May 03, 2008
Once Upon a Time, I Lived on a Kibbutz
Returning to Israel after so many years was more than a rendezvous with nostalgia. My current life as a publicist, entrepreneur and blogger met the former me, a teenage girl with a pony-tail on an adventure that more than shaped the rest of her life.
This story is a very long one and not typical of my regular blog posts. For that reason, I've shortened the introduction - click on more if you're interested in reading the entire piece. It's a story of a journey back in time, back to Israel and the life I knew 23'ish years ago, hitching and living on the road and working on a far left Zionist kibbutz, a fact I didn't know when I first arrived.
My first experience in Israel was a coming-of-age story in countless ways. I never saw Israel as a new country full of immigrants who went there to find a better life for many of the same reasons the oppressed and the misfits flocked to the States at the turn of the century.
Nearly all of my encounters during that trip so many years ago were with misfits – misfits who were on a journey to find themselves and each other. They came from nearly every corner of the world, had a wide range of belief systems and religions, and ranged from 17 to 70.
It was because we were all escaping from where we felt we didn’t fit in only to learn we were escaping from - rather than embracing - ourselves. So while part of this journey was about coming of age, part of it was about tragedy and escape – for so many of us.
I lived on Kibbutz Zikim, which is south of Ashkelon along the western coast, only a half mile from the Gaza strip. 80-year-old Peter, who has his own remarkable story, offered to drive me back to my old kibbutz, warning me that kibbutzim today are not what they were and many are no longer in operation.
When kibbutzim were first founded at the turn of the 20th century, they were extremely popular as were the strong Zionist movements which formed many of these early Israel communes. Early founders were young Jewish pioneers, mainly from Eastern Europe, who not only came to reclaim the soil of their ancient homeland, but also to forge a new way of life for generations to come.
If there's one word that might describe the kibbutzim I knew in the eighties, it would have to be communal. Everyone was equal and no one had more than their neighbor. Early kibbutzim were rural societies dedicated to mutual aid and social justice and the concept was pretty simple.
Everything you had went into a big pool which was shared amongst whomever needed it at the time. Sharing chores, children, food and the burdens of everyday life were an integral part of its core belief system. And, no one owned anything.
Kibbutz members were assigned to positions for varying lengths of time, while routine functions such as kitchen and dining hall duty were performed on a rotation basis. An economic coordinator was responsible for organizing the work of the different branches and for implementing production and investment plans.
Growing up in a democratic society that applauded you for high grades, a competitive spirit and getting ahead, I thought: how could I or anyone truly understand the world -- a different world -- without experiencing communal life?
In a country where you could buy whatever you wanted, move around freely, speak up whenever you felt like it and work in whatever profession you chose, I had to know – what would it be like if you didn’t have those options? How would your understanding of the word empathy change? What would the result be on the other side? At the end of such a journey?
From the 1930s to the 1950s, when the Zionist movement was strong, kibbutz life was idealized, then later demonized. Kibbutzim were central to the development of the state; borders were even drawn around them.
In 1980, only a few years before I headed to Zikim, there were roughly 250 kibbutzim scattered around Israel. It was the mid-eighties when things began to shift, however, for a mixture of political and economic reasons. Many kibbutzim were in debt at the time and volunteers from the west were being turned away because there wasn’t enough work.
According to Peter, who moved to Israel after his parents who fled the Holocaust died in Chile, most kibbutzim belong to one of three national kibbutz movements, each connected to a particular ideology.
There were the far left leaning Zionist ones, which were the most collective and Marxist, the smaller religious, ultra-orthodox ones (“dati”) and the social democrat kibbutzim, which is the philosophy that Ben-Gurion apparently supported.
Zikim was a far left Zionist kibbutz; many of its members came from eastern Europe and South America. Some were Holocaust survivors or children of survivors. Some never knew their parents but somehow made their way to Israel after they turned 18 as a way to reconnect with the heritage they never knew.
On our drive back to Zikim in April, Peter spoke of the historical transitions, “the worker movement split, and then it split again. Kibbutzism was the only way to really colonize a country at the time. It was a way to teach Jews how to farm land, but this was at a time when there was an idealization of agricultural workers.”
While agriculture was a key part of most kibbutzim, including Zikim at the time, most of them expanded into other kinds of industry as well, ranging from clothing and irrigation systems to metal, plastics and processed foods. The industrial facilities were often small however, with less than a hundred workers, a handful of them non-Israeli volunteers such as myself, at least until the early 1990s.
Securing a volunteer place on a kibbutz in the 1980s was not an easy task. It took a concerted effort that involved hitching to dozens of kibbutzim over the course of a couple of months.
Hitching in Israel was different than it was in the states. Instead of throwing your thumbs up and back, you used your forefinger and pointed it down to the ground. At the time, it was a common way for both army soldiers and civilians to get around, although today it’s illegal for soldiers to hitch and you rarely see others along the road. Back then it was a natural, easy and inexpensive way for budget travelers to get around.
There were three rules to remember. “Don’t jump into an army truck with black plates,” “Don’t hitch when ‘Arab’ cars or trucks drive by – the blue plates,” and “don’t wear sparse clothing if you’re traveling alone as a woman,” which I did most of the time. I was constantly warned about the possibility of getting raped or kidnapped.
So, in my pony tail, shorts, and torn t-shirts, I followed the rules most of the time and with a knapsack on my back, I successfully made my way north, south, east and west and then did it again, covering nearly inch of the country.
Open air trucks were my favorite since I could feel my hair blow behind me in the wind, a reminder of how free my lifestyle was and that there was nothing between me and the trees and birds but the wind.
