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In the spring of 1985 I called the Israel Embassy in the U.S. which referred me to the Aliyah Desk which concerns itself with funneling Jews who want to "make aliyah" into a kibbutz (communal settlement) to learn Hebrew while working off their room and board. (Aliyah comes from "lay-ah-lote" which means "to go up" as in going up to Jerusalem to worship.) Fortunately for me, they will accept 10% Gentiles as the Tanach (Old Testament) is written in Hebrew and they want to share this program out of mutual interest.
Due to the fact that the program has the age limit of 35 (and I would be 37 at the start of the fall five month commitment) I was told never to call again after calling quite a few times. I needed to return one of their calls but I sat down on the floor in the living room and said to my lord, "I'm not moving from this spot until you tell me I'm going to Israel or not." He immediately said, "You are going." So I called and I was told I was not going.
On the last Friday before my plane was leaving for Amsterdam on Monday I called and said, "It's 1 pm here, 4 pm in New York. They can telex Israel and let us know on Sunday or Monday if I'm going. Please don't be angry but I'm going to call Monday from the airport." Monday I called as the plane was boarding and the person said, "Mazel Tov, Elizabeth, you'll be going to Ma'ayan Zvi. Say that a few times. When you get to Haifa, go to the bus station and say, "Ma'ayan Zvi" and they will put you on the bus. Tell the bus driver "Ma'ayan Zvi" and he will tell you when to get off. And so it was.
When I got to Ma'ayan Zvi, I was directed to the Ulpan (Intensive Hebrew Study Program) office. As I told them my name, I was immediately told to take some clean folded clothes from the laundry and climb the very tall ladder and put them away in the cupboard. I did so. While I was at the top of the ladder the woman said, "You are 37; you can't be here." But then she said, "Well, you climbed the ladder; you probably can work ok."
I entered Kee-tah bet which is the intermediate class. I had had biblical Hebrew in seminary and they decided my motivation was high and the class knowledge level was lower than usual. I was sitting with people from France, Sweden, Argentina, you name it. We had only one choice: to communicate in Hebrew. We immediately had to learn the Modern Hebrew written alphabet which was different than biblical Hebrew. We worked 4-6 hours a day at the job next to your name the evening before and studied in class 3-4 hours a day. The rest of the time I had to study as I did not have the background of preparation the Jewish persons had. I was lonely as I had to spend so much time alone with books.
You want to know what work I did? I cut up tomatoes for 800. I wiped tables and filled salt and pepper shakers for 800. I gave baby turkeys their shots. I cooked breakfast for the downstairs (sea level) crew and cleaned up after. I cleaned out irrigation pipe in the banana trees (smelly!). I washed a lot of very large pots and pans for 800. I helped cover hanging bananas with what appeared to be trash bags to keep the overbearing cold and direct sunlight off them. After the evening meal, you looked for your name, your job, the location and the time you had to report. You set your alarm. One day it could be 7 am, the next 5 am.
It appears this kibbutz may not exist anymore but may have become a tourist bed and breakfast inn and a fishing spot. It was settled largely by survivors of the Holocaust camps in Europe. Many had numbers tattooed on their arms. My Hebrew teacher illegally purchased and outfitted ships to illegally bring Jews to Israel. They could not land but had to jump out of the ships at night and swim to shore near Caesarea. From there they would be escorted into the hills and disappear. My understanding is that they recovered the productive kibbutz from malarial swamps after purchasing the land and receiving title. Everyone works! If you are very old, you may be in charge of the library which is open only a few hours a week. In this kibbutz children lived with their parents until they were older and then lived in a high rise dorm. Kids are given to the opportunity to leave the kibbutz to see if they want to come back or develop a life elsewhere. My kibbutz dad was older and had a color TV. I remember watching "Out of Africa" with Robert Redford holding hands with his lady friend while flying over animals running in herds in Africa. We in the Ulpan did not have a TV so this was a special treat.
I became friends with a variety of people who spoke different languages. My kibbutz dad did not like to speak his native language, German, because of how life turned on him in Europe. But if I seemed not to understand what someone said in Hebrew, he would repeat it in German. Someone else might only speak English and Yiddish. It's amazing but you learn in about two minutes how it's going to work and the conversation moves as fast as any you've ever had.
Once you make a commitment to work and study for five months, you do not break it or leave. It might be different than you thought it would be. Having no water or no hot water or the heat being turned off at bedtime or having to work in wet clothes as you only have three sets (one on, one about to go to the laundry and one you will pick up tomorrow from the laundry). If you are sick, you must present yourself to the doctor, not stay in bed. You work 5 1/2+ days a week and only get to leave once a month as the busses stop running for the Sabbath just about the time you get off work on Friday.
