An interesting part of Israel’s history is often overlooked by historians. In 1971, future comedian Jerry Seinfeld, aged 17, volunteered on Kibbutz Sa’ar for a short period of time. “I worked in the banana groves,” Seinfeld later recollected. “I couldn’t take it any longer! It was hard work; you guys work hard in Israel.”
Seinfeld’s experiences during his kibbutz days never made their way into the iconic television series that bore his name, but they did play a role in The Virtual Kibbutz, my collection of short stories detailing life on Israel’s unique society. The book’s opening story, “Searching for Seinfeld,” was based on the true story of a newspaper reporter’s search for Seinfeld’s kibbutz past.
This important historical tale begins with a 17-year-old American high school student, son of a warm Jewish family, who visited Israel during his summer vacation. It was an interesting program that the young Jerry Seinfeld joined. For the price of $800 he received flight tickets, two months’ experience on a kibbutz and a tour of Israel. Seinfeld stayed at Kibbutz Sa’ar, in Israel’s north, near the town of Nahariya, with three other friends. What were Seinfeld’s kibbutz days like?
“Nice Jewish boys from Long Island don’t like to get up at six in the morning to pick bananas,” Seinfeld would later say. “At six in the morning you should be sleeping! And bananas? All summer long I found ways to get out of work”.
So a kibbutz member Seinfeld was not meant to be. Did kibbutz members at Kibbutz Sa’ar realize that the volunteer in their midst would end up as one of the leading standup comedians in the world?
In 1997, Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot sent its reporter Amir Kaminer to search for information about Seinfeld’s kibbutz days. The reporter visited Kibbutz Sa’ar where most of the members couldn’t believe that Seinfeld had once been their guest. After much searching, Kaminer managed to meet with kibbutz members, Shoshana and Emanuel Pereg, Seinfeld’s host family during the summer of 1971. The Peregs showed Kaminer a green flowered tablecloth they had received from the young American volunteer after his visits to their home. They recalled that Jerry would visit them in the afternoon hours for a light snack, and that the gift of the tablecloth, still used on festive occasions, had been an unexpected surprise at the time.
Kaminer photographed the cabin where Seinfeld and his friends stayed that summer, and even questioned whether the Long Island Jewish boy lost his virginity while in Israel. (In a Playboy interview, Seinfeld said it was only at the age of 20 that he lost his virginity, so apparently he left Israel much as he had arrived). Those who did remember the American teenager among them that year recalled a skinny, serious boy who wore jeans all the time, and frequently told jokes that only he and his American friends understood.
The major find of Kaminer’s journey to Kibbutz Sa’ar was a fading photograph, showing a family birthday party in 1971. Sitting at the table with the other guests was a thin boy wearing glasses. At seventeen years old, Jerry Seinfeld was on his way to stardom, but no one knew it at the time.
Other notable celebrities have also experienced kibbutz life. Sigourney Weaver rebelled against her parents at the age of sixteen, and ended up in Israel for a short three weeks’ stay. Bob Hoskins picked oranges and bananas at Kibbutz Zikim. Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G / Borat) volunteered at Rosh Hanikra and Beit Haemek for a year in the late 1980s. British actress Helen Mirren volunteered on a kibbutz for 6 months after the Six Day War. American Congresswoman Michele Bachmann spent a summer volunteering on Kibbutz Be’eri at the age of 18 in 1974.
Why do people come from all around the world to volunteer on a kibbutz? The first major stream of volunteers came during the months preceding the Six Day War, when Israel desperately needed help, and in the years afterwards, when world opinion looked favorably on Israel’s accomplishments. Young people who cared came from all over, most of them Jews who had no intentions of moving to Israel, but who just wanted to help. They were followed by idealistic Christians, who loved Israel and the Bible. Many Germans came with guilt feelings about the past, but there were also many unemployed, hippies and those who believed in kibbutz life as a utopia which they wanted to try out for themselves.
Not every person who volunteers on an Israeli kibbutz will afterward become an actor, a presidential candidate, or a standup comedian like Jerry Seinfeld, but, you never know!
Adapted from an article published on Israeli Culture at About.com in 1998.