1960 – Present (2018)
I belong to the first generation born in the newly established state of Israel in Be’er-Sheva, the biblical town located at the center of the Negev desert. I grew up in an environment of constant war and the aftermath of the Holocaust. Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors, and their first-born son died shortly before I was born. Trauma can sink into one’s pores by osmosis. It takes a lifetime of effort to become ‘awake’ and to untether the pain. Like many young Israelis, I was raised in a deafening silence concerning the past. It was as if we had been snatched from the fire by parents with numbers tattooed on their arms. In our minds, the survivors were a living reminder of victims’ helplessness, and our prevailing motto was that the ‘new’ Jew would never succumb to the enemy. These are the themes that I will revisit and ponder throughout my life.
On Youth and Bat-Yam
My youth in Bat Yam was magical; our neighborhood was filled with kids my age and surrounded by sand dunes. My brother and I left the house in the morning and played all day, exploring the thick bushes on the dunes, walking to the sea, swimming, and only returning home when the night lights came on. No one could be in contact with us; there were no mobile phones. We had no video games and no TV. We had friends and mostly played outside. We fought and beat each other, received blows that turned from black to blue, and we overcame it. We ate bread with yogurt and drank lots of chocolate milk. The freedom and camaraderie of those days remain a precious memory.
My father was a colonel in the Israeli army, commanding a vast operation of food supply logistics. My mother was a nurse. I shared a small room with my younger brother, Israel. We lived in a typical middle-class neighborhood, a melting pot of Israeli society. In 1967, the threat to Israel’s existence was clear and present. Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the Egyptian president, declared his intention to “throw the Jews into the sea” and “conquer Tel Aviv.” We felt alone in the face of an all-out Arab offensive. My seven-year-old self clearly remembers the siren sound prompting us to the bunkers and the euphoria that followed the swift and victorious Six-Day War.
There was a deep rift between left and right political approaches to the Israeli – Arab – Palestinian conflict. From a young age, we were all politically conscious and fiercely argued about the best peace approach. I was a strong advocate of ‘land for peace’ – ending the occupation, an amicable divorce, a two-state solution, Israel alongside Palestine. Unfortunately, those arguments were only among the Israelis. At the moment of truth, the Palestinians rejected those offers in numerous rounds of negotiations. Furthermore, in recent years it became clear that the Palestinian situation is only a small component in the context of fundamentalist fanatical Islam that is threatening to clash with the entire Western civilization. Thus, I became skeptical of the applicability of this solution.
Peaceful coexistence will require leadership and empathy. Courageous leadership is a must, but even more important is the willingness of both Palestinians and Israelis to see the world beyond their current conception. In other words, people will need to build their empathic muscles for peaceful coexistence to occur. Do I see it happening anytime soon? No, but my deep belief in the human spirit keeps me optimistic.
My family’s stories of the Holocaust were revealed slowly. My parents wanted to protect us from the brutality and were struggling with their own trauma. At times the horrors were told without words; they were revealed through varying degrees of sanity. My childhood friend Avital Gad-Cykman wrote the following description of a character in our neighborhood: “The woman from the house on their right eats a whole herring with a half loaf of bread every morning when her children go to school. She is fat, a survivor of an extermination camp. Her son and daughter refuse to eat because they do not want to look like her.” (from Distant Homes). I witnessed the agony around me; it made me feel unsafe, insecure, and, most of all, angry. It also felt like I somehow needed to hold it all together. These were years of shame and confusion, I was ashamed of my parents’ diaspora-sounding family name, Ginzberg, and the Yiddish language they spoke at home. It represented the persecuted Jew; it was not ‘Israeli’ enough. Above all, the expression: ‘They went like lambs to the slaughter’ embodied my shame. It is only through the gift of time and self-reflection that I came to understand and name these conflicting emotions. For many years it only felt like anger.
