Dear Fish in My Daughter’s Aquarium

Published in The Lilith Blog, 8th August 2014.

This week in Sydney, teenage youths boarded a bus full of Jewish primary school children and yelled ‘Heil Hitler!’ and ‘Death to Jews’, threatening to cut the children’s throats. My mother fled to Australia after WWII, as a refugee from Bergen Belsen. Aged 21, she was the sole survivor of her family and wanted “to get as far away as possible from anti-Semitism.” She always upheld Australia as a safe sanctuary; a tolerant and multicultural society. She encouraged me to train as a doctor, and I worked in Israel for 10 years, through two Gulf Wars and two intifadas, with patients from all faiths – Baha’is, Christians, Muslims, Jews and Druze – focusing on what binds rather than divides us. I have been horrified—and at the same time silenced–by all the hate-mongering and polarization of views around the world in the wake of the latest horror in Gaza. Perhaps naively, I never thought it would reach the quiet shores of Australia, where I chose to raise my children.

Dear Fish in my Daughter’s Aquarium

I would like to be you today, with your neon stripe running down my spine, glowing proudly for all the world to see. With eyes on either side of my head I could look at things laterally, from both sides, instead of staring straight ahead into a seemingly endless tunnel.

I could breathe filtered bubbles of air, hide in a mini-forest of lush aquatic green, or inside a log, peeping out when I’m sure the monster face staring in at me has disappeared. I would swim back and forth from one end of the tank to the other, surrounded by scaly friends, floating in a watery country of dappled morning light.

But I am not a fish. Or maybe I am a certain species of fish – a spineless one – a fish out of water. You there, in my daughter’s tank, are much older than me. More ancient even than the hatred I swim in every day. You wear the stripes and swirls that define you so proudly; your body maps your world. You don’t know thirst, can’t feel a cold sweat. And yet, you are me. I hold the memory of you in my palm, grew from you and through you, my finned fingers webbed together well before I was born. We were one; alive, but not breathing.

Gill.  A word that means happiness in Hebrew. A long time ago an American President said the human being and the fish could co-exist peacefully. I would like to learn your watery ways, have the ocean as my school; the waves, my rhythm. I stare at you, my mind reaching into the tiny tank like Goliath’s hand trying to catch your shimmering light.  Startled, frightened, you slip away between my fingers, unknowingly swimming towards oblivion, not caring that this may be the end. Death is tattooed on your tiny soul, an endless tidal pull towards the black depths.

I wonder what your silver friend, the one with the lopsided bulbous red gill, has to say about the state of the world. It has been staring at me, its feathery tail wafting like chiffon from side to side. The small albino fish, its pink eyes blind to the light, nibbles at the turrets and spires of a moss-covered miniature fortress. Your friends suddenly notice me watching your home and drift over like lazy parking inspectors, to check me out.

A fish remains silent. You have a natural right to do so. You do not need to sing or speak, shout in protest or discuss, moan in pain or horror. You are simply being yourself, at one with your aquatic acrobatics. Your life underwater is both universe and prison. I am lying pallid on a cement floor, gasping as I drown in air. I flap from one side to the other trying to escape the harsh rays of the sun that dry out my perpetual tears.

A fish has no words. Yet you glare at me, waiting for some explanation of my presence. Am I the hope of food, the threat of death? You won’t know which one until I act. If I sit still and watch, do nothing but be, you will be content to watch me calmly, floating in the moment. Mindful fish. Here and now fish. And I am faced with a choice – to watch, to feed, to harm. Do you feel safe behind the glass of my daughter’s tank; you do not cry?

‘The setting of the sun is a difficult time for all fish,’ said Hemingway. A wise old whiskery fish has wedged itself behind the filter. It will not venture out, even when I sprinkle flakes on the surface and all you others crowd around in a feeding frenzy. The one with the bulbous red gill turns again to stare at me in goggle-eyed accusation and asks me why I do not speak. Suddenly, it grows a skull cap, a black seaweedy beard, watercress sidecurls. It is the doomed ancestor I never met.

I am a fish today, searching for a safe ocean. No huge waves crashing overhead over here where I swim. No sharks to hide from. Yet.