Hitching back then wasn’t just about getting from point a to point b – it became a way of life. Sometimes the back of a farmer’s truck became my shelter for the night and sometimes I’d just jump into a car to hear a new story.
You have to realize that I came to Israel on a whim, curious to explore after hearing an amazing story about the country in a café in Athens.
Shortly thereafter, I jumped on a boat (cargo class to save money, which meant on the dek with the animals) in southern Italy that was headed for Haifa, a significant port along the Israeli coast. When I arrived on an early dusky morning, I was amazed how many military ships surrounded us as we made our way to dock and how many Army uniformed men with guns slung over their shoulders were on the ground when I disembarked.
I knew nothing about the country, didn’t have a guidebook, map or contacts except for the address of an exchange student we hosted at our high school who lived “somewhere in Israel.”
I also didn’t realize that 99% of western volunteers who worked on a kibbutz set it up from their home countries months in advance. There was a lengthy process but I wasn’t about to let that stop me.
I hitched to the far north where I ran into Mario, a German hippie who said he had an ‘in’ to a kibbutz along the Galilee. 22-year-old Mario was easy to follow since he had medium length dirty blonde wavy hair, a sexy accent and wore a small black cloth backpack and a guitar on his back. Together, we headed to this Galilee kibbutz to ask for a job and if it was full like so many I had encountered in my first couple of weeks, we’d merely ask for a piece of land to pitch our tent for the night.
As we made our way through the entrance on their dusty unpaved road, a rooster was crowing in the background, two dogs were barking, dozens of stray cats were fighting and hissing alongside us, and in the front of the kibbutz volunteer supervisor’s door, hundreds of tiny ants zipped back and forth in straight lines and then around in circles as if they had suddenly lost their way.
After the kibbutz rejected us, we set off on foot close to dusk. While it was too dark to hitch, Mario was eager to make it across the Lebanese border within the next two days since he was convinced we could land jobs picking olives in the south. Here, we could remain hidden from the world for a long time.
The notion sounded desirable at the time although I was fixated on finding a temporary home on a kibbutz before crossing any borders. We set up camp using a tiny flashlight and whatever light we could get from the stars. He sang about revolution until I fell asleep from exhaustion on sharp rocks and hard brush until high tide brushed up against the side of my sleeping bag. We had apparently planted ourselves between a banana plantation and a beach.
Sadly, I left scruffy rebellious Mario, who reminded me of Christopher Atkins from the Blue Lagoon, so he could pick olives in Lebanon and I could pick whatever fruit they told me to pick on an Israeli kibbutz.
Someone along the road suggested I get something called a recommendation letter from an official kibbutz office in Tel Aviv. En route, I met British Shaun, who was half Swiss although didn’t seem to have an accent from either country. It wasn’t the only thing displaced about him. Another misfit on my journey.
He had an assertive personality but not the kind that would win him any kudos in a corporate world later in his life. Shaun knew no rules and never would. Off I ventured with Shaun, me with my ‘official’ letter and Shaun with nothing but a day-pack and a bottle of water.
Kibbutz Nizzanim turned us down, although they put us up for a couple of nights and we shared whiskey, tequilla and traveling songs with the volunteers until dawn. We headed to Ashdod in the back of a truck with cages and cages of squawking chickens. Here, we managed to land a bartender and waitress job at an Israeli Irish pub. The place was so eclectic that the employees spoke more French, German, Polish and Russian than Hebrew and English despite its roots.
The entire wait staff stole food from the pub’s fridge every night, but given how little they paid us, it was the only way to survive. Times were tough then. The economy was tanking, and while it was affecting Israeli commerce, it was also affecting kibbutz life. Budgets were getting slashed and volunteers were being turned away, including some who had an official letter from their home country and arranged everything in advance.
Shaun and I set off once again by foot, this time to Moshav Ashue near Beer Sheeva to track down a farmer who owed him $200, a fortune in those days.
Back then we existed on $4 a day. It went a bit like this: 75 cents for Raita with cucumbers, another $1.25 for humus and tahini on a pita and $2 for a mattress on a floor in a hostel or brothel-like hotel, always in the poorest part of town.
We once rented two mattresses on a rooftop in old Jerusalem for close to a month for a mere $1 each. We were each given a soggy mattress with a sheet and access to a cold-water tap for washing and laundering our clothes.
We could hear rats scurrying past us in the night so I rarely opened my eyes when nightfall came for fear of seeing one of them nestled on my sleeping bag like a purring kitten.
I was surprised how much I spoke of survival in my diary at the time. Money was tight and the jobs I picked up along the way paid so little, I barely had enough to cover a roof over my head for the night and one meal a day.
Shaun never managed to get his moshav farmer to fork over the $200 he was owed. While you can make more money on a moshav than a kibbutz and people have a right to own their own land, the work is brutal and the hours are long, often in blazing 100-degree sun. My ex-husband worked on moshav in the same decade and his farmer apparently worked him twelve hours a day with only one day off.
We had a hard time getting there since it was in the south where there were far more blue license plates than not. We finally jumped into an army truck, where we nestled in the back between smelly rayon bags and a worn tire until we got close enough to a junction where we could walk the rest of the way.
After our failed attempt at the moshav, we headed to Yad Mordekhay, the largest kibbutz in the area. They too turned us down and while she adamantly shook her head no over and over again, she went on and on about a boisterous English volunteer who damaged so much property from his drunken escapades while he was there that people were still talking about it nearly a year later.
