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Amid the fiscal reports and prognostications that dominate end-of-the-year headlines comes a statistic that I always await with pleasant anticipation. The Immigrant Absorption Ministry announces how many former Israelis and future Israelis have come home to the land of our fathers and mothers during the past 12 months.
The figure for 2008 totals 24,000. As those who facilitate aliya in the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B'Nefesh will attest, there's an elusive factor in immigration. The decision to pull up stakes and put down new roots is ultimately personal and sometimes quixotic. Nor is there a "typical immigrant." Each has a unique story, and an often unanticipated contribution to make to the fabric of this country.
A case in point is Myrna Shiboleth, a veteran immigrant whose autobiography was published last week with the inspired title of Tails of Sha'ar Hagai.
American-born Shiboleth is the country's premier breeder of Canaani dogs. She grew up without her own pet in Chicago, a city with 1,900 miles of concrete and asphalt alleys. But Shiboleth got to know every dog on her block and played Lassie while her schoolmates collected Barbies. She promised herself that when she grew up she'd have as many animals as she could. As a teen, she joined a Zionist youth movement, but when the leader demanded a plan for aliya from each of the comrades, she rebelled. No one was going to force her to do anything.
Yet here she is - the only member of her Chicago Zionist club - celebrating 40 years of living in Israel. Even if you're not a dog enthusiast, you may have noticed the official street sign marking the Sha'ar Hagai kennels 20 kilometers from Jerusalem on the highway from Tel Aviv. A sharp right turn, up a winding narrow road you'll find Shiboleth and her dogs. Twenty-two, at last count, when I stopped by on Hanukka.
On a post-college European trip with a friend, she suddenly changed her plans and spent a year here. Returning to the US, she secured her dream job - handling animals for show business. She prepared sheepdogs and terriers for Broadway shows, and managed the manger animals for the Radio City Christmas Pageant. Her pre-aliya CV also includes a stint as a pre-photo shoot walker for a lamb and a duck down the streets of Manhattan, transporting llamas over the border from New Jersey and handling yaks for a country fair. Living in a New York apartment, she adopted two dogs and 10 cats.
But memories of Israel reached out to her. She kept remembering a particular ride on horseback through the Jerusalem forest. She had stopped along the way to eat figs straight from the tree.
It took a while to find good homes for all the cats. Shiboleth packed her dogs and a riding saddle, and sailed. The year was 1969, a time of continued ebullience over the victory of the Six Day War. She quickly found other animal lovers, one of them the late Devora Ben-Shaul, who for so many years brought her friendly erudition about animals to the pages of this paper. Ben-Shaul knew about the concrete army barracks abandoned by the British in the foothills of Jerusalem that had the potential to become a dreamed-of center for dogs.
SHIBOLETH MOVED in. The barracks had no electricity, no telephone, no neighbor. The water in the taps turned out to have been standing since the Mandate; Shiboleth escaped typhus because of her Chicago addiction to soft drinks. The bunker rooms were filled with fallen plaster, the dregs of old campfires and sheep droppings. Spiders, scorpions and rats had moved in long ago. The poet Rahel was inspired by the Kinneret, but Shiboleth looked through the barracks' window and saw beyond the rubble. The panorama of the Judean Hills moved her. She decided it was home.
So the Windy City girl rolled up her sleeves, swept the place clean and, with the help of friends, laid pipes and built the kennels on the hillside. When she married and had a daughter, Sha'ar Hagai became their family home. Not even a spell overseas in Malawi, when her husband was assigned there by the Foreign Ministry and where she had a house full of servants, tempted her to forsake her green pastures. Eventually, the fortress on the hill got water and electricity. Today, it's a tidy, modest country home with the cola icy cold in a refrigerator. Trophies and grandkid photos decorate the walls.
Her Chicago childhood fantasies of Lassie translated into a lifetime love of collies, who follow her wherever she goes in Sha'ar Hagai. But living in Israel, she deepened her passion for Canaani dogs.
SOON AFTER arriving, Shiboleth had met the venerable Austrian animal behaviorist Rudolphina Menzel, who had immigrated in the 1930s from Vienna. Prof. Menzel was recruited by the Hagana to train dogs for military service, but the animals she'd known in Vienna salons had a hard time adjusting to pre-state challenges. She began working with the tougher, wilder indigenous breed, the so-called pariah breed everyone called Canaani. The challenge was in domesticating them.
Canaani dogs grow to the size of German Shepherds. They have triangular heads and a piercing bark. They're smart, fiercely loyal, and make superb guard dogs.
This indigenous breed has been around since the Bible, says Shiboleth. There's even a Canaani dog cemetery in Ashkelon. The Canaani managed to survive for thousands of years on its own, living by its wits and surviving in the wild and on the fringes of civilization by hunting and scavenging. But the breed was in danger of extinction and needed to be bred.
Shiboleth took up Menzel's challenge. She collected Canaani dogs from the wild and by negotiating with Beduin, who use them to protect valuable camels. Over the years, her pure-bred Canaanis have become stars, first locally, and then in international dog shows. Sha'ar Hagai is the world center for breeding Canaani dogs. You'll often see the blonde, blue-eyed Shiboleth and her pups flying with the hi-tech crowd at Ben-Gurion Airport.
In a paraphrase of the Zionist mantra that we come to Israel "to build and to be built," she says, "What Israel has given me is the possibility to discover myself and resources within that I never would have known I possessed under other conditions."
And it's all because of the magic of some figs growing wild in the Judean Hills.