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An illustration of the author's father, Lazare, holding a paint brush. The ship RMS Queen Mary is behind him, overlayed with images from the WWII in North Africa and a postcard note from Uncle Charly as his family set sail for the United States in 1961
(Dan Carino)
How Art, Tenacity, And An Unexpected Surprise Paved The Way To LA
After nearly two decades spent waiting for a visa, an artist dad’s long-held dreams fueled his family’s journey to California.
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It took a couple of tries to transplant my family to America from Israel.

The first one I remember, sort of. The second, which none of us expected, was rooted in a dream that my aspiring-artist dad had nurtured long before I was born.

About This Series
  • This story is part of a new LAist series called Being American. It’s inspired by the success of our year-long Race In LA series, in which Angelenos shared personal stories about how our race and/or ethnicity shapes our lived experience.

Our first attempt took place in 1961. My Uncle Charly, then already living in Los Angeles, came to visit us in Israel. I was 5 years old then, so I wasn’t privy to the adults’ discussions. But not long after, Mom, my sister Orly and I were accompanying Uncle Charly back to L.A. on a “tourist” visit. My dad was to stay behind, at least for the time being.

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A photo of the author's family gathered together while on the Queen Mary in 1961.
The author’s family as they were about to set sail for the U.S. on the RMS Queen Mary in August 1961. Left to right: Aunt Josette, Uncle Charly, Uncle Elei, Aunt Marcelle, the author’s mother Miryam; (front row) the author’s sister Orly and the author (on right).
(Avner Uzan
/
Courtesy)

My uncle had scored four spots for us on the Queen Mary, the luxury ocean liner. We disembarked in New York, along with Charly's 1960 Peugeot 404, which we drove cross-country to the west coast. It was all so new — pay phones, motels, and just being in a car, crossing long expanses of nothing.

I remember that during one of the stops, at a roadside motel, I was left alone in the room while Uncle Charly went back to the Peugeot to get our luggage. I somehow managed to lock myself behind the screen door to our room. After several failed attempts to get me to unlock the screen door, the motel manager had to take it off its hinges. Boy, did I think I was in trouble! But to my surprise, I was just told not to play with things I wasn’t familiar with.

It made sense — I wasn’t familiar with anything here.

Popeye, The Twist, And A Funky Alphabet

Once we made it to L.A., we lived with my uncle in a second floor, two-bedroom apartment on Hilldale Avenue in West Hollywood.

America for me was a jumble of emotions, culture, foods, and language. For a 5-year-old, getting used to a whole new language and culture was challenging.

We came from a small, predominantly Tunisian-Israeli farming community called Yanuv. At home we spoke French and Hebrew, with a smattering of Arabic when visiting grandparents (or when adults didn’t want you to understand a conversation). We didn’t own cars, telephones or TVs.

Hot dogs and potato chips were another thing — they were pretty easy to get used to. Popeye and Mickey Mouse were another bonus. And on this fascinating show called American Bandstand, Chubby Checker was teaching everyone to do “The Twist.”

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Then there was school. Although I had just recently started reading in Hebrew, I was now confronted with a new, much greater language challenge: English was written in this funky alphabet, one that didn’t use little vowel symbols under the letters to tell you how to pronounce the words. It had upper and lowercase letters — what for? — and it was read backwards, from left to right.

But the hardest part of living in America was missing my dad and our extended family.

Chuck (as I would later fondly call my uncle) and Mom’s ultimate goal was to try to bring my father over. As told in family lore, Israel was not letting entire families emigrate. They tried and tried, but Israel would not relent.

After about a year, Mom, my sister and I gave up and headed back. I promised my mom that I would quit sucking my thumb when I saw my dad, and I did.

A Budding Artist Dreams Of America

Long before Uncle Charly, my dad had made his own plans to come to the U.S.

He always spoke fondly of the time when American soldiers liberated Tunisia toward the end of WWII. U.S. troops in military trucks passed through Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, tossing chocolates and candies to the kids cheering the liberators.

Dad and his family had spent a few months in a Nazi concentration camp in Tunis. My father often told the story of his father carrying their bathtub on his back when the German soldiers kicked them out of their house. He was ordered to put it back, then they were taken away.

But there was more than the liberation that fed my dad’s dream of going to America. He had begun sketching and drawing by then, and he longed to someday be a successful artist.

