Veterans: Magical mystery tour

Veterans Magical myster

Until the Yom Kippur War Ralph Salinger had no connection to anything Jewish except the anti-Semitism he had experienced as a little boy in London. He and his mother had moved to New Zealand to escape it, and he was so assimilated that marrying his beautiful blonde WASP first wife was perfectly natural. And getting married in an Anglican cathedral didn't faze him either. If the few Jewish people he knew asked him how he felt about marrying out, he said it didn't bother him because he was never in. Then one day, when he was visiting London with his wife during the Yom Kippur War, he had a strange mystical experience. "I was standing by the post office in Kilburn High Street and suddenly the skies opened up and a small voice said to me, 'Ralph, you have to go to Israel.' I had this strong feeling that someone had spoken to me," he recalls. He explained it to Lesley, his wife, and they decided they would both come to Israel to volunteer. They arrived at the end of October, between the first and second cease-fire, and were asked at Ben-Gurion Airport where they would like to go. Salinger knew nothing about Israel so asked for a map, closed his eyes and pointed. "You can't go there, it's in Jordan," he was told. "I moved my finger a bit to the right and it was Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin. I asked if they needed volunteers and when they said yes, that's where we went." With a short break back in New Zealand, he's been there ever since. Lesley and he had an amicable divorce and he later married Betty, a Tel Aviv sabra who cheerfully joined him on the kibbutz. Today they have three children of their own and two immigrant teenage girls to whom they give a warm home after school and during holidays. If you ask Salinger what he does, he answers proudly that he is a gardener. He and Betty take care of 200 dunams in what he describes as the "most ecologically advanced kibbutz in the area." Quite a change from the high-school teacher he had once been. SETTLING IN The strongest impression the kibbutz initially made on him was seeing how fathers touched and held their children, something he had never seen, even in New Zealand. As a child he had never known his father. His parents were both refugees who fled from Germany to England and married in 1944. The age difference between his parents was 36 years and his father died when he was three. DAILY LIFE "I worked at all sorts of jobs, all connected to the things the kibbutz was growing like avocados, mangoes and in the date plantations. Looking back, I knew nothing and was a world-class sucker." OBSTACLES "I found people incredibly rude. You'd be in the middle of a quiet conversation and someone would barge in. And I hate that hand gesture that means 'wait a minute.' You never see that anywhere else in the world." LANGUAGE "I speak Hebrew slowly and badly," he says. Betty chimes in, "He makes sweet mistakes an Israeli never would." LIFE SINCE ALIYA Soon after his first child was born in 1982, he got called up to the war in Lebanon. "It was very traumatic. I realized that I was a father and I knew absolutely nothing about my own father." He decided he would start researching his family roots in Lithuania and, initially without the help of Internet and very little information, he has been able to trace his family back to the village of Vilkaviskis. "It was terribly frustrating at first, writing letters and waiting weeks for a reply. Now it's easy." In spite of the problems he has traced his family history to 1732, and after realizing that there was no more to find out he decided to visit all the places he had discovered in his research. He has traced a much older half-sister in Greece and built a family tree to which he is still adding. BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "Family, with all the implications involved in that word. That's what gives me the strength to face the world." ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "Don't give up; the first 10 years are the hardest." To propose a Veteran, please write a one-paragraph email to: