How it really was: The dead chicken squawked

Negev Brigade and Kibbutz Dorot members resting after a May 15, 1948 battle (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Negev Brigade and Kibbutz Dorot members resting after a May 15, 1948 battle
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The year: 1953
The place: A border kibbutz in the south
It was midnight, and I had already finished several patrols around the kibbtuz. I walked into the kitchen where my wife sat, a few dead fully-feathered chickens next to the stool. White and trembling, she said, “The chicken squawked!” I looked at the chickens.
There they lay in their white feathers, blood showing below the kosher cut of the kibbutz shokhet, its ritual slaughterer.
“That’s impossible. They are all geshokhten. (That’s Yiddish for slaughtered.) They’re dead.”
Unconvinced, she replies, “But it squawked.” She imitated the sound. I saw one of the chickens, the nearest already had some feathers removed. I understood. It squawked and she tossed it down.
Let’s backtrack. What were we doing in the kitchen at midnight? In our kibbutz, a married couple was put on guard duty together. The male is given a Sten gun, which was a murderous device, “homemade” in what the British had called “illegal arms factories.” But I was fully trained. “Fully trained?” More on this below.
And as for gender equality? The female was given kitchen duty. That night must have been a Thursday, because poor Hannah got the chicken-plucking shift. That’s when the chicken squawked.
I had a cup of tea, a slice of bread and jam, and figured it out. The chickens had been slaughtered and then refrigerated until the night-duty chicken plucking. As the chill receded, the dead lungs expelled air.
“Squawk, squawk!” Well, if you are all alone in a big isolated kitchen part of the dining-hall on the top of a, hill, with nobody close by, and dead chickens talk to you at midnight, wouldn’t you get scared? Hannah went back to chicken-plucking and I began my rounds again.
(By the way, I am now a vegetarian.)
The Boer War, Sten gun training and battler tactics
How did I get my Sten gun training? One evening, the area commander Rafi, called for volunteers to set an ambush for infiltrators.
We were considered a “border” kibbutz because there basically was no border, it was so porous. We were about 35 kilometers north of the Gaza Strip, and few and far between were the intervening kibbutzim which would deter “infiltrators.” Isdud, the Arabic name for the Biblical Ashdod was on a hilltop a few kilometers away, and it had been abandoned as the nascent Israel army pushed back the Egyptian invaders in 1948.
Every kibbutz or moshav had an area commander, and we were all part of the “regional defense,” the home army, which would defend the “area” (the kibbutz) from attack. Rafi, who had been wounded in an unhappy part of the body, had a nickname, but if we called them by the nickname, he would always reply with offended dignity, “My name is Rafi.” He was a bachelor, and one of his other roles, besides a full day’s work, was to sprinkle water over the floor of the dining-hall on Saturday nights, when we danced Israeli folk dances and horas; and, I stress, mixed dances in this religious kibbutz. The sprinkled water had no holy connotation. It was to keep the dust down on the area formed by pushing back the tables and benches to make room for the dancers. Rafi took his role as commander seriously: there were a few hand grenades hanging from his belt, magazine case pouches around his waist and across his chest. A pistol strapped to his right side, and a Mauser rifle on a sling dangling from his shoulder. A real soldier. Though now I wonder how he would use these weapons and arms simultaneously.
Naturally I volunteered. Rafi, “You know how to use a gun?” I, “Of course.”
That was not a complete lie. In Toronto, we had military training. Such as? Well, in Grade 6, we were given red British-type jackets from the Boer War (1899-1902) and taught some marching drill. And, in high school, at the height of the Second World War, I became a platoon sergeant in the battalion of the male members of of our collegiate, marching with the school band. One afternoon, in small groups, we were led into the school’s basement floor, which had been decked out with sandbags and targets. Lying on the sloping sandbag, we each fired three bullets at a target, mostly missing the bull’s eye.
Here I was 10 years later claiming to know firearms. My close friend Yossi Glatt had joined the kibbutz about a year before me. “Quick, Yossi, how do we shoot these things?” (I only learned years later how murderous a Sten can be. At best it could spray bullets inaccurately, or jam or even backfire in your face. And if you dropped it, it might fire on its own. At anyone.) Yossi showed me. “Click this, yell, ‘Halt! Password,’ pull this back, and here’s the trigger.” When I learned the proper terminology, I translated what Yossi meant. “Turn off the safety, demand the password of the day. Pull back the bolt. Fire in bursts.”
Rafi marched us out to the ambush point, had us lie down with our feet in the center and our bodies fanned out in a circle.
At least we would not shoot one another.
Nobody came, the mosquitoes had a field day, while we could not move or make a sound. That ended our military activity in the months I was in Kibbutz Kfar Darom.
In the 1947-1948 War of Independence, Kfar Darom had held off the Egyptian and Muslim Brotherhood forces along the coastal road in the midst of what is now the Gaza Strip for weeks. Reinforced by Negev Brigade fighters, the few dozen fighters were bombed from the air, shelled by artillery, attacked by waves of infantry backed by some tanks and armored vehicles. Their brave defense held up the Egyptian advance.
And after three months of siege, were finally ordered to evacuate. They left safely at night, carrying all the arms they could, and two Torah scrolls.
The Toronto Five
The Toronto “Happy Gang,” five graduates of the HaShomer HaDati youth movement saw ourselves as pioneers, building and protecting the country. It goes back to the prophet Nehemiah whose rebuilders of Jerusalem “with one hand did the work, and with the other held the sword.” Mostly I was a building laborer, and literally realized my romantic dream of building by day and bearing arms at night. Wrestling a wheelbarrow full of cement along a narrow wooden plank, tilting its tens of kilos of mix into the foundations, sweating orange-flavored drops from the citrus we consumed to slake our thirst. The six days’ work gave the Shabbat an additional and meaningful fillip of sanctity.
And the other Torontonians? Hannah spent the required first three months washing dishes, and then worked either there or in the nursery and kindergarten. Three were drivers: two of tractors and one of a ten-ton truck. One of us had terrible eyesight; Yossi, our irrepressible funster, decided that if we had to fight, the one with the bad eyes would become a sniper.
The years have passed. Each one of us left Kfar Darom for different reasons. But the vivid images roll by as in a colored film. We worked hard, we prayed simply, we ate abundantly of fruit and vegetables, eggs, bread, jam and on Shabbat, chicken.
On Saturday night, we danced. At Shabbat meals we sang.
We never felt fear in the dark of a moonless night.
Never. Except when the dead chicken squawked. 
This column salutes the memory of the Toronto Happy Gang, the late Yossi Glatt, Yisrael Weinberg, Yumi Kurtz and Hannah Adinah Spiegel-Avi-hai.