Don’t you love ambiguous sentences? One of my favourites is “The peasants are revolting.” Interpretation often depends on your point of view. Sometimes we even miss the ambiguity. We can roll these linguistic creations around on our tongue and dissect them, right down to their deep structure. I used to love creating and labeling each structural node, drawing out of it a new branch, or a series of branches. Life made sense then, in first year Linguistics, until we were told that we were studying something which had already been discarded, Chomsky opting out for something much more abstract.
Tradition. This is something a boy growing up in a waspish suburb in Toronto knows little about. We did have our family traditions – excellent roast beef and yorkshire pudding dinners served on mother’s best china every Sunday evening, which were always served and consumed just in time to watch the Walt Disney hour and then Ed Sullivan – Christmas: listening for the sound of Santa’s reindeer passing overhead, opening the first present early Christmas morning before our parents got up and an afternoon game of bridge with grandmother – Easter: chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies, mixed in with tales of crucifixion and resurrection.
But I always felt that something was missing. Something to do with age old tradition – a mixture of unique song, dance, culinary delights and stories. This may sound strange from such an anti-social cultural outcast, as myself. But I have always wanted the opportunity to reject something, once tasted, rather than have it denied me, unseen.
So maybe Pesach (Passover) on the kibbutz was some sort of ironic justice. Picture this – the kibbutz dining hall overflowing with kibbutz members and their guests. A stage set up in the middle. The long tables decoratively covered with tablecloths and an assortment of plates and silverware. Matzah piling up on the tables. Rumblings from the kitchen promising more. The festivities begin. The reading of the watered down kibbutz version of the Hagaddah. Performances by kibbutz children, kibbutz members, more kibbutz children… One hour passes, two hours pass. It is 10 p.m. and we still haven’t eaten anything, except for small pieces of matzah which we have managed to stuff into our mouths, trying not to crunch down too noisily. Now and then we reach a point in the Hagaddah where another glass of wine is raised. This may have quietened the noisy grumbling of our stomachs, had it not been that it was more grape juice than wine. My brother-in-law added his own touch of tradition by spiriting in a bottle of vodka each year to help us through the evening. We would try to get our pre-arranged seating by the window so that at some point, when his parents and others weren’t watching, he could slip the bottle through the window to his sister, and she would then place it strategically on the floor. Their parents could never understand why our sour mood suddenly sweetened after that point. Although I do think that their mother – a tough sabra former officer in the Palmach – did know, as you couldn’t get much past her without her knowing. But if so, she humoured us with her silence. She had rebelled against much more in her life than we could ever dream of doing. One year the bottle broke on the floor under the table, and the strong smell of vodka swept through our corner. My brother-in-law slid open the window to its fullest and tried to divert attention with one of his funny stories, while we painfully held back our laughter in our already tipsy state. I often envied those kibbutz members who went to celebrate the seder (Pesach dinner) with their families outside of the kibbutz, experiencing the more intimate Pesach celebration that I had only heard of.
But those years of celebrating Pesach in the kibbutz dining room are behind us, not only because we left the kibbutz long ago, but because most kibbutzim have become privatized and there are no longer communal meals in the dining room, let alone holiday celebrations. We now gather together, immediate and extended family, perhaps somewhat ironically at my brother-in-law’s house where he (an excellent cook) puts together an impressive Pesach celebration. And the grape juice is replaced with real wine and the food served before the singing of Had Gadya and the search for the afikoman. There are times, though, when I sense him searching, out of habit, for that bottle of vodka to help him through the reading of the Hagaddah.
They say that hockey is in every Canadian’s blood. Don’t know about that. But it is certainly a part of my beginnings. I have proof of that in the small trophy sitting on my living room shelf, down here in the desert.
This morning I found myself putting ketchup on my omelette. Something apparently to be frowned upon, here in the Negev desert, or anywhere else in Israel, for that matter. The last time people looked at me like that was when I put my salt on my watermelon. “Enhances the taste!” I said, to their shocked and disapproving stares. It doesn’t take much to reaffirm that you haven’t yet quite landed, despite spending the last 35 years of your life in this adopted country (who actually was doing the adoption?)
At times like this I always blame my Canadian side, or use it as an excuse, at least. Unlike our American cousins to the south (or across the seas, in my case), our under belly hasn’t been exposed in countless sitcoms detailing all of the trivial and gruesome details of American life. (I do ask all South and Central American residents to excuse me for borrowing a part of your identity to identify the United States of America population, but it is just easier this way – call me lazy.) A few Canadian sitcoms do make it all the way here, and some are well received on Israeli soil, but at the most they are considered “quaint”. Actually, Canadians on the whole are considered “quaint” here. So I can basically blame almost anything on my Canadian heritage and get away with it.
Perhaps the biggest advantage, or disadvantage (depends on the day of the week, snow storms and whether the Leafs will make the playoffs) of being a mishmash of Israeli experience and Canadian roots, is that nobody will take responsibility for you. “You’re not really Israeli, are you?” “How can you still call yourself Canadian?” Actually, this sits quite well with me, unless I am taking it standing up. Being naturally a social misfit (apparently this goes back to my young elementary school days, possibly even kindergarten, but there were no podcasts back then to document any of this) I will use anything offered to explain the unexplainable.
And don’t even get me going as to whether a Canadian pronounces it ketchup or catsup. The last time I was in Canada there was a discussion about this (I’d use argument, but Canadians are not often wont to argue, unlike Israelis, who just wait for an excuse to argue). Even Canadians couldn’t agree on one pronunciation. It possibly is connected to different generations. Do I still get a generation being away this long?
And corn on the cob. When I first saw corn on the cob in Israel, it wasn’t even fit for Mavis the cow. They claim it has gotten better over the years, but Israelis still don’t realize that you should only eat corn on the cob when it is hand-picked the same day on a farm and sold at a roadside booth, somewhere like Finch and McCowan. Although the last time I was at Finch and McCowan all I saw was building development. Is nothing sacred?
So, for all of you Canadians still out there in the mother country, and you Israelis who are still wondering how all of these immigrants made it in here, I offer you a slightly different look at identity mislaid, sometimes lost, and occasionally gained – here, and in further entries to come. How about it, eh?