Livermore man crowing about colorful Israeli Kakadu

While lost in the Holy Land, David Jonas found his calling.

Unhappy with a high-pressure career in the corporate sector, the Livermore resident yearned for a change. He wanted to start something "utterly and completely different" but didn't know quite what to do.

Then last summer, Jonas was "coerced" by wife Valerie into touring Israel with his family and fellow members of Congregation Beth Emek in Livermore. Valerie, who was formerly in marketing and publicity with the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, described her husband as "Jewishly disassociated." Jonas hadn't wanted to go to Israel, which he said, held no appeal for him.

But once the "reluctant traveler" arrived, his preconceived notions began to fade.

"It was amazing seeing what the Jews who came to this land have made of Israel," he said. "They took nothing and turned it into a thriving country."

Valerie describes his reaction as "a typical first-timer's trip — filled with pleasant wonderment."

While visiting Qum Ram, Jonas strayed from his tour group.

"It was brutally hot," said Jonas, who opted to duck out of the 110-degree heat and into an air-conditioned souvenir shop.

He meandered through the store, past candelabras and Dead Sea mud, with waning interest until, in the back of the store, he stumbled upon a display with greater allure than air-conditioning. It was a collection of hand-painted wood pieces called Kakadu.

"I'll never forget it," he said of the exotic collection, named for the Australian parrot known in English as a cockatoo. "I saw this small display of beautiful, bright-colored merchandise. I just went wild over this stuff."

Begun in 1990 by an Israeli couple, Reut and Aharon Shahar, Kakadu features what the two call "functional art." More than 100 Kakadu products include hand-painted wooden furniture, kitchen supplies, office products and other items. The collection, which ranges in price from from $14 to $333, is sold in more than 100 housewares shops throughout Israel and through sales representatives internationally.

A self-taught woodworker by avocation, Jonas was inspired by what he saw. "Anything wood resonates within me deeply. I also valued that it came from Israel. "

Jonas decided on the spot that he wanted to become a U.S. sales representative for Kakadu.

Meanwhile, back on track with the congregational tour, Jonas traveled to the next destination, Jerusalem, which happens to be the home of Kakadu's main gallery. Without missing a beat, he met with the Shahars and struck a deal.

Knowing that her husband had always carried entrepreneurial cravings, Valerie was immediately supportive.

"I made him come on the trip because I was hoping he would feel a greater connection to Israel and his Jewishness," she said. "But I didn't expect he'd find a way to take his own entrepreneurial desires and link them to Israel."

After the trip, Jonas searched unsuccessfully for a store site. Then one day after scouring Berkeley, he was inspired yet again. The self-professed Internet junkie decided he would put his newfound export business online.

The Shahars "were a little reluctant," he said, "but after a lot of wheedling and consultation, I took my second trip to Israel to sign a contract." And now, he added, "I'm a new man!"

Along the way, Jonas got "a crash-course in American-Israeli relations," according to his wife.

"Israeli personal and business styles differ greatly from American," she said, adding, "A trust grew between David and Aharon…when David went back to Israel, the Shahars opened their home and hearts to him." They signed the contract in February at the King David Hotel.

Last week Jonas launched his Web site at www.kakadu-design.com

He also works as a business systems analyst for a Silicon Valley start-up, and manages a Web site for electric scooters. Valerie recently left her job with the East Bay federation to help publicize and market Kakadu. "It's perfect because I can continue my Jewish involvement by marketing an Israeli product," she said.

She also values the day she convinced her husband to go to Israel.

"I am so glad he took that trip," she said. "He ended up developing a strong identity with modern Israel. It just shows you that you can discover things about Israel in many different ways. "