The #etnographquarantinedan, Episode 10: Tomer Yaron, 26, Tel Aviv, Israel
The conversation was held in Hebrew.
The conversation with Tomer started with me shouting to him from my balcony and telling him about the project. At first, he wasn't into it: "I have nothing interesting to say, my story is not special." I told him that there is no such thing, all people are interesting and every story is unique. We exchanged phone numbers and talked for over an hour. I filled lots of pages in my notebook. Toward the end, Tomer admitted that the project is "cool."
Tomer is doing his PhD in computational biology and medicine at Cornell University in New York. He was born and raised in Tel Aviv in a home he describes as "modern religious with an intellectual liberal atmosphere, Leibowitzian religiosity [named after Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Israeli orthodox public intellectual and polymath] based on humanism." His mother is a teacher and his father an engineer. He completed his bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics when he was in high school and his master's at Bar Ilan University during his military service; immediately afterwards, he found himself at Cornell and is now at the end of his third year. Tomer usually comes to Israel to visit his family every three months but had to cancel twice because of COVID-19. "I have a Tunisian mother, so not coming home is not an option; this time I have come for two and a half months."
His laboratory is located at Cornell Medical School and he works closely with the hospital. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, part of the laboratory was converted for COVID-19 research and part was closed. Since he is a theorist engaged in analysis rather than wet-lab experiments, he could continue his work from home. He, therefore, isolated himself at home for 12 weeks; he didn't even leave his house once. According to him, doctors at the hospital told horror stories about people coming to the hospital and collapsing in the corridors and not being able to offer treatment. The university evacuated all the students from the dormitories so that there would be rooms for doctors who are on endless shifts. However, since the lockdown, the infection rate has slowed down slightly.
Are you managing to work from quarantine? "Yes, my brothers brought me a huge screen. The soldier from the Home Front Command said it was the most bizarre object delivered to the hotel, but I don't have the privilege to stop working so I arranged for everything I need. I am still working on New York time. I get up at 3 pm and work until dawn."
How do your parents feel about you living abroad? "You know, my mother is a warm and loving Tunisian; my colleagues in the lab know that the only thing she cares about is if and what I have eaten. My dad is not distant or tough, but he tends to show less emotion, while my mum is more emotional. Surprisingly, every time I am in Israel and see my friends at synagogue, they tell me that my dad always talks about me living abroad; he's afraid I'll find an American woman and won't come back. So my dad is struggling, and I'm very attached to my parents. To be honest, not long ago, I didn't consider my parents when thinking about the next step – whether to stay in the USA or return to Israel – but lately, with COVID and all, I am beginning to see and understand the importance of a child to their parents. I now see the moral aspect of it. You see, my mum got COVID and went to hospital. I was worried sick. It was an odd and troubling time – I'm in a hospital doing research on COVID, while my mum is hospitalised with it."
What do you want to be when you grow up? "When I was 21 or 22, my commander in the army told me that he thought I hadn't decided what I wanted to be, and I told him that even at the age of 40, I won't know. I do have a plan for the future, but it's always undergoing revision. I think about maybe finishing my doctorate in the next two years, then studying medicine for four years to be a research doctor. Basically, I want to study all of my life. What better alternative is there? What's the purpose in life? To make money? I prefer to make a brain."