The morning of the 2nd February 1969 dawned. Amongst all the other bleary eyed and drowsy passengers, some fellow ulpaniks and I were bright-eyed and fluffy-tailed with happy expectations as we descended the stairs of our El Al Boeing 707 to set our feet on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Lod Airport. Our new life in the Holy Land was about to begin.
Our landing was comparatively soft. The group I came with - thirty people ages ranging from eighteen to the early twenties, composed mostly of Habonim youth movement graduates and a few other Southern Africans from Cape Town to Bulawayo - was whisked off to Kibbutz Yizreel in the Galilee, on the slopes of the Yizreel valley near the small agricultural town of Afula. The kibbutz was to serve as our home for the next six months while we attended an ulpan to learn Hebrew. We were received with open arms and made to feel at home with Arnie Friedman, our former Cape Town emissary and Grace Sloman, another former South African, seeing to our every need. Both of them did a great job and their dedication and care was appreciated by each and every one of us.
It is hard to believe that it was a half century ago – yes, fifty years have passed but the memories stay very fresh. We were a real mixed bag of pickles: all from different South African and Rhodesian backgrounds with many of us straight out of high school. I distinctly recollect the late Shelly Bacher, very prim and proper, in her pink tweed skirt suit with matching high heels walking most lady-like down the muddy path to our quarters. She shared a room with two other girls all three just having finished matric, who were known to us as "The Three Virgins"! Many other names come to mind. I was pleasantly surprised to find two of my cousins from Cape Town, Richard and Averill Herman, although not Habonim graduates, they had unexpectedly joined the group. Averill, fresh out of school, stayed until the end but Richard after a short time, decided to relocate to the WUJS ulpan in Arad.
All of us were given adopted parents whom we visited on Friday afternoon and then went to supper with. Mine was a young couple, Ziva and Gidon Telch who were the same age as me. Many former emissaries to the youth movement as well as movement graduates and ex – South Africans were living there and so we all felt quite at home. Indeed, the first evening of our arrival was full of excitement as everyone – new arrivals and old timers - congregated in the clubhouse to sip coffee, nibble cake, chat, renew old friendships and catch up on all the news. There were many delighted shouts of joy and assorted squeals of happiness upon meeting old friends after long separations.
Accommodation in the newly built "Youth Corner" quarters was Spartan but comfortable: three of us to a room equipped with beds with small shelves above them and a kettle on the corner table. I shared a room with the two other "elders" - Sidney Engelberg and the late Alan Michaels. "Sharing" was a rather optimistic term as Alan, a real macho ladies' man and "fixer", had acquired his own furnishings and organized the room around himself, most generously accommodating us other two. The room was long and narrow and at the window end Alan had set up his own king size bed and a personal cupboard with his stereo on it. He even had a large black shaggy rug next to his bed on which he claimed he had deflowered scores of willing maidens.Sidney and I made do with being at the other end, opposite each other, next to the door and sleeping on the standard narrow Jewish Agency beds, with small shelves on the wall above them, on which Alan had kindly consented to place each of his two stereo speakers. Still, we all enjoyed the records of Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles and made our acquaintance with Alan's favorite singer, Peter Sarstedt.
Showers were shared with the two neighboring rooms. The girls had their own buildings. Meals were eaten in the communal dining room together with the kibbutz members. The main meal served was lunch but supper was self-service, an exercise in acculturation where we studiously observed the kibbutz members and so learnt the art and skill of making your own salad. This was a specialized ritual: carefully selecting the vegetables from the cart, diligently chopping them up finely and then adding oil, yoghourt, spices, cream cheese, egg and condiments to taste. In order to achieve the best results, the process had to be executed with due concentration, in complete monastical silence and at a measured pace.
Our two classrooms were in a separate building just a few steps away from our living quarters. The settlement was blessed with beautiful landscaping (the work of Arnie and his team) and our buildings at the bottom end of the kibbutz had a magnificent view over the Yizreel valley and Givat Hamoreh opposite.
