My Grandmother and Israel, a Story of Exile and Return

Having left Israel for the U.S. in the 1960s, when my grandmother returned a few years ago the country was unrecognizable from the dusty roads, horse-drawn carts, and village cleaner with the numbers of Treblinka on his forearm.

My grandmother, Ruth Kamin, used to scoff when anyone mentioned the Palestinians.

“I am Palestinian,” she would say. “I was born here when this was Palestine.” And then, shaking her finger and raising her voice, she would add, “Don’t tell me about who the Palestinians are!”

Ruth Kamin, nee Flek, was born in Kfar Saba in 1932, when the British Mandate was at its height. Her grandparents had come to Israel from Romania during the first Aliyah. She married my grandfather, Zev Kamin, also a native Sabra, a mere 18 years later. They had been sweethearts for four years and, she told me once, sitting on the balcony of a restaurant in suburban San Diego, “there is only so long you can walk around holding hands before it’s time to do something.”

She died this past Sunday, quietly, which was quite unlike her. If anything, my grandmother was a woman who knew how to make herself heard. Hers was a story of the pioneers of this country, of the citizen-soldiers to whom we owe our lives here, for whom “chutzpah” was a survival skill of the highest order.

Now, all I can do is wonder if I was a good enough granddaughter, if I honored her the way she deserved to be honored during her long, multi-continent, difficult life.

I would like to say that my grandmother’s life was marked by her Zionism, her pioneer spirit, her circles of loving grandchildren, but it wasn’t. From where I sit today, two generations removed and having been born long after her own youth departed, it was a life with an uneven helping of hardship and tragedy, a life that maybe was less than fair.

I don’t know what Kfar Saba looked like when my grandmother was a girl, but my father, who shared his infancy there with that of the State of Israel, has long drawn a picture for me of dusty roads, horse-drawn carts, and a warm-faced village cleaner with the numbers of Treblinka on his forearm.

My grandmother always had plenty to say, but she didn’t speak much about early Israel. In a reverse exodus, she and my grandfather left it in the 1960s, taking my father first to Denver and then to Cincinnati, where he and his siblings were raised on optimism and taught to salute the American flag.

Tragedy, of course, carries no passport, and when my scientist grandfather, Zev Kamin, was courted to the U.S. by NASA, his demons of moodiness, short temper and insecurity came with him. I never met my grandfather, but I am told he was a hot-blooded genius with a brilliant mind and a ferocious temper. At 45, he dropped dead one afternoon while playing racketball, his heart simply giving out.

That was the first crack in the china of my grandmother’s life. It was a deep, clean break, and when I came into the world and met her, she was long done mourning and well into the business of trying to move on. But grief, like an accent, never really goes away. Years later, when a tragedy better fit for a horror film would befall her, the break from that first grief would splinter its way into the second.

The Accident, as we always called it, happened to my grandmother when I was 13. There was an elevator, a creaking apartment building, and a group of friends who loved to get together to play bridge. And then there was a snap, a crash, and a car plummeting to the ground.

My grandmother was lucky. Of the nine people in the elevator when the cable broke, she landed on top. But at 64, her walking days were over.

It seems unfair to use tragedies as the mileposts for her life, but the truth is, Ruth Kamin’s life was not easy. Her time on earth was Shakespearian, a Waterloo, but the point, perhaps, is that she survived.

She lived most of her days in a foreign country, learning flawless English and refused to be ignored. Confined to a wheelchair for nearly 20 years, she relocated from Cleveland to Columbus to San Diego, settling in for long stretches with each of her three children and fighting – often with her own family – to make sure she got her way.

A few years ago, my grandmother decided the time had come to return to Israel. Her brother Moshe still lived there, in a sun-dappled house near the seashore in Ashdod. By this point, she was living not far from me in an assisted living home in San Diego, and we spent a lot of time together. She was comforted, I know, by the idea of truly returning home.

Moshe died not even a week before my grandmother was set to fly to Israel. That was the third crack, and maybe the final one. Fate, for my father’s mother, has perhaps never been so cruel.

She made it here, though, and ended her life in an Israel very different than one she was born into. I know that it wasn’t the modernity of this country that startled her as much as the change in its people. She struggled to speak Hebrew again, and she had difficulty making friends.

But she was also back in the land of her birth, a land better suited to her feisty personality and her inability to take no for an answer. Folks like my grandmother, I know, taught Israelis how to be so stubborn, how to refuse to back down or be ignored. I see her own survival skills in this nation’s cultural conceits, in the traits that have led it to such surprising success.

May the memory of my grandmother Ruth Kamin, who led a life with too few blessings, be her greatest blessing of all.

Debra Kamin is a writer and editor at Haaretz living in Tel Aviv.