Always fair weather

Always fair weather

October 5, 2009 21:14
olinsky 248.88

olinsky 248.88. (photo credit: Aryeh Dean Cohen )

Tem-PRA tu-ROT. Yes, if there were a Professor Henry Higgins of Israel's native language, he might have already had weatherman Robert Olinsky - who retired recently after 39 years on the air - taken out and hanged for the cold-blooded murder of the Hebrew tongue. Fortunately for legions of fans of the affable Olinsky's folksy weather reports, he's been spared, joining Golda Meir and former Maccabi Tel Aviv star Tal Brody as a purveyor of perhaps the most acceptably American-accented Hebrew heard in these parts. In fact, soon after his retirement, Olinsky - 67 and skinny and not anything like "the fat, 90-year-old guy people imagine," as he puts it - got a letter from a listener saying, "You're the first person I understood since Golda Meir, why did you retire?" Accents were always a problem for him, he recalls. "In college, I learned Russian, and I wasn't good at that, either. I could read it and write it, but not speak it - I have trouble hearing a sound and reproducing it." Still, he says, "I'm not sure it's a compliment to be known for your rotten accent, but that's life and I've gotten used to it." Olinsky blames his by-now-famous atrocious Hebrew accent on his ulpan teacher Zmira at Ulpan Akiva, where in 1970 he could be seen studiously copying down every Hebrew word he could learn. "He read the Hebrew paper from beginning to end; sometimes it took him three hours," recalls his wife, Fay, a Swedish immigrant whom he met there. "The way to get a person to talk, Zmira believed, was to let him talk. Don't let them get too conscious of their accent, because otherwise they'll never say a word. So I blame half of my problems on her," he says with a laugh. The accent almost cost him his job. In the 1970s, an Israel Radio representative went to the Transportation Ministry, which runs the Meteorological Service at Beit Dagan, and demanded they "take me off the radio because of my accent. And the ministry spokesman defended me, saying, 'No, we have something that's called aliya, and this is a sign of that aliya: We have different accents in the country, and it's not fair to remove him because of that.' Otherwise I would've disappeared many, many years ago." "Weather was always an element in my family," says the ebullient Olinsky, sitting in his comfortable Petah Tikva living room recently. His father was a Trenton roofer, dependent on good weather to work. As a youngster, he caught weathermen from New York to Philadelphia, like Dr. Frank Field and others, but didn't consider the profession until graduating Cornell, when he joined the US Air Force. He eventually turned to a program for becoming an air force weather forecaster and provided weather briefings to crews in Texas. He was discharged in 1970 after three years working for the air force in England, "and I never saw the sun there. I made my way to Marseilles because I said, I've got to go find some sunshine, so let's go back to the States going East, via Israel, and get some, and a chance to know the country." The rest is Israel Radio history. "I had no intention of staying. I had a very thin Zionist background - a Jewish background, but not a Zionist one," he says. He got a job preparing weather folders for flight crews at the Meteorological Service, based on his air force work. "They got an English-speaker there, and wow, they were very happy to have me, and my background was very solid for that position," he says. Olinsky remembers his nervousness when a TV camera crew came to film the facility at Beit Dagan. "I said, 'What do you want with me? With my accent, I have to appear on television?' They were waiting for the first person to call in about the weather. Who was it? An American was about to send his wife to volunteer on a kibbutz and wanted to know the weather so she would know how to pack. And I was so happy because the conversation was in English. That really worked out well," he says with a laugh. But mostly, the man behind the friendly voice giving weather forecasts on Army Radio or Israel Radio worked 12-hour shifts, two forecasters a shift, "and the person closest to the telephone is usually the one who picks it up, and that's who you hear" on the air. Over time, radio announcers like Avi Etgar (see box) and Aryeh Golan would seek him out, knowing his expertise could be trusted. His colleagues were his first family in Israel, and the camaraderie among the forecasters is something he'll miss, he says. What he won't miss, however, are the many "weather-sick" Israelis who would call up. "They just carry it to the absurd," he says. "They call you up every day at work and start talking about the weather - it's an obsession for them." They can be anyone from a worried parent with a child in India who wants to know the forecast there, to a woman stopping in Paris on a flight to New York who wants to know if it will be raining. "As the duty forecaster, you don't really have time for all these phone calls, and you don't have the head for it," but he tried to remain polite, blaming part of the problem on what he saw as very thin weather coverage on television. "They're not giving enough real background and real understanding about what's happening to satisfy these people," he says. He himself doesn't remember his first forecast, "although I'm sure the person who heard it remembers it." Still, he takes meteorology very seriously, noting how it can affect everything from local agriculture to major projects, like the time a flood required a rescue mission at the Electric Corporation's Hadera plant. Plantings, city planning, and even coffee futures in Brazil are affected by the weather, notes Olinsky. "There are many functions and uses of meteorology that are still being developed," he says enthusiastically. "I would get excited every day at work," he adds. "Because it doesn't have to rain. It can be the wind, or the humidity… or a sandstorm down South that I never saw coming, or just taking my satellite pictures and looking at things developing in other parts of the world." Though he's retired, he still scans the skies. "You don't have to