This week, my mother made Aliyah to Israel. By herself. At age 70.
How does a single, 70- year-old woman from Vancouver, Canada decide to move to Israel by herself? It’s actually a fascinating story.
Golda Meir’s Invitation
My mother, Brenda Yablon, was born in Montreal in the 1940s. She attended a Jewish elementary school and excelled in most of her studies, including Hebrew language. In 1957, when my mother was 12 years old, then Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir came to Montreal to raise money and support for the fledgling state. One of the scheduled events was a speech to the Jewish youth of the city which took place at the famed Montreal Forum, home to the Montreal Canadiens hockey team.
Even though Golda spoke fluent English (she grew up in Milwaukee), the government of Israel made a decision that its Foreign Minister should address audiences in Hebrew. Reporters from the local Montreal newspapers showed up to cover the event but of course could not understand Hebrew. So they began searching for a youngster who could translate for them. The surrounding students agreed, “Brenda is the best Hebrew speaker, she can act as your translator.” And so she did.
After Golda finished, one of her handlers heard the story about the 12-yearold translator and told Golda. She asked that they find the young girl and bring her over.
“How old are you, young lady?” Golda asked my mother.
“Twelve years old,” my mother replied.
“And at 12 years old you are already speaking Hebrew so well.” Golda took my mother’s hand into hers warmly and said, “The State of Israel needs young people like you. After you finish your education, come and help us build the land. I hope to see you there soon.”
Kibbutz and Hebrew University
After graduating high school my mother begged her parents to allow her to spend some time in Israel. After much cajoling, they acquiesced to her spending a summer working on a Kibbutz. She stayed at Kibbutz Gvat and was paired with a family with the last name Shachak. They asked her where her family was from prior to moving to Montreal. “Lodz, Poland,” she replied. The Shachak family was also originally from Lodz. A few phone calls later, they discovered that they were cousins.
The summer on Kibbutz left my mother wanting more but she was enrolled in an undergraduate program at the prestigious McGill University back in Montreal. While there, she learned that Hebrew University in Jerusalem would be launching a junior year abroad program for students from English speaking countries and she inquired to see if McGill would recognize the program so that she could receive credit. She was informed that she would need to get every McGill professor to sign off on each of her courses that she planned to take in Jerusalem. My mother took up the challenge and in 1964 she was a member of the first cohort of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s now well-known junior year abroad program.
My mother soaked up her time in Israel. She came to know the Israeli people as honest, warm, and intelligent while carrying a sense of purpose about the mission of the Jewish people. She had once in a lifetime experiences, such as having famed archeologist Yigael Yadin as an instructor who led them in fieldwork at Masada which had just recently been discovered. My mother spent a few weeks at Masada, living in temporary tents, excavating the site. While there, her group found the now famous lots that the Jews cast to see who would be the last to take their lives so as to prevent their capture by the Roman legions.
At the end of her year my mother decided that she wanted to make her life in Israel.
Richard Rabkin with his mother
But first she had to return to Montreal for one year to complete her undergraduate degree. Then, a prestigious Master’s program opened up and she enrolled. Soon afterwards she got married, had kids and…I guess life just happened.
Growing up I don’t recall my mother talking about Israel that much. She was of course busy raising children, working and trying hard to make ends meet. But while I was in university, a friend of mine had gone to Hebrew U for his junior year abroad and he regaled me with stories that piqued my interest, so in 1996, 32 years after my mother had gone on the first year of the program, I attended as well.
That year my mother came to visit me in Israel, her first prolonged stay since 1964. I suppose seeing me experience what she had 32 years prior awakened something that had been dormant in her for some time. “But at this point, it was only a flicker,” my mother admitted.
Life moved on and she was occupied with her business, which thankfully had become successful, and when she reached her mid-60s she started looking for somewhere warm to spend a few months during the dreary Vancouver winters. There was only one option for her. Israel.
The first year it was two months, the next it was 3 months, then 4,5 and now at 70, it’s Aliyah (she will still spend her summers in Vancouver).
"Over 100 relatives were killed by the Nazis for being Jews. For them, I want to live like one.”
“I’m so thankful for the opportunities that Canada has given me and my family, but when I’m in Israel, I feel like I’m home,” she told me. “When I swim in the Mediterranean Sea, I picture the ships of King Solomon arriving to deliver the cedars from Lebanon. When I walk in Jerusalem in the tunnels built by King Hezekiah during the First Temple period, I am simply overwhelmed. These are the streets that my ancestors walked thousands of years ago. I want to be part of that glorious history!”
When I ask my mother, why now, during such trying times both in Israel and around the world, she says, “Especially now! I want to make a statement to the people of Israel, ‘I am with you’. As a former journalist, I want to write articles for online publications to explain the real Israel, not what is portrayed through the warped lenses of the media.”
Is she afraid? “I feel safer in Israel than I do anywhere else in the world. But you know what? I had over 100 relatives who were killed by the Nazis. If they were killed for being Jews, then for them, I want to live like one.”
I ask my mother to imagine when she touches down at Ben Gurion Airport Golda Meir would coming to greet her. What do you think she would say?
“She would take my hand in hers warmly,” my mother says smiling, realizing the magnitude of what she is embarking on, “and she would say ‘It took you a while, but you are finally home.’”
After two thousand years, the Jewish people came home, never giving up their dream. After 70 years, my mom never gave up her dream either.