

Fanny Teyssou, 21, lives in Tel Aviv; departing for Nantes, France

Hello, may I ask what you were doing in Israel?

I came to volunteer, to do a year of national service. They gave me two options: in Belgium with adults or in Israel with babies.

I didn’t know they had national service in France.

It’s not mandatory. There is a website where people can find opportunities to volunteer outside of France as well, and the government pays room and board. You commit to coming for a year, but if you get sick of it, you can leave within a month.

Why did you choose Israel?

I could have volunteered someplace close to home and family, but I decided to take a slap in the face, and be courageous and come here.

Did you get a slap?

In the beginning, I really missed my family and friends. I didn’t understand what people were saying and why they were behaving the way they were behaving. But the biggest difficulty is living in a commune with 10 other volunteers, almost all of whom are 18. I know that I’m only 21, but they seem so immature to me. Maybe I am jealous of them, that they don’t think too much. How do they manage to do that?

I wish I knew. Where do you volunteer?

I work in a kindergarten every day with very cute babies. What I love most is that moment when I arrive in the morning and they run up to me and want to play. I even learned some words in Hebrew for them. Ken [yes]. Lo [no]. Bo’i [come]. And also songs. “Yadayim lemala al harosh” [Hands up on your head]. It’s not hard or tiring work. It’s nice. You just need to deal with the crying. Babies mainly want you to hug and kiss them and to feel respected and loved.

Grown-ups too.

I even thought that if I was enjoying it so much, maybe I will do this when I go back to France. At least for a while. Because I don’t think it’s right to only work one job in this life. For my generation, it’s almost impossible.

Why?

You have a job where you earn money, but there are other things you want to try and do.

What did you do in France before you came here?

I studied psychology for two years at university, and then I left. It was too much for me. I loved the social interaction, but I had a hard time getting up in the morning to study. It’s easy to get lost that way and only drink, smoke and hang out with friends.

Isn’t that what you are supposed to do at university?

You have a right to lose yourself, and you need to be generous and forgiving with yourself if that happens, but I thought that I needed to find out who I am and what the answer is.

The answer to what?

I wanted to discover my thing, because when you don’t do your thing, you don’t know who you are. On Instagram, I had several accounts because I felt chained to my identity. There were worries. I think that is a way to say to yourself: If something bothers you in a meaningful way, work on it.

What do you want to work on?

On myself as a human being. I ask myself, am I worth something? Am I enough? Because of this, I decided to leave, in order to have some time to think about things.

And are there answers?

Partial ones. I learned this year that when you try to be generous with yourself and toward others, you become much more independent. That was important to me, because before this I felt as if I was dependent on lots of people. You need balance. I learned that people will always be selfish, but that it’s possible to be good. And you need to be efficient and relaxed.

You stopped thinking about a lot of questions.

But the answers are in daily actions, not questions. Thought doesn’t determine things. To eat well, to sleep well – that’s the basis. I don’t know if there is such a thing as over-thinking, but in my generation, there is too much information. You go to sleep and before that surf Instagram for a bit and the brain can’t deal with that. And it’s difficult to go against the flow when the social model we have is the Kardashians, with a body that we will never have.

Khloe is actually cute.

Yeah, people have a right to be superficial, that’s clear. But you can also lend clothes to friends.

Are you happy to be going home?

I am stressed about friends, I am afraid they won’t understand me. But, actually, they didn’t understand me before I came here either.