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Growing Up in Israel, Part 1

Ilana Masad
February 24, 2015

We Were Not Zionists

by Ilana Masad

Read other installments in this series here.

israelTHERE ARE MANY REASONS why people move to Israel. For some, it is getting away from oppressive countries or economies and coming to a place where they automatically get citizenship. For others, there is a deep connection to the idea of Israel: the Holy Land, the Land of Milk and Honey, the Home of Our Fathers...

That is not why I, at the ripe old age of 3, moved there. I moved because of my father. Not an Abraham, not an Isaac, not a Jacob. He was, funnily enough, a Kohen by blood, or so his father told him (after his father told him, after his father told him, etc.) which made me a bat-Kohen, since women (of course) can’t be priests. That’s okay. I never had aspirations towards joining a religious order anyway.

My father was born in Ulm, in a Displaced Persons camp set up after World War II. His parents, my sabba and savta, both had managed to flee Poland, only to be caught in Russia. In one of the great, dark ironies of the Holocaust, they were, like many other Jews who escaped the slaughter into Russia, accused of being German spies. Having fled the camps to which they would have been sent in Poland, my grandparents both ended up at camps in Siberia, with no shoes and very little food, cutting down trees in the harshest of winters.

After the war ended, they were both in Samarkand (or so my savta always told me), where they were matched by a rabbi. Since both were in their early thirties, they felt a certain desperation to get married. My savta lied about her age to seem younger than my sabba. According to the documents we have, she was 94 when she died, but I don’t know if any of those documents were originals or reissued after the war.

My father was born in that DP camp the year before Israel was declared a state, and it took his family another year actually to move there. There is a lot I don’t know about their early years in Palestine/Israel. I know my savta came down with a blood infection after my father’s birth and that antibiotics were scarce. I know that once the family arrived in Israel, she had operation after operation and ended up with one leg shorter than the other. My sabba worked a double shift as linotype operator and then proofreader at Ha’aretz. He worked at least sixteen hours a day. I know that my savta’s sister didn’t agree to take my father in, and that he was put intermittently in an orphanage, where most of the other kids were in the same position — parents too ill or working too hard to be able to care for them. I know that it was my savta’s fault that my father started smoking; she had him light her cigarettes in his own mouth, taking the first drag. And I know that my father was an only son.

HE GREW UP WITH ISRAEL, a year older than the country itself. He was religious because his father was, but he was breaking the rules (or attempting to) with his best friend from high school long before he officially “returned to the question,” which is a rough translation of חוזר בשאלה, the Hebrew term for someone who forsakes observant Jewish life. My father told his parents he didn’t believe in God, and there was a big falling out.

He worked on the film production crew of Jesus Christ Superstar. (There’s a funny story involving him, a desert storm no one believed was coming despite his warning, and a moment when the actor playing Christ was on the cross as a bolt of lightning came down and everyone but my father and the other Israeli knelt down and prayed, terrified that they’d offended someone. My father and the other guy stood by, suppressing laughs.) The Brits from the shoot suggested he come back to the UK with them, and so he did, without any particular plan in mind.

Decades later, my father was living in Los Angeles with my mother, brother, and me. They’d already taken us to visit Israel (I have no memory of this) a couple times to meet my sabba and savta. When my father found out that his father had colon cancer, he felt that as an only child he had to move back to Israel to take care of them.

My mother never wanted to move, but she did. What she did not do was make aliyah. To this day, people assume she did. She gets harassed at airports every time she flies in and out of the country, since she never took my father’s last name and her own is apparently not sufficiently Jewy. The Israeli security details that accompany any flight to and from Israel ask a list of inane questions regarding where and when you packed your luggage and who was with you while you did it and whether you’re transporting gifts (which may, they inform you in a condescending tone, be bombs). My mother’s Hebrew sounds American enough that she has always gotten the more in-depth version: Where do you live? Why did you move here? Did you live in the States? Did you learn Hebrew there? Did you go to synagogue? And, of course: When did you make aliyah?

WE DIDN’T. This is important. My father grew up in Israel and left it voluntarily. He returned voluntarily as well, out of a sense of only-child duty. My mother moved voluntarily out of a sense of love for my father and her desire to keep her children in a two-parent household. Also, she thought it was going to be temporary.

It wasn’t.

My parents knew my sabba wasn’t going to live long; his cancer was discovered late and there wasn’t much to be done. They also assumed that my savta, who was disabled and dependent on him, would not survive him by very long (a cynical but logical way of thinking that has trickled down to me and my own dark sense of humor and reality). They underestimated her. She had survived the kind of cold where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet. She had cut down trees in Siberia on a diet of officers’ scraps. When she and the others were given meat one day, and her friend asked what the meat was and was told it was horsemeat because a horse had died, my savta berated her for throwing up. When compared to all of that, the death of a husband was terrible, but not unendurable. Little is unendurable when you’ve learned to survive.

My mother did not make aliyah. My father did not move to Israel in order to return to his roots. There were not ideological, political, or religious reasons for making the move from the U.S. of A to the Middle East. There was a good son, his children, and his partner who loved him and was willing to make what is probably the biggest sacrifice she has ever made, to this day.

The reasons matter because of what came later, because of how I came to feel about Israel, because of the conflicted essence of the country itself. It makes a good deal of sense that we didn’t move there because we were Zionists. It also explains a lot about why we left, are leaving, or will leave, one by one.

Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.