Over the past century, more than 400,000 volunteers from around the world have worked on a kibbutz for at least a couple months. Some found love (or other good reasons) to stay for good. Most returned home, changed in ways small or large. Inevitably, given their numbers, a few of these gangly teenaged volunteers and globe-trotting twenty-somethings went on to greater renown as authors, actors, academics, as politicians and pundits.
Novelist Arthur Koestler (best known for his anti-Stalinist parable Darkness at Noon) was one of the first volunteers to put his memories to paper. He had abandoned his university studies in Germany in 1926, acquired a visa to Palestine and arrived in Haifa with plans to work on a kibbutz, to be a true settler—even though he was an aspiring writer from the city with little taste for physical labour.
He was shocked by the primitive conditions on Kibbutz Hephizibah, which he described as a “rather dismal and slumlike oasis in the wilderness”. He had expected hardy log cabins, like those of the American pioneers. Instead he got ushered into “ramshackle dwellings” that reminded him of the poorest slums of Europe. Kibbutzniks the same age as Koestler looked decades older, their cheeks jaundiced from malaria and sunken with hunger. Their austere teetotalling routine of near-endless labour made the bon-vivant-ish Koestler feel like he had accidentally barged into a monastery on a pub crawl. He proved hopeless at fieldwork or farming, failed at stone removal and fruit picking, and his fellow communards struggled to find chores suited to the German bookworm in their midst. In the end, he was voted down for membership—which proved an immediate disappointment but ultimately a relief to Koestler. He would claim to have stayed several weeks on the kibbutz; another letter suggests that only managed to tough it out for 10 days.
Twenty years later, a much-admired journalist and novelist, Koestler returned to the kibbutz and admitted to its members, at a party hosted in his honour, that, yes, he had been a total failure as a settler and deserved to be shown the door. Still, while his restless curiosity had taken him elsewhere, he experienced a pang of nostalgia for the commune that had evicted him. “When I neared the kibbutz,” he wrote, “I felt that, despite the darkness, I had returned to the specific location in the homeland that I could refer to as home.” On that same trip, he visited a number of other kibbutzes to as research for a novel. Joseph, the hero of Thieves in the Night, would share the ironic distance of the author but prove to be a hardier kibbutznik. Through his character, Koestler would get to both relive and rewrite his stillborn experiences as a bumbling volunteer.
Linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky—later a vocal opponent of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza—stayed for six weeks on Kibbutz Hazorea, near Haifa, in 1953 with his wife, where he found a “functioning and very successful libertarian community”. In the years before Israel’s independence, as a young man, he had been deeply interested in anarchist, left-wing politics, and in the socialist vision, shared by many kibbutzniks, of Palestine as a binational state for both Arabs and Jews. He harboured vague aspirations of moving to Israel, joining a kibbutz, and working at Arab-Jewish cooperative efforts. He had no plans, at the time, for an academic career, and his brief stay on Hazorea was a test run for possible immigration to a kibbutz. He worked the fields and found much to admire in the simple life of the commune, as well as the intellectual discussions with the German founders of the community.
But some of the members’ ideology didn’t sit well with the free-thinking young Chomsky, especially how the hardcore Marxists in Hazorea defended the anti-Semitic show trials then going on in the Communist Eastern bloc. Still, Chomsky figured, after returning to the States, that he would return to the kibbutz—his wife did, for a longer stay. But then a research opportunity at MIT and the chance to explore his linguistic interests kept him in the States. The kibbutz lost a bookish fieldworker; the world gained a scientist who would transform our understanding of the human acquisition of language.
