The Spirit of the Border
by Deborah Ostrovsky
all these early imprintings give us
person by person
our natures, each unique as fingerprints.
–Cultures Far and Here, Margaret Avison
"But how cruel is this border life!"
–The Spirit of the Border, Zane Grey

My father is one of the first sabras, the first generation of native-born Israelis. At the time that Israel was building a nation after what Jews call the War of Independence and Palestinians call al nakba, the catastrophe, he decided to come to Canada. Had he stayed in Jerusalem, he might have become a fighter pilot. I try to imagine what he would have looked like, his arms draped over aerial maps littered with ashtrays, pushpins, and wax pencils, his face wrinkled in concentration as he peered over all the new borders. At one time, he told me, all young Israeli men dreamed of starting their adult lives wearing army khakis.

Due to a turn of events that led my family away from Israel, my childhood became a very Canadian one, growing up in Southern Ontario listening to Stompin' Tom Connors while eating hot dogs and sweets from Marks & Spencer. On the surface I had a typically North American upbringing: ballet at age six, Brownies at seven, Pioneer Village day camps during spring break, and science fairs throughout elementary school in a sleepy, middle-class subdivision. Family summers were spent camping and renting cottages in Muskoka, far away from Israel and just about everything else.

I was only vaguely aware of our connection to Israel during my childhood through the presence of certain tchotchkes around our house—metal pencil holders covered with brass Bedouin figurines, a gigantesque and tarnished brass menorah, and a mobile made of shrapnel and artillery parts from the Israeli army embedded in colourful glass that hung from our kitchen window. It clinked and rattled at the slightest touch, as if to remind us of its presence.

There were also numerous Hebrew books on Zionism on our living room bookshelves with titles like The Zionist Dream and the Reality, or The Jewish and the Arab Question. Others, in English, were about Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, and Menachem Begin, haggard looking politicians with eye patches, wiry gray hair, and thick glasses. As a child these books had little relevance to me. And no one ever talked about why they were there.

Although my father left Israel before my birth, a part of me seems to have been left there as if there might be another me, the second "I" in this story. I think of her as Tzipora, one of my nicknames as a child. Tzipora lives in Israel where I might have lived, gone to school, married, and had children. She would have completed military service many years ago by now. I think of some of the duties she may have performed, the compulsory tasks women of that generation might have done in the army: bag checks at shopping malls, office work, or maybe, if she was lucky, a radio operator. She would, like me, have a fascination with shortwave and share my habit of listening to it at all hours of the night despite the rise of newer technologies providing more efficient ways to receive international news. Later, after finishing army service, would she have been Right or Left? Likud or Peace Now?

If Tzipora were to know me, she might be curious about my life here in the heart of French Canada. Moving to Quebec and marrying a Francophone has changed me in ways I could not have foreseen. Moving only a half day's drive away from my family home has involved, in my particular situation, the need to learn a new language and embrace a culture that has few reference points for me. I feared being an outsider in a large, Catholic family where history and roots, les souches, are firmly rooted in this region. My husband's generation has shed the religious culture that dominated public life here before the 'sixties, altering the nature of family structure for good. I have, however, found it relatively easy to adapt. This is perhaps because that I am not very sure about the culture I come from. Adjustments are harder to make if your cultural background is rich in absolutes.

Many people have written about the ways in which life in a new language and culture can become a form of individual exile. Nancy Huston, born in Calgary but who has lived most of her adult life in France, speaks about the feeling of exile in drastic terms: "Mutilation. Guilt. Self-Censorship." She claims that we censor parts of who we are in our attempts to live in a new culture. For Huston, the act of trying to become French, which she argues is impossible without growing up there and having had a French childhood, means setting parts of yourself aside, including what and who you used to be.

During my 'exile' I haven't set aside anything but confusion, the part of my identity that for years remained hidden in books on Zionism gathering dust on our bookshelves and trinkets from a Jerusalem market. I have not had to cut parts of myself out or self-censor. For others it may be more difficult because they have parts of themselves they would like to preserve; I do not know enough about my own background to feel scared of losing it.

