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This is assorted words about the six months I spent in Israel back in '93 and '94.
Click here if you would rather see pictures of Turkey and Israel.

In Israel I lived mainly on a kibbutz, which is sort of like a commune. People can go live there, work for food and board (and a tiny amount of money), and move on. Members live there year round. Mine was in the desert, which was just how I wanted it.

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Israel

I found the bus to my kibbutz, and made my way down. First I had to go to Beersheba, the so-called gateway to the Negev Desert, and then catch a local bus to Kibbutz Tse'elim, my new home.

By taxi, Beersheba is about half an hour's ride from Tse'elim, but by bus it's considerably longer. The problem is that any bus that would come to our little kibbutz also stops at every other little stop the entire way to the city. After two and a half hours, I was there.

The first people I met on the kibbutz were Simon and Michael. They were Ulpanists, like me. In kibbutz vocabulary, a Volunteer works, but an Ulpanist works and studies Hebrew. Simon is English, from Leeds. He was sort of a skinny guy, soft spoken, and seemed ok at first glance. He introduced me to Michael, who is French, couldn't speak a word of English, and was my new roommate.

It was pretty late, so I didn't socialize too much, just tried my best French with Michael for a while, and drifted off. I didn't have to start work for a few days, so I planned to get to know my surroundings a bit.

The first thing to know about my surroundings was that my room was a hole. Well, more literally, a box. It was about ten feet by six feet, with three beds in it. I was a little worried about those three beds. I mean, it was a pretty small place already, and there were only two of us. When the third guy came, it'd be a mess. How could we all keep our clothes in the one tiny closet? How could I come back here to sleep, every night for five months, with two other guys breathing up my privacy? I like privacy. I like to live alone, to have my stuff considered sacrosanct. To feel free to cough, roll over all night, read, bring friends over, without worrying about my neighbors. This may sound like a universal need, but it wasn't what Michael wanted.

Michael actually had a room to himself in a different building, but preferred to stay with me. He didn't want to sleep in a room all alone, where he couldn't just spit out a word or two and get an immediate response. He couldn't stay forever in my room, though, because the rightful occupants came to kick him out. By that time a couple of guys had moved into his original room anyway, so he didn't mind returning to it. The guy loved having roommates, but then, he didn't have the disadvantage of feeling he had to change his behavior as a courtesy to them. He smoked in that cubicle, drank, came in loudly, left loudly, and generally behaved exactly as he would have if he were alone. But I carry the curse of consideration, and in that room I felt stifled.

The next day I met Fanny, a French girl who turned out to be fairly interesting; Gillian, a white Canadian Rasta who says that she's married to an Islander who doesn't know where she is; and Daniel, proud owner of a small, weak personality. He was nicknamed Chicago after his hometown.

I spent my first few days wandering around the place. Tse'elim is pretty big, and lush as a rainforest. Somehow, in the middle of the desert, someone had filled the place with tropical trees, flowers, and other plants. There was a swimming pool (closed for the “winter”) which was always surrounded by peacocks for some reason, a big dining hall, tennis and basketball courts, and lots of little paths going everywhere except where you thought you were going. It was great.

But the peacocks weren't the only animals around. Besides the farm animals, like milk cows and chickens, the place had it's share of migratory birds, semi-feral cats, and all manner of little rustly animals which you heard while passing through the trees. The cats were apparently a nuisance to Tse'elim, but we fed them (though the Kibbutzniks asked us not to). There were about eight cats with their kittens, who were really cute, and they were happy to be cuddled by any Ulpanist in the area.

Sometimes a cat would give birth in someone's work clothes, which would be a disgusting but undeniable source of pride to the worker. I had a kitten take over one set of my work clothes for about four days, but eventually she moved on without doing any damage to them. It was simple for the cats to snuggle in our clothes because they were always easy to get to.

We usually kept our work clothes outside of the rooms, in little cubbies built for the purpose. The point was to keep our rooms as filth free as possible, a particularly difficult task for those working in the tire retread factory. If a volunteer came home without a covering of black carbon, you could assume he wasn't in the factory. The outside cubbies for the clothes were an absolute necessity in such small rooms.

The factory took men and women, but there were usually only men in the fields, because of the physical nature of the work. I was very glad to be in the fields, even despite the lack of female company, as physical work outdoors beats grimy work indoors any day.

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My first day of work started with me waking at six in the morning. My usual job was to check the irrigation, drive a tractor or two (which was fun), and sit around a lot outside. But my first day was very hard, hot, work.

Chicago and I had to start at one end of a field and rake in all the extra plant material left behind by the potatoes, which had been reaped. We were helping prepare the ground for some other crop to be planted. As we raked toward the middle of the field, a different pair of guys were raking in the other end. Man, it was hot. I had expected heat, and I got what I expected. I guess living in Atlanta has its benefits, and one of them is to be at least a little prepared for free sweating.

Journal Entry November 1st:
We saw about thirty hawks staying ahead of the rain. They came from across the desert and landed, flew again, and soared into the air above the field right next to ours. It was amazing.

As we got closer to the middle, we'd occasionally notice something move nearby us. Snakes? Scorpions? Our imaginations had no problem helping us think of what was making the plants jump a little. Eventually we figured it out. The other guys were throwing potatoes at us. One of them would throw a potato and stand there looking at us, while we looked wildly around.

“So that's how it is?” I yelled over. “Yeah,” one of the guys yelled back. And so it began. The rest of the day was made up of tactical maneuvers and strategic planning. We'd rake and throw, rake and throw. Not a single time in the whole day did any of us get hit by a potato. Imagine how much safer wars would be if no one could shoot accurately. That was us. They'd laugh at our pathetic tosses, then we'd laugh at their attempts. It helped the day pass.

It wasn't until later that I realized that every day was like that. Either potato fights, or tractor races; jokes and lazy days. A lot of “checking the irrigation” was waiting for the other guy to check his bit while you counted clouds. The other guy was often one of the potato throwers, Shandor for instance.

Shandor was a biggish sort of guy. Not exactly well-built, more like... thick. He was apparently a Corporal or something in the English army, but was taking a leave of absence (if that's what you call it). He'd been on the kibbutz for a month or so when I got there, and must have been a very hard worker, 'cause the Israelis let him take charge of some of the things going on. He was an alright guy to have around once you'd figured him out, but at first he was pretty hard to take. The problem was that he really wanted to be in charge of everything.

Shandor took the job very seriously. Much more seriously than the kibbutzniks did. If they said a job would take a few days, Shandor wanted to do it in one. Which was fine, except when he wanted to make other people work like he did. It was hard for him to remember that no one there worked for him, and he sometimes became enraged if someone told him to fuck off. He liked to yell about stuff if someone disagreed with him, and then he'd say that they'd never make it in the army. Stuff like that.

But once you knew him, you knew to ignore him. “No, Shandor, we're not working through lunch. We're eating lunch.” Then, you'd get on a tractor and go to lunch and just leave him if he wanted. But he never wanted to stay and work while everyone else went to lunch. He'd come along too, as long as he could make a fuss about wanting to work through lunch.

But on the other side, he had moments of undeniable tenderness. It's true that you had to fight through a lot of bluff and unreasoning “my way” crap, but eventually he'd tell you something about himself.

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Shandor had a girlfriend back in England. She broke up with him, and he went a little goofy. Started signing up for tough jobs, like Belfast, for instance. His superior took him aside and told him to pull himself together. According to Shandor, he was given some time to take off, maybe get some perspective. If that's true, than I have to say that I'm really impressed with the Army. Who'd of thought that they'd be so... reasonable? He took that time and came to Israel to work on a kibbutz. He'd written the girlfriend letter after letter, but she never wrote back, and over Christmas he called her. She told him that she didn't want him to call or write anymore, that they were broken up, remember?

Shandor looked at me, “I just don't know what she wants from me.” He's still thinking that if he can just figure out what she wants, then she'll take him back. And he can't see what's obvious to everyone else, which is that what she wants is a lack of him. That's all.

Are you ready for the heart-breaking, shocking, disturbing part?

He and that girl, they'd been going out a total of two months! Two months was his longest relationship ever, and powerful enough to alter the course of his life when it crashed around his ears. Oh, Shandor, you poor sad son of a bitch.

Months went by without him mentioning another girl, and when he did, it was head-shaking time again.

Shandor fell for the only girl working in the fields. An Israeli named Limoor. She was a hard girl, with rock-solid ideas about what was right and wrong, who was cool and who was not. She was ok to work with, and it was nice to have a different sort of person out there besides the guys, guys, guys. It sort of sucked to have to always do the heavy carrying when she was there, instead of alternating like you usually do with a guy, but I wasn't about to complain and be the cause of a feminist rally.

Limoor couldn't care less about Shandor, except as material for jokes, and she made no signs otherwise. He was talking about maybe settling in Israel with her, working on the farm forever, you know. Meanwhile she was just hoping that he wouldn't say anything to her, so she wouldn't have to knock him back. That's how this guy was, talking about changing his life for a girl who he'd never even approached romantically.

Luckily, it didn't really come to a head. He was smart enough to bring it up as a joke, and she was kind enough to pretend it was, while still making her non-intentions clear. That's Shandor.

He and I had some pretty frustrating conversations about Israel and Judaism as well as the ones about the job. Shandor felt that somewhere along the line, the Jews must have done something to deserve all the hatred that's been poured onto them for so long. He couldn't see that hatred feeds itself, without needing any other source to make it grow. I could get him as far as the Negro race, but then I'd lose him. What I mean is, I'd say, “well, have Black people done something wrong? Look at the racism and abuse that they've had to deal with.” He'd agree that they'd done nothing to deserve slavery or the persecutions that they've had to deal with since, but couldn't see the match to the Jewish experience. Of course, I think there's a part of Shandor that wants to accuse Jews of being Christ killers, but he doesn't want to have a historical debate. So he just says that there must be something in history which explains anti-Semitism. Something the Jews did to bring it on themselves.

Shandor's probably starting to sound pretty rotten by now, but he really isn't rotten. Ignorant, yes, maybe even dim-witted, but although I wouldn't say that he's harmless, I would pity him before I hated him.

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Jesper was the other guy pelting potatoes. He was a tad more well-adjusted, so you can put away your tissues. Jesper is Danish, and he and his best friend Nicolai came to the kibbutz together. Like so many other people, they wound up there after a break-up with their respective girlfriends. It seemed sort of epidemic, really, and maybe it's always like that. Find ten people working on a kibbutz, and seven of them had a break up a few months before they left home. These guys were ok, though. Don't worry about them the way you worry about Shandor.

Jesper's existence revolved around laughter. He was only happy if he was laughing, and he was usually happy. He was dangerous, though, because he was usually laughing at someone. If Jesper didn't actively like you, than he was making fun of you. I found that out my second day at work, when he watched me putting on sunscreen and said the way I touched myself made me look like Madonna. He wouldn't let up, singing a few Madonna songs here and there. When he got to “like a virgin,” I said that that sounded like his song rather than mine. I know that's a stupid (and obvious) come back, but it was all I came up with.

