The Official Website of Richard Reilly
An American student decides to live and work on a kibbutz in Israel two years after the 1973 War.
What is it like to live in the Holy Land? And what is it like to live collectively, where children bunk in their own dormitories, away from their parents, and volunteers from around the world exchange labor for their keep? But this is Israel, surrounded by hostile Arab states, where communities are protected by barbed wire fences and citizens carrying machine guns patrol the perimeter. When you often wake up to the sound of a distant explosion, you know you are 'not in Kansas anymore.'
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Table of Contents
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EL AL, the state owned airline of Israel, was the only airline that did not taxi up to the airport terminal. These were the days when Palestinian terrorists were hijacking or blowing up Israeli jets with frightening frequency. The murder of the Israeli Olympic team was still fresh in the world mind. So EL AL jets remained parked on the tarmac, ringed by security, and passengers walked out onto the tarmac to board a special vehicle which would convey them to the plane and lift them up to the level of the door for entry. We were searched and passed through metal detectors - again, in the days before this became commonplace in all American airports. Before we even boarded the plane we all had the strange feeling that we were entering a foreign - and much less secure - world. And we were right.
It was mid morning by the time we disembarked at the Tel Aviv airport. My brand new passport was stamped for the first time. Someone explained that now I would not be able to enter Egypt to see the pyramids, or any other Arab country, now that I had an Israeli stamp in my passport. Israel would allow entry if you had a stamp from an Arab country in your passport, but not the other way around. Without any intention on my part, I was already choosing sides.
Yael gathered us into a bus, maybe twenty altogether. It was the standard type of bus you see everywhere in Israel, painted the national colors of white and sky blue, and here I saw another reminder that we lived in violent times: the windows had armor plating cut with gun sites, plates which were currently swung up inside and hooked to the ceiling. We drove out of the airport and after a few minutes of travel I noticed that we were waved through a roadblock. I learned later that Israel issues different license plates for their two populations. The Jews have a light blue license plate, and the Arabs have a dark green license plate, and the roadblocks usually only stop the Arab vehicles. It may not be fair, but it is eminently practical. Still, one can see how the Palestinians feel themselves to be treated as second class citizens in what they perceive to be their own land.
I was delighted to find sparkling water - we call it club soda or seltzer in New York - coming right out of the tap. This was all the refreshment I needed. I guessed that the community had to create their own water supply anyway, so they customized it to suit themselves by adding carbonation. It was common practice to flavor this water with a few drops of syrup, which were readily available in dozens of flavors. This was much cheaper than soda pop as we know it in America and it offered much more variety and it was better for you, too. Dinner, like all meals, was very informal. You sat where you liked and cleaned up after yourself. The cooking and the cleaning up, like every task on the kibbutz, was performed by members of the community, including the volunteers. I was never quite clear how tasks were assigned. For my part, they said do it, and I did it, until they later said do this, and I did that. I was on the lowest rung of the ladder.
My first job was my hardest. There was a leak somewhere in a length of water pipe, but they didn't know where. I was to dig a trench and expose the pipe, starting at one point and working until I found the leak. They gave me a shovel and left me alone under the hot sun. The air was still, no one was around, there were no sounds other than the buzzing of passing insects and the sound of my shovel in the dry sandy dirt. At least this was real, honest work, and no one could question from the results that I had been working. At noon everyone quits for the day. We were free to do what we liked for the rest of the day, but to stay on the kibbutz. I washed, ate a kosher lunch (which was very similar to breakfast), took a shower, and then joined everyone at the pool. Yes, Givat Haslosha had a beautiful olympic size swimming pool, and all of the younger set was there.
I continued to walk the fence, to the front gates and the welcoming lawn and the flower arrangements that first greet visitors to Givat Haslosha. Sprinklers run in the evenings to keep the grass green. Trees and shrubs have been planted everywhere. Israel is not exactly a desert - there is plenty of water if it is used conservatively, much of it underground, and rainfall is seasonal. The trouble is that this land has been abused and ignored for centuries, and the ground-cover vegetation has simply dried up and blown away. A great forest of mighty trees once covered the whole land. Phoenician sailors cut down some of these trees to build their fleet of ships, and trees were part of the annual tribute to conquering empires like Egypt and Assyria. But over the centuries army after army destroyed the cities and cut down the forests and soon they were no more. Today it is an amusing anecdote, that everywhere an Israeli goes he plants a tree. They are literally rebuilding this land from the roots up.
