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Growing Up In Israel, Part 2

Ilana Masad
March 2, 2015

Yes to Peace, No to Violence

by Ilana Masad

Read other installments in this series here.

yitzhak_rabin_murder_newspaperMOVING FROM ONE COUNTRY to another involves a lot of getting ready and a lot of time spent in limbo. Even today, as my mother prepares to leave Israel twenty-two years after she arrived, the process of moving across oceans is long and involved. Furniture and crates of books and a couple valuable paintings have to be moved. What my mother is bringing back to the U.S. closely resembles what she and my father brought with us to Israel in the summer of 1993.

My parents made our permanent home in Givatayim (the name means “two hills”), a city adjacent to Tel Aviv. Israel doesn’t have suburbs the way the U.S. has them — it’s too small and too dense for that — but Givatayim is often described that way. It’s small, population around 60,000, and has two little downtown areas, one at each end of it, where the shops line the bottom floors of Soviet-style apartment buildings that I will always associate with Israeli architecture; not the famous Bauhaus buildings littering Tel Aviv’s narrow streets, but the white or brownish squares balancing on blocky stilts.

We moved into a second-floor apartment a couple blocks away from where my sabba and savta had been living since soon after their arrival in Israel. At the time, there were still vast stretches of unoccupied land in the city (vast both by my child’s eyes and by the fact that distance is simply understood differently in a country as small as Israel). Particularly, there was Shetach Tesha, or Area Nine, which was a long-abandoned military outpost that had endangered red poppies growing in it that I wasn’t allowed to pick and lots of tiny yellow flowers and dandelions that I was. Shetach Tesha is now gone; it has been replaced by a mall.

My sabba, for whom we’d moved to Israel, was dying, and then, abruptly, was dead. My memory shifts from him teaching me how to draw a pearl necklace (little round circles one next to the other) to him being gone. Death was explained to me, somehow, and I knew everyone was sad. I also knew we were staying in Israel as long as my savta was still there, for my father to take care of and argue with.

MORE THAN MY GRANDFATHER’S DEATH, what I remember from those early years in Israel was coming to terms with Hebrew. I was raised bilingual, and though I knew the language even before we moved, I didn’t like it. My father would speak to me in Hebrew and I’d answer in English unless asked to answer in Hebrew. I would, but reluctantly. The hard sounds of Hebrew didn’t appeal to me then, though I also had trouble with my “R” in English. Once I began to attend nursery school in Israel, though, I had no choice but to speak Hebrew. It was the only way I could communicate.

I’m lucky that I was forced to pick up Hebrew. I love being bilingual, being able to read Hebrew literature (which I don’t do as often as I should) and the way the language feels on my tongue and between my teeth even though I don’t have many opportunities to speak it, now that I live in the U.S. Once my mother moves back here, my only link to Israel will be my friends, past love, and death. This feels appropriate; there are the same things tie so many Jews and Palestinians (whether Israeli or not) to the country.

Picture No. 10267546MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH DEATH after my sabba’s was the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, on November 4, 1995. It came after the Oslo Accords, an attempt to mitigate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by giving autonomy to certain Palestinian territories and withdrawing Israeli troops from some areas.

My parents, lefties, took my brother and me to the peace rally that night in 1995. I was 5 and bored with the speeches. I found rocks and pebbles on the ground and arranged them to fit together as if they were puzzle pieces. Once the music started, my father swooped me up onto his shoulders and I watched the prime minister himself take a microphone. He sang a few off-key words to “Shir L’Shalom” (“Song for Peace”). We left as the Tikvah, the national anthem, was playing. On our way out of Kikar Malkey Yisrael, the Kings of Israel Square (later renamed Rabin Square) and down Ibn Gabirol Street, we heard the pops that later turned out to have been the gunshots.

Shortly after we arrived home, my mother, with her limited Hebrew, heard something on the radio that made her rush into the bathroom where my father was taking a bath. She roused him from the suds and they turned on the TV and radio, watching and listening to the coverage from the hospital to which Rabin had been rushed and where, soon after, he was declared dead. Dead by the hands of an Orthodox Jewish assassin, a man whose political beliefs deviated so far from Rabin’s that he believed that Rabin was a traitor, a rodef — literally pursuer; certain interpretations of Jewish law allow for the murder of such a rodef. Rabin’s assassin believed his mission to murder was righteous.

My parents must have told me about Rabin’s death, and it must have been discussed in kindergarten the next day, but I don’t remember these explanations. What I do remember, and vividly, is waking up in the bottom bunk in my brother’s and my shared room and looking at the window slats where the sun was coming in and realizing that our (and I still struggle with this collective pronoun) prime minister was dead. I was terrified, paralyzed, by this thought. Chaos would surely follow. Who would lead us? What would happen? The word ‘anarchy’ wasn’t in my vocabulary, but that was what I was picturing — a world in which anything and everything could happen.

It makes sense that I thought this as a 5-year-old; when you’re a kid, your world is structured around those who lead you, take you by the hand when you cross the street, give you activities with which to engage, or tell you what you can or cannot do. The loss of a leader, even one so far away that he meant nothing, still somehow meant everything.

Even though the Oslo Accords had already aroused violence all over the country, it was Rabin’s assassination that was a tipping point of sorts, at least for me. It was when I began to understand that we were living in a place where this sort of thing could happen. It was also when I began to really see what adult grief looked like and that adults were not impervious to confusion. I was not the only one who was completely baffled by how things could get so out of hand so quickly.

The utter inability to truly grasp the situation (or ha’matzav, ‘The Situation’, as Israelis often call the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and whatever its permutations are at any given point) has not left me, even though I have left Israel. I am certain that as my mother packs away the things she loves, many of which we brought with us from the U.S., she is as confused and conflicted about the dual nature of the chaotic country she agreed to move to all those years ago and which she — and I — learned to love and hate in equal measure.

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.