Big dreams, modest spaces: Minimalist living with a purpose

Plenty of Israelis, especially young families, live in modest spaces for a variety of economic and ideological purposes.

Esti and Bnaya Ben-David have been living in a 36-square-meter bus for almost two years (photo credit: BNAYA BEN-DAVID)
Esti and Bnaya Ben-David have been living in a 36-square-meter bus for almost two years
(photo credit: BNAYA BEN-DAVID)
There’s minimalism.
Then there’s Emma, a young Australian who lives in eight square meters in downtown Tokyo. In 2017, Emma’s teeny home, for which she pays the equivalent of NIS 2,100 ($620) per month, was featured on “Living Big in a Tiny House,” a popular website run by New Zealander Bryce Langston.
Maybe no one in Israel lives in just eight square meters, but plenty of people live in modest spaces, including caravans; eshkubiot (prefabricated concrete homes averaging 40 to 45 sq.m.); and even a renovated Egged bus.
Esti and Bnaya Ben-David have been living in a 36-square-meter bus for almost two years. Although they don’t remember where they first got the idea, it took the couple, who have been married two and a half years, almost a year to rehab the bus they bought from a friend. They moved in six months into the project and finished it a little at a time, doing all the work themselves.
“We decided we didn’t want to rent an apartment. We wanted to put money into something that would stay ours,” explained Esti Ben-David. Since they added a small room in the back for a shower, their home isn’t mobile. It’s currently parked on her parents’ property in Bat Ayin, south of Jerusalem.
There are a lot of windows, so in the winter it can get cold. That’s the only downside Ben-David can think of. “It’s not really hard [to live in this space]. We’re having a good time. We really enjoy that it’s compact. Right now, we have no plans to move. We have a garden and a good view.
“We don’t pay rent. We have no mortgage. This bus is ours if we want to sell it or we can move it someplace else. It’s very cozy! You need to be an open-minded, out-of-the-box thinker to live like this. It’s kind of an adventure. It’s not a standard home.
“Also, it helps if you don’t care what other people around you think, and you realize that you don’t need so much stuff in your life.” Ben-David said they can comfortably host five or six guests and they have rented out their unusual home on Airbnb.
The Ben-Davids may be among the few Israelis living in a renovated Egged bus, but plenty of people, especially young families, live in caravans and eshkubiot.
Motivated by economic considerations, Yonina Rubenstein has been living in an eshkubit with her husband and three children in Mitzpe Yeriho, east of Jerusalem, since 2011. Although, “the small space gets messy quickly, there’s a tiny kitchen and very little privacy,” Rubenstein recounted that, “I gave birth in mine two years ago, unplanned, and none of the neighbors heard.”
Lisa Cain, who now lives in a proper house in Mitzpe Yeriho, lived in an eshkubit for a year until their permanent house was built. Her strongest memories are weather-related. “We were too cheap to get an air conditioner and suffered a lot from the heat. But there was a kind of sleep-away camp feeling. The neighbors were actually cool and when it wasn’t too muddy, we sat outside and shmoozed.
“One of the neighbors had a petting zoo. The peacocks used to escape and perch on our roof. Their call was really amazing, and of course they were beautiful.”
Cain believes that it’s helpful to be “thick-skinned and easygoing [and to] have a good sense of humor.” Resourcefulness is also a quality that can help make life in an eshkubit more comfortable and, based on her hot and sweaty year, she highly recommends installing an air conditioner.
Cain’s favorite memory of that year is of sharing beer, wine and kosher barbecues with some of the original students of Biblical archeologist Vendyl Jones who stayed next door. “For me, that was the entire payoff for being in an eshkubit,” Cain reminisced.
For Aviela Deitch, living in a caravan in Migron, 14 kilometers north of Jerusalem, is more than a one-year stint. She and her family have been living in a caravan since 2011. “The cold is the hardest part,” she reported. “Not enough space is also an issue, but the cold is worse.”
Lacking “proper insulation, doors and windows that close the wind out,” the Deitch caravan isn’t quite the adventure it is for some couples in their first year of marriage. Lack of privacy is also an issue.
