By Miriam Edelson
When I picked up the telephone in the kitchen of my parents’ house that afternoon in 1975, I had no idea I’d be delivered such devastating news. A boy I was close to had been killed in a freak tractor accident the day before on the kibbutz in Israel where I had recently lived. His name was Gilles and he had come to the kibbutz with a group of young people from France. He was my good friend during the four months I had spent there, less than a year earlier. My heart broke when I heard the sombre words spoken over the telephone line. I was eighteen years old.
In 1974, just after the Yom Kippur War, I had made arrangements to visit Israel and work on a kibbutz. I did not come from a religious background, but several of my friends had been to Israel and it was like a rite of passage for our crowd. I arranged with my high school to leave six weeks before the end of term in order to make my trip. I had very good marks and the school agreed there could be a lot of valuable learning in this kind of travel.
At that time, I didn’t have a critique of the Israeli government. It was before the Intifadas. I don’t think I thought much about the plight of the Palestinians; the issue wasn’t on my seventeen-year-old radar. No, I was looking for adventure. I took ten Hebrew lessons to get a base in the language and off I went.
My parents had accepted my plans to travel and work on a kibbutz. It was meant to be a six-week period and then I’d return to Canada and take up the job I’d been looking forward to as a summer camp counselor for young boys north of Toronto.
I flew to Tel Aviv and found my way to an office that coordinated international volunteers for the kibbutzim. The gentleman there assigned me to Beit Keshet, House of the Rainbow, in the shadow of Mt. Tabor near Nazareth. I traveled to the bus station and found one which would take me to a point close by the kibbutz. A few hours later, I walked the mile or so in to the community. It was scorching hot and I felt the weight of my backpack digging into my shoulders. All I could see for miles around were fields of green plants I couldn’t identify.
Soon after I entered through the gates covered in sweat, I was met by a scrawny-looking Englishman. He was about thirty-five and offered me some hot tea. I thought he was out of his mind but he insisted that the heat from the tea would actually cool my body down. He was right. Later, he showed me to the volunteer quarters where I would sleep. There were two other girls, young women, from the British Isles sharing the stucco-covered bunkhouse.
That evening I went with them to the “cheder ochel”, the dining room, for a meal of cucumber and tomato salad, with yogurt. We would pick up the plump, ripe tomatoes and small green cucumbers from a center table, and then cut them up at our seats to make salad. I would soon learn this was the regular dinner and breakfast meal. I met some of the other volunteers that night, as well as members of the young French group that had settled on the kibbutz a few months earlier.
Gilles was one of that group. He soon became my friend. In no time, he was also the subject of my unrequited love. He had lovely long, curly, light brown hair and was fit and tanned from working in the kibbutz fields. He also played the flute beautifully. Everyone knew he planned to make a life on the kibbutz with his fiancé, who was still in France. I knew there was no chance for a love relationship, but I found him playful and charismatic and gorgeous, to boot. It did not go unnoticed that he and I were becoming good friends; nothing stays hidden for long in such a small community.
At that time, I was studying piano and could play well. There was an old clunker piano in one of the buildings and I would go there to play after a day’s work. Children started to join me in the afternoons and I taught them some tunes. Before long, their parents became aware of my piano-playing and the fact that I was Jewish. Most volunteers were not.
This led to a rather fortuitous work assignment for me. Until then, I’d worked in the kitchen and laundry, as well as the apple and lemon orchards. Working in the fruit orchards was fun as we maneuvered mechanical picking machines up and down the trees to reach the fruit. Not so the lemons, which had very sharp branches. For them, we had to wear long sleeves (even in the heat) and creep under the branches to rescue the lemons off the ground.
One night after dinner, the mother of one of my young piano buddies asked me if I’d like a special job where I’d be the only volunteer on a team of Israelis. She said it would be a great opportunity to practice my Hebrew, something I was quite interested in. I said yes, and the next morning at three a.m. I woke up and reported for duty in the cotton fields. My job was to open the leaves of cotton plants in a two-foot area to look for pests. Then I would move to a two-foot area a few rows over and repeat the exercise. I kept a notebook with my findings and handed it over at the end of each day. It was based on this investigation that the kibbutz would decide whether or not to spray the cotton fields – which were the same green fields I’d seen the day I arrived.
Our first break was at 7:00 in the morning when we went to a little hut and drank extremely strong Turkish coffee. This was a first for me and it took a while to become accustomed to its kick. Then we would return to the fields and I’d count bugs for another few hours. I listened to the radio as I worked, mostly Voice of America for the news. I don’t think I saw a newspaper the entire time I was on the kibbutz, certainly not one in English.
The cotton fields were near Arab lands where watermelon and almond trees grew. The kibbutzniks were on good terms with these Arab farmers. In the hot sun at our break, my team leader showed me how to pick the ripest watermelon off the vine and cut it open so we could eat the flesh and drink the refreshing juice. He also showed me how to pick almonds from the tree and crack them open for eating. Delicious! I have to admit it had never occurred to me before that almonds grew on trees.
There were several realizations of this type during my time on the kibbutz. Outside the door of the bunkhouse where I slept was a pomegranate tree. Who knew? We picked them and ate the colorful, sweet and tart seeds. They were so fresh and delicious, a nice addition to the steady diet of tomato and cucumber salad.
