“When you go on vacation, what do you expect?” It was a statement I will never forget, uttered in jest by my new best friend, Shimon. When I arrived at his home with Sally in tow, he’d been in his garden watering plants, mostly cacti. Shimon was curious as to why I was in his front yard and not in the chicken coop. After I explained to him that I had animal allergies, his facial expression may have said, “Fuck you Alan, you lazy bastard,” but he’d been good enough to sit me down and tell me the story of how his grandfather had come to Israel to be one of the founding members of Kibbutz Hazorea while fleeing the anti-Jewish uprising all across Germany. No matter what his grandfather’s misgivings, fears or medical deficiencies were, said Shimon, he did what he had to and he did it with pride.
I stood and listened while Sally sat drinking tea brought by Shimon’s wife, Sara. He insisted that if I was susceptible to working with animals, I’d have been having issues from the day I’d arrived, because on this kibbutz animals were everywhere. I listened intently to Shimon and without batting an eyelid, I told him my issues only arose when I was in close proximity to cows, chickens, or any other animal he chose to mention. Without missing a beat, Shimon called his dog and before I knew it, the monster Labrador retriever had me pinned to the ground and was licking my face adoringly.
I am so fucked.
“Puke now, Scotsman,” barked Shimon.
Eventually, I was able to push the amorous canine off me and regain my balance and “sea legs.” Shimon wasted no time.
“Okay, so you don’t like chickens or cows, Eli, what else can I do to make you happy? What were you doing in Scotland? They have sheep in Scotland, no?”
“No sheep, Shimon! I don’t want to work with animals, please!” Suddenly, a brilliant idea hit me. “In Scotland, I sold plastic shopping bags and electronic goods.”
“You did? You know we make plastic bags here on Hazorea?”
“I do, but I haven’t been inside the factory yet.”
“OK, we will get you a job in the factory—” he paused for effect with a twinkle in his eye, “—working the night shift.”
I was stunned. How, if I had to work nights, could I possibly attend all the sex parties, binge drinking and other kibbutz activities that I’d yet to figure out actually existed? But I had no choice.
“I’ll take it. When do I start?”
“Tomorrow night. You will work from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and we will give you instructions for your job by tonight. Go home, have some sleep and report to the factory around 4 p.m. Talk to Chaim; he will let you train with one of the other workers for a few hours so you know what you are doing. Perhaps, after one night, the chickens might be a more attractive alternative, Eli? What do you think?” He laughed, and even Sally was sniggering in her rocking chair, holding what had become an empty teacup.
“Want me to tell you your fortune in my tea leaves?” she asked.
Accompanied by my little white lies, off I went, hat in hand, back to my dorm to catch some Z’s. When I woke I would officially be a factory worker. Some vacation!
At 11:20 a.m. my door opened and in walked Andrew. I may have been half asleep, but he was half dead. His hands were covered in blood, bird feathers, and the ripped remains of gloves. His clothes and boots were covered in chicken shit. He took one look at me and uttered these immortal words:
“Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“Because he took one look at this place and thought, ‘Fuck it, I have no patience for these bastards or their murderous methods.’”
I said nothing. His demeanor, his smell, his look of utter exhaustion, they said it all. He was an inch away from total collapse. After he replayed his last six hours to me— not once but twice—the night shift inside that poly bag factory just sounded like a cakewalk.
When he had run out of poultry-related horror stories, Andrew said, “So, what happened to you?” Without much ado, I related the whole Shimon experience to him.
“Lucky fucker,” was all he could muster, before he exited, headed to the showers and then collapsed in his own dorm. We were learning a hard lesson: this was Israel, land of Moses. This was not a place to vacation.
Remember the swimming hole? My immediate goal, after eating a modest lunch and before going to the factory, was to make an attempt at swimming across its 20-foot width. By now, all the kibbutznik kids my age had completed their studies, and with school out it was pool time for most. In just a few days, my inability to make it across the water had already subjected me to heckling and a barrage of insults. My aim was simple: make it across, just once, and silence all my critics. I knew I could do it, and I was sure that today was the day.
With swim shorts on, chest out, and a brave face I headed into the water to a chorus of catcalls and whistles. It was all in good fun, of course. However, one step at a time, my confidence began to wane. I began to chant a mantra in my head: “Shit, I can’t do this. Shit, I can’t do this.” Those words echoed continuously in my brain as the water became deeper and the slope to the bottom of the pool became ever steeper. Then, with the click of an Uzi submachine gun held by a returning army officer called Ralph who was now encamped at the edge of the pool along with fifteen others, I lost my resolve, turned and ran for shore!
“Come on!” they all screamed. Encouragement and insults rained down on me, but both were completely lost amid my terror of a horrible death by drowning in the land of Israel. Embarrassed beyond words, I quickly picked up my hat and sandals, and exited stage left, making a beeline for my dorm. The fits of laughter from my so-called new friends slowly faded until all I could hear was the chirping of crickets.
On the bright side, I was sure that I would make amends in my new position at this bag factory. I changed clothes and I was off, ready to learn a new trade before dinner time. It was time to clock in and get started on my efforts to help Israel conquer the world with Plastic Bags by Eli. “Night shift?” I thought. “Piece of cake!” Problem was, that cake was about to collapse because, as I was about to find out, it had no icing to hold it together.
Ahh, Club Med. I had read the brochures, seen the TV ads and even met one man who’d been to the south of France three times just to shag, drink and be very merry, and lived to tell the tale. So as I approached the entrance to Plastophil, (pronounced “plasto peel”) a conversation I’d had in Glasgow with that man, Jerry Brown, came rushing back.
