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.
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.