This introduction into kibbutz life away from the other volunteers brought me into contact with some of the resident sixteen-and-seventeen-year-old kibbutzniks. These young Israelis had grown up together and were like brothers and sisters. One young woman in particular, Hagar, became a very close friend. She had just turned seventeen, had light brown hair and a twin brother. She spoke perfect English and we spent a lot of time together, dissecting the world and laughing. I can still hear her splendid laugh now, fifty years later.
Hagar lived in a complex that was designed for the children of the kibbutz. As young people a year or so away from their compulsory military service, they enjoyed a fair amount of independence. All kids on the kibbutz live with their own age group. They are educated together and tend to socialize quite a bit within their cohort. I was thrilled when Hagar invited me to move in with them! It was a unique situation for the kibbutz and a very different experience than staying in the volunteer bunkhouse.
At about 4:30 each afternoon, families gathered to spend a few hours of quality time together. Parents prepared light snacks and the kids came over from the children’s houses where they slept. I was impressed by how strong the family unit seemed, even though they lived apart.
I was invited to join one family several times. The mother, Ofra, was maybe twenty years older than me. She was originally from Yemen and had beautiful dark skin and hair, with deep brown eyes. Her children were her pride and joy. When I met her, she was going through a rough patch. Her husband had left her, taking up with one of the American volunteers. While she didn’t speak English, my Hebrew was improving and we’d spend hours talking about relationships, her children and her sorrow.
Ofra was also the chief of the “economia” which was the executive part or brains of the enormous kitchen operation for the community. She did all the ordering and other tasks related to keeping meals running smoothly. It was a lot of responsibility. One of her tasks each afternoon was to pack the lunch for the “shomrim,” the guards who patrolled the kibbutz and its perimeter at night. She taught me how to make the sandwiches, package olives and cut halvah into pieces for them. I enjoyed being busy and helping made her job easier. And of course, we continued our non-stop conversations.
Around this time, as I was becoming more and more integrated into the life of the kibbutz, I made the decision to stay in Israel for the rest of the summer. It meant I had to give up my job at the summer camp. This caused my parents a great deal of consternation. They felt I had made a commitment to the camp, which I had, and that I should come home and honor it. I said no.
I was very wrapped up in my wonderful experience on the kibbutz. I was not prepared to give up My new friends, my love-interest (no matter how hopeless), and the rhythm of each day.
Eventually, I received a very heartfelt letter from my mother, explaining that I would have to prepare myself to leave in September and that, under no circumstances would there be a further extension of my time there. She understood I was enchanted by the life and maybe was falling in love with it (and someone, she intimated) but that I needed to finish my last year of high school in Toronto. I kept that letter for many years, as it was an example of how my mother loved and also directed me. My father was so choked up about my decision, fearful that he was losing me to a far-away land, that he couldn’t write to me himself.
Gilles and I continued to be friendly. Some nights we play-wrestled on the grass outside the dining room, no doubt raising a few eyebrows. The entire French group and the Israelis would play football (soccer) together in the evenings. There’s something to be said for working outside all day and then running about, chasing a ball in the evening. These were young, beautiful bodies to behold. I didn’t have much sexual experience then but I certainly appreciated what I saw.
Over the course of four months, I had a certain number of sexual encounters with these boys/men, never going “all the way” but exploring the terrain, so to speak. My mother had convinced me not to have sex until I was on the pill, and not to go on the pill until I was feeling in love with someone. It was, frankly, a bit of a Catch-22. But it didn’t stop me from experimenting. I noticed another handsome young French man who played classical guitar exquisitely. I seemed to fall for musicians.
Fortunately, Ofra was there to help me process some of these involvements. Another woman, the American, Suki, who Ofra’s husband had moved in with, also became a friend and an excellent confidante. She supported me waiting to be on the pill and into a serious sexual relationship until I met a person I could truly count upon. Given that my stay at the kibbutz was only temporary, we agreed that I was unlikely to find that kind of love there.
By the time September rolled around, I tried to ready myself psychologically to leave the kibbutz, return to finish high school and apply for university. I began to think I might like to study in Jerusalem, and return a year later. It was hard to say goodbye to my new friends and a way of life that agreed with me. A lot of outdoor activity, simple meals and many heart-to-heart conversations with women I respected and with whom I felt quite connected.
I grew up a lot in that four-month period. I’d discovered the counsel of wise women friends and experienced a kind of sexual awakening, without getting pregnant. When the excruciating phone call came that afternoon during my last year of high school to tell me that Gilles had died, a part of me died too. He’d had such promise, bright as a star and truly living his dream. To have that cut short was terrible, for him and those who surrounded and loved him. I’m glad that someone at Beit Keshet recognized that I, too, was part of his circle and reached out to include me so many miles away.
Looking back now, I see that the kind of relationships I developed with women on the kibbutz have been a constant in my life. Male partners have been important life companions, but never have they filled the emotional need I have for a different kind of connection. The sexual yearning I experienced as a young person has changed, ripened through the experience of becoming a mother and raising a family. In terms of my world view, I am now more certain of my politics and as a secular non-Zionist Jew, I am critical of the Israeli state and its treatment of Palestinians. Nonetheless, the spirit of those months I spent on the kibbutz with its vibrant sense of community and passion for a dream has never left me.
Copyright Edelson 2023