The state of Israel was formed in May of 1948. It had become a dream for all Jews in the diaspora to visit the “promised land” at least once in their lifetimes. As a result, the feeling of personal accomplishment—of celebration—when the wheels of our 747 hit the ground was extraordinary. Everyone on the plane began clapping and singing. All around were smiles, tears, prayers and gratitude. Strangers were shaking each other’s hands and hugging. From our seats at the back of the plane, Ruth and I were in fine position to witness the aisles come alive with happiness. It was clear that everyone felt they had “come home.”
The doors opened and warm, humid air spread through the cabin like a fever on the march. In those days there were no gates attached to the terminal, and because Lod Airport was still under construction, we were sitting in a remote part of an inactive taxiway. There was a stampede to get off the plane, and many of those who did then got on their knees and spent five minutes kissing the runway and looking towards the heavens, as if impersonating a pontiff arriving in a foreign land. It was nearly midnight, but the sultry air was exceptionally strange to someone arriving from a Scottish climate.
After progressing through immigration and baggage claim we all met outside, bags in hand, our excitement peaked and our thirst for adventure at the ready. Ruth met our uncle Jack, who whisked her away as soon as she claimed her luggage. I wouldn’t see her again for six weeks. My group, on the other hand, was ushered onto another bus and taken into Tel Aviv, where we would spend one night in a hotel. The bus journey took half an hour, but from the looks and moves that some of the boys were making towards the ladies I could already see the “casual” relationships in the making. It wouldn’t be long before the sexual exploits of these impromptu couples became talking points of every waking minute during the days to come.
At the hotel we roomed with members of the same sex who were going to the same kibbutzim (plural for kibbutz). Andrew and I ended up sharing a room, and other than the fact that he couldn’t go ten minutes without a “fag,” our night was quiet and filled with anticipation for the next day’s arrival at Kibbutz Hazorea.
Meanwhile, my platform shoes were (as I feared) being openly ridiculed by all and sundry. I was beginning to wish I’d never brought the damn things. The beach was only two minutes from our hotel and I’d seriously considered walking to the Mediterranean Sea and throwing them in. But it never happened. Instead, they would be my companions through hell and high water until I landed back in Scotland. This was Israel, land of Moses, Abraham, and Jesus, and no platform shoes were required. Some in our group wore sandals, while others “went native” and walked barefoot. I was reminded that the Israelis were hard people who had endured compulsory military service, wars, and much more. They were also people who didn’t give a shit about 70s fashion.
With roll call at 6:00 a.m., I felt fortunate to have gotten four hours of sleep. At breakfast, I amused myself by trying to figure out who had been fucking whom. The dead giveaway was the tears of separation that appeared in the eyes of couples headed for different kibbutzim (to be honest, usually from the women). The usual verbal drama—“You just fucked me because you could!” and “You don’t love me then?”—poured itself out on top of our fresh vegetables, hummus and breakfast conversation. One girl got so upset at the way she thought she’d been treated that the tour operators threatened to send her back to the UK.
Andrew and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, rolled our eyes and focused on eating as much as we could before the bus came to carry us off to the Galilee. We’d heard that life on a kibbutz meant hard work and we wanted to be well-fed while we could be.
By 9:00 we were on the road. By 9:15, we were both asleep in our seats as our bus meandered along Israel’s substandard road system. A jolt shook me from my slumber and as I opened my eyes I could see Hazorea spreading out before me. My new temporary life was about to begin, and it would begin with a bang
In the 1970s, the average population of any kibbutz was approximately 400 residents. Most were immigrants, most of whom had opted for a communal life on a farm rather than joining the rat race in one of Israel’s three largest cities. Kibbutzim were run by committees made up of some of the elders and sometimes an occasional entrepreneur. When the kibbutzim were formed in the early 1900s, their purpose was to farm the land, feed themselves and perhaps some of the local towns, and be self-sufficient without becoming isolated. It was said that those who decided to live on a kibbutz were the ones who couldn’t make it in the “real” world.
But in reality, they were often people who’d arrived from countries where life had been terribly hard and they just wanted to live without having to worry each day about their survival. They felt secure in the knowledge that the community would take care of them no matter what. On a kibbutz, everyone farms together, eats together and learns together. All costs, from electricity and water to food and medical care, are taken care of by the community. Everyone is equal. It’s communism without the dictator or bread lines.
