Although I was only 16 years old on my first trip to Israel – an organized tour comprised of mostly spoiled American teens – I had a distinct feeling of déjà vu wherever we went. Whether it was sunrise on the Masada fortress overlooking the Dead Sea where the Jews committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans, winding our way through the Arab market in Jerusalem, where an old Arab snake charmer threatened me with his pet viper for having taken an unauthorized picture of the two of them, or standing by a blown-out Syrian tank on the Golan Heights – everywhere we went, I felt, strangely, like I had been there before. My connection to the land was irrational, unexplainable, yet undeniable.
A highlight of the trip was visiting the once Roman capital of Caesarea. Situated by the Mediterranean Sea, Caesarea is built on sand dunes and ancient ruins. The sea is made up of various shades of topaz and turquoise, unlike anything I had ever seen before. So when it came time to give those members of the group who had family in Israel a weekend off to visit, I promptly provided the adult chaperones with fictitious names purportedly of my affluent Israeli cousins who I imagined to be residing in Caesarea’s seaside villas.
Hopping off the bus, I headed straight to the pristine beach and body-surfed in the waves for several glorious hours. I swam out a distance from the shore to have a better look at the beach, and as I was swimming back I began to hear shouting from the shore. People were standing on the beach whistling and yelling, motioning for me to get out of the sea. At the same time I felt a tugging on my legs and it felt as if I was swimming backward. I glanced behind me and saw a whirlpool had formed in the sea and was drawing me closer to its epicenter. Another few seconds and I would be like an insect circling the drain. I began to fight with all my might against the perilous vortex that was drawing me in. Struggling with each stroke, I nearly succumbed but finally broke through the invisible jaws that nearly swallowed me whole.
Recuperating on the sandy beach, I watched the sun, like a red ball of fire, sink somewhere on the other side of the sea. Looking for a place to lay my head I stumbled upon the most ideal and inexpensive accommodations: a small Roman amphitheater overlooking the beach. It was probably fortuitous that I was unaware that while such a setting was idyllic for me, it was all the more inviting to snakes and scorpions that inhabited those parts. But ignorance is bliss, and encircled by rocks, I placed my head on one whose jagged clefts were so smoothly eroded that its contours were more comfortable than the best down-filled feather pillow. As the velvet curtain of night stretched across the vast sky, I lay on my back gazing upon the endless constellations of shimmering stars. I thought of my forefather, Jacob, and his dream of many angels ascending and descending a ladder with its highest rungs clinging to the Heavens, and I vowed that one day I would return to this exact spot. I slept like a king that night, with just the rhythmic sound of the waves to lull me to sleep.
Indeed, such sensory memories permeated and enticed my soul as I endured several long, cold and lonely Canadian winters until my love affair with the land of Israel could be rekindled and another rendezvous arranged.
Saving money from part-time jobs secured the airfare. I calculated that if I were to work on a kibbutz, it would just about cover my room and board. In Tel Aviv I found the central office where kibbutz volunteers could register. I searched for a kibbutz near Caesarea and found one located 13 kilometers away. Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael had a decent-sized swimming pool and was in need of a lifeguard. I had the qualifications. All systems were go and a fine summer was in the making.
The next morning I was on the first bus heading up the coast. At the kibbutz office I introduced myself to Rivka, a slim, mature-looking woman with grayish brown braided hair and a splotchy sun tan. She was dressed like a man in a faded blue work shirt and denim trousers, an unfiltered cigarette dangling from her mouth.
I introduced myself in Hebrew.
“How do you know Hebrew?” Rivka demanded to know. As if to punctuate her question, she blew smoke in my face while waiting for my answer.
“I learned it in Hebrew school.” I coughed. “In Canada.”
“You’re Jewish?” she looked at me with an astonished expression.
I pulled out the Star of David pendant hanging from my neck to show her.
“We never get Jewish volunteers,” she said. Lots of German, Dutch, Swedes, Danish, you name it, but never Jews from America.”
“Canada,” I corrected, showing her my passport.
“Same thing,” she said, though of course it was not. “Do you have a preference for where you want to work?” she asked.
“That’s all been taken care of in advance,” I told her and presented the letter prepared by the kibbutz office in Tel Aviv. “It says right here,” indicating the circled occupation beside my name. “I am going to be your new lifeguard,” I proudly announced.
“But we never had an old lifeguard,” she said, crushing her cigarette into a butt-filled ashtray. “Now look here,” Rivka said, staring coldly at me like I was back in high school and trying to get out of an assignment. “You can be a lifeguard all you want as long as it’s after work. As for work, you have two choices: either the orchards or the Plasson.”
