Welcome to the second installment of intrepid interviews! In this episode, fashion designer and NYC-native Yaël Wiesenfeld shares her experience moving away from her lifelong home for something completely different: living and working in Haifa, Israel. Read on to learn more about her adventure so far (and to get some great recommendations for favorite things to do in Israel!)
You recently moved to Israel after living in New York for many years, correct? How long have you been living there now?
Yeah, I spent my whole life in New York. It’s been 7 months in Israel now – going on 8 months, actually, wow.
Have you ever lived abroad before?
I studied abroad in Paris for 5 months, and I’ve already lived in Israel longer than that!
What prompted you to make such a big move?
Really it was kind of accidental. I’m a fashion designer – I was in school at FIT and a guest critic for another class was recruiting for my position in Israel. I heard about it and it sounded like a great opportunity. I’d thought about living in Israel before but assumed I would never do it – that I wouldn’t have job opportunities in my field. I sent the critic an email and (5 months later) got the job!
Why Israel specifically?
I was looking at jobs in NYC at the same time, but I’ve always had a strong connection to Israel. I have family that lives 5 minutes walking distance away from me.
I also regretted not taking a year in Israel before college, which is an option my parents gave me. But as an 18-year-old I was eager to move forward with what I saw as the inevitable next step of my life. So this is a second chance to live in Israel that I thought I would never get. My sister is actually joining me here in August.
What kind of preparations did you make for a move overseas?
Probably not enough! My brother’s bar mitzvah was a couple days before I moved, so I was scrambling last minute to get all my stuff packed. I brought one large rolling bag and two large duffel bags – mostly clothes, plus my laptop and camera. Everything else I bought here.
Did you have furnishings that you left behind or sold?
Before I left I was living in my parents’ house, so I didn’t have my own furniture. But my last few weeks were also spent packing up the stuff I wasn’t taking to go in my parents’ attic so one of my siblings could move into my bedroom.
Right before I moved I had everything all packed up in boxes and my 10-year-old little sister walked into my room and said, “It’s so sad you’re leaving, everything is all packed up.” I said, “But you’re going to have your own room!”, and she said, “But I’d rather have you here.”
Aww, that’s really sweet. What did you decide to buy when you were there? Or did you rent a furnished apartment?
I was looking for a furnished apartment but found that was rather difficult where I wanted to live, so I ended up with an unfurnished apartment. I purchased almost everything at Ikea. We got a couple sofas and a dining room table from a secondhand store, but mostly everything else is from Ikea.
Thank goodness for Ikea.
I know, I don’t know what I would do without it. Israelis love Ikea, too. They have a really strange adoration for it.
Why is that, do you think?
There aren’t that many furniture store options here. It’s such a small country, and I think the shopping experience at Ikea is kind of fun. My dad’s cousin and his wife took me to Ikea three times when I first moved. Every time my aunt was so happy to take me, saying, “every time I go to Ikea I find something!” It’s true, they always ended up buying something for themselves. For Purim this year in the office, the other designers and I even dressed up as Ikea employees.
Where in Israel did you move to? How did you decide you wanted to live there?
I moved to Haifa, and it was kind of a default for me. Haifa is the only real city within commuting distance of my work, and I’m very much a city person. Haifa is a little quiet for my tastes, but I work too far from Tel Aviv so I can’t live there.
I work in Misgav, which is in the middle of the northern part of Israel. It’s rural: there are a few small villages, rolling green hills, and sometimes there are cows grazing around the corner from where I work.
How was the process of finding an apartment? Was it difficult or easy?
It went fairly quickly, though it was a little difficult at first. When I first arrived my company put me in a hotel in Nahariya, which is a 40-minute drive from Haifa and I don’t have a car. Luckily, I have a good friend from the States who lives in Haifa, so I stayed with her 5 weekends in a row. I was only searching for a couple of weekends and the rest was signing contracts.
My apartment was actually the third apartment I looked at, and I found it through a mutual friend. Keshet, whom you also know, is friends with my now-flatmate. She saw he was looking for a flatmate, so she matched us up.
Is it hard enough to find an apartment in Israel that it’s about who you know?
I think everything in Israel is a little bit about who you know – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s that the culture is about everybody helping friends out. I had two different people posting about my apartment search, one friend saw that I was looking for an apartment and contacted me about it – everyone is always very willing to help, and that ends up mostly being how things get done.