It could have become a verbal bloodbath, but somehow, like in all good stories, we wound up being friends. I don't really know if Jesper truly disliked the other people we were working with, or if he just enjoyed jousting so much that he was willing to make enemies. He seemed constantly to be jeering at the Israelis, Shandor, and Chicago; the only people who got off easy were Nicolai and me. And even that wasn't really easy. I had to make sure that I was always on the ball, always ready to defend or strike. Eventually, I could relax, but even then I had to be prepared to choose sides when he started on someone else.

And lots of the time it was only for fun. The jokes weren't always devastating or mean, just constant.

I think maybe it was because of my friendship with Jesper that I took so long to get to know the kibbutzniks in the fields. After Jesper left, I found myself talking more and more to the other guys, and enjoying their company. They weren't so bad after all.

Those first few days at Tse'elim were made up of work and cards. There were a few of us on the kibbutz now, some speaking French and some English, and the only thing we could all understand was cards. So we played for hours and hours. We kept saying that eventually we'd learn Hebrew, and then we'd communicate, but of course, that's not at all what happened. Instead, we all ended up speaking English. Some of the French guys never did learn any English, but they were the same guys who didn't learn Hebrew, so they stuck to themselves language-wise.

And I should mention the Soviet bloc. These were the immigrants from Russia, Georgia, and the Ukraine, who were in Israel to stay. They were on the kibbutz to learn Hebrew in order to start a new life in a new place. They spoke no English (with a couple of notable exceptions), and didn't really seem to want to mingle much with us Westerners. In the end, there were a few Westerners (including me) who were friendly with a few Easterners, and we really did end up speaking Hebrew with those guys, but for the most part it was two camps. So they didn't play cards with us.

At some point Daniel moved in to my room, and then out again at the first chance. I really hoped that I would have my own room, and I did for a while, but eventually I got two bright shiny new roommates, both Russian, neither speaking English. First was Sasha.

Sasha touched me. No, I mean he was always touching me. My arms, legs, whatever was in reach. The first night he got in was a disco night (more on that later), and I guess he felt more comfortable with me than he did with all the other people there (after all, I was his roommate); he just wouldn't leave me alone. Sitting down on me, grabbing my hand, putting his hand on my knee. I never felt that he was trying to be sexual or anything, but still it was really weird and more than a little annoying.

Sasha wore a denim jacket with the collar up, slicked back blond hair, and a comb in his back pocket. He was the Fonz of Moscow. Of course, we couldn't communicate until later (as we learned Hebrew), but that didn't stop him from talking. I didn't want to be rude, but eventually you just have to face the fact that we don't speak the same language. Eventually you have to stop smiling over your pillow and trying new words. “brotesvksi?” “Sketravko?” “smenkir?” NO, I DO NOT UNDERSTAND!! READ A BOOK!

A few days later Aleksi came to join our little party. He spoke no English either, but he brought the added benefit of never learning any Hebrew in the five months of going to class. Aleksi was alright. I never had to deal with him, because Sasha would just translate my Hebrew into Russian. Occasionally I tried with old Aleksi, but it would always be very confusing. Of course, we had no chance in English, so it had to be Hebrew. Unfortunately, he started every Hebrew sentence with the word Atah. Atah is Hebrew for “you,” so the following conversation was typical:

I'm running out, late for a soccer game, or chocolate party with an entire room of Danish girls, and I hit him with...


     “Aleksi, do you have a key?”

     “You?”

     “No, do you have a key? I want to leave.”

     “You have a key?”

     “Wait. Wait. [Deep breath] Ok. Key. Key?”

     “Key.”

     “Right. Ok, I have a key. Do you have a key?" [This with lots of pointing at the appropriate times]”

	 “You...yes, you have a key.”

This last would be said with such confidence that I would be crazy to think that he didn't understand completely. We were both absolutely sure that I had a key.

But Aleksi really was a pretty nice guy. He was sort of shy, but smiled frequently, showing off his missing two front teeth. He was very Oriental looking, and although I asked him what city he was from, I never quite understood the answer. He liked to drink a lot, and smoke a lot, but he never had a party in the room and he never got mad at me. I think he was probably pretty well-liked among the Russians.

The main thing about both of these guys that really affected my life was the snoring. I went to summer camp for many years, and I've been in too many dorm style youth hostels to count, but I have never. Ever. Heard anything like the noise those guys could produce. People always joke about a snore sounding like a jackhammer; I don't want to sound clichZ˙d, but I'm not sure what other object could so precisely emulate the power and decibel level of these snores. I recently watched the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and I can report to you without hesitation that if the Olympics ever allows a competition in Soft Palate Vibration, the Russians have got Gold and Silver locked up. I tried everything. Yes, I got up millions of times to roll one, then the other, over. Yes, I yelled at them in the middle of the night. One time I took the fan by my bed and threw it at the door just to wake them both up for a while, but only Sasha woke up, and only momentarily.

The next day Sasha asked me if I threw the fan. He was smiling, and when I said yes, I'd thrown it because of the snoring, he laughed and shook his head. I could just see him saying to himself, what a funny guy this American is.

I don't know how it's possible to cause those sorts of vibrations without falling off your bed, or at least waking up. It only occurred to me much later that vodka must have had a lot to do with it. Maybe it was the vodka that kept Aleksi from learning Hebrew, I don't know, but I do know that I was going crazy.

At one point Sasha did something which really bugged me. He and I were both sitting in bed reading while Aleksi was napping. Of course, Aleksi was snoring, but I didn't care as long as I was up anyway, right? But Sasha starts yelling at him to wake up, which he does. Sasha gives Aleksi an angry look and starts imitating his snore. Aleksi apologizes and puts his head down to go back to sleep. I didn't like it. Sasha snored every night, but couldn't tolerate the noise while reading. I thought at the time that he just needed some reason to get angry and boss someone around. Meanwhile the nights weren't getting better.

It was really affecting my outlook. I tried a couple of times to sleep in a friend's room, but I could only do that when the friend's roommate was gone. It was only after my fourth month there that I was able to move out and get my own room. Thank God those French guys got kicked off the Kibbutz. Thank God Simon became a thief and took off, stealing beer and snacks. More on that stuff later, but if all that hadn't happened, I'd have had to stay another month with the Snorers.

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Halloween was pretty funny. The Russians had no idea what it was, so I spent a fair amount of time trying to explain it. I'd put a sheet over my head and start howling like a ghost might howl if it had a sheet over its head. I did a bit of Dracula, which made them all laugh, but eventually I just gave up. The vodka was too warm for me to drink enough to continue. It was a full moon and everything, but Halloween is a waste outside of America.

David came to the kibbutz not long after I did. And then Elisa came a week after him. Elisa was great. American and bright, she and I spent a lot of time together. Of course everyone assumed that we were romantically involved, but actually she was the only one in love, and it wasn't with me. She had left her boyfriend waiting in America and she wasn't on the make, so there was never the sexual tension that everyone else seemed to think we had. Elisa brought the touch of normalcy that I needed to keep life on the kibbutz in perspective. I later met her boyfriend, in Israel when he visited, and in America when I visited them. He seemed like a nice, soft spoken guy. Eventually they broke up.

David was also American, from Seattle. Loud, obnoxious, cruel, arrogant, stupid. That about sums it up. He enjoys torturing animals, if that gives you any idea about him. We were a few weeks into the program, all sitting on the grass with some kittens, when he grabbed one and began to push its head into the ground. Obviously, the cat squirmed around and meowed, but there sat David, smiling away.

“Why do you wanna fuck with the cat?” I asked, pleasantly I 'm sure. He was offended and shocked. He spit back that he wasn't hurting the cat. His mom has plenty of cats, and he knows about cats, and one thing he knows about them is that he's not hurting this one. Obviously, my method of persuasion wasn't working, but Raphael had a better one. He just took the cat into his hands, looked at David and quietly said, “my cat.” It was perfect, because there was no threat involved, no masculine showdown. And it worked. David smiled, “your cat?” But he left it alone.

We once had an argument in Hebrew class. The teacher was trying to teach us a word, but she didn't know it in English. Elisa and I figured she meant sour, so we asked, “is it like a lemon?” YES, yes, exactly, the teacher said. Like a lemon. So we said, “sour.”

David burst out, “lemons aren't sour! They're bitter!” Now the whole room was confused. See, the make-up of the class is interesting. Mostly Russian, some of the non-Russian Easterners, some French, and the three of us. Any time someone wanted to know a word in English, they looked to us. If I said sour and David said bitter, they wouldn't know who to believe. And he was so loud and cocky with his opinions that he probably seemed to know what he was talking about. They didn't realize that David was a moron because they couldn't have a real conversation with him. The bitter/sour debate was never settled.

Journal Entry: November 10th:
Another thing I saw was a spider on a window pane stalk and catch a fly. He jumped on it after following it for about five minutes. He didn't exactly follow it, just rotated his body to face wherever the prey was on the pane. I watched the whole thing.

The routine at Tse'elim was pretty easygoing. There were two groups of foreigners, as I've mentioned, namely, the Ulpanists and the Volunteers. I was an Ulpanist. The Volunteers came from all over, but Europe mostly, and they worked for a few months and took off again, while the Ulpanists were expected to stay a bit longer. Most of the Ulpanists were Jewish, and over half of us were the Eastern Europeans who had immigrated to Israel to stay. Interestingly, almost none of the Volunteers were Jewish.

We Ulpanists lived in a different part of the kibbutz from the Volunteers. I think that everyone usually likes it that way best. The Ulpanists are usually thought to be a little more serious about things, I think, because they're really trying to learn how to live in the country as opposed to just traveling through it. In our case, though, it was different. Apparently we were the first Ulpan in a long time with a bunch of tourists in the ranks. None of the French people, nor any of the Americans, English, or Canadians wanted or expected to stay in Israel after the kibbutz.

The previous several Ulpans were filled entirely with Eastern European Jewry, and they had nothing to do with the legion of Dutch, Danish, English, and others that filled the ranks of the Volunteers. Our little group was the exception, and we weren't happy with the set-up. We had to have a few things changed. See, although the Ulpanists were considered to be more solemn than the happy-go-lucky Volunteers, we were also a little less worthy. Thing is, Israel is a funny place.

Even though most Israelis are Jewish and irreligious, there are still plenty of ways to discriminate even within that set. Jews from North Africa, for instance, are definitely not on the top social rung. Jews from Southern Africa are sort of rare and probably go into some exotic group that I don't know about, which leaves Eastern Europeans (there are plenty of other Jews around the world, but I'm writing stuff about my travels, not a geography of Judaism). Eastern European immigrants in Israel are looked at in the same way that any immigrants in any country are looked at. Trash. Or at least not quite as good as everyone else. I don't mean the ones who came in 1948, I mean the ones who've come since Russia let them come.

Since the Ulpan usually comprised nothing but Eastern Europeans, they weren't exactly the best cared for group of the foreign workers.

