On October 7, as news of the slaughter of Israeli civilians by Hamas unfolded, I was grateful, my parents, Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland, had not lived to see this: the targeted murder of Jews, including women and babies and old people — the barbarity of Nazis.
As graphic details of the atrocities and brutal kidnappings emerged, including stories of children who had survived hidden in a closet, while their parents were murdered, I was haunted by a surreal sense of déjà vu. I knew stories like this – their blurry outlines lurked in the shadows of my life, in the flicker of yahrzeit (memorial) candles for the grandparents I never met, in my mother’s anxious face pressed against the window when anyone was a few minutes late getting home. But I had never worried about history repeating itself. Not because I naively believed the world had learned to love Jews. But because there was Israel.
After the war ended, my parents, with false names on documents illegally purchased, entered what was then Palestine, ruled by the British mandate. There was family that had come long before the war began — my mother’s Aunt Chana in Haifa and my father’s Aunt Malka who arrived in Tel Aviv in 1920. My father’s sister had also managed to get out before the war began. My parents arrived in 1947, one year before the establishment of the State of Israel.
Seven years later, I was born in Tel Aviv, a sabra – the title bestowed on Jews born in Israel. The word was derived from the Hebrew “sabar “– a prickly cactus-like plant, its tough, thick skin concealing a sweet, soft interior. When the state became a reality, the sabra became a new image of Jewish strength — the living, embodiment of “Never Again.”
Over the years, I overheard cryptic comments that I pieced together: when war broke out in 1956, my mother had a breakdown, unable to cope with more killing, more loss. She had a surviving uncle in Montreal and convinced my father to move there when I was two years old. Much later, they told me of their encounter with Aunt Malka before they left. She had looked at them sternly – a moment I could picture after I met her years later, tall and erect, radiating strength and intelligence. She told them to go if they must, but to leave me, the sabra, in Israel where I belonged.
We landed in Montreal on a snowy January day in 1956. My parents told me the Hebrew word for snow (sheleg), which to their delight, I repeated as “leleg” — a story they loved to tell long into my adulthood. I think it was a way of reminding themselves, and me – that my first words were Hebrew.
When it came time to enroll me in school, they rejected Montreal’s “Folk Shul”, where Yiddish – the native language of their now vanished world — was the language of Jewish studies. They enrolled me in Young Israel, a school where I would speak and read and write Hebrew, the language of a new Jewish world. I learned to sing “Hatikvah” along with “Oh Canada” and “God Save the Queen”.
Hebrew and then English, composed the soundscapes of my childhood, my young brain malleable enough to learn any language I was immersed in. But there was, despite my parents’ best intentions, Yiddish too. I understood everything they said to each other, though I never managed to speak it.
Like the other kids in our small immigrant community, and unlike our parents, I spoke English with no accent, the words flowed effortlessly, the grammar instinctively correct. My fluid Hebrew, was the accented speech of the almost native, English-speaking Canadian I was.
On my first trip to Israel when I was sixteen – the gift I chose instead of a Sweet Sixteen party – that foreign-sounding Hebrew was my superpower. Most Israelis didn’t speak English then. When I met my family, Hebrew was the bridge that connected us, rising above the residual resentment about my parents leaving. Here was proof that the sabra they took with them was no stranger to them, or to Israel.
Over the years, I returned frequently. My connection to the country grew deeper. As did my awareness of a curious paradox: that there, where security concerns and danger and the possibility of war loomed over every-day life, it felt like the safest place in the world to be Jewish. Not that I had ever worried about it. I had never encountered overt signs of antisemitism in my life. Quotas restricting the number of Jewish students enrolled in medical school at Montreal’s McGill University were long gone by the time we had come of age to apply. I was aware of restricted country clubs, but those didn’t evoke anxiety –no one ever died from not joining a country club.
Yet some degree of vigilance was embedded in my DNA. In encounters at a new job or with a new non-Jewish acquaintance, I would casually mention that I was Jewish. I think it was to protect them from whatever gaffe might occur, an age-old slur, anything I would be unable to forgive or forget. My mother’s fair hair, blue eyes, and delicate features, had for a short time protected her during the war, when she was able to pass as a gentile. I knew my blond hair and blue eyes had the same effect. Occasionally, I noticed a polite, surprised reaction to my revelation. And because I had no real fear, no reason to hide my Jewishness, it seemed a sound strategy to proudly own it and nip any unpleasantness in the bud.
I remember horrific incidents that occurred not long after my first visit to Israel — including the Munich Massacre: Israel’s athletes taken hostage by Black September, a Palestinian Militant organization, during the 1972 Munich Olympics. The rescue attempt by West German police failed. All the hostages were killed. And Operation Entebbe: when the hijackers of a French airliner en route from Israel to France, flew the plane to Entebbe and released the non-Jewish passengers. The Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish passengers were held hostage, to be exchanged for prisoners in Israeli jails. The Israeli military, in a dangerous operation successfully rescued the hostages.
I realized my Canadian, and later, my American passport, marked with my place of birth, would identify me as an Israeli citizen and a Jew – a target for hostage taking during a terrorist event. When I travelled during periods of high security alerts, I would notice the El Al jet, its blue Magen David (Star of David), large and visible on its tail, parked far from the airport’s gate, alone on the tarmac. And for that moment, I was sure that only a plane with a Star of David on its tail would come to save me if I needed saving.
By Israeli law, if you are born in Israel, the state forever considers you an Israeli citizen. And you need special documentation when you go there: exemptions from the army, in addition to a “Laissez Passer (certificate of passage) or an Israeli Passport. Foreign passports are not enough.
Document procurement is complicated: photos, cumbersome paperwork, visits to the Israeli Consulate. During an interview at the consulate some years ago, I quietly railed against the gods. This made no sense. I was an American citizen who had not lived in Israel since I was a baby. My American passport should be enough. Looking me in the eye, the consulate representative said she understood my frustration; there was, in fact, a way to avoid the hassle. I perked up. She told me I could formally renounce my Israeli citizenship. Shocked, shaking my head, I told her that wasn’t possible for me. And handed over my completed application.
I read Phillip Roth’s, “Plot against America” when it was published in 2004. In this what-if history, Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, defeats Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, leading to wide-spread violence against Jews. I wished it felt more like fiction. I wished it wasn’t so easy for me to believe.
I didn’t think about the book again until the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, when I watched neo-Nazis and white supremacists march as they chanted “Jews shall not replace us”. And last weekend, when in Evanston—home to Northwestern University where my husband had been a professor for over 30 years, demonstrators cloaked in Palestinian flags marched in support of Palestine. That is their right, of course. But among them, were demonstrators wrapped in the Hamas flag, supporting the terrorist organization whose mission statement is to annihilate the state of Israel and eliminate all Jews from the face of the earth. I wondered how they had celebrated their success on October 7.
Since October 7, threats against Jews have erupted everywhere – including university campuses where Jewish students don’t feel safe. Swastikas sprout like poisonous mushrooms, flourishing in a storm of hate. There are guards with guns standing in front of the locked doors of my synagogue and my grandson’s preschool.
Has this hatred always been here, simmering just below the surface? How else to explain the ease and speed with which it erupted and spread?
Israel is at war, facing a historic existential crisis. Six thousand miles away is not far enough to feel safe. In this new reality, with hate everywhere, there is no safe distance. I’m glad my parents are gone.