By Marvin Marcus
My sojourn in Israel was part of a longer trip that I took during a year’s leave of absence from my teaching position at Hagerstown Junior College in western Maryland, a trip that began in November 1973 and ended in August 1974. Motivated in part by wanderlust and also by the more pressing need to distance myself from a difficult romantic relationship with a woman whom I’ll subsequently refer to as L, I equipped myself with a backpack, my Leica M4 camera, a bag of film canisters, travelers checks, and basic hippy paraphernalia and set out for Europe and parts unknown.
Had my first kitchen experience this morning. Much rinsing of dishes. Not unpleasant, though. Rinsing somehow seems to suit me. Avramele, the taskmaster, reminds me of Jimmy Finlayson. Goes on and on about disorder, wasted effort, chaos. Eric, from Baltimore (student at U of Chicago; he has a fondness for Leicas), was my mentor. [Note: I was traveling with my trusty Leica M4 rangefinder camera. As for Eric— no recollection.]
In the late afternoon, there was a music session for the kibbutz school kids, out on the lawn— guitar, recorder. They then adjourned for Hanukkah candle lighting and singing.
After dinner. The Dimona crowd has been continuing their revel— Jimi Hendrix tapes and other tomfoolery. They were screaming at each other as of 5 a.m. I walked through the nearby wadis [dry stream beds] today, looking for evidence of the alleged abandoned movie set for a film that featured Gregory Peck [??], to which the kibbutzniks supposedly drove their tractors until recently.
Somewhat frustrated with my communicative skills, I requested a Hebrew language tutor tonight— specified ‘advanced,’ but would be happy with ‘intermediate.’ This was motivated in part by a gnawing sense of not belonging. I recently found myself sitting alone, in the midst of the kibbutz chevra, recalling Melford Spiro’s Children of the Kibbutz, which cautioned against the danger of privacy and insularity— the evil of egocentrism and the threat it posed to community.
Then again, Ezra [?] mentioned only last night that privacy and individuality have their positive aspects, which include a more comfortable living standard for the kibbutzniks. In short, the old standard of austerity and self-denial is passé.
Ezra is an interesting guy. He makes a good cup of Turkish coffee. He loves jazz but doesn’t want to play anything until he’s had a chance to feel us out first. He’s forty-seven, having made aliyah twenty-one years ago— a committed Zionist at an early age. Ezra claims to have no regrets about anything. Sporting his yellow jacket, he looks a lot like the redoubtable Professor Irwin Cory. Marie and I were very tired, but I managed to ask him a lot of questions, which he may or may not have regarded as interesting.
As for the wadis— closer in to the kibbutz, they were far from pristine, littered as they were with kibbutz trash, dead heifers, and assorted bones. At a further distance, though, the big irrigation project became apparent— lush green vistas, which I’m told will become an Israeli national park in several years. The kibbutz has been enlisted to contribute to the project.
So here I am in mid-wadi. At a certain point the kibbutz was no longer visible, and I found myself alone in this labyrinth of ravines. I had come straight from my work detail, had my heavy shoes on, and was good and tired. And so I found a likely spot on the grassy ground of the park-to-be and promptly fell asleep. It was chilly when I awoke. A black spider was climbing up my arm. I got up and wandered back in the direction of the kibbutz, climbing the hills and enjoying the sunset. Two Kibbutzniks on horseback rode past. The sun set, impressively, between two trees overlooking the wadis.
I spotted many birds today— an owl, some hunting hawks, wrens, and assorted others. A lot of dead birds, too. Out of morbid curiosity, I picked some of them up, inspected them, ascertained that they were in fact dead, then dropped them on the ground. And that was that.
I’d wanted to call home today. After all, it’s the Big Day at Marcus Pharmacy, and the whole family will have been on hand to help the last-minute Christmas shoppers buy everything in sight and help enrich the family coffers.
