River Park resident discusses his storied life as a former Israeli soldier and growing up in small town Ukiah
The short story is that John-Michael was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Ukiah (Mendocino County), moved back to Jerusalem fought for the Israeli military and just last October ended up living with his sister in River Park. He also recently took a position as a copy editor at the Citrus Heights Messenger and North County Messenger, and an intern job at Fox40.
Prior to John-Michael’s birth, parents Sondra and John fell in love with Jerusalem. While they met in a Mendocino County church on the coast, John (a Los Angeles native) took Sondra (a Humboldt County native) to Israel several times and during one of their longer trips, John-Michael entered the world on April 11, 1990. A year later, they decided to return to California, settling on beautiful Ukiah, a town that sits in a deep valley surrounded by redwoods and that is full of vineyards and pear orchards and that includes a lively population of creative, community-oriented old time hippies.
“I think being in the army is what made me Israeli. It integrated me into the culture, as well as helping my mother. My goal was to become Israeli.
However, that picturesque image cannot illustrate what it was like growing up in a small town as well as John-Michael can describe: “I think there’s a lot of good people in Ukiah, but particularly among the youth, growing up in such a small place, the young people there don’t set their sights really high. I think that’s a shame. And most of my life was around the young people. I think I had a poor outlook on my future and America, in general, really. And, that was based on really small town living.”
So setting his sights high, he did what many ambitious youths do when they want to get out of town – he graduated early in 2008. That’s not to say he didn’t take advantage of what Ukiah High School had to offer him. He joined the student newspaper, the Ukiahilite and became its editor his senior year under the advice of UHS’ beloved journalism teacher, Tonya Sparkes (Dec. 8, 1963-Nov. 11, 2011).
“Journalism was big for me. Tonya Sparkes helped shaped (my passion). She was really encouraging and really helpful. She taught me a lot. She was one of the few teachers I had that was your friend even more than your educator. I think that earns your respect rather than demands it. I really appreciated it. I learned from her in a friendly way. She was very approachable.” John-Michael recalls one project that took a “good month” to complete. Beating out the local daily newspaper, the Ukiah Daily Journal, the young reporter wrote about all the financial details regarding the construction occurring at the high school. He also takes pride in a story he wrote about a local man who served in Iraq. “It won a third place prize in all of California high schools for best news/feature story,” he said in a recent interview with this publication.
In the summer of 2007-2008 before he even graduated from high school, John-Michael was the assistant sports editor at the Ukiah Daily Journal, covering local games as well as general community features like the Mendocino County Fair. “Back then I don’t think I appreciated it as I should have. I don’t know if it’s your age, but at that period of time, I wanted to do national news. But even in the smallest little communities, there are great people to know. You can learn from any experience great or small. I have enjoyed getting to write.”
Despite his academic success, during sophomore year, he thought a lot about college, but came to the realization he didn’t have money to go to school, and secondly he didn’t know what he wanted to go to school for. He didn’t want to throw away money and follow the path that everyone else around him was taking. “I wanted to experience more than that small town mentality in Ukiah that I had a diversion to. And I didn’t want to be stuck in Ukiah. I know a lot of people who get stuck like that.”
But the cliché, life happens, happened for him in a short period of time. Where John-Michael’s life began is where his mother’s ended – in Israel. “She told us in the summer of 2007, (she had cancer). She waited quite some time to get proper medical attention. (Diagnosed) in about 2005, she was in pain for awhile. My family was breaking up at that point. It got rough at the end with my mother being ill.”
Having graduated from high school and ready for a change, John-Michael went with his mother and one of his sisters, Jessica Frykman, to Israel where they could afford healthcare.
Born Feb. 4, 1952, Sondra died in Israel on Aug. 21 2009, despite having excellent doctors. “Medical in Israel is pretty good. They have the best doctors in the world. The bureaucratic side of it is a little problematic. I had the best healthcare in the country and I paid $20 a month for it.”
Living all over the Tel Aviv area and having moved 15 times over the course of seven years, John-Michael said he has no regrets over that period of his life. “I am not sorry I did it. I would do it again if I was in the same situation. When we went, we had basically nothing. My mother had a little bit of cash, but not too much.”
