A few weeks ago, my only brother called me from his home in foreign parts with what he described as “wonderful news.” “It turns out that we can get a Polish passport,” he exulted over the phone. “Are you off your rocker?” I replied, suggesting that he should bite his tongue, and adding that it’s a good thing our mother is dead and can’t hear the nonsense he’s spouting. To which he responded by telling me to wash my mouth out with soap immediately and calm down.
I asked him what connection we have with Poland, as our father was born in Hungary, in a region later annexed to Czechoslovakia, and later immigrated to this country from Prague – which, the last time I checked, was in the Czech Republic. That’s just it, my brother explained. Because the borders were adjusted after World War II, it now happens that the place where our father was born is considered part of Poland. That means that if he just submit the right documents, we can both become members of the Polish nation.
“I have nothing to say in favor of the Poles,” I told him. “In fact, the best of the Poles fled and lived in Paris − Frédéric Chopin, Marie Curie and Arthur Rubinstein. And anyway, what are you getting so excited about? You’ve had a Canadian passport and an American green card for the past 30 years. Your children are totally Canadians and Americans. What do you want with Poland?”
“No, not for me,” he sighed in reaction to my imbecility. “For you. I was thinking about you and your children.” I told him there was no need to worry about my children, their father had already taken care of that. As for me, “The idea of Polish citizenship never came up in my darkest dreams. It’s enough that my children always say I am a Polish-Jewish mother, so now you want me to turn myself into one officially?”
Even if I wanted to obtain another passport, using my father’s origins, I would find it very hard to do. My father left the few documents he took with him on the ship that brought him to this country’s territorial waters when he jumped into the sea and swam to shore. Even if I were able to organize a few documents from wherever, I would feel that I was betraying my father’s memory by trying to get a Polish or Czech passport. My father, who in fact deserted from the Czech army to immigrate to Palestine, refused all his life even to consider the possibility of a trip to Czechoslovakia, Hungary or any other country from which hundreds of members of his family were taken to the death camps. However, that didn’t prevent him from talking with glittering eyes about “zlata Praha” − golden Prague − and about the Vltava and about the enlightenment of the presidents from the House of Masaryk. He viewed all this as part of a world of which nothing remained, which had been destroyed and supplanted by a new world in which there was a constant anti-Semitic competition between Ukrainians, Serbs, Croats, Poles, Germans and all the other goyim, may their names be blotted out.
The situation on my mother’s side is even more complicated, I thought, because her family had come to Palestine from Morocco, in 1860. No one had expelled them. According to family legend, they decided to immigrate here in the wake of a dream the father of the family had. In it, the prophet Elijah himself had appeared and commanded him to pack all his belongings and take the whole family to the Holy Land on a ship.
Even without assuming that the statute of limitations applied to my Moroccan nationality after 153 years in which my family had absented itself from the country − who in the world wants Moroccan citizenship anyway? I had to force myself not to prostrate myself on the luxurious tiles of the arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion airport and kiss the ground when I got back after a four-day trip to Morocco on an assignment for the paper.
That visit also made me very appreciative of the wisdom of the father of my grandfather’s grandfather for deciding to leave that country, where a huge percentage of women get no education at all, the gaps between rich and poor are intolerable, democracy and freedom of the press are subject to the exclusive decisions of the monarch, and civil rights is a totally abstract issue.
“Just as you always say you are addicted to longings for Zion and therefore cannot return to Israel − I, on the contrary, am addicted to longings for the Diaspora, but there is no other country and I have no other passport,” I said to my brother.
A few weeks of resurgent Zionist passion went by like this, until I happened to attend a family event attended mainly by distant relatives. I noted to myself that quite a few of them were living in another country or had lived abroad for an extended period. We talked about the situation and about what will happen when Israel becomes a religious state.
“Who will even stay here when that happens?” someone asked. I replied that I would, that I would probably stay here so as to turn off the proverbial light. I will likely be the last secular person here, because what other choice do I have, after all?
“You do have a choice,” one cousin said. He’d heard that I could easily acquire Spanish citizenship under a law passed recently in Spain, which says that anyone who can prove he is descended from the Jews expelled from Spain can obtain citizenship. Well, I told myself, Spain is at least in classical Europe, and the Jewish expulsion still grieves me from time to time. I decided to look into it.
I discovered that there is a list of Jewish surnames recognized by the Spanish government as connoting descendants of the Spanish exiles. I checked the list and found my family’s name. Getting confirmation from the official Sephardi community committee that I am a direct descendent of those expelled from Spain was also not a problem − after all, my grandfather himself headed the committee in Haifa for decades. The only task remaining was to register with the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain − a precondition for being granted Spanish citizenship. But they do not accept new members, I found out.
In other words, the new law which was announced hasn’t yet been enacted, and in the meantime I was and remain a Prisoner of Zion.