On my kibbutz, volunteers are allowed credit at the kibbutz store and bar. Ulpanists are not. We were paid a certain amount, and if we spent it, we had to wait until the next month's pay to buy anything. Volunteers always had hot water. Not so for the Ulpanists, and although the Russians never complained, I sure as hell did (and eventually got hot water about two out of three times I wanted it). Ulpanists were not even allowed in the Volunteer's pub, and we had to ask them to change the rule for our group - which they did.

It was frustrating to have all these little differences from the other travelers on the kibbutz, but what was most frustrating was the knowledge that the discrimination was coming out of prejudice against the new immigrants. Modern Israel, like America, was built by immigrants, and I was discouraged by the lower status of the next wave in the sea. I guess I expect bigotry in the U.S. and was upset by finding it over there as well. It seems that the only places lacking deep prejudices against neighbors are the homogenous countries where the neighbors are all the same. Then again, you don't get much more culturally uniform neighbors than in Korea; there, instead of discriminating against Blacks, or Eastern Europeans, they do it based on what region within Korea a particular person is from.

I remember in Malaysia, the people considered their countrt to be almost free of racial problems. While I was in Malaysia, however, there were several attacks against Bangladeshis. Malaysians apparently don't consider Bangladeshis to be part of their wonderful mix of cultures, which seems to only include Indians, Chinese, and Malays. So maybe there's no such thing as cultural color blindness. Anyway, there wasn't in Israel.

We Ulpanists worked every other day. After work we met for an hour and a half of class. On the off-work days we sat in class all day. So while we weren't exactly killing ourselves with work, it wasn't always easy either. The bit about the class after work was really tough. I'd get back from the fields and almost immediately get going to class. It was these days that the lack of hot water was most annoying because I was filthy and needed to get clean quickly. Actually it happened enough that I didn't shower before class, having run out of time. It was a clean kind of filthy, though, mainly dirt or sand from the fields, or oil from the tractors. It wasn't like I'd been playing basketball all day and smelled like an old shoe. Still, remaining unshowered after a full day in the fields is an uncomfortable feeling.

Hot water is a funny thing. Or, maybe I should say that I'm funny about hot water. I really don't like hot showers, and usually keep it about lukewarm. I believe that a lot of people don't. I don't understand how people can just crank up that knob until the water comes scalding out to burn streaks into their chests. Or maybe I'm too sensitive to it, maybe I feel it more. The point is, I don't mind Less Than Boiling water for a shower.

In Southeast Asia (on a budget) you have to get used to unheated water. Singapore is a shining exception, as are some parts of Malaysia, but for the most part if you're really going cheap - you're going cold. The thing is, most of Southeast Asia is HOT! In that heat, I really didn't mind the cool water I poured over my head by way of a bucket and a dipper. It was ok. I remember one time in Georgetown, Malaysia, when a girl told me that she changed to the place I was staying because it had hot showers. She said she hadn't had had a hot shower for three weeks. I said yeah, but in this heat I never use the hot water, anyway. I just let it come out like it is (which is naturally heated by the sun, not COLD like taps at home get). She looked at me like I hadn't been paying attention - “That's true, but I haven't had a hot shower in three weeks.” I let it go, but I sincerely felt confused. If she had said, hey, I like hot showers no matter what the weather, I'd have understood. I can accept her preference without sharing it. But she agreed that it was too hot. So, I guess that means that hot showers are so nice, that even when they're torture, they're worth it every once in a while. I betcha a lot of people feel like that, but I don't. I couldn't care less. On the other hand, she may have just been hoping that I'd be impressed that she'd been traveling rough for three weeks. If so, then I guess I disappointed her. The point is that for me, if I'm hot then I want cool water, and if I'm cold then I want hot water and that covers it. Either way, some shower or other is definitely required after fieldwork.

So some days I was in class all day, and other times I worked and went to class. Saturday was our day of rest. Other than those things, we all just basically hung around a lot. Vodka was ridiculously cheap in Israel, and that form of potato became a staple in a lot of diets on the kibbutz, the Russians leading the pack. Every Friday night was “Disco Night.” Disco on the kibbutz is definitely worth describing.

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Being Israel, the kibbutz was speckled with many small bomb shelters (thankfully almost completely unused while I was there) and one big one. The big bomb shelter lived underneath the mess hall, and doubled as our fore-mentioned disco, complete with sparkling disco ball spinning from the ceiling. We all had our accounts, which were used to buy beer (or vodka), and by about two o'clock people started falling down.

The disco, barely lit, always played music at full volume and kept playing until five or six am Saturday morning. Two long benches sat on either side of the dance floor, where the less agile drunks watched their friends sweat it out. It was great. You could set your watch by the Danish girls, Mette and Yona, who always fell down for the first time at around two-thirty. Before the Danish girls fell, the night had not really started to cook. Their tumble was the weekly disco inauguration.

The rest of our time was wasted in a variety of ways. I spent most of my free time with Elisa, but obviously had plenty to go around. There was this guy from (no longer Soviet) Georgia named Beno who really wanted to learn English. He was a pretty bright guy, although almost definitely insane, and he learned a lot quickly. I remember just sitting down and having a real conversation with him, using English, Hebrew, and even occasionally Georgian when the words sounded similar to their English counterparts. The fact that we really could communicate astounded me, but the fact that I was having a conversation in all these languages gave me an ego boost that I'm probably still living off. What a linguist! How cosmopolitan! It made me feel that I was really getting something important out of the whole deal, and not just sitting around on a farm. I was talking with a guy I would have never met at home, about things which I would have never thought of, and it felt great. Even if I never learned about Israel, I could still learn a lot about the rest of the world just by being friendly.

Every once in a while, we got off the kibbutz. In November I took a trip to Jerusalem to see what Israel is really all about. I loved it. I stayed with a friend from college named Ronette, who is a real sweetie, and she was eager to have me see the best of her adopted city.

Ronette and I weren't exactly close at school, but she's one of the nicest, most friendly people on the planet. She seemed very excited to have me around, never making me feel like an uninvited guest. People like that make traveling so much easier and more pleasant than it would be otherwise. Regardless of what you actually see or do, you've spent time with a nice person. That's pretty good.

After wandering around for a while, I found myself at Dormition Abbey, and decided to have a snack in the little internal cafZ˙ before seeing the rest of the church. I guess I waited too long, because as I got up to go inside, a monk stopped me, “sorry, closed.” Shit, I thought (house of God, notwithstanding). “Well, when will it open?” He looked at me, “sorry, closed.” I seem to have hit upon his one phrase in English. Discarding the hope that he was just trying to make conversation in the only way he knew how, I figured I'd have to wait for another day to see where Mary slept.

The West Wall was more moving to me than I had expected. It was apparently first built by Jews somewhere around 538-516 BC, and lasted as the western wall of the second Great Temple until 70 C.E. when the rest of the temple was destroyed by the Romans. It's still called the Western Wall, but it's no longer the 'western wall' of anything. There's no temple to be the western wall of. Still, for a non-wall-of-anything, it's pretty big. It measures about 160 feet long, and sixty feet high off the ground, but it dives underground for many yards before it stops (according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica). This was one BIG temple. And I guess that's what struck me most about this thing. It was huge, and it must've taken a lot of work to destroy. This was years before explosives, right? So they had to take that sucker apart bit by bit, and it must have been hard, hot work. How many people did it take? How long? All I could think of as I looked at what was once the holiest place in Judaism (and may still be) was how much hate it must've taken to accomplish such a feat of destruction. Hate or fear, I guess; either way it's a pretty sad legacy to leave. I mean, think about it, this was a temple, not a fortress. Why did it have to be ruined?

Some of the guys had asked me kiss the wall for them, and I felt very, very stupid as I did. Still, it seemed like something you do when someone asks you to. Very stupid.

While we were in Jerusalem, Ronette and I jumped on a local bus, and by absolute coincidence saw a mutual college friend sitting there. “Beth!!” Wow, Rob, she said, I didn't know you were in Israel! So Ronette looks at her and says, “I told you he was here!” So Beth thinks a second, and decides that she really didn't know who 'Rob' was when Ronette mentioned me, but definitely knew ROB when she saw me! So she promised us dinner, which didn't happen, and I never saw her again until I was back in Atlanta over a year later. I like Beth, though....

But Jerusalem I did see a lot of, even if I didn't see good ol' Beth again (I did get to have lunch with another girl from school named Suzie). It's a great place, and the residents are justly proud of it. Ronette and I were out looking for a good spot to see the city one evening when we ran into a guy who offered to help us. He was in his fifties or so, and he walked us all around for close to an hour. He just wanted to show off his city, which, according to him, he could not live without. It really is beautiful, and he showed us some great spots. It was a nice way to get a look at Jerusalem.

Ronette walked me all through the Old City, stopping for a bit at the Wall again, but also taking a look at a souk in the Arab quarter, and churches and religious men all over. When we got home, Ronette's friends yelled at her for going through the Arab quarter. They were pretty worried about terrorism and said that it wasn't worth the danger. Honestly, I felt a little nervous when we followed a winding and narrowing road into a deserted area. I knew nothing was likely to happen, but just what if.... I mean, two Americans wandering aroundá. Anyway, nothing did happen, and I really loved the souk, with all the hawkers yelling out and the crowds pushing past the colors of the stalls. Great!

We found out that an Israeli soldier was stabbed in the Christian quarter about an hour after we had left. The Christian quarter, mind you, not the Arab quarter (although the terrorist was almost definitely Arab), and he stabbed an Israeli soldier, not a tourist. Still, it's scary to know that I was just there walking around while some piece of scum was about to stab a guy in the back. So that's Israel, I guess.

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Back on the kibbutz after the short break, my teacher invited Elisa and me to dinner at her house. I had been bugging the Ulpan director (a woman named Zahava-which means 'gold' by the way) to get a family to 'adopt' me. I also asked my teacher to ask around. By adopt, I don't actually mean they had to start paying my dental bills or anything. It's just that I had heard that some families take in a foreigner and sort of treat him a little better than the rest of the rabble. I was hoping for someone to invite me to dinners, help me with Hebrew, and give me a place to go to get away from the regular Ulpan routine when I felt like a change.

The thing is, as my teacher explained, most families had stopped adopting people, because it added too much to their daily routine, or something like that. I don't know, it sounded reasonable at the time, so maybe there was a better explanation that I don't remember.

In the end Elisa and I went to have dinner with my teacher and her family, and afterwards they asked if we wanted them to adopt us. It was a shock. I mean, first of all, I had never thought about being a twin adoptee (to keep the family metaphor alive), and neither had Elisa. We'd figured that one family would adopt one person, and that was it. Secondly, this was our teacher! Did this mean that I really had to show up to class on time every day now? That if I didn't do well one day, she'd be even more disappointed in me than usual? I wasn't so sure that this was the right idea, but on the other hand, what can you say, really?

