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How I went from being an anti-Semite to a Zionist

Zvi Abells with wife Chana. After this he says there came a turning point in his life

How a Jew in a Christian setting went from being an anti-Semite to a Zionist

In Canada, my name was Herbert. My wife, Chana, and I made aliyah twice – in June 1949 and in July 1969. I am 87 and have lived a total of 45 years in Israel. My parents were born in Russia. My mother and father met and were married in Canada. They moved to a small village called Gilbert Plains in the province of Manitoba, Canada where I was born and lived until age 17. My father's brothers had a grocery store there (but left before I was born); my father had a barbershop. At that time 700 people lived in the village, and it is probably the same today. In my day the only other Jewish family in the village owned a general goods store.

My Jewish upbringing was minimal, to say the least. My mother kept a kosher home and, to accommodate this, my father went to Winnipeg (300 km away) to learn how to 'shochet' the chicken, geese, ducks and turkeys that we raised. Thus, we had our own supply of eggs and also milk from a cow. We three boys helped our father take care of the cow and fowl. Pesach was observed in its entirety with our father reading the Haggadah but we understood none of it. From my childhood days, I have no recollection of the other Jewish holidays (Purim, Lag B'Omer, Shavuot and Succot). However, there was the annual trip to a large town nearby for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur attendance at a small temporary synagogue.

Anti-Semitism was common in town. When the Christian children we played with would get angry with us, they would shout "bloody Jew" and we would reply "bloody Galician" although they were Ukrainians. Maybe our parents told us that it was an insult to them to be called Galician. When I was 16, Jim was my close childhood friend. He and his friends were of Anglo-Saxon descent, with families of three children. I recall Jim telling me that Jews were plotting to take control of Canada by strength of numbers, and he backed up his statement by pointing out that my family had six children and the other Jewish family had four children. That claim prodded me to compile a list of non-Jews known to us both and of Jewish families known to me in the surrounding towns. I worked out the total number of children and found that, on average, non-Jews known to us both were actually more prolific than the Jews I knew! I presented the list to him, but doubt whether he was convinced.

How did I feel about being Jewish? I think it can be summed up in four words, "I wish I wasn't". I, of course, was not happy that the Jews I knew were all businessmen, living off the labor of others. My father worked with his hands as a barber. He often spoke against certain Jews in the nearby towns and some of his anti-Semitism rubbed off on me. I went to college in Winnipeg to study electrical engineering. I went from the village to the big city and, not "looking Jewish", my fellow students assumed that I was Christian. I did not correct this misconception because I did not want to associate exclusively with the Jewish students, nor was I particularly proud of my birthright. Thus, for the first two years there, I tried to hide my being Jewish. 

Zvi Abells on his graduation.

Although I was disturbed by nasty remarks at the university concerning the few Jewish boys in the class, I did not attempt to defend my fellow Jews. An example of such remarks was "the Jew Barney Rosenstein" instead of simply "Barney Rosenstein" when speaking in an uncomplimentary manner about him.

The turning point in my life came after my graduation, while I was working as an electrical engineer in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. I lived in a "room and board" home. One of the boarders, Chuck, was from Montreal. He was sent to Ottawa by the Labor Zionists of Montreal. His task was to organize youth groups to be part of the Habonim youth movement. Chuck had the greatest influence on me. He had a good, though untrained, singing voice, and taught the young Habonim members and myself Zionist pioneering songs. Chuck and his fellow Labor Zionists led me to see Jews in a new light. There, in Palestine, Jews were socialists working the land with their hands: I felt I could relate to them and be part of them. After two years, I decided to go to Palestine so I went to a farm in Canada where about 20 youngsters in their early twenties were trained for life on a kibbutz. There I met my wife, Chana. Three months later we were married.

At that time, there was no direct transportation to Israel since the country was at war with the Arabs, so, in May 1949 we sailed for Le Havre, France. The ship was not very large - a 15,000 ton Liberty ship called the Marine Tiger carrying about 600 passengers. In Paris we were processed by the Hechalutz office and handed third class train tickets to Marseilles where we were assigned to a large house in an area called St. Jerome. There we spent ten days waiting for further transportation. Our second ship, the Theodor Herzl, was one-tenth the size of the Marine Tiger - 1600 tons, but held the same number of people - 600 immigrants from all over the world. It was very crowded and culturally challenging. On the tenth day at sea, in the early hours of the morning, objects on the horizon came into focus and we saw the two large towers of the oil refinery, the landmark of Haifa. We were elated.

Within ten months we deserted our socialist ideals by leaving Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv, and after an additional year and a half in an immigrant settlement in the Haifa Bay area, we left for the United States. My plan was to stay in America for only a few years, save money, and return to my adopted country. After 17 years in Rochester, New York, and with three girls aged 8 to 16, the Six Day War gave us the incentive to make our second aliyah. Our four month stay in an absorption center in Jerusalem was an enjoyable experience. We purchased an apartment in Holon from our savings in the States, and 10 years later we moved to Jerusalem where we lived for 32 years. We are blessed to have two daughters and three grandchildren living in Israel and one daughter with two grandchildren in America. We are very comfortable and content in our home in Lev Avot, a protected residence in Rehovot.

This, then, is my tale – how a Jew who, in his teens was unhappy with his heritage as a Jew and used to argue that there were already enough nation states in the world and therefore no need for a Jewish state, became a convinced Zionist. I feel very much "at home" in Israel. I see Israel as the place where Jews went from being city dwellers living off the labor of others to workers of the land; from a lowly defenseless people to one strong and proud. What do I like about the country and the people? It is simply that I feel part of the life here in spite of not being totally submerged in its culture (language, for instance). I like not having to remind myself that I am a Jew among gentiles - I surprise myself sometimes when I note that people around me are Jewish. I am proud to be part of this people who have survived so many millennia while other peoples have vanished and their language and culture have disappeared. 

 

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Thursday, 29 September 2022

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