Years later, in an interview, the hyper-rational Chomsky sounded ambivalent, even wistful—or as wistful as he must get—about the lost promise of the kibbutz and his brief, youthful experience as a volunteer. “In some respects, the kibbutzim came closer to the anarchist ideal than any other attempt that lasted for more than a very brief moment before destruction, or that was on anything like a similar scale. In these respects, I think they were extremely attractive and successful; apart from personal accident, I probably would have lived there myself—for how long, it’s hard to guess. But they were embedded in a more general context that was highly corrosive.” Even anarchist utopias couldn’t protect their ideals from the outside world.
|Borat models 80s-era kibbutz couture
The nation of Israel changed, irrevocably it now seems, in 1967 in the aftermath of its lightning victory over the massed Arab armies in the Six Day War—and the persistent dilemma of what to do with the Palestinian territories it then occupied. That year also changed the kibbutz movement, by swinging open the gates of these communities—which had always sworn to rely only on the labour of its own members—to volunteers from around the world. Army-aged members had been called up into reserve service during the tense prelude to the war; their positions in the fields and the factories needed to be filled, or the kibbutz economy—and much of Israel’s—would slow to a crawl. The first wave of patriotic Jews from the Diaspora were later followed by hordes of adventure-seeking non-Jews, hippies who had heard rumours of communes in the hills and the deserts of Israel, young Germans burdened by the collective guilt of the Holocaust, and then other backpackers over the next two or three decades.
Actress Sigourney Weaver joined the wave of young volunteers who came to Israel’s aid from America, Britain and other countries in 1967—although her experience on a kibbutz didn’t quite match her imaginings. “I dreamt we’d all be working out in the fields like pioneers, singing away,” she remembered. “We were stuck in the kitchen. I operated a potato-peeling machine.” That assignment nearly ended her acting career before it began; one morning, the peeling machine started coughing and then erupted, showering her with potato shrapnel, as cockroaches swarmed the sudden windfall. “It was one explosion after another,” the star of Ghostbusters and the Alien movies later recalled. “It should have put me off science fiction forever.” Fortunately, it didn’t.
British actor Bob Hoskins, then 25, also volunteered in 1967, and fell in love with the physical work, the sound of the bird calls at sunrise, the romance of rural life. He wanted to remain as a member—except for one hitch. “I was happy being a kibbutznik but they said to me, ‘You gotta join the army’ and I said, ‘But I’m not Jewish’, and they said, ‘It don’t matter’, so I left.”
In 1971, a reedy-limbed, bespectacled, 17-year-old Jerry Seinfield did two months on a kibbutz near the northern Mediterranean coast on a get-to-know-Israel summer program. He hated it. “Nice Jewish boys from Long Island don’t like to get up at six in the morning to pick bananas,” he later recealled. “ All summer long I found ways to get out of work.”
A year later, Sandra Bernhard had a more positive experience as a young volunteer. She spent eight months on Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, which she claimed helped to toughen her up for the shark pit of auditioning in L.A. (Nearly 30 years later, she performed a cabaret show of songs, comedy and conversation called “Songs I Sang on the Kibbutz”.)
Simon Le Bon, later the lead singer of Duran Duran, kipped for three months in Kibbutz Gvulot in 1979 (and later penned a song called “Tel Aviv”), and his dorm bed was later preserved as a shrine for fans of the dreamy-eyed, swooping-haired, new-wave icon.
Sacha Baron Cohen had been raised in an Orthodox family in London and came, with fellow members of a Zionist youth group, to volunteer on Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra, where Israel’s Mediterranean coastline meets the border with Lebanon. I like to imagine what the kibbutz’s Purim Festival was like when the prankster who became Ali G, Borat and Brüno lived there. Alas, he has never dropped his many personae to talk about his kibbutz experiences, nor has any video evidence surfaced of his stay as a volunteer there.
[Writing-in-progress about working at Kibbutz Shamir.]
After my stint behind the dishwashing machine, I graduated to the avocado fields. The harvest of Kibbutz Shamir’s orchards had been nearly completed by the time I got assigned to this detail, so there was only another week or two of work left. Our job was simple enough: ascend the broad-branching trees, pluck the last of the ripe fruit, and deposit the avocados into plastic buckets to be carted away to waiting tractors. …
To be scaling these trees, clambering from the top rungs of the ladder ever deeper into the nest of branches and leaves, was a new experience. I’d always been a clumsy, nervous, fearful climber as a child—not one of those kids who shimmies up flag poles and garage sidings and the tallest trees on the block, just for kicks. Gravity was not to be trusted, so I tended to keep my running shoes on firm ground. But here, in this new land, I took to the novelty of avocado picking, like I’d be born to the job. The kibbutznik in charge of the harvest nicknamed me “Monkey Man”, for my willingness (I hope—perhaps he had other reasons) to pull myself to the topmost reaches of the trunk, for my new arrival’s urge to impress, to leave no fruit unplucked, no collective profits squandered and left to rot on a distant branch.
