'Did we really just hear "La Bamba" blasting from a car radio?" asks Benji Lovitt, a native Texan, as he stirs a cup of coffee near Kikar Rabin in central Tel Aviv on a Friday afternoon. "Are we really in Israel?"
As a part-time stand-up comedian, it makes sense that Lovitt occasionally interrupts the interview to point out things that he finds hilarious, absurd or strange about this country. "My two favorite phrases are 'yihiyeh beseder ['it will be OK']', which can actually mean many different things depending on the context, and 'lo kara klum ['nothing happened'].' Sometimes you just want to turn around and say, 'No buddy, kara mashehu ['something happened'],'" he says, a wide grin spreading across his face as he politely asks if his mile-a-minute speech is too fast for me.
Born and raised in Dallas, he came here for the first time on a Young Judea trip at 15. "It was a fun trip, but probably more because of my friends than Israel," he says. A few years later, after he finished high school, he returned as a volunteer. "I was here for nine months on a kibbutz, took some classes, went on trips. It was an amazing experience and I fell in love with Israel and made lifelong friends."
He attended the University of Texas, where he completed a BA in psychology, but has never worked in his field. "I have a nonprofit gene, which is great for other people but not so great for me," he says.
Growing up, Lovitt was always actively involved in summer camps and Zionist youth groups. "Most of my friends were Jews, and I had a strong connection with Israelis. I always thought they were cool, real, fun and down to earth," he says.
At 24, he moved from Texas to Atlanta for a change of pace. "The Jewish community in Atlanta is the most thriving, energetic, intimate and fun community I've ever been involved in. I loved my years there," he says. In 2003, he moved to New York and worked with Young Judea on its summer programs for kids in Israel. "I got to come to Israel every summer, and every time I was here it wasn't for long enough and I'd find myself at Ben-Gurion wondering why I was going back. In 2005, I made the craziest, most unorthodox decision of my life, and at 31, I turned down a good job in Atlanta and picked up and moved to Israel. I left New York right as the war with Lebanon ended."
As soon as he arrived, he settled in Tel Aviv and enrolled in ulpan. After a three-month creative sabbatical, he started performing as a stand-up comedian in clubs across the country and writing a humorous blog, www.whatwarzone.com. "It was a very challenging first year to balance full-time work, comedy routines, ulpan and writing, but it's been very rewarding so far."
After a senior-year internship in psychology at the medical school in Dallas, he realized that he found psychology terribly boring and decided to take a job in technical support instead. "That was during the dot.com era and I worked in one of those offices with Ping-Pong tables, stocked refrigerators and plenty of coffee that were worth $8 million but made no money," he says, smiling at the memory.
In 2002, after a year of suffering as a technical writer, Benji got a job at the Israeli consulate in Atlanta. "I learned the phrase 'yihiyeh beseder' and I realized that when Israelis say don't worry, it's time to start worrying," he says.
He recently took a job with birthright. "During the summer I'm too busy to work on the stand-up comedy, but I plan on continuing it this fall," he says. "I want people to laugh when they think about Israel, and so far I've been very successful in making a name for myself. I think there's a real market for stand-up shows about life here."
His New York-native parents moved to Texas before he was born. His mom works as a school administrator and his father is a psychologist. His paternal grandparents came to the US from Russia in the 1930s. On his maternal side, both grandparents were born in the US. He is the youngest of three siblings.
Lovitt shares a cozy, two-bedroom apartment in central Tel Aviv near Kikar Rabin with a woman he found on the popular website homeless.co.il. "The only requirement was that she speak to me only in Hebrew," he says. "She's a nice roommate and we have your typical Tel Aviv place with a living room, a balcony and some roaches," he says with a wide smile before adding, with a laugh, "Don't write that or I'll never have a date again. The roaches only show up in small numbers during the summer."
The summer is his busiest time at work because it's when the tour groups arrive from the US and he is responsible for making sure their trip goes smoothly. "My routine right now is basically living in the office in Jerusalem and either crashing on a coworker's couch or commuting from Tel Aviv, which makes the hours even longer." On the weekends, he goes to the beach, catches up on errands and sees friends. "I try to live it up in Tel Aviv when I have time off."
He says one of his favorite hobbies is humous eating. A proud member of a humous club, which he quickly clarifies is strictly amateur and not professional, he says the unstated goal of the group is to eat their way through this country one chickpea at a time. "We're not sponsored yet," he says with another beaming smile. He lists other hobbies as pretending to closely follow American sports teams, dating and laughing at Israel with fellow olim.
His accent lacks the southern drawl you might expect from a native Texan. Although he didn't ever find the time to complete ulpan, his Hebrew is good. "It's not where I thought it would be. I assumed I'd be fluent in a year. Ha ha ha. That's a funny concept to me now."
He describes his family as classic American Jews who went to synagogue on occasion and did bar and bat mitzvas but were not religious. "It was more about the label than the actual practice," he explains. "My Jewish identity was really formed by the summer camps and social organizations I was involved with, and I consider myself to be a strong Zionist, and that is not a dirty word in my vocabulary. The Israelis who think it is are just suckers."
"I am an American and Israeli-in-training," he says, clarifying that since making aliya he has been blown away by the generosity and warmth of the Israeli people. "I moved here for the people. I love Israelis and the culture here, and I can feel myself doing things I wouldn't have done before, like offering you a sip of my water and half of my breakfast," he says, holding up a basket overflowing with bread. "Please, eat," he insists.
Although it's impossible to say with any certainty where he will be in five years or to think in terms of forever, he says that he is just focusing on enjoying the present. "I'm here now, but who knows what will happen in the future?" he says. "I stopped trying to answer the questions about where I'll be in 20 years. I'd like to get married and have children, but I'm trying to just take things one day at a time right now, enjoy this place while I'm here. It's been a challenging two years, but I'm not done with this place yet."
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