The day was divided between work and studies. Afternoons were devoted to improving your Hebrew, morning was work and this schedule alternated weekly. Upon arrival, work consisted of mostly picking grapefruit, oranges and lemons. A small number of us were later chosen for work in the cowsheds and after a careful background check and character references, a select few tended the sheep. Stella Marcus, owing to her experience and expertise in the clothing industry was soon gainfully employed in the sewing room. Work in the citrus orchards was a bit arduous and monotonous, schlepping around a full canvas bag of grapefruits took getting used to. Nevertheless, there were diversions. When up on a ladder picking lemons, you checked who was in the vicinity, chose your target, checked wind factor, plotted the trajectory and then threw a carefully aimed lemon. You then quickly ducked a millisecond before hearing the cry of surprise!
There were also those stints of helping in the large chicken coop. There, under the able command of Hillel, we tended to the chicks and the laying batteries. I never liked this job, being unable to bond with our feathered fellow creatures and preferring to meet them in the guise of schnitzels or drumsticks. A particularly unpleasant task was being part of the team catching the chickens to send to market. You had to run after and grab the unwilling birdies, push them into cages and then help load them onto a truck – all hard, dirty, smelly and unpleasant work that covered you with feathers and decorated you with their droppings. Thankfully this only occurred every few months.
Being part of the kibbutz, we were included in the daily duty roster in the kitchen and dining room. All of us did our fair share of serving, cleaning up, floor cleaning and dish washing. This was the pre-dish washing machine era and consequently there were always generous quantities of dishes and cutlery happily multiplying and waiting for us in the sink.
When Pesach came around, the children of Israel, following this time-honored national tradition, forsook their city homes, took to the roads and travelled in hordes to their relations on the kibbutzim (of whom just about everybody had at least one) to be with them for the Seder evening meal. On Yizreel, this necessitated and constituted a major logistical exercise. The dining room was quite small and to accommodate the large numbers of guests, tables, chairs, trestle tables, plates, cutlery and all sundry had to be moved out to the nearby barn. Then come the evening, food had to be transported from the kitchen and served on the long tables. Of course, not to mention everything had to be returned as normal after the meal. It then being my turn on the roster, I was part of the moving and serving team and that day and evening remain in my memory as being both arduous and seemingly interminable.
Morning lessons were fine. Less so in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the kibbutz had not consulted with me concerning my biological clock. After rising early, working in the morning and having eaten lunch, the main meal of the day, I was not at my post prandial attentive best, being busy digesting my food and also feeling a little bit tired. Consequently, in the early hours of the afternoon I developed the habit of sleeping with my eyes open during the first part of the lessons. The end result was that after six months being taught by the devoted Mirik, my Hebrew, while adequate, could have been better.
Our first acquaintance with the stark realities of life in Israel and a sobering reminder that we lived in the Middle East where hatreds of the Jewish state ran deep came when we heard the terrible news that Eddie Joffe and a fellow student had been murdered in a terrorist attack in the Jerusalem SuperSol. A few of us bundled into the back of the kibbutz's Sussita light van and travelled to Jerusalem to his funeral. I knew his family intimately, having grown up together in the same suburb of Cape Town and my brother was a good friend of his. A few years previously, the whole family had come on aliyah. A short time ago, we had met in Jerusalem. Eddie had just finished his army service and was looking forward to his studies at the Hebrew University. He was a lovely and talented person and the shock was great. May his memory be blessed.
Our half year sojourn was not all work and studies. We went on Saturday trips around the country and participated in the festivals.When the annual kibbutz Purim party took place, two of our ulpan carried off the first prize in the fancy dress competition. I was less successful. In an effort to be most original, I decided to go as a pyramid. After painstakingly constructing the framework, papering it over and fitting it over me for the grand evening, I too late discovered that it was just that little bit too wide to get through the dining room doors! The talented Shelley successfully exploited her accumulated years of ballet dancing to diligently train a group of the guys in executing the Dance of the Swans from Swan Lake. The troupe performed admirably and did her and the rest of us proud.
