Arrivals: Soldiering on

After making aliya at 22 and studying at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem, Rubinstein enlisted in the IDF and had the full military experience.

Michael Rubinstein 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Rubinstein 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Rubinstein, 29, is no stranger to armies. So far, he’s enlisted in two – in Sweden and in Israel. The Stockholm native should have spent seven and a half months on active duty in Sweden, but an accident meant he only served for three.
After making aliya at 22 and studying at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem, Rubinstein enlisted in the IDF and had the full military experience. “I was too old to be a combat soldier, but I didn’t want to just spend six months sitting in an office and say I had done the army. You either do it or you don’t,” he says.
He volunteered for an extended 18-month service in the infantry in Nahal, a bumpy match. “I was with a bunch of kibbutznikim. I am right wing and they were left-wing kids.” This combination led to a lot of tension, and rather than finishing the army with a tight-knit group of friends, Rubinstein says he has no army buddies.
Following the army, Rubinstein, who studied Web design in Sweden, drifted from job to job. Then his life changed completely. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and discovered he had nine tumors. Owing to the size (an egg) and position (underneath his aorta) of one of the tumors, he could not undergo surgery and instead endured months of chemotherapy and radiation.
Along with that discovery, Rubinstein discovered the strength of his connection to Israel. “The diagnosis sent my head spinning,” he acknowledges. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m sick and I’m alone, but I’m not going back to Sweden.’ I came here, served in the army, learned the language, and so I decided to tough it out.”
Since all his family was in Sweden (a sister has since made aliya) – his mother and stepfather in Stockholm and his father in Leksand – he went through everything pretty much alone. “Everyone tried to help, but I didn’t let them. Nothing can substitute for real family when you are sick.” His mother came over a few times and accompanied him to his final chemo treatment and also for a painful bone marrow biopsy.
Being ill added another dimension to Rubinstein’s absorption. He had already learned Hebrew in the army; but now he had to learn medical Hebrew. “I wanted to sound intelligent when talking to my doctors. I didn’t want them just to treat me without completely understanding and knowing what decisions I had to make.”
This determination meant that even before he received an “official” diagnosis, he talked to some people and looked up the condition on Google. “I wanted to be prepared to know how to get rid of it. I wanted to know how I could cure myself.”
His determination to tough it out meant that even when he was undergoing his punishing treatment at Ichilov Hospital, he still worked full time in the import/export industry. “I decided I wasn’t just going to lie on my bed. I knew I needed to keep working and to do my job as well as I could under the circumstances.” To maintain a semblance of normality, Rubinstein arranged to have his treatments on a Thursday, using Friday and Saturday to recover before returning to work on Sunday. And even though he has a fear of needles, he overcame the phobia to give himself shots to get his blood count up for treatment.
He managed to keep up this regime until the end of his seven-month therapy when he admits he couldn’t even walk more than 500 meters without having to sit down. “I weighed 85 kilos before I started treatment and only 57 kilos at the end of it.” The treatment worked, and now he only has to have annual check-ups.
Once in remission, Rubinstein returned to work, still with no real direction. Shortly after his return, he was fired. “I wasn’t very good at the job,” he says wryly.
A trip around the Netherlands Archipelago in 2008 provided an insight into what he should do with his life – cook. “A group of us went on a cruise and I took responsibility for the catering, and enjoyed it.” Following the trip, he went knocking on doors to find a job in the restaurant industry and ended up working at Goo Cha in Tel Aviv.
Despite his new-found passion, he couldn’t make ends meet, so he took a job in Internet gaming, a decision that troubled his soul. “No amount of money would make me work in that industry again. I would look in the mirror in the morning and see how miserable I was. I literally couldn’t live with myself.” Cullinary school in Tel Aviv beckoned, and after six months of training in higher French culinary arts, he worked at Goo Cha again for seven months before visiting Sweden to gain some international experience.
He now works at Vicki Christina, a Spanish restaurant in Mitcham Hatachana in Tel Aviv. “Cooking has given me a push and a direction. I now know who I am.” So much so, he has a long-term plan to open his own restaurant, although he won’t say what type. What is clear is that he won’t be returning to Sweden. “I found myself here in Israel. I found my home here. It let me become who I am and what I’m meant to be.”