A Process Like Magic: A Jew whose mother tongue is Arabic, and a soldier turned peace activist and soap maker.
An interview with Tsvika Maato, 12/4/10
By Rachel Gottlieb
When Tsvika was a ten-year old boy, he watched the movie *Operation Thunderbolt, known in Israel as Mivtsa Yonatan.
Tsvika’s imagination was ignited: “From that moment on, I was determined to be a soldier-hero” he smilingly remarks, with only a slight trace of cynicism. “This conviction stayed with me, until finally, in the eighth grade, I made a decision to go to a military boarding school, where I spent the next 6 years of my life - including two years after the end of high school- in the **Technological Reserve.”
The youngest of 6 brothers and sisters, Tsvika Maato was born to parents of Iraqi origin, who arrived in Israel in 1949, shortly after the establishment of the State. “My parents named me Tsalah, in memory of my father’s uncle, from Iraq.” When asked about the oddity of having an “Arab” name, Tsvika remarks: “I am aware that this is an unfamiliar name for a Jewish boy, but for them this was natural, given the environment they lived in. Their mother tongue and culture were Arabic. When my mother brought me as a baby to the Tipat Halav (family clinic for new babies), the nurses there informed my mother that it was totally unacceptable to call a Jewish child Tsalah, so they “renamed” meTsvi, or Tsvika for short. My parents accepted the pressure to use Hebrew, and they talked with us children only in Hebrew, resorting to Arabic only when talking between themselves. So, despite the fact that Arabic is (or should have been) my mother tongue, I was not raised with the language. It was only when I became a teenager and started to ask questions about my family’s roots did I become aware that my original name is Tsalah.”
Observing Tsvika’s relaxed and soft-spoken nature, gently smiling beneath a head of black curls and dressed in loose clothing with a an Indian-style scarve draped nonchalantly around his neck, it is difficult to picture him as a militaristic type. “I wasn’t educated to hate. The studies at the military academy helped me strengthen myself, and educated me to love my country and love my fellow man. I had teachers that were role models for me, that I admired.” Following his studies, Tsvika was recruited into the navy, serving a total of 6 years and fufilling his dream of serving as a soldier in the Israeli military.
After 12 years in para-military and military frameworks, all seemed to be proceeding on course. However towards the end of his army service, cracks started to appear. Tsvika started to wonder about his personal identity and also to ask himself deeper questions of a spiritual nature. “During all the years when I was in the boarding school, and during my army service as well, I was often approached by Arabs who mistakenly took me for an Arab, based on my appearance, and they would talk to me in Arabic, despite the fact that I was dressed in uniform and didn’t speak a word of Arabic. I was surprised each time that this happened, and each time I felt a sense of regret that I could not reply. I felt handicapped. I always felt a strong bond towards Arabs, and when any Arab person approaches me, I immediately feel that it is easier for me to connect, on a human level, despite my lacking knowledge of the Arabic language. It seems to be a deeper part of my identity, that has been taken from me.”
After his release from the army, Tsvika started to look for employment, working in a variety of jobs. One of the jobs he had was that of traveling salesman, and this job entailed going to many carpentry and metal working workshops, most of which were run by Arabs. “Every time I went into one of these shops, I immediately felt a warm connection, I felt a bond between the carpenters and myself, and I enjoyed socializing with them.”
One day, Tsvika had a meaningful encounter, that changed his outlook: “During that period, I still used to walk around with a gun, all the time. In one of the carpentry shops, one of the workers approached me, asking “Why do you come here with a pistol?”. I immediately felt uncomfortable. I decided not to carry a gun anymore. I did not feel in danger and I did not want to use it. For the first time, I realized that I may see myself as somone who has come as a service provider, but the impression I give is that I am afraid of him or that I need to control him. I didn’t want to give off this message. I “disarmed” and gave my gun back to the police.”
