Michael Hoffman
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Saba Yehuda made aliyah to be a cowboy

His was a tale of Zionism, Communism, common sense and romance
Illustrative. Kibbutz Dan, in the Upper Galilee, 1937. (Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative. Kibbutz Dan, in the Upper Galilee, 1937. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Saba Yehuda first thought about leaving for Palestine in 1921, he had a vision of being part of a band of Jewish cowboys, riding the hills of the Galilee, protecting innocent Jewish settlers from brigands and marauders. He had heard from his Zionist friends of the daring exploits of the Shomer, a group of young men and women in the Promised Land. Like the cowboy heroes of the American Wild West, the members of the Shomer were said to ride their steeds across Palestine’s rugged terrain, enforcing the rule of law where the British authorities did not. For Saba Yehuda, an adventurous young man of 20, it seemed just the place for him to make his mark.

Like many of his Jewish contemporaries, Saba’s was feeling the dramatic pull of two great movements sweeping Europe after World War I — Zionism and Communism. Zionism spoke to his roots, with its vision of rebuilding the Jewish homeland, and revitalizing the downtrodden with a Jewish pioneer spirit. Communism spoke to his heart with its vision for uniting working men and women in a spirit of mutual cooperation and sharing.

For Saba Yehuda, setting out for Palestine from the ghettos of Europe’s offered the heady possibility of blending the two visions together in one.

And he could get to be a cowboy as well!

The fact is, Saba was far from being alone in his aspirations to emigrate to his ancient homeland. Many of his friends had the same dream, but few ever acted upon it. Just the physical demands of the journey to Israel were daunting. It involved a complex web of boats, trains, and endless treks on foot. All too often, detours and midnight crossings on backwoods trails were the only answer to pesky things like visas and border guards. This was especially true for those who did not have the funds to grease the way.

So how was the trek for Saba?

Pick almost any facet of Saba’s life, and he could lean back and weave you a tale. Yet for some reason, the story of his travails on the way to Palestine never crossed his lips. The most he was willing to say was that he lost so much weight on the trek that he gave up wearing a belt. It got to the point that he grew tired of constantly making new belt holes to fit an ever-shrinking waist line. In the end, he resorted to using knotted piece of cord to keep his trousers up.

The details of Saba’s journey are indeed slim. All we know for certain is that one bright morning in 1921, Saba got off a boat in Haifa, with an empty rucksack on his shoulder and a rope holding up his pants. In his hand was a slip bearing the address of a hostel for new arrivals run by local Communist circles.

And that hostel was the spot where he lost his old dream and found a new one. Saba had barely sat down when he was told that his hope of becoming a Shomer was one that he would never achieve. During the year that Saba had been traipsing through the backwoods of Europe, it seems that the local British constabulary had turned a jaundiced eye on the hijinks and adventures of the Shomer group. While others might have seen them as staunch heroes, His Majesty the King’s forces saw them as obstreperous vigilantes. The Shomer group had been summarily disbanded. And just like that, Saba’s dream was suddenly taken away in one fell swoop.

Yet when one dream dies, another often rises to take its place. Gathered round in a run-down hostel in Haifa, Saba’s comrades told him how many former members of the Shomer had decided to join a new venture: the Labor Division.

The Labor Division was basically a communal work force, whose members worked together as a team of manual laborers. All were equal, living the proletariat dream. And as true Zionists, they only hired themselves out to work on projects vital to the future growth of the Jewish nation. Members of the Labor Division found themselves laying down roads, draining swamps, establishing new settlements, and any other projects the Zionist movement could dream up.

Yet these achievements were still a thing of the distant future when Saba Yehuda set off from the docks of Haifa to the Labor Division’s camp in the Northern Galil. There, on a small hill top nestled in a scraggy countryside, Saba found a ragtag group of like-minded young men and women trying to set up a new farming community. Their dreams were great, but their resources were meager. Their pool of practical knowledge and skills were virtually nil, and more attune to the steppes of Russia then the clime of Palestine. Lesser souls would have shuddered at the challenges before them.

Saba was not a lesser soul. He saw the long days of exhausting manual farm labor as a welcome challenge. Indeed, when it turned out there was no money to rent a mule for tilling the field, he willingly put the harness over his own shoulders to pull the plow. Through sweat and labor, the land and the people would be redeemed.

Saba’s problems, as he would later relate, were of a more practical nature. The first was the little issue of eggs, or more precisely of egg in the singular. Food was so scarce that there was never more than one egg in the morning to be shared between two partners. These partners, or egg buddies would split the egg, share and share alike.

Unfortunately, Saba’s egg buddy did not seem to be fully conversant with the true Communist meaning of “share and share alike.” (Perhaps he had not given enough time to study the well-worn copy of Lenin’s works that was passed around between the members?) Whatever the reason, Saba became extremely interested in changing egg buddies — an apparently Herculean feat requiring the consent of all the Labor Division members in the camp.

Saba ran into a similar problem in regard to another arena of the buddy system: tent-sharing. There simply were not enough tents to go around. Tents had to be shared, with three or sometimes four “buddies״ to a tent. The only exception to the rule were for young couples: common decency and moral codes required that each couple have a tent of their own, much to the dismay of their single comrades.

As in the case of egg buddies, Saba found that changing tent buddies required the consent of the camp as a whole.

