How it really was: Preparing for life in Israel

The year was 1948, the place was a 160-acre (624 dunam) farm on the outskirts of Guelph, Ontario.

 Members of the original Kibbutz Kfar Darom, then located in the Gaza Strip, ride mules to work in the fields in 1947 (photo credit: KLUGER ZOLTAN/GPO)
Members of the original Kibbutz Kfar Darom, then located in the Gaza Strip, ride mules to work in the fields in 1947
(photo credit: KLUGER ZOLTAN/GPO)

Next to the gasoline pump was a bell-shaped pile of cow manure. Yossi had brought it – wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow  – from our big red barn and was now shoveling the rich brown ordure into a manure spreader. Attached to our Ford-Ferguson tractor, the spreader would scatter the muck to fertilize our fields.

The year was 1948, the place was a 160-acre (624 dunam) farm on the outskirts of Guelph, Ontario. Our senior movement, the Torah Va’Avodah [Torah and Labor] of Toronto, had purchased the farm for agricultural training of a small group of us as future Israeli “pioneers.” The farm was run as a collective since our pioneering destination was an Israeli religious kibbutz. We called it hachsharah; the Hebrew implies something like: a place to make us fit to be pioneers.

That Sunday, 74 years ago, we had invited our parents and a cluster of seniors as well as members of our youth movement, Hashomer Hadati, to see how we lived and worked. The manure shoveler was our group’s funster and showman, Yossi Glatt. We had all chosen our branch of endeavor. Yossi had picked the barn, and was an excellent dairyman. He tended to our 19 milkers, mostly black-and-white Holsteins with one unusually large purple-mottled cow, pedigree unknown, that he named Bubbaleh. Twice a day Yossi would milk by hand, helped if needed by one of us. And with his puckish sense of drama, he chose parents’ day for his shoveling chore.

Yossi’s father was a very short, near-blind diabetic, who eked out his meager living as a second cantor and Torah-reader in a small synagogue. He was fervently observant, though beardless, as were all our senior movement members. Yossi, in contrast to his father, was a hearty, tall and well-built 19-year-old.

I see tiny Mr. Glatt before my eyes today, his milk-bottle-thick spectacles hiding what must have been tears. He shakes his head almost imperceptibly, and asks himself, “We gave our all for our only son. For this we stinted and saved, to see him shoveling cow manure.”

 Yossi Glatt on the Guelph Hadati Farm in 1948 (credit: Tzina Lindenberg) Yossi Glatt on the Guelph Hadati Farm in 1948 (credit: Tzina Lindenberg)

Now I confess my own showmanship. It was the first day on our training farm. I – also wishing to show my pioneering zeal – volunteered for the dirtiest job. The hachsharah, aka Hadati farm, lay beyond the sewage lines (“mains” in British English) of Guelph. Therefore human wastes were siphoned into a septic tank dug into the earth dozens of feet from the farmhouse. This tank is where the wastes decompose and flow below ground into more distant underground soil. This also acts as a fertilizer.

Probably due to ignorance of rustic life, the previous trainees had not had the tank pumped out, as is necessary every few years. Thus, clad in rubber boots brought with me as on the list, and armed with a spade, I strode a bubbling effluent and shoveled away. You might say I was knee-deep in s***. Long live the pioneer!

We ran the farm in dead seriousness, counseled by a neighboring old farmer, Mr. Krohne, whose pipe never left his mouth. We performed every farm chore, from horse-drawn plowing, mechanized planting, and sowing and reaping field crops: wheat and oats, planting and harvesting the vegetable garden, attending auctions, and so on. We had two tractors, and two old horses, one so ancient that we named him “Hayim tzu leben” – Hayim, may he live.

There was a large old-fashioned washing machine placed in our one and only large bathroom. One of the “girls” was in charge of our collective laundry and usually did the cooking while we all shared in serving and washing up. So though much of this column is about the funny times, believe me, that is only because we were happy as a group and as prospective pioneers. In fact, all of us did end up in Israel, and most joined a religious kibbutz, for shorter or longer periods.

A ‘bunch of Jews’

But we had our laughs. Since I, all of 17-years-old, was the only one with a driver’s license, I was charged with being the “outside” man, responsible for purchases, delivering our hens to Toronto kosher slaughtering houses, and keeping the books. As such, I was also the backup for every branch. Thus I knew how to milk by hand, look after our chickens, spend hours on a tractor, work at threshing in the large barn, and how to harvest our hay. For me, getting out and about and also doing farm chores was the best of both worlds.

Being the “outside” man had its funny moments. For example, there were a number of “girls” in our group, from Montreal, Winnipeg and Chicago. One of them, the laundry manager, was an only child and thus we males found our underclothes in the cubbyhole bearing the title, “Boys panties.”

Women’s supplies

Women have certain needs that men do not. Every so often I was handed a list of items to buy in the Guelph drugstore. Since each of the four or five young women had different preferences, it was a variegated list. I was capable of many things even then as a 17-year old, but to brazenly enter a drugstore and in full voice order intimate female hygienic products was beyond me. There were two women in line at the druggist’s counter. I skulked around the large store, pretending to be interested in the various toothbrushes, shaving creams, and similar paraphernalia. The women left, and the druggist waited, probably thinking that I was too shy to ask for a condom in front of women.

To his surprise, I thrust a hand-scrawled list onto the counter. Wordlessly, he placed all the items onto the counter, and I reached into my pocket to pay. As he collected his due, the druggist leaned toward me and leered, “Got a bunch o’girls up there, eh?”

Who knows what good old Victorian Guelph made of this “bunch of Jews, out on a farm, men and women.”

In winter, there was less need for working hands, as snow blanketed the land. Thus most of the winter of 1948-49 there were just five males and three or four young women. In true egalitarian fashion, we decided that each male should prepare the Shabbat meals: chicken soup and roasted chicken on Friday evening, and chopped liver and cholent for Shabbat lunch. One Friday night, we all gagged and spat out our first mouthful of the soup. The assigned would-be chef had left the gallbladder with all of its bile in the broth. “As bitter as gall” became a galling reality.

Winter also had its dangers. The pristine snow covering the roads could hide patches of black ice. We had a half-ton pick-up truck (in Israel known as a “tender”) as well as a three-ton capacity cab-over-engine model. It was on the latter that I taught all three fellow Torontonians how to drive. The theory was if you could drive that monster, you could drive anything.

One winter day as I drove the light pick-up along the main road leading to our farm, the brown truck skidded off the road into the run-off ditch. It remained tilted, but lucky for me, it did not tip over. I was able to struggle the door open and set my heavy winter boots onto the roadside. In short order, a kindhearted driver came by, saw the tilted truck, then picked me up and drove me right to the farm. One of us then drove the heavier tractor open to the elements, while the others came with me in the heavy truck, armed with thick ropes. We hitched the tractor to the ditch-dwelling pick-up truck, and I began driving the tractor in the lowest gear.

Behold, a reverse miracle, or a freak of nature. The tractor, instead of towing the pick-up forward, pulled itself backward. Yes, that’s right, backward into the ditch. Canadian drivers of the gearshift era possess a secret. To start a car moving on ice, never spin your tires, which only digs you deeper into the snow and the friction turns it into ice. Start in second gear and give gas at a bare minimum. So I did, and just as night fell, we succeeded in extracting both vehicles.

Back at the farm frozen to the core, and too young to know the benefits of brandy or even to possess any, we wrapped our fingers around hot glasses of tea and then exploded into laughter. The inimitable Yossi imitated a radio reporter, holding his fist in front of his face like a microphone, “Maneuvers were held at Hadati Farm in Guelph yesterday...”

It never occurred to me – or any of us – that what we were doing was dangerous. We just knew there was something to be done, and so we did it. We must have done something right.

While regaling my family with some of these stories, one son-in-law asked me if there was a responsible adult around. “No,” I answered, “we saw ourselves as adults.” Or as my mother would say in Yiddish, “The way a person sees himself, that’s how God sees him.”

The writer was on Kibbutz Kfar Darom (now Moshav B’nei Darom) located between Kibbutz Yavneh and Ashdod for a brief seven months, and worked mostly as a building laborer. The other three Toronto Shomrim stayed for a number of years, while one returned to Canada. The remaining three – Yossi, Yisrael Weinberg (the poultry manager) and the writer – all lived in Jerusalem and held responsible positions in various fields of government and public administration.