Arrivals: Cheri Tannenbaum - From Edmonton to Efrat

Stricken with dystonia in her early 20s, Cheri Tannenbaum says, 'I live challenges.'

Cheri Tannenbaum 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Cheri Tannenbaum 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Cheri Tannenbaum came here in 1994 with her husband, Harvey, and their eight-year-old daughter Orit. For Tannenbaum, who had been digging into her Jewish roots in Canada and then the US, moving to Israel was like "coming home," she says. Stricken with a debilitating condition in her early 20s that made it very difficult for her to walk or talk, life became an ongoing battle of physical and emotional challenges. But armed with intelligence, creativity, a sense of humor and an indomitable spirit, there are no challenges that she has not been able to meet head on and prevail - not even Israel. LIFE BEFORE ALIYA Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Cheri Belzberg grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. To further her growing interest in her Jewish heritage, she attended Stern College in New York to immerse herself in a year of Jewish studies. That year, two things occurred that would change the course of her life: She began to develop the symptoms of dystonia, a rare neurological condition, and she met Harvey Tannenbaum from Los Angeles, the man to whom she has been married for 35 years. Cheri and Harvey were wed the following year and built a home in LA, where doctors told her there was no known cure for dystonia because medical scientists could not determine the cause of the condition. In 1976 her parents founded the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, which gathered doctors and researchers from around the world to try to find a cure. Over the years the foundation has helped thousands of sufferers, but, as she comments, not the person for whom it was established, as her particular case does not fit into any of the existing categories of the disease. In LA, she received a BA in psychology and an MA in human development. She had wanted to teach children with special needs, however that required a degree in regular education, and her speech problem prohibited her from being able to teach a class of "30 rowdy youngsters" as she puts it. Turning her attention to her creative talents and her flair for fashion, she went to fashion design school. She then took a jewelry-making course and began to design one-of-a-kind necklaces made of chunky beads, glass, acrylic, silver and gold-plated ornaments. Impassioned with the joy of creating these bold, colorful pieces, she felt she had found her niche. But one more creative element was missing from her life: She wanted to have a child. Although doctors warned her that she stood a 50 percent chance of having a sick child, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Orit, who is now married and has two children of her own. After having lived in LA for 20 years, the signs began pointing to the family's moving to Israel. Tannenbaum had already visited here five times before. Harvey ran a kosher restaurant, but he had taken on too much and had to close up shop. And Cheri's brother Marc was living here, as was Harvey's sister, Marla Farkas, so the couple felt it was time to make aliya. ARRIVAL As she recounts, they left Los Angeles on June 30, 1994, the day "O.J. Simpson 'didn't kill' his wife." As the LAPD was chasing Simpson's white Bronco down the streets of Brentwood, the Tannenbaums were winging their way to the Holy Land. Marc Belzberg was at the airport to greet his sister and her family. Says Cheri, "I felt a peace and contentment that I had finally arrived in the place where all Jews should be - in the land of Israel, our land." SETTLING IN The Tannenbaums went to live in Jerusalem, in an apartment in Katamon near Marc and his growing family. They lived on Rehov Tel Hai for five years, near the Horev school that she had wanted her daughter to attend. In the first six months, Tannenbaum spent her time familiarizing herself with the lay of the land - where to shop for food and find out where the doctors and hospitals were. She also monitored Orit's adjustment to school and made sure she got all the help she needed to succeed academically. And, she adds, "I also needed to find a place to progress in my own spiritual development." In Katamon, the couple had two more (healthy!) children - daughter Nechama who is 12, and son Simcha who is 11. LANGUAGE Harvey and Cheri had attended day school as children, so they did not have a problem speaking Hebrew. Entering third grade, Orit did not have any previous knowledge of the language, so it was difficult for her at first, says Tannenbaum. "But she had a lot of help, and kids learn fast." DAILY LIFE The Tannenbaums have been living in Efrat since 1998. "We needed space and wanted more of a community feeling," she explains. And Harvey's sister and family live there. "I turned into a country bumpkin," she says, "and was happy to do so." Harvey established a business called Protexsia Plus, which caters to a wide range of visitors' needs, such as airport pickup, tours and accommodation. Tannenbaum takes care of her two younger children at home and continues to make jewelry. "Everyone who sees my stuff loves it, but it takes guts to wear my necklaces," she admits. In addition, she has launched into another area of fashion: She designs skirts made entirely from men's ties. An interesting feature of her necklaces and her skirts is that they look heavy, but both are actually lightweight on the body. She has about 400 necklaces and 100 skirts at home. On her Web site (www.designsbycheri.com) she showcases her creations. "Ideally," she says, "I'd love to have someone take them and sell them for me. I just want to create, not sell." She also continues her spiritual development by attending various classes. What's more, she recently started to play the harp. "I am interested in pursuing a career as a harp therapist, playing the instrument in hospitals. But for that I have a long road ahead of me," she says. CHALLENGES "With my condition, my life is one big challenge wherever I am," she says. In Israel, she says, it is easier to communicate via her Palm Pilot, which she uses to type out whatever she wants to say. "I figured I live challenges, so I might as well go through with them in my homeland. My husband deals with all the Israeli stuff, so I don't have to. He doesn't find anything a challenge. He has a way of getting to the right people and getting everything done one, two three." BEST THINGS ABOUT ISRAEL "Every step I take in this holy land is a mitzva," says Tannenbaum. On a more corporeal level, "you can go into basically any restaurant or grocery store and know that what you are buying or eating is kosher." And, she says, "I actually feel that the concept of all Israel is responsible for one another is being manifested here." ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "When dealing with Israelis or Israeli bureaucracy, don't give up!" To propose an immigrant for an 'Arrivals' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: [email protected]