Summer in Kibbutz: A First Meeting with the Land

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02 Mar 2006

The fields were on fire with the afternoon light. I stood on a bluff and watched how it spread all the way down to the sea where the light flickered blue. Every afternoon I went alone to the library and read the English books I found there. On the way, I would stop, and sit down in the grass where I could see the breathtaking vista.

Everything on the kibbutz started early in the morning, as early as 3:30 or 4 when it was still cool enough to pick the fruits. I wasn’t used to being woken up that early, and I would still be half asleep as the jeep bumped along to take us to the fields. At the thickest dark of the night, it was an eerie feeling to be driven through groves of pomegranate or banana trees.

Halfway through the shift and soon after dawn, they would call us to eat breakfast in the shack near the road. It was a hearty breakfast with fried eggs, big slabs of cheese and fresh loaves of bread. There was always hot tea or coffee out of plastic mugs. By six in the morning, we were hungry enough to appreciate all that good food, and we would linger at the wooden benches until our foreman prodded us out the door and back to work in the fields.

More challenging than climbing trees and picking the fruit was our work in the banana groves. There we were given the job of pruning the giant floppy leaves with hatchets. I had never worked this hard, and I felt proud of my growing muscles and stamina.

The working day was over at ten in the morning. We rested a bit in our pre-fab dormitories where there were four beds to a room. Lunch was served in the big communal dining room at twelve. It was more hearty food, mostly meat and potatoes. And then again at four, tea was served with bread, butter, and jam.

Somewhere in between all the eating and field work, they fitted in two hours of language instruction which never accomplished more than giving us the use of a few Hebrew words. We continued to make the mistake of saying ‘Ma?’ ( ‘What?’ ) whenever we were asked something, and we always ended up aborted conversations by rattling off the one sentence we knew by heart: ‘Ani lo medaberet ivrit,’ which translates ‘I don’t speak Hebrew.’ It was hard to concentrate on the conjugation of a Hebrew verb while the trees were beckoning just out the window, and the Land was waiting for us to walk it.

I usually skipped the afternoon tea, because I had already eaten more than enough. I would wander over to the library that was in a small building in a corner of the kibbutz next to the bluff. Most of the time, I was there alone, just reading and trying to digest what was happening to me.

Here was the Land, and I had dug my hands into it. It was a powerful coming down to Earth. Before this, I had always lived mainly in my mind. Growing up in a suburb of New York City, there had never been a reason to do otherwise. My one year at college had only reinforced my out of body experience.

I was being reunited with my body and grounded down to Earth while the biggest world news that summer was the first landing on the moon. As I balanced with one foot on the step ladder and deftly reached for the ripe pears, I heard the radio broadcast of the astronaut’s first words as he set foot on the moon. The world was dramatically changing, vast new horizons were opening up, and I was eighteen years old and in love with the Land.

I loved the people as well. We were soft Americans being forced to toughen up, and the Israelis looked at us with a blend of compassion and amusement. I was especially close with the family they assigned me for afternoon visits. During the hours we spent together, they tried out their English on me and plied me with hundreds of questions about life in America.

The father was a real pioneer spirit, exuding a certain integrity that I admired. He had a spring in his step and always seemed cheerful, even though he had only just recently suffered a tragic loss. His wife was much more silent than her husband, and her eyes were always sad. They were mourning their only son who had fallen in the Six-day War.

These Israelis were survivors. Many of them had lived through the concentration camps and continued to fight for their right to exist on the Land. They had a keen sense of the concrete world of building, growing and defending themselves. Life on the kibbutz was basic and unadorned, but it seemed incredibly healthy and sane compared to the sophisticated college scene.

My days off I spent criss-crossing the country by hitchhiking which the Israelis called “tramping.” I went with Rachel, my roommate from Philadelphia, who was the only one of the group who could really speak basic Hebrew. We were fun-loving and adventuresome. The best ride we got was in the back of an ice cream truck where we were treated to numerous ice cream pops by the driver.

Rachel was as love-sick with the Land as I was. We would set out on our adventures purposely without money, so that we had to depend on the good graces of our feet and our luck getting rides. We almost never had a set destination and were never disappointed. We met many people in our travels who were delighted with us as if we were long-lost cousins. This phenomenon confirmed my belief that the whole country was basically one big extended family looking out for each other.

