A musician and a tour guide, both with N.Y. ties, are overcoming odds to rewrite their life scripts in Jewish state.
Note: With the numbers of those making aliyah from North America on the rise, much of the attention has been focused on Orthodox families making the move. Last week, we reported on a pilot program for college students and recent graduates considering moving to Israel. This week, meet two people — both young singles — who each left New York to move to Israel alone.
Now opening at a theater near you — “Aliyah: the Musical!”
Our plucky young heroine gives up her New York City life to move to the Holy Land. Speaking little Hebrew and living in a sketchy section of Haifa, she struggles to survive, but her outgoing personality and love of music help her persevere.
Meet Jackie Frankel, 26. The outgoing Chicago native came to New York for school, studying musical theater at New York University and nonprofit management at Columbia.
Raised in a traditional home, Frankel felt that she needed to reinforce her Jewish identity by spending some time in Israel.
She applied for the competitive Dorot Fellowship, which would give her a year in Israel to study Hebrew and volunteer. After making it to the final round, she was sure she was going to get it.
“I didn’t get it,” Frankel recalled over a cheesy plate of pasta at La Lasagna, a kosher Tel Aviv restaurant.
“I decided I was going to come anyway — which meant the easiest way to come was to make aliyah. It was a very quick decision, a weeklong decision.”
That decision was made in May of last year. By August, she was living with family friends in Kfar Saba and interning at a nonprofit that helps learning-disabled children.
“I very quickly realized that despite the fact that I have an Ivy League education, it means nothing because I didn’t have Hebrew,” Frankel said.
Like most other new olim, the Hebrew term for immigrants to Israel, she enrolled in ulpan, intensive Hebrew classes. Unlike most other olim, though, Frankel did not live on the Jerusalem campus of the Jewish Agency’s Ulpan Etzion.
Instead, she moved to Haifa, becoming part of the first group of students there. It was a difficult transition.
“One of my hardest days was the day I was dropped off in Haifa,” Frankel remembered.
“In Haifa, there’s not a lot of English speakers. And I didn’t have anyone to help me, and I was by myself for the first time. I literally just broke down crying and said, ‘I can’t do this,’ because it was just too much. I was in a place I didn’t want to be, and I was miserable.”
With its lively pub scene, Haifa boasted an active nightlife — but Frankel didn’t feel very safe going out at night. “Two of my friends had their homes broken into and their laptops stolen,” she said.
“The namal [port] used to be known for drugs and prostitution. Now, there’s no prostitutes standing outside — lots of sex shops [though] — and easy access to drugs, but not blatant.”
Life in Haifa didn’t much resemble Frankel’s dreams of living in Israel, but then an unexpected meeting with a fellow ulpan student created new opportunities.
Californian Elie Sherman is a musician and songwriter. Frankel is a natural performer. It was a musical match made in heaven.
“We started jamming, going to open mikes together,” Frankel said.
One gig led to another, and Frankel settled into a regular routine — practicing two or three times a week, and performing every other week.
Struggling to learn Hebrew and find her voice in Israel, Frankel found a welcome respite in performing — where she could sing for an appreciative audience. “It’s just nice to still have that part of my soul functional here, and not silenced,” she said.
By the end of ulpan, Frankel had recorded a demo CD, recording it on Sherman’s laptop at the Haifa dorms. The duo was the main entertainment at the tekes siyum, or graduation ceremony, from ulpan.
Currently, they record under the name “White Collar Music Collective” — a moniker Sherman brought with him from California — but Frankel said they’re considering a name change.
One possibility, she said, is Olim Chadashot, an ungrammatical way of saying “new immigrants,” “because we’re new immigrants and we wouldn’t say it correctly anyway.”
Things are much better for Frankel these days. She’s living in Tel Aviv, working at the Jaffa Institute — a group that helps at-risk children — and dating an Israeli. Sherman also just moved to Tel Aviv, and they’re working on lining up some gigs.
While she’s not living the life on the stage she had once dreamed of, Frankel’s determined to be the heroine of her own life story.
“In Israel they always say ‘Savlanut, savlanut [patience],” Frankel said.
