Magazine

Arrivals: Rude awakening

"I always loved Israel and still do. But after I came here I felt a certain emptiness, perhaps because of the Jewish identity problem."

Lenka Neumanova
Photo by: GLORIA DEUTSCH
In a country of peroxide blondes, meeting a natural blonde is quite rare. Lenka Neumanova is special not just because of her long tresses but also as a new immigrant who suddenly discovered that her strong Jewish identity and lifelong attachment to Judaism didn’t actually mean she was Jewish.

“My father is Jewish, my mother not,” she says.

She was born and grew up in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic.

“We were active members of the Jewish community,” she says. “We went to synagogue on Friday night, observed all the festivals, fasted on Yom Kippur and lived a religious life without being religious.

In our community there was only one family where both parents were Jews. Then I came here and discovered I wasn’t halachicly Jewish. I had known it I suppose, but I hadn’t realized the significance of it.”

For Neumanova, to discover that her Jewishness was in doubt was a strong emotional shock. She thought about conversion and looked into the options.

“They try to make something out of you that you thought you were already,” she says with feeling.

Looking into the future, she does not want any children she might have to face the same problem, so she will probably do something about it.

“I would rather not think about it yet,” she says.

She has a large family here – one cousin who became haredi and others, cousins of her father, who have been very supportive, so for the moment she has put off any decision about conversion and is concentrating on her studies and working to support herself. She would love to visit them more often but finds travel here prohibitively expensive.

She arrived in October 2009 to study in the Masa program at Tel Aviv University, which meant she couldn’t actually become an immigrant until the year was over.

“Then I went through a very traumatic time when my cousin, who was also my best friend, died and it made me realize you can’t plan your life and overanalyze what you do – so I decided to become an olah officially.” Since she completed the Masa program, she has been studying Middle Eastern history at TAU and has one more semester to complete her master’s degree.

LANGUAGE

Part of the degree course includes Hebrew lessons, and she is now at the third level but feels her Hebrew should be better.

“The problem is that all our studies are in English and I speak English to all my classmates. My Hebrew is definitely worse than it should be at this stage.”

WORK

Neumanova has always been a hard worker. In Prague she qualified as a tourist guide and worked as a teacher while studying. Since her scholarship for Masa ended, she has to support herself and also repay loans from her family, so she has worked at a variety of jobs since being here.

“I’ve done baby-sitting, gone out cleaning and done translations,” she says. She is also a qualified Swedish masseuse, which she has discovered is open to misinterpretation here. She works twice a week in a Jaffa gallery as a receptionist and has even done the backbreaking job of being a backpack beer dispenser at parties.

“Usually only guys do this as it’s quite difficult and heavy, but I’m quite athletic,” she says with a smile.

CIRCLE

“I’m lucky, I’ve made many friends at the university,” she says. “I do have Israeli friends too; in fact they are my closest friends.”

But she’s not over-enthralled with the dating scene here, which she calls “industrial dating.”

“Back in the Czech Republic people meet and it’s just a pleasant social event and you feel you are on equal terms. Here you immediately feel you have to project yourself, you feel like a product you have to sell, and it’s much less relaxed.”

LIVING ACCOMMODATION

Home is a small studio flat in the Yemenite quarter which has the virtue of being cheap. Although it’s very small, it has a gallery as the ceilings of these old Tel Aviv buildings were very high.

She tells me it was in very bad shape when she moved in, but she’s been busy repairing the crumbling walls with plaster and painting it. She has an aquarium which she picked up in the street and has filled it with fish so it makes a cheerful addition to her environment.

THE FUTURE

“When I was growing up in the Czech Republic I had a goal I believed in. My Jewishness was so much a part of my life and I came here to realize it. I always loved Israel and still do. But after I came here I felt a certain emptiness, perhaps because of the Jewish identity problem.

Perhaps I need to connect to Israel in a different way, by going into nature – I’ve always loved to hike in the countryside.”

While she seems unsure about the direction her life is taking, one thing is sure. “I don’t know what I will be doing in the future – I only know I want to be here,” she says.


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