At the end of five months you must leave, no exceptions. I was afraid of being on my own and signed up for a second kibbutz that started the day after this one ended. I had to turn in my clothes, coat and shoes before leaving. I had to borrow a coat from another friend not on the kibbutz as it was winter. When I arrived at the second kibbutz they told me to come back in a week. Fortunately, a good friend had told me a place I could go. I showed up there and knocked on the door and mentioned his name. I stayed there a week and had my first sauna. The etiquette was to buy food at the market in exchange for lodging, mainly avocados, bread, tomatoes, etc.
My second kibbutz, Kibbutz En Dor, was very different from the first one. It was wealthier and had connections to Argentina for purchasing beef. So we had meat at times. They paid for our postage and I was a heavy user. If they were handing out watermelons to the kibbutzniks, we were given watermelon also. The work I did there was to take care of young children. At this kibbutz children do not live with their parents but in children's houses. I helped them get dressed, eat, and play and take their naps until about dinner time when they would eat with their parents. At night they slept alone. The night watchman could hear every noise via intercom and dispatch someone to check if there seemed to be a problem.
I was in "kee-tah bet" again as my reading and writing Hebrew was good but my speaking was not good enough to be promoted. The 2+ year old kids thought I was Albert Einstein as I talked to them in Hebrew simply. I would say, "I'm putting on your socks, your white socks. I'm putting on your shoes, your nice read shoes." They know I spoke English also which impressed them. One parent would speak one language with the child and the other parent would speak a different language with the child so both would be learned without confusion. So I appeared to be smarter than both parents! It was a treat to take care of these kids. If one would get restless and want to get up during naptime, I would just go in and announce once in Hebrew matter-of-factly, "It's not time to get up." The child would dive back down and get ready to sleep.
I took care of older kids also at times as a fill-in, perhaps up to 6th grade. These kids are really secure and are individuals who co-operate. It was said that the best fighter pilots in Israel are from the kibbutz. Later, when I was on an archaeological dig, a group of kibbutz kids came in and were given shovels and buckets and shown how to dig. It was extremely hot in the direct summer sun and they all dived in with not one complaint until they were told to stop. I have to tell you, on the dig, the teenagers would work for 20 minutes and then say they were tired or it was too hot. The older adults with obvious pain would just keep working not wanting to be overcome on the challenge.
I did quite a few things during the year I was there. In the summer of 1986 the usual terrorist activity was being told on the news probably because of the Achille Lauro hijacking on October 7, 1985. Tourists stayed away in droves. It actually worked to my advantage as I could stay in really inexpensive hostels without reservations. I also learned to scuba dive in Hebrew in Eilat, Israel. One Saturday evening in a church in Jerusalem the lord said to me, "Learn to scuba dive." So I did. I am still alive! I rode camels in the desert. I was a guide to a woman visiting from India (Hi, Nellie!). When I hugged her goodbye, the lord said to me, "If you go to the bathroom, you will miss your bus." I had a month long bus pass and nowhere to go, so I headed for the bathroom. I heard my name called and got on the bus. Usually, busses are full with people standing but there was one seat left next to a friend. He told me I would stay at his apartment for as long as I needed. I told him I didn't need it but I was wrong. I stayed there for three weeks getting an airline ticket home. I left him my sleeping bag and other things in short supply at the time.
I have not been back to Israel since the day I took an Egged (bus) tour to Masada to photograph the cisterns that had to last three years. I took a mud bath at the Dead Sea. I did this because my plane left at 11 pm and I didn't want to cry and be sad all day. They dropped me off at the airport.
We stopped in Paris for fuel and then flew over the Atlantic at night. As it was getting light, the Orthodox walked around the plane reciting their prayers. As we approached JFK, it was clear the Orthodox were going to finish rather than sit down and get ready for landing. Unless you have lived in Israel you will simply not understand the happy roar and jubilation when the plane hits the runway and the plane has landed safely. This was October of 1986. Perhaps we have tasted a bit of what Israel goes through since then.
Here is one story which shows how Israelis are. I got on a bus going a long distance. There was one seat left but it was filled completely with packages. I asked the woman to move the packages so I could sit there. She refused. I could either stand for hours or ask her again to move the packages. She refused again. So I moved past her and began to sit on her packages as impossible as that would have been. She quickly moved the packages so I wouldn't destroy them. Within about two minutes she asked me who I was and where I was from. She asked me if I was hungry, if I had a place to stay. If not, I could stay with her. I have heard Israelis are like prickly pears on the outside but sweet on the inside. Remember that and don't miss out on a friendship!
Will I go back to Israel? I will if the lord leads. He told me, "Go to Israel, and it's not negotiable" in 1985. He can do it again. I can't think of going there for just a few days.
Last Updated: 05/17/2012