How I became a Jew, continuing……

′My first memory of kibbutz life is spending hours and hours meticulously sewing the number ’14’ in bright green thread into all our clothes so they could be sorted out in the communal laundry. And to this day, forty years later, a stray pair of underwear, or a towel, the number ’14,’ still bright green and firmly in place, will pop up to remind me of my tailoring skills.

On the third day I met the ‘siddur avodah’ (work organizer) who advised me with a cheerful smile how wonderful it was to have a native speaking English teacher arrive. But the smile faded when I informed her that I didn’t travel halfway across the world to keep doing what I was doing before. “So, maybe you want to be the President of Israel?” she responded in mild disbelief. “Agriculture,” I responded — and the next three months found me mostly picking grapefruits: small green unripe ones for the Japanese market and later, as the fruit ripened, working our way up the trees, leaving the huge unpicked ones at the top to be harvested eventually for the juice factory. On rainy days we pruned the trees and on one particularly beautiful Spring day, I found myself operating a self-propelled mechanical lift, picking lemons from a small grove, occasionally stretching across to grab an orange from a neighboring tree, and marveling at the magical view across the Jezreel Valley with its brilliant sun specked patchwork of cultivated fields and villages. This was what I came for!

In between, I served my time in the kitchen every fourth week or so, washing pots, carrying cases of tomatoes for the ladies, and managing to avoid jobs like cleaning the bathrooms and picking meat off of chicken necks. My friend, Haim (originally Hans), a German Christian Oleh married to a South African Jewish woman, paved the way by doing such a lousy job at these tasks that the kibbutz women decided that males were incapable of doing these things and all I ever had to do was to look puzzled, and it was back to the tomatoes, or better still, feeding potatoes into the industrial potato peeler, watching them whiz crazily through as water pressure whisked the skins off. Although doing my turn in the kitchen wasn’t particularly appealing to me, I did love the fascinating array of heavy duty equipment that was used to feed the 750 families and various volunteers, guests, and new immigrants like ourselves who came to live and learn in the Absorption Center.

My wife reversed the process, working mostly in the kitchen and dining room, occasionally working with the grapefruits, a major cash crop requiring several months of harvesting. In those days, Israel was still the country that made the dessert bloom and kibbutzim were an item of interest, the subject of books and media coverage, and one day a French TV crew came to film us at work. Unfortunately, we never saw the result, so if anyone out there has video clips of a forty year old French production featuring grapefruit pickers, please let me know.

And the children? Our oldest, ten years old at the time, was in a class of new immigrants, a single class of about twelve ranging in age from seven to twelve and speaking four different languages. They soon learned to communicate with each other and to enjoy the relative freedom of kibbutz life for children.

[19]-elementary school, mercaz klitah, mishmar haemek, 1973

Our younger children, however, six year old twin brothers, soon became a cause celebre.´ The two young women soldiers serving as teachers decided that twelve children in the upper grade was their limit (a strange thought to a junior high school teacher used to classes of 25+) and placed them in the kindergarten class in spite of their having completed kindergarten in the States. Big fight!

My wife and I refused to accept the idea and after several non productive conferences decided to keep the twins at home. Naturally that meant one of us had to be with them and also naturally would have to miss work. “What, are you on strike? This isn’t America you know.” A strange attitude coming from a country where everybody from the garbage men to the diplomatic corps has no problem shutting down the country; but of course a kibbutz is different. So we had another meeting where we proposed that if the spoiled and lazy (implied only of course) teachers were incapable of handling the children, perhaps it could be arranged for them to attend first grade in some town nearby. Problem solved. The children bussed to the small,  friendly town of Yokneam and their parents back to work. (To see a video of Yokneam forty years later:

So, all settled in (almost), the kids at school, parents happily at work, language classes, good food and good cheer in the communal dining hall, new friends, scrabble with the kibbutzniks and refreshments in the small ‘moadon’ (kibbutz club room) after work; life was good.

More to come…….

About the Author
Professor of Writing at two Community Colleges, Fulbright Scholar (universities in Russia and Belarus) member of local JCC, secular rather than religious, married many years with children and grandchildren.