'I Didn't Feel Comfortable With European Mentality. I've Wanted to Move to Israel Since I Was 10'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A Jewish Frenchman who is looking for a good life with like-minded people in the Jewish state, and an Israeli interior designer creating a fun spiritual experience at an Uman hotel

Yael Benaya
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Gabriel Grossman.
Gabriel Grossman.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yael Benaya

Gabriel Grossman, 26; lives in Tel Aviv, arriving from Geneva

Hi Gabriel, where are you flying in from?

I was in France. My whole family lives in Lyon, so I went there for the holidays.

What’s the situation in France now?

Life is very hard. Everything is closed, there’s a nighttime curfew. When I tell relatives that in Israel everything is back to routine, they don’t want to hear about it. They are very envious.

How long had it been since you last saw your family?

Eight months. My mother is Israeli, my father is not, so they can’t get here. I had a week with them, and I took advantage of every minute. There’s a lot of pressure here in Israel, so to get to France and see the family was good for both body and mind. I haven’t lived with my parents for many years, but I am very close to them, so I try to see them as often as I can. Today I live with my little sister; we share an apartment.

What’s it like living with your sister?

We made aliyah together. First she did army service, and when she was finished, she moved in the apartment with me, and now we’re roommates together in Tel Aviv, which is really great. She’s like a good friend. We share everything with each other. Sometimes her friends come to visit, sometimes my friends. We live together well. We are very close, and that isn’t something you can take for granted.

What brought you both to Israel?

I didn’t feel comfortable with the mentality in Europe. To get home on a Friday evening, to have dinner at 6 o’clock and then go to shul – is something I would never have done in France. It’s not that I feel religious, but it’s part of my culture, and I want to pass it on to my children, too. It’s important for me to say “Shabbat Shalom,” on the street and not feel that something could happen to me if one of my friends is wearing a kippa.

Did things like that happen to you when you lived there?

In Lyon, mainly what I experienced were harsh words. I don’t wear a kippa, but until a few months ago I had a Star of David, and when people see it you notice that they look at you differently, and it makes you quite uncomfortable. It’s clear that very most people don’t care that you are Israeli or Jewish, but even one word that someone says to you can be very unpleasant.

Does your sister also feel the same way?

Yes. My sister never felt that it wouldn’t be right for her to spend her entire life in France. For her it was more instinctive to come on aliyah, but for me it was something I wanted to do since I was 10. Even if she hadn’t done so, I would have made aliyah, that’s certain.

That’s a very young age for decisions like that, no?

For someone who lives abroad, especially in France, where there are still 450,000 Jews, the connection to Jewish culture is very strong. There’s a desire to open your mind. We traveled a lot in the world and we met all kinds of people from all kinds of cultures, so we have something to compare Israel with. What’s important for me is to have a good life, with people who think like you, to find a woman who thinks the way you do about children, religion and culture – and those are things you find less in a non-Jewish country. As a Jew, I wanted to try something else. So far I have no complaints; life here is hard but good. The Israeli mentality suits me very well, people want to get ahead and work.

Do you feel connected to French culture?

Very much so. I have a great many friends who also made aliyah. All of them are studying in Hebrew or working in Israeli companies, but I still feel French. Especially when it comes to culture and way of thinking. I don’t have the Israeli pressure, for good or for ill. I also didn’t do army service, so it’s not the same thing. It’s a different mindset: Israelis don’t think like the French.

How did your parents accept your moving to Israel?

They knew I wanted to make aliyah since I was young, so when it happened it wasn’t such a great shock. My mother is Israeli, so she knows the country, and they also want to make aliyah when they retire, in another few years. We have a family plan.

What do you do here?

I’m studying political science at Tel Aviv University. I don’t know exactly how, but I know I want to engage in international relations, political science and diplomacy. School takes up most of my time, but I also work as a waiter, so I’m very pleased that we’ve “returned to life.”

Milana Metayev.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Milana Metayev, 23; lives in Netanya, flying to Uman, Ukraine

Hi Milena, where are you heading off to?

I’m flying to Ukraine for work. I studied interior design and I work with a construction company that has a hotel in Uman. They decided to build a fourth floor, and I did the planning and the interior design. Now we’re going to the hotel to see it and to choose materials for the design.

How did you get involved in such a big project so fast?

I am very much a believing person, and I truly think that it was providence. I finished my studies very recently, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. They push all the material into the first year of studies – from how to build a house all the way to how to plan electricity and plumbing properly. The second year is actually internship. In my internship we built a house in Holon, and I met the contractors there. Then they called me and said they want me to work with them as a freelancer. That’s how it started.

Do you remember that phone call?

For sure – I think I had a minor heart attack. The contractor told me that they really liked the way I worked, and they’d be happy if we could collaborate. At first I felt very insecure. Who takes a 23-year-old who’s just finished school? That’s the dream of every designer, and that’s how it began.

Weren’t you rattled by the responsibility?

During my internship, I got another offer to build a house from scratch on a half-dunam (1/8th of an acre) lot. I started and I got cold feet. I was under tremendous pressure and I had kind of a nervous breakdown – I didn’t think I would succeed and I didn’t believe in myself at all. I thought my first project would be a small bathroom in Tel Aviv or an apartment in Netanya. You’re responsible for everything – how the house will look outside and inside – and you’re going to leave your imprint on people’s lives for more than 15 years. You have no one, only the architect who signed off on the plans, and the clients. It’s exciting, but very frightening. Everyone believed in me, but it took me a long time to believe in myself.

What made you go for it this time despite the fear?

In this project I said to myself: You’re 23, it’s not so terrible. I said that it would better for me to know that I tried, even if didn’t succeed, than not to try and think about what could have been. With time I grasped that my age is my age and I can’t take it forward or backward, and that talking about it doesn’t get me ahead.

So how do you start designing a floor in a hotel?

To start, you meet with the contractors and with the hotel manager, you coordinate expectations, you understand the goals of the project, what they want to change in the existing layout. Then you begin collecting ideas, make sketches, and you see what’s suitable for the hotel and what’s possible from the contractor’s viewpoint. Once you’ve decided on the most suitable option, you move to the design aspect – concept, colors, materials – to ensure both functionality and comfort for the guests.

What’s your design approach here?

I want to create a fun experience that relates to the spirituality you find in Uman, that will be suitable for both Israelis and Americans, and will be diverse and speak to all ages and all ethnic groups. Now we’re going there to choose materials for the place itself, from the tiles to the lamps and the beds – all the details.

Why did you decide to study design?

The dilemma was between interior design and theater. I was in acting school for a year – [the actors] Yosef Shiloah and Ze’ev Revach are wow as far as I’m concerned. I went a lot to the Cameri Theater, I’m wild about Shakespeare, I met with [the actor] Amos Tamam. On the other hand, I love to draw, and I always thought that houses embody strength and energy. I did every survey possible in order to decide, I also did English tests to study abroad and the psychometric test in order to study in Israel. I visited Shenkar [College of Engineering and Design], where I spoke with the director, who told me he was wrong person to talk to, because he’s writing a play, too. I understood that sooner or later I would go back to the theater, but interior design is a way to express yourself, and it does me good to see that my work makes other people smile.

Was it hard for you to part with the theater?

I cried for over a year. But I know I’ll go back to it. That’s the advantage of being 23, because at 30, I’ll know that I have seven years of experience and I can do what I like, to make mistakes and learn and make mistakes again.

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