Veterans: Escape from England

Yonatan Shaked knew he needed to get away and eventually ended up here, where he has been living a colorful life ever since.

Escape from England (photo credit: Uriel Messa)
Escape from England
(photo credit: Uriel Messa)
Yonatan Shaked was born John R. Screeton in London in 1949. He was raised a Christian and went to a Catholic school, which was private and more prestigious than other schools in the neighborhood.
“It was all part of the show my family put on,” he says.
“I had a horrible childhood and just wanted to get away.”
His father was in the Merchant Navy and his mother a housewife. Israel began to enter his consciousness slowly.
“I was pulled to Israel because of the stories in the Bible,” he says.
“When the Six Day War broke out, something clicked. I decided to volunteer, and saw it as a way to escape and also to help Israel.”
He had to pay his own way to Israel and so didn’t make it for the war, coming in October 1967, having worked as a waiter to pay his passage.
“I arrived in Haifa and was in a state of shock,” Shaked recounts. ”When I asked for directions, no one understood me or spoke English.”
He somehow made his way to Kibbutz Ein Gev, with a letter of introduction he had acquired from an organization for volunteers, and settled in there, finally finding some happiness with his work in the banana and date plantations, and living with a family that was good to him.
“When I left England I had a mental split from my past,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to be who I was, and I decided I was a Jew. I began to believe it myself.”
He stayed for three years, but in 1970 returned to England.
“It was always in the back of my mind, who I really am,” says Shaked. “It was a disaster staying with my parents, so I went to live in Golders Green – because it was so Jewish – and began working for El Al.”
He worked in security and in the ticketing department, and would travel back and forth to Israel for his work.
“But I felt like a fish out of water,” he says. “I hated England – I just wanted to be in Israel.”
In 1973, he moved to Tel Aviv and worked in the travel business.
“It was a bohemian way of life and I put on a happy show. I did some modeling, went to the opera, to shows – but I was not happy,” Shaked says. “I always felt there must be a better way of life.”
He decided he must convert and went to the rabbinate in Jerusalem, which was not encouraging.
“They questioned my motives and were really rude and horrible,” Shaked recalls. But undeterred, he did the conversion course – and it was an awakening for him.
“I could not get enough of it,” he says. “I loved every minute of being an Orthodox Jew, and knew I had finally found the life I wanted.”
The rabbis tried to put him off, but nothing could dissuade him.
“I became a religious Jew,” he says. “There was no other way I could live.”
And he succeeded, completing his conversion within two years, in spite of all the negativity from the rabbinate.
As soon as it was final, the rabbi’s wife of the community he belonged to wanted to match him up with another convert, but he refused.
“I’m going to yeshiva in Jerusalem,” he told her.
He spent a year studying at Darchei Noam and once again found some degree of happiness, but knew it couldn’t last.
“I had to go into the real world,” he says.
He changed his name to Shaked, which means almond –“it was almond-blossom time” – and lived for 14 years in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood, working for various travel agencies and living a Jewish life.
“I didn’t feel strange any more – I was accepted,” he says. He made many friends, liked his work and the lifestyle. But problems were beginning to loom.
“I began to find the religious world in which I moved a bit stifling,” he says. “And then I became ill with meningitis and had some sort of a breakdown.”
Shaked left Jerusalem and lived for a while on a moshav, eventually using up all his savings.
Finally he took to the hills, living among the Beduin, who were good to him – giving him food and a place to sleep. But eventually this became too dangerous, and he turned to the authorities, who offered him housing in Beit Shemesh.
Shaked says the fourth-floor walkup which is his home – featured on October 24 – is in a slum, and indeed the outside surroundings are grim. But he has surrounded himself with attractive things, his own watercolors and old furniture he has restored and hand-painted. He lives on a minimum handout from the National Insurance Institute, occasionally getting some help from a Tel Aviv charity that he knew of in better days.
He is no longer Orthodox, although he still puts on tefillin every day and keeps kosher. Most of his time now is spent promoting his book, My Façade, which is about to be published under his original name, John R. Screeton.
“It’s my uncensored life story,” he says.
And Shaked still has great faith.
“One thing I have realized,” he says with passion.
“God is always there with you, and that is what gives me strength.”