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On salmon and survival: From Canada to kibbutz

Sirens pulled us out of the prayer. Aircraft flew overhead and tanks were rumbling. War had begun.

By Rochelle Mass, former Winnipegger living in Israel, November 23, 2009

A siren tore through the skies. Prayers were thrust aside, prayer books slapped shut. Men traded skullcaps and prayer shawls for army uniforms. Streets filled with soldiers. Everyone's son was a soldier, everyone's husband enlisted. We came as a family in August 1973 to an absorption center. The siren pulled us out of the synagogue. Aircraft flew overhead, tanks rumbled down the highway. War had begun. Classes were canceled; teachers were sent to the front. We volunteered, together with other immigrants, to pick oranges. A kibbutz member spoke about our Zionist commitment, amazed we could have left our homes and family. In English, on a level more complex than he could grasp, we explained why we brought our children to the Land of Israel. "I was born in Winnipeg," I told him. "In prairies where wheat is grown and there isn't a hill to break the horizon. Our parents escaped from Eastern Europe; we continue the journey. We've come home." This kibbutz man had fought in every war, including the War of Independence. "I'm too old for this one," he said. "You've done a great thing," he said. "You're not farmers, but you're doing a great thing." I wanted to say that I had been Jewish for a long time when I realized that I had to add Israeli to Jewish. I wanted to tell him that I when I was 18 months old, my parents moved to Vancouver. I grew up near the salmon run; I knew there was something Jewish about the persistence of the salmon. They returned again and again to the same spawning ground. I learned about survival; I want to experience it here. "I want to join the Jewish obsession to understand life. I can't understand why Jews live in the Diaspora," I tell the kibbutz member. I know that since we have come on our own without siblings or parents, we had no ancestors to bless us. We will have to be our own ancestors. Over time, I have come to realize that this is the Israeli experience; this is the history of the Jewish people. I had lived on the margin as a Jewish woman in Canada, and now I was an immigrant in Israel. I was called Jewish there; here I am called Anglo-Saxon. For 30 years and more I have tried to reach the borders of Israeli-ism, gain the right to the history of this place. I know I am a bridge between the Diaspora and Zion. I want to tell this man that I am a link between two shores - that I want my memory to come to rest here: I want to construct my mythology here. I call it double birthing. I've learned about displacement and replacement - home is essentially where everything makes sense, where imagination is scrutinized by fact, where dreams and reason meet. "Zionism as bright as yours is startling," he said. "If we survive this war, and if you're still here - come celebrate Pessah with us, with my family, on my kibbutz. Be our guests for your first Pessah in Israel!" And so it was. 

Rochelle Mass is a prize-winning poet who has authored three poetry collections, the most recent of which will be published later this year.

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