What does a young boy living in a small town in Southern Africa do on a lazy Sunday morning in the late 1960’s? He gets dressed up in a blue shirt, khaki shorts, a blue and white scarf rolled up with a leather toggle and goes off to the shul complex to be with other young Jewish boys. That was Habonim in Bulawayo, when I was ten. Little was I to know that from those Sunday morning meetings this youth movement would have such a profound influence on my life.
My elder brother, Nick, started going a couple of years before me, and I would remember watching in fascination as he would get dressed in the uniform. I could not imagine what he did there “at Habonim” but it always intrigued me. What I could not understand, although at the time I couldn’t put it into words, was why after an entire week wearing school uniform, would you want to also wear a uniform on a Sunday, your day off? But, he seemed to do it without objection, and that was enough for me to want to do it as well. So, it was with barely concealed excitement that I waited to go to my first meeting.
I loved it. Our madrichim were young and friendly and most of my friends from school were there. It was a fun mixture of learning about knots and learning about Israel, but mostly it was the social group that I liked. They tried to teach us Hatikva. I got the tune pretty quick but the words were a mystery. I found myself mimicking sounds which I later learned was gibberish, but nobody corrected me. A couple of years later, I got the words right, but the meaning of the lyrics continued to evade me. What I do remember, was that we would stand in a triangle at the end of every meeting and our madrich would say, “Aleh uvneh” and we would shout back “Aloh Na’ale”. I thought it was a kind of a password, and I felt a sort of pride to be a part of it. As we progressed in years, we started talking about Judaism and Israel more and did less “stuff”, but by that time, I was hooked. That was also where I met my first Israeli. He was a Shaliach. He spoke funny, but everyone looked up to him with a kind of awe, so I did too.
The highlight, every year, was “Big Camp” – three weeks spent by the sea, with Habonim members from all over South Africa. Imagine a thousand young Jewish teenagers gathered together to build a mini society for three weeks. Just thinking about it again and I feel a twinge of nostalgia. In all, I went to nine camps. Each one more addictive than the last. For those of us living in Rhodesia, the two day train ride down to the Cape was just as much fun as the camp itself. We would pile into the compartments together and pass the time singing songs and playing cards, getting to know new faces, who would later become dear friends. The guitar players ruled the roost and Nick, my talented brother and his friends, held court in his compartment. The corridor was jammed with people, pushing to get closer to the music. We would listen and join in the chorus, while we rocked to the clicketty clack of the wheels on the tracks. I remember standing in the corridor with barely any place to move while they played “Locomotive breath”, and thinking how appropriate as we sang along, feeling the vibrations below us and watched the plumes of smoke in the air. The sense of anticlimax when we pulled into the station, was quickly overcome by the excitement to get to the campsite and reunite with friends whom we had not seen for an entire year. Oh, how I miss those moments of anticipation and reunion.
I had my first crush on a madricha at Machaneh. Her name was Joanne and I was inafatuated with her. Whenever we broke off into discussion groups, I would feel a pang of disappointment when I was allocated to another group. But, when I was lucky enough to be in her “sicha”, most of the time I found myself stealing glances at her, marveling at how she sat, her exquisite posture and the way she led the discussion. I think it was her presence which made me take an interest in the subject of discussion, just to impress her. At least, that was how it started.
How can I describe the experiences at Machaneh adequately? The feeling of togetherness and friendship was intoxicating. “The group” took on a life of its own and I yearned to be a part of it. As we grew older, the discussions became more serious as we delved deeper into issues of Zionism and social justice, Socialism and Judaism. It was a living, thriving educational experience which we went through together, forming bonds to the movement, its ideology and each other, into a oneness that for three weeks became my entire universe. It usually took me about a week to recover after machaneh. I pined and yearned for that feeling of us all together. I missed friends and the atmosphere terribly. I would spend hours lying on my bed, remembering people and experiences with a nostalgia so intense, that sometimes tears welled up in my eyes. I resolved to go to the next one almost immediately after the last one finished.
My relationship with Habonim deepened dramatically when I was sixteen. As the situation in Rhodesia went from bad to dire, the Rhodesian government passed a law requiring all young men aged sixteen to register for the army. Acutely aware of the inevitable outcome of the war, and the impossible situation of serving in an army fighting against a cause which I believed was right, while at the same time having to deal with terrible antisemitism among my “comrades”, I grabbed at the opportunity to leave Rhodesia to finish my studies in Cape Town. The thing about small town life for one growing up there, is that the sense of security, of everyone knowing everyone keeps you blissfully naïve. Suddenly I found myself left to my own devices in a big city, not knowing anyone and with no one to rely on emotionally. Except for Habonim. Habonim was my safety net. It became my support system. I cannot exaggerate the role the movement had in the development of my character in those initial two years away and how it enveloped me in a cocoon of warmth and security. I’m not even sure that people knew that they did that, and that is what is so special about that. The Shlichim in Cape Town, the amazing Yossi Lior and Michael Lanir became sort of surrogate parents. Whenever I needed someone to talk to, they listened. When I needed advice, they gave it. Their help and guidance helped me through so many periods of despair and self-doubt that people grappling with their self-confidence and identity go through. I owe them so much. While at University, and as a madrich myself, I delved deeper into its ideology and became committed to “the cause”. From about thirteen I knew I wanted to live in Israel, but Habonim gave me purpose and direction.
Perhaps the most valuable attribute that Habonim gave me however, was that it taught me to think critically and not to be afraid to think differently to others. For example, at a meeting one Friday night, a member of the leadership, whose opinion was well respected, equated making Aliya to anywhere other than to kibbutz as “second class”. I was incensed. “How arrogant”? I thought. There is a difference, I thought, between giving ideological guidance and judging people, and he crossed the line. I went straight home and wrote a scathing article for the movement’s weekly paper, criticizing him and his fellow “Aliya garin” members for their arrogance. I questioned their ability to lead, if they were intolerant of others’ thoughts and beliefs. When it came to signing the letter I lost my nerve. So I signed it with my initials P.E.M. I suppose you could say the article caused ripples. For about two weeks, people went round asking who was this PEM guy. I was found out, eventually and was summoned to a meeting with the “ba-Koach” (city head) and the shaliach. With my stomach churning and fearing that I was about to lose my safety net, I went to the meeting. As I entered Yossi’s office, my article was lying on his desk. “Did you write this?” he asked. With a tremulous voice and a dry mouth, I admitted to writing the article, fully expecting to be told to leave Habonim. He nodded his head and then said, “How would you like to be editor of our paper”? Tears filled my eyes with relief and emotion. And, that’s how I got my nickname.
Ironically, after that, I became enamored with the idea of kibbutz. At first I imagined it was a sort of perpetuation of the kind of community and togetherness of Machaneh which I loved, and that is what drew me to it. Later as I learned more about socialism and the allure of making a difference as a Zionist, my resolve to live out my ideals strengthened.
In 1982, together with my own “Aliya garin”, I made Aliya to kibbutz Tuval, in the Galilee. It is my home, which I built together with my committed friends and comrades. Now, after 37 years, it is my little corner of Paradise. No, kibbutz is not a perpetuation of Machaneh and I have moved to the community section, no longer a member of the kibbutz, but I still love it and the community life. And I have Habonim to thank – for this and so much more.