Those were halcyon days.Freed from the responsibilities and cares of neither yet earning a living nor carrying the load of academic studies, minus the restraints of close proximity of next of kin, we were cossetted in a warm and supportive environment. There was plenty of after-hours socializing. We enjoyed the unique experience of being completely away from home in each other's company, reveling in the new-found freedom, mixing with the kibbutz members and meeting volunteers from other countries who had come to work there. Friendships were made, romances started and sometimes hearts broken.
Many of the people had come to Israel straight after completing high school and after being cossetted at home had to adjust to being independent and orderly. Some of them found it hard and some put on weight. One day, Stella, a fellow Habonim graduate and an "elder", waylaid me, piloted me by the arm to the room she shared with Averill and pointed to the large disorderly pile of belongings on her bed. "Stephen, she's your cousin," she implored with an especially doleful expression on her face. "Speak to her. Do something!"I commiserated but explained that by not having been granted in loco parentis my familial influence was strictly limited.
Friday nights were for parties and late nights, Saturday mornings were reserved for the luxury of late rising. When lunch time came around, it often wasn't worth the trouble of making it to the dining room as the food (with the aim of not encouraging too many outside guests) was mediocre.
Then, there were the occasional Saturday afternoon "High Teas" in our room, often presided over by Livia Edelstein, when, after purchasing the necessary ingredients at the kibbutz store, my roommates and I prepared pancakes and tea and invited one and all.Each of us had been given a green page of coupons with which we could purchase the basic necessities at the kibbutz store. This modest establishment was managed by "Safta" Chana, an irascible, portly old lady not overly endowed with patience and who did the accounting in her native Hungarian. Flour, jam, sugar, tea plus other ingredients needed to be purchased from her for High Tea hosting. To this end both Alan and I used our coupons. Sidney, being Sidney, was loath to part from his personal hoard and I remember Alan consulting with me on various strategies of prising them away from him.
Birthdays were also celebrated with parties, my 24th on the 1st March being a memorable one. This being my first birthday away from home, I decided that my baptism would be completed by getting first time drunk. Come Saturday morning, I hopped onto the back of Alan's blue Vespa and off the two of us went, buzzing down the road into nearby Jenin (it being Saturday and in Afula, that throbbing cultural hub of the Yizreel valley, all shops were closed) to procure some alcohol. At that time, it was comparatively "safe" to venture into that town, but in retrospect it definitely wasn't the wisest thing to do. We returned in one piece with me clutching my bottle of 777 Brandy, a well-known local brew that could be imbibed neat or else used to unblock the drains! In short, the party was a success, everyone enjoyed it and Petit Moi got tipsy. Bacchus and Israeli brandy took their toll. Sunday morning dawned with the orchards beckoning but I had a terrible hangover and was unable to lift my head off the pillow. I vaguely remember Grace coming in, offering sympathy and leaving me lolling helplessly in bed. This was my first and last attempt at inebriation as for a long time after that I could not look at a brandy bottle without feeling nauseous.
Life was never dull. My younger cousin Averill had come here straight after matric and was apparently under the influence of the film Born Free where Joyce Adamson cared for the lioness Elsa before releasing her in the wild. Averill, bursting with the same missionary spirit, had gone to the chicken battery, taken a chicken protégé under her wing (excuse the pun) and put her in her own free-range coop behind her room where the impressionable young bird could feel at one with nature and realize her full potential. Poor unknowing Georgie Girl (newly christened) was yanked out of the warmth and security of the battery where she had full board and lodging, social security, health insurance, a pension scheme and the comforting presence of her peers. She broke out of her windy, improvised coop under the rooms and now wandered around cold and emaciated with a haunted look upon her face. Fortunately, her misery was put to a quick end by "Flash" the Alsatian dog of Sidney our roommate. Flash had come on aliyah with Sidney's brother and for a while shared the room with us. For health reasons he had been put on a strict meatless regimen and now keenly felt the need to supplement his meager diet. One day, Georgy Girl vanished and Flash with his belly suspiciously bulging lay on our floor looking distinctly pleased with himself. Fowl play was suspected and the reprimanded errant canine, who was above it all, certainly had nothing to crow about (my sincerest apologies but I couldn't resist this).