Tsvika’s military career was not over yet, however. He was persuded to go back to the army for another year as a professional soldier. He was offered a variety of high-level positions, but he no longer felt motivated. “I no longer felt free. I saw more and more things that I felt were wrong and I did not want to be part of them. I left the army.” Later, Tsvika wrestled with the obligation to serve in the reserves (Miluim). “I would go - but try to get out of it. The last time I did reserve duty was in 2003, in Gaza. I was no longer proud to wear the uniform and I no longer identified with the army. This was the last time I went. It took me a long time to come to term with these feelings.”
Tsvika started looking for a new path. He started to work in education, first at a boarding school for special education, and then in regular schools. During these years, Tsvika encountered Anthroposophy for the first time, and decided that he wished to deepen his knowledge, signing up for the seminar in Harduf. He also worked in “Beit Elisha” an Anthroposophic supportive community for developmentally and physically disabled adults, serving as a “live-in” counselor in a house for adults with special needs, along with his wife and children.
How did Tsvika become a soap maker? And why did this ex-gun-toting soldier decide to connect with the Arab-Jewish Ein Bustan? “I have always liked to try new things. One of these thing was making soap. I inquired how it was made, and started to do some experiments. I felt very excited when it worked! I also became aquainted with the area of aromatherapy, and started to understand the importance of fragrances. After several experiments, I felt that the soap I was making was a good product, one that I believe in. Around this same time, I met Amir (Shlomian, Director of Ein Bustan), and through him, I found out about Maayan Babustan and the Ein Bustan kindergarten .”
At first, Tsvika was doubtful about the validity of Ein Bustan’s work: “I questioned if it is right for us to impose on our childern the responsibility to do something that we as adults are not doing”. With this criticism in mind, Tsvika started to attend the meetings of “Waldorf for Two Peoples”, an initiative by Maayan Babustan that brought together educators interested in exploring the possibility of establishing a bi-lingual, Arab-Jewish school. “As a result of the meetings, I had two insights. One: I want to learn to speak in Arabic, my mother tongue. And two, I now understand that one of the most important things for the Arab side is that I as a Jew will recognize and speak their language.I think this is the first step we need to take. I started to meet with Amal, my Arab partner from Hilf, and together we are building a course to teach Arabic to adults.”
Amir suggested that Tsvika use the knowledge that he had acquired with the soap to head an income generating project for Ein Bustan. “I was very happy about this idea of a mutual project, that can both provide income and also support Maayan Babustan and its mission, by producing and selling the soaps. Right now, it’s just the beginning, however the soaps have been met with enthusiasm by everyone who tries them, and the demand is consistently growing, so we hope to expand.”
Tsvika steps into the workshop, where soaps are in various stages of preparation. The soaps start out from three basic oils: palm, olive and coconut. To this, Tsvika adds Shea butter, special earth and minerals, caustic soda and water. Just before the soap solidifies, pure natural essences are added, such as lavender, lemongrass, rose, etc. There are no artificial ingredients added. The liquid batter is poured into silicon molds, were it will harden over a one month period, and then the soaps are ready to be packaged. “I had an idea to make individualized soaps tailor-made for each person and his or her needs. I put all of my best intentions into the soap when I am preparing it, almost like a meditative process. Therefore, it’s important for me to preserve the hand-made style of preparation and not to make it too commercial and impersonal.”
As we are about to conclude the interview, Tsvika reflects on the search for his personal identity and on soap making: “When I look back at the process I went through, I can note a direction of fulfillment that is based on sowing the seeds of human connection, through the meeting of different cultures. I am now open to the possibility of bi-lingual education, and to person-to person encounters. In the process of soap making there is a magical, almost miracle-like process, when materials that are very different mix, and together they create something new, something practical and beautiful, that even cleans. I hope that in our person-to- person and culture-to culture encounters we will aspire to fulfill a similar magical process.”
You can read more information about Ein Bustan's unique hand made natural soaps here
*literally "Operation Jonathan": the hero, Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, who lost his life in the operation, was the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current Prime Minister. This Academy Award nominated Israeli film is based on an actual event; the freeing of hostages by an elite Israeli commando unit army at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, July 4, 1976, that was sent to raid the airfield and release the hostages.
**A special arrangement where the Army allows future soldiers to defer their army service and also pays for their academic tuition, in return for their commitment to serve additional time in the Army.