My father loved the masters: Renoir, Cézanne, Monet. My grandmother Lily, who saw her son’s blossoming artistic talent, signed him up for a French art correspondence course.

However, as this was happening, Tunisia was becoming particularly hostile to Jews and other minorities. Consequently, my father’s family immigrated to Israel.

Black and white photo from the 1950s depicting the author's father and his parents on a boat.
The author’s father, Lazare, center, is pictured with his mother and father upon their arrival in Israel from Tunisia at the Israeli port of Haifa, circa 1950.
(Avner Uzan
/
Courtesy )

‘You Have 90 Days To Render A Decision’

My mother’s family also left Tunisia for Israel; she and her future husband were first cousins, although they didn’t know each other. My parents met in Israel one day while my father was finishing up his guard duty shift at their village. They dated for a short while, then got married. Six months later, I came along.

My dad liked the then-popular American comic strip character Li’l Abner, and he gave me the Hebrew version of the name, Avner, which in Hebrew means “father of light.”

By that time, my father had already been waiting a few years for the OK to leave. Shortly after reaching Israel, sometime around 1949, he had applied for immigration to the U.S. By the time mom took us on the Queen Mary to America with Uncle Charly, dad had been waiting some 12 years.

Hearing nothing, he figured moving to the U.S. wasn’t in the cards for him.

Then in 1966, about four years after we’d returned from America and about 17 years after he applied for his immigrant visa, my father received a letter from the U.S. immigration office: “Your application for immigration to the U.S. has been granted. You have 90 days to render a decision.”

Three months later, after some serious and intense conversations, arguments, and promises among the adults, we were on a slow boat to the U.S., once again bound for L.A., this time for good. We arrived in New York in late March 1967, and made our way across the country on a three-day train ride back to L.A., arriving on April Fool's Day.

Colored India Ink Brings Success

We moved in across the street from Uncle Charly and Aunt Josette on Overland Avenue, into a small two-bedroom apartment down the street from the Mormon Temple.

I was now 10, and it was even harder the second time around to make adjustments. I was placed in a fifth grade class, with no one who understood a lick of Hebrew or French. Here I was again faced with learning that new language, with its completely different alphabet that was read backwards, its seemingly random upper and lower case letters, its silent vowels, and its inconsistent spelling rules.

Mom and dad took a variety of jobs, like nursing, nail salon work, cab driving and dishwashing. We lived frugally, but at least we were all together.

Uncle Charly helped two more of his brothers immigrate to L.A., and pretty soon I had cousins and an extended family. It wasn’t all baseball and apple pie, but we could now celebrate holidays and family milestones together.

All this time, dad kept painting. Before long we had dozens of his paintings — landscapes, reproductions of famous nudes, even paintings of big cats — adorning every possible wall space.

Some time later, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my father achieved commercial success with a medium he explored on his own. He started painting with colored India ink, creating what looked like watercolors, but with more vivid colors.

Dad’s florals and nature scenes were a hit. While he never quit his day job, he toured southern California and exhibited his work at art shows, winning all sorts of ribbons and gaining popularity. With the help of his cousin, Sylvan, he negotiated a contract for a series of note cards, which were sold in stores. He subsequently landed another contract with a company that created prints from four of his ink paintings for commercial sale.

A couple of decades later, as I was walking through the halls at the Nissan offices in Torrance, where I was then working as a software quality assurance analyst, I was nicely surprised to see four of my father’s paintings hanging in the hallway.

When I shared the news with him, my father, who was in his 70s by then, replied matter-of-factly, “Oh, yes.” He proceeded to tell me the story of how some 20 years earlier, a Nissan executive had bought four of his paintings.

My dad, the artist. His dreams had come true, for him and all of us.

A family photo of the author and his family.
Top: Avner Uzan and his wife, Lyndra; bottom: the author’s mother, Miryam, his twin daughters Lily Eilat and Olivia Liat, and his father, Lazare, Dec. 2004.
(Avner Uzan
/
Courtesy)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
  • Avner Uzan is an engaged American citizen. He immigrated to the U.S. with his family at the age of 10 and has lived the American dream since. He works as an IT manager for a leading automotive company. He is married with children, enjoys life on the West Coast, and believes that almost everything can be worked out over a few games of table tennis.