'My Family Speaks Turkish. It Sounds Like They're Trying to Kill Each Other. Hebrew Is One Level Down'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A Swiss student who has recently experienced her first war in Israel, and an Israeli who shocked her family when she married a man 14 years her senior and became religious

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Frida Safdie
Frida Safdie.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Frida Safdie, 20; lives in Herzliya, flying to Switzerland

Hi, Frida, where are you off to?

To Switzerland. I grew up there. I’ve only been in Israel for seven months.

What were you doing here? Was it part of a long trip?

No, I’m an economics student at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. I wanted to be in Israel, and the studies are my excuse. I’m flying out for summer vacation, to see my family.

How did they react when you told them you want to study in Israel?

My father was very pleased, my mother not. She said it’s a country at war.

Actually, you must have experienced your first war not long ago.

Yes. I was on a bus and I heard something I’d never heard before in my life – today I know it was an air-raid siren. The bus stopped and the driver said, “Get out, lie on the ground!” And then I understood. I was with a friend who cried the whole time – she’s Swiss, too – so I didn’t have time to get stressed or realize that I was scared. She wasn’t used to that.

But neither were you.

True, but the people around us made me feel good. After the siren we got back on the bus and I went home. As soon as I got to my building there was another siren, and my neighbor, who knows that I’m not from here, hurried over and took me to the shelter. It wasn’t all bad, there were good parts, too. My parents, however, were very scared for me.

Are your parents Swiss by birth?

No. My mother is from Turkey and my father is from Brazil. His family came to Brazil from Syria. They’re both Jews and they met in Switzerland. That’s why I don’t have a Swiss-looking face.

Does that make a difference to anyone in Switzerland?

Generally no, but when I get tan I look very Middle Eastern, really from a different country, so I get stopped at the airport and asked “What do you have in the bag?” and all kinds of questions like that. And that’s at an airport, where there are supposed to be people from all over the world. But in Switzerland I feel that I am judged more because of my religion, not because of my appearance.

Meaning what?

My mother’s upbringing is both Jewish and Turkish, more traditional. On Fridays I had to be home with the family, for kiddush. Most of my friends there are not Jewish, and they didn’t understand why I couldn’t go out with them. The Swiss are very liberal and free in their education. I had a lot more restrictions.

It must have been chaotic at home – a Swiss girl and a mom from Turkey.

Yes, we argued a lot. My parents came to Switzerland and therefore, as I see it, they needed to adopt the norms in the country. Now I am in Israel and I am trying to learn Hebrew, because I think that otherwise it shows a lack of respect. But maybe I went too far with that argument; they simply didn’t let me go out on Fridays. Today I thank them for that, because I feel I have an identity. I am not lost about who I am. Of course, I am lost about what I want to do and who I want to be, but not about who I am.

How many languages do you speak?

Portuguese, French, Spanish, English, Italian and soon Hebrew.

What’s it like to learn Hebrew compared to other languages?

Hard. Usually it’s easy to learn a language, but there aren’t Latin letters in Hebrew.

Are there words that surprised you?

Yes, like tikkun. I understood that it’s both “to repair” something and also “to return to your soul,” in the religious sense.

What do you think of the Hebrew language?

Look, my family speaks Turkish, and when they talk it sounds like they’re going to kill each other. Hebrew is one level down from Turkish.

What did you learn from your time in Israel?

The truth is that I’m learning a lot here. For example, I lost my wallet and I went to get it from the Petah Tikva police station. When I got there, the room where the wallet was stored was locked, and the person with the key wasn’t there. This was after a two-hour bus trip from Herzliya, so I told them I wasn’t leaving without my wallet, and it worked. I was very proud of myself.

And in Switzerland they would have simply said, “Hello, here is your wallet, have a good day.”

Yes. Here you have to cry to get something. If you argue, Israelis won’t help you, but if you make a victim of yourself and cry, they will.

Isn’t that exhausting?

No. You will get what you want, but you have to fight for it. It’s a lot more satisfying, and in the eyes of someone who grew up in Switzerland, at least, it’s amazing.

