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(photo credit: Meredith Price)
When Josh Blankman, 27, decided to take advantage of a free trip to Israel through the birthright israel program, he had no idea that his stay would last far longer than the 10 days he intended, or that his work here would involve writing computer programs to distinguish between cow sounds. "As soon as the plane landed in Israel, I felt like I had come home," Blankman says with enthusiasm. "But I spent almost a year trying to convince my brain to follow my heart and make aliya."
Blankman was born in California but moved at a young age to New York City. A few years later, his family resettled in New Mexico, where Blankman attended two years of high school before beginning his college degree early at Simon's Rock College in Massachusetts. Simon's Rock is the only four-year liberal arts college in the United States specifically designed for younger students, and Blankman says he was happy to leave high school early to attend. "High school in New Mexico was not a challenge, and I didn't like it at all," says Blankman.
After two years in Massachusetts he returned to New Mexico for a short stint of community college, and then finished his degree in Olympia, Washington. "It took me a while to finish my BA, longer than it should have," says Blankman, whose studies centered largely on mathematics.
Blankman came to Israel through the birthright israel program - without his parents or his sister - in January 2005. He had planned on starting in Israel and then traveling through the Middle East as the first leg of an after-graduation trip, but as soon as he arrived in Israel he felt himself drawn to the country and eventually decided to settle here instead of continuing his trip or returning to the US. "Part of the reason why I wanted to travel was soul-searching, and when I got here, I no longer felt it was necessary," he says. "I still want to travel one day, but for now, I'm here."
Blankman wandered around Tel Aviv and then went to Eilat for a scuba certification course, settled in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, between Netanya and Hadera, for ulpan classes, and then landed a five-month internship in Ra'anana that led to a position with the Agriculture Ministry. He made aliyah from Israel with the help of Nefesh b'Nefesh.
Blankman, who enjoys math and computers, says he never imagined that his work would involve cows. "My dad had some friends who told me about the internship in Ra'anana with the Agriculture Ministry, and when I got there they explained to me that the project involved writing computer software that could automatically detect different cow sounds," says Blankman, who says he spends most of his time in an office listening to cow noises.
The distinction between cows that are biting only, chewing only and both biting and chewing can help detect early signs of disease in the animals and give farmers a better understanding of grazing patterns. So far, the program has been unsuccessful because the microphones that are placed on the cows' foreheads are far from the jaw, and a lot of variation in cow bites and chews exist, making them difficult to pinpoint. But Blankman is hopeful that in the near future a software program that can automatically assign values to cow actions based solely on sound will come to fruition.
"I'm as American as American can be," Blankman says with a wide grin. Both his maternal and paternal grandparents were born in the US. "Somewhere along the line, my relatives immigrated from Ukraine and Poland, but I'm fourth-generation American."
He has a younger sister who is getting her master's degree in New Mexico, where his parents still live. His Mom is a psychotherapist, or mental health counselor, and his dad works with computers in information management. His maternal grandfather lives in Redwood City and his paternal grandmother makes her home in San Francisco. "My parents met in the Bay Area through friends," says Blankman, who says he never asked about the details.
Blankman has had much difficulty in mastering the Hebrew language despite finding it relatively simple grammatically. "My pronunciation is better now, but I still have trouble understanding people," says Blankman. "I don't use it at work or very often with friends so it's not as good as I'd like it to be, but I'm working on it. Proficiency is one of my goals."
On Rehov Bograshov, one block away from the sea with a view of the water, Blankman shares a 170-square-meter penthouse apartment with two young Israeli roommates, both of whom recently returned after spending many years in Canada and the US. It was through birthright alumni that Blankman found the opening for a room, and it was the first place he looked at before moving from Ra'anana in November.
"I have two roommates, but with all the visitors who come and go, it feels like more," he says, as he reaches out to pet his roommate's brother's dog, an enormous Great Dane who has come for a brief visit and enjoys curling up on the couch. "Believe it or not, this room was spotless two days ago and we don't have many parties," he adds, peering over his open laptop with a serious expression.
A look around the living room might suggest otherwise - empty bottles of vodka and whiskey line one shelf and dirty glasses litter a wooden coffee table in the center of the room. A fraternity-house ambiance prevails in the friendly, relaxed environment where people and dogs are free to come and go.
From Sunday through Thursday, the wake-up hour is brutal for Blankman, who has to be in his office at the Agriculture Ministry's Volcani Center near Holon by 7:30.
"Good old public transportation takes 45 minutes to arrive, so I have to leave here at 6:45," he says. The advantage to such an early start is an early finish, and Blankman says he's usually home before 5 p.m.
"I used to walk to Cinema City once a week with my roommate to see a movie, but that's kind of stopped recently," says Blankman, who likes to vary his work routine with spontaneity. "I spend a lot of time at the beach and on occasion have drama practice for the odd play," he says.
"I have two friends here from Turkey and the Netherlands, but most of my friends are American. I'm trying to make friends with Israelis, but I'll have to learn the language better so I can communicate," says Blankman.
"I grew up Reformed Reform," Blankman says of his Jewish upbringing. "My parents let me decide what part of Judaism I wanted to have in my life. We celebrated tradition at home, but never attended synagogue."
Blankman says that although he feels culturally Jewish, religion does not play a large role in his life. When people ask where he is from, he usually answers, "That's a good question." He adds that although he spent more than 20 years in New Mexico, he has never felt more at home than in Israel.
When he's not at the beach, Blankman spends much of his spare time writing plays and acting in the Tel Aviv Community Theater (TACT) for native English speakers. "I love acting. I love to perform, and I would be happy to get paid doing it if it didn't involve dealing with all the crap in that field," says Blankman. He says he would also be happy branching out into the television and movie genres given the opportunity.
"I see myself staying in Israel, but I'd like to improve my Hebrew enough to get past sounding like an idiot and telling people "lo hevanti" [I didn't understand] all the time," laughs Blankman. Aside from improving his language skills, Blankman also wants to get more involved in theater and go back for his master's degree in either signal processing, information management or mathematics. "Meeting a nice girl and being in a relationship would be good too," he adds.
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