The Plasson was a plastic factory that the kibbutz established to counter the more traditional methods of agriculture, which were proving to be increasingly unprofitable. The Plasson’s main product, and a profitable one at that, was the mass manufacturing of plastic toilet seats.
I chose the orchards. For a city boy, I fared rather well in the orchards, adapting to waking in the pre-dawn darkness with a dependable rooster’s crow outside my window. Rivka, in uncharacteristic softness, must have taken a faint liking to me for she set me up with my own cabin allowing me both privacy and valued distance from the other volunteers who were mostly party animals who liked to drink and stay up late.
My coveted day off was approaching and I mentioned to Rivka that I was planning to hike along the beach to Caesarea.
“Not a good idea,” said Rivka, as well as some of the other kibbutzniks. No one wanted to elaborate, but after some persistent questioning, I learned the reason. It was only a couple of years before that an American nature photographer, Gail Rubin, had been taking photographs of rare birds on the beach when she was approached by a group of Arabs. Unknown to her, these were not local Arabs from the neighboring village but Arab terrorists who had just beached their inflatable Zodiac boat. They asked Gail where they were and upon telling them they shot her dead. They went on to hijack an Israeli bus and to murder another 37 civilians before they, too, were killed by Israeli forces.
I tried to reason with my hosts that the chances of a similar incident occurring in the exact same spot were minimal to nil. Their concern, however, was due more to an Arab village laying between my departure point and my destination, and that this village was not known for its friendly relations with the kibbutz. On the contrary, it was known for harboring hostile elements and suspected as a haven for thieves who had sneaked into the kibbutz in the dead of night and made off with stolen goods on more than one occasion.
I was determined, however, to keep my vow. I set out for Caesarea at sunrise walking along the beach, straight as the crow flies, armed only with a bottle of water. I had intended to avoid the hot sun but already it was heating up only an hour into my journey. In the near distance I could see the outline of the Arab town with its mosque and minaret tower scraping the skyline.
“Hot, but not very scary,” I thought to myself, removing my sandals so the foamy waves could wash over my feet. The song of chirping birds could be heard between the splashing of the waves. Perched on a rock above were some long-beaked birds that resembled storks. The sight of the exotic birds gliding between intermeshing shades of pale blue sky and deep blue sea made me think of Gail Rubin. I wondered whether she had been able to capture such beauty before tragedy struck.
Suddenly, I heard voices – Arabic voices - emanating from around the next cove. I stopped in my tracks as my mind raced ahead. Fishermen? Perhaps a family out for a picnic, I wished, as my mind blocked out gloomier scenarios. Before I could decide whether to take the next step forward or backward, I was blinded by a flash of light. Peering through my fingers as if through a drawn window blind, a burst of sunlight reflected off a large knife! The knife was held aloft by a thinly bearded man and behind him stood several others.
For an instant I considered turning around and making a run for it, but there was nowhere to run along the rocky shore. My thoughts turned inward. Hadn’t my friends warned me? How could I be such a fool! By now the Arab youths were all aware of my presence and several of them began to gesticulate and shout words I could not comprehend.
Just then two of the Arab fellows grabbed me by both hands and pulled me around the bend to where I had seen the large knife flashing in the sunlight. I was not prepared for what I saw next. There was the same young, bearded man brandishing the same sword-like knife that he now held above his head, and in one fell swoop brought it down with a thud – and sliced a giant watermelon in two!
He quickly carved and speared a choice piece of the luscious fruit, offering it to me first as if I was an honored and expected guest. I was pleased to accept the offer, though the only Arabic that I knew was the traditional greeting “Salam Aleikum,” nearly identical to its Hebrew version, “Shalom Aleichem,” both meaning “Peace be upon you.” Simultaneously, we each uttered the greeting in the other’s language causing everyone to laugh aloud. What followed was a slightly awkward pantomime of smiles, handshakes, and embraces, which culminated in a trio of kisses on one another’s cheeks before we parted ways.
Upon returning to the kibbutz, I was asked about my hike along the beach and whether I had seen anything unusual or run into any suspicious characters.
“You mean like hostile Arab terrorists brandishing swords?” I asked.
“No,” said Rivka, crushing a lit cigarette with her left hand while popping another into her mouth and lighting it with her right. “I was merely wondering whether you had received an offer from another kibbutz to guard one of their pools instead of ours and I might have had to make you a better offer,” she said, then took a long drag on her cigarette. “But, it’s OK, now,” she resumed, typically answering her own question before I could respond and as smoke enveloped her face said. “I’m glad you had an uneventful trek.” ©2022 ■