In my last column, I described the lighter moments of the year I spent on hachshara, the farm in Guelph, Ontario, where our group of future kibbutzniks worked in 1948-49. The concept of hachshara was developed by Labor Zionists across the world in the early part of the last century, to recruit and train agricultural laborers who would build the Jewish presence in Palestine. The organization was called HeHalutz, “The Pioneer.” By 1939, when World War II broke out, HeHalutz had 16,000 members in hachsharot, mostly in Poland.
Parallel to HeHalutz, but formed later, and much smaller, was a religious Zionist movement, affiliated with Hakibbutz Hadati (the religious kibbutz organization in Israel). That movement operated under a few names: Hashomer Hadati, B’nei Akiva, Bachad (an acronym for Brit Halutzim Dati’im) in different countries around the globe. Often, the hachsharot in Europe of the late 1930s were also a holding area for future immigrants to British-controlled Palestine, since the British doled out very few certificates then permitting Jews to enter the country.
As I continued thinking about hachshara those many decades ago, I thought about the serious moments. I was driving the brown half-ton pick-up truck, manufactured by International Harvester, a company long since disappeared.
The truck, whose gear-shift was on the floor, was a delight to drive. But if it did not carry a load, it was top-heavy. I was driving within the speed limit, probably 60 miles per hour (about 100 kph) on a good two-lane highway. It was raining, the road was wet, and I steered carefully into a well-marked curve. But I must have been driving too fast for the curve: the car ignored my steering, and sailed straight ahead, straight into a wooded area. There I was staring at a tree coming toward me. The tree drew closer and closer. Coldly, without fear or panic, I recall saying to myself, “I guess I’m going to die now.” I closed my eyes, still calm.
The vehicle then flipped onto its right side, coming to a halt on the undergrowth, and I opened my eyes. The tree stood a few feet ahead. I was lying on my side, still holding onto the steering wheel. I recalled movies of car crashes, with the car bursting into flames afterward. Hurrying now, I cranked the handle of the window. It was all manual then. No electric buttons. I pulled myself out of the window and heard the engine ticking as it cooled. No gasoline spill, no explosion. Just a bruise below my left knee.
I hailed a passing car and asked the driver to call the Canadian Automobile Association or the local garage as soon as he reached a phone (here I confess I cannot remember which one). The front right fender needed a minor repair. To this day, I do not understand how I faced my imminent demise so calmly.
This brush with death, as I began to recall it for this column, made me ask myself a basic question: our age cohort in Israel was fighting, and many gave their lives or emerged wounded. Did we ever think of them? After all, we were about to join them.
I am dumbstruck by the question. I cannot remember once that this issue was raised. We all, certainly the males, saw ourselves as future defenders of the land. As a matter of fact, living in a “frontier village,” as I discovered when we arrived in Kfar Darom, was equivalent to military reserve service.
In retrospect, I can only offer a theory. We were young and so preoccupied with learning the farm work, and were so homogeneous and congenial a group, that there was no thought of much beyond the here and now. As a psychologist-reader friend wrote to me, “Of course at 17 we are never worried about danger; we are invincible.”
One of the main reasons Hadati Farm was in Guelph was that the Ontario Agricultural College was located there. It still exists as part of the University of Guelph. During the Christmas break, the college offered short courses – a week or so immersed from morning till afternoon in specialization in various aspects of farming. All of our group attended, except one – me. I had no great desire or ability to sit still for so long. And “somebody has to look after the farm, keep the stove going, and feed and water the cows and horses and chickens.” I was the farmer who stayed home on the farm.
The pioneering elan easily transcended party lines. The “other” hachshara, located in the lush Niagara Peninsula, at Smithville, Ontario, was made up of members of the hehalutz movement – Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair from all over Canada. That group there was larger and older than we were. As a matter of course, when they registered for the short winter courses, they asked if they could stay with us. This would save them the cost and bother of dormitory living. As a matter of course, we agreed.
In return, we were invited to stay at Smithville for a few nights. Our hosts served us only dairy meals, out of respect for our observing kashrut. We had, as I vividly recall, a fun time together. One of their members, from Winnipeg, was an accomplished raconteur, and his stories of his father’s fur business still echo in my mind.
I assume that Smithville as well as Guelph had an “inspection” visit by the president of the Zionist Organization of Canada, Anna Raginsky. We were given a heads-up by our senior movement, who considered the visit very important. Possibly, a favorable report could have triggered some financial participation.
There was something of a Cossack about her attitude towards us. Either Raginsky was anti-Socialist (we were a kibbutz hachshara), or wary of young men and women living under one roof. All I recall of her visit was a rump-view of a woman determinedly stamping up the stairs on the girls’ side, to make sure – we thought – that there was no hidden passageway (take a deep breath) to connect to the male side.
At any rate, we didn’t particularly enjoy her visit, and actually, resented her suspicious attitude.
Most memorable were the joys of Shabbat. The pre-Shabbat bath, putting on special clothes, the food, the Shabbat songs including hassidic marches and waltzes – no words, just harmonious tunes – accompanied often with hands carrying the beat on the table, and the sleep. Friday night sleep, relatively early, after a hard week’s work in the open air, is indescribable. Then we would rise early to walk a few miles into the town center to make up the quorum of 10 – the minyan – on Shabbat morning.
Often, the number would reach only nine. We recall the shul president, who would then – in this nominally Orthodox house of worship – step into the foyer, put a nickel or a dime (five cents or 10 cents) into the pay phone, and in his raspy smokers’ voice, say: ”Get down here. We need a 10th man!” Using money and a phone on Shabbat is taboo in Orthodoxy, but in a small town intent on preserving the synagogue, what are a few infractions?
We of course were meticulous in our observance, and on Shabbat, and some weekdays, we would study Hebrew texts. But we would never forego that blessed Shabbat afternoon nap. The texts ranged from the weekly reading of Torah and Prophets as well as Talmud, to the book of rules and behavior, the Shulhan Aruch.
The fast day for the fall of the Second Temple came that summer together with our hay crop waiting in the fields to be picked up and stored in the barn. On the Tisha Be’av fast day, the book of rules tells us we are not allowed to work in the morning hours. The bales of hay were lying in the fields; rain would spoil it.
We four Torontonians had our first and only halachic tussle. Two of us looked at the sky, saw rain clouds forming, and insisted that not to work that morning would bring us a loss too severe to bear. We argued that the injunction not to work in the morning was just a custom, and thus not binding. As a result, it was Yossi Glatt and I who dashed out with a wagon-drawn tractor. Yumi Kurtz and Yisrael Weinberg joined us only after noon.
I am pretty sure we got the hay in safely (that’s where the expression, “Make hay while the sun shines” originates). It was overcast all day, and if memory serves me, it did begin to drizzle as we finished our day’s work. The combination of study, work and responsible reality enriched our lives with an indelible ethic. ■
Avraham Avi-hai kept to that ethic via constant studies of Bible, Jewish history and thought; and by working in early Israeli governments, at the Hebrew University and in world Zionist affairs. The three friends he mentions are all deceased; he wishes to honor their memory by recalling their brotherhood that lasted across decades.