'My Parents Fled Russia to the U.S. and Got Political Asylum, but I Got Stuck in Israel'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An artist with a trauma wears her heart on her sleeve, and an Israeli couple with young kids leave their high-tech lives behind to travel the world

Kristina Rebecca Romachkan.
Tomer Appelbaum

Kristina Rebecca Romachkan, 40, lives in Amsterdam; arriving from Amsterdam

Hello. Can I ask where the bag is from?

It’s not just a bag. It’s Felix the cat. He comes with me wherever I go and has his own Instagram account.

Good for him. What are you both doing here?

I came to celebrate my 40th birthday with a friend and my dad is joining us, coming to Israel for the first time.

This isn’t your first time?

No. In the 1990s, when I was 12, I came to Israel from what was still the Soviet Union. My sister and I were from Moscow but we came with the Children of Chernobyl [an airlift organized by Chabad, after the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine]. They told us to get on the plane and that our parents would arrive soon, but they didn’t let my mom out. And then the Soviet Union fell apart. My older sister went back to Moscow and I was stuck in Israel.

I didn’t know a thing. I hadn’t grown up in a religious home. I went to Kfar Chabad but at 14, they asked me to leave because I wasn’t participating in the lessons. My mom asked the mother of a friend to take me in; I was with that family for a year. It wasn’t easy. Meanwhile, my parents fled to the U.S. and received political asylum. But they first had to fight a legal battle to get me in, because how could I require political asylum if I was coming from Israel? It wasn’t a good year. I was a foster child. I didn’t go to school. I would clean the house and take care of other foster children.

And then, when I was 16, I moved to California, but it was after a lot of trauma. Just then my parents separated. We are not a family to this day and I am not in touch with my mother. The pain is still with me. At age 20, I enrolled in a community college in California where I studied international relations.

In 2004, I returned to Israel with the Birthright program and stayed on here for several months. I met up with the same family with whom I stayed years earlier. They had a major influence on me when I was a girl. It was strange because I had changed over time and they were in the same place. Then I returned to the United States and continued my studies. I did an internship at the United Nations. I also studied in Cyprus, where I met a Dutch guy.

And since then, you’ve lived happily ever after?

He’s my ex now, but I studied in Holland and work now as an artist. I never even knew that I could paint. I always shied away from it because being an artist was not considered a profession in my family. But when I was with my ex, I had the opportunity to work on myself. I had a studio at home and I took it all very seriously, feeling and throwing on the paint. A lot of the trauma was also released in that process. I also was recognized as the best new artist in Holland at an international agency’s showcase exhibition. Since then, I’ve been working with galleries and making a living from it. This year, I had an exhibition in Luxembourg. Also I have a series of paintings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Chabad movement’s late spiritual leader] that I have succeeded to sell.

You can take the girl out of Kfar Chabad but you can’t take the Rebbe out ...?

I have a special connection to him. I dreamed about the Rebbe several years ago. It was during a period when things were not good with my ex; I wasn’t sleeping well at all. I was invited to spend Shabbat with a family. I slept in a simple room with just a bed and a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in it. I fell asleep and it was the first time I had slept well in a really long time. The following day, at services in the synagogue, I recalled that the Rebbe had come to me in a dream and that he wasn’t like I thought he would be. He was kind of funny, intellectual, not necessarily religious.

My paintings are very big and colorful, and I started painting him that way too. It’s a way of showing him to people all over again. I wanted to show him as he was in my dream – with colors, and with a colorful Western Wall behind him.

In another few days, I will be 40. I’ve undergone an existential crisis as a result of this. How can it be that I’m getting old? How can I have aches and pains and be fat? But I have a tattoo of a heart on the inside of my arm. When I forget to stroke myself, that’s how I remind myself that I love myself, so I won’t forget. I wear my heart on my sleeve.

Tali Rubin and Nir, Asaf, Maayan and Matan Davidi.
Tomer Appelbaum

Tali Rubin, 47, Nir Davidi, 10, Asaf Davidi, 46, Maayan Davidi, 11, and Matan Davidi, 4; live in Herzliya, flying to New Zealand

Hello. What will you be doing in New Zealand?

Tali: We are doing a big, half-year trip, beginning in New Zealand and going on to northern India.

Wow, you have courage, not to mention chutzpah.

Asaf: We had to do it. We’re both in high-tech. It’s intense work.

Tali: We needed a break, to see what we want from ourselves. It’s a trip involving a lot of thought, about what to do, how to do it and how to be together as a family.

You don’t have enough quality time with the children when you work in high-tech?

Asaf: We’re actually with them a lot, but now we’re moving on to something else as a family – experiencing interesting things, seeing people from other countries, doing unusual things.

I’m jealous. How did you manage to do this? Where did it all start?

Tali: We thought about it for a long time and we just got up the courage and did it. Several years back, we wanted to go to India, but at the time, it wasn’t appropriate to take our youngest one there.

How did the children react?

Tali: We told them three months ago, and they were very excited. We wanted to let them know closer to the trip because it’s hard for a child to maintain excitement for too long. But we had no choice, because they needed to get vaccinations. When we told them, they were very pleased, really jumped for joy.

Maayan: At first, I was really down, but then I became happy.

What about the flights with the children? An iPad the whole time?

Tali: We’re bringing along one tablet. And it’s for us too, to order tickets and check places out. The children are in Waldorf schools [associated with the anthroposophic movement] so they don’t live with computer screens on a daily basis and have no cell phones. They have books and hobbies and they know how to keep themselves busy. We travel with them a lot and they are used to it. And Maayan and Nir are also close in age, so they play with each other.

What did you pack?

Tali: Each child has one backpack.

Maayan: I took a diary, a pencil case, embroidering and books: “Pollyanna” and “Little Nicholas.”

Matan: I took “Super Wings.”

Maayan: And I also took colored pencils and a camera. Our whole family is writing and illustrating a journal.

Tali: Other than a backpack for each child, we also have a big backpack and I have one on wheels. We needed to take a lot of clothing because we packed for every kind of season.

What did you do with your home?

Tali: We found tenants for our apartment. We packed all night, clearing things out and cleaning. The tenants arrive today.

Asaf: We also had a lot of emotional good-byes. We received all kinds of farewell letters from friends and relatives who won’t see us for six months.

I’m tired just thinking about the arrangements that a trip like this requires. How did you organize it all?

Tali: Together. Asaf, God help him, dealt with the bureaucracy. It’s not just tickets and insurance.

Asaf: Absolutely. You need to put your life on hold and suddenly, you realize how many things have to be dealt with.

How long did it take to organize everything?

Tali: We’ve been working on it since January or February.

How did you manage with work?

Tali: I’m taking vacation without pay and Asaf left his job.

You resigned?

Asaf: Don’t get so excited. It wasn’t hard for me. You have to give things up to fulfill a dream.

What does the dream include? What will you be doing on the trip?

Tali: When we land in New Zealand, the sites we’ll see are mostly natural. We’re renting a trailer and we’ll travel around with it for a month, and we want to go out to sail with the whales. After that, we don’t exactly have an itinerary. After India, we want to volunteer in an anthroposophic community in Japan.

Are you planning on coming back to Israel?

Tali: We will come back. I am sure.

Good luck.

Asaf: I’m still stressed and scared and happy. Everything’s a jumble. My body hurts. My back hurts. I’m exhausted from packing, from all of the craziness of making the arrangements, but we’re optimistic. It’s going to be good.

Maayan: We’ll also be in Shanghai and at [Shanghai] Disneyland.

Nir: I just don’t want to see snakes in India.