My cousin Averill, now living in Tel Aviv, whenever we meet hotly and most indignantly disputes my account and asserts that the unfortunate bird was living a life of comfort and ease, on the path to self-fulfillment and professional actualization before she met her undeserved and untimely end.
Our building was at the bottom end of the kibbutz and on the winding path between us and the dining room was the 'Live Animals Corner" where various farm animals were kept that the kibbutz children tended. Amongst its many inhabitants was an extremely sociable billy goat that wandered freely around and loved nothing more than to have its nose scratched.
An oddity amongst our ulpan inhabitants were Doug and Paula Piles (the name is genuine, I kiddeth you not), a strange young American Gentile couple who had somehow landed in Israel and wound up on the kibbutz. Chana Tzisling, who taught the other Hebrew class and who came from another kibbutz in the valley, would only teach at our ulpan on the condition that this odd couple leave her class stay on ours. (I wonder why!) Paula would regularly come to morning classes with her hair in curlers and covered with a kerchief (an apparently ancient and revered American custom) – something that neither added to her pulchritude nor removed her customary dolorous expression and altogether made her resemble the cat's breakfast. One morning while waiting for classes to begin, we heard a terrified scream. We rushed outside to see Paula sans kerchief, curlers and all flying in the wind, arms akimbo and knees up high, galloping full speed down the path with the goat close behind her hoofing in hot pursuit. It transpired that the amiable lonely beast feeling in need of a nose scratch and some close, empathetic human company had hopefully approached our Paula on her way down to Hebrew studies. She, misreading his advances and misunderstanding his personal emotional needs, increased her speed down the path and following closely, so did he. This reciprocal process continued until both of them had built up a full head of steam. Had only Dr. Doolittle been around, he would have instantly solved this lamentable lack of communication.
While on ulpan, to the great surprise of them both, Paula became pregnant and went panic stricken to seek the counsel of the young kibbutz mothers, anxiously enquiring whether she should now wear a corset. There was much speculation amongst us that wind pollination might have played a part.
Yizreel, like so many other kibbutzim, had attracted its fair share of unusual characters who after staying a while would then pass on their way. Bart, a devout Christian hailing from the southern antipodes, had been imbued with the Holy Spirit and so every evening he would duly anoint himself with oil and immerse himself in the Holy Bible. With his prophecies of the imminent Second Coming, apocalyptic predictions of fire and brimstone and us being in proximity to Meggido, he had managed to scare the living daylights out of Anne and Frances the two English nurses then volunteering on the kibbutz.
The three-day Passover trip down south to Eilat was the highlight of our ulpan. Sitting cramped like sardines on long wooden bench seats, in the back of a covered truck with boxes of provisions and our personal kit stowed on the roof and in every available nook and cranny – the situation being exacerbated by the lorry driver selfishly insisting on bringing his wife and sister along and refusing to part with them - we left the green of the Galilee and travelled down through the Negev desert to reach our destination on the shores of the Red Sea. We prepared our own meals, enjoyed the swimming (including a nocturnal skinny dip) and snorkeling around the corals, sunbathed and made excursions to view the unique desert scenery. As Sinai was then still in our hands, we were able to safely see places that are now across the border and visited at your peril.
The spring weather was warm and balmy and so sleeping on the beach under the stars was in order. The one exception to this rule was executed by a singular character in our ulpan group by the name of Neville. Come evening, he pitched his low pup tent parallel to the sea in preparation for receiving his girlfriend (one of the Australian volunteers who came with us) and thus ensuring a bit of privacy. Once "The Temple of Earthly Delights" had been erected, the invitation was issued. It was duly accepted and the two of them crawled into their modest bower of bliss. Neville was a large six foot plus individual and even though his lady-love was quite petite, with maneuvering space severely limited, it was a tight squeeze in that narrow accommodation designed for one. All of us sat around patiently and waited for the entertainment to commence – which it soon did. There were many interesting, varied and increasingly frequent bulges in the canvas and with much mirth and merriment the audience was enjoying the show. Unfortunately, it was brought to a premature end, when under the strain of watching so much whoopee, Neville's sweetheart's twin brother who could not bear the sight of his sibling's amorous swain nor could his imagination further suffer what was taking place, pulled out the tent poles. That nest of depravity and carnal lust then folded over and to the chagrin of the audience, the whole performance was prematurely terminated.