Elisa didn't have to worry about little things like that because not only was she always on time, but she spoke Hebrew very well. In fact, she wouldn't have been in the same class I was in except that there were none higher. So we were adopted.

Our teacher's name is (was? was our teacher, is named) Dalia. She, and her entire family - husband and six kids- did much more for Elisa and me than we ever expected.

First of all, they didn't just ask us over once a week or something. They wanted us there every day. The kids ranged from Etan, who was around three, to Zoar who was twenty three. Only the youngest three kids actually lived at home, while the oldest three lived elsewhere on the kibbutz. Kids move out early on these communes; on some kibbutzes as early as a few years, others as late as sixteen or seventeen. Tse'elim's fifteen year olds had the definite pleasure of leaving their parent's house to move into a dorm with other kids their own age. They loved that part of living on a kibbutz, although I don't think they'd say it makes up for their boredom.

So there were always kids around Dalia's house to talk to or play with, depending on their age. Dalia herself was fun to talk to. And if we didn't visit as much as they expected, they'd get downright sarcastic. I showed up after an absence of a few days, and as soon as Davidesco (the father) saw me, “hallelujah!” he says. So they weren't exactly upset to have us drop by and take up their time. And of course, the dinner invitations came frequently.

Not that they always fed us, or helped us in any way, but it was nice to have a different place. When I got sick of seeing the same people and doing the same things every day, I had somewhere to go. It was a pleasure.

Maybe I should explain why being invited to dinner made such an impression on me. Kibbutz food may be different from the food you grew up with, in that it's not good or interesting or desirable in any way whatsoever. Of course if you're English, that's just like home, but for the rest of us, we need something more.

Oh, you know, they tried. It's hard to cook for such a large group of people and make it appetizing. So the food often tasted like the Institution food that, let's face it, it was. But that's only half the story. Let's break it down:

Breakfast was always the same. I mean literally the same, not that it seemed the same, or had a sameness about it. It was always THE SAME. Cold, raw vegetables, warm potato, cereal, boiled egg. Got it? That's it. “So what?” you may be saying, “lots of people never eat any breakfast at all, quit your whining.” Fair enough. Let's go to lunch.

Lunch was alright. It was always hot, and if you were a vegetarian you got vegetarian food. Your vegetarian leanings must not fail you, however, or you'll be demoted to the omnivores for good. There were occasions, dear reader, when hardened blood-rare steak eaters desperately tried to pass themselves off as vegetarians in order to avoid the frightening fare foisted on the more manageable meat-eaters. But no dice. If you weren't a vegetarian on Pizza Day, then you're not gonna be one on What In God's Name Is That Day.

I wasn't a vegetarian on Pizza Day, so when the basic ingredients of the meal were complete mysteries, I went a little hungry. To be honest (I might as well be honest), the craving for good food outranked the disgust of bad food as the main problem of the day. Thing is, you could take a monotonous breakfast and institutional lunch if the dinner would only slightly surpass the other meals. Right?

Dinner was cold. It was a baked potato (as many as you wanted, at least. Almost all meals were unlimited), cold vegetables, warm broth, cottage cheese. Sound nice? Actually it does sound nice to me every once in a while, but not every night for five months! There were exceptions, of course. Every Saturday night we enjoyed a hot meal of roast chicken and red wine, and most holidays were celebrated gastronomically. But on the whole, dinners sucked.

The daily outcome of all these meals tended to be a longing for...something. I tried to self-medicate with chocolate for a while, but relief was fleeting. On the other hand, kibbutzniks, who almost always ate lunch at the dining hall, rarely had dinner there. They preferred to cook something in the kitchens that were larger than our entire rooms, but fit neatly inside their houses. Therefore, opportunity did not have to knock twice when the occasional dinner invitation came my way.

My adopted family had Elisa and me to dinner about once every couple of weeks. At first the atmosphere stifled me, but I eventually relaxed enough to stop trying to impress them with my Hebrew, or apologize for my lack of it. We had a lot of fun in that house, playing with those kids and eating dinners, and sometimes they'd even invite us to go with them off the kibbutz.

The importance of an occasional trip away from the kibbutz can not be stressed too much. Whether it meant taking the evening to eat in a restaurant in Beersheba, or a few days to go to Egypt, it had to be done. A person’s entire outlook can depend on the last time something normal has happened. Shopping, seeing a movie, eating in a restaurant; these things reminded us that there were other things to look forward to than hanging around the grounds waiting for something to happen. I loved doing nothing for long stretches, but there comes a time when something different, anything, looks better than the status quo.

The problem was exacerbated by our location. I would finish work/class around six o’clock or so. Because the buses took so long to get to Beersheba, and because they stopped running after eight o’clock, we had to be prepared to pay for a taxi to get back to the kibbutz, or spend the night in town. What about Saturdays, you ask. No work that day, you could just take a ride in on Saturday morning. Ahhh, there’s the rub. The bus drivers don’t work on Saturday’s either. We were stuck.

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We did occasionally get a few days off, and on one of these rare holidays, Elisa and I took off for Haifa to stay with her relatives. Haifa is a port city in the north of Israel, and is famous for it’s beautiful Mount Carmel. Jews and Muslims have apparently lived side by side in Haifa for thousands of years, although of course, there was fighting there back in 1948. When the Arabs surrendered, the vast majority of Muslims decided to leave (their reasons for this decision are fiercely argued by historians, but I don’t want to join that debate here). Still, though, when the rest of the country is torn by hatred and fear, Haifa usually seems calm, at least in comparison.

Elisa and I wanted to see the sights. Setting out for Mount Carmel, we were horrified to spy none other than my very own roommate walking by himself across the street. I could just see it; he’d latch on to us for our entire time away from the kibbutz, speaking Russian and laughing every few minutes to let us know he liked us a whole lot. I felt a little sorry for the poor guy, actually. I mean, here he was, only his second time off the kibbutz since arriving in Israel, and he looked as if he were all alone. Yes, I felt a little bad, but not bad enough to ruin my own vacation, so (right or wrong) we hung way back, laughing and hoping he wouldn’t see us. He didn’t, and once back on the kibbutz he was shocked to hear that we’d been in Haifa. Me too!! he said.

We hiked up the road which we hoped would lead to the top of Mount Carmel, and after a few gnawing doubts (followed by proof that our doubts knew what the hell they were talking about), we accidentally turned the right corner and there we were. It was here that Elisa and I had our bitterest argument ever. I shudder even now to think of it, but out of duty to my Muse (or at least to Memory, mother of the Muses), I must report it to you. (Melodrama can be fun!)

Elisa had a bug in her eye. It seemed tiny, but, being Israeli, had a fierce nature, and caused poor Elisa a fair amount of discomfort. She wanted it gone, and figured that I was just the guy to do it. All I had to do, she said, was stick my finger in her eye and pull that sucker out. The thing is, I’m not really good with eyes.

I don’t know what it means as far as my psychological development goes, but I can’t deal with things like fingers in eyes, whether those in question belong to me or anyone else. I don’t, won’t, couldn’t wear contacts. I’ve seen people actually touching their own eyes, and it gives me, for lack of a better expression, the heebie jeebies. So, whereas Elisa thought she was asking a friend a simple favor, I was repulsed. We argued.

There’s no simple way to win an argument with a phobic, as there’s no simple way to win an argument against someone with a bug in her eye. Elisa was logical – there was no bathroom around; my hand was fairly clean (“fairly” covering a broad and undefined spectrum); the bug would otherwise destroy any chance she had of enjoying the day; and, of course, she would not be angry at the bug (which, let’s be fair, was the real culprit here, as well as the real victim), but at me. Still, logic, as often happens, withered and died when faced with cold fear. My answer? “No.”

Explosion.

I have since asked many people about whether I was right that day, or if maybe Elisa should have seen that you just don’t go around asking friends to feel your eyeball. Without exception, they have sided against me. So maybe I really am different. Having accepted that, can this fear be fought? After all, admitting one has a problem is the first step toward recovery, etc. etc. Maybe I should face it immediately. Find the nearest willing associate and offer to remove specks, eyelashes, bugs, and any other items lost in that wet world.

Well, maybe. If Elisa had never forgiven me, I might be willing to take that step toward healing my tortured psyche. But, in fact, the bug eventually left of it’s own accord, and Elisa was happy to continue our sightseeing without another venomous word. I was relieved.

Besides the bug incident, the day drifted by without an unpleasant moment. Mount Carmel provides it’s visitors with an outstanding view, but it has more to offer than looks. As the brochure says, you can find many restaurants, cafés, scenic points, and even a zoo to occupy yourself for hours. We stayed a while, enjoyed the unbelievably clear and warm weather, and took a bus back to her cousins’ house.

Vacations are mostly alike in that they’re too short, and this one was no exception. I settled back in to the old life at Tse’elim, listening to snoring all night, working or studying or hanging out in the day.

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I read huge amounts, which I loved doing, and began to get a few comments about it in the field office. I don’t know what they expected me to do there; we had to go, but had no responsibilities whatsoever. We’d show up every morning at 7:00, and wait around for forty minutes while someone figured out where everyone would be working that day. That room in the mornings filled itself with Hebrew, while the volunteers just sort of tried to sleep, or make occasional conversation. When there was no English to listen to, I read.

I don’t know about you, but when I read, everything else loses reality. If the heat is unbearable, it becomes bearable, even negligible. The same goes for noise, cold, uncomfortable trains, and almost anything else besides serious pain. So these morning meetings weren’t as bad as they could’ve been. Still, it irked a little that we had to get up so early just to wait around. We weren’t involved in the strategy sessions that lasted so long every morning –figuring out which volunteers go to which fields with which Israelis. It seems obvious that we should have been told to come to work an hour or so later than everyone who was involved. The final result of all this discussion was that, as I mentioned, I consumed dozens of books.

Throughout my trip I’ve been able educate myself a little more while ignoring whatever unhappy events swirl around me. And one of the things I miss most when I don’t have a lot of free time is the opportunity to read.

All this reading, however, couldn’t disguise the fact that time was passing a little too slowly on the kibbutz. Work days blurred into workdays, and very few events stood out as worth recording. Fortunately, while this lack may contribute to a semi-boring reality, it left me with a dream-like recollection of happy days, zero obligations and the lack of clocks. The time we consider the present is, as they say, fleeting, but the time we call the past stays with us…. Hmmm, maybe it’s more important to have a good memory of Israel than it is to have had an exciting time while actually there. A good, peaceful memory might come in handy someday.
Of course there were holidays….

Thanksgiving, for instance, sparkles brilliantly in the haze of my memory. Dinner that Thursday came right on time with no surprises – raw vegetables and cottage cheese – and Elisa and I substituted wining and dining with whining and pining for Mom’s stuffing, or the tang of cranberries. Along with the hunger pangs came the questions from our friends. Mother Russia doesn’t exactly serve up the Pilgrim Dinner, and even our occasional allies the French were confused about all this talk of Thanksgiving. Worst of all were the Israelis, who actually asked me why, being Jewish, would I celebrate Thanksgiving!