We resurrected our childhood passion for Winnie the Pooh poems which we knew by heart. We would stand by the side of the road and recite the poems as we waited for a ride.

For the sightseeing we did with the group, we sat in an old open-air truck and sang for hours till our voices gave out. We unearthed all the old camp songs, the Hebrew school songs, and went on to Irish drinking songs, national anthems, and Broadway musicals. The basic fare was chocolate spread on bread and carefully guarded plastic jugs of water.

On an overnight trip to the Negev, we stayed in a shelter that didn’t have windows or floors. Warned about the poisonous scorpions, we saw them scuttling on the dry earth in the giant shadows cast by the campfire, but we kept on singing.

Now the night was bitterly cold after we had suffered all day in the hot sun. This was a place of extremes. There were torrential flash floods that came down from the hills in the spring. Dry and wet, hot and cold.

At the Dead Sea, we were told that we had reached the lowest place on the face of the earth. We saw a monolithic pillar of salt that bore an uncanny resemblance to Lot’s wife. Across the road in Ein Gedi, wild goats scrambled up and down sheer mountain cliffs. Here were strips of green foliage and pools of water from underground springs.

Further on in the Sinai Desert, there was not a single green thing in sight. It was easy to imagine the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs leading slow caravans and winding through the mountain valleys. The silence in the hard, stoney mountains was thundering. There was nothing growing here, and nothing to hold on to. It was the perfect setting for a confrontation with the meaning of life.

We never spoke about these things. When we stopped on the side of one of those mountains to make more sandwiches, the group fell suddenly quiet, respectful of this timeless landscape.

It was only half-an-hour from there to Eilat where we went snorkeling in a sea cove. I had never been a strong swimmer, and when the bottom of the seabed dropped to reveal a magnificent coral reef, my mouth dropped open, and I began to choke on the salt water.

The rainbow fish and the azure color of sea were so gorgeous that I couldn’t compute the whole thing. I paddled back to shore and lay down exhausted. It had been too much for me. The beauty was more than my wildest dreams.

It was real. I was real without even trying. Someday I would come back when I was ready to leave what I knew and finally be real forever after. I felt a vast underground mystery pounding up wherever I walked, and I knew that I would come back when the time was right.

I felt it strongest on the last trip we made as a group to some ruins on the coast. The sun was going down, and I jogged alone on the sand, enjoying the strength I had built up in my legs by all the field work and hiking. The whole summer had been refreshingly non-intellectual. I had returned to a place I knew as a child where my body was a joyful ally, and my mind had not yet learned to busy itself with making up opinions, judging, comparing, and meeting hidden agendas.

I touched a vast peaceful oneness as my bare feet slapped the surf. I knew that the depth of this peace could not happen where I was coming from, and it was because of this Land which was incomparably beautiful to me. It felt like my home after just a few weeks, and I knew that I would never feel this kind of “at home” anywhere else.

Then I turned around and jogged back to the group, I saw that the evening stars had come out, and my friends were now only shadows moving on the beach. One of the shadows started to separate out from the group and approach me. When it was a few yards from me, I recognized the face of our Israeli group leader Chagai.

Chagai was the one who had the unenviable task of going from room to room bellowing out “Boker Tov!” (Good Morning!) until he saw us emerge. He guided us in our travels, briefed us for the challenges, and he was the one who dressed our wounds. He was not a big talker, and almost all that we knew about him was that he had a passion for geology and would soon begin his studies at the university.

He was coming to ask me if I would be willing to be the spokesperson for the group on our last gathering with our friends on the kibbutz. They were holding the farewell party on the following night in the library, my secret hideaway.

At the moment he asked me, I understood that the timing of his question was perfectly orchestrated. The universe was answering me. The feeling of exquisite peace had just washed over me, and immediately I was being asked to carry it further and proclaim from that calm center.

I don’t recall exactly what I said the next evening while I stood surrounded by a crowd of about a hundred people. I remember Chagai crouching down beside me on his haunches, as he always did when he wanted to concentrate.

I opened my mouth and just spoke out a litany of love, gratitude, and astonishing connection as I described my impressions of the work, the people, and the Land. I was just repeating what seemed to pour out from a pitcher poised above me.