In Palmahim, we slept on the beach for a few weeks and lived off pita bread and water, a regular staple for us. Once we got to Kibbutz Zikim, I was so tired from months and months of ‘road-life,’ that I pleaded with the Kiwi-born supervisor for a volunteer slot, suggesting that I would do ‘anything,’ secretly hoping that I wouldn’t be assigned to toilet duty.
She told me to return in three weeks. Relieved, I followed Shaun to Ashdod since he said he could get his hands on a free flat in exchange for pub duty. What my buddy Shaun failed to mention was that there was no electricity or gas, which meant no heat, hot water, stove or lights. Dark and filthy with no furniture, but it was a free place to lay our heads at night.
Here, we met Aeriole, a large wealthy gay designer who also claimed to be a British Lord. When he wasn’t designing people’s houses, he was predicting their future through cards and stars. He told me that if Zikim turned me away when I returned, I should head to Kibbutz Ginnosar.
I looked forward to Aeriole’s visits. He would glide through the apartment daily with his ‘Oh Daaaarling wonderfulssss” His large body would bounce through the living room and into the kitchen where he’d sit at the kitchen table and predict my life’s journey.
By the time I was ready to hitch back to Zikim, my funds were down to $47. I began to do the math and realized that I’d have to remain on the kibbutz for awhile so there was time to put plan B into action, a plan that brought in more cash.
But I was resourceful at the time. Over the course of 11 days, I managed to get by on 58,740 shekels, which equated to $38.50 at the time. If there was one thing I was a natural at, it was making my money stretch further than anyone else I traveled with, except for maybe Shaun who could get by without the basics, including shampoo or toothpaste.
During my first week at Zikim, I made friends with dozens of locals, who ranged from Hungarian, Czech and East German Jews to Latin and South American Jews, who fled to places like Chile during the Holocaust before coming to Israel some 10 and 20 years later.
The volunteers were equally eclectic, each of them running from somewhere else. Every night, I sang songs in the kibbutz pub with Danes, Dutch, Brazilians, Swedes, Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, and Germans.
I somehow lost my t-shirt, shorts and pony-tail look along the way and adopted Birkenstocks, the most feminine ones I could find and long flowing skirts, tiny braids with ribbons and toe rings.
The first volunteer I met was sexy Jacque, an overpowering Brazilian who always had to be in control, largely of the women in his life. He invited me to run away with him to Eilat almost daily, all expenses paid, an offer that was easy to refuse despite his charming ways.
Dimitri, the only Greek among us, was a quiet guy with passion for the piano. We alternated playing for each other in the downstairs mess hall cafe, which is where we met Sybally, my favorite kibbutznik Israeli.
Although he was only 47 at the time, he became a grandfather-like figure for me who would give me daily advice on whatever new life philosophy I needed to talk about at the time. Then he would loan me his tennis racket so I wouldn’t spend too much time in my head.
Dimitri was asked to leave not long after I arrived. Apparently he wasn’t so quiet when he drank vodka, as he was caught throwing himself on a barbed wire fence and driving a tractor into a pole.
I was led to Room 7 in an area of perhaps a dozen rooms or rather ‘small square wooden shacks’ attached to each other in a bushy area filled with straw and bamboo shoots. In between these shacks lay Main Street, an open area that was wildly overgrown, so much so I wondered how we made our way to our rooms late at night.
I barely saw Shaun after we were assigned rooms and jobs. They put him in the orange fields and me in the Polyron foam factory. Once booze was widely available, he drank heavily every night. When I would bump into him, he’d give me the gossip on everyone and everything from all the neighboring kibbutzim. It turns out that he created a successful albeit bare bones snail mail version of match.com between all its members and our volunteers. It was amusing to watch Shaun orchestrate.
Although I worked with two Brits in the factory, they couldn’t be any more different. London-born David looked a bit more like blonde Italian Fabrizio Venturi who I went to high school with in South Africa. Casual, sweet and a lady’s man, he was constantly talking about the dream job he was going to get next year.
Richard was tall, muscular, black, and handsome as a rock star. Unlike urbanite David, Richard came from Bristol, the same industrial city as my buddy Jo who I nearly got tossed off an Egyptian train with in the middle of the night for buying the wrong ticket.
He was the only black on the kibbutz but no one really seemed to notice. It’s not surprising that he didn’t feel out of place. No one was really out of place on this kibbutz since everyone had a long eclectic history of ancient cultures and lands. We spent time gabbing about the locals, what we wanted from life, and more efficient ways to pack foam.
Then there was Norweigan Dan, who flirted with the local women as well as the volunteers. He never seemed to stop flirting, which annoyed Swedish Jan who referred to Dan as a ‘wimp’ who didn’t have the balls to make a move.
Jan wrote poetry and sang sappy songs on his guitar in his room while the other Swedes were getting drunk in the kibbutz pub. His room was three doors down from mine so I could often hear him when I crawled in around 2’ish, down for my two or three hours of sleep before the alarm woke me up for my 5 am start factory job.
Before he came to the kibbutz, he got a job playing the piano at the Queen of Shiba ‘somewhere in Israel.’ When he quit, he bought equipment for a 20-pound note and took to playing on the street.
I didn’t stay in the foam factory for long, which essentially consisted of packing the foam on a conveyer belt for eight hours a day. We all wore uniforms, which were never warm enough for those early morning walks to work. I used the points I earned to buy two uniforms in the kibbutz shop, so I could double up. I longed for a job that would start later when the sun had already warmed the sky and finish before it sank behind the horizon.
