Archive | December, 2011

Shalom everyone, my name is Yossi Unemployed

24 Dec

The satellite office for Israel’s Ministry of Absorption is tucked between tire and body shops, the Pink Horse strip club, and several vocational colleges in rundown buildings in Haifa, Israel’s port city.  It’s long been said that in Tel Aviv you party, in Jerusalem you study, and in Haifa you work.  So Pnina and I came looking for work.

To my knowledge, Israel is the one country which solicits its former citizens to return home and to “absorb” them.  The image of a Giant Sponge is not lost on me; it’s there to soak up the spills (and hard knocks) we Israelis experienced overseas.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” may have been inscribed inside the Statue of Liberty, but it’s here in Israel that we witness is firsthand.

We sign in at the reception desk of the Ministry.  The walls are covered with posters depicting smiling faces of returning citizens who’d landed a job.  There’s a name under each face.  Vera from Ukraine found work at a kindergarten.  Laura from Argentina found work in pharmaceuticals.  Counselors go in and out of tiny offices, use the copier and talk on the phone.  Their Hebrew is laced with a Russian accent.  I find it ironic that these women who’d immigrated to Israel, most of them during the 90s, are Israeli citizens who are about to counsel me, an Israeli who’d played soccer on Tel Aviv’s beaches decades ago, at a time they most likely spent ice skating in Moscow or Kiev.students at Absorbtion Center

I hand over my clipboard and I’m escorted to the first interviewer, Alina.  Her role is to find out about me, to learn about my past and to help me find work.  After a few “personality analyses” tests I’m led to another counselor who interprets the data.

This time it’s Olga behind the desk.  “It doesn’t appear you’re too technical,” she tells me with the help of a ruler that measures my charts.  I could have saved us both a  lot of time on this one.  There aren’t enough fingers on my hands to count the number of technical screw-ups I’m guilty of.  I built the handlebar of a bicycle that faced the wrong way, assembled a bookcase that wouldn’t hold books, hung Pnina’s paintings crooked, hammered my thumb, drilled holes in the all the wrong places, plugged up toilets, nearly set a barbecue on fire, if that were possible, and cut live wires.  It’s a miracle I’m still here.

“I’m dangerous with a tool box,” I tell her in Hebrew, but it doesn’t go over well.  Something’s lost in translation.  “Yes,” I continue, “I’m not that good with technical stuff.”

She goes on to tell me I’d be better off working with teams, with people, sales, with writing, with teaching.  She then asks me to wait while she interviews Pnina.  From the tests, Pnina’s artistic ability is without question.  She’s told to consider jewelry making, painting, or going into a business of her own.  Later that day she encourages us to join a 4-day workshop, courtesy of the Ministry, to learn how to look for work in twenty-first century Israel.

We return the following week, register, and walk down the corridor to the classroom.  There are 12 students in class.  The instructor had been outsourced from Tel Aviv to spend the day with us.  We start out with the standard “Shalom, my name is….”

Talk about wandering Jews.  The first woman in the group introduces herself.  She’s in her forties, had spent 17 years in San Francisco as a makeup artist.  A man in his late thirties with a shaved head, earing, and aviator sunglasses, spent 7 years in Japan selling jewelry and incense in Tokyo malls.  The next woman worked in China and Hong Kong.  You can’t help but notice that her squint is Oriental.  The man seated near me spent 6 years in Denmark working in a Jewish Deli.  An older man worked in Athens for many years restoring antiquities.  Another single mom worked in Manhattan waiting on tables.  A man with a Nike cap on his head, dressed in black from head to toe, lived for many years in Miami.  The room turns silent once we announce we’ve been “away” for 32 years.  We win the trophy.

Everyone’s on a budget, brought a bagged lunch from home.  The smell of fried-egg sandwiches, salami, tangerines and ripe bananas fills the room.  A secretary brings in cookies and salty snacks.  “There’s coffee and tea in the kitchen,” she says.

After lunch the instructor writes on the board:  “You are a brand.  Put a price on your lifetime skills and begin to market yourself.”


By the third day of the workshop several drop out.  A woman instructor in her fifties tells us the way it is.  “Forget about looking for a job online.  You’re one of several hundreds for the same position.  Anyway, employers have resume’ fatigue.  You have to be original.”

We come up with ideas to become original, to stand out.  “You’re more valuable than you think,” she says in between graphs on the screen.  By the last day we’re all friends.  No, we’re almost family.  We share a common past, of leaving and returning, and wanting to belong to a place we once knew.  The unthinkable strikes us: we are immigrants in our own country.  We soon realize we’re no longer as young; we’re no longer kids.

