“I am a Palestinian,” she said with a serious look, after being asked where she was from, her accent so slight no one can pinpoint it. She enjoys the look on people’s faces.
And she is Palestinian, although not in the usual sense.
In 1941, Tsipora Hirsch was born in British Mandate Palestine. Its Jewish inhabitants were called Palestinians, something mostly forgotten today.
Life was not easy. Here’s a story she told me.
She sat at a table with a few slices of stale challah. She took a pinch and rolled it into a ball. A completed exercise book was in front of her. She gently rubbed the bread onto the penciled writing. Two letters came off. She made another challah ball, a few more letters off.
It was Haifa, 1947. There weren’t a lot of funds available in the Jewish community. There was a paper shortage, thus few new workbooks. The bulk of the Jewish self-government’s funds went to help the thousands of refugees from Europe and the Arab world. The money went to buy arms, which the British embargoed. And the money went to help establish new towns, drain swamps, plant trees and help the land recover from over a millennium of neglect.
So Tsipora had been given a used workbook and told to erase all the writing in it. But as she told me, “Erasers were dear.” She, her younger sister and her parents lived in a two-bedroom apartment on the Carmel. So you might think, “Well, that’s fine.” And it was. But they rented the one bedroom from a German Jewish immigrant family with three children. Each family lived in their one bedroom and shared the kitchen, one bathroom and a small eating area.
Tsipora remembers her childhood as a happy one, with loving parents, friends and a fun at school. Yet it was not a childhood most of us have had. When she was four, and her younger sister was about to be born, her parents put her on a bus to Kibbutz Dalia, an hour and a half away, where their only relatives in Israel lived. The bus driver settled her in the seat behind him and a woman with a few chickens in her basket sat next to her to help. Remarkably, Tsipora wasn’t afraid.
While meat wasn’t plentiful, and clothes were made and remade by her mother, her father always managed to bring at least one flower home for Shabbat.
There was only one thing that Tsipora felt she lacked: Family.
Tsipora’s Hungarian parents fled Europe in 1939. They begged their families to come with them. The doors out were closing. Tsipora’s parents looked towards Palestine knowing there would be difficulties in getting there. The family told them, “You go on ahead and get things ready. Then send for us.”
Tsipora yearned for grandparents, to call someone “Savta or Saba.” She was jealous of her friends who spent Shabbat at aunts or uncles. Her parents didn’t stop looking for many years. They searched the rolls each time new immigrants came. After the war, they wrote to the Red Cross, the Joint, any organization. Except for a few cousins in Israel and in the US, their family was entirely gone, murdered.
Two days remain clear in Tsipora’s memory. The first was in November 1947, the day of the UN partition vote. Even at the age of six, she knew this vote meant a state for the Jewish people. She saw the British soldiers who searched Jewish homes and businesses, their tanks rolling through the city, turning away Jewish refugees. Her parents, like many others, sat by the radio as the votes were counted. Despite the difficulties from the past and certainly in the days to come, “Suddenly, we felt and shared happiness and an amazing sense of freedom…,” she wrote in her recent memoir.
The second day, nearly 70 years ago, was May 14, 1948. With much of Israel, she listened to the new Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, declare the land of Israel now the country of Israel. She danced and sang in the street with her parents and sister.
Soon after, she spent many nights in the neighborhood bomb shelter. Sometimes they literally ran for their lives, in pajamas, and huddled with others, praying for her father in the Haganah.
Even as the family’s finances improved, Tsipora’s mother’s health did not. The journey to Israel had not been easy. The first ship was captured by the British and they were sent to Romania. The cold weather and damp ground affected her health. The second attempt was six months later on a boat that caught fire. This time the Italians took them and they were interned on the Isle of Rhoads in tents for six weeks without their clothes, property or much food. The third attempt was successful and Tsipora’s parents landed on a Tel Aviv beach. Cousins brought them to Kibbutz Dan; a year later, they moved to Haifa.
When Tsipora fell ill with rheumatic fever and had to remain in bed several months, the family decided to move to New York, where there were a few cousins who would help them financially.
In 1952, they journeyed from Tel Aviv to Brussels. Tsipora became ill again and needed medical care. The family didn’t have enough money to pay and sold jewelry for the fees. They knew they would miss their NY flight and exchanged their plane tickets for a cheaper ship passage. They traveled by train to Cherbourg and took the first boat out – to Montreal. When they arrived in Canada, they found their papers didn’t allow them to enter the country without sponsors or enter the US for several weeks. They didn’t have enough money to last until the papers came through.
A Montreal Jewish community member at the port asked what Tsipora’s father did. He was a fine carpenter. The man said he owned a furniture store. Would he want to work for him in Montreal? In a few minutes, with work guaranteed, the decision was made. They would not be living near family after all, but moving to a very cold city alone. Few there spoke German, Hungarian or Hebrew. The schools taught in French and English.
And so now Tsipora, 12 years old, had a new country, new language, a new home and a new name – Edie.
Friends were hard to make and Edie became quiet. The Montreal Jewish Y had a pool and swim team; Edie’s parents encouraged her to join. Swimming and later boating became a part of her life. Edie made the Maccabean Swim Team and was invited to join the Canadian Olympic team, which her family couldn’t afford. She made new friends, especially an older boy name Joe, a native Canadian, also a swimmer and boater. He later became her husband.
Edie’s family could not afford to send her to college and medical school. At 20, she married Joe and worked while he went to medical school. They relocated to the US where Joe went to Harvard Medical School. Four children and his medical degree later, Joe said one evening, “Now it’s your turn.”
“For what?” Edie asked.
“To go to college.” And she did. She majored in education and received her BA and then MA. She even had one class together with her oldest daughter.
Currently living in Charleston, where we’ve become friends, Edie shared with me the memoir she wrote for her family. Poignant and heartfelt, she takes us through an important era in the Jewish State’s founding.
So when people ask, “Where are you from?” Edie responds, “I’m a Palestinian,” while informing her surprised listeners that she is Jewish as well.
She returns frequently to Israel, which is still home. Edie will be there to celebrate the 70th Independence Day and the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. “The trip is in memory of my father,” she told me, “who was so proud at Israel’s birth.” She wants to dance in the street again, as she did with him so many years ago.
Sitting in her comfortable home, we gaze at the Ashley River from a beautiful glassed-in porch. With four accomplished and grown up children, and ten grandchildren, she has come a long way from the little Palestinian girl who erased her workbook with day old challah.