Sunset changes everything. Back at the kibbutz, Cornelius was stoking the heater. Outside and all around, the native sabras were whooping it up. I felt strangely alone and private and uptight at dinner. Wanted to better understand what ‘kibbutz’ is all about. Is this really a commune, whatever that might mean? Are the hard-core kibbutzniks a breed apart? What do they really think about this place? About themselves? How can they live with each other in such close proximity and remain happy and fulfilled in this cage for five, ten, twenty years or more? What does it do to you? What do you have to invest in it in order to have it make sense— and to be satisfying and gratifying?
I’m the outsider, waiting to be invited in and taught how to live among others and feel truly connected to them. I share a lot with Howard, who would talk about having to await ‘cues for action.’ [Unsure who this Howard is.] Howard has his Dylan cap, his tales of parental trauma. He wants to know how to work it all out, how to get a sense of where he is heading. Don’t we all!
Well, the German volunteers will show up on January 5th. Until then, it’s us and the Israelis, picking potatoes.
(July 26, 2019)
DEC 24, 1973 (Continued)
Re-read Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge and continue to be astounded by Eddie. A man truly to be mourned. And how did Marco manage to pick up that chair? Meanwhile, I’ve been writing to people back home, telling them that I’m seeing hummingbirds, a lot of hummingbirds. And all the while I remain painfully aware of my self-centeredness— consumed as I am by assorted pains and angsts, joys, and the prospect of spotting birds— the ones that hum and others as well. I cry out, in silence, for recognition.
It crosses my mind that certain people find themselves in kibbutzim the way women ‘of old’ would find their way into nunneries— a ‘lofty vocation’ actually rooted in pain, self-doubt, and discontent. I see myself among their number. Can one truly be an ideologue without the psychic baggage? I think of myself as an egg not wanting to be scrambled. Christmas Eve here, surrounded by palm trees and bright sun. Out in the larger world, there’s a blizzard— in New York, to be specific. The Pope is showering. Wafers are being assembled. For his part, Cornelius is having trouble with a letter he’s trying to write. He’s screaming at the Israelis. He’s tearing up paper.
Christmas Eve in Israel— just another Monday in this Judaic land. There’s a book fair at the Moadon. [?] There’s the usual exchange of gory prisoner-of-war accounts; hair pulling, cigarettes encroaching upon noses, isolation, the breaking of bones, the cracking of toes. [I am confused by this.] Just another day. The frequency of sonic booms has diminished. Am reminded of the kibbutz air-raid shelter, whose décor is positively psychedelic. Wonder about the shelters in Guernica, or Dresden, prior to their destruction. Thanks to Vonnegut, we know of one such shelter in Dresden— the famous slaughterhouse. What of the others? What can they shelter you from, when the bombs rain down mercilessly?
The Day of Days. Yom huledet sameach to Yoshke, the King of Kings. No movie tonight. Didn’t call home. Didn’t ask them to send a pair of sneakers and binoculars, which I sure could use. Continued my dish-washing duties today. Wash, then rinse. Just tuned in to Radio Cairo, which offers the only authentic Mood Music on the radio dial. I must be in the mood for it.
Returned to the wadi today. Sunset was especially beautiful. I’m told by Joe (the Sephardic chaver who’s a geologist and oversees planning for the park project) that it’s the biggest wadi in the Northern Negev. Lots of excavations going on.
I love roaming around the wadi. Birds everywhere. Over four hundred species in Israel, mostly migratory. The local wren is not a true wren, according to Bimban, the kibbutz birder-extraordinaire. Bimbam is into nature and bird photography. He craves a 28 millimeter wide-angle lens and needs a new tele-converter for his Spotmatic camera and its 500-millimeter telephoto lens. Alas, the duty on imported camera equipment is over a hundred percent. These are luxury items.
Bob [?] is another kibbutznik birder, and we’re planning on a Shabbat expedition to the wadi in search of avian rarities. Meanwhile, I’m eating like a Turk!