It turns out the guy from Japan, Dror – he married a Japanese in Tokyo, has 2 kids by her, ages 5 and 3.  He brought them all here because of the Tsunami.  “It was 300 kilometers away but we didn’t want to risk nuclear radiation.”

The makeup artist, Gila, actually worked in movie special effects.  She divorced and returned to be with family.  The waitress from Manhattan, Talma, had married a Mexican, divorced, returned home to a kibbutz with her 5-year-old.

Haim, the maintenance guy at Athens’ museums, was let go without pay after the Greek economy collapsed.  He sat in class like a museum-piece most of the workshop.   Yuda, the guy from Miami with the Nike hat and dressed in black — it turns out he’s into Kabbalah and lives with his wife and kids in Kibbutz Ein Gev on the shores of the Kinneret.  “I’m looking to be a project manager at a company,” he says unconvincingly to the instructor, leaving the impression he has set his life as a project.  During break we pull out wallets and purses and exchange photos of our kids.  We laugh.

On the last day, we role-play on closed-circuit TV, two at a time,  as an employer and a job applicant.  We crack up laughing.  The tension melts.  We then try out skills at putting together a toy animal from different plastic pieces from a box.  It’s meant to measure our team-player ability, resourcefulness, and other qualities only known to the psychologists and instructors.

The workshop is over.   There’s a collective sigh of relief.  There are lots of hugs around the room.  We may not land a job anytime soon but we’ve made friends.  We’re beginning to get “absorbed.”

At home I get busy and skim the newspaper want ads.  Let’s just say I skipped over the ones wanting a nuclear scientist.

Will work for food and a little lovin’

10 Dec

The alarm clock goes off at 4:30 in the morning.  My first instinct is to silence the son-of-a-bitch.  But I promised.  I rise quietly not to awake Pnina and reluctantly paddle to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.  Ten minutes later I’m on the open road in Galilee, heading north to Kadoorie Agricultural School.  The sky is ink black.  At the security gate, I say to the armed guard, “Good morning, I’m here to see Gadi.”  He motions me to continue down a dirt road.  The headlights lead me to my destination: the school’s cowshed.

It’s cold, in the low forties.  Sorry, Stefan, it’s not Minnesota-ass-freezing-cold but it’s darn cold for Israel.  The sharp smell of manure mixed with hay smacks my nose.  I enter the cinder-block structure, make my way through corridors to the source of the humming noise in the back.   Gadi Kirchuck, the chief dairy farmer at Kadoorie, is hovering over his dairy cows who had just been ushered into the gated platform.  He’s wearing a blue overall and a woolen cap.  He greets me quickly, “Maurice, so you did make it.  The boots are in the office.”rounding up cow for milking

That’s my cue to run and get ready.  I shove my toes into rubber boots which are two sizes too small, and limp toward the pit.  The pit is all concrete.  The milking stations are three feet above the pit.  Each station holds 4 cows, all in a row.  He instructs me to put on latex rubber gloves.  The cows are ready for milking.  The first order of business is to disinfect the cow’s four teats with iodine solution.  It’s stored in a wide plastic tube with a handle.  I wet the cow’s teats in iodine, turning their color from pig-pink to dark red, purple.  “Now you have to wipe the teats clean from mud and shit,” Gadi says.  It’s my first contact with the animals.  They’re enormous up close, 1500 pounds each.  They’re breathing, living things.  They radiate heat.  I welcome it.  I wipe the teats clean with bunched-up paper towels.  Next, the 4-pronged milking cluster, a set of four tubes with suction cups, are attached to each teat.

“Push the button,” Gadi says, and points to a device at the top of the rail.  Seconds later, the milk is sucked out from the milk-bloated udder.  It’s fast.  The monitor displays the number of liters collected.   When done, the suction cups fall away.  The gate opens.  The leading cow exits.  The rest follow.  They return to the shed, to the food.  We turn to the next four on the other side of the pit and repeat.  For the next three hours I see nothing but tits.

I’ve never seen so many nipples in my life so up close and personal.

By ten in the morning — I’ve been at it now for 5 hours — my toes are no longer Popsicles inside the rubber boots.  The milking of the morning shift is almost over.  Each cow, on average, produces 17 liters — your quart-size carton at the grocery store.  During the evening shift the cow will give less, about 13 liters — total of 30 liters per day.  I touch the metal pipe that sends the milk to the stainless steel tank in the front.  It’s warm, 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  But not for long.  It’s soon cooled to 39 degrees.milking station

Four times a week a refrigerated truck comes by the farm, collects the milk and takes it to Tnuva, Israel’s largest dairy producer.  The milk will be pasteurized and homogenized and turned into drinking milk, yogurt and cheeses.