So that Saturday Elisa and I went in to Beersheba to have our own little meal, and man was it great. We relaxed for about two and a half hours over our Thanksgiving pastas, refueling our tolerance for the monotony of Tse’elim cuisine.

New Year’s had it’s happy day on the kibbutz a few weeks later (as always), and brought with it a whole new kind of disco. That’s right, rather than the same old guys playing the same old music for no charge, the kibbutz had gone all out and hired a big time DJ to do the honors. So he played the same old music, and got paid for it. It was a big party, of course, and I had a helluva time. The highlights included one very drunk Shandor dirty dancing with himself, wearing nothing but his fire-engine-red bikini briefs. I’ll never forget the look on the older Israeli’s face as he shoved Shandor out of the room. Classic.

He came back that night, though, Shandor did, and was actually allowed to approach the microphone to beg for someone to return his pants. “If I don’t have my trousers…I can’t party.”

But the best holiday of all was Purim. Purim is a Jewish holiday that comes from a story in the Book of Esther. The outcome of the story was basically that the good guys won, so it’s a happy festival. In Israel it’s celebrated by wearing costumes, throwing and attending parties, drinking wine, and giving gifts. This one was marred a bit by the Hebron massacre, which happened just before the holiday. The country, and world, was shocked by the murder (committed by a Jewish settler) of people praying in the Hebron mosque, and many Muslims were literally up in arms over the deaths. None of the kids in the army were allowed to come home, though they normally would have been and had been expecting to. The government felt that they’d better be ready for any kind of retaliation. Luckily there wasn’t anything too violent, though the Peace Process was of course affected.

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Still, on the kibbutz, they tried to celebrate as usual. I dressed as a caterpillar for the occasion. I wore a green sleeping bag, with some bungee cords hanging off my head for antennae. The beer was actually free the whole night, and there were even a few shows, with every little department strutting their stuff. As each new group of drunken revelers took their place on the stage, we in the audience laughed and thanked God that we weren’t as bad as they were.
Among the shows were a Chippendales type revue; a female-impersonating group of farmhands; and the kitchen staff (including Fanny and Orith), whose big finish included accidentally falling down all over each other while yanking out most of the streamers hanging from the ceiling. It was surreal the way those colored streamers slowly, casually, floated down to the heap of bodies crumpled and squirming on the wooden stage floor.

One of the great moments of the night saw Sergei (one of my buddies from Russia) get up to the mike. He started singing this incredibly slow and drawn out Russian song to the admiration and catcalls of his friends. His voice just got lower and lower, and the song got slower and slower. The MC of the night got sick of waiting for it to end, and went over to ask for the mike. Sergei ignored her easily through his vodka’d perceptions, and kept singing, slower than ever. The woman tried a few times, then signaled to some shadowy figure in the back who cut the power. It took a few moments for Segei to realize that his show was over, but finally he left the stage to huge applause.

And Shandor had his moment again. These were the last few days before he was supposed to go back home, so he wanted to get up and say a few words. He told six jokes, all of them bad. Apparently the translator did a better job of making fun of Shandor than he did of expressing the jokes in Hebrew. Poor Shandor. Still, in the end, he got on my nerves too much for me to care.

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the entire Ulpan went on a little trip. We all headed out to see Ben Gurion’s tomb, as well as a place called Ein Ovdat, and Masada. Ben Gurion’s tomb wasn’t much really, but Ein Ovdat was pretty cool. It’s a chasm with water running through the bottom, and all sorts of great rock formations at the top. We scrambled around there for a while, just taking in the impressive scenery. Still, the biggest deal of the day was Masada.

Masada’s history is a pretty famous one, so I won’t spend much time on it here. Basically, it’s a huge rock in the middle of nowhere. On the top, King Herod had built a place for water to gather, stores of food, public baths, and plenty of living space. Years later a radical group of Jews hid out there from the Romans, and eventually killed themselves to avoid capture. Some people say that Masada stands as a reminder of the undying commitment of a people to freedom, others that it’s a reminder that there will always be zealots unwilling to compromise. Either way, the story is a shocking one, and the place worth visiting.

You walk up the (approximately) fifteen billion steps to the top, and then walk around the grounds. There are lots of ruined places that the signs tell you were baths, or bedrooms, or whatever, but really you have to find your interest inside yourself. You have to use your imagination to get any idea of what it was like to live there.

We stayed past nightfall, in order to see the laser show that they put on. They use the side of Masada to show images, but they also shoot fire arrows, and have explosions. The whole idea is to bring you into the past, so they play recreated conversations between the Romans and Jews, the Romans and themselves, and the Jews and themselves. Unfortunately for me, the entire show was in Hebrew, so I didn’t pick up a lot of what was going on. No doubt about it, though, those fire arrows were cool.

Back at the kibbutz, the best thing going was the wadi. (Take a look at a picture of the wadi.) A wadi is a riverbed, usually dry, which fills up during the rainy season. Actually, the rainy season doesn't have to come to the desert, but somewhere upriver. If it rains a lot 200 miles north of us, the wadi will fill. Ours was about a five minute walk from the kibbutz, and amazingly, went right through the road. So when the wadi ran, the cars couldn't (that is, they had to take a roundabout route).

We usually referred to anything near the wadi as “the wadi.” This expression included half the desert, and if I said I was going to the wadi, you’d have no idea where to look. I loved it out there. Something about the desert made me choose Tse’elim in the first place, and I found what I was looking for when I took off on my own. There were huge stretches of browns and golds, but dead in the middle ran a ribbon of trees and bamboo-like plants which thrived on the water coming through. I considered one of my great pleasures to be wandering around the hills alone, following the water through whatever canyons it happened to wend.

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Occasionally Elisa would come with me, but she was never willing to tramp through mud, or climb the next sandy mound. She was happy to sit under a tree and look out at the view, while I would try to stop wondering aloud whether there was anything interesting over in that direction.

The contrasts of the place fascinated me. I could stand on the driest, deadest hill I could ever imagine, then practically swim through a river to get to the next one. I loved that part of my life on the kibbutz; the solitude, the quiet, and the beauty.

While we were there, that wadi also showed it’s rough side. Some high school kids from the kibbutz were coming home in a van one time, tried to get through the water, and ended up on the news that night. The Israeli Air Force had to come rescue them as they sat on top of their van huddled against the cold. They were fine, but the van had nightmares for months.

We had a guy named Tomas who lived nearby. He was a New Zealander who had found work on the ostrich farm nearby. Apparently, he and another guy lived on this farm while the owners were off who knows where. The job consisted of feeding the birds in the morning and evening, and giving them shots every couple of weeks or so. It was easy work.

Tomas found life on the farm a little dull. I understand. I mean, the place was sort of lacking any contact with the world. Tse’elim was bad enough, but at least we had a few hundred people on the land; their farm consisted of books and each other. They didn’t even leave to get supplies, because their boss would bring in new stuff every week. So Tomas occasionally came around to see us.

I thought it sounded cool, his job. You get a house for yourself (or to share with one person), your own kitchen, plenty of time to do what you want, and no one to bug you. I can see how you’d get a little stir crazy after a while, but it’d take me a long while if I could have whatever books I needed. Man, give me a computer and books, and I’d be in heaven (of course, it would help if the other person on the farm was a girl).

One time Tomas came over and asked for a favor. He and his buddy wanted to go to a party in Tel Aviv, but they weren’t supposed to leave the farm for the night (Tel Aviv is a few hours from there). Could anyone help them out and stay for the night? Tomas would drive the volunteer to the farm, and leave the keys to the tractor (in order to drive back in time for work the next day). They’d pick the tractor up at the kibbutz on their return.

“C’mon, you can have all the ostrich meat you want! We’ve got a fridge full of it, plus vegetables, books, whatever you want.”

I guess it’s pretty obvious that I went. It was fun. I read, and wrote, and cooked up a big ol’ ostrich stew with veggies. My first version was a lot of ostrich with a few vegetables, which was pretty gamey, but my second attempt was much better. Remember, if you’re ever making ostrich stew, try a to get the ratio of ostrich to other ingredients to about 1-4. You’ll be happier. (In South Africa, I fried a single ostrich egg for breakfast. Click here to open another broswer with a picture of it). In the morning I headed back home, feeling good for getting a change from the routine.

The other kind of change that we had every once in a while was the weather. Usually it was hot. But as winter really hit full force, it was only hot during the day, and cold at night. Sometimes it was cold. Out in the fields, though, we were usually fairly warm, except for two kinds of days. One, when we had to get wet working with the sprinklers, and two, when it rained.

Rain could be great, or a curse. We couldn’t work in it, so if it was raining when we woke, we knew we’d have a light day. Stroll into the office and hang around all day, or just give up and hang around in the room. Rain days were great. That’s what happened if it was raining before we got to the fields.

If, however, we were already working when it rained, we had to either drive home in the tractor (getting soaked the whole time) or, if we had been dropped off out there, wait for someone else to come get us. There are only so many tractors, and only so many people to pick up the stranded guys, so sometimes we waited quite a while. Those were wet days, but only when it was cold did it matter much. Thing is, as anyone knows, a warm day can become cold when the rain comes, and a cool day can become downright freezing! But usually it didn’t rain.

During one rain day I sat reading in my room with my roommates. They were apparently on the night shift at the factory, so had all day to sit around, just like I did. They were talking for a while, then Sasha turned to me and asked, in his Russian accented Hebrew, “Robert, were you in the army in America?”

“No, never,” I answered. We looked at each other. I looked back down at my book.
“But Robert? Why not?”

I started off beautifully, “well…” but then I stopped. How much do I have to explain? I never joined the army because no one I knew ever did. I went to college, and wanted to someday write a book, or teach university, or something like that, but I never wanted to be in the army. So after “well,” I sort of slipped into helplessness. But Sasha was there for me.

“I was in the army,” he offers.
“Yeah, but in Russia everyone has to go to the army.”
“Not in America?”

He believes me, but you can tell that something about it has shocked him.

“No, not in America. In America, if you want to go, you go.”
He translates this to his amazed friend, and they talk back and forth a while.
“Hmm,” he says, “if you want to go, you go….”

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The next time I got into Jerusalem, I stayed again with Ronette. I had gone in for a conference on Israeli politics, but stayed a few days afterwards to see some more of Jerusalem, like Mea Sherim, for instance, which is an ultra-ultra orthodox Jewish community.

In Mea Sherim they throw rocks or bath water at people who dress or act the wrong way. I acted the right way (the first time there), but have little tolerance for people with so little tolerance. I mean, these aren’t people who’ve had no contact with the outside world, and feel afraid and threatened by new ideas. These people live in a modern country, where women actually wear pants instead of skirts and dresses; they’ve seen people driving cars on Saturday (forbidden in Orthodox tradition). They don’t like it, which is fair enough, and they don’t want it in their lives, which I understand. But I don’t like the idea that they try to control what other people do on the streets of Jerusalem. Ninety something percent of Israelis are not orthodox, so they’re the ones paying to build, maintain, and protect the streets of Mea Sherim. Meanwhile they have to watch how they dress in that neighborhood to avoid being attacked. I would be a lot more sympathetic to the culture in Mea Sherim if when offended they clucked their tongues more, and chucked stones less. I didn’t get to see any interesting violence though, so it was a bit of a disappointment.

