Everyone has cherished memories of places in time. One of mine is Kibbutz Nirim in the northern Negev, where I worked as a volunteer in the winter and spring of 1974. I was eighteen, then. It’s been so many years I’m not sure if anyone there would remember me, but this story isn’t really about me.
The kibbutz members had a special appreciation for the bunch of volunteers I joined that winter, who had come to Nirim several months earlier during the Yom Kippur War. I was the late arrival on the scene; the volunteers in place were treated like family, having been sent there by an organization called Sherut La’am to help out with the war effort. A close friend of mine from the States had left school to go there, and had expressed his enthusiasm over his wartime adventure. When he and his cousin, a no less gung-ho volunteer, came to visit me at the short-lived American College in Jerusalem, I got it into my head that what they were doing was of far greater consequence than the pursuit of a higher education. So when the Fall semester was over I put my college career on hold and headed south for the experience of a lifetime.
On arrival I was quickly incorporated into the work routine of picking oranges, which entailed wading in mud through the orchards in one of the rainiest Israeli winters ever. In time I was reassigned to landscape maintenance, and had the pleasure of driving a Massey Ferguson around the kibbutz, to the envy of some of the young kibbutz kids who were anxious for their turn in the driver’s seat on the glorified old tractor. The work wasn’t the only thing that made me feel privileged. The bathrooms were located a good five minute walk from the volunteer quarters, so us guys would take care of our morning business right off the end of the porch, to the dismay and delight of the volunteer girls. Our rooms had paper thin walls and lingering smells of kerosene heaters; worn out cassettes and old beat up guitars were our means of entertainment; our rugged conditions and shared sense of purpose made us proud equals.
One of the kibbutz members had been taken prisoner by the Egyptians during the war, and I made his acquaintance one afternoon. From what I still recall of my brief meeting with this soft-spoken gentleman I can say that whatever traumas he had suffered in his ordeal he bore with dignity and without bitterness. As an impressionable eighteen year old I saw this man, this unsung hero, as a most representative Israeli.
Another kibbutznik who made a lasting impression on me was from Australia. When I told him my plans to get my fill of travelling around Israel before returning to the States he said to me, and I can still hear the bite of his tone along with his Aussie accent: “I thought maybe you’d stay on with us, join a garin, do your Army service, toughen up a little.”
Mostly I remember the volunteers. We were young adults – I was one of the youngest – who wanted to contribute and had a sense of fun. At the end of the day we always went to our club, the mo’adon. Nirim was the first kibbutz in Israel to have a volunteers’ mo’adon that served alcohol. We would gather there to drink that appalling Israeli liquor, dance to music playing over the stereo and mostly just talk. Some of our conversations were pretty high-minded. In fact, me, my good friend, his go-getting cousin, a volunteer who said he was a Madison Avenue executive and a few others with big ideas decided that we were going to start our own kibbutz. We would form a garin group, do our Army time together and come out with shovels, spades, tractors and maybe a few thousand dunams of land we could call our own. We even met with other like-minded groups at a kibbutz seminar in Givat Haviva. But first we all had loose ends to tie up in the States.
The Garin Nirim experiment didn’t work out as planned. There was a meeting in Manhattan to set things in motion. My friend talked about going to agricultural school and even attended a hachshara program in Israel for aspiring kibbutzniks, but after a few months he went back to school. As for me, it was a nice idea but the commitment just wasn’t there. As far as I know, Garin Nirim got absorbed by a larger garin. To this day I’m not sure if any of the Nirim volunteers stayed on for the long haul, or if the undertaking was carried out. A haunting graffiti message I once saw scrawled on a wall in another kibbutz, It’s a shame about Garin Nirim – didn’t make things any clearer.
On a visit to Israel in the early Eighties I bumped into a guy with a scraggly beard and black coat in the old Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. Actually, he bummed a cigarette off me, and when I gave him a light he recognized me. I wouldn’t have known him, but he was the same guy from Nirim who called himself a Madison Avenue executive. The cigarette scrounger was now a hozer b’tshuva studying in a yeshiva in Bnei Brak. We reminisced long enough for him to take a smoke for the road. He had made some transitions in life, from the advertising world in Manhattan to a Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutz to Bnei Brak, where he said he found his true calling. But he still had a lot to say about the dream we once shared on Nirim.
After I made Aliyah in ’85 I went back to the old place for a visit, but it just wasn’t the same. I had lunch with my old kibbutz boss and then I had a beer at the volunteers’ mo’adon, which was already open in the afternoon. Something was missing. The volunteers were all transients; they didn’t have the same sense of belonging we had felt for the place. They hadn’t come in wartime; it was all party time.
Years later I was working in a high tech company in Hertzlia when I learned that one of the chief software developers was a kid from Nirim. When I was there way back when, he was in the children’s nursery. He told me that our old mo’adon hangout had burned to the ground when a drunken volunteer set it on fire. Someone took pictures of it in flames, he said. He told me that they finished building the new dining room, and I asked him if there were any other changes. He said, It’s an old kibbutz. In a place like that nothing is supposed to change. With that humble remark, I would have been content if my personal narrative of Nirim drew to a close.
And it did, until that dreadful day in July when I heard on the news that a terror tunnel opened up in Ein Hashlosha, the kibbutz down the road from Nirim. Of course I had known that Gaza was right on the other side of Nirim’s security fence. There was something about Nirim’s next door neighbor that as far back as the Seventies told me it was way out of bounds. I never once set foot in Gaza, or thought it was part of Israel. And now Gaza had come to Israel.
The next horrifying news items came from Kibbutz Nahaloz. Though further from Nirim than Ein Hashlosha it has the same close proximity to Gaza. A friend of ours had been a volunteer there in ‘74, and we visited her when Nirim played a game of flag football against the Nahaloz team. Nirim’s volunteers had put together the best American football team in that part of the Negev, and probably in Israel at the time. On that afternoon long ago we played a friendly game on Nahaloz and beat them for local bragging rights. And now Nahaloz, too, had been targeted.
Every day I listened closely to the news, just like everyone else in Israel, hoping that with all the sickening stories of terror tunnels leading to kibbutz dining rooms I wouldn’t, God forbid, hear about Nirim on the news.
In the end mortar left its mark on Nirim, claiming the lives of two men just before the cease fire. I saw their pictures on the internet and read that one of them was only a few years younger than me, and for one frozen moment I thought that he could have been one of those same kids who regarded me with boyish smiles as I rode past them on that old Massey Ferguson. My jaw dropped, eyes widened; something stirred deep inside of me.
For the memories of the place that I carry with me always I have only condolences to offer in return, to the families of Zevik Etzion and Shachar Malamed, may they rest in peace, and to all the good folks on Kibbutz Nirim, may they find peace in this life.