The sunsets didn’t have Arizona’s intensity but they were set against a tan dry landscape, which made them dramatic in almost a prehistoric kind of way. I frequently ran into Scottish Stuart at sunset, which if I wasn’t horseback riding with Israeli-born Asaf, I was walking back along the beach path, where you could quite easily see an army truck or danger hazard sign along the way. I never discovered what those closed off areas were used for – frankly, I figured life would be less stressful if I simply didn’t know.
A few of the horses were wild. Asaf was on a mission to break one of them in before I left. Sometimes I’d watch him in the late afternoons get tossed off the back of one. He’d look up at me, grin, pick himself up and start again.
At 41, Stuart was the oldest volunteer on the kibbutz and from what I could tell, would still be wandering around the world living from paycheck to paycheck at 50. He didn’t believe in banks and said if he ever made enough money to save, he’d keep his stash under a secret board that no one could find. I guess he never thought about house fires, attic rats or mold.
Unlike the younger blokes, as Australian Chris and Kiwi Kim would call them, Stuart largely kept to himself and never hit on any of the kibbutzim women or volunteers. The northern European men were fairly tame until a boat of Swedes arrived several months later and our volunteer pool became suddenly unbalanced.
Late night sex and alcohol was inevitable in a place filled with coming-of-age foreign and Israeli misfits and a boat-load of Swedes. Blonde-haired British Sue introduced me to The Pill, which she took for her acne. I too learned that it solved the acne problem and was so appreciative that I became her fashion diva. Before her make over, she wore conservative denim knee length shorts and flowered t-shirts.
The Swedes were always having sex, with each other, the Europeans and Aussies and the local Israelis. I was thrilled my room was far away from Rikka and Monica’s rooms, who taught me nothing about birth control but everything about detachment, holiday flings and Stockholm. Years ahead of their time, they could be in and out of a new fling every 24 hours. For them, sex was like food. In the morning, they might prefer yoghurt or Mark and the evening Lamb or Irish Mick.
Mick had a way with all the women on the kibbutz. Dublin-born, he always seemed to have an Irish tragedy following him, in the past, in the present and somehow you could see it in trailing behind him in the future. Clutching to him like a long lost friend. Mick attended more funerals than all of my grandparents friends combined and they all seemed to be held outdoors under umbrellas in the rain. No wonder there are so many Irish movies with wet funeral scenes.
He took life as it came and it always came gradually for him. Because of his belief in a slow, casual and simple life, he was a great listener and writer. He shared amusing stories with whoever would listen and they were always funnier after margaritas and cranking up scratchy Genesis or Rush cassettes from an old tape deck that Kim brought from Auckland.
Surrounded by farmland and factories, there was a dearth of clubs and entertainment options, so we simply made our own. Since Shaun was running an inter-kibbutz dating operation, he knew someone on the neighboring kibbutz who had access to an army truck. Vehicles were not allowed on a kibbutz, so it was a godsend when someone found a car, truck or tractor we could secretly borrow for an evening.
We used a truck occasionally to visit nearby kibbutzim on their designated movie nights. Suddenly, there was even more sex and alcohol, particularly among the Swedes and the two new Belgian volunteers Freddie and Lauren, who was short and stocky and owned a pair of orange, red and purple striped shorts we all wanted to burn.
If you ended up missing your lift back, you were stuck hitching or borrowing a horse the next morning.
The kibbutz had approximately 300 members at the time and was apparently in debt long before we arrived. There were no boundaries or titles. The philosophy was pure on this pro-Zionist kibbutz, where the accountant and others with professional titles took turns washing dishes once a month.
I was transferred to the kitchen for a while where not only did I wash dishes, but peel onions for a few hours a day. German Aloff was the one who kept my spirits high and made me laugh when my eyes were burning from ten pounds of onion-skins.
He never joined a group activity for when he wasn’t working, he was trying to learn Russian so he could follow a flame to New York in six months where she was apparently working as a cocktail waitress without a visa.
The locals didn’t really join in our festivities but I frequently joined in theirs, whether it was rehearsing a play, participating in board games, team soccer and volleyball, or singing around the piano. Sometimes I’d just hang out and talk to them while their kids ran around the field. There were also the adorable Israeli South Americans.......
There were two kinds of kibbutzim at the time – those who believed that children should live in the same house as their parents and those who had a separate “children’s house,” where the children would eat and sleep and someone other than their parents would be assigned to take care of them.
Zikim adopted the latter, which later became controversial among kibbutzniks. My friend Hagai grew up in a children’s house on a kibbutz near Beer Sheeva and he talks about lonely nights where he longed to see his parents but wasn’t able to.
I would sit with mothers and chat about life while their children would romp around the grounds. Some of these mothers were Holocaust survivors but they never spoke of the past. In fact, no one did.
We all avoided the past and sometimes the present if it didn’t involve an activity of some sort. While there wasn’t much time for emotion, we spent many memorable hours telling stories.
There were Israelis who popped in and out of our conversations, like Jerusalem-born Toby, who was a female Jesus if I ever saw one. A radical hippie, I heard that she changed her name, which wouldn’t surprise me since she was more than just another misfit on my journey.
Sometimes she would show up at the factory with her pal Omer who was in the middle of his two-year army stint. Sometimes Omer was in uniform with a gun slung over his shoulder and sometimes he’d be in cotton pants and a white t-shirt. Through Omer, I met 18 year old Sivon Cohen who showed me around Beer Sheva. If I recall correctly, we also danced to Journey in her backyard until 5 am.
