I couldn’t wait to leave my drab and dreary office job in London. I knew moving to Tel Aviv would present a myriad of challenges and – I hoped – opportunities, but nothing could have prepared me for the career roller-coaster which was to follow. It’s hard to imagine how I would have reacted, back in 2005, if someone had told me that my career path would have lead to me becoming expert in Yemeni baking, Phillipino “she-males” and home delivery Tramadol, let alone running a 160 employee company in India and ultimately settling down to watch cricket for a living in sunny Petach Tikva. How did all that happen?
My professional background was in auditing, a less sexy version of accountancy (if such a thing is possible). I’d stumbled into the profession after university and was often dismayed to find myself still making my living from it five years later. The move to Israel was a chance to break free of those shackles and try my hand at something new. I should, at the outset, clarify that I am not Jewish, but I was married to an Israeli and had a two year old daughter. The move was a chance to start afresh and hopefully give some new momentum to a marriage that was in trouble.
Re-locating to Tel Aviv did not, sadly, provide the “kiss of life” to my marriage and, just a few months after arriving, my wife and I separated. This was the defining moment in the employment roller-coaster that was about to begin. As soon as we informed Misrad Hapnim (the Israeli Ministry of the Interior) of our separation, they revoked my work visa and gave me 60 days to leave the country. The fact that I had a two year old daughter in Israel counted for nothing.
I was shocked and down-heartened but I resolved to stay regardless as I could not countenance my daughter growing up without her father. Now illegal in the country, without friends, family or a work permit, I had to find a way to support myself and contribute to the costs of my daughters upbringing. My options seemed limited at best, hopeless at worst. A far cry from the comfortable London office I had left behind.
Good luck comes in many guises, and in my case, good luck came from the fact that I was living in Schunat HaTikva, the neighbourhood of hope in so many ways. I walked up and down Shuk HaTikva asking stallholders if they had any work – I would have taken anything, I was desperate. One afternoon I was sat despairingly in a Yemeni Bakery, eating what I now know is “lahouch” but which at the time I thought was a slightly odd tasting pancake, when I got into conversation with Jacob, the owner. I told him my story and to my amazement he offered me a shift at the Bakery that night. I had to be there by 10pm and be prepared to work hard.
I worked harder that night than I had ever worked before, shifting 20kg bags of flour from the storeroom to the bakery and using industrial sized whisks and mixers to prepare the dough. By 12 the following afternoon I was dead on my feet. But I was 300 shekels better off and left the bakery with a week’s worth of lahouch, salouf, malaoach, jachnun, shrug and hilbe! Jacob was happy with my work and told me that if I could learn basic Hebrew, primarily the numbers and simple conversation, he could offer me more shifts. So began my career as a baker, and as a Hebrew speaker.
I soon became a regular feature at the Bakery working 4 or 5 shifts a week. I got to know a lot of the characters from the neighbourhood and was often invited to neighbours for dinner in return for some ad-hoc English lessons for their kids. Life was tough, but I had a job, I was in employment and from there I could begin to make my own luck.
I began to fight my case with Misrad Hapnim. In the end I think I annoyed them into submission. All I wanted was to be allowed to stay in Israel and to be allowed to work, nothing more, nothing less. I will spare you all the details but after eight months, a 40 page dossier, help from friends of friends in both government and the media, and my own shear bloody mindedness, Misrad Hapnim finally caved in and granted me a one year visa with authority to work without restriction. I have never kissed anything in my life the way I kissed that visa! I was legal, at last, and now had time to find a better paid job.
English Speaking Customer Support Officer, available to work a variety of shifts, infinitely do-able I thought as I clicked send to submit my application. And so my career in pornography was set to begin. Located on the 24th Floor of a swanky Tel Aviv skyscraper, home to numerous foreign embassies, the offices couldn’t have been further from the bakery storeroom in Shuk HaTikva where I had been working until the previous week. To call them polar opposites doesn’t even come close.
“You watch pornography for a living? It’s a dream job! How does it affect your sex life? Can you give me the passwords?” were some of the many intrigued comments I heard once I had settled into my new role and told my friends in Schunat HaTikva what I was now doing. In truth I did see a lot of pornography in that job but it was far more business-like than one might imagine, and pornography quickly went from titillating to mind numbingly dull, much to the disbelief of some of my friends. “Happy the man whose work is his hobby” they thought but porno was never a hobby of mine and I am far closer to that in my current job than I was then.
The job required me to act as a liaison between paying “Members” and performing “Hosts” who did shows for the Members via their web-cams. The concept was that the Member would pay per minute to enter the chat room of a Host who would then perform a sex show under the Members direction. The Host would receive 30% of what the Member pays and the company I worked for would keep the rest.
The bread and butter of the job involved dealing with Members’ complaints, “She didn’t do as I asked”, “It took her five minutes to take her clothes off” etc.., and Hosts’ issues such as “My web-cam isn’t working”, “I didn’t get my check”. When you are desperate for a job morality can often be an unaffordable luxury and I was able to create the rationale that this was a business arrangement between consenting partners for which I was simply a facilitator and problem solver. The water got murkier with the involvement of a third player in the system, the role of the “Agent” or “Cyber-Pimp” as I prefer to call him.
The Agents, almost exclusively based in the Philippines, were people who provided Hosts with the space and equipment to perform, and they submitted the Hosts’ application to work on the site under the auspices of the Agent. Imagine a pre-war hospital ward, divided by curtains, each space furnished with a computer, web-cam and a bed. The Agent also received the Hosts payments and it was his responsibility to distribute it. I had very little faith that the Hosts working under Agents received their correct payments. It was common to see the same women sitting forlornly in their chat room for 12-14 hours at a time waiting for a Member to enter. I always imagined a battery chicken coup but full of ‘Filipino video chat sex workers.