So, to make ends meet, John-Michael took a variety of odd jobs, including bartending without tips at an event hall, to delivering telephone books for five months before joining the army for two and a half years. Joining the military is mandatory in Israel, but John-Michael actually signed up before they called him, and three months into his service, his mother passed away; so one of his initial reasons for coming to Israel – healthcare for his mom – was no longer needed, and yet despite a complete lack of pay, he still wanted to remain in Israel and finish his term.
“I think being in the army is what made me Israeli. It integrated me into the culture, as well as helping my mother. My goal was to become Israeli. They don’t pay you to join the army, but I wanted to stay. I was disillusioned when I left America. In a lot of ways I did find what I was looking for. Something was in me and it wasn’t something necessarily outside of myself. I found social acceptance there I never experienced in high school. The (Israeli) culture is very warm in that way. I had a hard time connecting with most kids I went to school with. In Israel, a complete stranger would act like your best friend in the whole world. There is a sense of community there that is lacking in a lot of ways in America and I think that disillusionment is based in reality. That was a very real emotion, but it was wrongly based on my experience in Ukiah.”
After the army, John-Michael was trying to think about what he wanted to do career-wise and he knew writing had to be part of the job description. So, after searching online, he found a demand for English writers. “I found a job pretty much right away at a high-tech place writing. They sold diamonds, jewelry and Jewish products. I stayed in that job for six months.” During that time, he moved into a managerial role, but he found with the added responsibilities, the position lacked a better title and pay raise. So on the hunt again, he took another job, a quality insurance position, until he landed a job at YNETNews, the English-language edition of Ynet, Israel’s largest news source.
Speaking about how he covered news for YNETNews, John-Michael said: “On one hand, the news site wanted to provide news objectively to foreigners. On the other hand, they are providing Jewish news to the Jewish community abroad, so everything had to do with Jewish news or something happening in Israel. But I strove for objectivity. It was really challenging and therefore it was one of the most important things for me – to be as objective as possible.
“Automatically you have a conflict of interest. I worked there during the last war in Gaza. You have friends in the army in the Gaza Strip. You are very much involved in the middle of this war zone. No matter what you do, the readership is part of the Jewish community. (We would get) push-back from readers to write more pro-Israel pieces. When we put stories in about Gaza, it was naturally difficult. Just because where we were located, we didn’t have personal access to what was happening in Gaza. We were able to write every biography (of each dead Israeli soldier), but about 2,000 Palestinians died and we didn’t know any of their names. On one hand, it’s too bad that was the situation. I wish I could have published all the names of the Palestinians, but when you cover news from one location, you could only cover news from that side.”
“We didn’t have reporters ourselves. If we had any information, it was from Hebrew reporters. We would take pieces of what they wrote, took parts from AP (the Associated Press). Sometimes we would call people (to localize the stories) and put our names on it. Sometimes we did opinion pieces. There was a lot of translation, but mostly it was a compilation from a lot of sources. Usually we’d come in, check the wires (AP and Reuters) and get a general update of what is going on.”
An international news desk, John-Michael said YNETNews included one Israeli, one person from England, and people from other countries. “But you had to know fluent Hebrew. The army made me very fluent in speaking, but I still struggled with reading and writing. I communicate in text, but YNET improved my writing. I used a lot of ‘Google Translator’ but there were things I couldn’t figure out, but I got by. The pay was enough to get by on and it wasn’t about the money. I got up and didn’t feel like I was getting up and going to work. It was something that was stimulating. It challenged me. Everyday I would come into work and there was something that challenged me emotionally. A single article could make you question everything you believe in, including things you could take for granted.”
After six months working for YNETNews, John-Michael moved back to the United States, landing in Sacramento, specifically in River Park with his sister Ellika Frykman. Writing again for community news, John-Michael is excited to have accepted a copyeditor and writing position for the Citrus Heights Messenger and the North County Messenger.
Additionally, he has enjoyed running local events like the Sacramento Food Bank’s Run to Feed the Hungry and blogging about local politics on the Wordpress site, “Politics from the Sac.”