Canadian Beth arrived after I did. She decided to compete with me daily – in the kitchen, on the tennis court, in the ocean -- you name it. We barely talked since her glares were so uncomfortable I avoided her whenever possible.
I later learned she was beaten as a child and ran away from home at 17. A misfit like the rest of us looking for something we could call family or home, Zikim filled that hole for her and for so many of us. After a couple of months, competition with me disappeared and she was just Canadian Beth with a wounded past and a sweet smile.
Perhaps Mario should have followed me to Zikim rather than heading to Lebanon to pick olives alone. He wanted to get lost for a long time and kibbutz life does precisely that if you want it to.
It was easy to get lost on a left Zionist kibbutz like Zikim. While our stories and histories were all different, we were able to live an idealistic life with hundreds of other misfits who looked after you, comforted you, and listened when you needed a friend. We also lived close to a beach, the weather was ideal and we never worried about having a roof over our heads or finding a healthy meal.
Breakfast buffets exploded with pita bread, various kinds of yoghurt, tomatoes, avocado, eggs, raw vegetables, herring, salmon and olives. While everyone worried about a shortage of water, there was never a shortage of food.
So we all lived a life where we felt lost, and most of us didn’t want to be found. I remember calling the states once every couple of months or so from a pay phone and it was the only time I ever used a phone.
Sometimes I thought about being someone else in this marvelous lost state. Perhaps Angela or Michelle depending on the day. As Angela, I could be a prize-winning Welsh photojournalist who wrote about environmental issues. As Michelle, I could model in Paris and share tantalizing stories about my Czech and Russian parents.
Our lives were simple and while we lived in an area of the world that was constantly at war, we lived in the moment and rarely stressed about Palestinian bombs or Iranian missiles. Such stresses were not the "small stuff," but we realized we couldn’t change things we couldn’t control.
My neighbor could have written the intro for “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Copenhagen-born Soren was a freckled, tall skinny strawberry blonde who lived in the shack next to mine. He lived in a bright blue unlogoed sweatshirt with jeans and sandals.
The walls were incredibly thin so your life was your neighbors as well as the neighbor next to him and so on. We didn’t need a body of water nearby to hear the echo of other people’s conversations. They were constant as if we were all living in a small ghetto where everyone’s doors and windows were open to each other and the world.
Everyone smoked cigarettes except for Soren and me and many smoked marijuana but it wasn’t a daily thing, except for Tanya from Holland. I liked nearly everything about her; the way she dressed, the perfume she wore, her wild hair braids that would change almost daily, her small heart tattoo on her cheek. It was hard to have a conversation with her however since she was stoned all the time.
We each made $25 a month that we would use on day trips to Ashkelon, where we could hitch to in less than an hour. What we didn’t get in cash, we received in points, which we could spend in the local shop. My points were typically spent on a a new uniform or toiletries.
To give you a fair visual of our sleeping quarters, imagine a string of rustic beat up wooden shacks, all glued together in a row. Each shack was a 10 by 12 room that was connected to the next one. There was nothing separating them or accompanying them but weeds, straw, grass and bamboo shoots. After one late afternoon group effort, we managed to chop enough weeds down to hang a clothes line built out of rope and sea shells.
The showers were outside, one for the girls and one for the boys. If you’ve ever seen the outdoor showers in the Mash re-runs, you’ll have a pretty good picture of what the volunteer shower stalls looked like.
Frogs often clinged to the side of the wooden beams, crickets could be heard day and night, and it wasn’t uncommon to find a snake (dead or alive) on the way back to your room. The entire area was so flooded with stray cats, we couldn’t feed them all. Many of us would steal milk from the kitchen to keep them alive but not all of them made it. If I’d go to the fridge at night, I’d have a couple of dogs and at least a dozen cats following me.
In the late afternoons after I’d finish up at the factory, sometimes I’d take a shower if I didn’t head to the beach. There were bird nests above the showers, so it was pretty common to have a bird or two fly past your breasts while you were soaping up.
When one or more of the girls were showering, the horniest of the volunteers, Kim and Chris would bombard the shower area with buckets of cold water, which was not a good idea since there was a shortage of water. Both our showers used the same tank and it didn’t take long before it was empty.
There was a convenient outdoor water tap at the end of Main Street, which we used to fill our water bottles or brush our teeth at the end of a long night.
After many long weeks packing foam, I was transferred to the nearby Polyrit Factory, which is still standing today but now produces car accessories rather than cheap Italian shoe soles and computer parts.
Soren and I were assigned the ‘glue belt.’ Starting at 5 am with nothing but a beat up AM radio and our morning biscuits and tea, we glued shoe soles for eight hours. After work, I’d often go for a walk or ride one of the kibbutz horses bareback with Asaf. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Hebrew but we both spoke enough French to communicate what we had to and as for the rest, we simply didn’t need language.
As tedious and loud as it was, working at Polyrit was still preferable to having to sand parts and pack foam. Polyrit didn’t have ear-plugs or head sets for us to wear, so after awhile, the roaring hum of the machines took its toll. We would later release our stress on the courts, on a horse or by doing tequilla shots late at night.
Often, the volunteer refrigerator would often shut off in the middle of the night. Surrounded by dozens of loud stray cats, the fridge was located at the end of Main Street in between an aisle of rooms. When it went off, so did everything else.
In the silence of the night, you could hear lizards, rats and snakes in the bush surrounding our rooms, until the cats started hissing which drone out the sounds of everything else, except for perhaps the post electricity shut-off exchange.
It went a bit like this:
Shaun – FUCK, not again
Soren – Shut up Shaun, who was pissed off that his ancient Hebrew music stopped playing (he became obsessed with it after living on the kibbutz for three weeks)
From somewhere at the left hand end of the hall – Basta! Basta!