“When my husband and I have to have a long conversation without kids, we go and have a pizza date. I often have phone conversations on a cordless phone outside. My neighbors don’t speak English, so in that way, I have privacy from them.
“Originally, we had ideological reasons for moving to Migron and this was the only [housing] option. We’re still here because of the kids’ educational needs.”
While coveting “a certain self-worth that comes from living in something that isn’t constantly falling apart,” Deitch jokes that she has developed “improved hand-eye coordination gained by moving buckets around to catch the leaks.”
Another benefit is getting by with less. “We’ve downsized our masses of belongings in order to be able to keep it tidy. That was liberating,” Deitch said.
Perhaps time smooths over the challenges of caravan life. Ideology certain helps. Debby Zweibach now lives in Ma’aleh Adumim, but from 1983 to 1986, she, her husband and two young children lived in a caravan in Eli, in Samaria.
“It was an exciting time. We felt we were making an impact on developing Judea and Samaria. It was during the time there was active building of new settlements. I wanted to be involved in settling our land. We were looking into brand new communities that had the vision we had, developing the land on which our forefathers had lived and walked.
“We had many trials and tribulations living there, but it was such an incredible feeling living and developing a new yishuv. The caravan was small and we had little space, but it was on a piece of land; we spent a lot of time outdoors. We were less concerned about our private lives or material needs and creature comforts. We were a community with a goal.
“We only had a generator for electricity, which was turned on 12 hours a day. It came on in the evening and went off in the morning. When coming home from work, and especially on Thursdays, I had to quickly prepare for Shabbat, do the laundry and take care of anything that needed electricity. Since there was little space, I could do it all without moving. The kitchen and washing machine were in the same small area, so I used the top of the washing machine to prepare food.”
According to Zweibach, the challenge of living in a small space paid great family dividends. “My kids had little space in the house to move, so they played near and around me. We were very close and spent a lot of quality time together. We read a lot of stories and played a lot of imaginative games together. When we didn’t have community activities and weren’t entertaining others, we were home cuddling together on our beds or on the sofa talking.”
Ultimately, the family left Eli, “because of the dangerous roads. My husband made frequent trips to Jerusalem and had a few close calls on the roads late at night. After dwelling in under 30 square meters, we moved into a 4.5-room apartment. We couldn’t imagine what we would do with all the space. Today I wonder how we lived in such a confined area, but then it didn’t even occur to me, because it all seemed so natural and important. I felt I was making a difference for the country and making history.”
Ideology also motivated Malkah Fleisher, who has only great memories of caravan life.
“I lived in a caravan on a mountaintop in the biblical city of Beit El with my husband for seven years. It was an amazing experience. As olim, we were proud to take up the Zionist banner of settling the land.
“A caravan is a wonderful place for a young couple. You have your own four walls, and often live in a small community of like-minded people [who are] also starting out with little. It’s an environment that fosters sharing, creativity and simple joys – like sweet breezes, home-cooked meals, dreams for the future and the sound of birds scuttling across the roof in the morning.
“Living in a caravan wasn’t hard at all – it was incredible. We had all the privacy we needed by shutting the curtains. We didn’t feel that we were sacrificing anything. [We felt] the opposite. We felt free. Life was cheap and easy. There was practically no ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ We saw each other’s success as our own, and as the success of our new neighborhood and of our country.
“We certainly moved to the caravan out of ideology. Being pioneers in our ancient homeland was the pride of our lives.
“Today, I live in a five-bedroom apartment with my husband and our three children. When I think back, I remember the sweetness and happiness of that time when everything was so simple, easy and bright. If you had a delicious meal in your stomach, gas in your car (if you had one), and even something as luxurious as an air conditioner to keep you warm or cool, you felt rich and happy,” Fleisher mused.
Cincy Kaplan of Itamar described her family’s experience living in a caravan in Givat Alumot, Itamar, from 2016 to 2017 far less idyllically.
