Learning to appreciate the ‘balagan’

Living simply, a nice Midwestern boy comes of age in Tel Aviv.

Aliya from Michigan to Tel Aviv (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aliya from Michigan to Tel Aviv
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hair stylist Jeremy Merklinger was ready to give up on Israel six months after arriving on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight in March 2011.
Three months of ulpan had failed to make a dent in his nearly nonexistent Hebrew skills. Three months of working in a Tel Aviv hair salon had failed to get him acclimated to an Israeli culture that seemed worlds apart from the soft-spoken, laid-back Midwestern way of life in which he was raised. Feeling miserable, he was working at a call center to cover his expenses.
And then, in the month that followed, things began looking up for Merklinger, now 37. The turning point was meeting Amir, the Haifa-born psychology professor with whom he shares his life.
Amir was the one who encouraged him to open his own business, and pretty soon American Hair Care became popular with Tel Aviv’s young internationals – not only Americans but also immigrants of all faiths from a variety of countries, and a few Israelis, too.
The name of the business reflects his pride in giving the kind of service where the customer’s wishes are paramount.
“I tend to guide clients where I think they should go, but they get the final say because it’s their hair,” he said. Clients also like that Merklinger has a cosmetology license, which does not exist in Israel.
“The nice thing is that we live very simply – nothing extravagant. I can work as much or as little as I want to.
I’m booked, but I have a reasonable schedule. In the US, I was working 10 hours a day and it was all about making money and buying, buying, buying,” he recalled.
“Now I’m at a point where my desires in life are totally different, and I’m starting to understand that what is important to me is quality of life and not quantity of possessions.
I couldn’t get things here that I was used to, or they cost so much more here, and I learned to live without them.”
“At first, my biggest problem was that I couldn’t get cheddar cheese,” Merklinger laughed. “You adjust and change and learn. Honestly, some days I’m not so happy about the process, but part of the excitement is learning and growing.”
Making aliya
Merklinger is no stranger to difficult transitions in life.
Raised in the little Michigan town of Grass Lake by Christian fundamentalist parents, he and his siblings associated only with members of the church, and went to a school where his graduating class numbered just three.
To complicate matters, by age 11 young Jeremy recognized his budding homosexuality and began taking an interest in Judaism – the only other religion he knew about, due to his Old Testament studies.
“I left home at 17 and came out to my parents at 21 or 22,” he related. “It was really horrible. My parents and I are starting to build a relationship again after a long time.” His siblings, he noted, have been supportive throughout.
During an 18-month search for a belief system that would be accepting of him and his lifestyle, Merklinger first joined a messianic synagogue and finally found his place at Temple Beth Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Ann Arbor. At around 22, he converted under the tutelage of the temple’s rabbi and had a bar mitzva.
Meanwhile, he earned his license in cosmetology and continued to polish his talents with additional training in styling and coloring techniques, through professional courses in New York City, Pittsburgh, Washington, London and Detroit. He then created a successful salon in Ann Arbor.
In 2008, Merklinger took his first trip to Israel, traveling from north to south for a couple of weeks. Two years later, he decided to expand his horizons by living abroad for a year, leaning toward England because he would not need to learn a new language. But he thought about Israel again when he was unable to secure a UK work permit.
“Not getting a visa was the best thing that could have happened to me. I wouldn’t have grown like I’ve grown in Israel, and I wouldn’t have met my partner,” he commented.
After talking with Nefesh B’Nefesh counselors he opted to come as a new immigrant rather than on a work visa, even though he wasn’t sure he would want to stay.
Tel Aviv or bust
Merklinger still isn’t sure Israel is his forever home, but for now it suits him well.
“If I’m going to live in Israel, it’s going to be Tel Aviv,” he said. “The weather is wonderful, the beach is gorgeous and I love that you have the ability to get around without a car. There are so many opportunities to see and experience all different types of things – music, museums and restaurants. You don’t have all those things together in all big cities.”
On Fridays, Merklinger takes his miniature dachshund, Tucker, to Tel Aviv’s canine beach to relax and watch the sun set. A passionate volunteer, he gives free haircuts at Beit Dror, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender homeless center in Tel Aviv; he is also trying to start an English-language Time Bank, or reciprocal service exchange that uses units of time as currency, in the city. “You do something for a person for an hour and that person does something for another person for an hour, and eventually it comes back around to you.”
Merklinger has taken on a private Hebrew tutor and is making progress. He and Amir, who married last year in a Reform temple in Buffalo, New York, have both English- and Hebrew-speaking friends. They host an American- style Thanksgiving dinner every November and like to socialize simply, having friends over or going out for drinks.
In the summers, they visit his family in Michigan.
Merklinger has had to explain that he is no longer a regular practitioner of any religious tradition.
“The older I get, and the more I keep studying and trying to figure myself out, the more I move away from religion,” he explained. “That makes my parents even more uncomfortable; the fact that I had faith was of some comfort to them, and now I’m getting more secular as I mature. I’m fascinated by religious histories, though, so I always study and read.”
What he loves best – and simultaneously hates worst – about Israel is that the rules of behavior are entirely flexible.
Using his favorite Hebrew word, Merklinger explains how this plays out: “There’s a balagan [giant mess] when you’re driving, but you can get away with more balagan yourself.”