Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Home is where the Heart is

“There is no place like home! There is no place like home! ” Dorothy exclaims, clicking her heels together three times,  as she is magically transported back to the Kansas farm she calls home.

I grew up in the same house in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb, for the first 18 years of my life (minus the first 18 months in Belleville where I was born). This was the only home that I knew throughout my childhood and teen years. And when, years later after I had left Canada, my parents informed me that they were thinking of moving to a place further north, I was shocked at their news. This was my home they were taking away from me!

It didn’t matter that I barely made it back for a visit once in every five years, because of the constraints of being a kibbutz member at the time. The little house in Scarborough was still home to me. Probably even more of a home than the kibbutz where I had lived for over ten years. I think this feeling was augmented the first time I took my three small children to visit. I saw the world I had left behind, and memories from my childhood, through their eyes. And this awakened the Canadian in me, more than anything else has ever done.

If my parents had moved, would my concept of home have moved with them? How much does home belong to the heart and how much to things that we must touch and hold?

“I knew it the very first time I touched her. It was like coming home, only to no home I'd ever known. I was just taking her hand to help her out of a cab.”
~ Sleepless in Seattle

Why would some of us be tempted by the World of Oz to stay, while others never lose sight of their roots? Is every person who travels abroad for the first time a potential “expat”? Or are expats genetically wired differently? I don’t think an expat ever expects to live abroad for the rest of his/her life. It starts out as an adventure and somehow way leads on to way, and then there appears to be no way back. This is the main difference between an “expat” and an “immigrant”. An immigrant plans to live the rest of his/her life in a foreign country from the very start. Of course there is always a “physical” way back, even for an expat. But the heart has changed, somehow.

And then some of us may lack a real heart and go out into the world searching for one, just as the Tin Man did. But it may not be about the heart. It may all be about the journey.

I never felt completely at home in Canada, even at an early age. I felt that something was missing, as if I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suppose that I romanticized the notion that there was a place out there for me. I just had to go out and find it. So, after finishing high school, I was ready to set out. My plan was to travel through Europe for a few months and then go to a kibbutz ulpan in Israel. “I have no idea when I’ll be back,” I told people.

Europe came up empty. It was the last place I could ever call home. And then, one day, I arrived in Israel. The flight had been delayed because of security concerns and I missed the last bus to the kibbutz, so I slept on a bench in the airport. I should have been uncomfortable there and quite nervous. The bench cut into my back and kids my age walked by me in army uniforms, touting guns. But I felt more at home, at that moment, than I had ever felt before. And this feeling stayed with me for quite some time on the kibbutz. I often wondered if I had been somehow genetically programmed to find my way there, perhaps a lingering gene from a missing generation. If I had been Jewish, this might have made more sense.

I quickly discovered, though, that people are still people - the same everywhere. Well, I didn’t discover this all that quickly. I had to learn Hebrew first. When Israelis stopped trying to speak English with me and gave into Hebrew, I knew I had reached that threshold where I could properly gauge where I was and what to expect. But my most important discovery was the revelation that you can’t run away from yourself. You can change continents, language, culture... but things will catch up with you in the end. It may take months, years, or decades. But we are what we are.

This led to a sudden epiphany, one day while walking with my wife along the Palmachim beach.
“I’ve realized something,” I told her.
“The reason why I have stayed here all these years. The reason why I probably will never leave.”
“I have to hear this,” she said.
“Well, before I came here, I never fit in well. Not in Canada. It was as if I was a foreigner in my own land. I thought that if I could find the right place, all this would change.”
“And this the right place?” she asked.
“For a while I thought so. But slowly things caught up with me. I don’t feel any more at home here, now, than I did in Canada.”
“So why do you stay, then?”
I sighed, staring over the vast expanse of sea.
“Because, I have an excuse, here. I am a foreigner. I am not supposed to fit in easily. Back in Canada I have no excuse for being such a misfit.”
“You aren’t a misfit,” she said. “You have fit in. You have become very Israeli and most people  have no idea that you aren’t Jewish.”
I nodded, but she wasn’t fooling anyone.

Maybe it all is in the mind... or in the heart.


  1. I was born in NYC to a very Jewish, though not at all religious, family. I had a normal childhood, but almost always felt that I was somehow an outsider.

    When I was in the 3rd or 4th grade and about 9 years old, an Israeli girl came into our class. That started my wheels working. Then I knew I had to go to Hebrew school to learn Hebrew.

    It turned out being more of a religious education and the only thing we learned during the first half year was Kiddush for Erev Shabbat and how to read Hebrew. There was no real language learning at all, so I quit then.

    A few years later when I was in grade 7 or 8 another Israeli girl came into our crowd of friends. I learned more and more about Israel and returned to that spark that had been lit a few years earlier: I absolutely KNEW that I belonged in Israel and I would get here no matter what.

    As things would develop, I found a Zionist youth movement, joined and started making my plans. I finally got here in 1970 and could have stayed had I not promised my parents that I would return to finish university. I returned, but survived there for only another year and a half until I made the final move.

    Without going into detail of my further experiences, I married on a kibbutz. We eventually made our way to Mitzpe Ramon which became the only home I could every really call HOME. And the rest is history . . . .

  2. Excellent post,David.Firstly I totally agree with you. I never felt 100% at home in London,either.I lived for a year in France,and though I was completely fluent and had learnt French from the age of 5,I never felt even remotely at home there.Then I made aliya, and I also felt in some mysterious way that I had come home here. But now after 30 years I am restless again and want to move somewhere else. I have learnt how to be Israeli and now it's no longer enough for me. It's like the Wandering Jew thing.I want to learn another culture, be the outsider trying to fit in all over again.Can't explain it but I do think that becoming a citizen of the world,especially since the advent of the Internet,has become more important to me than any religious or national identity thing could.

  3. David, I'm happy I happened upon your blog. I think you might find mine interesting: http://caroline-igra.blogspot.com/

  4. Caroline, thanks for letting me know about your blog. I really enjoyed reading your last entry and plan to read my way through the rest.

  5. Ruth, I think I understand what you mean. We need to constantly reinvent ourselves. We spend 30 years learning the language, learning how to cope with everything thrown at us - "learnt how to be Israeli" as you so aptly put it. We reach a point where we feel - "been there, done that, now what?" After pioneering many educational initiatives and learning how to survive as an Israeli, I am ready for new horizons. But I am not so ambitious this time. I think I would settle for opening a pub in Whitehorse, serving drinks half the day and writing the other half. Maybe I have seen too many episodes of Northern Exposure.

  6. David, I empathise strongly with the 'because here I have an excuse' bit. I am a foreigner so my odd ways are more easily accepted in the Balkans than in Scotland.

  7. ‎"Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in." - Robert Frost, from memory

  8. David, what you wrote lead me to think of an interesting conundrum.... did I spell that right.... how come you were in Israel well before your children and yet it is their home and their culture and not yours??!!! And all because of the magical pull of 1496 Danforth, Knob Hill Public and David and Mary Thompson, with skating at the Scarborough Town Centre and coffee at Tim's thrown in for good measure??!!!

  9. Gayle, it appears that our development of personality is pretty well set in stone by the end of our formative years, which would be around the end of adolescence. As I arrived in Israel shortly after the end of my own adolescence (although some people may claim that I never grew up), my Israeli experience became an add-on plugin, with continuous updates through the years. My children have only been exposed to Israel (aside from a few short visits to Canada) during their formative years. I imagine that if they went to live in Canada now, they would have a similar problem, but in reverse - although somewhat different, as they do have Canadian roots through me, whereas I had no roots at all in Israel before arriving there.