'Life in Panama Is Fun. There's a Large Jewish Community'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport ■ Meet the Gean family: She's from Israel, he's from Italy. They met in Japan, and they live in Panama with their five kids

The Gean family.
Tomer Appelbaum

Michal Doron Gean, 44, and from left: Mindi, 11, Joseph, 3, Uriel, 5 and Malchiel, 7; live in Panama City, flying to Florence

Hello, can I ask what you’ll be doing in Italy?

Michal: My husband is from Florence, so we’re going there for two days and then back home to Panama. We’ve lived in Panama for 11 years.

Sounds pretty exotic.

Michal: My husband’s father founded a company there and asked us to come. It turns out there’s a large Jewish community. The children go to a Jewish school. It’s fun in Panama.

How was Israel?

Michal: Charming. My husband and I have family here; we came to see them. We usually visit every two years.

Mindi, do you remember your earlier visits here?

Mindi: No, my brain is blank, but I do remember we went to a pool. This time we didn’t go.

Michal: This is the first time we’ve visited in winter. We even had to buy coats for the children, because in Panama it’s hot all the time. My family lives in Timrat [in northern Israel], and now the anemones and cyclamens are in bloom – flowers the children don’t know.

Mindi: We just walked and walked. It was a little boring.

What do you like doing?

Mindi: Playing in the pool. I don’t like the sea because it’s cold and there are fish. We were taken to see tanks; I liked climbing on them.

Michal: My father took us to Latrun, to the tanks [at the Armored Corps Museum].

Mindi: There were ants all over them. I really had a good time in Israel; I loved playing with my cousins.

Cousins are fun.

Mindi: I have a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins here; I didn’t even get to meet them all – my grandpa has eight brothers and sisters. And I also really improved my Hebrew.

What language do people speak in Panama?

Michal: Spanish. The children speak four languages: Spanish, English, Hebrew with me and Italian with my husband.

Did you meet your husband in Israel or Italy?

Michal: We actually met in Tokyo. I was in Japan on a post-army trip and I stayed to go to university.

Isn’t it awfully hard to study in Japanese?

Michal: It was hard, but I did it. Then I did four years of electronics at a Japanese university.

Hard-core.

Michal: Back then there were no foreigners, and if there were, they were Chinese. The closest ones to me were students from Saudi Arabia. Japan is a different planet.

In what way?

Michal: Many times I found myself just watching the way things are served, how people behave even on public transportation, how people work. Let’s say you forgot a bag somewhere – you’ll go back hours later and find it in the same place or at the local police station. It was really terrific. But I’m not sure I’d do it again.

Why?

Michal: Because even after I could speak Japanese I wasn’t accepted; I remained a foreigner. The Japanese are very insular. Sometimes it seems they’re not nice, but it’s not like that. They keep their distance because they believe it’s wrong to intervene.

Sounds like a way to be alone.

Michal: After university there was a period when I no longer had friends in Japan who spoke Hebrew, and I felt alone. That’s how I got to a Chabad House. It was always walking distance from where I lived, but it took me seven years to get there. My husband would go there regularly, but the first time I went he was on a visit to Italy. Everyone told me, “There’s someone you have to come back to meet, you’re a perfect match.”

And were they right?

Michal: Absolutely.

Fast-forward to four children later.

Five – I have another son, Ariel; he went with his dad to return the car.

For someone traveling with five children and 10 suitcases, you seem pretty calm.

Michal: Sometimes it’s chaotic, but fun. You just have to accept it. We like being together.

Kids, do you miss home?

Mindi: I get to Panama, go to sleep, and as soon as I wake up – school.

Malchiel: Not fun.

Mindi: I don’t want to go. I want to stay here.

Itamar Burger, Nofar Shemen, Sharon Guerstein and Eldan Galperin.
Tomer Appelbaum

From left: Itamar Burger, 24, Nofar Shemen, 24, Sharon Guerstein, 23, Eldan Galperin, 24; live in Be’er Sheva, arriving from Rome

Hello, can I ask what you did in Rome?

Nofar: We covered all the attractions in two days. The Vatican is wild.

Eldan: Four days and four nights we toured and ate.

Was it tasty?

Nofar: Our last supper was good.

Like Jesus’?

Nofar: I don’t know what he ate; we went for risotto.

Eldan: They go a little overboard with their pastas. On the first day, they suggested the ravioli special. We were still young and beautiful, and we said wow. On the last day, we said, enough already with the spinach/carbonara/Bolognese ricotta.

Where do you know each other from?

Eldan: We met at Ben-Gurion University [in Be’er Sheva].

Nofar: We’re taking psychology and biology.

Itamar: That’s a degree for the indecisive: It suits every direction – biology, psychology, veterinary studies, medicine. It puts off the decision.

Sharon: The degree is meant to be an introduction to brain sciences.

Do you want to study brain sciences?

Sharon: That was the original idea, but in the meantime …

Eldan: You’re back to being confused.

Itamar: It isn’t only a degree for the confused, it’s a confusing degree.

Eldan: I’ve only become more confused.

Nofar: And before the degree you weren’t confused?

Eldan: I had a brief period of clarity.

Nofar: And what did you want to study then?

Eldan: Medicine, but I wasn’t accepted.

I hear Be’er Sheva is good for students.

Eldan: There’s a student bubble in the poor neighborhoods.

Nofar: It’s because of the structure of the university. It’s so cheap to live nearby that everyone lives next to everyone else.

Itamar: There’s a student atmosphere, but that’s not suitable for everyone.

Sharon: What does a student atmosphere mean? It’s mainly parties, the Baraka Club or the Funjoya Festival in Eilat. All kinds of mainstream with a particular target audience.

Itamar: The atmosphere was one of the things that drew me to Be’er Sheva, and it really exists. I even enjoyed it for a semester or two.

Nofar: And then you get tired of it and focus on your studies.

Sharon: The city itself isn’t interesting, not even the Old City, even though it has tons of potential. The weekends are boring. Everything is pretty much dead.

Itamar: When there’s no school, there’s nothing. So you go to your parents for the weekend and come back with boxes of food.

Are the studies good at least?

Eldan: I’m very disappointed so far, I’m pissed off at the lecturers.

Sharon: I like it. The degree is really interesting and I really enjoy what I’m studying.

Eldan: I like the material, but I don’t feel a need to go to class. There are some really irritating lecturers. They seem mainly focused on themselves. There are a lot of courses that you take in the form of exercises, and many of them are actually all about how to pass the exam. I have the feeling that I’m paying to take exams.

Itamar: Yes, there are moments when it becomes a competition of numbers, and I hate that.

Eldan: It’s not about being good but about making money. I thought I would go to university and the exams would be about the way of doing things, but in the end it feels the opposite. It’s something like the army – you think that all kinds of things will be all kinds of things, but then they’re totally not.

There you go, you’ve already learned something.

Eldan: A degree has become something that society, namely the university, sells.

Itamar: And in getting admitted to the university, too, the tests are a matter of supply and demand, not ability. For example, even though physics is a harder subject than biology, it’s easier to get into physics because there’s less demand. So people can be admitted but they may not be able to learn ...

Nofar: And people who have more money can do preparatory courses.

Sharon: There needs to be some sort of filtering.

Itamar: They should be more creative with the filtering.