Moshav memories – The farmer’s mate

You can’t imagine how beautiful is the end of the day in summer on a moshav. And who knew that cows had a sex life?

‘CROUCH DOWN, thrust in your hand and feel the smoothness and firmness of a large, perfect tomato.’ (photo credit: FLICKR)
‘CROUCH DOWN, thrust in your hand and feel the smoothness and firmness of a large, perfect tomato.’
(photo credit: FLICKR)
Basically, I am a city person. I like the feel of pavement under my feet. I identify with bright lights, sophisticated conversation, theaters, reasonable access to a hairdressing salon, and most important of all, good plumbing.

But some 40 years ago, my husband, Harry, decided that now that we lived in Israel, he didn’t want to be a pharmacist anymore. He wanted to be a farmer. He bought a meshek – a plot of three hectares (approximately 7.5 acres) – on a moshav half-way between our home in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I took no part in the decision, which came about despite my threats, tears, sulking, nagging and tantrums. Eventually I agreed to accompany him on day trips to the moshav.

I was outfitted in a faded cotton dress that had lost one of its pockets, plastic sandals and a straw hat that had seen better days. My once-immaculately dressed husband, instead of his spotless white chemist’s coat, was sporting an exotic form of dress: rubber knee boots, mud-colored gabardine pants, a tattered once-blue denim shirt, and a battered straw hat delicately tied under the chin in a bow with a piece of string. But he was smiling. For him, this was paradise!

Because the moshav is only 37 km. from home, it is possible to commute. But during the “busy times” (and when isn’t it busy on a moshav?) I needed to stay with him in the dilapidated old house that came with the land, to help him. In short, I reluctantly became a farmer’s mate.

There was the winter he decided to raise cows on our land. Now the Israeli way of doing this is to keep cows permanently in the reffet (cow barn). They are fed straw, hay and some hard pellets called ta’arovet (which includes recycled chicken manure – ugh!). They eat, grow fat and get milked. A very boring life, although the cows seem contented enough, and the milk yield of the Israeli cow is reputed to be the highest in the world. The calves stay with the mother for only one day before they are taken away, fed the mother’s milk for a few more days and quickly weaned.

But my husband, who is very soft-hearted (should that read soft-headed?) believed in giving his cows an idyllic existence. First they were allowed to graze freely on our land. The only trouble was that no matter what we grew for them, they preferred to eat what was on the other side of the fence.

They would stick their heads through the fence first and then – when they thought no one was looking – take a running jump and clear the fence like Olympic hurdlers. Once one went, like sheep, they all followed. Then there was a mad panic while we chased them furiously back to our fields before they ruined the neighbor’s crops. That was their favorite game.

There was one cow in particular that I disliked. Unlike most Israeli cows, which are black-and-white Holstein Friesians, this one was almost entirely white – a kind of albino with pink eyes, a crumpled horn and a most unpleasant disposition. Between us there was distinct animosity. She would fix me with a baleful glare and do the exact opposite of whatever I wanted her to do. My husband loved her, though, and suspected that I was jealous of her bovine beauty. She was very sly and nasty to me only when he wasn’t looking.

Another of my husband’s departures from convention was that he let the calves run with the mothers and drink from them for weeks. The other moshavniks thought this a shocking waste of milk, but our cows did have bonny babies.

Perhaps the most revolutionary departure of all was that our cows had a sex life. We had a bull. Ferdinand was the offspring of one of our own cows, which we couldn’t bear to sell for meat, the fate of most Israeli bulls. Here, all cows are artificially inseminated from the best pedigree semen. This was our intention also, except that Ferdinand matured earlier than we expected, and by the time we realized it, he had precociously impregnated the whole herd.

So I spent most of that winter standing knee-deep in botz (mud), watching the cows munch our crop of pensillaria. (Heaven knows how to translate that. Maybe whatever that is only grows in Israel.) After a month, the white cow with the crumpled horn joined me in a cessation of hostilities. It wasn’t exactly a peace agreement. When she started eyeing the fence thoughtfully, I would raise my stick in a threatening manner, which didn’t fool her for a minute. But she didn’t challenge me, she’d just move away, less disdainfully than usual.

ONE SUMMER marked my initiation into growing tomatoes. Three months earlier we had planted 4,000 frail little seedlings. Even then the weather was hot and we worked in the early morning and late afternoon.

First the field was prepared, and then we carefully measured the rows – one plant every 50 centimeters; 1½ meters between the rows. This brand was “Ravit,” a big, firm red tomato, so we were told. It was hard to imagine that these small plants would ever produce anything. We expected them to wither and die in the inhospitable Israeli sun that had baked the soil so hard that cracks appeared in it.

Despite our pessimism, we persevered and watered at night, the sprinklers tossing water over the plants in rainbow-colored arcs, and the earth sweet and fresh in the night air. It seemed like a miracle when in just a few weeks, the plants stood straight and tall and bore yellow flowers and a profusion of leaves. They seemed to grow outward too, each plant stretching out toward the next. Another two weeks and the flowers had given way to small green tomatoes in such profusion, we couldn’t believe our eyes.

Then they began to ripen, hiding under the leaves. From above you could see nothing, but crouch down, thrust in your hand and feel the smoothness and firmness of a large, perfect tomato. The ones underneath ripened first, warmed by the heat of the sun-baked earth. Each plant carried about 10 kilos of big tomatoes – firm, juicy, magnificent.

When August came, they all ripened at once – a riot of fertility. It was hard to keep up with them, to pick them before they withered and rotted on the vines. Any that were less than perfect, no matter how small a blemish, we set aside for our own use until tomato soup, tomato juice, tomato chutney and whatever else our ingenuity could devise that began to lose its appeal. The rest were picked, graded, packed and marketed in the nearby city of Ramle. We’d begin picking in the early morning while the sun still slept, take them to market when the heat became too fierce, and start again in the evening.

You can’t imagine how beautiful is the end of the day in summer on a moshav. There is a scarlet sunset, a golden twilight and lengthening blue shadows. Music comes from the milking sheds, blending with the “moos” and the whir of the automatic milking machines. Lights are on in the dairy, where cans of milk are being brought on the back of tractors to be weighed and recorded. Sprinklers are turned on in the field, and a rich, milky odor wafts on the breeze.

It’s a few years ago now – my husband, at nearly 95 – can no longer cope with the physical work. But I know he misses it. I can still remember standing in the field and looking toward the horizon. In the distance, through a blue haze, I could see the magical Judean hills, and beyond them – only 40 minutes away – lay my beloved Jerusalem. I would never admit it to him, but sometimes I felt strangely contented.

For a short time, maybe I even shared the moshav madness that was his obsession.

Much as I protested, I am happy that I had that unique experience.

The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. [email protected]