Struggling with my conscience I began looking for other jobs before fate intervened. Calcalist, the economic supplement of one of Israel’s leading daily newspapers, had done an expose on the company under the headline “Porn Empire Running from Tel Aviv Office”. The article had their facts pretty straight. Fearing a backlash from the more religious elements of Israeli society, the company re-located to Portugal. I declined the offer of a re-location package, and began job-hunting in earnest. I won’t name the web-site itself but last time I checked it was the 666th most visited web-site in the world, quite apt.
Again needing to find a job quickly, I couldn’t afford to be fussy, my only two criteria were that the job didn’t involve pornography or night shifts. One week later I entered the world of home delivery prescription drugs. It was a fairly simple concept, the company had thousands of web-sites offering the American public prescription drugs, without the need to visit a doctor, via Fedex next day delivery straight to their doorstep. All the customer had to do was complete an online medical questionnaire and enter their credit card details. The company had a few registered doctors in the States and a few pharmacists interested in extra business who took care of creating the prescriptions and supplying the drugs.
The company was legitimate in the sense that the genuine drugs did arrive on the customers’ doorsteps as promised. We promoted ourselves as a community service providing much needed medications to those unfortunate citizens who didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford to see a doctor. It seemed feasible and to a large extent it was. The issue was that most of the customers had been ordering from us for years, huge volumes of medications which should only be prescribed after a consultation with a doctor.They were, to all intents and purposes, junkies. The company was basically maintaining its customers’ addictions and profiting from it, a classic “dealer” strategy.
My realisation of the dark side of the company’s activities came only after my own career within the company had taken an unexpected twist. After a few months as a Customer Service Agent I was promoted to Shift Supervisor. This was a nice role, managing 40 staff, and it offered the variety in each working day which the Customer Service role sadly couldn’t. Then one day, the Manager summoned me to a meeting and made me an offer. They wanted to treble my salary and offer me a generous expenses package. The only proviso was that I move to Maharashtra in India to run the Sales operation.
On receipt of the offer I had a lot of soul searching to do. On the one hand it would mean gaps of up to two months between seeing my daughter, aged seven by then, and might cause problems with my status in Israel which I had fought so hard to achieve; on the other it was a chance to earn serious money and an intriguing challenge to run a company of 150 Indian employees. I decided to go for it on a six month trial period.
I’d spent a lot of time in India previously in my life, but only as a traveller and definitely not as the general manager of three Call Centres each with 50+ employees, not to mention the rigid hierarchies and an Indian work ethic. It was an experience I will never forget, and while I can say with certainty it’s the wealthiest I have been in my life, I can’t say it’s the happiest. One surprising realisation was that I in no way missed London but I really missed Tel Aviv. When President Obama’s flagship healthcare programme started to become reality, the online pharmacy business felt the squeeze. I found myself making people redundant on a weekly basis and eventually received the inevitable memo that the company was closing down. While I knew I would miss the security and freedom that a great salary brings, I couldn’t wait to get back to Tel Aviv and begin to set down roots.
Back in Tel Aviv, but without the urgency to find a job within a week, I decided to avoid applying for call centre positions. I applied for jobs in marketing and account management, attended interviews and received offers but it all seemed generic. I held out hope, relying on the savings I’d accumulated from India, that something more suited to me was out there. Then one day, I saw an intriguing advert in a Facebook group: “Do you love cricket? Can you speak Hebrew? If yes call 050 xxx xxxx for more info”. Really? I love Cricket but I was at a loss for how that could translate into a job in Israel? Maybe there was an elderly cricket lover who is looking for someone to keep him company while he is watching a game? I called the number, submitted my resume and was invited for an interview the following week.
I was told to attend an address in Petach Tikva for the interview. The only requirement for the job, beyond Hebrew speaking, was a “love of cricket”, and therefore I was content to assume that there was very little I could do by way of preparation in advance. In fact I was so relaxed that I chose to wear a polo shirt, and while I didn’t stretch to flip flops, I wore sneakers to the interview for the first time in my life. I wasn’t taking it too seriously.
I arrived at the address, very surprised to find I was in the middle of a Hi-Tech park on the outskirts of Petach Tikva. I was buzzed into the offices and told to take the first door on the left to the common room where someone would collect me for the interview. Where on earth was I? The corridors were adorned with pictures of sporting greats and enormous in-built fish tanks better described as aquatic art. The common room was huge, with sofas and Playstations, plasma TVs and effigies of Gazza, Baggio and Zidane, fresh fruit platters and a pool table. What sort of company is this, I asked myself?
The interview was like nothing I had experienced before. After giving a brief synopsis of my life, in Hebrew, to prove my language skills, I was shown three clips of action from a Cricket match and asked to describe the action as I saw it. I mentioned earlier that luck comes in many guises and in this moment she once again showed her beautiful grace. All three clips were from a game in India that I had attended in person just six months before as part of a prize I offered for the salesperson of the month! After a further series of personality and intelligence tests, I was offered the position of Sports Analyst, specialising in cricket, on a more than adequate wage. “Happy the man whose job is his hobby”. And that’s where I reside today, a year into the job, a happy and content Sports Analyst in Petach Tikva. My motivation to share my experience is based around that word “Tikva”, “Hope”. I have found job satisfaction and contentment, via a roller-coaster of experiences, and I thank Tel Aviv, Israel and the decision to move here for that.