The dairy industry in Israel is one of the most advanced in the world.  Farmers come from all over to learn.  The dairy business is so highly automated and studied here that each cow, whether her name is Daphna, Batia, Dalia, Shula, or tagged by her computer ID, cow number 1407, or cow number 1705, — tells Gadi what he wants and needs to know.  It’s all about dollars and shekels.

Gadi, 49, slim-built, lives in the Golan Heights, a 45-minute drive from Kadoorie.  He works 60+ hours a week.  The 64 milking cows are under his care.  It’s not to say he’s all touchy-feely about his herd.  He’s not.  Yet, he does care about them.  “It’s a business,” he tells me.  “Each has to contribute, or else.”  To reach maximum production from each animal, Gadi relies on raw data.  Each cow has a computer-bracelet tied to its rear ankle.  It was developed in Israel, sold to the United States, Australia, Italy, France, Korea, Vietnam.  It’s a “pedometer” that tracks everything the cow does and doesn’t do.  It counts the number of steps the cow takes in a 24-hour period, as well as the number of rests.  Gadi matches it against previous data.  Fewer steps are an indicator of stress, hoof injury.  It could also be due to animal density in the shed.  Think about your own mobility in a crowded elevator.

Gadi hoses away the shit and urine from the milking stations.  The rubber floor is hosed down too.  The Holstein cows with their black and white patches and twitching ears are happy in the shed.  They put in an honest day’s work and now they’re feasting on breakfast: corn, hay, seeds.

The milking cows’ life span is 8 to 10 years.  They’re pregnant half the time, with inflated udders always between their rear legs.  Not all cows make it to the finish-line.

“These two will be sold today,” Gadi says and gestures to the couple who’d been separated from the rest.  “They don’t produce enough milk to offset the cost of keeping them.”

“Where will they go?” I ask, thinking there’s a cow heaven someplace.

“A meat company that had won the bid for the school’s beef will send their men today.  They’ll butcher them and sell them off.”

Just when I thought I was getting to like Batia, I ask, “To whom?”

His next statements are matter-of-fact.  “Arabs buy the meat.  The meat is sold in the occupied territories.  It’s all I know.”

I want to ask more but he interrupts me.   He asks me to follow him into his cluttered office.  The computer monitor on his splintered desk is antiquated but the sensitive data in the computer is the stuff of spy novels.  I pull up a chair and try to follow.  Graphs and charts appear.

The smart sensor has chosen two cows for artificial insemination.  It’s determined by many factors, their ovulation cycle, temperature, milk production, last delivery, weight, and much more.

Love is in the air, but it comes by way of a syringe.  Sorry, guys, there are no wild sex parties in the shed.  The bulls are some 30 kilometers away, a distant whiff from the nearest female.

“Alon’s here,” Gadi says and escorts me out to the muddy yard.  A truck pulls in.  Alon is a bull breeder.  He steps out, lowers the tailgate.  It’s a lab-on-wheels.  He dons his latex gloves, brings out the bull sperm from a canister stored in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees centigrade.  The sperm is stored in a skewer-shaped needle, about two feet long.  He slips one in each of his boots and marches in the mud to the females who don’t have a clue of what’s about to happen.

It reminds me of a few dates I had.

Alon puts his hand through a clear plastic sleeve, like a kitchen trash bag.  The plastic sleeve extends from his fingers all the way to his armpit.  The first cow is sequestered, unable to move, it’s neck under a metal hinge.  Alon lifts the cow’s tail and shoves his entire arm in the cow’s ass-hole.

I watch with an open mouth.

Shit drops to the ground in heavy globs.  Alon is talking to Gadi the whole time.  I can’t make out what he’s saying (I’d already removed my work boots by then), but I can tell they’re just shooting the breeze, talking about food, work, anything but about the cow.  Gadi catches a glimpse of me, finds the need to explain.  “Alon is clearing the cow’s anus and then he feels the uterus.  He wants to make sure she’s ready.”  I nod to show I understand, but I don’t.

I don’t recall engaging in such practices when I wanted to have kids.

Next, Alon pulls the syringe from his boot and inserts it in her vagina.  It’s all over in 5 seconds.  Talk about premature ejaculation.

Alon removes his boots, dumps the plastic sleeve in the trash, greets us good-bye.  He’s off to “screw” other cows.Gadi the dairyman

The wintry sun is warmer now.  Gadi pulls down the zipper on his overalls, takes off his wool cap.  “We just made the perfect match today,” he says proudly.  He goes on to tell me the newborn in 9 months time will be  the right size.  “You don’t want to match a super bull with a small cow.  The calf will tear her up on the way out.”  Besides size, the new calf will have the perfect protein and fat level.  It will grow and produce tank-fuls of milk for Kadoorie School.