Bimbam says that the hummingbirds we thought we saw weren’t actual hummingbirds, which he claims are native only to the Americas. Other disappointments: the scheduled movie has once again failed to show up. And to top it off, Cornelius’s soap was stolen today. This led to his removing all his toilet articles from the bathroom and doing god-only-knows-what with them. The Dimona group leaves tomorrow, after a week’s worth of potato picking and their earnest emulation of 1966 American teen subculture. No cussing in Hebrew, the holy tongue— only English and Arabic will do. Then you can let ‘er rip. Which they do. They were running amok and blasting Jimi Hendrix tapes pretty much all night. We tried screaming them into silence, but to no avail. Nan [?] went out in her nightgown, trying to subdue the mob, but to no avail. Yesterday, I went to Be’er Sheva with Nan and Howie. (Howie happens to be a nephew of Rabbi Leibowitz in Baltimore, whose daughter I was known to consort with for a period of time. Howie is familiar with the Montreal Jewish community and knows my rabbi cousin, Sid Shoham, who has a pulpit there.) We went there to do English tutoring in a bomb shelter in one of the many ‘Eastern’ housing developments (shikunim). There’s a real need there, on many levels. They’ve settled large numbers of immigrants in the new shikunim. I had a group of around twelve kids, who knew next to no English. Could hardly recite the alphabet. A seemingly mentally-defective kid would come at regular intervals and make a ruckus. Not much I could do about it. I would have preferred working with them to help improve my Hebrew. There were some very attractive girls hanging around, and this inspired Howie to relate a recent affair of the heart. A comely local miss has taken a liking to the boy, and he’s already visited the family on several occasions. I tried to explain the gravity of the situation to Howie. It’s tantamount to engagement, given local morés. He’s on a major ego-trip, though. In addition to his physical appeal, he’s quite proud of his prowess on that Yamaha guitar of his. The thing is— he can barely produce a single chord on it.
The city is a welcome change of pace, though. Kibbutz Urim most certainly does not register the pulse of this nation. I’m thinking of making regular visits to Be’er Sheva— maybe twice weekly— to the bomb-shelter schoolhouse. Meanwhile, I start in on tree pruning as of next week. It’s supposed to be a desirable assignment— a 6:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. workday.
Last night, people got together for some folk music in the social hall. I was totally dragged out, though, and instead took in a little birthday party that Nan organized, complete with wine and real pretzels. Good mix of people there, including Frankie, who’s in charge of the boiler that’s recently been a problem. Tonight is Nomi’s birthday, but we couldn’t make it to Maslul, on account of the work schedule.
Some kibbutzniks are being called up for army service, and some are returning. Not much sense of any national emergency hereabouts. But there’s a glut of election ads and propaganda. Bobby [?] tried explaining the makeup of the major party coalitions. Seems pretty basic, but I didn’t pay much attention. Not my cup of tea. Urim is supposedly not very politically-oriented, as kibbutzim go, but there’s no shortage of private opinion and strong feelings. Urim is evidently known as one of the most liberal kibbutzim with respect to individual rights and privileges, and policy regarding childrearing. Kids don’t leave home until they’re fourteen. By way of contrast, Bruno Bettelheim’s classic Children of the Dream was based on six weeks spent at a kibbutz that took kids almost literally from birth and ‘communalized’ them. There is simply no such doctrinaire ideological or social agenda here. “Live and Let Live” has the status of a mantra at Urim. Be that as it may, dishes still have to get cleaned, chickens need to be inoculated, and eggs must be boiled.
Completed the week’s kitchen assignment yesterday— which was also the final day of Avremele’s tyrannical control over the kitchen. He’s moved on to the chicken house. Avremele’s son was killed in the war, so his behavior is understandable. Still, it’s very freaky. The end of a tough week. Not much enjoyment to be had in the repeated lifting of trays and filling of cups. Surrounded by women baking and bullshitting. Marie and Nan blindfolded me and took me to the laundry room. I’ve been playing more piano of late. I’ll be returning to the orchard for picking, then more pruning. Spoke with Ezra about scheduling more sessions of the Be’er Sheva tutorial. He’s reluctant, though, to make arrangements. Have since learned that the kibbutz isn’t especially committed to such ‘regional outreach’ programs— especially as they involve Be’er Sheva, which is at some distance. Evidently, such humanitarian moves are at best tolerated and not at all encouraged. This is unfortunate and disconcerting.
