Paul Mirbach

My Aliya Story. Tuval, My Home

It was a Friday night, early in 1978 and we were at a weekly Habonim meeting. For those who are unfamiliar with Habonim, it is a Zionist youth movement. Peter, a senior adult member of our group, was leading the discussion about Aliya to Israel. Somewhere in the middle of that discussion, to which I admit I wasn’t really listening – I was checking out a very pretty young woman with long brown hair and beautiful brown eyes – he said, “Aliya to Israel, if it isn’t to kibbutz, is inferior. It is just substituting one city for another. There is no self-actualization”. I was shaken out of my daydream, but I lacked the confidence to confront him face to face. After all, he was a senior member who everyone looked up to, and I was a newbie, having recently graduated to the senior age group from the younger one.

However, the outrage I felt at this arrogant statement, said with such a sense of superiority, didn’t leave me. That weekend I sat down and wrote a letter to the movement newspaper. I accused the members of the garin (the core group) of elitism and arrogance, and of being judgmental. I charged them with ignorance, since they had no idea how hard it was for people to leave their homes and all that was familiar, and go and live in a country where they didn’t know the language, find jobs (with the language barrier working against them) and adapt to a completely different culture.

Ironically, I fell in love with the idea of building a new kibbutz from scratch only a few months after this incident. (By the way, Peter never made it to Israel, he sought his self-actualization in Canada). We were on a leadership course in Israel at the end of 1978, when we were first exposed to the project of building a new kibbutz. The idea was thrilling and the excitement was palpable, when we heard about the plans. At the time, I had just finished my first year at university. It took me another three years before I made Aliya, but it seems that from the moment I heard about Tuval, everything I did, was geared towards fulfilling my dream.

We arrived in Israel on a wintry night on 20th February, 1982. There were twenty of us, in a group to study Hebrew together. Seven of us were destined to Tuval. I don’t remember much about the journey up to Tuval, which sits on a mountain in the Galilee, near Karmiel, but I remember not wanting to fall asleep. I wanted to savor every moment until I saw the place. It was a bit of a disappointment. It was pitch black outside, with a cold rain, and the street lights weren’t working. What I remember most was the smell of the crisp, clean air and a sense of exposure to the elements. We rested the next day, but we were told to be ready for work, the next morning at 4.30. We were going to pick poppies for market. It was cold and drizzling as we set out to work. In fact, it was freezing. Your fingers burned to numbness from the cold, while all your knuckles ached. It got to a point where you couldn’t move your fingers anymore. After about half an hour, Fay who was in charge, summoned us to the packing house for coffee. The first sip I swallowed warmed my body from the inside as the brandy it was laced with, made its way down. After having two cups of that coffee, we skipped out back to the field to finish off the picking. My fingers still burned, but I was certainly less bothered by it.

Living conditions were hard. It was cold, with a biting wind. The rain came down horizontally and there were no trees, so there was no protection from the elements. There was, however mud and rocks. In abundance. The mud got everywhere, because there were no paths to the houses. Instead, there were boardwalks which we laid over the mud to get to them – and they were always slipping and sinking, so you were always having to put your shoes into the mud to steady yourself. It was futile to clean the mud off your shoes. And when you got to the house, you had to take your shoes off, in order not to get mud on the floors. Not that it helped, the floors were stained brown and you could never get it off. The rooms were cold. Not being able to wear shoes inside didn’t help matters, either. We used kerosene heaters, because although we had electricity, the grid was limited, and so we couldn’t use electric heaters. I still remember the smell that permeated our rooms and the dry air which desiccated our nostrils. Many a pair of socks were burned on the grids of those heaters in the winter months. The worst chore was going out to refill the kerosene canister. The tap sprayed and the kerosene splashed onto your jeans and all over your hands. I could never get rid of the smell.

The most sought after commodity was tnuva boxes. Tnuva boxes are square plastic boxes used to deliver packets of milk by the dairy company. I never thought something as mundane as a plastic box could have such versatile uses. You could use them to make a wardrobe, a table, a stool, or a settee. All you needed were a length of cloth and a couple of planks of wood, and you had a lounge.