I have adopted a new culture. I have started to do what Huston calls "theatre, imitation, make-believe", taking part in rituals that may no longer be representative of the contemporary culture, but are still a strong part of my new family's tradition. From late February to April, my weekend routine consists of visits to the cabane à sucre owned by my husband's family in rural Quebec. We eat maple toffee and curly fried pork rinds that people here call the Ears of Christ, les oreilles de chrisse. I imagine Tzipora laughing. As she might on hearing that there was a pastry called pets-de-soeurs, nun's farts. A few years ago, I couldn't have imagined these irreverent names, or the cultural history that they represent, let alone explained them to my alternate self, Tzipora, a girl who would have grown up somewhere in the Negev desert.

In Ellis Island, Georges Perec (who wrote a novel, La Disparition, without using a single letter 'e') tries to imagine what it would be like to have been a Jewish American immigrant, rather than a Jewish Parisian who lost his mother to the camps. He reflects, "I don't know exactly what being a Jew means, what it does to me. It's an obvious fact, if you like, yet a mediocre one, a mark, yet a mark that links me to nothing either precise or concrete." The image of my alternate self, Tzipora, looking over me while I eat Christ's Ears on a farm outside Montréal is not particularly interesting. It is nonetheless an image that I think about frequently enough for the shocking disparity of these two lives: one that is mine, and the other which was very close to being mine and yet so foreign to the one I have now. I start to ask myself: How did I get here and not somewhere else? Why not there instead of here? Why like this, and not like that? Perec asks the same questions as he wanders around Ellis Island, which before closing in 1954 became a detention centre for emigrants whose papers were not in order. For him, it was a place haunted with the spirit of his alternate self, who was "transcribed somewhere in a life-story that might have been mine, formed part of a probable autobiography, a potential memory."

In The Longest War, Argentinean journalist Jacobo Timerman tells the story of a young Israeli who refused to do his military service during the Lebanon invasion. The soldier, he explains, would not take part in the military exercises of what he called an occupation army. After this refusenik spent two months in military prison, he found it impossible to carry on with a normal life, particularly as a military service record was needed to obtain employment. "He quit Israel", Timerman writes, "and it's hardly possible he will return—rendered a wandering Jew because of a turn of events of history that the founding fathers did not foresee." As the founding fathers might not have foreseen my father leaving Israel before his army service and going back to the diaspora during the zenith of nation-building activity, a glitch in history that has ended up shaping my life. Perhaps, as Elias Canetti once wrote, "History knows everything better because it knows nothing at all." Maybe those of us on the outside still have something to say about how the absolutes of identity can be violated or enhanced by migration, relationships that take us to new destinations, and forces of circumstance.

Trying to understand my father's childhood in Jerusalem under the British Mandate only leads me to feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Life has provided me with an obscene amount of leisure time to contemplate my origins when my father has worked so hard to deny their importance and to get on with making a decent living. What is all this fuss about identity? he would probably ask me. But we simply don't talk about these things. Only on the rare occasion has he shared how traumatic life was for families caught between Nazi Europe and the violence during the British Mandate of Palestine. I have learned that my family witnessed British soldiers under the Mandate do many unforgivable—terrible—things. This only strengthened their resolve to take part in fighting for a Jewish nation, which after 1948 has, in turn, been caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and battles over borders with Arab and Palestinian communities who were also living—still living—on that land. I also know that, by today's standards, my aunt and her friends would have been considered child soldiers. They were ammunition runners to Jewish fighters well before their teens. These facts are unremarkable: talk to any sabra family and they will have identical tales to tell.