It’s a version of JDATE.COM in the animal world, Israel-style.

I lace up my shoes, almost ready to go.   I shake Gadi’s hand.  He values terribly my coming to help and learn.  We exchange emails.   I didn’t know such hard-working, dedicated men existed here.  Gadi loves his job, his school children, including my twin daughters who look up to him.  I get in my car and back out.  Through the rear-view mirror I see him coming out with milk buckets in his hands.  He’s nursing the young calves.

At home, Pnina opens the front door, laughs at my dirty appearance.  She smells me, pushes me to the shower.  I later sit down to breakfast.

I too work for food and lovin’.

Olive Oil – It’s a Slick Business

1 Dec

Let’s announce the bare essentials about myself and my family before I delve into my first blog:

In August 2011, three months ago, Pnina and I and my twin girls, Romy and Maya, age 13, decided to return to Israel after having lived in the Los Angeles for 32 years.  Michelle, 27, my oldest daughter who married last summer, and Vanessa, 25, my little one, remained in the U.S.  More about the move to Israel in future writings, but now, let’s get back to the subject at hand: olives.

There’s an olive tree outside my bedroom window.  If I lean far enough and extend my arm, I could grasp the leaves, the branches.  This lonesome tree is what’s left of an entire olive grove that once grew here.  Six years into the building boom in Israel, groves and orchards are being razed to the ground to make room for new houses in my new village: Kfar Tavor.

In 2005 Pnina and I stood in front of the olive grove with Mr. Nahum, the landowner.  Trees extended in every direction, spaced at even intervals like soldiers at roll call.  The gray-green leaves flickered against the blue sky.  Nahum, a longtime Kfar Tavor farmer with hands as rough as sandpaper, walked the length and breadth of the property, stamped his heel in each of the four corners to mark its dimensions.  “You’re the first to buy,” he’d hollered from behind a tree trunk.  “There will be more coming.  Soon.”

The next day we signed on the dotted line, handed him our dollars and weeks later we were the proud owners of dozens of olive trees planted in the heavy, terra-rosa soil.

The bulldozer came next.  The trees were uprooted.  Some were replanted elsewhere, others Nahum sold to landscaping companies who turned around and sold them at a premium to city slickers who wanted the “country feel” in their back yard.  Next, a cement mixer rolled in and poured foundations to the house.  Blocks were laid.  Windows were installed, paint was splashed on the walls, tile went in the kitchen.  A year later, in 2006, the house was complete.  The house stood as an island surrounded by a sea of olive trees.  But not for long.  Within 4 years all were gone.  Roads were paved.  Street lights went up.  Kfar Tavor, a sleepy village for 100 years, joined the building craze.

If you’ve ever seen an olive tree, its trunk is gnarly, poked with crevices and holes.  The fruit, yes, the olives are a fruit, a distant cousin to plums and cherries, cling to every branch by the hundreds, by the thousands.  They’re green, hard as rock.  During the summer months they ripen to dark green, purple and black.

Then comes October and November – the beginning of the harvest frenzy.

Olive oil is big business in the Middle East and throughout the Mediterranean.  It traces back to antiquity.  Roman and Greek men wrestled and bathed in it, attributed medicinal qualities to it.  Even Christ, from Greek Christos, meaning the “anointed one” – anointed in olive oil, could not resist its power.

Where there’s money there’s crime.  Olive oil is no exception.  A 2007 article in the New Yorker uncovered the slick methods Italians use to promote the “Extra Virgin” mystic.  In fact, much of the olive oil is adulterated.  It’s blended with cheaper oils such as hazelnut, canola and sunflower-seed.  The process is so sophisticated — colors and dyes are added — that few can detect the fraud.  These inferior oils are loaded on tankers in Turkey and shipped to Italy.  There the oil is mixed with olive oil.  Pure, extra virgin olive oil costs about $30 per bottle.

What do you think you’re getting for $8 at your grocery store?

This disturbing revelation prompted Pnina to go after the olive pickers in and around our village and insist on the real thing.  Picking olives is very labor-intensive.  Jewish landowners search everywhere for available help.  It’s a race against time.  If the olives stay too long on the trees, they over-ripen, rot, fall to the ground.  The typical Israeli farmer has 2 kids.  Few of the kids pitch in.  They’d rather go out partying or be on Facebook.  It’s a slight exaggeration but the point is that there’s hardly any nice Jewish boys to do the work.