The water tower was made of galvanized aluminum and came in a kit, manufactured in the USA. They figured that Americans would have a better chance of figuring out the assembly instructions than Israelis, for whom English is a second language. As you might expect, we had a plenty hard time trying to match slot A to fold B using these frustrating instructions in our native language. We were given an open machine shed that had a roof but no walls in which to work, and tools, and then we were left to ourselves.
Life meanwhile fell into a routine pattern. Breakfast, work, lunch, pool, lounge and socialize, dinner, free time and bed. Every other day we had a class. I spent some of my free time carving a walking stick, a shepherd's staff, with spirals down the shaft and an animal head carved at the top. I had brought with me from America a manuscript I had been working on, so I spent much of my free time writing.
We dressed in sneakers or sandals and shorts. The fields were too wet for clothes, having just been watered by the sprinkler system, and everything we wore was bound to be soaked. The sun tanned our skins, while the lifting and carrying and locking of each length of pipe pumped the muscles of our upper bodies and our legs. The wet soil and leaves and puddles cooled our bodies. I felt strong, healthy, alive, close to the earth! With each member of the team working on several full lengths of sprinklers, we could swiftly move the whole irrigation system forward a hundred yards throughout every field. We were fast, because we had a good incentive: breakfast!
With the new pipes in place the water was turned on and we piled into the trucks. A short ride brought us to a little Arab eating-place. We always sat outside under the trees and we almost always ate the same thing, hummus, washed down with beer. It was all charged to the kibbutz, and though we didn't abuse it too much, I had the distinct feeling I was with a pack of boys set loose with dad's credit card and indulging themselves a little.
There are also "sefardic" Jews, who look like Arabs, and have generally lived in Northern Africa or the Middle East since the days of Abraham. Some of them wear robes and headdresses and tend their flocks just like their Arab neighbors, but they practice Judaism and trace their ethnic roots to David and Solomon, as do the ashkanazi. At root they are the same people, the Chosen People. In addition, there are the indigenous people of Palestine, who follow the religion of Islam, but are not citizens of Egypt or Jordan or Syria - they belong to this land, and nowhere else. The Israeli government represents all these people, in all their flavors.
In the evenings men in their 50's and 60's, dressed in nice but casual clothes, slowly walked the city streets of Tel Aviv with uzi machine guns slung over their shoulders. They were members of the Home Guard (I don't remember what the exact translation was) and they patrolled the streets in pairs. I suppose they acted as a deterrent. I wouldn't have wanted to see them forced to go into action. It was odd seeing men who looked like my father strolling along with guns, but no one paid them any special attention. Lest we begin to think we were sitting in a Parisian outdoor cafe, this common sight reminded us.
At the pool and in the evenings, when I wasn't writing, I spent time with my fellow Americans, the other international volunteers, and the kibbutznik kids. The kids were robust and healthy and endlessly interested in Americans and America, which was to them a wonderful Shangri La. Over time special friendships started to form. With Ari, for instance, the young Israeli man who gave me the cap, and later arranged to have me assigned to the cotton fields team. With the beautiful buxom blonde German girl, who reminded me of the beer hall girl on the St. Pauli Girl beer label. With my roommates Josh and Ben, and with all of the American girls. There were two in particular who became especially close.
One of the things I like best about the Israelis is that they are realists. When faced with a tough situation, they just tough it out. They call their kids "sabra," "prickly pear" - a tough desert fruit that is thorny on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. If everyone on a kibbutz was not equal, at least every member knew he/she was needed; there are no "throw-away" people in Israel. From birth through death, you are a member of the collective, and the collective takes care of its own. You own nothing, yet you own everything the collective owns. The members of my cotton field team were working in their cotton fields. When Prime Minister Ben Gurion retired from public life he went home to his kibbutz, where he was just the guy who helped out in the library and sat next to you in the dining hall. Can you imagine any of our American Presidents regaining such a degree of humility and humanity?
I got used to plain white soap and toilet paper that resembled 00 sandpaper. I grew to endure the same meals of bread and hard boiled eggs, but never lost my relish for sparkling water out of the tap (nothing quite clears a dusty throat like all those clean tiny bubbles!). I had no ties, no decisions to make, and few belongings. I did simple work and then had nothing more expected of me, and everything I needed was provided. I was tanned and buffed and in the prime of life. If I chose, I could eat of the lotus and spend the rest of my days here.
I wandered alone through the olive trees, which still stand on the Mount of Olives, where Judas betrayed Jesus on the night following the Last Supper. At the top of the Mount is Hebrew University, which was one of the few portions of Jerusalem that remained in Jewish hands after the city was partitioned in the 1948. The rest of the city was retaken during the Six-Day War in 1967, using Hebrew University as the launching point. The city is still divided into "quarters" such as the Arab Quarter and the Jewish Quarter, but there is free passage between all the sections of the city. We were advised, however, not to enter the Arab Quarter after dark.