The tensions between Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) and Mizrahim (Jews from North Africa and the Middle East) were part of life in Bat-Yam. They became significant following the immigration wave of 1948-1954. The 700,000 immigrants, mostly Mizrahim, doubled the Jewish population in the newly established country and created severe absorption problems. The power structure did not reflect the demographic change that took place in Israeli society, and the ruling elite remained mostly Ashkenazi. The immigrants were a source of cheap labor; many were settled in remote rural towns or in quickly built ramshackle neighborhoods. Many of them were unemployed. It created tensions and random violent demonstrations. In a few incidents, I was attacked by Mizrahi kids just because I was Ashkenazi. I had to become part of their ‘gang’ to survive. I joined their outings and played lots of billiard games. Those were the years of Disco music, and on the dance floor, I was’ killing it’ like John Travolta. Later in high school, I tended to stay away from being part of any social group. I devoted many hours to solitary long-distance running and youthful sexual stirrings. Neither alcohol nor drugs were present. My head was often in the skies, in dreams, but my feet were firmly on earth.
The other great rift not present in my neighborhood, yet strongly present in my consciousness was the divide between religious and secular Jews. Although we all lived in the same small country and shared many traditions, we lived in different social worlds to a large extent. I call it the great ‘spiritual’ schism because it reflects my own internal struggle and journey with faith. From a young age, I studied the Bible; those stories to this day are part of my innate associative thinking. They often gave me the impression that God is like a harsh and punishing father – I did not like him. The religious’ political parties imposed their strict orthodox interpretations on the entire society. I resented that, considered it an invasion of sacred personal space. My father used to say that after Auschwitz, he does not believe in God. My spiritual journey led me to believe that God is loving, forgiving, and compassionate; a higher power that encompasses the oneness we all are. A God I can trust will be there for me regardless of my behavior.
I cannot point to one teacher and say she gave me the love of reading. I discovered books at our neighborhood library at a very young age, and since then, I have been reading quite a lot. In the last 30 years, I have listened to hundreds of audiobooks. It is by far my favorite occupation, a worthy companion to my otherwise noisy mind. Through it, I met many people, learned to be empathetic, visited different parts of the world, and learned to appreciate the beauty of a well-phrased sentence.
On being a Paratrooper (1978-1981)
“You don’t know what you get back until you give” – Bill Clapp
In 1978 I joined the IDF – Israel Defense Forces. I was extremely motivated and in top physical shape. I volunteered to become a Paratrooper and was accepted to serve in the elite 890 Airborne Brigade. Paratroopers are trained to be fighters, to master the art of killing. We learned how to jump from airplanes with heavy equipment, how to set up night ambushes, and as a medic, I learned how to stay steady while treating fellow soldiers under fire. There were 20 soldiers in my platoon, we believed in what Israel stood for, and thus we all had a tremendous ambition to excel. It was and still is a source of great pride and honor to have partaken in this elite combat unit. I vividly remember wearing the red beret and the Paratrooper’s unique class A uniform, feeling like the king of the world.
Service in the IDF is compulsory for every 18-year old and considered Israel’s melting pot. It gives everyone an equal opportunity to prove themselves, regardless of their socioeconomic background, place of residence, ancestry, and more. In the military, I received lifelong lessons in human relations. There is something to be learned from each of my platoon brothers, regardless of their background and education. And that I could not expect to be liked by all of them. These teachings did not come easy, as I was more of a loner and selfish at times. I was kind of a ‘strange bird’ among the earthy farm boys, a city boy who loved to read and had a heavier toiletry bag. Yet four decades later, these are still some of my best friends.
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao-Tzu
After completing the compulsory three-year military service, traveling vagabond style is a phenomenon that has become part of the Israeli culture. It’s characterized by being low on money but rich on time. My trip lasted close to two years, and it was a response to an internal call to experience freedom, venture out into the world, and look deeper into myself.
Since that trip, I have explored many places and developed a travel philosophy, which is very simple: wherever you are, be there. Travel light and have predetermined plans, but not everything needs to be organized in advance. Once you arrive – it will find you. Whatever you need: a place to sleep, eat, and more. Take time to walk quietly through residential neighborhoods and markets. Observe what local people do and how they interact. Greet people respectfully, talk softly, always be courteous, and never pushy. Sometimes people will be delighted to speak with you. Be curious, ask how things are working. I often end up asking about local politics, history, and religion. I do my best to stay away from judgments. I assume that things are the way they are for a reason. I don’t have to understand everything.