While in Jerusalem I arranged to have dinner with some friends of friends (to be painfully specific, the woman is the sister of some friends of my brother. See how contacts can help? By the way, those friends are famous now, check out their Web site. This will open a new browser.)

Andrea and Lieb, were very orthodox Jews, living in a very orthodox neighborhood, and I was to have Sabbath dinner with them.

They believed the bit about not driving or riding in a car on the Sabbath, so the plan was for me to spend the night, and come back to Ronette’s place the next day. They’d rather I didn’t come at all if I would have broken a rule to do it. I understand that, and didn’t make a fuss.

Because they lived in such a religious area, I thought it would be more respectful if I kept my head covered, as they do. So I wore the traditional Jewish head covering, or keepah, the whole way into their neighborhood and their house. I think the keepah threw them off a little, because Lieb, the husband, began asking me what drew me to back Judaism and to Israel. He knew my family is not religious, which explains why he said “back to Judaism,” though I never really thought I’d left it. He had gotten the impression that I was now as religious as he was, and that I’d moved to Israel for religious reasons-and to stay. So he was shocked when I explained that I was agnostic at best, that I came to Israel for a change of pace, and I wouldn’t be his new neighbor.

We had an exchange of views. He explained that he can prove that anyone who doesn’t believe in God is no better than a piece of driftwood on the water. I agreed, but wasn’t very upset by that notion. I think that humans either are, or are not better than a piece of driftwood (or whatever), and our belief system can’t change the nature of our existence. For a while, I thought that I’d made a terrible mistake by coming to their house. How was I supposed to have dinner with this guy, then go to watch him pray (that’s right, he expected me to come to his tiny orthodox shul, or synagogue, to pray), and then spend the night?

After the short debate, though, things got better. As I said, I think he was just thrown off a bit by the difference between his expectations and reality. Once it sunk in that we were different, he relaxed a lot, and I began to enjoy myself. We did take the short walk to the shul, where I got my first look at men praying while wearing round furry hats. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d thought it would be, and when we got home, dinner was waiting. The furry hats were pretty wild. Most of the men weren’t wearing them, but some were. They were sort of like top hats with a very, very wide brim made of fur. I’d love to have one. I guess that’s the kind of hats they wore in whatever village they came from in the Old Country (whatever country that may be).

It turned out to be pretty nice, that evening. We sat around after dinner (roast chicken and potatoes), talking about all sorts of things, and laughing a lot. Andrea and Leib were very easygoing, and weren’t stuffy at all. In fact they were young, a couple of years older than I was, happy, and willing to discuss anything. Once we stayed away from my beliefs (or lack of beliefs), the discussion became lively without being heated.

They're both interesting, fun people to be around. Every once in a while I think about them, and wish that I had written them after I left Israel. Of course, I still could. Maybe I will. Andrea said that she's terrible about writing back, so that she'd love to get a letter from me, but that I shouldn't be disappointed when it disappears into the void.

Not that we agreed on everything.

I disagree sharply with what Leib sees as the future of Israel. In fact, I think that Leib, and others like him, are dangerous for the country, and the region. He believes that Israel should take back it’s original (i.e. Biblical) borders, no matter what. To me that kind of tunnel vision is misguided and alarming.

Of course, Leib has his reasons, and amazingly, whoever wrote the Old Testament would probably agree with him. Many times on the way to establishing Israel, God himself told the Israelis (or Hebrews, or whatever) to destroy the people already living in what was to be their land. In Jericho, Ai, and others, the Hebrews were told by God to kill every man woman and child in the place (with one exception. In Jericho lived a woman who had helped the Israeli spies before the battle. She was to live well). In fact, the one time a man takes pity on one of his captives and doesn’t kill him, God is offended that the guy ignored His command. So Leib and the rest of the tiny minority of zealots living in the Mid-East would have no problem with throwing out people who have lived there for hundreds or thousands of years. They have their precedent.

But, even playing by those ridiculous rules, I think Leib is wrong. In Joshua’s day, when Jericho fell, God himself was telling the people that the land was theirs. He told them how to conquer the previous rulers, what to do with the people (kill them, usually), what to do with the riches, the land itself, etc. I don’t think He’s said anything at all about the recent peace talks. How can anyone be so sure what He wants. In Biblical times God said, “…from the wilderness, this Lebanon, even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the Great sea….” All that was supposed to be for the Jews. But He hasn’t said that to the modern Jews. Not at all.

Maybe He’s changed his mind. There’s precedent for that as well.

Several times the Biblical God has changed his mind, or at least done something differently than he had first said he’d do. I won’t supply a million examples, but how about what he told Adam? Something along the lines of, on the day you eat that fruit, you’ll die. But Adam ate the fruit and did not die! Now, was God lying, or did he change his mind? Or maybe he was speaking metaphorically. Either way, if it happened once, why couldn’t it happen again? Why couldn’t his promised land be a metaphor, or a lie, or a decision which did not last forever? Until he comes down to tell us that he really meant it for today, I’d rather have peace. And keep the fanatics locked up somewhere.

So, obviously Leib and I could never agree on Israeli (or American) politics, which is one thing that made the experience so good; we couldn’t agree, but we didn’t have to to have a good time together. We were able to minimize discussion of politics, except the occasional good-humored barb, and stick to easier and friendlier topics.

I find it interesting how person A can hate something about person B, but still like the guy generally. I made friends in college, who only afterward showed their racist stripes, for instance. That side of these people disgusted me, aroused my contempt, and caused arguments whenever it came up. Still, somehow, I found I could enjoy their company at other times. I could actually like a racist. I don’t mean Nazi or Klansman kind of filth, but your less obvious more mainstream kind of ignorance. It was a shock for me to realize that.

And dangerous or not, I like Leib. He’s intelligent, witty, and a good host. I hope he never gets what he wants.

Taking the evening as a whole, then, the only truly uncomfortable time came during the night, after they had gone to bed.

The Bible says that no one should work on the Sabbath. Traditionally this law is taken to include starting fires for cooking or working, and modern Orthodox Jews believe that electricity may be fire-like enough to require the same restrictions. Therefore, in an Orthodox home, if a light bulb is off when Friday night rolls around, off it will stay. So, many people have timers on their lights in order to avoid sitting in darkness for the whole night. Of course, they could just leave the lights on the whole time, but obviously that’s not a great solution either. Which brings us back to the timers. Around six, or whenever it gets dark, the lights come on, and whenever they usually go to bed, the lights go off. And this system is fine when there are no little mistakes.

One time in Atlanta, for instance, my family was visiting an orthodox rabbi for dinner, and someone bumped into the timer as we were clearing the table. Oops. Rather than sit in darkness we all had to go into another room to talk.

No one bumped the timer this time, but they had forgotten the detail of the guest bathroom light. Of course, they leave their own bathroom bulb burning all through the Sabbath (no one’s regular enough to permit a timer to control that light), but they never, unless guests are coming, have to turn on the other one. So there I was, at three in the morning (or whatever), faced with a moral dilemma. Here it is: I couldn’t care less about turning lights on and off during the Sabbath. Even if I believed that God had problems with people starting a fire on His day, I wouldn’t carry it over to electricity. The point of Sabbath is to rest, and flipping a switch is definitely not hard work. And, of course, no one would know that I had done it. I mean, this wasn’t a sting operation. Still….

It felt funny. This house belonged to someone else, not me. They have their rules, their beliefs. The strange thing is, if it were some African tribal rite, or Asian tradition, I wouldn’t even consider breaking the rule. You just don’t go into someone else’s culture and shake things up. But I guess Judaism seemed closer to me, and familiarity, as they say, doesn’t breed respect. In the end, I decided it would be easier to tell the story if I was a good guy and did the right thing. Peeing sitting down in pitch black really isn’t such a terrible thing after all, and I felt like a good person for doing it. It was a lot easier than the next time I had a chance to prove my cultural sensitivity.

You see, Sabbath doesn’t go away overnight. It lasts from Friday at sunset ‘til Saturday at sunset, so the next day was still holy. Holy, so somehow I was supposed to get to Ronette’s place without riding in a car. She figured I’d just jump in a cab, and Leib figured I’d walk the hour and half. Me, I thought it was a beautiful day and I might as well walk. I felt like it would be a little traitorous to take their hospitality and then lie to them about my intentions. And I certainly wasn’t going to tell them that I had planned all along to “break the Sabbath.” So I went off walking, thinking, “what a good boy am I to take the harder, honest way.” I expected to be eating lunch at Ronette’s by one. Boy was I wrong.

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I had directions that Ronette had given me the day before. I couldn’t call her from Leib’s house to tell her when I was coming because, yes, it was Sabbath, and yes, a phone line uses electricity.

Anyway, the directions seemed easy enough, and I took off walking. The day was pretty hot, and after the first couple of hours, I was sick of the whole thing. Couple of hours? Yup. Thanks to Ronette’s faulty directions I walked for hours longer than I should have. I walked through Mea Sherim (a few times) and even made a phone call (on Shabbat!) from there. These teenage Chassids ran up to me yelling, “Shabbat! Shabbat!” But I was in no mood. I really wanted to yell something about how the Rabbi had given me permission to call my dying mother in order to speak to her one last time. I didn’t though, because Ronette had picked up before I’d figured out how to say it in Hebrew.

They kept at it, while on the phone Ronette was saying such helpful things as, “you’re not supposed to be on the phone there.” Yes, thank you Ronette. Just what I needed, getting yelled at from outside the booth by intolerant almost-grownups, while inside the booth Ronette was cheering them on.

Eventually she said, “look, Rob, I really don’t know what to tell you. I mean, I don’t know what you did to get wherever you are.” Now, I had already told her exactly what I had done, which was exactly what she had told me to do, so I wasn’t pleased. Realizing that I was going to get no help from her, I hung up the phone, and just started walking. I knew that if I could just find my way to the Old City, I could get better directions from there.

In my wanderings I entered East Jerusalem by accident, and saw the golden roof of the Dome of the Rock from a direction that I had never seen it from before. It may sound silly, but I started feeling pretty nervous about being Jewish in East Jerusalem, not to mention American. I immediately took off the keepah that I’d had on since waking up that morning, and I hoped and hoped that no one had seen me with it. Meanwhile, visions of knives and CNN headlines played in my head. I got my bearings based on that dome, and got the hell out of there, walking back to the center of Jerusalem to call Ronette again.

This time she was more helpful, having consulted a map, and apologized for her mistake. I walked the same route (different by one turn), and was home in under forty minutes. Yeah!
Turns out the street I needed has a different name on the side of town where I was walking. I had been looking for a street name that wasn’t there.

