Why Israel – What made me decide to leave Romania and move to a small, hot country at war

I am not sure whether I am a Zionist or not. But I am
definitely a toffee lover. Let me explain from the beginning.

When I hear stories of what happened to Jews in Romania
before and during World War II, how my grandfather and uncles were killed by
the local Nazis, together with many others, I realize it’s a miracle that I was
born at all, and that there was anyone left alive to conceive me. And yet,
somehow, a young, very beautiful Jewish woman fell in love with a handsome Jewish
man to whom she was introduced by friends; she married him, and four years
later I popped out. And I’m still kicking.
Millions of men and women died because of being the wrong
nation, religion or sexual preference; and so when the war ended, Romania build
a communist state based on the idea of equality, which, in some cases, meant
identification with the majority and renouncing the old, trouble-making
identities such as being Jewish. Religion was deemed to be the ‘opiate of the
people’, and frowned upon; and while the majority of Romanian Christians still
celebrated Christmas, Santa Claus became ‘Father Frost’ and the Christmas Tree
became ‘Winter Tree’. And to make sure that I grew up integrated, and not
feeling different from the majority of children, my parents made sure I had a
Winter Tree gleaming with fine, sparkly glass decorations and chocolate-coated
orange fondant candies. I never knew, or inquired into what that tree meant, or
why it was decorated exactly on December the 24th of every year; but
I liked its lights and fragrance, and the fact that I got to keep it until my
birthday in January.
I must have been eight or nine when my childhood friend,
Daniela, took me aside and delivered a piece of information with a grave voice:
“Did you know that you are Jewish?”
It sounded like: “Did you know that you suffer from a
terrible, embarrassing disease?”
I panicked and asked: “What’s that, Jewish?”
Daniela was only a few months older than me, but better
informed since her parents’ philosophy was to include her in all adult
conversation, while mine lived by: “Not in front of the child!”. She stood tall
and said: “It’s a people.”
I was confused. “What do you mean, a people? The Italian
people live in Italy. The French live in France. The Germans, in Germany. Where
do the Jewish people live?”
We were standing on the patch of grass behind the four-story
building where we both lived, each at a separate entrance, in Drumul Taberei,
one of Bucharest’s neighbourhoods. Daniela stood facing me, and obliged with a
brief biography of the Jewish people and the newly established state of Israel.
I was clarified but still shocked at the idea that I was, somehow, different
than the rest of the world, and I was not sure whether that was a good thing.
My hands grew cold. I asked hopefully: “And you?”
“Me too” she said, to my relief. I wasn’t alone in this,
whatever this meant.
I ran upstairs, four flights of stairs in one breath, and
burst into the kitchen to ask: “Mom, Dad, is it true what Daniela sais, that I
am Jewish?” – hoping to hear that my friend’s wild imagination is making her a liar,
and that I’m still the same as every other kid on the block.
Bunica, my
maternal grandmother, who was visiting, replied: “Yes, it is true, and you
should be proud of it!” To which my father quickly added: “And never breathe a
word to anyone about it, because people don’t love us.” I don’t know about your
family, but in mine, fears are not transmitted genetically: they run from
generation to generation through stories. Maybe that’s why I never had children,
in order to end this river of fear, oppression and victimization right here,
with my generation.
From that day,  I
started lying about my Jewish Ashkenazi last name, and told everyone that I was
With the raise of communism in Romania, any kind of racism
and bigotry, including anti-Semitism, became illegal. It didn’t eradicate it,
but rendered it quiet, to whispers and private comments. Romania has several
minorities: Germans and Hungarian, from the times of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire; Turks and Tatars from the times of the Ottoman Empire; Romas – the gypsies,
and Jews, with whom Ceausescu’s regime was, for some reason, highly uncomfortable.
Every official discourse mentioned equality and fraternity for all, and
Ceausescu listed them: Romanians, Germans, Hungarians, and other nationalities.
I got used to be part of: “and others”.
I was born and grew up at a time when my life was never in
danger for being Jewish, and I shared the same holidays, food and customs with
everyone around me, Winter Tree and all. I also shared chewing gum with other
kids – a rare treat for us that was generously distributed among the kids from
mouth to mouth, originating with the mouth of the lucky kid du jour who would
have a piece of gum to begin with.
We’d also buy fifty grams of bulk hard candy in tiny brown bags,
and share them too; or a paper cornet filled with roasted sunflower seeds, sold
by an old Roma woman for 25 bani (cents); and if we didn’t have a quarter on
us, we’d scavenge the ground for any seeds that another child may have dropped.
I didn’t think I was poor, not when I heard my mother’s stories of famine,
scarce slices of polenta instead of bread in her childhood diet, and
hand-me-down clothes from siblings to siblings. My reality was what it was, and
I knew nothing else. The Iron Curtain was thick enough that news of prosperity
and abundance would never reach Romanians, to teach them about other
possibilities besides shared chewed gum and scavenged seeds.
No information from the First World reached and affected us,
with the exception of those of us who were a minority: German, Hungarian, and
others. We, minorities, had relatives beyond the Iron Curtain, and my family
didn’t stray from this rule. My mother’s surviving sisters and brothers had
moved to Israel, and they returned to visit Romania every summer for their
holiday, bringing bags full of goodies for us, children. Their suitcases were
fragrant from the toffees, chocolates, candies and chewing gum that filled them,
and we were waiting in line like puppies for the treats, to receive each our
treasure, a transparent, rustling, aromatic baggie with the most incredible
colorful goodies a Romanian child could imagine.
With the goodies came photos of aunts, uncles and cousins,
all smiling in colourful clothing and sandals on a sandy beach, or in front of
cubic buildings lined with exotic palm trees, sporting sunglasses and looking
all very warm. As I was growing up, the scarcity became starker, with power
shortages, long winter hours without home heating or hot water, walking on
black ice in the ill-lighted city, feeling cold, fearful of slipping. Avid
consumers of culture, men and women would keep their coats on inside the live
theatre or cinema house; and I remember a particularly cold winter when we
students went to university classes with blankets over our coats, taking notes
with the gloves on. The heating unit had exploded: where hot water was supposed
to run, water had frozen and blown the radiator up.
There was one constant source of warmth for me: the thought
that when I grew up, I’d move to the warm, sunny place where all the toffee
came from. I’d close my eyes and imagine walking down a sunset boulevard
leading to the sea, lined with tall palm trees like the ones from the family
photographs; and I’d be wearing a flowing sundress which would blow in the warm,
salty seaside breeze. That was my Israel, my own personal Promised Land, sweet
and salty, well-lit and hot, which, I must say, it is very much so.