On my first big trip, I met Dalit, the woman I shared my life with for 28 years. I figured, if you end up on a small Norwegian island in the North Arctic Sea and happen to fall in love – it must be written in the stars; it’s your destiny. Together we kept traveling to India and Nepal, we built home first in Israel and later in Los Angeles, and we created one unique masterpiece – our son Tomer.
On BA in Economics and Philosophy
“Education is not a preparation for life, education is life itself.” – John Dewey
After my big trip, I returned to the city of my birth, Be’er-Sheva, to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Ben Gurion University. It was a beautiful four-year period, working night shifts as an assistant nurse in the hospital, taking classes in two subjects I loved, and enjoying the offerings of that small desert town, especially the theater shows.
On Immigration and the MBA program (1989 – 1991)
“Make voyages! Attempt them! There’s nothing else.” – Tennessee Williams
I came to America with my ex-wife, Dalit, on a student visa. Although we didn’t pass through the Statue of Liberty, immigrants we were. We chose to relocate from the familiar to the unknown, from our natural habitat to a new one. Initially, it was about pursuing new horizons that I felt were not available in Israel. I now know that it was also about running away from something which I could not consciously understand at the time – a certain weight, a particular pain that needed distance to unveil itself and to have a chance to heal. Today, over thirty years in the USA, I feel foreign in my homeland – Israel, and foreign in America, never enough for either, and certainly not enough for both. I wonder if that is the general experience of being an immigrant?
We arrived in Los Angeles with two suitcases, $5,000, and big dreams. I intended to pursue a Ph.D. in Marketing and become a professor. Plans changed, and I went for an MBA, which was later followed by several business ventures. My experience at the USC Marshall School of Business was a challenging and intensive time, during which I got to know people from all over the world, improved my English, and expand my horizons. Studying and graduating from this prestigious program filled with pride. Over the course of two years, I built upon my skills and knowledge from prior studies: statistics, marketing, financial management, corporate law, business entrepreneurship, and negotiation. Yet, I always say that the basics of building business relationships and providing customer satisfaction, I learned from being a waiter and a bartender.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” – Seneca
My business career was in the hardware segment of the high-tech industry – electronic components and circuit cards. I entered the field in 1992 as an Account Manager for a major conglomerate and left the field in 2003 after dissolving my own company. The technology sector had its highest growth in that period, a time traditionally thought of as the “dot-com boom” or the “tech bubble.” I worked as an Account Manager for about three years, initially for Time Electronics, a division of Avnet, Inc., and later for Anthem, a division of Arrow Electronics. These two companies have long dominated the electronics distribution market. As an Account Manager, my job was to maintain relationships with key accounts, consult with engineers about selecting electronic components, and close deals. I received many valuable lessons while working for Corporate America; the most important one: the phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is spot-on accurate. The opportunities you get through your network will likely far outweigh those directly from your knowledge or experience.
One of my customers offered me a job opportunity, which expanded my geographical horizons and took me into a management position. I was asked to manage the operations of Hitcom Corporation in the USA. It was a Korean trading company that procured electronic components and managed “just-in-time” logistics operations (A manufacturing strategy wherein parts are produced or delivered only as needed and thus reducing waste). Our primary customer in Korea was the military division of LG Electronics. I oversaw nearly $10 million in annual procurement of electronic components, manage staff and logistical issues. I was the only non-Korean in the company and thus, got exposed to a different culture and learned to incorporate key customs. Korean society’s values are based on Confucianism, whereas Western culture is generally based on Judeo-Christian values. Things may look the same at first glance, but there is an invisible order controlling all the things around you.