How has it been making new friends and connections in a new country? What about living apart from your main group of friends and family?
Of course it’s been difficult – I’m very close with my family. I’m used to having them available and I have a huge network of friends in New York. But luckily I do have family here who have made it easy for me by helping with all of the things that would have been really difficult on my own. I also get along really well with my flatmates, so that’s been really good. I knew I wanted to have flatmates because I’m living somewhere new where I didn’t know anybody.
What are you doing for work?
I’m a fashion designer, and the company I work for is a manufacturer of seamless clothing – garments that are knitted on circular knitting machines. A lot of different textures and shape can be knitted into the garment so there’s very little sewing in the final product. That’s best for undergarments or active-wear.
My job is primarily designing for Victoria’s Secret, which is one of our biggest customers. That entails traveling to our office and factories in China, going to NYC and presenting to the Victoria’s Secret design team – that’s great because I get to go home for business trips – and also working with our Israeli development team on styles.
How do you feel about the cost of living in Israel? How does it compare to NYC?
Everyone here complains about the cost of living, but coming from New York everything is super, super cheap. I know Tel Aviv is expensive, but Haifa is incredibly inexpensive by New York standards. I would be paying three times as much to be living in a shoe closet with a friend in NYC. So it’s fantastic in comparison to what I’m used to.
What’s it like working in Israel versus working in New York? Any differences?
Yes – It’s great! The culture here is much more family-focused than American culture. There’s much more of an emphasis on actually caring about employees’ time. Of course it depends on the industry in the US, but I’m speaking about the fashion industry because that’s what I know.
In NYC, you have to be committed to working incredibly long days. Sometimes you don’t know when you’re going to get to go home. Right before a collection comes out you might be working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Here it’s very different. I get picked up by a shuttle that takes me to the office just before 7 am. I get there a little before 8, work from 8 to 5, and that’s it every single day. I don’t stay late, ever. It’s really nice to have my own time, schedule things, and know what time I’m going to be home.
I worked until 8 pm on Friday night. I want a shuttle to come pick me up that’s like, “you’re done working.”
I know, it’s great! I’ll likely come back to NYC and will probably experience those crazy long hours again, and sometimes it’s worth it, but right now it’s really nice to have a schedule where that’s it and that’s what I’ll do.
Do you speak Hebrew or English with your coworkers?
I speak a little bit of both. I’m working on learning Hebrew. I speak mostly English with the people I have to talk to a lot, like my boss, but then there are other employees who don’t speak much English – so we work through with our limited language skills.
Did you have any pre-conceptions about living in Israel that were changed once you were actually living there?
I did have a fairly good idea of what it would be like; I spent a fair amount of time in Israel growing up and I had friends and family here. I would have been a lot more nervous moving here if that hadn’t been the case.
I guess I kind of knew Haifa wasn’t a super exciting city, but it’s even less exciting than I expected it to be. I know I’m complaining, but it surprises me on a daily basis how little city life there is here. People just work, spend time with their families at home, and don’t really go out that much. Luckily, it’s just a short train ride from Tel Aviv.
Speaking of which, how do you generally get around the city? Between cities?
Israel has very good public transportation in general. The catch is that most of it stops for Shabbat from Friday afternoon – how late in the afternoon depends on when the sun sets – until late on Saturday night.
Haifa is a “mixed” city meaning both Jews and Christian and Muslim Arabs live here, so bus transportation runs on Friday nights and Saturdays, making it a lot easier to get around.
However, the trains between cities don’t run on Shabbat. So if I want to go to Tel Aviv for a weekend I can either go on a Friday and come back the same day, or find someone to spend the night with and come back really late on Saturday night when the trains start back up again. (Cultural note: the Israeli weekend is Friday-Saturday, not Saturday-Sunday.)
What are some hidden gems you’ve discovered since moving there?
There’s a smoothie/juice bar a few blocks from me with vegan, soft serve ice cream that’s coconut and plant-based. They’ll mix whatever you want into it, so a friend and I got avocado and pecan soft serve, and fresh passionfruit soft serve. It’s delicious!
One really interesting thing about living here is the produce. On one hand there’s lots of incredible produce that I’m not used to getting on the US East Coast. On the other hand, everything is seasonal. Basically, Israel doesn’t import a lot of produce. They grow almost everything because pretty much everything does grow here, at least part of the year.