All too soon summer arrived, our half year of studies came to an end and the remaining members of the ulpan went on their separate ways. Some returned to South Africa, a group went to the Israeli army, a few to Europe and some gravitated to Jerusalem to pursue studies, a group of us staying in Beit Habonim in Katamon Tet.
As there were a few months before pre-academic Hebrew studies started at the Hebrew University ulpan, I elected to stay on the kibbutz and joined the citrus orchard crew full time. Rising at four in the morning to maximize the dawn coolness, I joined the team for a quick sandwich and tea and then trudged to the orchards where, amongst other tasks, we proceeded to shift long lines of aluminum irrigation pipes that had to be moved daily between alternate rows of trees. The work involved much walking and carrying but had its benefits.You became fit and acquired the orchard workers' tan, on your legs starting just above the boot line and ending a few inches above the knee. After lunch, we knocked off for a well-earned rest and respite from the afternoon heat.
The citrus orchard team was great and we worked well together. The permanent kibbutznik members were Stephen Blass, Mike Sheideman and Jerry from England. Mike was a poetic soul and a genuine luftmensch who was continually spouting verse and many unusual theories to which the down-to-earth Jerry would inevitably respond with: "Mike, for a grown man, how can you talk so much crap?"I recall that the good-hearted Mike would never take offense.
A few years ago, returning for a visit to the kibbutz, I was shocked and mortified to find that the orchard, without prior consultation, regard for my feelings or my consent, had been heartlessly uprooted. Are economic considerations all that matter? Nevertheless, even after so many years, I still feel a link to the kibbutz and have great pleasure in knowing that today, after having gone through some rough patches, it is an economic success and thriving.
Life wasn't all work and no play. There was the kibbutz pool, the coffee club and plenty of recreational activities. Friday night dinners were special, good food, all the families sitting together and before the communal meal started, one of them would read or enact a short piece to contribute to the Sabbath atmosphere. Every Wednesday night, a film was screened in the dining room. Kibbutz life was theoretically egalitarian, but heaven help you if you accidently sat in seats which the old timers had long annexed as their very own. I remember Chezi Harpaz indignantly evicting intruding squatters to reclaim her rightful place.Seniority had its privileges!
With the passage of the years, fate has deposited each of us in all corners of the globe – from the USA and Canada to Ireland. Sadly, Shelley and Alan are no longer with us having tragically passed away at an early age.A relatively small number of us have remained here. My two cousins, Richard and Averill, are living in Tel Aviv, myself in Ramat Hasharon and a few others are still in the Holy Land. Stella, the doyen of our group, after marrying Keith Greenberg has remained on the kibbutz. She has been the anchor, staying in touch with many of us.
In retrospect, the ulpan period had been a good and beneficial one. It was a welcome break from years of studies and the first time I had left home for such an extended period (not forgetting my glorious service in the South African Defense Force). It was a rite of passage, a time of release and reveling in the novel sensation of being part of and involved with a group of young people twenty-four hours a day. With three of us in close proximity in one small room you soon learned to become more tolerant, flexible and accommodating. Moving from one country to another is a complicated and lengthy process and involves far more than the learning of another language. It is adjusting to a different culture with its own ethos, customs, conventions and resultant sociolinguistics, getting used to a different way of relating to others and consequently adjusting your attitudes and social deportment. We all acquire our own cultural baggage from our native countries. My conservative and punctilious South African upbringing met head on with Israel where informality, equality and directness were the norm.The ulpan period performed a vital bridging function. We had the security of our own cultural group, were graciously received into the kibbutz and well looked after thus enabling us to make a relatively comfortable transition to our new country and home.