We left Jerusalem and headed south towards Bethlehem, which remains a poor and simple Arab village. If one were expecting to see the stable where Jesus was born one would be disappointed. This is dry and dusty country, outside the Jewish sphere of influence. Just seven years ago this area was part of Palestine, not Israel. The country was left oddly shaped when it was formed in 1948, because Israel was not formed as much as taken. Everything was contested, fighting broke out everywhere. In the end, wherever each party held influence became ratified as the official borders of the new State of Israel. So Jerusalem was connected to the coast by a long narrow corridor of territory, surrounded north, east and south by Palestine.
We spent that night at a rather new kibbutz on the northern edge of the Negev Desert. The philosophy was that possession is nine tenths of the law. That is, we were entering land that was reclaimed by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967, and the government knew that someday the rights to this land would come into question. So against that day they were building settlements and moving in pioneers and literally making the desert bloom again. Who has more of a right to this land, they will say: the Arabs, who let the winds blow the topsoil away and leave it a wasteland, or the Jews, who have made their homes here and have brought the land back to life? We had seen the irrigation lines for half an hour before we reached the settlement and it is true, they were creating an oasis in the desert.
We stayed in a moderate hotel, and had a dinner of schnitzel, seemingly the only meat served in Israel. The next day we rented snorkels and flippers and swam among the coral and exotic fish in all their vibrant colors. Tourism is the principle industry in Elat, though there is still some working of the ancient mines, and the tourists come primarily for the beautiful clear turquoise water and the coral reefs. We spent the day splashing around in the warm water, protected from sunburn by two months worth of tanning.
Along the way we stopped by some excavations thought to be the ancient city of Jericho, whose walls came a-tumbling down at the command of Joshua's rams horns, per the Book of Exodus. Some scholars think this was the first city ever built by humans on the planet. It lies near the southern end of the Dead Sea, almost 1300 feet below sea level. The Dead Sea is so dense with salt and minerals that a body just floats on the surface. Salt is a major industry today, as it was thousands of years ago. Some of our folks swam in the Dead Sea but I didn't - it is a strange copper green color and smells like a mineral spring.
The ramp had been build by the Roman soldiers of Vespasian, and on top of the plateau was the ancient palace of Herod the Great, Masada. It took four years for those soldiers to build this ramp to the top of the plateau, and only an hour or two to climb it. We stood on the plateau, waiting for the sun to rise. The valley lay far below our feet, the flat gray expanse running off to the right and left, framed on the far side by rugged peaks still black in shadow. The eastern sky was turning pink and gold and coral. The Dead Sea was a silver pool below us. Jerusalem was not far behind us, west of the mountain range upon which we now stood. But Masada stands alone, like a finger pointing to the sky.
We reached a series of deep pools of clear, clean water that was cold, but not too cold to take a swim. The pools fed into one another in a string of small waterfalls. We had reached the mouth of the Jordan River. It is a natural spring, which bubbles up out of the earth, and waters the valley through which we had just come. This is as close to a perfect, ideallic setting that I have ever seen, and not just personally -- this beats anything I have seen in movies or magazines as well, and we had it all completely to ourselves. I imagined Adam and Eve swimming here. I imagined John baptizing people in this river further down the valley near the Dead Sea. Floating in this natural, pristine alcove I felt more content and centered than I have ever felt before or since.
Our bus took us up through the Golan Heights to the border and then around to the west again. We didn't pass a single sign of life. The gun emplacements have been removed and no one lives up here - it is kept as a buffer zone between Israel and Syria. Never again would guns be pointing down into the farmers' homes. We went as far as the border because it was possible to see Damascus on a clear day, and we did, we saw a tiny white city sitting among rippled brown mountain folds.
We continued on our way westward, towards the ancient city of Acre, but along the way we stopped briefly at Nazareth and I was surprised to find it relatively unaffected by centuries of tourism. I suppose living in America I expected to see maximum hype: "See the bed our Savior slept in! Taste the water before it became wine! Hurry, hurry, step right up! Low low admission!" I think they have marked certain houses as the house of Joseph and Mary and the house where the wedding feast took place (where the water was turned into wine) but I doubt these places can be identified with any genuine certainty. Generally, though, Nazareth remains a small, poor, primarily Arab village. I have a hazy idea that the street we drove on was not even paved.
