For the first twelve years of my life I lived in the same house in South Africa with my parents and younger sister. Close-knit extended family members also came to live with us from time to time.
Then, shortly after my bat mitzvah, we packed up and moved far away across the ocean to the vast, unknown country of Canada. We moved because of the unsettled political situation in South Africa at that time during the apartheid era with potential violence.
Though we knew Canada was also an English-speaking country, we weren’t prepared for the culture shock. There were so many word confusions between British and American English such as ‘truck’ for ‘lorry’, ‘traffic lights’ for ‘robot lights’, ‘napkins’ for ‘serviettes’, and ‘barrettes’ for ‘hair slides’.
We compiled a list of fifty words that were different in American English!
The Canadian kids also made fun of my South African accent so I made an effort to change it, attempting to sound Canadian by pronouncing words like ‘can’t’ instead of ‘cahn’t’ and ‘ant’ for ‘aunt’.
However we still spoke with our South African accents to each other at home.
I quickly grew tired of explaining that South Africa was not a jungle with wild animals roaming about but a civilized country with modern cities like Canada’s.
One day I couldn’t resist teasing my classmates and let my vivid imagination loose.
I told them that yes, we had really lived in the jungle where lions lurked in the bushes. We had contact with the outside world only when passing ships stopped by to give us old newspapers.
I pointed out the small scar on my sister’s forehead, claiming she had been scratched by a crocodile while swimming in the river. Actually the scar was the result of a minor car accident. I was shocked that my classmates believed every single imaginative word!
The weather was another huge challenge. We were accustomed to the warm South African climate, where the cool rainy winter lasted barely six weeks, but the long Canadian winter was freezing cold, with temperatures below zero! In fact we had never seen snow prior to our trans Atlantic move. The first time my sister and I went to play in the snow was fun but unfortunately the novelty wore off very quickly.
My father zt’l was a rabbi and Hebrew teacher. In the small Jewish communities who hired him, he refused to compromise his Orthodox principles, insisting on keeping the mechitza and Hebrew siddurim.
At the end of each year, his contract was not renewed so we had to find a new community in which to live. In fact, most of my teen years were spent in different towns. My mother grew tired of having to keep packing and moving. My sister and I helped a bit but most of the hard work was hers. At first I wasn’t thrilled about moving either but kept hoping that our next community would be an improvement over the previous one. Perhaps it might even turn out to be our permanent home.
One particularly vibrant memory stands out. Looking around the living room filled with our carefully-packed boxes and furniture, I wondered anxiously what awaited us in a new house in a new town, with strange people, a different school and having to find a new group of friends.
Suddenly I felt reassured by the realization that, despite all the changes facing us, our family was still together. That was all that really mattered.
Born in South Africa and raised in Canada, Menucha Chana Levin has lived in Jerusalem with her family for over twenty years. Her work has been published in Jewish magazines and on Aish.com. The author of five novels, her latest book is Hidden Heritage about adoption in Jewish families.