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When I returned to the Kibbutz, I found that they had poisoned almost all the cats. There were only a couple left, including the kitten who had moved into my work clothes. The cowards had waited to do it until we were all gone for a long weekend. We were pretty shocked. I really can’t figure out any harm that those cats were doing. Usually cats are a pretty good thing to have around on a farm, but the kibbutz obviously felt otherwise.

Within a few weeks, the officers of the kibbutz not only killed some kittens, but grew enough guts to kick out a few of the rougher Ulpanists. David had been getting drunk and destroying things for some time, as had Michael, and a few others. Michael was the first to be told he was leaving. He’d shown up late and drunk to work a few times, and they decided they didn’t need him anymore. He’d really been a loose cannon for a while, and I couldn’t decide for myself if I was sad he was going. He was pretty funny to have around.

For one thing, he’d fallen ridiculously in love with Elisa. I mean, follow around, dopey eyed, “je t’aime” in love. The guy spoke no English, and Elisa no French, but still she was supposed to be his. He had me translate stuff to her, “I wish I was a teardrop, to be born in your eye and die on your lips.” How can you not laugh? He kept bringing me over to her, so I could ask her if she would help him learn English. This was his big plan, he was gonna take lessons from her, and then slowly make his move. She’d just look at him and say, “why doesn’t Rob help you?”

Eventually he told me he couldn’t stand to be around her anymore. It was just too painful to be near her without being with her. Still, though, he’d give her the longest looks and deepest sighs. It was great to watch; good value, as they say. But now it was goodbye, so he was willing to come over, give me a kiss on each cheek, Elisa a kiss on each cheek, and bid us Adieu. The next day his father called the kibbutz to change their minds about his only son. In the end he was kicked off three times and reinstated twice. All within two weeks.

He wasn’t the only one to leave and come back. Simon, the guy from Leeds, went to the little supermarket and tried to buy alcohol after his account was full. But he convinced the (English) woman at the store that he’d already paid extra to the kibbutz earlier that day. This was a common thing to do; when your account ran out, you paid extra to be able to get more at the store. Occasionally the person you paid didn’t inform the store for a day or two. This time, of course, Simon was lying. He bought about a hundred dollars worth of beer, vodka, and schnapps, then took off. That’s right, he actually fled the kibbutz with the stuff, went down to Egypt for several weeks. The only thing he hadn’t thought about was the fact that all his stuff was still sitting in his room!

So the kibbutz took his stuff, and locked it away until he paid what he owed. Incredibly, when he came back, they allowed him back on the kibbutz to work off his debt. Only they wouldn’t let him in the Ulpan program again, so he moved into the Volunteer area and became a volunteer. So he, a few Frenchmen, and David were all gone…guess who got his own room, own bathroom, own shower. If you haven’t guessed me, then you’re not very good at this game, are you? I was sitting pretty, all alone. Finally! Sure, it was Simon’s old room, so it was a fantastic mess, but it didn’t take long before all the mess was my own. At least, I thought it was all mine. At one point, though, old Simon and I had a bit of a run in about that room, only a week or so after I got it.

Simon’s girlfriend, a pretty French volunteer, was happy to have him closer, but they still weren’t in the same room. He had roommates, she had roommates. Tough, huh? One weekend, I went away for a day or two, and returned to find some strange differences in my room.

The bed had moved. Not dramatically, I mean it wasn’t upside down or in the bathroom or anything, but it was shifted over some. The sheets weren’t the way I’d left them. And the soap was in a different place than I usually put it. The doors to the closet were open. Just before I’d left, a friend had asked me to keep something in my closet. It was a picture, a gift for a different friend, who would never look in there. So I know I had those doors closed. Very strange.

I went outside and asked if anyone had seen someone go into my locked room while I was gone. Yup. Simon. And his girlfriend.

So I went and found Simon, took him aside from the friends he was with and asked him if he’d been in my room. Now I sit before you and tell you that if he had apologized, if he had said, “look man, I’m really sorry, but Veronique and I were like, desperate, and I realized that I still had a key to your place, and you were out of town and…etc.,” I wouldn’t have been so pissed off. A little honesty, a little “you know how it is,” along with an apology would really have done the trick. Not to be.

He said, “yeah, well, I think that room is still sort of mine and yours now. Y’know, like if I need it, I’m still supposed to be able to go in there sometimes.” WHAT?! Who told you that? Was it Zahava (remember Zahava? Our director)? No, not Zahava. “Gillian said so.” I nearly exploded. Gillian, if you remember, is just some girl on the Ulpan. Like me, or Elisa, or Simon before he became a thief. This girl can not just decide that Simon can go into my room after he’s been kicked out and given another room! How stupid does he think I am? “Oh, and all I did was look for my stuff,” he says. “I didn’t use anything.” He didn’t use the bed. Or the shower. Didn’t even go into the room where the bed was shifted and the closet doors open. Didn’t even peek. And when he thought that maybe he still had some things in the room, he waited until I was away before he went looking for them, and he went looking with his girlfriend. I swear, the insult to my intelligence pissed me off more than anything else.

Simon and I didn’t exactly get along very well after that. I got up from a table one time after he sat down and said I didn’t want to sit with him. That got pretty poor reviews from Elisa, who was in the middle of talking to me, but I really meant it. I just couldn’t concentrate on anything she was saying when all I really wanted to do was scream at him. Another day I was walking by the dining hall when I heard someone inside yelling an insult. I stopped and looked up at the window. “What?” I yelled. Nothing. What a coward. I never said or did anything threatening to him, but he was just too weak to stand up when he felt something. I got Zahava to make him give up his key.

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There was only one last trip that the Ulpanists took together, this time to the north. We were supposed to go to a winery near Carmel, but somehow our director hadn’t bothered to check the place out. We got there, piled out of the bus, and found the place closed. So we used the winery restrooms and piled back in again.

We did get to head all the way up to the border with Lebanon, which was exciting. Guns and stuff, you know. And we went to a Druze market on Mount Carmel. Druze is the name of a religion and a people who live mainly in Lebanon, Israel, and Syria. I guess they have a little community on Mount Carmel, because the market was made up of mainly Druze owned stalls and stores. I wandered in to a store and chatted with the owner a little, and he offered me a chair and some sweet coffee, which I took. He was a nice guy, gregarious and witty, and we had a long talk. I missed the rest of that market, because by the time we had to go, I’d done nothing but sit with that one guy. He wanted to know why Americans look but never buy anything. I thought that was funny, because I think that the stereotype of Americans is that we buy everything regardless of quality or price.

When I left his store, my friends asked if I wasn’t scared that he might have drugged the coffee or something. You do have to be careful of people doing that to you, but not in a store in the middle of the day. If we’d been at a bar at night and someone offered me a free drink of something, I’d have been more worried. You have to be careful in Israel. Actually, they do that in many places, often to rob you (or worse), but I made it out of that market alive.
We went down to Tel Aviv, where Gilad gave me his Uzi. Gilad is a Kibbutznik, well liked by the foreigners for his sense of humor and relaxed attitude. I worked in the fields with him, so knew him well, but he also dated a Danish girl, and was friends with a lot of foreigners. He was with us that day as a guard. When the kibbutz sends people out into the desert, they like to have a guard go along for protection (what else would a guard be for?). Gilad and his Uzi accompanied us to the Lebanese border, but when we got to Tel Aviv, he figured he didn’t need to carry it around anymore.

So I carried it. Amazingly, I carried an Uzi through a shopping mall, up and down the streets of Tel Aviv, and into a restaurant without ever getting a second look from anyone. It’s juvenile to say this, I know, but it was cool. I can’t explain that any better, but it was.

One time I went to a mall in Beersheba (without an Uzi, of course), and there was an official guy at the entrance looking into people’s bags. He stopped me and asked if I had a weapon on me. I said no, and he let me pass. I was excited, because I’d just learned the word for weapon in Hebrew (the benefit of reading the newspaper as part of class), and knew what he was asking. Later I thought, “hey, if I was carrying a weapon, would I admit it?” But the answer is ‘probably.’ In Israel, there’s nothing secret about weapons, and it wouldn’t be at all unusual to find people with guns. For instance, Davidesco (my “adopted father”) carried a handgun whenever he worked in the fields alone. Weapons are a way of life over there.

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Finally we were getting ready to leave kibbutz Tse’elim! I had big plans to head to Turkey and Greece, then either across the water to Italy and up, or venture into Eastern Europe and across to the West, something that no one else I knew had ever done. Elisa was bouncing off the walls with excitement about her boyfriend coming to visit. They were going to Greece for a couple of weeks while the rest of us were still working on the kibbutz, then back to Israel and home for good. Fanny and Orith ended up going further into Asia, eventually teaching in Nepal, before returning to their respective continents. And everyone else had plans as well. It was getting exciting.

This was about the time of my birthday, so we had a little party at Dalia’s house to celebrate a variety of things. Dalia and Davidesco’s anniversary, their daughter, Il Il’s, birthday, my birthday, and Elisa’s going away. They gave us each gifts which I’ll never forget. For Elisa, a couple of pairs of underwear and some perfume. For me, socks and deodorant. I always smile when I think about those gifts and those friends. They were very sweet people.
For my birthday, the Russians helped me celebrate. The guys made me drink vodka with them, and the girls gave me three chocolate bars and three bottles of soap bubble stuff. So I did well that birthday on the kibbutz, then went to the disco and came home to sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking of being in Turkey very soon. All the days, including my birthday, were equally slow; I was lusting for travel, and Turkey was my exotic port of call.

There were other very exciting things happening in Israel at that time as well. The newest Peace Process was just getting started, and most of the world was crossing their fingers hoping for peace. There were, of course, also people hoping the deal would fall through. This was the time of the Hebron massacre that I mentioned earlier.

One man decided that crossing fingers wasn’t going to do it for him, so he took his assault rifle and went to kill a bunch of Muslims while they prayed in the Hebron mosque. Can you think of a more disgusting act than to shoot people while they pray with their backs turned to you? It was a horrible thing to do, and it affected everyone in Israel at the time. Of course, some Arabs who were fanatics blamed the Jews for it, which is clearly stupid. I don’t think the majority of Jews are obliged to take the blame for one man’s cowardice and idiocy. The vast majority of Jews in Israel and around the world were shocked and horrified by the shootings.

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And to add to the disturbing events in the world, I had my own disturbing event. I got sick.

Although I know now that I was probably never in any serious danger, it was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life, before or since. It began the day that Elisa left.

At first I just figured I had another ear infection, which is a common problem for me. Only a couple of weeks before, I had come down with a fever and had to take antibiotics for my ear.

Actually, that was a pretty strange story in itself. You see, on the kibbutz lived two nurses and no doctors. We had a doctor come by every Wednesday, but otherwise you were either seen by a nurse, or went into Beersheba to the hospital. There was a little nurse and a big nurse.
I liked the big nurse (who seemed competent and confident), better than the little one, who seemed to be guessing most of the time. On the day I went in for my fever a few weeks before, the little nurse was on duty, or on call, or whatever you call it. She was there. She looked in my ear and noticed something wrong; so she told me to put some drops in it, some cotton, and leave it alone. That night was excruciating. I sat impatiently at the door watching the big nurse open the clinic early the next morning. “My ear, “ I explained.