The outstanding feature of Haifa is a high, steep hill which stands in the middle of the city. This city is the home of the Sufi faith, and we visited their headquarters, located on the hill, about halfway up. We next took a tram to the very top of the hill, which is still occupied by an ancient Arab village. The view is spectacular. The streets of the dusty village are very narrow, the walls made of mud and stone, everything tan, and there seemed to be no level surfaces anywhere in the village. The only industry was the small store that sold us Coca-Colas, and we seemed to be the only outsiders in the village. Coca-Cola is sold in Israel, but not in any Arab countries. You see the familiar Coke symbol advertised everywhere, but of course the name "Coca-Cola" is written in Hebrew characters. Conversely, Pepsi is sold only in Arab countries but is not sold in Israel. Petty instances like this help demonstrate to what silly levels this region takes their animosity. One would laugh if it weren't based in so much misunderstanding, hate and tragedy.
An archeologist met us and explained in detail what were seeing. We were on the site of an ancient Canaanite town. This town is mentioned in the Bible, and was one of the cities that were conquered by the Hebrews when they invaded this Land of Milk and Honey as promised to them by Yahweh. We were able to see the layers that represented the foundations of the Canaanite city, then the layer of rubble, then the walls and foundations of the new Hebrew city which was built on the ruins of the pagan city, then the layer of rubble when this city too was destroyed. He pointed out one place where we could see how the stones from an earlier building had been used to build the next structure on this site - we saw some carving which indicated that one stone had been placed upside down. We learned about the methods they use for plotting the trenches and how they carefully label the extractions, and a general outline of the science of archeology.
Most of the group had relatives living in Israel, and planned to spend some time with them. Yael invited me to spend the two weeks with her in Tel Aviv, but I declined her kind offer. Rachel had a distant cousin living north of us, so we agreed that she would accompany me to Jerusalem, and then I would escort her safely north to her cousin's.
Rachel and I dressed like kibbutzniks - no blue jeans to give us away - and as long as we kept our mouths closed we should blend in with the other Israelis using public transportation. We made it down to Jerusalem and found ourselves a very cheap room in a street just north of the old city. We toured the sights, visited the Arab bazaar, and ate local foods. The next day Rachel said she felt sick, and needed to take to her bed. We weren't alarmed. We knew we had the American Express office to fall back on if things got serious, even the American Embassy. I took care of her, brought back food and entertained her with stories. The bulk of each day I spent wandering around in the old city; most of the streets are too narrow for vehicles. I could speak enough Hebrew to get by, and everyone spoke a little English. I knew I was safe enough - no one would bother a strong young man who had no display of wealth.
I made it to the kibbutz and pushed onwards, hoping to get a sight of Damascus. A ride took me half the way there and then veered off onto one of the few crossroads. I continued on foot, content to be alone. Night was falling and I was in the middle of nowhere. I was not concerned. I had a canteen and food and even a small mess kit to cook in, bought at one of the bazaars. But there is a curfew on the Golan Heights -anyone caught after dark might be mistaken for a terrorist and shot. Fortunately, tiny sunken bomb shelters line the highway every few miles, so as it grew dark I crawled into one, built a small straw fire, cooked because I had the ability to cook, rather than the desire to eat, and spent the night in my tidy little shelter. If any patrols drove by I slept too soundly to hear it. The next morning I took the first ride I could find off the Heights - I didn't want to risk getting stuck up there again.
Between hitching and buses I made it back to Tel Aviv. I couldn't afford to do much, so I spent my days on the beach and bumming around. I really felt at loose ends. It was more difficult to cook for myself here in the city, but I couldn't afford to eat out all the time. I spent the first night in a multi-level parking garage on the beach. It was dark and getting late, and as I was walking up the ramp between levels I heard swift and startled movement around the corner. I had disturbed someone who was probably more afraid of me than I was of him or her. I said in my friendliest voice, "Shalom!" "Peace!" And retreated to find my own little bit of sanctuary.
And somehow we were invited to this big swinging Israeli party, full of people, all of them natives, and somehow we found a way to drive up there and drive back. The Israeli kids have an "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die" philosophy, and though even they will admit that the phrasing is overly dramatic, they recognize that in a sense it is a working credo. I never saw anyone get really drunk in my three months here. But they laugh and flirt and mix like Europeans, even to the hokey music they happened to think is "groovy." The American girls were a great hit with the Israeli boys, as one might expect, but the boys were always very respectful. More of that "old world" flavor. We saw the sun come up - I thought of the cotton fields which were also right here at the airport - and still we chattered and laughed and sipped Gold Star beer. There were so many people we oozed onto the balcony and into the hallway.