Andrew and I, along with two other girls, stepped off the bus and into this world. We were escorted into what seemed to be a huge communal dining area that could probably seat up to 500 people for a meal. We were offered seats, cold drinks and food while our team leader finished his paperwork. Eventually, every I was dotted and T crossed and our leader vanished. I felt a quick chill at the thought, “Oh shit, we’re on our own,” and then we met the adults and kids who would become our adoptive families for the next couple of months. Along with them, there was another gentleman who was a perfect advertisement for an aging cowboy: about 65 years old, small, chubby, with a gun holstered, Wild West style, on his belt. He and I would become quite friendly, but that wouldn’t happen for about a week.
An older woman walked up and shook my hand. “I am Hava (pronounced Chava),” she said, “and I will be your kibbutz mother.” Her husband, whose name is lost to my memory, and then two of her children, one of whom was the same age as me, followed suit. A similar scene was playing out all around me with all the people who had joined me on Hazorea. Ever so gently, we were being coaxed into our new lives.
Hazorea was large in comparison to the other kibbutzim we’d seen that day. It had about 800 inhabitants at that time; you can see what it looked like back then here:
http://www.hazorea.org.il/ViewArticle.aspx?articleID=113. The whole property totaled about 300 acres, with chicken coops and fishponds to the west of the residential areas and a polyethylene bag factory to the south. It had dwellings of two or three different styles, a theatre, swimming pool (really a pond, but more about this later), dining hall, and offices. The funniest thing to me was the plastic bag factory. After working my tender young arse off for two years selling plastic bags, I found myself in the middle of nowhere with yet more plastic bags! However, at that time the bag factory was fairly new. The bread and butter of this kibbutz were the chickens.
German Jews had populated Hazorea, and so it was no surprise to find that Hava and the rest of her family originated in that country, as did most of the other permanent residents. German Jews were renowned for being yeke like, which basically means “precise and regimented.” In the few minutes I’d had to look around, I could see from the layout that this place embodied those qualities. It was clean, neat, and orderly.
On any kibbutz, volunteers come from all over the world to work, to learn Hebrew in an intensive school called an ulpan, and sometimes just to get away from something that they just don’t want to be part of any more. On Hazorea we had men and women, boys and girls, ages 16 to 35, from South Africa, the U.S., Australia, Europe and many more countries. Some were Jewish, some not, but all with one goal: to be part of this new country, this wilderness that had turned fertile, and this potentially life-changing experience.
Avi, Hava’s son, escorted me to my sleeping quarters with Andrew following along accompanied by his newfound family friend. We were quite surprised to learn that we would be sharing rooms with an Israeli and not with one another. The kids “dorms” were actually huts, where all the children from age four upwards slept. That was customary on a kibbutz at that time: all the kids were separated from their parents and schooled, fed and housed in a different part of the complex. On Friday nights, instead of eating alone, all the families got together for a reunion of sorts. It was quite strange to witness at first, but we soon became accustomed to their ways, and most of them turned out to make good sense.
My room was sparse, with one cupboard, a fan and two beds, both single but quite comfortable. Avi would be my roommate, and he immediately won my enmity by offering my platform shoes pride of place at the end of his bed (while he and two of his buddies shared a barely-concealed a laugh in their native tongue at my expense). Damn these shoes I thought as I pushed them under the bed. If all went well, I wouldn’t see them again until I got off the plane in Glasgow come September.
After settling in and trying to communicate in awkward Hebrew/English (Hebrish?) phrases with some of the other kids, we newcomers were whisked off to the dining hall for dinner and then to the work station to find out what we would be doing for the next few weeks in the way of hard labor. We were there as volunteers, as were all of our group and all of the other groups bringing kids to the Holy Land. It didn’t matter if you were Jewish, Christian or any other faith (and there ware many other faiths) we were all there for the same reasons: to help, learn and—hopefully—have sex with people we would never see again.
As I walked into the hall, a vision of female loveliness approached me. She turned out to be Sally, an American from Maryland. She was slightly older than I, slim and short, with the bubbliest personality of anyone I’d ever met. She would become my friend in more ways than one, but more of that as we move along. This night was “Get to know you” night, and Sally started the ball rolling with an unsolicited “Get to know you” peck on the cheek, followed by an invitation to her place later that evening. I went in eager anticipation, but her place turned out to be like mine: filled with people and with no privacy.
As the day ended, Hava summoned me to her home. She let me know that in two days I would begin my working experience with the chickens. This was great, because it gave me 48 hours to settle in. She also announced that I would no longer be called Alan, and that everyone would address me by my Hebrew name, Eli (pronounced Ellie). “Chickens?” I thought, “Sounds easy enough.” Boy, was I going to be proved wrong. Naively, I told Hava and her husband that chickens would not be a problem, and then it was back to Sally’s dorm, just in case—unlike the chickens—she had more to offer than a wee peck.