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Lazar: Letters from Israel

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My son recently returned from a month in Tel Aviv. It reminded me of my many trips to Israel over the years and how things have changed when it comes to travelling to Israel. Perhaps most striking are the changes in how we communicate across vast distances.

My son didn’t have to take off work for a month in order to be away for that length of time. His social media posts showcased his temporary “offices”: his laptop perched beside plates of hummus at various restaurants in Jaffa, on the boardwalk or by a window framing an ocean view. (I especially enjoyed the panoramic video of the Bauhaus apartment he rented).

We corresponded through a personal WhatsApp chat, as well as a group thread. On Facebook, I saw photos of our Israeli cousins lighting the Hanukkah candles with their Canadian counterpart. FaceTime provided a virtual walk through the market at Nachalat Binyamin, so I could choose a gift for them.

Those colourful images transmitted in real time were a stark contrast to the communication I shared with my Israeli family growing up. My mother, my aunt and my grandmother survived Auschwitz together. Eventually, my aunt and grandmother settled in Israel, while my parents made Canada their home. There was no money for long distance calls, let alone plane tickets. During those days, the relationships were kindled through detailed letters. My siblings and I would gather around the kitchen table as my mother unfolded an aerogram from Israel. I would peek over my mother’s shoulder at the Hungarian handwriting as she read.

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I first travelled to Israel at the age of seven. Many visits followed in my teens and 20s. I lived in Tel Aviv for months at a time, where I sat around my aunt’s kitchen table, listening to aerogram letters from my mother.

Once, my aunt began reminiscing about her childhood and the mischief she got into with the younger of her two lost brothers, Ari. I found out that he had in fact survived the war, but he was so weak that he succumbed to tuberculosis shortly thereafter. He was dispatched to a sanitarium just before Sukkot, my aunt recalled. The teenager begged not to go. He wanted to stay at home for the holiday. But he went, and they bid farewell, not realizing it was their last goodbye, she said.

Suddenly, she lay her head down upon folded arms and wept from the ravaged depths of her soul like a wounded animal. I hadn’t known the end to my Uncle Ari’s story. I also hadn’t known that my strong, spunky Zionist pioneer aunt could break. You learn a lot reading letters around a kitchen table.

I stayed with my aunt and uncle in their fourth floor walk-up on Arnon Street. The back window offered a breeze during those humid summers, as well as a vista of Gordon Beach. “Yom yom yam,” my uncle quipped when he came home midday to take us to the ocean, daily. Lunch was overstuffed falafel sandwiches from the roadside stand, sauerkraut protruding from our mouths and tahini dripping down our bare arms as we ambled home for naps. We rested in the back bedroom until he blasted the radio news.

My grandmother, too, read in her tiny Haifa kitchen. She held the letters with gnarled fingers. The thin skin on her hands, delicate as the aerogram paper she read from, belied the inner fortitude to lose everything and start anew with nothing.

Now Skype is free and email is instant. But I don’t actually engage very often. I stay abreast of what my cousins are doing by scrolling their Instagram accounts. It’s so easy to communicate. Our messaging methods are many and miraculous. They are relevant, colourful and appropriate to the now, but for me, they are perhaps less evocative than those ultra-thin prepaid squares of loving longhand.