In 1999 with the aid of Hitcom’s owner, I founded Telesys, and then a year later took over his shares. With the exponential growth of the internet, there was an enormous demand for a particular type of telecommunication circuit cards to handle central switching hubs’ analog base technology. This demand was fulfilled, mostly by big corporations like Lucent Technologies and Nortel. At Telesys, we found a way to play with the ‘big guys’ by developing a tiny niche that we could fulfill through our sources, located in China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Poland. My primary job was to close deals, and I found that ‘buying right’ is key to success in the trade game. I also found a new appreciation for my father’s greatness. He was a master in logistics, handling the IDF food supply. I did my best to apply his attention to execution and found truth in the saying, “God is in the details.” Our good run lasted till 2002 when the NASDAQ took a dive, and digital technology evolved, replacing buildings that accommodated huge switching hubs with small box sized products.
On Art and Healing
“The task of art is enormous… Art should cause violence to be set aside. And it is only art that can accomplish this.” – Leo Tolstoy
The violence I had to deal with was internal; it was like a black crow sitting in disguise over my shoulders, and from time to time, showed its ugly face. Then a moment came in 2003 when all the stars were aligned, and I could afford to take a pause from the day to day chores of living and delve into the therapeutic process. I had to figure out what’s going on, what’s eating me from the inside? I retreated from the world of making business deals and immersed myself in a place of solitude and investigation. My art studio became the bottom of a water’s well from which there was only one way out – up.
An old saying goes: “hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Forgiving someone who has crossed you is not something you do for that person; it’s something you do for yourself so that you can move forward. Because holding onto hate and anger is an act of internal violence. When it comes to the subject of the Holocaust, it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that it is the Nazis who require forgiveness. This is not what I was grappling with, which is far too great for any human being. My struggle was about forgiving the persecuted, the image of the weak, helpless, and hopeless Jew in the extermination camps, the image of my dear father.
The great Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, named a hidden part of us the Shadow. Luke Skywalker would call it the dark side. It is an image of the weakest, most flawed, inferior, or even disgusting part of oneself. It’s everything you don’t wish to be, but fear that you are. I ran away from those places within myself. I didn’t want to admit that I am fraught, fearful, and damaged. So, I numbed the pain of this reality; I escaped it or put up a front so that I can hide it from myself and others. The helpless, persecuted Jew’s image is my shadow, my dark side. I revolted and fought that part of myself with might and viciousness. It’s the part of my inner self that I needed to make peace with and find a way to integrate. My internal violence was directed at this shadow in an effort to snuff it out. I had to find a way to stop the fight. I had to find a way to love and accept the insecure, gentle, fearful parts of that shadow. It is, after all, a big part of who I am.
The experience of stripping humans from their God-given identity, replacing it with tattooed numbers and the horrors that followed has been documented by many. My experience of the Holocaust was formed by osmosis, unspoken energy transferred from my parents. Along with spoken bits and pieces of personal stories they shared. My art’s creative theme is derived from my fathers’ journey in a cattle car to and from four different concentration camps. But even more, it was formed by the details he didn’t share. The art is my attempt to fill up the void, integrate the shuttered self, make peace with my shadow, and shine light, strength, and hope on the dark side. It is my attempt to give meaning to the trauma. It is about learning to love, accept, and forgive the shameful parts of myself.
“Arbeit Macht Frei” is a German phrase that means: “The Work Sets You Free.” It was the sign at the entrance of the infamous Nazi death camp, Auschwitz. It was the place where the Nazis tattooed my father’s arm with the number B3037. Ironically this slogan is also the best way to describe the growing sense of freedom that I have come to experience in the 15 years I devoted to art-making and crawling out of a deep dark hollow. A healing process, where working with my hands, eyes, and soul brought together an authentic expression of self. More about that in my blog, ‘When Trauma meets Art.’
On Art and Success
“Vulnerability is the core of shame, fear, and struggle; it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, love, and belonging.” – Brene Brown
Calling myself an artist did not come easy. The ‘Impostor Syndrome,’ the feeling that to be an artist is so much above what I am, was a real struggle. Yet, after devoting myself entirely to the creative process for the last 15 years – what else should I call myself?