“I lived with my husband and son, who was six months old when we moved in. I gave birth to our daughter a few months before we moved out.”
It wasn’t all sweetness and light for the young Kaplans.
“This particular caravan was very, very old and falling apart. You could literally see sunshine through cracks between the walls and ceiling. Terrible living conditions certainly put stress on my marriage.
“Our choice to live on the giva [hill] was ideological. Our choice to live in a caravan was simply because it was the only option without building a house there.” There were social implications as well.
“On the one hand, we had a lot of privacy because we were 50 meters from one neighbor and maybe 200 meters from the next-closest neighbor. On the other hand, there are only 15 families on the giva and people get way too into each other’s business.
“In theory, we saved money. But it’s also worth mentioning that living so far out comes with its own costs. You have to have at least one car. Heating was expensive and we had to have backup heat and water. To be happy, you have to be a super minimalist, not have more than two kids. Even with two kids, it’s a lot of stuff for a small space. And it’s only realistic temporarily.”
Hanna Sara Katz and her husband have been living in a caravan since getting married in 2015. In fact, they are in their second caravan. The first was in Otniel near Hebron. Today they live in a similar caravan in Kedumim in Samaria.
“Living in a caravan is no harder than living in any other 50-meter space,” Katz asserted.
The lack of insulation is an issue for nearly every caravan dweller.
“Our bathroom is freezing in the winter and boiling hot in the summer. The main room and our bedroom have wall units, so they’re comfortable.”
Katz noted that design is as much of an issue as actual space.
“The kitchen is incredibly minimal and designed in a way that forces you to waste precious space. We completely renovated our first caravan, and fit 50% more counter space and two to three times as much cabinet space in the same corner. I think nobody cares enough to design a space-efficient kitchen for caravans.”
Although “living a caravan means living in a relatively remote location, there are some great benefits, which made this decision pretty clear to us,” Katz explained.
“Nowhere in the country will you find a 50-meter, two-bedroom apartment as cheap as a caravan. We briefly considered living in a city because it would be easier to live somewhere with better infrastructure, but we did the math and it’s no more expensive to live in a caravan with a car than to live in a city without one.
“It’s a free-standing structure. We don’t have neighbors rearranging the furniture above us at 2 a.m., someone else’s baby crying on the other side of the wall or flights of stairs to climb. And we have space for a sukka right outside our front door.
“We don’t have a landlord. We deal directly with the yishuv, which means we won’t get kicked out because the owner wants the apartment. Our rent won’t be raised by insane amounts, and if things need to be fixed that are the yishuv’s responsibility, they take care of it.
“We live in a neighborhood of 29 caravans, and while there is something to be said for diversity of age groups, it’s really nice that all our neighbors are in a similar stage of life. On the other hand, caravan communities, from what we’ve seen, tend not to be heavily populated with Anglos, so it’s hard if you’re not integrated into Israeli society. And because the community is primarily young families, the entire place nearly empties out for holidays, which can also be harder for olim with no family in Israel.
“It’s a small space, but it’s cozy and comfortable and it was recently renovated. We fit 17 people in our house for a meal when we first moved in. I’ve seen plenty of apartments in far worse condition and the money we save by living here affords us luxuries in other areas of life.”
Sarah and Avraham Solomon lived in a caravan attached to the hesder yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumim from 2016 to 2017.
“We always emphasized that this was a temporary dwelling and that was part of what made it fun. We were like Avraham and Sarah from the Bible. We are in fact Avraham and Sarah, just a more modern version,” Solomon joked.
What helped the couple cope with the lack of space and the plethora of ants was “a sense of humor about every setback. Our yeshiva has 17 apartments [and there were 18 young couples] that year. We lost the drawing, so the rest is history. I guess you can say we got exiled to the desert.”
In her interview with Langston, Emma from Australia shared her belief that being contained in a small space “makes you think a bit more. It keeps you creative. Because you have to be so selective with your possessions, I choose only things that mean a lot to me.”
That’s a great lesson in minimalist living, whether you occupy a mere eight square meters or have significantly more space in which to live out your days.