“Son,” he’d said whilst supping his pint of heavy in the local pub, “I went on Club Med three times in fact, and I fucked myself senseless, but—and I’m only telling you this cause you’re a Jew—I heard that going onto a kibbutz in Israel beats Club Med hands down.”
We were on lunch break from working in the warehouse at my father’s business in Rutherglen, which at that time was a part of Glasgow’s ever-sprawling suburbs. I’d just told everyone that following year I would be off to Israel, courtesy of my parents’ wishes that I visit the Holy Land. Jerry had obviously been jealous, and because he was in his early twenties (a massive gap in age for fifteen-year-old me) I’d taken his words literally. From the minute he’d said “fucked myself senseless,” my excitement to be part of “Club Med For Jews” had been festering and growing.
Now, however, as I walked into this modern factory, with the outdoor heat mixing with the indoor heat and my shirt covered in sweat, I was beginning to seriously doubt Jerry’s words. I hadn’t had a sniff of sex nor seen any evidence that this sixteen-year-old virgin from Scotland was going to become a fully-fledged member of the shagging club. In fact, it looked likely that my “fully fledged member” would remain tucked firmly inside my pants for the immediate future. I thought, “How the heck am I going to shag Sally while I’m working nights in this shit hole?”
Without warning, my thought process was interrupted as a huge bear of a man approached me with a menacing smile and the largest hands I’d ever seen. This was Chaim. “Eli, Eli, Eli” he said. I looked around to see where the other two Elis were.
“That’s me!” I said with as chipper a manner as I could muster. As I smiled, Chaim gave me a smothering hug and spoke to me in the heavily accented pidgin that was the native Israeli’s version of English. I’ve tried to faithfully reproduce a snippet of it here:
“Sank you veree mach for come to Eesrael. You mek us veree proud and you geev us all hope.”
You get the picture. Back to regular English. “Come Eli, I will give you a tour.”
We walked up and down the factory. I had been in similar factories with my dad in the past so all the machinery was familiar to me. They had six extruder machines, six converters, and four printers—two two-color, one four-color and one six-color. They specialized in producing food packaging and two of the converters also made plastic shopping bags. The factory was nicely laid out and very clean. It took only ten people to run it 24 hours a day. With plastic extrusion, the machines are rarely turned off and because Hazorea wasn’t a religious kibbutz (even though some of its residents practiced their faith to the full) all of the machines ran though the Sabbath, which in Israel commenced on a Friday and dusk and finished Saturday at dusk. Sunday is the first day of their week in Israel, as it is in most of Middle Eastern countries.
Our tour ended and my host offered me a cup of Turkish coffee, which I politely declined. “Chaim, I have been in similar facilities before and I know all about these machines,” I said, feeling terribly knowledgeable. “Which one am I going to be working?”
“You’ll be working the extruders.”
Gulp. “All of them?”
“Yes. Tomorrow, when you arrive at nine, or maybe you come a little before, we will have everything set up to run through the night. I will show you how to check the quality is consistent, and how to determine when to cut the bubble and start a new roll of sheeting.”
Polyethylene is blown in a bubble and then stacked in rolls of flat sheeting. This is how you get two sides to every bag. “Shouldn’t I have help to do this?” I said. I was certain there would be other people inside the factory watching over me. After all, I was only sixteen.
“Rani will come once every two hours,” he said, pointing to another man in a blue denim shirt and shorts. “He will be double checking you are doing okay and that the machines are running normally. If you need him urgently, you pick up this phone—” he pointed to the blue rotary phone next to him, which began to ring, as if on cue. He answered and had a not-too-pleasant conversation in Hebrew, which I presumed ended badly because he threw the receiver back onto its cradle and then swore in German.
He turned to me. “So, Eli, you need to remember, you never liked cows or chickens, so you NEED to like plastic!”
His sarcasm wasn’t lost on me. It bothered me that everyone now knew I couldn’t hack it with the animals. We shook hands, then he hugged me again and told me to go get dinner. It was now around 6 p.m. and the whole kibbutz was gathering in the dining hall to partake of the evening meal. That night there was supposed to be a concert of Israeli music, and Sally had asked me to meet her at 7 p.m. to make sure we went together. This was the first time I’d eaten in the dining room with the whole kibbutz, having been invited to Hava’s home on the previous two nights to dine with her and her family. As I walked in, Andrew was limping like a wounded soldier.
“Having fun yet?” I asked him.
“Fuck off. I can’t move.”
“Tell them you’re allergic and can’t work with animals.”
Andrew was in too much pain to respond with the kind of obscene suggestion my jibe deserved. As we made our way to the buffet to get some food, my eyes found Sally, already at a table, seated, in deep conversation and holding hands with Ariel, a godlike blond Israeli guy. There are very few blond Israelis, and the two of them looked like they were about to screw each other’s brains out just by touching. I instantly lost my ravenous appetite, told Andrew he’d have to eat alone, and dashed for my dorm. I didn’t surface until four o’clock the following morning, having missed out on the concert and any fun that might have been had, Sally or no Sally.
I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. Why had I believed I’d had any chance with this beautiful girl from Maryland? I lay in bed thinking, as only a heartbroken sixteen-year-old boy can, “If only I’d gone to Club Med in the south of France.”
My day was about to begin, and I figured it had to be an improvement over the previous day. I was mistaken. It would turn out to be a very long day indeed.