Aviva Cohen, 28, is Australian and studied medicine in Melbourne before moving to Jerusalem two years ago. She is doing her residency specialisation in adult psychiatry at Hadassah Hospital, Ein Karem.
Moving to Israel was a dream I’d put on the back burner for many years. I’d gone to a Jewish and Zionist school in Australia from an early age, heard many stories about a Jewish homeland and was encouraged to develop my Jewish identity. As I grew older I found this harder and harder to reconcile. On my many visits to Israel I was pleasantly surprised at the sense of belonging I felt. It was like being part of a huge melting pot where everyone had their own heritage, culture and traditions that together formed the fabric of society. In Melbourne, I felt sport and drinking beer was the prevailing culture and had found myself feeling more and more distant from it as the years went by.
I’d already spent a year studying in the old city of Jerusalem and touring the country. And I’d travelled quite widely. I deferred a year after three years of medical school in Melbourne to travel abroad and spent it backpacking through India and Africa, with stops in Israel, Europe and the US. And again, before my final year, I took three months to travel, this time backpacking through South America and on a student exchange in two Israeli hospitals.
I left East St Kilda, an area of Melbourne we used to call “the Jewish ghetto”.
I’d graduated from medical school and was working as an intern for a large public hospital on my first year of full-time work as a junior doctor. It was important to me to be registered as an Australian doctor so I completed my internship but hopped on the plane not long after that.
I bought a one way ticket. We will see what happens. I don’t have plans to return to Melbourne. I didn’t really know what my plans were when I arrived but I knew I wanted to spend an extended amount of time in Israel. I wanted to settle down in a place and experience it and not pack up every 12 months.
I was scared about being blown up while sipping my latte in a café or taking a bus to work. I’ve always been sceptical of the foreign media’s representation of the situation but the sensationalism across all media can’t be avoided and I’d been concerned about safety. The fear seemed to dissipate once I was here but there’s a widespread air of repressed fear and tension. Last summer, with the onset of the Lebanon war, there was no way to carry on repressing it. The message that I was living in the Middle East was loud and clear. The fact is there are two different nations with two different languages, cultures and religions, living on a tiny strip of land. There is much unrest and most people tune into the news hourly to hear the latest developments. But at the same time there is an inertia, that repression of reality that enables me to carry on.
There are discrepancies between the dream I was told about in school and the reality on the ground. The mentality of the Middle East is quite different to the commonwealth flavour of Australia. No queues, no pleases or thank-yous, no beating around the bush – just say it like it is whether it pleases or hurts.
To me the most beautiful parts of the city are its oldest; cobblestoned and closed to traffic. There’s the old city, of course, with the four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. I also love the area of Nahlaot, behind the Mahane Yehuda open air market, and there are beautiful lookout spots where the whole of Jerusalem can be seen, like from Mount Scopus, where the Hebrew University is situated. Living here – sadly but truly – most of my life centres around West Jerusalem, an area called the German Colony, which is quite cosmopolitan. When I do visit the tourist sites they can often feel contrived. But there are off-the-beaten track things to be seen. I have a few friends who are tour guides so it’s always great to go with them and discover things I never knew existed.
There is more of an immigrant community than an expat community. Because of Israel’s law of return, a Jew may immigrate to Israel automatically. There are several communities: a very large Anglo-Saxon one, mainly from US, Canada, UK, Australia and South Africa; a large French community; and a South American one. These immigrants tend to live in West Jerusalem in the German colony areas – quite expensive areas.
I live in an old Arab house, divided into several flats. Mine’s a small flat on the ground floor with very high ceilings and I’ve a small courtyard to look on to. It’s on a quaint street, albeit a main road, sandwiched between a Tunisian restaurant and a picture-framing store.
Property in Jerusalem is very expensive. And prices are being pushed up by the overseas market, so many young Israelis or foreigners living here on an Israeli’s salary tend to rent or are forced to move out of Jerusalem when they are looking to buy. The cost of living is similar to prices in America yet the salaries are significantly lower, so many Israelis live in debt.
Hebrew was my second language. It was good before I started training but has improved since. I had to acclimatise to a new country, a new [professional] field, a new hospital and a new language. It’s not easy and sometimes quite frustrating. I used to sit in staff meetings, grasp about half of what was being said and never dare give my input. I now understand fully and have the confidence to express myself. My weakness is writing reports in Hebrew, which takes me twice as long as everybody else, and also reading other people’s handwriting, particularly doctors’.
The beach is great in Tel Aviv but it’s no Australia. It’s much more crowded. I go to Tel Aviv about once a month. There’s great nightlife, restaurants and shopping and I have good friends there. I’ve been lucky with friends and have integrated well into the Israeli scene. Jerusalem is quite a small town and people are really friendly. The foreign community has been very welcoming; everybody is in the same boat so there is a real sense of family and looking after each other.
My heart feels like it’s in a few different places. I am starting to feel like Jerusalem is my home. There are things about living here that I am not sure I can ever get used to and it makes it hard. I think the place I grew up, where my childhood was spent, will always feel like home. And for me, being Australian does shape my identity. I miss my friends and family terribly. I had very close friends. We stay in touch via e-mail and Skype and I try go back about once a year.
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