So the lady looked, “it’s very bad,” she says. That, and, “never, ever put cotton in it when it’s infected, the microbes grow better when there’s cotton in it.” So now I have the two nurses in dispute over the right way to grow microbes in my ear. My choice is clear, though. The little nurse had me rolling around on my bed in pain all night, the big nurse had me take antibiotics which cleared it up (at least symptom-wise) by nightfall. My vote is easy to cast.

So here I was, wishing Elisa off to meet her boyfriend Dan, while I felt a little feverish.

Well, Elisa, see you in a few days. I’m sure by then I’ll be back on antibiotics. Yeah, my ear must be acting up again. Take care!

But it wasn’t my ear, and the big nurse told me to skip work and sleep it off. That night I fought the fever enough to stumble my way to the dining hall. I thought, hey man, you’ve got to eat to stay healthy. But by the time I trudged halfway there, I was seeing colored lights all around me, on the street, in the trees, everywhere. I turned around and headed home thinking, boy, you’d better get some rest.

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The next few days were filled with 24 hour nausea, which eased for a few blessed minutes after each revolting trip to my so recently won private toilet. I was miserable. I remember Dalia and Davidesco coming to visit me, bringing food to cheer me up. Somehow they’d come up with french fries and hamburgers as the perfect food to revive me. Davidesco sat on one bed looking at me half sitting on the other, and laughed. I opened my eyes a little wider and grunted a question sort of grunt.

“Well,” he explained cheerily, “it’s funny to see you like this. Normally you’re everywhere at once, dancing around, ha ha ha! And now,” he pointed, in case I was missing the gist, “look!” I sat there, proving his point. They left.

Sometime while I was sick, Elisa came back with her boyfriend. The only thing I remember is that while they were there looking at me, I heard this noise from outside. It was Fanny and Orith at my door, singing and laughing. As they came in, I felt a little sicker just listening to them.

This must sound like exaggeration, or humor, but it isn’t. I literally felt sicker when they sang and laughed than when they were quiet. I don’t really understand it; I mean, I wasn’t trying to sleep or anything, but the sounds they made went straight to my stomach. It affected me enough to ask them to leave, which they took pretty badly. I’m sure they were trying to cheer me up or something, but it definitely wasn’t working, so what’s the point of letting them go on and on? They both wanted me to get better, of course, but they always seemed to go about it in a way which made things worse. Orith in particular had ideas about my health which affected me badly.

Somehow when people get sick, everyone else becomes a doctor. Oh, it’s because of stress, or something you ate, or too much of this but not enough of that. Everyone thinks that they have the answer, and I’m often surprised at the confidence people have when they prescribe whatever remedy they invent. This also happens with the actual person who’s sick. How many times have I talked to someone who’s sick, and he says, “yeah, it was that burger I had.” Or the fish. Or the sandwich. Somehow they always know just what it was that got them sick. Sometimes you can eat something bad and not get sick for a couple of days. Or you can come down with a virus that you picked up weeks or months or years ago. But whenever people are nauseous, their first instinct is to blame that new Chinese place near the post office. “Oh, I knew I shouldn’t have had Indian last night.” Yeah, but maybe you’re sick from handling money and not washing your hands.

I even knew a medical man who went in for that kind of thing. A dentist, he was traveling with his wife in Sumatra when he got sick. Now, in parts of Sumatra there’s a style of food called, after the city which made it famous, Padang food. A restaurant that serves traditional Padang food in Sumatra is sort of a health inspector’s nightmare (or dream, if he wants to break a case wide open!). There are many dishes, and when you sit down, they’re all put on your table. You take a piece of chicken off one plate, some of the vegetables off another, etc. The food is usually good, and almost always fiery-hot spicy, but it’s also a Russian Roulette of exotic dining.

That’s because whatever you don’t take off the serving plates goes back on the counter for the next diners. In most of Indonesia you eat with your fingers, so here you have people taking food (a little of this, a little of that) with their fingers, putting their fingers in their mouths, and taking more food from the plate. With vegetables you often just pull some of the green stuff away, and leave the rest of the green stuff sitting there. Now, you’d actually take a whole piece of chicken, for instance, rather than tear off a bit, but still – if you don’t eat the chicken, it will sit on table after table until someone does.

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And of course, the water in Indonesia is unsafe; but the plates, vegetables, and everything else is certainly washed with that water. The point is that there are plenty of ways to get sick. This guy, this dentist, said he was sick because of a particular thing he’d eaten at a particular time.

I said something along the lines of, “you’ve got to be kidding.” I mean, the guy’s been to dental school, he must have learned something about disease. But at least he’d been a little more scientific than the average idiot. Oh yeah, he’d compared diets with his wife.

What I mean is, he checked which meals he’d eaten with his wife, and what foods they had and had not shared. According to this guy, the only food that they didn’t share was the blahblah, or whatever it was that he blamed. I mentioned the possibility that he and his wife differ in the exact things to which they are susceptible. Isn’t it possible, for instance, that you both ate something that made you sick, without affecting your wife? Maybe she’s already acquired immunity, and you haven’t, for whatever you both ate. Or her defenses simply fought it off better. Now this is assuming that it had to be something in the food, as opposed to some other disease, or even something psychosomatic. The dentist snapped at me a bit, “I know all about the immune system, thank you!” Yeah, I thought, then why do you keep talking like you don’t? Maybe he was so sick that he couldn’t think straight.

So Orith wasn’t exactly original by coming up with her own theories of the cause of my sickness, but her diagnoses surprised me. Her first idea was that I just needed to get outside and breathe the fresh air. “You’ve been cramped in here for a week,” she started, “of course you don’t feel well. You have to get outside of this room if you want to be healthy! You’re sick because you’ve gotten no exercise!”

Do I really have to point out that I had only been inside since I was sick? I mean, I worked in the fields for God’s sake!

Her next theory was that it was my heater. I’d been getting chills, so had kept a space heater aimed at me almost all the time. Without it I couldn’t sleep because I shivered too much. Orith didn’t like it; didn’t like it one bit.

Rob, lemme tell you a story about what happened one day at home. I had a heater like this, and kept it on all night. By the morning, I was so tired, I couldn’t even go to school! They’re energy-suckers, Rob. You have to unplug yours to get your energy back.

And she did. She actually unplugged my heater and left the room. It took me ages to climb out of bed and set the thing up again, and I cannot get that moment out my memory. Orith, slowly, turning off my heat and leaving the room. She probably said some parting words of wisdom like, “you’ll thank me for this one day, Robert!” but I can’t be sure. I was concentrating on mentally stimulating the atoms around my head to produce heat.

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In the end I went back to the clinic on doctor’s day, but the doctor wasn’t there yet, so the nurse had a look and sent me home again. Luckily it wasn’t a long walk from my room to the clinic, but it was long enough. After a while back in my room, someone came and told me to go back to clinic. Pretty pissed off about all the back and forth, I made my way into the little building where the nurses and the doctor were waiting for me.

They gave me fluids by IV, told me to lie down, and took my temperature, etc. Everything the doctor did registered as completely routine until she asked me about the potatoes.

At first we tried to speak in Hebrew, but I really couldn’t understand anything, so we switched to English. Her accent came out very thick and stilted, but I could follow what she was saying.

“Have… you.. had.. po-ta-toes?” I sort of sat there for a minute, thinking about that question. I’ve been poisoned by bad potatoes. “Of course I have,” I said, “they have them every day at the dining hall. Of course I have.” She sort of nodded her head and told me to lie back down.
As the fluids dripped into my body, I began to realize that the doctor simply could not be asking about potatoes. And then it hit me. “Hey,” I half-yelled, “did you ask me if I’d had Hepatitis?!?!?” Yes, she said, potatoes.

So they tested my blood, sent me home, and promised to let me know how the test came out. I wasn’t worried though; hepatitis sounded to me like a very serious disease, and I couldn’t believe it was possible. A day or two passed without anyone coming to tell me anything, so I went back to that clinic and asked the nurse what was happening. “Oh yes,” she answered lightly, “you have Hepatitis.” I slumped against the wall, shocked. So it wasn’t the heater after all. Of course, Orith probably blames the heater for spreading the hepatitis.

Hepatitis A generally has about a six week incubation period, which means that sometime around six weeks before I noticed it, I had eaten, or drunk, something contaminated. I knew nothing about the disease before I got it, and the only information I could get on the kibbutz was a 1970’s medical textbook. In fact, it wasn’t until I got home, six months later, and went to a doctor in the U.S. that I learned that you can only get it once. Until then, I was afraid of relapsing every time I felt the slightest bit unwell. I think the lack of information kept me scared a lot more than I should have been, but I guess that’s part of the deal. If you live overseas, you give up some of the things that could comfort you at home. I never saw the doctor again, so just had to take nurse’s word for my treatment; that word was: rest. Easy advice to follow.

Around this time the Wonderful and Compassionate Kibbutz Committee decided that I should no longer be allowed to eat in the dining hall, to prevent me spreading the disease. This is a ridiculous response considering that Hepatitis is not spread by just being in the same room with the ill person. If I was handling the preparation of the food, then they’d have a very good point. But to bar me from sitting in a room with other people while they eat is just silly. I was asked to go to the hall, fill plastic bags with food, and take them back to my room to eat.

Ironically, although I couldn’t spread Hepatitis by eating in the same room as everyone, I could more likely spread it by filling my bag from the communal food tray! Ignorance in action, but I didn’t argue.

So just take a moment to pity the poor sad figure, all alone in his illness, sitting by himself in his little room, eating his meals from plastic bags like some stray cat. No balloons to cheer him up, no cards, no sympathetic phone calls or wet towels pressed lightly against the brow. I think I’m gonna cry.

After a month or so, I felt ready to pack up and make my way into the world again. The plan was to try backpacking in Israel for a week or so, and if all went well-off to Turkey. It was funny leaving the kibbutz, because most of my friends had already left while I was sick, so there was not a lot of gooddbying. Dalia and her family bid me farewell, and that about covered the formalities.

I bussed it to Jerusalem, where I met Elisa and Dan. The last time I’d seen them (and the only time I’d seen Dan), I was horizontal, so this time was more fun.

Jerusalem was celebrating Passover as I came into the city, and the place absolutely sang with activity. Unfortunately, the Hebron massacre still hung over Israel, and there were massive amounts of soldiers and police watching over the crowded Jewish quarter of the Old City.

Other than that, though, it was a party. Music, clowns, kids, balloons, the works. The only problem with Passover in Jerusalem is trying to find a decent dinner. The kind of food eaten on Passover is pretty restricted, so it took a real effort to eat well. I hung out enjoying the atmosphere for a while, felt strong, and left for Turkey, very excited and nervous.

Read on, if you dare, about my travels in Turkey.

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