Now the luminous scenes of the summer came into focus, and nothing had been lost on me. I had been totally awake to it all, including the stunning climax which was this unexpected opportunity for me, who was normally the silent partner in a conversation, to sing out from my heart straight to their hearts. The crowd of American college kids and kibbutzniks followed my stream of consciousness and responded at different times with laughter, tears, and applause.

Instead of heading towards the banana groves, we would be leaving at 4 in the morning for the airport. While the rest of the group went to sleep for a few hours, Rachel and I walked in pitch dark, trying to distinguish the houses of our kibbutz families. We gathered stones and formed the Hebrew letters of “Shalom” on the patio outside their homes.

It was a silly gesture, but at least it gave us a final mission to accomplish. Then we linked arms and walked over to the spot overlooking the bluff. The night air felt incredibly alive, and sleep was out of the question. We had no idea when we would be back, and we wanted to savor this magical leave-taking.

As time went on, I simply forgot that I was really just waiting to get back, and there appeared a series of experiences that I had to finish having—like college, and then graduate school, and then an interesting job in Manhattan, and then a going “back to the land,” meaning land of America. At the end of it, I found myself living in one of the most magnificent spots on earth and understood that it wasn’t beauty I was looking for, because even that awesome natural beauty of northern Atlantic seacoast and pine forests could not reproduce the deep sense of peace I had felt that summer on the kibbutz.

I was finally ready to come back when I was bankrupt, spiritually.

I desperately needed a vacation, and the idea of picking fruit in a mild climate appealed to me. The actual memories of the kibbutz were warm but vague when I finally returned.

Now their daily life appeared simply monotonous. The old timers were still around, but many of their children had moved on, including Chagai. The pre-fab buildings had been replaced by concrete modern structures, the emphasis on agriculture had been superseded by several factories, and the business of marketing plastic goods and improving the standard of living seemed to have replaced the idealism I remembered.

When I knocked on the renovated home of my kibbutz family and stood there waiting to see them after all those years, I realized that who I was, standing there, was far from the fun-loving and shy college freshman they would remember. I had also earned the status of “survivor” and felt as weather-beaten as they had appeared to me all those years back.

They didn’t seem very changed, but I had changed. My preoccupation with searching for transcendent meaning was totally irrelevant in their practical orientation. They found it inconceivable that I was thinking of checking out one of the new yeshivas for women in Jerusalem.

I was disappointed that I had found no common language with my old friends. I stayed for one night and left early the next morning.

But I was not disappointed in the Land. We picked up our relationship exactly where we had left off. My feeling of being “home” had only intensified, and the Land seemed to open up to me as if it had waited for me to mature and ask those questions about the meaning of life.

The closest city to the kibbutz was a sea-side resort about 4 kilometers away. Rachel and I had walked it many times, mostly on Saturdays when there was no bus service. There I could catch the next bus to Jerusalem.

As I set out on foot to the bus station in town, the road was bathed in gentle February sunlight. I had shed all my identities, and now I was alone with the Land. It was a sweet homecoming. The feel of the earth, the air, the quality of light. I felt caressed by the wind against my face and anointed by the sun in my hair.

Even though I had no idea what the next day would bring, I did not feel lost. In fact, I felt entirely found. The Land had a presence without any borders in space or time, and I had begun to know myself in those same terms.

At our first meeting, we had recognized each other and been drawn together against the backdrop of the kibbutz. Now, as I faced the Land with nothing to intervene, I saw how perfectly matched we were. The ten years I had been away were like nothing, for how many lifetimes had I been waiting to return? I resolved to go for broke and try to stay forever.

This article originally appeared in WELLSPRINGS. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

Varda Branfman has been living with her family in Jerusalem for the last 22 years. A former Director of the Maine Poets-in-the Schools Program, she now runs workshops in using writing for healing and reaching breakthrough insights. Varda and her husband Yaakov are planning a three week speaking tour on the East Coast and Texas the first three weeks in May. They will be doing a retreat including Shabbos in Shorepath Cottage, a kosher bed and breakfast in Bar Harbor, Maine, from Wednesday, May 17th to Sunday, May 21st. For more information about the retreat, please contact Varda

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.