Roberto – Damn cats
Lauren – Merde. Merde.
Mark – Someone go get Claire (but no one ever did)
Maria – go to sleep ya bastards
Soren – not without my music
Shaun – FUCK
Soren – Shut up
And so it went.
I’d usually wait about five minutes or so before turning on my blue battery operated flashlight and lighting two candles, one a holy one I bought in Bethlehem and the other, a multicolored one from Berlin which lived in a Maccabee beer bottle. Once it was bright enough to see, I’d continue to write in my journal or redecorate my room for the umpteenth time with something I typically picked up along the beach or ground or bartered for from one of the locals.
One day Mark found a huge snake. His voice rose as he used his hands to show how wide and long it was. We all wanted to know if it was alive or dead and where he last saw it. Not far from the men’s showers he said, which was not far from anything. The area was relatively small, so while the men shrugged, the women panicked and didn’t walk home at night alone until the snake was found.
The snake hunt began shortly after this consumed our conversation in the pub every night. It was found a week later, the same morning I discovered two dead frogs under my mattress while making the bed. I added some mesh to my windows, painted my cupboard purple and dyed my curtains blue and yellow from one of those kits you’d find in an old fashioned Woolworth back home.
Shortly thereafter, I was moved to the fields. Mexican Raphael, Belgian Laurent and Swedish Magnus and Anders (newbies) joined me on the tractor every morning. Mornings were cool but by mid-day, the sweltering sun was beating on our faces as we quickly loaded oranges from the trees into a large wooden bin.
We worked hard, hard enough to leave the fields each day with scratches on our arms and legs, the blood already dried from a day in the sun. A 40-hour a week encounter with thorny bushes and tree rough branches were enough to make any soft set of hands rough and worn.
Somehow, having the sun warm your body all afternoon, all day life-changing conversations and seeing the golden horizon beyond the treetops fed your soul enough to made it all worthwhile. We wouldn’t talk about Israeli politics all that often, but we did talk about American international policy, Apartheid, the Far East, and what was happening in Tibet.
One day, Sybally’s friend asked me to photograph for the kibbutz monthly newsletter and meetings. Kibbutznik Renan asked me to shoot the cotton fields, so I had to learn a bit about irrigation. I also took shots of the horses, including the wild ones, the cows, the factories, the picking areas – oranges, avocados, and peanuts. I could choose whatever time of day I wanted to shoot, so I always chose the most peaceful hours of the day. Here, I could be lost in the silence of the day as well as the silence of my subjects.
Shooting people working inside the factories was probably the most rewarding. There was something about the way people shut off when they were face-to-face with nothing but a machine conveyer belt for eight hours a day. For some reason, capturing that nothingness about their state when they were in that ‘zone’ was incredibly moving.
When I moved to kitchen duty, I started developing stronger ties with the Israelis. A few girls my age began to help me with my Hebrew. While I never learned to write or read it, I was able to follow basic conversations by the time I left. I even joined the Hebrew choir for awhile but I had cheat sheets to help me get through each song.
Today, the language is nothing but a distant memory, although the occasional word here and there would draw me in as if I was watching an old black and white movie I had seen time and time again as a child. While none of them talked about the Holocaust days with us or each other, we drank well into the night while we talked about what Israel and America’s futures might look like. We continued to avoid the past.
Forward wind the clock.
It’s 2008 and I’m on the Ashkelon road with my friend Peter. At 80, he does research online, checks email daily and has a cell phone. He’s even working on a story of his life in three languages.
He isn’t entirely sure where the kibbutz is but we have a map. I didn’t look at one in advance, but as he turned right into the town of Ashkelon, I knew we made a wrong turn. I didn’t pipe up since I wanted to see how much I remembered of this neighboring town, although so much had changed that I barely recognized it between the mini-malls, local fast-food eateries and streets full of Russian immigrants who came over in the nineties.
Israel took in a million Russian immigrants, 50,000+ of which were engineers. Russians have been an important part of the development and growth of technology in Israel.
Once we got back to the main road and headed south towards Gaza, I relived my countless rides back and forth between the kibbutz and Ashkelon in the back of someone’s truck, an army jeep or an Israeli car. It was all so familiar that it felt like yesterday I had sat on the side of that road waiting for a lift.
It was remarkable how much I remembered about the Haifa to Ashkelon road yet if you asked me for landmarks on the San Francisco to Palo Alto road, a route I do frequently, I wouldn’t be able to give you one.
This is because I was wide-awake at all times when I lived here. Every encounter was worth savoring, every conversation a deep one, every decision was a creation of something new. With very few pennies in my pocket, I hitched everywhere.
When we saw the sign for Kibbutz on the right, I was overwhelmed with anticipation, excitement, curiosity, nostalgia and resolve, for I didn’t know if I’d find anyone who’d remember me or I them, nor did I know whether the kibbutz was still standing or in service.
We passed signs for Yad Modakhai where we used to go via Forrest Road on borrowed army trucks to watch action flicks with kibbutzniks. A mere three kilometers off the main road was Karmiyya, where Asaf and I would ride horses with a view of a wild Israeli sky in the late afternoon.
Zikim was quiet as we pulled up and no one was in sight. According to Peter who is a walking history book, many of the kibbutzim are no longer working ones. Some have turned into community centers, they no longer have volunteers and many offspring from the last generation have moved into towns and cities, leaving communal life behind.
