Twenty five years ago this April, the seaside village of Yamit was destroyed. For people like Gary Mazal, one of the American olim who not only built it, but invested their hearts in it, the memories are as fresh as yesterday.
Mazal was a member of the first American garin (seed group) who made aliyah specifically to build Yamit, a different kind of community they believed would be a model for others to follow. The 25 garin members came from all over the US, lived like Bedouin on the sand, doing the backbreaking work themselves, pouring concrete, scraping roads out of dunes, constructing homes and a commercial center that would offer everything a flourishing community needed.
Seven years after construction began, the young Jews were evacuated, their homes bulldozed into rubble. On April 26, 1982, pursuant to the Camp David Accords, the area that had been Yamit was handed over to the Egyptians.
Today, Mazal, 60, lives in a Beersheba apartment purchased with the settlement money he accepted upon leaving. A happy, upbeat kind of person, Mazal is in his 32nd year of work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, now running the library's book binding department. Locally, he's best known for his eidetic memory, his total recall for dates, times and numbers of any kind, a facility that's made him a lay authority on Israel's transportation system. Anything you want to know about trains, Mazal is the man to ask.
His iron-clad memory serves to remember Yamit, too, although for decades, the memories were too painful to entertain. Until a few years ago, he refused to talk about it at all. But when his daughter Tikva - born after Yamit - wanted to write a high school paper on the subject, he relented. "She deserved to know," he says. "But for me, Yamit was my own personal holocaust."
The loss of a home is one thing. The death of a dream is quite another. The Americans who came to built Yamit were true believers. They invested everything they had in Yamit, and for many, the loss was devastating. "We were all different," Mazal says of the group. "We came from different states. Most were married, about half had kids, and two of us were single guys. We ranged from secular to very observant. We had different levels of education and divergent interests, except when it came to Yamit. There we were all united: We would create a completely unique community, one where anyone, from any walk of life, would be welcome."
Mazal and his garin weren't the only believers. A government recruitment brochure from the time reads: "Yamit offers unparalleled opportunity for enterprising American and Canadian olim, a rare chance to build a wholesome future in a new model community whose development and growth pattern will be directly influenced by those living in it. Especially in these times of economic difficulty, Yamit offers the security of a solid group reinforced by government backing."
It was not hard to convince Mazal. Born Gary Bernard Maisals in Los Angeles - he'd planned on aliyah since his bar mitzvah. "After World War Two, my father went to work in his brother's grocery business, but when Safeway took over he became a postal clerk. He valued education. Even as a kid, I knew Israel was where I belonged, but my parents wanted me to finish college first. In 1957 we moved to New York, and I graduated from Far Rockaway High School. In 1973, I graduated from Baruch College with a degree in finance and economics, having worked in banks all through school. Right away, I booked my ticket for Israel - I'd fly out on October 7, 1973. I quit my job at Amalgamated Bank, packed, and was ready to leave right after Yom Kippur. On October 6 my flight was cancelled - the War had started, and Israel needed all its planes. I went back to work at the bank and stayed six months longer."
The Yamit garin - Halutzei Yamit - had already formed, but when Mazal's flight was cancelled, he was able to join. "They needed a finance man, and that's what I was. We got together on March 15-17, 1974 at a Philadelphia hotel, with an aliyah date of April 16. We flew out, but it took three days to get to Israel. Our 'direct' flight stopped in Vienna to take on a contingent of Russian immigrants. They piled in, sitting two and three to a seat. Most had never been on an airplane before. One kid had never eaten a steak, so I gave him mine - I was too excited to eat, anyway. We landed, were sent to a hotel in Tel Aviv's red light district, and the next day got a van to WUJS [the World Union of Jewish Students ulpan] in Arad," he recalls.
"A week later they took us to Yamit for the first time - we had a picnic in the sand. There was nothing else there at all: just sand."
Sand was not quite what the group expected. "We'd been led to believe there was something there," Mazal says. "We were a little disappointed, but mostly we wanted to start work. But first we had to finish ulpan."
Mazal's financial skills didn't go unnoticed. While still at WUJS, he was hired to do budgetary work for the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem and didn't rejoin the garin until shortly before they left for Yamit. "We began building Yamit on January 17, 1975," he recounts. "There were no roads, no walkways, no buildings, no nothing. We lived like Bedouins. For the first six weeks, I had no electricity or gas. In the morning I'd go to the well for my daily supply of water. But none of us really minded. We were doing what we set out to do: building our own community."
Temporary housing arrived on the back of a truck. "I was single, so I got a 23 square meter flat. Married couples got larger units. There were about 55 people at first. We were 25, there were about 25 Russians and a few workers. We saw ourselves as the vanguard for a paradise on the sea, a city the government planned for 200,000 people, intended to serve as a buffer for Gaza. We'd have a port, a flour mill, a Dead Sea canal and even a university. We laid the cornerstone for Yeshivat Yamit - our rabbi had eleven kids, so we needed it. In our minds, there was nothing we couldn't do. Day and night, we dreamed of everything we'd create."
Once again, Mazal's facility with numbers served him well. "On November 2, I started working for BGU. Every morning, three doctors and I commuted to Beersheba. We took turns driving - by car, it took about an hour, by bus, about two-and-a-half. We'd leave at 6:45 am, they'd go to Soroka, I'd go to BGU, and then at 3pm we'd start home. Sometimes transportation broke down - I used donkey carts, horses, once I even rode a camel for eight kilometers. But I was young, and it was exciting. I never used any vacation time. I never wanted to leave."
