Northern Israel, January 1972
It was the first day of a new life in a new place.
I had volunteered to come work at the farm with great hopes for a new start, away from the alienation, war, drugs and lost idealism of my home country. So it was with much anticipation and enthusiasm that I arrived at Kibbutz Dan that morning, only to be welcomed with no particular warmth.
After a cursory introduction and brief tour by the Head of Volunteers, I was pretty much left on my own for the rest of the day. Wanting to see more of my new home, I wandered over to the kibbutz (communal farm) dining room and went inside.
I said hello to the first kibbutznik I met, a fat woman in a faded pink dress, and was promptly ignored, as I was by the second, a young man in a blue shirt and shorts. Somewhat perplexed I walked over to one of the dining tables where a rather dignified-looking, gray haired gentleman sat, surrounded by a stack of newspapers; the English language editions of the Jerusalem Post. Somewhat cautiously and in my meekest voice I said “Shalom” and asked, in English, if I could have a copy.
After a bit of “stink eye” the old gent reluctantly handed over the newspaper like it was his youngest grandchild. In a heavily accented version of my own language he asked,
“You are the new volunteer, yes?” I smiled, happy and eager to finally engage someone in conversation.
“Yes, my name is Elliot,” I said, “I just arrived.”
He looked briefly at, and then ignored, my outstretched hand.
“What kind of name is Elliot? You need a good Hebrew name!” and before I could answer, “You are from New York, yes?”
“Yes, from Brooklyn,” I said proudly.
“I will tell you something, young man. Of all the people who come here to volunteer, those we like least are the Americans. And of all the Americans those we like least are from New York.” And with that he turned away from me. I stood and stared for a moment before I realized that I had been dismissed.
I left the dining room, paper in hand, and looked around for a nice shady spot to read. It was a warm, sunny January morning and the many shade trees in and around the kibbutz offered perfect spots for quiet reading. I chose a tall magnolia surrounded with thick grass just outside the dinning hall and, back against the rough bark, began to turn the pages. A moment later, a shadow formed a silhouette on the page before me and, as I looked up, a hand tore the newspaper from my grasp.
“This is not for Volunteers,” the glaring, sun browned man growled gruffly before walking away. My homeland, I thought, full of Nazi’s. I smiled at this irony while beginning to be concerned about the choice I had made. Well, let’s look around a bit more, they can’t all be like that.
It was a truly beautiful place. Founded in the lushest part of Israel, the kibbutz had been settled in a wetland called the Hula Valley in the 1930s. Fed by the icy Banias River tumbling down from snow-capped Mount Hermon, the swamps had been drained with great effort by the first generation of settlers who had turned the area into rich farmlands, citrus orchards and fishponds.
In 1972, just five years after the Six Day War, the rusted remains of Syrian tanks were everywhere. A deserted bunker, formerly occupied by Syrian machine gun emplacements, stood right across the road from the kibbutz’s main gate, mute testimony to the absolute terror these people must have faced on a daily basis before that war. Perhaps these people were so traumatized by their history they were unable to be friendly, to laugh, or to appreciate what they had.
As I continued exploring I came to an area where the livestock was kept. Some forty-odd years after its founding, the kibbutz was beginning to move away from the agricultural basis of their economy and into a sort of early industrial age. There was a brand new plastics factory now and another new enterprise, a trout farm. But they still retained a major agrarian aspect; tending orchards and fishponds, growing vegetables, and husbanding a small herd of milk cows, a couple of bulls, and a lot of chickens.
Exploring the cow pens I noticed an enormous mountain of dirt, at least thirty feet high, piled up against an out building. It afforded an excellent opportunity to obtain an overview of the entire area. I stepped up and placed my boot about a foot above the bottom of the pile, and began to climb. The pile seemed stable enough to take another step upward; and another; then another. All went well until I got about two-thirds of the way up, about twenty feet, when suddenly a loud crack sounded beneath me. I looked down to see that, beneath two or three inches of thick crust, the pile was soft and mushy. Much to my dismay, I was sinking into it; much to my disgust, my nose told me that this was not a pile of dirt, but a pile of manure.
I quickly turned to climb back down but only succeeded in sinking faster. As I scrambled down the pile, the manure soon was up to my ankles, then my knees, and all to soon, up to my waist. I was sinking down to the center of the pile faster than I was climbing out. The horrible image of drowning in shit crossed my mind and I redoubled my efforts to get down the slope. I sunk even faster. Finally, with one tremendous downward thrust, I burst from the pile, falling face down on terra firma, feet stuck in the pile, covered from head to toe in the thickest, smelliest, evilest, vilest, stickiest crap imaginable.
It was then that I noticed the three kibbutzniks standing to one side. I don’t know how long they had been watching me, but I couldn’t help but notice them; they were laughing so hard they were falling all over each other. Not looking at them, I drew myself up straight as an arrow to my fullest height, and, with as much dignity as I could muster, marched straight into the communal shower. Without stripping off my clothes, I stood beneath the showerhead trying to wash the awfulness of the experience from my mind and body. After half an hour I began to peel articles of clothing, like pieces of my self-respect, from my body.
It took several hours to clean everything up, several days to get the smell from my mind, and several months before any of the kibbutzniks could look at me without laughing.
But I learned three important lessons from this experience:
– Kibbutzniks do have a sense of humor,
– Climbing random piles can be dangerous, and
– To accept my new Hebrew name which, loosely translated, meant Shithead.