Dreams and flowers

"Life is very hard here in Israel, and there’s always a struggle to survive.”

Kathi Gavrieli (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kathi Gavrieli
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As American poet Madison Cawein wrote: Some measure days by dreams / And some by flowers.
Basel-born Kathi Gavrieli chose to measure her days by flowers at a young age, but it took her much longer to realize her dreams.
At 16, she began a three-year course for a florist’s degree, which entailed four days’ weekly training in a flower store and one day of theory. After working for a florist for two years, she went to Munich, Germany, to earn a master’s degree. This advanced course empowered her to open and manage a store, do event planning and carry out large projects, and to teach others the art of flower arranging.
Gavrieli grew up as the only daughter of a normative Christian Swiss couple.
“My family was not religious and never attended church,” she says. However, her real father was an Israeli Jew whom her mother had met while volunteering on a northern kibbutz one summer. After Gavrieli’s birth, he came to Basel to see about settling there, but decided against it. He subsequently disappeared to Argentina for many years, jettisoning his girlfriend and baby girl for other goals.
Though Gavrieli tracked him down in Israel some six years ago and met him once, he proved as elusive as in the past.
“He never came to my wedding or met my child, his grandson,” she comments in a resigned way.
With dark hair and eyes, Gavrieli did not look typically Swiss while growing up and felt a little different.
“I was often asked if I was of Spanish or Italian origin,” she comments.
She first came to Israel in her 20s to help a former teacher with a project.
Subsequently, she returned sometimes during vacations, and worked to cover expenses. Deep down, she admits, “I was searching for my identity and my roots, which motivated me to make aliya in 1995.”
Gavrieli says her arrival was “quite a culture shock.” She points out that friends would drop by her boyfriend’s Tel Aviv apartment without notice, open the fridge and help themselves to sandwiches. “They even asked me outright how much I earned. But I like the sincerity here, that people say what they feel.”
Gavrieli attended ulpan, while working afternoons at a florist shop. “By talking with the customers I learned conversational Hebrew,” she says.
Upon parting from her boyfriend two years later, Gavrieli rented a studio apartment and lived frugally. As her artistic fingers began decorating for events, she gradually developed a network of friends. An established Dutch event planner she met encouraged her to move to suburban Ramat Hasharon, where she was well supplied with work.
Her financial situation improved, and she bought a small car.
On her annual visit to Basel in 2006, Gavrieli already “felt detached from life in Switzerland and wanted to return to my home here.” She decided to attend a Reform conversion course at Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, where she learned Jewish history and some laws and customs.
Though she enjoyed the studies, “I knew it wasn’t enough,” she says.
An Orthodox course she tried in Ramat Gan proved too difficult. She finally found a suitable course in Kfar Saba run by the Absorption Ministry, which involved two three-hour study sessions a week for nine months. She was set up with a friendly adoptive family who hosted and supported her on Shabbatot and religious holidays.
“I didn’t pass the oral test in 2008,” she says, “but retook it a month later and got through. I told my employers that I now wanted to keep Shabbat, and they made faces but agreed.”
Gavrieli began experiencing the world of shidduchim (matchmaking) for the first time as well-meaning friends tried to fix her up, but she was not comfortable with this pressured way of finding a life partner.
“It was hard to make such a big decision after four or five dates,” she comments.
Fortunately, she got to know her husband Arik more naturally, as he worked in the wholesale flower business and was one of their regular suppliers.
When he got divorced a few years ago and sought to remarry, they began dating.
Kathi’s family came from Switzerland for their outdoor moshav wedding, a joyous, flower-bedecked occasion.
Arik was born and bred in Ra’anana, but later lived in Mitzpe Ramon for many years. After his army service he spent a year traveling the wilds of Africa, returning with dreadlocks. His staunchly secular family of Albanian origin almost disowned him when he became religious in his mid-20s, and exchanged his dreadlocks for peyot (sidelocks). Ten years ago he returned to his roots in Ra’anana.
“Arik works on Moshav Givat Chen.
I work independently as a florist with an event planner and designers,” Kathi says. “I also design events myself and do flower decorations in general. I work in flower shops before the holidays and do styling for all kinds of businesses. Arik’s younger children come to us for weekends, and my three-year-old son loves them very much. He’s always thrilled to see them.”
According to Kathi, “Life has become more complete, and my neshama [soul] has been restored,” since she decided to settle in Israel and convert.
“My search is over,” she says with conviction, “but on the other hand, life is very hard here in Israel, and there’s always a struggle to survive.”