I know that my father and his older sister played games on their holidays in the wooded region outside of Jerusalem, a place called Deir Abu Tor, which in Arabic means the "Hill of the Bull's Father". I've spoken about this with a young Palestinian man who works at a falafel shop downtown, and he confirms that this hill did exist. The falafel man's parents had to leave in 1948, and like me, he has never lived there. We speak about it as if the place somehow belongs to both of us, as if we can share it with each other: something that might not happen if we had been born there and not here.

I also know that my father read American Westerns, particularly the novels of Zane Grey. In the midst of a period of political unrest, he read these violent tales of taciturn cowboys and their laconic and faithful Indian guides. How fitting that most of Grey's stories are about melancholy men living for and dying over borders, and that my father read these in a place where borders changed on a constant and bloody basis.

The Spirit of the Border: A Story of Early Settlers in the Ohio Valley published in 1906 depicts the old American West when "Indian raids were an everyday affair and the guns of the scouts smoked in a perpetual trail of vengeance against the savages." In the story, Joe Downs, a frontiersman with border fever, puts on his buckskins and vouches to kill every last Delaware warrior along Ohio River, although we never really learn why it is necessary. Joe's kinder older brother, Jim, an aspiring preacher, had a different goal: teaching the Christian Gospel at the frontier's Village of Peace run by missionaries and Native converts. At the Village of Peace, Jim's sermons to Indian converts who gather around him on log rounds and tree stumps go like this: "Cast the bitterness from your hearts; it is the serpent-poison. You are great on the trail, in the council, in war; now be great in forgiveness. Forgive the palefaces who have robbed you of your lands. Then will come peace. If you do not forgive, the war will go on; you will lose lands and homes, to find unmarked graves under the forest leaves."

Joe eventually gets killed along with his Indian bride, Whispering Winds, who marries him to protect him from the warriors in her tribe who want to kill him out of vengeance. As in most of Grey's stories, by the end of Spirit of the Border the Indian characters—with just a few exceptions—are actually righteous and very kind. In the process of saving the day and acting with good moral conscience they share their tragic stories about palefaces robbing and killing their tribesmen. Even the most brutal among them has a story that can elicit a tinge of sympathy. But conveniently enough they die or disappear so that the other, more uncomplicated, good-guys can bask in the glory of victory, winning back their women, reuniting with family and returning to their homesteads.

I wonder how my father felt, reading stories about borders while surrounded by so many himself, amidst so much political unrest. Where did the Wild West begin and where did it end? Were the palefaces the British, who butted their rifles into the faces of refugees clamouring onto shore, so they could protect their borrowed borders, while setting up mission houses for Arabs and Jews to convert them in the Biblical land? What about all the Jewish and Palestinian Whispering Winds? Where did they go?

Who gave him these books, I would like to know.

I try to imagine what it would have been like for my father, in the midst of such conflict, to lose himself in the stories of Zane Grey, the simplified and romanticised versions of another war that hasn't really been settled. And I think of Tzipora sitting in a tiny cluttered family room somewhere in Tel-Aviv, reassuring her daughters that by the time they are 18, army service will no longer be necessary.

This is where my autobiography ends and leads back to a single path, where Tzipora and I no longer share the story. Besides, she would probably be scandalized by my trite ruminations about life in a country before it was a country, a place where I have never lived. Maybe I should stick to my memories of a childhood where Israel amounted to a few souvenirs. Or, struggle with a new, but deeply complex, sense identity in the heart of French Canada where I take part in Huston's theatre, imitation, make-believe.

I have, however, already made the decision to explore the division between my present life and what it would have been like to be Tzipora, creating a thin liminal border between me and what might have been me. Somehow this has locked me into a zone in between, which can be a very uncomfortable place to be.

Perec writes that crossing frontiers is "quite an emotive thing to do", but that borders are, after all, "an imaginary limit, made material". But Tzipora, I want to tell her, reeling her back into the storyline of my daily existence, how terrible and confusing is this border life.

Deborah Ostrovsky lives in Montreal. She was a finalist in the 2003–04 Quebec Short Story Competition and has published creative nonfiction in numerous journals and magazines.