Found what he’s looking for

He fought in Vietnam, worked at IBM and lived in Canada, but today Joel Kaplan is a pacifist, hates computers and loves Israel.

Joel Kaplen (photo credit: Gloria Deutch)
Joel Kaplen
(photo credit: Gloria Deutch)
Nowadays Joel Kaplan works as a chef for a catering company, having finally settled down after an extraordinary life of danger and adventure. Slightly built and thin, with a face that breaks easily into a smile but with a haunting sadness always present, he tells his story and explains why, after everything that he endured, he has finally found peace in Israel.
He was born 62 years ago in the small township of Larder Lake in Ontario, to one of two Jewish families living there at the time.
“I was always small for my age and got picked on, and when they found out I was Jewish it was worse,” he recalls. “I was always getting into fistfights and learned early how to survive.”
Later the family moved to Hamilton, where his father was a tool and die maker and his mother an English teacher who became dean of the English Department at the University of Toronto.
He carried on getting into fistfights and from the age of eight he studied kung fu, which he continued learning and using for 19 years. He says he never studied a day in his life but schoolwork came easily to him and he did well. After his bar mitzva his parents divorced and a few years later he ran away and crossed the border to join the Marines, thinking he would see the world.
“They weren’t choosy who enlisted,” he says. “I was sent to Vietnam and because of my small build I became a tunnel rat.” In the Vietnam War, tunnel rats were sent into the horribly dangerous underground complex of tunnels built by the Vietcong in search-and-destroy missions.
There were booby traps, poison gas and enemies lying in wait, and there were plenty of spiders, scorpions and real rats as well. The years he spent in the military turned him into a pacifist.
“I’m not happy with a lot of things I’ve done in my life,” he says, “but I have ethics and I saw some terrible things. All I wanted to do was stay alive and get back to Canada.” In spite of still suffering terrible nightmares from the Vietnam years, he managed to go back to university and acquired a bachelor’s in art and home economics and a master’s in computer science.
He had a relationship with a German woman and then had a son, but domesticity was not for him.
“I worked for seven years at IBM and today I hate computers – I just about have a simple phone, no iPad or iPhone,” he emphasizes. He began to take cooking courses just for fun and realized he had a knack for it.
In 1990 he made his first visit to Israel, having been invited by his best friend, an Israeli artist living in California who often visited his parents in Toronto. He stayed on a moshav, visited Tel Aviv and enjoyed the holiday, which flew by. It wasn’t until he returned to Canada that he began to wonder about moving to Israel to live.
“What did I have to keep me in Toronto?” Kaplan asked himself. “I had my son and his mother, a friend, but I hated my work.” He made aliya in December 1991 and two days later the Gulf War broke out. He was interviewed by CNN and told them he had come to be with his friend – and knew he was where he should be.
“Something here had a hold of me,” he says.
Kaplan began working in the computer department of an insurance company but life had other plans for him.
“I realized I have a talent when it comes to food,” he says. “I used to do parties for friends but I had no official qualification.”
He was told he would have to do a training period in a hotel, and went to Eilat and got his catering papers there. He was able to work in several top Tel Aviv eateries over the years, and for the last eight years has worked in the kitchens of Paul Assenheim catering. He loves his work.
He says he never wanted to marry but that did not stop him from having another son here, Yaron – the light of his life.
Yaron is now 19 and was chosen to do a pilot’s course, which he declined. Yaron’s mother, with whom Kaplan is still very good friends, is a singer and musician whom he first saw in a photo.
She agreed to meet him and in real life she looked even better, according to Kaplan. The relationship flourished, although she insisted he give up smoking first. Although they don’t live together, he was always very involved in his son’s upbringing.
And Israel has not let him down. He loves the concern ordinary Israelis have for each other.
“That’s the most touching thing for me,” he says. “The other day in the mall a small kid was crying, lost, and from nowhere eight women surrounded him and comforted him like they were all his mothers.”
After a turbulent life, both abroad and here, he has found what he was looking for and is busy writing his memoirs.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world,” he says. “I have had a great deal of conflict in my heart and soul, but here I experienced only understanding and love.”