The view of the valley from Tuval. Stunning! Courtesy

The view from Tuval, is stunning. It was the first thing I fell in love with. If you stand on the edge of the rock promontory on the cliff, the whole of the Beit HaKerem valley is spread out before your eyes, with the silvery green of the olive orchards and the dark brown rectangles of cultivated plots, all surrounded with beige rocks. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the bay of Haifa and the broad valley spreading to Akko on the one side, and the mountains surrounding the Kinneret on the other. People used to go there at dusk to make out. I was never that lucky.
When I arrived on Tuval, there were about sixty to seventy people. The place comprised of a contingent from Habonim South Africa and Habonim England, who had arrived the year previously, Israelis from Nahal garinim, a couple of Australians and one or two Americans. The average age was about twenty. Imagine a society of young virile men and energetic women, living on top of a mountain. I never missed supper, and it wasn’t because of the food. After a day’s work, people would shower, change and go up to eat. Upon entering the dining hall, all my senses were awakened. The young Israeli women would wear their shirts with their shoulders exposed and their long hair was freshly shampooed. My nostrils filled with the perfumed smell of their hair, and just being in the vicinity of them, was heavenly. I remember the food, mainly by colors. The brown crust of the bread, the red and green of tomatoes and cucumbers and the white of the cheeses. Never in my life could I have imagined that there could be such a variety of white cheeses. Cream cheese, cottage cheese, Bulgarian cheese and Zfat cheese. All this variety had two things in common: they all had no taste, and they were all white. Every evening, the same menu. But, like I said, I never missed a supper.

In those early days, very few people had alarm clocks, and it was the job of those on guard duty to wake people up for work. There would be a list where people would write their names, and from about 4.30 in the morning, the guard would start making the rounds, knocking on people’s doors. Interesting discoveries were sometimes made when on guard duty, often by the shoes left outside the door, or by the voices emanating from the room. This is how new relationships were usually discovered, and the enchanting thing about it, is that by and large, there was no embarrassment and we were open about it.

The first lodgings on my fledgling kibbutz. 54 sqm., two roomates. Courtesy

I used to love Friday nights. The communal Shabbat dinner was held in the dining hall and the tables would be arranged in a big rectangle. The food was good and the atmosphere was warm and friendly. Shabbat wine was consumed in volumes and I still remember the sweet taste of what we would call Yayin Patish, hammerhead wine, because it would always put you to sleep. But, before it put you to sleep, you first become mellow. My friends and I would always stay after the meal and swig back the left over bottles of wine, while singing a cappella songs of the fifties and sixties, in three part harmony. We were so un-self-conscious about it. “Listen, do you want to hear a secret” was a favorite. One evening, Boaz, who was visiting a friend on furlough, joined us. He had a warm, bass voice, and it seemed I could feel the floor rumble when he sang. It was the first time I sang with a bass, and the fourth harmony which joined in the songs, was magical.

You can’t live in Israel, without being exposed to the prospect of war, which seems to be waiting around the corner, all the time. In my 38 years of life in Israel, I have fought in a war in Lebanon, served during the first intifada, and lived through the Gulf war, the Second Intifada, The Second Lebanon War, and at least four campaigns in Gaza. War is terrible, but sometimes wonderful things can happen because of it. In 1989-1990, I held the position of rabash (in charge of the kibbutz’s security). This was the year of the First Gulf War. Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons and he threatened to fire them at Israel if the Coalition forces attacked him. As a result, we were told to seal a room in every house, with plastic and duct tape, so that if G-d forbid a chemical bomb would fall, we would be protected by the sealed room. I was responsible to make sure that everyone had a sealed room and the standing orders were that there had to be at least two people in the room, so that if someone panicked or choked in his gas mask, there would be someone there to help him. I was so busy worrying about the others, that I didn’t organize a “buddy” for myself. Fay, (the woman from the poppy picking), asked me to help her seal her room for her, as she couldn’t do it on her own. I went to her room to seal it – and never left. Ours was a sealed room romance. We had been walking past one another on the paths of Tuval for ten years, and it took Saddam Hussein for us to get together! We were married in 1991, six months after getting together. 28 years later, with two wonderful sons, one of whom has taken his own path to live his ideology in a commune in a city in Israel, I can look back at my Aliya and say with confidence, that not only was it one of the best decisions I have ever made, but that there is no other country in the world I would ever want to live. Warts and all.

As for my home? Over the years, I have witnessed Tuval grow. I have seen trees we planted in the cold of Tu Bishvat, blossom and bear fruit. Our paths are laid and the garden is lush with the colors orange, purple red and green. I have savored the smell of grass on lawns where there once was mud. There are still rocks, but they are now a part of the landscape, not THE landscape. We have all grown older and now our children are the age we were when we came to this hilltop. The view from the cliff still mesmerizes me and part of the reason I run is to go past the cliff, to admire the valley. My love for my home has deepened. I cannot imagine myself anywhere else. There is no greater privilege than building your home and living in it.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach (PEM), made Aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz, transforming rocks and mud into a green oasis in the Gallilee. Paul still lives on Tuval. He calls it his little corner of Paradise.