It was December 25 in Tel Aviv and it was business as usual. Government offices, stores and banks were open. And in the days leading up to it there was no frantic shopping, endless parties, or Christmas music. The celebration of Hanukkah was impossible to avoid. Everywhere stores and streets were festooned with dreidels and menorahs, and bakeries overflowed with sufganiyot and latkes. Over the eight days of Hanukkah I was invited to five parties for candle lighting, eating and singing of traditional songs.

As a Canadian born and raised Jewish woman this was decidedly different from what I had experienced all my life. I belonged to the mainstream culture. It felt good.

I am proudly Canadian. I've always been grateful for my good fortune to have been born there, for the freedoms to which I am entitled and for the opportunities to invent and reinvent myself, to be whatever I want to be. My parents came from Poland as teenagers before the war. I grew up nurtured in the rich, vibrant Jewish community of Montreal from which I seldom had reason to emerge. I went to a Hebrew day school, lived in an almost all Jewish neighborhood, and all my friends and my parents’ friends were Jewish. I had a comfortable sense of belonging to that community. However the defining moment of experiencing myself as an outsider of the larger community came when I was 16 years old.

My high school was holding its annual public speaking contest, the winner of which would represent the school in a citywide competition held at McGill University. My teachers encouraged me to participate. It was the year that Adolph Eichmann had been captured in Argentina and brought to Israel to face trial. I decided to make his capture and what it represented in terms of the acknowledgement of evil and the pursuit of justice the subject of my speech.

I began with a quote from Eichmann himself: “I will leap into my grave laughing knowing that I am responsible for the death of five million Jews. This gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” At the end of my speech the auditorium of some 500 students, most of them Jewish, gave me a standing ovation. I did not win the competition. The teachers who were the judges chose as the winner a girl whose subject was hairdos.

One of the judges who was my English teacher felt that I deserved an explanation. She took me aside and told me that although my speech was by far the best, they couldn’t let me represent my school at McGill because my subject was “too Jewish.” I was too young at the time to fully appreciate the outrageousness and the callousness of that comment, or its irony. The message I took away with me was that I was an outsider and the Jewish society to which I belonged was not held in high esteem, and that I had to be keep a low profile about my being Jewish if I wanted to “win” in the world.

After my first year of university I spent a summer on a kibbutz in Israel. It was a life altering, heady experience. Here was I was part of the mainstream even though I wasn’t born there. What mattered was that I was connected to people and to a land with whom I shared a profound identity. What impressed me the most was what I perceived as the normalcy of this society. Jews did everything. They were farmers. They got theirs hands dirty in the soil and drove tractors. They were bus drivers. They were soldiers. They built roads and buildings. They were proud and strong with a clear sense of purpose. They were joyful and unafraid. I saw a different way of being. I wanted to be like these Jews.

I was more than a member of a religious minority; I was also part of a people with an ancient history who now had a homeland.

I returned to Montreal with an expanded grasp of who I was as a Jew. Because of my connection to Israel I felt more secure, more empowered. I was more than a member of a religious minority; I was also part of a people with an ancient history who now had a homeland. I had some vague dream of returning to Israel to live once I finished my studies. Instead I got married, started a career, had children, moved to Vancouver, divorced, started a business - in short, life happened. Though I sent my children to Hebrew school, I could not find a place for myself in the Jewish community of Vancouver. Over the years I became more and more distant from Judaism, though Israel still had a quiet place in my heart.

Brenda Yablon

Brenda Yablon

With the Pacific Ocean at my front door, I had become an avid open water swimmer. I was looking for a place to swim in the winter months. California and Mexico had become tired options. As I was searching the globe it came to me: Israel is on the Mediterranean. I rented an apartment near the sea in Tel Aviv for two months. I could never have known that what began as a whim became the fulfillment of a dream long dormant.

While I did swim in the Mediterranean I also connected with a large extended network of cousins I knew existed but for the most part had never met. I was immediately caught up in the incomparable warm embrace of family. I celebrated Shabbat and holidays with them. They introduced me to the cultural riches of music, theatre, art and food. And of course the ever present political discourse across the whole spectrum of left to right, with passionate debates at every gathering. I listened respectfully, knowing that these people were doing more than just talking. They were speaking from the realities of their experiences fighting in wars, putting their lives at risk, knowing death and danger intimately, and building a country whose continued existence was never a given.

Fortunately and somewhat miraculously, I remembered the Hebrew I learned in school as a child and with daily use, my Hebrew quickly improved. This allowed me a depth of experience not common to the average tourist.

When I came back to Canada I felt somewhat at loose ends. I realized I was having an identity crisis. Who was I? I was still me, but in black and white. I’d left my colored, brighter, more vibrant self in Israel.

The following year I went back for three months. And four months the year after that. A friend who visited me in Israel from Vancouver remarked that I appeared happier, more open, more authentic. I gave that a lot of thought.

It was becoming clearer to me that I wanted to formalize my relationship to Israel by becoming an Israeli citizen. But I couldn’t give up Canada, my native country which I love and to which I also feel rooted. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Since both Canada and Israel allow dual citizenship, I didn’t have to choose. I became an Israeli citizen four years ago and I divide my year between the two countries I love most in the world. And I get to swim in open water all year round.

The more hostile the world becomes, the more I feel the need for Israel.

The more time I spend in Israel, the richer my experience. This past September I was in Israel for the first time for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Though I consider myself to be a secular Jew, I wanted to immerse myself in the local custom, as it were. As I walked down my street heading towards the synagogue, I could not believe my eyes. People were streaming out of their apartments, converging on Dizengoff, the main street of Tel Aviv. There were thousands, many dressed in white, the traditional color for Yom Kippur, to symbolize purity. They were all headed to various synagogues. There was not a car in sight. There was a hush over this moving mass of humanity. I imagined that it must have looked something like this during the time of the Temple. And here I was a part of it in 2019, in Tel Aviv.

In the time since I've become an Israeli citizen, the world has become a more inhospitable place for Jews. Anti-Semitism and open attacks on Jews have become commonplace. Attempts to deny the legitimacy of Israel as a sovereign state have become policy of both the left and the right, even if it means rewriting history, the Bible, and ignoring archaeology.

The more hostile the world becomes, the more I feel the need for Israel. It is the only place in the world where I can never be made to feel that I am too Jewish.