“Enough of the Holocaust” is a voice I often felt internally and heard externally, usually just by the silent gaze of others. Enough art, music, books, museums concerning that outrage of the last century, that crime beyond all crimes. There’s a feeling of Holocaust fatigue that is authentic, not only for those who live with direct Holocaust memories but for most anyone who’s looked out at the world. I have rewritten my artist statement numerous times over the years. Each rewrite reflects a growing awareness of how I see my work in the timeline of art-making and my willingness to share my process. I was experiencing the struggle which Brene Brown describes so well: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Success, as I’m sure you know, can only be defined by the person achieving it. My definition of success has evolved over the years. Although I did not reach fame or fortune, I am content with my artistic mastery and the tremendous positive impact it has had on my life.
“The best way of training the young is to train yourself at the same time; not to admonish them, but to be never seen doing that of which you would admonish them.” – Plato
There is a saying that a man is a prince until he has kids, and then he becomes a king. Tomer is not everywhere I go, yet he is always in my hip pocket. Everything I do leads back to him – how I take care of myself, how I handle myself, how I need to make sure that I stay healthy and literally alive because he needs me. That’s a great responsibility. I’m a shepherd to him. Yet many times, I let him lead me, and I don’t know where the journey’s gonna go. Because we can go down a path that I’ve been down a thousand times before, but for him, it’s the first time. Just when I think, “Yep, I’ve been there, I’ve done that,” he reminds me that everything can be brand new. Things have evolved, and I am now looking at them from a different perspective, a different set of eyes. So, in a sense, it reminds me to stay young. I am grateful and feel blessed.
“My marriage was the boat, and I knew I could not swim back to it.” – Deborah Levy
When I no longer believed in my marriage’s future, I slowly began to realize that the painful chaos of leaving was the only way to move towards how I wanted to be in the world.
“Sometimes in life, you have to surrender before you win.” – Gregory David Roberts
In 2014 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was only late 2017, when my blood test results were consistently steady and within the normal range for a significant time, that I was considered cancer-free. In those 3-years, I have learned that traversing the physical path to wellness is a very individualistic, sacred, and exquisitely demanding journey. I found truth in the artist Jenny Holzer’s statement: “FEAR is the most elegant weapon. Your hands are never messy.” The presence of cancer felt like an energy-field hovering over my head, never letting go. Only later, it started fading away, which signaled that healing is taking over.
Against my urologist’s recommendation, I chose an experimental treatment performed only by two doctors in the USA and not yet commonly accepted. Focal Laser Ablation is a procedure combining two cutting edge technologies. The first is a 3T Multi Parametric MRI that enables detecting and viewing the cancer cells’ precise location within the almond-sized prostate gland. The second technology is Focal Laser Ablation (FLA), in which a thin laser fiber is directed into the tumor and burns it. I feel very grateful to have discovered this procedure, which allowed me to maintain the quality of life I desire and avoid the common side effects of Prostatectomy.
There were ups and downs in the recovery process. What I have tried to practice consistently through it all was an attitude of surrendering without giving up. It may sound like an oxymoron, and I am not sure I can explain it exactly, but it has to do with accepting what is and at the same time forging a way forward with vigor and faith. My long-time spiritual program teaches me daily the notion of surrender. Exercising yoga, swimming, biking, and dancing forces me to drop deep down into my breathing, into the source, into a connection with forces more significant than myself. Of course, there is healing power in love and intimacy that I could not have experienced without my beloved Danna.
I always loved to dance but was away from it for many years till the 5 Rhythm dance method came into my life. Dance teaches me how to go beyond my body’s limits and how to stay in my body. It is a mindfulness practice that develops the capacity to consciously track inner and outer experience, not just to one’s self but also while relating to others. On the dance floor, I often found myself moving with the cancer as if it was a dance partner. And rather than raging at it or pushing it away, I cuddled it, tried to soothe it, and gently asked it to let go of its grip. The poet Rumi said: “When you do things from the soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
On the Future
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for a newer and richer experience.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Inspired by my son’s journey into digital coding, I plan to forge my path into that field. I am excited to venture into the unknown and to unfold a new chapter. I am confident that it will be exhilarating as well as daunting. Throughout, I will remind myself of Anais Nin’s saying: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”