So it was that for most of the comrades of the Labor Division, their major sources of discontent were the daily load of grinding physical labor and the endless illnesses and maladies that plagued the camp.

But not Saba Yehuda. His thoughts were directed to the problem of the buddy system. And after many hours of thought, he realized that the solution to the quandary of his tent buddies was also to the conundrum of the egg buddy: Saba needed a wife! A wife could get him the right to a tent for two, and be his common-law partner in the daily egg.

The solution was simple, direct, and bold. The only question left was: where to find a wife?

At the time, women were even scarcer in the Labor Division than eggs. It seems that setting up new agrarian outposts was not a life that held a great attraction for comrades of the female persuasion. And it was not as if there were not equally important tasks for young revolutionary comradesses back in the city. Most of the possible female candidates in Saba’s camp had already partnered up and were enjoying the delights of a private tent already.

Saba realized that if he was to ever find a female partner, he would have to import one.

As luck would have it, Saba had a possible candidate in mind. Before setting out for Palestine, Saba had met an impressionable young woman back in Belgorei. It seems that she had many of the same hopes and dreams as Saba, but she was too young to join him in his trek. Nonetheless, Saba had kept up the relationship through a steady stream of letters back to the Old Country.

So pen in hand, Saba tried his luck. Bella was now older, the threat of antisemitic violence was palpable, and travel by boat direct to Palestine was now an affordable option. There was work and there was a future. Perhaps, Bella would consider joining Saba in Palestine?

Saba has never been overly clear just what he wrote in his letters. What terms did he actually use to describe the joys and privations of life in the Labor Division? Just what did “joining” Saba mean? Marriage? A life together? Or perhaps no more than a simple trial visit?

Whatever Saba put in his letters is hard to fathom. Yet the answer was astonishing clear! Bella would be arriving by boat in Haifa in the early spring — details to follow.

So it was that at the appointed hour and day, Saba stood at port side. He had even received permission from his comrades to take their newly acquired mule and wagon in order to retrieve Bella. Waiting impatiently, Saba watched as the stevedores unloaded a mélange of crates, baggage, livestock, and passengers from the ship, placing each with aplomb on the pier. Saba scoured the face of each new arrival- but no Bella was among them

Saba had almost given up hope, concluding that by some quirk of fate, Bella had missed the boat. Just as he started to wheel the wagon around, a young woman in a shawl approached. As she removed the shawl, Saba realized that this was not Bella, but her older sister Sara. It appeared that family politics had trumped Saba’s plans. Wiser heads had decided that Sara — an almost-spinster off 27 years would be a better candidate for life in Palestine than her younger sister Bella, at 19.

One can only guess the thoughts that ran through Saba’s head as he heard the news. Yet to his credit (and if Savta Sara is to be believed), it must be said that not a word of dismay was uttered by Saba at the moment. Instead, refreshments were offered, bags were placed in the wagon, and the pair made haste back to the camp where a tent for two had been prepared to receive them by the faithful comrades.

The next morning, after sharing a single egg between them, Saba found himself explaining to Sara the basic rules of camp life. And rule number one was that everyone works at the task at hand. Today’s task was a simple one — fertilizing the fields of budding watermelons.

At the time, chemical fertilizer was only a distant dream. The locals used a simpler, if less pleasant equivalent: dried dung. The members of the Labor Division had bought the rights to “mine” the remains of long dried out dung heaps and latrines owned by neighboring Arab villages. Clods of this material made an excellent fertilizer, once they were broken up and spread as a fine dust over seedlings.

Most of the tasks associated with this operation were deemed far too onerous for a woman just off the boat. As such, the members of the Labor Division had determined that Sara would receive an easy commission. Her job would be to stand on the wagon as it went up and down the fields in order to dust the crops. Scooping up the dung dust in small amounts and flinging it over the field involved relatively little effort or exertion.

And so it was that Saba helped Sara, in the early morning, climb up on the wagon with some fellow comrades. She cut quite the figure, dressed in a freshly pressed beige overalls, in sharp contrast to her mates who were wearing rag tag costumes of khaki and blue. Saba told her that they would meet up in a couple of hours, and she could tell him then how things went.

Saba trudged off at that point to his own appointed task, which involved breaking up large blocks of dung. His labors were made somewhat easier by a stiff breeze which had sprung up with sunrise. The wind was cooling and cleared away the clouds dust created by the task at hand.

Saba says he broke off his labors early so as to greet Sara as she returned from her first day of labor in the Promised Land. The sun was shining from behind her as the wagon approached, so he couldn’t see her clearly till she was only a few feet away. And at that moment, Saba realized that Sara was covered with dung dust from head to toe. What had once been a freshly pressed beige overall was now a wrinkled black mess. Saba prepared himself for a litany of righteous tears and protestations from a woman so misused and mistreated.

With a bounce and a hop, Sara jumped off the wagon next to Saba. “Oh Yehuda,” she cried. “I learned the most incredible thing this morning.”

“What was that, Sara?”

“Don’t ever fling shit into the wind. It will only come back at you.” And that was all she ever had to say on the matter.

With those words, Saba realized so many things. But most of all he came to understand how this woman was going to be so much more than an egg buddy in the days to come.

And he was never going to be a cowboy.

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