My Story: Sliding doors

We found that eggs were in much shorter supply in the Jezreel Valley that in the San Fernando Valley.

kibbutz farm 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kibbutz farm 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Feige and Billy Goldfarb are both very ill and probably should not have traveled from their Tel Aviv area home to Kibbutz Urim in the Negev on a recent Saturday afternoon. But they were willing to take the risk to meet with their dozens of Habonim friends who, like them, just 60 years ago signed a lifelong pact with Zionism by joining Habonim's Garin Beth and/or its leadership training program. It was expected that both groups would end up as kibbutzniks. There was pandemonium in the room when the Goldfarbs entered the meeting hall in their twin wheelchairs. And the joy and excitement lasted the whole day, through the singsong, the lunch and the discussion of whether our children would follow in our footsteps. Most apparently will stay in Israel, though the majority of those born on kibbutzim may eventually choose a different lifestyle. When the saga began in 1948, and immediate aliya was not in prospect, many of those waiting in the US and Canada went to work at pseudo-kibbutz training farms, of which there were several on the East Coast and one, near Los Angeles, on the West Coast. This meant that, for a short while, housewives in LA's Yiddishe neighborhoods could make their omelettes with Yiddishe eggs. When we got to Israel, we discovered that eggs were in much shorter supply in the Jezreel Valley than in the San Fernando Valley. Everything was in short supply then, and far-from-fresh eggs were imported from Poland and everyone was allocated half an egg per day. We survived this diet and the periodic fedayeen raids in which despite our army training, we were not effective guards. Our Gaza neighbors got away with lots of equipment and, so far as I know, nary a wound. Our own blood was to be spilled some years later, when one of our progeny was shot dead by an Arab terrorist and another one was badly burned in a Golan battle, when he was pulled out of his burning tank by another young man whose parents had also come from Habonim. Over the years the kibbutz grew as new crops were cultivated and new factories producing everything from quilts to boxes for the packaging of jewelry were opened. Be that as it may, more than half the North Americans who came to Urim eventually left it, either for the goldene medina from which they had come or, more usually, for other parts of Israel. At the Urim reunion, there were a half-dozen moshavniks, about the same number of retired professors, a guy who had spent 30 years in the air force and people from a half dozen other fields. All had run into their share of skeptics who had questioned their sanity on hearing that they had come from North America, but they stuck it out. Perhaps the healthiest of the lot was Joe, who earns much of his income trimming high trees in the Tel Aviv area. Most of us, I might add, could no longer climb a tree if our life depended upon it. AS WE approach the end of our lives, I can't help but think of that charming 1998 film Sliding Doors, in which a woman's life is decisively affected by whether she enters one subway train or another. In our case, I wonder what would have happened had we not entered the door of New York's Jewish Teachers Seminary in the spring of 1948 to attend the Fourth Habonim Institute, but like most of our high-school classmates, entered the door of a major educational institution and embarked upon a conventional career. That kind of a career was pushed aside because of the Holocaust and what can rightly be called "Habonim brainwashing." Many of us halted our college education and rushed off to the pseudo-kibbutz training farms or at least enrolled at the Habonim Institute to prepare for a leadership role in the movement. Then, as soon as possible, we rushed off to Eretz Yisrael. It was far from what we expected. It wasn't the place where, as was promised, "we would work all day and dance all night long." The work for us urban softies was extremely difficult and the attitude of most Israelis wasn't encouraging. "You're crazy," they often blurted out. This sent some of us back home, with most of those who remained being called into the Nahal. That experience was also less than encouraging. We "undisciplined Americans" disliked the "arrogant sabra NCOs" who were training us. This found expression as we marched along the streets of Jerusalem, where we didn't sing patriotic songs but ditties such as "Roll me in the clover, roll me over, lay me down and do it again." After the army most of us went to Urim, established in 1946 but still largely a sand pile. We found almost everything in short supply except for cans of black olives and World War II army surplus containers of "salmon and other fish." We held on to our collectivism for quite a while, trying to decide, for example, whether those receiving care packages now had to distribute their contents to the entire community. This sounds quaint with the extreme privatization of the contemporary kibbutz movement. Today we face an Israel which is not at all like the socialist paradise we all dreamed about. Our red flags have long since been put into mothballs. And after surviving a half-dozen wars, our hopes for peace are also in storage. Yet we have participated in building this miracle called Israel and left our modest imprint on history far more than we would have had we also become professors at Harvard or elsewhere. Now we stand again before sliding doors. But now it is our grandchildren who will decide which one to enter.