“I am a very impatient person, so I didn’t believe them.” Her boisterous laugh rang out on the bustling Tel Aviv street.
Now, she said, “I feel completely happy — happier than I’ve ever been in my life.” And who doesn’t love a happy ending?
A relationship brought Ben Soloway to New York. That relationship didn’t last, but another old love was reawakened — a love that began when he was a teenager.
After falling for Israel at age 14, Soloway made aliyah almost two years ago.
The British-born educator is six months into a tour-guide course — a bold choice for someone who walks with difficulty, using two walking sticks for support.
Soloway’s story begins in London 30 years ago, on Rosh HaShanah. His pregnant mother was serving dinner when her water broke, two months early.
“The joke in my family is that I smelled the chicken soup and couldn’t wait any longer,” said Soloway, who, like many of his countrymen, has a dry sense of humor.
The consequences, though, were serious. Oxygen was cut off from Soloway’s brain, causing cerebral palsy.
As Soloway explained, “Over the past 30 years, my brain has been telling my legs to walk in a certain way, and thus they have become accustomed to walking that way — even though, left to their own devices, they’d be walking in the way that able-bodied people do.”
Other disabilities — such as poor spatial perception and organizational skills — are invisible to the naked eye, but part of his daily life.
You won’t hear Soloway talking about that much. Instead, he’ll introduce you to the hidden treasures of Jerusalem, the city where he not only lives, but — in another bold move, for a single man — owns his own apartment.
Walking past the strip malls and parking lots of Talpiot, he locates Lechem Shel Tomer (Tomer’s Bread), a delicious haven from the hot sun.
Over an assortment of breads, cheeses and tapenades, Soloway remembered his first, teenage encounters with the Holy Land, usually on trips run by the Reform movement.
At 14, “we came to Jerusalem for the first time and I burst into tears in the car.” So much for the British stiff upper lip.
At 18, Soloway and his fellow students were headed toward Ben Yehudah Street, running late for a program. “People start running in the opposite direction,” he remembered. “Suddenly, it becomes clear that something’s gone horribly wrong.”
It was a suicide bombing. “Had we all been on time, we would have all been in the middle of Ben Yehudah Street when the bomb went off.”
The experience didn’t make Soloway want to leave — instead, it re-affirmed his commitment to stay.
“This it what it means to be in Israel,” he said. “When something happens here, you feel it in your kishkes.”
But Soloway didn’t stay, not right away. He returned to England, and then lived in Israel from 2003 to 2006, studying in the Pardes Educators Program. It was during this time that he became shomer mitzvot, or religiously observant.
Two years of teaching in America followed, along with the aforementioned relationship that brought him to New York.
Soloway found other reasons to love the city — among them, the warm and welcoming community at Congregation Ramath Orah on 110th Street, near his Upper West Side apartment.
But aliyah remained on his mind. And in September of 2008, he took the plunge. After developing a set of strategies for life in New York, it was time to start over.
Simple things, such as the daily commute, are not so simple for Soloway.
Taking the A train, “It was a bit hit-and-miss as to whether anybody was going to let me sit down or not — because you’re traveling at rush hour. So you do this gradual encroachment into their personal space.”
In Israel, rather than having to ask for special consideration, he sometimes finds that consideration thrust upon him.
“People don’t get the fact that there are some times that I’m perfectly willing to wait my turn,” he said.
“Without me prompting them, they’ll start arguing with the people ahead of me in the line for the bus, saying ‘Why haven’t you let him sit there? Why haven’t you let him through?’”
Soloway is comfortable making his own path in life — and that’s why he decided to pursue a career in special-needs tourism.
It’s “a little bit scary,” he said. “I didn’t know whether it was something that I could necessarily do, or whether it was realistic, because of my disability.”
Six months into the course, Soloway is more excited than nervous.
“It’s really actually a very good feeling to say, ‘Yeah, I made aliyah; yeah, I’m going to be a tour guide,’” he said.
“When someone asks me, ‘Did you try to do the things you set out to do?’ I can say, ‘Yeah, I did.’”
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