Ancestry

I said before that I am a quarter Israeli, and that this fact has been an exceptionally tiny irrelevance over the years I have been alive. I knew very little of my relations in Israel – one great-aunt that I was aware of, the great-uncle that went with her now long dead. I’d been to the country before, but I was very young and barely remember anything beyond riding the ‘yellow submarine’ – a trip on a submarine in the Red Sea about which I was (understandably! Submarines + being four years old = awesome) very excited.

As you can imagine, it was with some trepidation that, on the second night of the holiday, I sat down to a big family dinner with all these people I had never met. In previous posts I mentioned the brusque nature of the few Israelis I’d had any interaction with, and I was bracing myself for a whole evening of awkward, stilted, and vaguely hostile conversation.

I could mention a lot of things here, but one particular phrase stuck out. Moshe, a not-sure-how-many-times-removed second cousin (and who is now retired, to give another dimension of distance) was talking to my parents about my sister and I, and the topic of what we were studying at university was mentioned. His response, unforced, genuine, warm, was simply to say “I am so proud of both of them.” Such a familial response from someone so unfamiliar was quite touching, and somehow entirely unexpected. Sabra: prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside. The term never seemed so appropriate. Everyone was lovely and despite their highly varied standards of English (and my unwavering incomprehension of Hebrew) it actually turned out to be a pleasant evening. I found I was wishing that I knew the Israeli family better, feeling that I should reach out now before it’s too late, learn a touch of Hebrew, visit, be involved.

Later that evening, I caught myself wondering if perhaps I was already too late. My aunt and closest relative here is very elderly, and while both physically and mentally well she is only getting older. Her daughter, though, was the trigger for that morbid sense of being past time. She is sunny, bright, friendly and speaks excellent English. In her early forties, she would be a prime candidate for future visits and a chance to integrate properly with this newfound part of my multinational family.

She has around six months to live. Mention the phrase ‘extensive bony metastases’ to a healthcare professional and ask about the prognosis – the unhappy tint of their gaze will tell you everything you need to know. To meet for the first time such a vibrant relative is wonderful, but to know that it is also the last is heartbreaking. She was bold and kept her grief in check – only a tear in her eye as we hugged goodbye gave any indication of the elephant in the room: the acute sense of what I can only describe as shadow. I met her two young children, for whom she is the only carer. She tells me she takes it day by day.

I’ve mentioned the hard side of the Israeli people already. Maybe now you see better the manifold shades of grey on the ground, the deeply caring and familial side of the scales. the Israeli’s are not simply political force or military might – they are people with their own tragedies, joys and everything in between. I went to this evening expecting an awkward marathon of a meal but received instead the acceptance and warmth of family. I left that night feeling humbled by my welcome, and by the time I got back to my clinically-cleaned hotel room I felt like I might cry.

Somewhere in this cemetery on the Mount of Olives lies my great grandmother. She was born and lived and died out here, buried within sight of the Dome of the Rock and the Gardens of Gethsemane, and it is truly peculiar to think that this country too is a part of my family’s history.

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