A painful debate erupted in kibbutz Heftziba — reflected lately in a couple of articles in Haaretz — regarding the plan to demolish the old, historic dining room, and together with it giving up on “historical values,” for the sake of “real-estate values.” As a son of that kibbutz, who holds dear to his heart many fond memories of that dining room, here is my contribution to that debate. It is a segment taken midway into my short story, “The Kibbutz is Burning.”
Back then, everything had started and had ended here, near the big dining room. From here the farmers had departed before dawn to the fields and orchards, and from here members of the kibbutz had left late at night, at the end of the General Assembly, after the endless arguments regarding the future of the kibbutz had finally ended. At the small hours of the night, young lovers had stopped by here to grab something to eat, after making love out in the fields and vineyards.
Remembering those things, David walked slowly toward the dining room. He entered the restrooms first, washed his face and combed his shiny silver hair, plowing it with his wet, soil-cracked fingers. He smiled at the reflection of his rugged, sun-beaten face; he was still alive, lucky devil. And hungry, too, for the breakfast he had missed eating this morning. So out he went into the main hall upstairs, finding it eerily deserted. How strange it was: most of the tables were left with plates full of food on them, morning salads and boiled eggs, with chairs thrown away disorderly on the floor. Only Ziva the Economist, the woman in charge of the kitchen and dining room was there.
“What are you doing here, while everybody else is fighting the fire?” she reproached him harshly.
He couldn’t find a satisfying answer for her. Luckily for him, she hurried back to the kitchen. And he, no longer under her threat, sat down at one of the tables. He spread a generous layer of margarine over a slice of black bread, and covered it with a thin layer of cherry jam. He poured himself a cup of dark tea, added a few drops of lemon to it, and ate and drank slowly. While at it, he surveyed the large hall, with anniversary decorations and old, brownish photographs from the first days of the kibbutz, hanging on its walls.
He remembered well that this was the first communal dining room in the Kibbutzim Movement to be built on solid, concrete base, and not just a big tent or a wooden shack placed on bare ground. Years had passed since then, and the building had been renovated not once, yet the heart of the kibbutz was still beating here. And not only because members, and guests alike still ate breakfast, lunch and dinner here: it was because here were held the hilarious Purim parties, and here they danced the Hora on Independence Day until dawn; here young men—and admittedly, not so young as well—ogled at the new Jewish women from the Diaspora who came to study Hebrew at the Ulpan, and at those half-naked blond shikses from Scandinavia, volunteers who came to experience the kibbutz’s way of life. Here romances began to blossom, and here they matured into marriages. Here the weekly film was screened in the winter, and here still stood the upright black piano. Frantz, the kibbutz’s composer, had managed to sneak it out of Berlin somehow when he had fled Germany before the war.
David trembled when he heard the first gunshots. He remained seated, though, thinking he may have heard Frantz hitting the piano keys. But then he heard a longer burst of gunfire, and couldn’t fool himself any longer. And yet, instead of going down to the main yard to find out what was going on, or more wisely, rush home to be with his wife and family, he asked himself this: Where did we go wrong? And how come these bandits from the development town nearby were doing this to us?
We helped them, didn’t we? At least ten of them were still working in the kibbutz, were they not? Two of them were even taking care of the old and sick. What a shameful situation it was, he bitterly reflected, that the members of the kibbutz couldn’t even take care of their own. Thank god—though since the Holocaust he doubted very much there was one—that he himself was not that old and frail yet.
He felt like smoking, but couldn’t find any cigarettes around. He had quit smoking for quite some time now, following the advice of his doctor friend, his partner for a weekly game of chess. Roza continued to smoke, unfortunately. Where was she now? In the house still, with Gideon’s wife and son? Maybe they all went up to the mountain already, as was the original plan, for a leisurely Shabbat hike?
All of a sudden, the vague voices calling and shouting from afar became louder and closer. Then a burning torch was thrown inside, coming directly at David through a window. He jumped aside, and as a young man defending his territory, got hold of the burning torch and threw it back outside through the shuttered window. But that was only the first torch. A second and third followed, and soon the rioters entered too, like ants from all directions. They were armed with sticks and stones, even knives David saw flashing here and there. They began by turning the tables upside down. Then the containers full of food were kicked and toppled.
One of the invaders noticed David, who stood hopelessly, staring at him dumbfounded. It was Jacky Ben-Simon, who worked in the kibbutz’s plastic factory. His hand lifted a thick stick, and was about to lower it on David’s head. “Why?” asked David.
“Why, I tell you why,” said Jacky. “Because you have everything, and we have nothing!”
“Not true,” called Sami, Jacky’s brother who stood threateningly in front of David, his left hand holding a burning torch, the right hand raising a long, shiny knife. “It’s because you, damn Ashkenazim, got everything from the state. And we, poor Sephardim, got nothing!”
For a moment, hesitating, the brothers looked at the bewildered old man, before turning away without hurting him. They continued, nonetheless, in destroying and setting fire to his precious dining room.
*The entire story can be found on my literary website, www.hillelbrige.com, in the “Shorts” page.