Arrivals: Tomatoes to bookbinding to sequins


Yisrael Davies is nothing if not adaptable.
Raised in Manchester, England, he met Belfast-born Malka Rubinstein when her family came to live in his hometown.
“My parents knew her grandparents,” he explains.
They went to meetings of Zionist youth organization Bnei Akiva together and were like-minded in matters of faith.
“Even though Manchester is a cold city in weather conditions, it’s very warm in religious conditions,” says Davies, who was active in the local synagogue and communal council.
The couple wed 49 years ago and later became doubly related when Yisrael’s widowed father married Malka’s widowed mother.
“It was a fantastic marriage and they were married over 20 years,” Davies says.
In 1978, when their two children were still toddlers, the Davies family came to Israel on a summer holiday. Yisrael stayed for a week and Malka remained another week with the kids.
Malka had an epiphany during a walk through Independence Park in Jerusalem.
“She said to herself, ‘There is no way I will stay in England.’ When she came back, she said to me, ‘We’re going on aliyah,’ and that’s what we did,” says Yisrael.
They arrived in Israel in January 1979 with their four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son.
“We came only with two big suitcases. We rented out our house in Manchester and sold it about a year later,” he relates.
For the next 15 months, the family lived at Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak, where Malka and Yisrael attended an intensive language ulpan. The conditions were a bit of a shock.
“Coming from England, I couldn’t believe how primitive it was at that time,” Davies recalls.
But he would prove himself a pioneer.
“One day, somebody from the Jewish Agency came to the kibbutz and said they were looking for people to go and live in Gush Katif,” he says.
This idea appealed to Yisrael and Malka.
“It was an opportunity for a new adventure, a new life, a new beginning.”
And so, in 1980, the Davies family moved to Moshav Katif, a cooperative village in the Gaza Strip. The kids went to school in the nearby moshav of Ganei Tal.
In England, Davies had worked as a shirt designer. In Moshav Katif, he became a tomato farmer.
Tomatoes were a major source of income for the settlers of the Gush Katif bloc. At its peak, before the expulsion in 2005, Katif-grown produce – which also included bug-free greens, peppers, herbs and geraniums – accounted for 10% of all agricultural produce raised in Israel, 45% of Israel’s tomato exports and 95% of its cherry-tomato exports.
Although one Israeli agricultural expert declared upon the establishment of Israeli settlements in the sandy Gaza Strip in the 1970s that “hairs will grow on the palm of my hand if anything can be grown on this land,” Davies explains that the surprising success of the seaside hothouses was in no small measure due to the vision of a fellow English émigré, Eddie Peretz.
“HE TOLD the Jewish Agency it was possible to grow tomatoes in sand. They thought he was crazy. Eddie came to Gush Katif once a month to instruct the farmers how to grow tomatoes, and it became a major export,” says Davies.
In Moshav Katif, both Malka and Yisrael picked tomatoes in the hothouses, and took on a variety of other responsibilities in the small community. “We were the only family on the moshav with two phones – one for private use and one for the moshav so that parents could call from overseas to talk to their children,” Davies says.
But after four-and-a-half years, the family decided to leave because “there weren’t enough children our children’s age, and children have to have friends.”
They chose to settle in Ma’aleh Adumim, clear across the country. Today, this city on the outskirts of Jerusalem is one of the largest in Judea and Samaria. In 1984, when the Davieses arrived, it was not yet 10 years old and not very big.
There are no tomato hothouses in the area, but that didn’t deter Davies.
“I had work right away,” he says. How? “I went knocking on doors. I always told my children, if you want a job, don’t go to adverts in the newspaper. Go knock on doors. Almost everyone will say no, but one will say yes.”
His new job was bookbinding in Mishor Adumim, the industrial area of Ma’aleh Adumim.
“I learned on the job and became a master bookbinder, a profession I continued for 25 years.” He still fixes bindings as a free service for local synagogues.
Meanwhile, the children grew up and started families of their own. Their daughter lives in Shvut Rachel and is married to an accountant with the Health Ministry. They have five children, one of whom got married in May. Their son, an electrical engineer, lives in Petah Tikva, is married to a teacher and has three children.
Malka recently retired after 21 years as a secretary for an optical company. She enjoys word puzzles and Israeli dancing.
Yisrael has been volunteering for five years at Yad Sarah and at Beit Frankforter, a day care for the elderly in Jerusalem. Since the coronavirus situation put volunteering on hold, he embarked on a new hobby, making art with sequins.
“I’ve always been interested in artistic things,” he explains.
Gluing the tiny sequins into words or pictures requires special eyeglasses, which he bought in Petah Tikva. A picture of the Israeli flag that took him two weeks to complete contains 12,000 sequins – 1,000 for each of the 12 tribes.
Another favorite activity is serving as a volunteer cantor in several neighborhood synagogues, something he’s been doing since his bar mitzvah.
“I am so busy, I barely have time for myself,” he says. “I’ve always been a person who likes to help people.”
The Davies are quite content in Ma’aleh Adumim after 35 years. They live in the same apartment they bought when they moved from Moshav Katif.
“What I get from above is all I need,” says Davies. “I don’t need anything fancy.”