I was prepared for that reality, although hopeful, I jumped out of the car as if I was home, and headed straight for the mess hall. Downstairs in the kibbutz café, the same piano I played so many years ago sat up against the wall in front of two large windows.
I ran upstairs two stairs at a time to find a short woman in the mess hall clearing buckets of food on a rolling stand. Her English was limited so I was thankful when Peter made his way through the double doors and shared my story with her in Hebrew.
She smiled as he spoke. As she nodded, I became more and more nervous. Excited. Curious. Pensive. My stomach churned in a lovely old fashioned nostagic way. Eager in some ways to return to a life that was, satisfied with the fact that I never would and it was all okay and exactly as it should be.
After he finished, she turned to me and in broken English, asked, “Who do you remember?”
I rattled off a few names before I got to Sybally and she cut me off -- “ken ken, Sybally. He is still here." Since I was so young and remembered him as a grandfather figure, I wasn’t sure he would still be living. At 72, he is now retired and spends most of his time tending to an extended garden that is full of vibrantly colored flowers, herbs and vegetables.
If you carefully compare the two photos, you'll notice two things: we're both still very happy and we've both aged: (scroll up)
We walked through his garden, took photos and shared a cup of tea. He didn’t recognize many of the names until we got to Miriam. A light bulb went off when I heard her name although my memory was fuzzy. What did I remember about her? And why?
70-year-old English Miriam lived in the same area so we were able to walk to her house within minutes. Excited and eager to hear all and tell all, we settled in for hours and hours of storytelling, some of which brought tears to my eyes.
She took us on a tour through every nook and cranny I’d be likely to remember including the road to the beach, where we rode horses without saddles and army trucks sat on sand banks not far away. The Polyron and Polyrit factories were both still standing although the former was turned into a warehouse for mattresses and furniture.
Next to each factory was a bomb shelter, now an integrated way of life for people at Zikim.
We could easily see Gaza less than a quarter mile away. Within easy bombing range, the shelters are not something from a past memory. The last time they used a bomb shelter was only a few weeks ago when a Palestinian bomb went off. No one was injured but they lost seven cows.
Below the refet area where the cows were hit:
She talked at great length about this new reality in their lives. She also told us what to do if we heard sirens go off. Typically you’d have 20 seconds or so to make it to a shelter. If we were in our car on our way out of the grounds and a siren went off, we should turn the car off, get out of the car and run as far away as possible.
Looking towards Gaza:
Part of the Polyrit factory now produces service hatches for banks and clinics. We drove past the factory and a small grassy area with dried flowers, brush and weeds. A man who makes cement for a living rents part of this land.
Here, I notice the electric fence which I don’t recall 20’ish years ago. Just beyond the fence, I could clearly see Gaza. Peter’s grandson is currently working in Sderoth, a town south of Ashkelon, which is apparently getting most of the rockets. He lives with this fear every day, although everything about Peter suggests that he doesn't live his life in fear, but in gratitude.
Additional buildings that they also use as bomb shelters on the grounds........
Near the electronic fence sat Zikim’s graveyard. When Zikim settled in 1949, the area which now houses the graveyard belonged to Arabs. The day before we arrived, two Israeli civilians were injured and one soldier was killed by terrorists. The Palestinian attackers were apparently also killed.
The cow sheds were as I remembered them as was the road leading to Main Street where I spent so many reflective nights transitioning from girl to woman. Apparently, I missed seeing Main Street in close to its original form by only six months.
Bulldozers and tractors were uprooting the area and none of the worn wooden sheds were left standing. According to Miriam, they were building condos that could be rented once the project was completed sometime next year. I mourned Main Street although it was inevitable and both Miriam and Peter knew so much about loss that they understood my need to sit with it for awhile.
White washed buildings with steel windows are still children’s houses. They are reinforced and used as additional bomb shelters.
When we finally sat down again and the tea kettle was boiling, I listened to Miriam’s life story. Through art therapy and visual memories that came out in the final days of her older sister’s life, she recounted her childhood days in eastern Europe, before her mother sent her on a train to England. At age five, it would be the last time she would ever see her Jewish parents.
She remembered the black boots, which were likely eye-level for her at the time, and her journey to England on a ship, the last one to set sail with Jewish refugees from Holland in 1939. Miriam was one of the kinder train children, one of only 100 who made it safely to British soil on via ship. She has no memory of her mother’s face and only one worn photo of her father, which she incorporated into a painting she calls “Sleepless Nights.” (if you look carefully, you'll see the inserted photo of her father on the left)
Like many Holocaust survivors and children of parents who were killed in the Holocaust, they never spoke of their memories – with each other or the next generation. Only after a ‘life crash,’ which thankfully she had, was she able to share her story.
If you look at the painting below entitled Sunflowers, you may notice tiny worms inside the flowers which came from a memory on the boat where the children were given crackers with worms to eat.
Zikim took in hundreds of Russian immigrants around 1994. Says Miriam, “we built caravan and mobile homes for them to live in for a year so that they could learn to speak Hebrew.” Most didn't want to stay for good. Communal life reminded them too much of what they just escaped from. The majority of them settled in towns like Ashkelon just north of Zikim, where we spent many a day off in the mid-eighties.
There was also a large English immigration. She recalls, "Zikim kibbutzniks performed a play and held a party to celebrate their coming." Miriam came as part of a large Zionist left wing movement when she was about 19 from the U.K. “We were so idealistic,” she says with a nostalgic smile.
“There have been a lot of changes along the way since the ‘Children of the Dream.’ I came with a nice coat I bought in London beore I left. The kibbutz took my coat to be used as the travel coat so that all kibbutzniks could use it when they went into town or somewhere for a special occasion.”