be a religious person to look up all the time - you can also be a meteorologist," he quips. In between shifts, he and Fay raised Dvora, Daphna, Daniel and Dahlia. He also spent several years in the artillery, where because shells travel through the atmosphere, "it's important to know the atmospheric conditions." Part of the oral message he would have to send out was in Hebrew. "I had to read it aloud, and there are a lot of people who would've loved listening to it," he says with a laugh. "Sometimes they'd team up on the other side of the [communications] line to figure it out." SNOW EXPECTATIONS might be the biggest heartbreaker for school kids and challenge for forecasters, but Olinsky recognizes the limitations in predicting it. "You know how many times I get a call at 6 a.m. asking, 'Where's your snow?' But they never call back at 7 when it's turned to snow… It's a hairline thing… Plus people get very excited about the snow… Jews have to get excited about something. Let them get excited about the weather. I agree. It's a great thing to get excited about." But, he says, "the science doesn't let me tell you it's going to rain in Kfar Saba, or in Kfar Saba you're going to get 60 mm. and in Petah Tikva 5 mm. It's just not what I'm able to do. And people don't like it - they like black and white." Memories of forecasts blown badly? "Oh, I successfully wash out all the bad memories," he says with a smile. "Doctors make more mistakes in one shift than I've made in 40 years, and I don't know a forecaster with a perfect record." Some important people even call him at home for weather tips, he says, and it's a known fact in Petah Tikva that when Fay hangs out her laundry, all her neighbors follow suit. "Over the years, you develop a trust, people are going to hear your forecast in your voice and there's a certain trust that they develop," he says. "And when people look for you personally, you get a lot of satisfaction from that." It's almost like being God, I say to him, but it's also a love-hate relationship. "You learn to accept it," he says of people's trust in the weatherman. "You learn to be considerate. They wouldn't hate you unless it was important for them, so it shows… there's a certain importance in what you're doing." He's had "some very nice comments," he says, but his children bear the brunt of his fame: "My kids are always introduced as the daughter or son of…" His daughter Dvora works at Fox News in Jerusalem. Reached on the phone, she says, "I feel as retired as he does. People ask me what the weather is going to be, and I say: 'You know, he's my father, I ask him a lot of things, but I didn't ask him what the weather's going to be.' Everybody thinks you should know what the weather will be." And, she adds about his accent; "even as kids, we did not understand everything he said." He's a fan of The Today Show's weatherman Al Roker, but doesn't think much of local Israeli television forecasts, which he considers too simplistic. While he never appeared as a TV weatherman in Israel - "I did not feel I could express myself well enough in Hebrew, in addition to the accent 'problem,'" he says with typical modesty - he was happy to appear on Eli Yatzpan's show once, "just to show that I'm not this old man with this accent," as the public somehow perceived him from his avuncular radio forecasts. That accent also has its perks. While in a store with his wife once, Olinsky wanted to write a check, but was told no checks were allowed. "There was a person in the store that I didn't know, and he turned to the guy and said, 'What do you mean, no checks? Do you know who this is? This is Robert Olinsky, the forecaster - you're not going to take his check?' And he knew who I was. I was in the airport and I had just landed and spoke to my daughter by cellphone, and the person in the row behind me said, 'Robert Olinsky!' My voice is very, very identifiable." But it's not just the voice - it's his fair-weather approach to life that comes through even the gloomiest of forecasts. Says Olinsky: "I have no complaints. I have a theory and I've never changed it, that life is what you make it. And when I was in England I was happy, in the States I was happy, and here I'm happy. Don't look for reasons not to be. Build your life according to what you want, and make the best out of it. Oh, sure, there are problems. Why shouldn't there be? Life always has problems, but they're just different from one place to the other... There is no Utopia." How does he manage to stay upbeat in a place like Israel? "In horse-racing, they're called blinders. You ignore what's going on around you," he says with a grin. The high level of violence experienced by Israelis through the intifada and the wars in Lebanon led Olinsky to develop his signature sign-off, "Sheyihiyeh lachem yom tov v'shaket" (Have a nice and quiet day). "I grew up with The Today Show, and Dave Garroway would also always pick up his hand and say: 'Peace.'… I always thought that you needed some signature to sign off with for the report… When I found out I was in a country with so much turmoil, I decided it's not a bad word to live for." On the air, he says, "I tried to always sound pleasant. I think it's important. Rain's not a bad thing, it's a good thing - don't make it sound like the end of the world… If you don't have a positive and a happy way about you, I don't think you should be a forecaster." Forecasting "is a great profession. There aren't rules, you have lots of flexibility. You're looking at some very sophisticated maps and models, but in the end, it's all on you and your interpretation of it, and I actually love that responsibility and that process," says Olinsky, who still talks about work in the present tense despite his retirement. He remains a big fan of the weather, and admits he still gets excited by a thunderstorm. "Thunderstorms can cause some very unusual and extreme effects - I love them." How would he like us to remember him, besides the accent and years of professionalism? "As a nice guy, that's all, who never tried to put on a show or exaggerate," says the weatherman, "and just as a friendly person, that's it."

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