Went to Carmi’s for Friday dinner. They served up a very tasty turkey schnitzel. Turkey is cheap, hence it’s the meat of choice. Beef is virtually non-existent on the kibbutz bill of fare. After dinner we watched TV— a Canadian ballet production, with Albinoni accompaniment. Then a Bette Davis film, Little Foxes. Really enjoyable! We then headed over to the dining room for a Hanukkah party. Low key— warm wine and rock music. Pretty tired, but still managed to stop by Nan’s apartment. Frankie was there, and we shared notes about binoculars and birds. There was mention of a Syrian woodpecker spotted by the pool, and Nan proceeded to spit up. Some unkind and tasteless comments ensued. [?]
It had been arranged with Bob Levin to go birdwatching the next morning (Saturday) at 6:00 in the wadi. Alas, this was not to be. I slept ‘til 9:30. At breakfast, Carmi notified us that his daughter would be inviting us on a hike to the wadi, complete with lunch. Fine with me. I went to Frankie’s to borrow his 7 x 35 binoculars. Frankie plays the flute and has a good record collection. He’s the kibbutz boilermaker. The hike and lunch were fun. Went with Randy (volunteer) and four girls— one from Wisconsin. Endured a lot of giggling. We found a nice spot in the park, with a spring, some interesting rocks, and a smattering of birds.
Returned to the kibbutz just in time to miss the bus to Maslul. So I hoofed it. Learned that Shabtai is splitting up his sheep. There’s been a falling-out with Rafi, his partner. This means that Paul will have less work to do. Talk of ‘Sylvester’— the Australian new-year’s celebration. It coincides with Election Day. Saw the Hanai family, who were very happy to see us. We stayed for dinner. A beautiful family. We’d arranged to use Rina’s car to get us back to the kibbutz, but this plan failed to materialize. So we hitched back. Others went to Ofakim to see a film starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. The road was pitch black. We’d hoped to catch a glimpse of Kohoutek, which has put in an appearance in our neck of the solar system and has been touted as a big-deal comet. People have been getting up at 4:00 a.m. to try to spot the thing, but’s it’s been cloudy. Maybe it’s a hoax. Maybe it’s disintegrated. Who knows. . .
Marie received a letter from her parents in California, sent care of Maslul— in a mere five days! Christmas was hardly mentioned in Maslul. Paul was peeved, and so was Marie. Returned to the kibbutz and went straight to the library for more books— a Dali autobiography, The Little Prince, etc. Went to the moadon [clubhouse facility], just in time to take in a bris. Lots of booze, which was most welcome. Chatted with Bimban about focal lengths and wagtails and lapwings. I’d spotted him in the wadi, armed with his 500 mm reflex telephoto lens, photographing butterflies and birds. He’s a serious birder and promises to show me his slides and his bird books. Then again, he’s known not to follow through.
Meir invited me to the kibbutz general membership meeting, and so I went to check it out. The main item on the agenda was a motion to move to a cheaper brand of cigarette to be distributed free of charge to kibbutz members. This would result, so it was noted, in an annual cost saving of around $10,000. Sounds considerable. But what surprised me was the sparse attendance. I learned that the official quorum is a mere twenty-five members, and that of the roughly two hundred members, only around thirty or forty show up at these meetings. “Such is kibbutz democracy,” Meir opined. Most folks stay home and watch TV. Sad state of affairs.
The meeting was dominated by ho-hum parliamentary bullshit, and I sensed an evident pride among some in doing things the right (i.e., tedious) way. Many of the women attendees preferred to concentrate on their knitting. The great cigarette debate ended in a vote in favor of the cheaper cigarettes.
November 6, 2019