In the past, Jewish farmers relied on Arabs from the West Bank.  But now that the wall is up and security is tight, this source of manpower is gone.  Arabs living in Israel are runners-up.  There are other solutions, too.  In come the Boys from Sudan.  Sudan?  Yes, those refugees you hear about from Darfur somehow cross the Egyptian Sinai, trek up to Galilee and are sometimes seen climbing up olive trees.  Thai and Chinese men make up the rest.  I’ve seen them slurping noodles during their lunch break in the fields.

The Arab landowners, on the other hand, are proud and traditional; they rely on no one but their own.  Everyone’s enlisted to the cause: elementary, high-school and university kids are pulled from classrooms, mechanics are pulled from under cars, wives are released from the kitchen, and old men give up on strong coffee and cigarettes and lend a hand.  Two hands.  They first spread a giant canvas or tarp at the foot of the tree.  They use a wide-toothed comb-like tool to “comb” the branches.  It’s not unlike a mother using a comb to pull lice from her daughter’s hair.  The olives, dark and big now, fall to the blanket below like raindrops.

The bounty is collected in large sacks where they’re assembled by the roadside and transported to the oil-press plant.  The olives mustn’t stay in the sacks for long, especially on warm days, or they’d risk fermentation.  It’s a fruit, remember?

Two weeks ago we were fortunate to witness the making of olive oil in Daburiyyah, an Arab village just down the road from Kfar Tavor.  We drove past the village mosque and its minaret, past narrow streets and a warren of houses until we reached a clearing alongside — you guessed it — an olive grove.  The oil-press is housed under corrugated roof and closed on three sides.  During the harvest season it’s open day and night.  People eat, drink, smoke, and take turns sleeping.  Cars and trucks pull up.  Men start to unload their sacks.  The women, dressed in head coverings, watch over the sacks like hens over their brood.  It’s going to be a long wait.

The first order of business is to dump the thousands of olives into a conveyor belt.  The belt whisks the olives and the errant leaves into a cold bath.   Then the rinsed olives are poured into a large vat where two to three men sort through them, disposing of the leaves.  A lever is pulled and the olives drop to ground level.  Next the olives make their way into the oil-press machine, Italian-made, of course, where they’re crushed by sheer weight and force.  It’s noisy but not ear-shattering, more like a constant hum.  The air smells peppery.  On the other end of the machine, the family patriarch guards over the spout.  The spout pours the milky-green oil into a stainless steel sink.  It’s an even, steady flow.  No one’s in a rush.  The oil drains from the sink to a plastic funnel.  The oil trickles into an awaiting Jerrican on the ground.

I walk to the back of the oil-press structure.  A wide ventilation pipe sticks out from the wall, blows olive leaves in the wind like confetti.  The leaves will be picked up later and dumped.  A man seated in a tractor scoops up mounds of green-brown slush from the ground and forms a large pile at the end of the yard.  “What is it?” I ask him between engine roars.  He tells me it’s the leftover sludge from the olive skin, the pits, anything that wasn’t crushed to oil.  He explains the enormous paste has many uses.  Animal feed is one.  Many years ago, they formed bricks from the dry waste and threw them in the fireplace.  The oils in the bricks burned and warmed their homes.  “Now we turn on the heater, instead,” he says.

I return to the oil-press.  It’s time to buy the real thing.  Pnina’s sister, Dalia, and her husband, Hezi, accompany us and introduce us to the Arab farmer they trust.

“How much does he want for a Jerican of olive oil?” Pnina asks Dalia.

“Typically, six hundred Shekels.  But Hezi advises him on how to raise his chickens.  He’ll take five hundred.”

Pnina hands him the money happily.  It takes her but a few seconds to do the math.  A bottle at the market is 750ml (same as a bottle of wine).  The Jerrican contains about 20 bottles.  It comes to $6.75 each.

“Taste it,” the Arab farmer tells us, and motions us to a chair on which there’s a plate with his olive oil, fresh goat cheese and pita bread.

I’m the first to taste.  The peppery, bitter flavor is inescapable.  It burns the throat mildly, in a good way.  I tell him: “At the grocery store the oil is clear.  Yours is cloudy.”

“The grocery store stuff is not olive oil,” he chuckles.  “Why do you think they put it in green bottles?  To fool you.”  He gestures to the Jerrican in my hand.  “In time the sediments will sink to the bottom.  It’s like wine.  In three weeks time the oil will clear up, turn milder.”

We say good-bye, smiles all around.  The Extra Virgin Olive Oil slushes in the trunk of our car as we drive home.  Once alone in the bedroom, I ask Pnina, “Do you want to wrestle in olive oil?”