Arrivals: Sayonara and shalom

From Buddhist monastery in Japan to Ariel.

August 13, 2010 16:27
4 minute read.
LASKIN. ‘I stopped feeling American about 10 years ago’

Laskin 311. (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)


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Benjamin Laskin, 52
From Japan to Ariel, 2008

Writer Benjamin Laskin had been living in Japan for 18 years before he decided to make aliya in 2008.

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“I was turning 50 and had traveled the world, loved living in Japan where I taught English, but felt I was getting older and I had one big adventure left in me,” says the Phoenix, Arizona, native who has published three books and is working on a fourth.

That last big adventure would be settling in Israel. Growing up as a Jew in the US, he had always been interested in what was going on here, following the news in Hamamatsu, the Japanese town where he lived and worked.

Although the Japanese barely know what a Jew is, he hung out with a mixed group of other expatriates, and began to notice that from being totally apolitical, they were beginning to spout anti-American views which astounded him.

“Then I began to hear things that verged on anti-Semitism,” he recalls. “It started me thinking – perhaps the best place to be Jewish was in Israel. Also, if I had any hope of finally settling down with a Jewish girl, it was not going to happen in Japan.”

FAMILY BACKGROUND Both sets of grandparents came originally from Poland but settled in the US many years ago. He is the third of four brothers who all live still in America.

BEFORE ARRIVAL He graduated with a bachelor’s in English literature from Tucson, Arizona, and began a master’s which he never finished, realizing that having another degree was not going to help him in his ambition to be a writer. After graduation, he worked in various menial jobs until he saw a small ad in the morning newspaper, asking for English teachers in Japan. Initially rejected for the job, another candidate dropped out and he was accepted.

“The original contract was for a year and I ended up staying 18,” he says. He taught himself Japanese well enough to have a conversation and read a menu or billboards.

“Japan is very beautiful, and especially for me, coming from Arizona, very green,” he says. “The people are really nice and I never encountered any discrimination.”

UPON ARRIVAL He arrived in Israel in October 2008 and, with no family or friends here, was pleasantly surprised to be met at the airport by a representative of the Ariel aliya department.

“I’d written to several places about starting an ulpan, but Ariel was the only one which responded,” he says. “I liked the idea of being in a small town rather than being swallowed up in a big city in my first year.”

The Ariel authorities were wonderfully helpful, and within two weeks he had a place to live and had been through all the bureaucracy.

ROUTINE One of the first things he did was to put a kippa on and start to learn about Judaism. For the entire first year, he would take a two-hour bus ride to Jerusalem to attend classes in Yeshivat Machon Meir almost every day and study in its English program.

“It was a great experience,” he says. “There were great rabbis, and the lectures were amazing.

I’ve studied philosophy all my life, and I was a typical secular Jew in search of meaning in life, even spending time in a Buddhist monastery. None of it really struck me as the real thing. But this was fascinating. This was Judaism? I had no idea it was so deep.”

After the year, he began studying Hebrew in ulpan and today he studies half a day and works on his novel in the afternoons. His first three books, Stormer’s Pass, Say Uncle and The Will can be bought from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

LIVING ENVIRONMENT Home at the moment is a very small rented apartment attached to a villa. There’s barely a kitchen, which is fine because he gets invited out regularly to Shabbat meals, and as long as he has his computer, he doesn’t need too much other furniture or space.

CIRCLE Ariel, with a population of 18,000, has a small but vibrant Anglo community. “There’s lots going on and they are very good at helping newcomers,” he says.

FINANCES For now he’s living on savings and is starting to think about getting a job. He has considered teaching English, or writing of some sort. The books sell and he almost signed a deal with Hollywood for a movie script of his last book, The Will.

“I even went to Hollywood from Japan to discuss it, and it was optioned three times. I had to write and rewrite until I barely recognized it as my original work. It was very frustrating and in the end I published them myself.”

IDENTIFICATION “I’m a proud Jew and a proud Israeli. I stopped feeling American about 10 years ago.”

PLANS He loves Ariel but would be prepared to leave if a job came up somewhere else. Meanwhile he continues to write, wants to start looking for a job and perhaps, some time in the future he will find the woman of his dreams.

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