Michael Hoffman

Saba Yehuda and the secret of Kibbutz success

What made the kibbutzim so successful? One answer in particular always got Saba Yehuda laughing. This particular day he was chuckling over an a newspaper clipping which pointed to the great business acumen and entrepreneurship shown by the early founders of the kibbutz movement. It gave quite him quite a chuckle. “Great business minds”, he laughed. “Let me tell you the real secret of our success.”

And so began the tale of how the early settlers at Tel Yosef set out to make their fortune in watermelons. When Saba and his friends first came to set up their farming commune, few, if any, had any practical background as farmers. It was no wonder that almost all the fledgling  crops they planted in their first season failed. Despite their best efforts, Saba and his comrades were simply not great farmers.

Saba, for instance, had come from a family that made its living trading in animal hides. It was his particular honor of guarding the hides as they were shipped across Russia on coal-burning trains. His job was to make sure that the burning embers spewed from the smokestack did not fall on the hides and make holes in them . As such, his closest professional encounter with crops – before he came to Tel Yosef – was watching fields race by as he stood guard in the train’s baggage car.

Thankfully, the newly minted agronomists at Tel Yosef learned that some crops are hardy enough to survive even the most misguided efforts at raising them. The watermelon patch at Tel Yosef was an outstanding success. Throughout the growing season, Saba and his fellow farmers gathered at the end of each day to watch with pride -and no small astonishment – as the melons grew more and more swollen. It was clear that theirs was to be a bumper crop.

Already in mid-season, the great business minds were figuring out how the kibbutz could reap the fruits of their labors. Communists all, they knew the evil tricks of capitalism to enslave the working man. For farmers, this evil took the face of a middleman, who bought fruit cheap and sold it dear to distant city-dwellers.

Well, this was not going to be the fate of their watermelons. Down with capitalism, and down with the middleman! They were going to sell their fruit directly to the citizens of nearby Tiberias, a sleepy town on the shores of the Kinneret. By cutting out the middleman, they would be striking a blow for World Socialism.

Of course, in order to cut out the middleman, they would have to incur a few expenses. There would have to hire a horse and wagon to haul their melons to market. Then there would be the rent for a stand where they could store and sell their fruit. And the booth would have to be big enough for them to camp out while their stock sold off. Clearly, they would need some capital for their business venture: cutting out the middleman wouldn’t come cheap. Each of the comrades was asked to dig in to their pockets, and turn over any kopecks, grush, or other coins they might have to cover the projected costs.

But just how much would they need? No one was particularly sure. No one had rented a stall before. And then there was the question of how long it would take to dispose of their melons. This was no small matter: booths were rented on a weekly basis, and there would be daily upkeep for the kibbutz members manning the stall.

The accepted wisdom among most of the kibbutz members was that the watermelons would fly off the stack into the hands of willing buyers. First of all, the watermelons were a thing of beauty. Like parents of first-born children, the comrades knew that no one else’s melons could match the fruit of their labors. Who could resist them? Second, these were no simple fruits.  These were Socialist watermelons – revolutionary fruits. What capitalist melon could hold a candle to them? To buy them was to strike a blow for the working man.

After great deliberation, the great economic minds decided it would only be a matter of a two or three days before all the watermelon were sold. With this thought in mind, the commune sent off three intrepid souls to market, with Saba amongst them. The journey was hot, dry, and dusty. Yet they were cheered by the vision of the profits they would soon be bringing home.

Arriving at the farmers’ market at the outskirts of Tiberias, the threesome had their first rude awakening. Everywhere they looked, there were booths and more booths, all loaded with watermelons. And not just any watermelons! These were huge, juicy works of art with luscious red interiors, nestled in shiny green rinds. Just one of these giants could quench a family’s desires for a week.

The kibbutz sales team realized within a few moments that their melons simply paled in comparison. But even then, they did not lose hope, for theirs were Socialist melons. Maybe, that would bring in buyers with an ideological bent.

It didn’t.

The days past slowly, sales were few. The costs of the booth built up. The expenses for food mounted. Saba and his friends tried to make do on a diet of watermelons. But watermelon alone can only go so far in quenching a comrade’s hunger.  The small pile of kopecks in their pockets dwindled away.

After a few weeks, Saba and his friends had to call it quits. Now, adding insult to injury, they had to figure out how to dispose of their Socialist melons. No one wanted to even look at them. In the end, only one brave soul appeared to cart the offending produce away. “Who, you ask, was our great savior?” Saba leaned back and laughed  “A middleman, a little capitalist pisher.”

And so it was that the great scheme of the kibbutz entrepreneurs left the threesome on the outskirts of Tiberius, with little more than a hole in their pockets and a long trek back to the kibbutz.

At this point in his tale, Saba leaned back and rested the palms of his large work-worn hands on the Shabbas table. “Walking home, we realized that watermelons weren’t going to be our future. There were no genius schemes for us. If we were going to make it, it wasn’t because we were great farmers or great businessmen. We were going to make it by being willing to work harder and longer than the next guy.

The secret of our success? Well, it wasn’t about our great business minds. It was all about the sweat.”

About the Author
Psychologist and builder in Jerusalem for last 55 years with family roots going way back.
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