'What Brought Me to Berlin Is Love and What Kept Me There Is the Bread'

This week at Tel Aviv Airport: A Dutch medical devices consultant who's moved 27 times, and an Israeli in Berlin with a yearning

Yael Benaya
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Keren Shalev. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yael Benaya

Keren Shalev, 48; lives in Berlin, arriving from Athens.

Hello, where are you coming from?

Originally I’m from Kvutzat Shiller, a kibbutz between Marmorek and Kibbutz Givat Brenner [near Rehovot]. It’s a small kibbutz and not many people know it, because on maps it’s called Gan Shlomo. It has a split personality.

You don’t look like a kibbutznik.

I’m very much a kibbutznik, but I’ve lived in Berlin for the past 10 years. I arrived from Athens now, because there was no direct flight. I tried a few times and they kept canceling my flights, so I decided just to go for it. I landed in Athens and the flight was canceled, so I stayed in a hotel.

What do you do in Berlin?

I’m an artist. I write, and create prints and sculptures. I live. I’ve been doing engravings and etchings for four years, and now I’m doing a project of landscapes of Israel through the eyes of yearning. I did an engraving of the Mount Arbel landscape. The last time I was here I traveled with my brother and took pictures on a stormy day, and now as we landed, I said, “Hey, I can photograph all kinds of landscapes from the air.” I’m studying the subject of yearning, and whether it’s the land itself I yearn for, its landscapes or its people.

Why did you choose yearning?

It’s both yearning and the idea that a person is the landscape of his homeland, as they say. I wanted to see how much the landscape is part of me. The yearning is not only for the country as such, not for the terrain or the borders or the nationality. It’s more involved with earth, memory, place. Yearning for a place.

Is this something that has taken stronger root in you lately?

It’s with me all the time, but the distance intensifies and rarefies it. It’s like a layer that the years have leveled and leveled. Like in geology, a very solid layer that forms with fossils. Yet it can also be like crystal, it becomes clearer, what yearning is.

How did you get into doing prints?

My neighbor is from a family of printers – as is my [female] partner, too – and I saw aquatints on his wall. It’s a certain method in which you work with the plate so that multiple layers of color emerge.

And what connected you to Mount Arbel especially?

A land has many faces and we are part of those faces, so I looked for contours that harmonize with people who were there and saw them. There is something of the sanctified in that region – water, sky, cliffs. It was a very cloudy, stormy day, a primal landscape, and I wanted to feel the creation, to detach the landscape from the context of the country, for there to be only earth. Like someone who comes to Israel for the first time and discovers it through its physical features, and he sees a mountain and he sees a valley and he sees a lake. It breaks down into the primordial constituents, pre-landscape.

What were the reactions to the print?

Other artists work with me in the workshop. They ask me what it is and that way I discover whether I’ve succeeded in conveying the sentiment of yearning. They don’t know what I am printing, and I try to touch something, but it’s only a means. I try to get across a feeling and transmit it so people who see it will say “wow” without knowing where the place is. Something that transcends time and place.

What made you move to Berlin?

I always say that what brought me to Berlin is love and what kept me there is the bread. I didn’t know that they made incredible breads, something like what we know from the 1960s and 1970s in Israel. Always from spelt or from combinations of grains. I worked in a bakery as part of the love, but it was very short, that love story.

What about the love that brought you to Berlin?

I met an artist who came to Israel, she was working with an artist here. I went to visit her and I stayed on.

What brings you to Israel now?

My family, of course. Parents, brothers, sisters, friends, the human warmth, the smile in the eyes, the cordiality. In a minute I’ll start crying! When I boarded the El Al flight in Athens, I said, “How wonderful that there’s El Al and Israel.” It was a calming feeling. Apparently you have to yearn to get that. When something is missing and you yearn for it, you value it more.

What do you yearn for most now?

To sit with my parents on the porch with a cup of tea and a cake that my mother baked, and simply to be.

Wilma van der RietCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Wilma van der Riet, 67; lives in Strasbourg, flying to Paris.

Hello, what were you doing in Israel?

I’m an MRI consultant, I was teaching at Assuta [Medical Center] in Tel Aviv – they received a new machine. It’s called a weight bearing MRI and it’s the first of its kind in Israel. Usually the MRI scanner is horizontal, but what’s special about this one is that it can be vertical and you can stand in it. It’s marvelous for the spine: If there’s a ruptured disc, for example, you can see it a lot better. If the patient has a knee problem, he can stand instead of being placed in a painful posture.

How did you get into the MRI field?

I started in 1984 at a firm in Holland, and after a few years I switched to teaching in a university. I eventually became familiar with the machines of the other companies and today I have my own company and I fly all over the world. What you can do with the system today is marvelous. It used to take a quarter of an hour to take one small image of part of someone’s head, and now you can scan a whole brain in 10 minutes. Now they’re also using artificial intelligence in the machines, so a lot of new techniques are developing. It’s wonderful.

What else do you do?

I have lots of hobbies. I love sculpting, I make lithographs, in the south of France. I do lithographic designs of MRI images. My cousin has a studio, so I tried it and enjoyed it. This year I made lithographs on the theme of the coronavirus, with images of lung and brain infections. I walk every day, I also bike – something like 70 kilometers a week. I’m also a sailor: I crossed the Atlantic with two Israeli men during a voyage of three-and-a-half weeks. We boarded in Costa Rica and finished in Portugal. It was an adventure.

Wow. Where do you find the time for all that?

There are so many beautiful things in life. I worked like crazy for a time. I’m almost 68, so now I’m slowing down a little. But when I’m in Israel, I work really hard. I start early and I finish late; it’s just work here. In Norway, they work from 8 A.M. until 2 P.M., and then the day really starts and you go skiing or swimming. People in Israel are very stressed out.

So where do you most enjoy living?

I’ve moved 27 times. I even had an apartment for half a year in Caesarea, by the sea. But the Mediterranean is very dirty; I prefer the Atlantic Ocean. Moving is good, and I’m intending to continue with that. I’ve been in Strasbourg now for 13 years, so it’s time. I want to move to the southeast of France, because I miss the sea. Besides that, I want a garden. I was born on a farm and I want to garden.

Where did you grow up?

In Holland, near the sea. My father was one of the first farmers there. At age 6 I went to school, without any preschool, and then to a boarding school from 11 to 17 – those were the worst years of my life. After that I went through a hippie period, I experienced the best years in the 1970s, when everything was permitted. We had a far better life than young people have now.

Has the coronavirus crisis changed anything in your life?

Of course. During the lockdown in France, we could only go out for half an hour a day, and only within one kilometer of the house. I tried borrowing a dog from the neighbor so I could go out, but he didn’t give me his. I did some teaching by Zoom, I gave internet seminars, but it’s very limiting. The situation is very strange. I went to the city center for half an hour in the middle of the night, illegally, and didn’t meet anyone.

And in terms of your work?

The device was installed [in Tel Aviv] a month ago, but no one could come check it. I took a risk by coming, but now I can’t leave Israel. I was supposed fly to Paris but they’re not letting me board at the moment, because I need another coronavirus test. I’ve already done six tests in the past month. They told me to wait here and I’ve been here for two hours already, so it’s another day in Israel.

You look calm for a person who might miss her flight.

I’ve been traveling for 40 years, these things happen, I’m calm. It was stupid not to do a test. It looks like I’ll be staying another day, but it’s not the end of the world, right? I have no idea where I’ll sleep, but I always find a place. The spontaneous, unexpected situations are the nicest.

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