Arrivals: From Argentina to Jerusalem

Felix Umansky headed the expert team that operated on Sharon following his stroke. (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
From Argentina to Jerusalem Argentinean born Felix Umansky, 62, head of Hadassah's prestigious neurosurgery department, made headlines and achieved world fame when he headed the expert team that operated on Prime Minister Sharon following his stroke. Umansky rose to the top of his profession with relative ease. While he admits that sabras tend to be awarded the major positions in Israel, he maintains that immigrants too can rise to the top - "on condition they work hard and persevere." It's an added plus, he says, to be Argentinean: "We are like plastilina, we adjust easily, fit anywhere and are generally liked." FAMILY HISTORY Umansky was born in the port city of Rosario, Argentina's third largest city. His father's family came to Argentina from the Ukraine in 1903 as part of Baron Hirsch's resettlement program, in which Jews who had never worked on the land before were sent out to work and live as "gauchos" on the harsh Argentinean pampas. "Life for these Jewish gauchos was very hard," recalls Umansky. "They had no tractors, suffered from locusts and made a pittance of a living - so my father went to find work in Rosario, married there and eventually brought the whole family over." As a child, Umansky learned Yiddish and Hebrew in a Jewish elementary school in the mornings and attended regular school in the afternoons. In his teens he was active in the local Maccabee youth center. "Argentina was very open to Jews," he says, "and the community was able to develop in every possible way." BEFORE ARRIVING At the age of 13, Umansky knew he wanted to be a doctor, and at 16 he entered medical school at Rosario University, where education was free and open to all, with no quotas on Jews. Student life, however, in the early '60s was dominated by the Cuban Revolution - Che Guevara, also a doctor, was born in Rosario, on the same street as Umansky - and the anti-Zionism of the left led many Jewish students, including Umansky, to join Zionist youth movements. The Six Day War further impacted on the students, impelling many to volunteer with the IDF. Among the Israeli emissaries who came to lecture in Argentina at the time, Umansky recalls Warsaw ghetto heroine Hayka Grossman. "I remember her telling us: you don't have to come to die in Israel, just come and live here." The idea of making aliya began to sprout in Umansky's mind and while specializing in neurosurgery, he received an offer he couldn't refuse - a neurosurgical residency at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva. "It was an opportunity to make aliya, with a job to go to." UPON ARRIVAL Within a few months of his arrival in 1973, the Yom Kippur War broke out and the young resident's first assignment was to operate on wounded soldiers. "The wounded began to arrive from Sinai on the very first day of the war. We worked day and night, during 23 days of war, operating on wounded Israeli soldiers as well as Egyptians and Iraqis." Communication in the department was facilitated by an Argentinean colleague and Ladino speaking Turkish doctors. Umansky met his wife, Varda, a beautiful law student, when treating her brother who had been hurt in a motorcycle accident, and the couple settled in Ramat Hasharon. Umansky completed his specialization and as chief resident at Beilinson, he also conducted joint research with world renowned anatomist, Professor Hillel Nathan - another Rosario physician. Their joint collaboration helped develop new approaches to cranial base surgery. In 1981 Umansky was awarded a fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, followed by a second fellowship at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. His pioneering anatomical research gained him a post at Hadassah, where he went on to build the country's leading cranial base practice. In 1991 he was appointed head of the department and full professor. In addition to operating, conducting research, bringing up two sons Daniel and Jonathan, traveling and attending conferences, Umansky found time to play the clarinet and be part of an international jazz band of neurosurgeons. ROUTINE Umansky gets up at 6 a.m., drinks a cup of coffee, peruses the paper and exercises for an hour at the Crowne Plaza fitness center. He arrives at Hadassah at around 8:30 and works until eight or nine at night, and sometimes even till 11 depending on the surgery (certain cranial base surgeries can last 14 hours). He operates three times a week and the rest of time teaches, trains and supervises. He returns home at night "starving" and like all Argentineans, enjoys a good steak. LIVING ENVIRONMENT Umansky lives in a spacious apartment in the Wolfson Towers in Jerusalem. The elegant d cor of oriental carpets, antiques, silver artifacts, tapestries, paintings and pendulum clocks reflect his and his wife's many travels and wide interests. Umansky enjoys living in the center of the city and going for walks in Sacher park. CIRCLE Umansky's friends are a mixture of Argentineans and Israelis, not all doctors. He particularly enjoys getting together with old friends from Rosario and is close to his wife's family. Varda Umansky was the former legal advisor of President Katsav, Chaim Weizmann and Chaim Herzog and now likes to guide visitors around the Israel Museum. LANGUAGE Umansky has a perfect command of Hebrew, but prefers to read books in Spanish or English. At home he speaks Hebrew with his wife and while Hebrew is his working language, he enjoys the fact that Spanish often filters in as a result of a strong Argentinean presence in his department. FAITH Umansky says he is not religious but isn't an atheist, either. "I believe in God. I make Kiddush on Shabbat and keep the holidays but I feel I can speak to God without going to synagogue. I feel very Jewish and am happy to live in a Jewish country." IDENTIFICATION "I consider myself an Argentinean-born Israeli. I like to visit my hometown but this is my country. Culturally, though, I feel close to Argentina: I like the literature, the music - the tango particularly - and the food." FINANCES "Since my fellowships in the US, my situation has been fine. I also do private work so that helps a lot. I cannot compare my financial status to that of an American neurosurgeon, but I feel on a par with Europeans and certainly much better off than my counterparts in Argentina. The situation medically in Israel is very stable and I have everything I need." PLANS "I have three years of sabbatical to take, so I must decide where to spend them and what to focus on. I am proud that neurosurgery has developed so fast in my time. We can operate today in almost any part of the brain and surgery mortality is down to three percent. The next stage, which we have already begun, is to develop the use of robots. Ultimately, when I retire, I may choose to study something quite different, such as history, and perhaps return to my clarinet." To propose an immigrant for an 'Arrivals' profile, please send a brief e-mail to