That makes it difficult because, for instance, strawberries are only here part of the year whereas I’m used to having them whenever I want, and things I’m used to as grocery store staples I can’t find, like broccoli rabe, blackberries, or blueberries. On the other hand, when they’re in season I can sometimes get a dozen passion fruit for $4. That’s not something I’d see in New York and if I did they probably wouldn’t taste like anything.
What has been your favorite meal so far?
When my family visits is when I go to the most fun restaurants. In January we went to Milgo and Milbar in Tel Aviv. We had a couple of great crudos and tartares with some delicious Asian flavors, and an awesome sweetbread and spaetzle dish. It’s a very Tel Avivian kind of cuisine – it’s got influences from all over, including Israel and a variety of other places, but it’s also based on fresh produce which is a great part of eating in Israel. In that sense it’s also like California cuisine.
Where is your favorite place in the city?
My favorite place is in Tel Aviv – even though it’s a little touristy – and it’s right near the Shuk HaCarmel (Carmel Market). There’s a curving street called Nachlat Binyamin – on Fridays and Tuesdays there’s an Artist’s market where a lot of different artists, jewelers, and so on sell their products.
There’s nothing more fun than just spending a Friday morning walking around and seeing what the artists are selling and then going to the shuk next door and grabbing something delicious to eat. And watching the craziness of the Israeli shuk, which is wonderful.
I’ve been to that market – I see what you mean about it being touristy, but it’s still really fun.
Yeah, it totally is, but it’s great. I could live here for 15 years and I’ll never stop shopping at that market. I find all of my best jewelry there, it’s so much fun.
I have some art in my bathroom that’s from that market. There’s a guy that stitches – he sews freehand cityscapes.
Oh my god, I love that guy! He also does stuffed things, like stuffed bottles of Goldstar, which is a very popular Israeli beer, which I think is really funny.
That’s awesome. What has been the biggest surprise about living in Israel? Was there anything that caught you off guard or was unexpected?
I am continually surprised by how open people are and how willing to invite you into their lives. A couple of weeks after I moved one of my coworkers invited me for Shabbat dinner at her boyfriend’s parents’ house. Which I thought was amazing: this is someone who barely knew me and invited me over – not just to her house, but her boyfriend’s parents’ house. And they welcomed me with open arms, told me I could come back any time I wanted… it was really just the most incredible thing.
That experience is mind-blowing.
And it’s so Israeli.
I have trouble believing people are that nice sometimes. But it really does happen!
It does! Just this past weekend I was hanging out at my friend’s place in Haifa with her two American roommates. We hear a knock on the door, and it’s their next-door neighbors dropping off a fresh homemade cheesecake, a homemade challah, and a bottle of red wine, in celebration of an upcoming holiday and also just to be nice.
What has been the best part of living in Israel?
Really just having an entirely new experience and living somewhere totally different. I’ve been in the same place more or less my whole life. It’s nice to have these new experiences. I also really love my job so it’s been great for me professionally as well.
Are there any downsides?
The downside is living in Haifa. There are things I love about Haifa; it’s gorgeous, it’s an incredibly green city, with lots of flowers blooming all the time, especially right now. It’s also great because people of all faiths and walks of life live together in harmony here, which is a wonderful thing. It’s just not as exciting as I’d like. I’m a New Yorker and that’s built into me.
What tips do you have for people who are thinking about visiting Israel?
Go to the desert, specifically Mitzpe Ramon. It’s basically a little settlement near the Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater). It’s an incredibly beautiful part of Israel and you can do amazing hikes there. You can see Ibexes climb up high on rocks and the views are incredible.
You can drive off somewhere, turn off the car, and look up at all the stars in the night sky. You can be in total silence and it’s amazing. That’s my number one tip for visitors: Go there. It’s breathtaking.
What about people who are thinking about moving there?
If you want to do it, do it! Yes, it’s always going to be somewhat difficult to move to a new country, but I think Israelis are really welcoming, Israel is a wonderful place, and it’s a really fun experience. I would recommend it.
Anything else people should know?
One more tip for people moving to Israel – don’t even bother using the postal system, it doesn’t work. I’ve heard from Israelis that it wasn’t always this terrible. Hopefully it will improve eventually, but it’s a bit of a disaster right now. That’s why I always get requests to pick things up when I go back to NYC to visit!
Where can we find you on the internet?
I’m _impressionista_ on Instagram.
All pictures courtesy of Yaël Wiesenfeld.