Zipi and Meir Ofri.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Zipi and Meir Ofri, 54 and 68; live in the settlement of Kedumim, arriving from Greece

Hi, where are you coming from?

Meir: We were in the Pelion region, in northern Greece. Not many Israeli tourists go there, because there are no “all-inclusive” deals. For us all-inclusive is water and nature and birds.

So, how did you meet?

Meir: I had a record store in Herzliya called The Last Tango. I lived in Germany for a while, and my sister had opened the store to encourage me to return. All the local high-schoolers knew me.

Zipi: I would run away from school and go to the store to listen to music. He played me the song of my life.

How old were you?

Zipi: I was 16 when we met and 18-19 when we got married. He was 33.

Meir: She captured my heart.

Zipi: He simply has a weakness for redheads. Now I’m already white, but I used to be a redhead.

Hang on – you were 19 and you married someone of 33. How did your parents react?

Zipi: They thought I was crazy. Not only a Yemenite, but 14 years older – and I also became religious.

Meir: And I lived in a Beetle on the seashore!

Zipi: In short, my parents didn’t go with the flow at first. But you know, at age 17, you think you know everything. I told them, “If you want to come to the wedding, do; if you don’t want to, don’t come.” A real hero.

Did they come?

Zipi: Yes. Their greatness – that of my mother, of blessed memory – is that when they got to know him, they said: “Forgive us, we were wrong about him.” On the other hand, today I as a mother know that if my daughter went out with someone who’s 33, I would glue her to the wall.

So you didn’t come from a religiously observant home?

Zipi: I came from a completely secular home. I became religious at about 18. I was in Germany with a youth delegation and I was looking for something else, a more spiritual life. And then I thought, “Why should I graze in others’ pastures?” Judaism has everything. At the same time Meir also started gradually to return to the Jewish sources.

Meir: It was sort of hazarah betshuvah [becoming newly religious], a kind of [Yeshayahu] Leibowitz thing. He was a thinking person, not forbidden-forbidden-forbidden. I liked that, because I grew up in a home like that, a thinking home. I used to go to Jerusalem to hear him speak. Every sentence stirred my brain.

Zipi: He grew up in a Yemenite home, and with the Yemenites, they led a religious life. They were always working people and people of the book, they didn’t live at anyone’s expense, and in my view that is the true Judaism.

I have to ask you about the Beetle on the seashore.

Meir: It was my first car. Listen, I… I was wounded in the army and I went through a lot. I've also had PTSD since the Yom Kippur War.

Oy, I’m sorry to hear that.

Meir: It’s all right, I’m alive.

Zipi: After he was wounded, they told him that if he didn’t want to be paralyzed he would have to do sports, so he learned karate.

Meir: I also developed a karate method, based on Pirkei Avot [“Ethics of the Fathers”]. I sold paintings, I lived in Ein Gedi.

Zipi: He was a freak.

Do you think that your whole journey is related to the PTSD?

Zipi: If you’re asking me, I’d say definitely.

Meir: I finished my army service three weeks before the war, and when it started I volunteered. I went to Sinai to look for [my unit], but we couldn’t advance because there was fighting, in the area of the “Chinese Farm”… In the end we found the troops and we were there. It was not pleasant. And people didn’t believe I was even in the war. There was a fire in the [army’s] rehabilitation wing, and my file with all the documents burned. The army didn’t believe I was in the army; it’s absurd. In the end I was recognized as a disabled IDF veteran.

You’ve traveled a long road: You were secular, you were Leibowitz – and now you’re at Kedumim.

Zipi (laughing): Settlers.

Meir: I was also a deejay on Abie Nathan’s pirate radio station, Voice of Peace. I had a program called “Night Beat” between 3 and 6 A.M. Soft rock, blues. I lived on his ship for four months, and every three days you’d leave to rest. We looked for a place to live. We came to Kedumim in search of a quiet place to raise children. I could live in a tent on the beach, but she domesticated me. But everything’s all right, things are great.

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