The commuting doctors worked double shifts. "We'd be home by 4 pm, but then the doctors put in another three hours treating patients in Yamit. They were the only doctors, so our sick had to wait.
"The commute went fast. We were always planning. They were dividing up the territory, deciding who was going to establish clinics in what part of the city. A city of 200,000 would need several clinics and hospitals, and we were the first ones there."
By the second year, there were 100 families. "We were already talking about the good old days when we had no pavements, no electricity, no telephones."
It didn't take long for Mazal to develop a business sideline, making him the 'Meatman of Yamit.' "It started when our chug leader from New York gave me a steak. It was great. I told him I'd like to buy more, and take them home. So he put me in touch with a guy in Rehovot who owned [a meat company.] He made me an offer: 'Why don't you sell ten-kilo boxes for us?' That sounded good, but I wondered what I'd get out of it. 'We can't pay you a salary,' he told me, ''but we'll give you meat. You sell 20 kilos, and we'll give you two.' That was fine with me - and besides that, they bought a freezer and paid the electric bill for the whole house. Business boomed, and I started selling to all kinds of people. I'd bring the meat down on consignment, and resell it out of my house."
"Then one of the Beduin chiefs came to me. At the time, Carol Rosenblatt was running the Beach House, a social center, so the Beduin asked if I'd sell him chopped meat. He'd noticed that lots of Israelis went to the beach on Shabbat, and if he could buy meat from me, he'd barbeque it and sell it with pita and salad to the Israelis. That was fine with me, but I couldn't be involved because I was observant, and couldn't do business on Shabbat. So I told the Beduin he could just go help himself to the meat from my house. He did, and it worked well. Everyone was happy. If someone asked the Beduin about the meat, he'd reassure them, 'It's not only kosher, it's glatt kosher. You don't have to worry!'"
Relations with local Arabs were very different then, Mazal says. "The Arabs were glad to see us - they knew our presence meant jobs, that we'd bring economic benefits. I don't remember ever feeling afraid. I started selling fish, too - I'd drive to El Arish, in Egypt, where the Arabs would wade into the sea, net fish, clean them and put them in my containers. I'd drive in, collect the full containers, and leave empty ones for next week. Then I'd resell the fish in Yamit. It wasn't a problem: The Beduin guy would come into my house and help himself to the meat. I'd go to Egypt to buy fish. It was a different time. I never carried a weapon - I never needed one. We depended on each other. We got along."
Mazal's wedding was Yamit's first, an event reported with great fanfare in the local newspaper, The Yamiton. "My first wife, Gila, was a secretary for Time Magazine. We were married in May 1977, and celebrated our son Moshe's brit [circumcision] on July 10, 1978. His wasn't the first brit, but it was the first of a child born to parents wed in Yamit. In many ways, Moshe's brit was the last happy event."
The Camp David Accords were complete in September 1978, and rumors of a government pullout began circulating. "Investors began pulling out, including the guy who'd put up $400,000 for the first hotel. But they were still selling lots, so we built our dream home. It was an incredible place - 240 meters. It had everything we wanted."
Troubles trickled down. "The three of us who were going to build the hotel hired an architect to draw up plans. He charged us $5,000, but when the investor pulled out we couldn't pay. So one day, I came out to my little orange Renault - the one I used for my meat business - and my roof rack was gone! I couldn't believe it - I knew a Beduin hadn't taken it, because it wouldn't fit on a camel," Mazal laughs. "I called the police - we had two cops, plus two jail cells that were never used. They finally found it in Beersheba - the architect had stolen it. He pleaded guilty, and as a part of his sentence, he had to bring it back and put it back on my car. He finally got paid - it came off the top of my government settlement."
As the demise of Yamit approached, the pain and disillusionment the residents felt was beyond explaining, says Mazal. "It was horrific. In the larger community, we had eight suicides and 50 divorces - mine, among them. Half our garin went back to the US. You can't imagine the despair. One day, just after mincha, I was sitting in my living room when the guy in the house next to mine - an army guy with three boys - shot himself. The bullet went through his window, through my bedroom window, and lodged in my closet, where the police had to dig it out. We were losing everything we'd dreamed of and worked for. It was very difficult."
The end came quickly. On April 25, 1982, the IDF carried off the last of the Yamit residents. "I wasn't a protestor," Mazal says. "I couldn't afford it - I had a three year-old son to raise. I accepted the government offer and left on February 8. I was lucky: I had a good job and was in Israel for the long haul. They could destroy my home, but I'd never let them destroy my soul. I divided the settlement money three ways, splitting it with my former wife and a third in trust, for our son Moshe. Just a few months ago Moshe - who's now 29, married, with two children - used his share to buy his own home."
The last day was painful. "I didn't have to go alone. My Rav, Rabbi Natan Reisner, came with me. We drove back, turned in the keys, paid off the last water bill. Then we just drove away. 'Don't look back,' Rav Reisner told me, and I didn't. I didn't turn around. I didn't look back."
"Until the end, I never had a sad day in Yamit. I was always happy. It was a paradise. Now I get up every morning, say 'modeh ani', the Shma, and just think I'm so happy to be alive. I have two wonderful children, I have grandchildren, and I was given a chance to live in Yamit. Every day there was a blessing."