“How did you feel about losing your favorite coat?” I asked. She wasn’t happy about it at the time but felt it and everything else was worth the sacrifice for the greater good and a better way of life.
As we talked for hours, I traced every movement in her face and the glossiness in her eyes. I took in the artwork scattered around her house that all bore dark names, and looked at photos from the children’s home in northern England where she spent the forties and part of the fifties. Then, she moved to Israel while she was ‘coming-of-age.’ Just like me but for different reasons.
The result was the same for both of us. Miriam found shelter, comfort and tranquility in a place where she could be lost among other misfits. She was embraced by these wonderful giving misfits, just like the misfits who embraced me at Zikim thirty years after she arrived.
It's amazing when two lives come together and can rediscover their lives through two hearts and two pairs of eyes. There's that moment where you sit and quietly reflect only to realize that it may be a rediscovery through the same heart and pair of eyes.
Yes, that is why you are brought together to share in that one special moment, the kind that you can never quite explain in words. Only then do you realize that we truly do come from the same place, the same force, the same life energy. These are precious moments to treasure and be grateful for. And, never forget.
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What an amazing story! As someone living in Israel today, and who grew up here in the 80s, you have captured many of the changes that have shaped our country in the past 25 years. I'm glad you found people who remembered Zikim as it was when you were there.
PS You look about 12 in the photos from way back then :)
Posted by: Hagit Katzenelson | May 4, 2008 12:16:23 AM
I haven't finished reading yet, but what a story! It's so fascinating to hear someone tell an adventurous tale like that about your home – a place you yourself take for granted for the most part. And the pictures, it's hysterical (you already had quite a sense of fashion back then ;)
And all the info about the Kibbutz – so comprehensive. WOW
Posted by: Daria Shualy | May 4, 2008 9:08:50 AM
Awesome. Your description is amazing and I can relate to all the people and the ways. It's sad to hear of all that has changed but life goes on and not always does it get better.
Made me think about my year there (kibbutz Hanaton (Conservative Jewish) for a month and my sophomore year abroad at Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva). Israel is an interesting place and time to grow up...
You really saw a bad year there, hyperinflation etc.
I was there a few years later in 1987-88 (witnessed the first Intifada first.
I next returned in 1991 prior to the first Gulf War (led 200 students there when no one else would go).
Sadly my last visit was back in 1995 where I was so disgusted by all the Starbuck's and other commercial chains in Jerusalem that I left for Europe for a week before returning for my friends' wedding.
I haven't been back since although I wanted to go with my wife when were first married but she didn't want to. (Mind you she's South African and I am more worried when we are in Africa). Her parents went this Passover and we may join them next year (helps being on a trip with people who want to baby sit!)
I miss Israel terribly, warts and all.
Thanks for this amazing post!
Posted by: Michael Rubin | May 4, 2008 9:15:41 PM
This blog left me feeling challenged, unfinished and yet revitalised towards achieving more
Not altogether sure why, but I know it had me thinking back to the mid-eighties and the memories that come from that time
Thanks for all of this, an exceptional read
Posted by: Gavin | May 5, 2008 5:55:57 AM
Thanks for such great feedback. I'd love to hear more stories from people who spent time in Israel in the eighties or nineties and have similar or totally different kibbutzim stories to share. Returning was an intense but wonderful experience. I was so eager to return to my old Room No 7 only to find it demolished by a bulldozer. Everything is temporary as they say and nothing ever remains the same, exactly as it was. Thankfully people's hearts usually do remain the same.
Posted by: Renee Blodgett | May 5, 2008 1:18:33 PM
Excellent post! I lived on a kibbutz for two years back in the late '80s, and it changed me as a person. I even wrote a book about it.
It's something most young travellers should try once in their lives.
Posted by: John Carson | May 5, 2008 1:40:41 PM
I think Chrissie Hynde summed it up best in the Pretender's song: "My City Was Gone"
I WENT BACK TO OHIO
BUT MY CITY WAS GONE
THERE WAS NO TRAIN STATION
THERE WAS NO DOWNTOWN
SOUTH HOWARD HAD DISAPPEARED
ALL MY FAVORITE PLACES
MY CITY HAD BEEN PULLED DOWN
REDUCED TO PARKING SPACES
A, O, WAY TO GO OHIO
WELL I WENT BACK TO OHIO
BUT MY FAMILY WAS GONE
I STOOD ON THE BACK PORCH
THERE WAS NOBODY HOME
I WAS STUNNED AND AMAZED
MY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES
SLOWLY SWIRLED PAST
LIKE THE WIND THROUGH THE TREES
A, O, OH WAY TO GO OHIO
I WENT BACK TO OHIO
BUT MY PRETTY COUNTRYSIDE
HAD BEEN PAVED DOWN THE MIDDLE
BY A GOVERNMENT THAT HAD NO PRIDE
THE FARMS OF OHIO
HAD BEEN REPLACED BY SHOPPING MALLS
AND MUZAK FILLED THE AIR
FROM SENECA TO CUYAHOGA FALLS
SAID, A, O, OH WAY TO GO OHIO
(used without permission; copyright 1992 Chrissie Hynde)
Posted by: Michael Rubin | May 6, 2008 6:17:22 AM
I really enjoyed reading this post. You are a gifted storyteller and it is clear that your memories of your time on the kibbutz haven't faded at all.
You should turn this blog post and your photos into a coffee table book!
Posted by: Jeff Barr | May 18, 2008 7:26:35 PM