|Working the orchards, circa 1988
|There was a satisfaction in seeing, the next morning, sliced fresh avocados in the buffet trays of the dining hall for breakfast or lunch. This was 20 years before the “locavore” movement, before eating lightly on the earth—consuming organically grown, untravelled food, cultivated by the farmers in the neighbouring area code—became the mantra of the middle-class mainstream, even fashionably urbane, not simply hippy-headed back-to-the-landism. Here, on the kibbutz, the community had developed economies of scale to do much of that on its own. It raised cash crops for export: cotton and kiwis and apples and avocados. But like any farm, it could skim the excess for its own kitchen, and add to that bounty vegetables grown in the kibbutz gardens, meat from the cattle operations, honey from its apiaries, eggs from the chicken sheds. Even the table cloths and dish rags came from the kibbutz’s “Shalag” factory, which spat out reams of the non-woven fabric for a variety of uses. Our meals shrunk the radius of the 100-Mile Diet down to 10 miles, often closer. We pulled our own food from the orchards beyond the barbed wire perimeter and the tilled acreage in the valley below. I felt like a farmer at last.
The fieldwork, no matter how sweaty and arduous, held a romantic appeal to international volunteers, who were largely city kids like myself. It fit the vague, sepia-tinted image we had of kibbutz life. It allowed us to PhotoShop our faces into the collective portrait of pioneer life, to assume the role of hardy turf-breaker, even if our “pioneering” consisted of boozy three-month stopovers on the Mediterranean backpacking circuit. It was harder to sustain that image when you were scrubbing pots or cleaning toilets or a cog in a noisy factory. Manual labour, on the other hand, as long as we had a return ticket—that we could romanticize.
My keenest work memories are pulled from morning shifts in the lower fields. My autumn arrival meant that I’d missed most of the harvest season: the apple picking, the cotton plucking, the kiwi selection. Instead, as the number of volunteers dwindled, I was assigned to the post-season trimming and upkeep of the orchards. I hacked out shallow irrigation trenches between the rows of apple trees to channel the coming rains. After a brief lesson in horticulture, I trimmed the low canopy of kiwi branches and fixed their ends, with plastic ties, to parallel lines of steel wire, to shape their growth for next season. I often worked in tandem with Grant, a former volunteer from Scotland and the boyfriend of Zeva, a kibbutznik who also taught us Hebrew every week. Grant had a sly, deadpan wit, and fed me insider gossip of how the kibbutz really worked behind the scenes. In exchange, I detailed for him the sexual escapades and soap-operatic dramas of the Volunteer Ghetto, freely embellishing and turning casual speculation into hard truth for his vicarious enjoyment….
Rarely did I worry about how long my shift had run or watch the clock for its end, like I did in the kitchen or the factory. Instead, the 24 daily slices of clock time were replaced with the more subtle, four-beat rhythm of the seasonal round, a kind of slowed-down square dance or hora, in which spring planting led into summer growth and fall harvest and the “dead time” of winter in the valley, when all was prepared for the renewal to come. My stints in the field were the closest I had ever been, and ever would be, to the seasonal cycles of farm work. Even my own circadian rhythms had to adjust to waking before dawn, to the sun coming up over the valley, to the chores that seemed repetitive and without end and that would not produce results until another nine months from now, when I would likely be long departed from the fields.
|Kibbutzniks from Shamir in the cotton fields, circa 1958
It is harder, perhaps, to feel nostalgic about my shifts in the cotton fields. The cotton itself had been fully harvested before I arrived, so I still have little sense, other than from photos, of what a field of ripe cotton looks or smells or feels like. I can’t really brag that I “picked cotton”. All I remember are the decimated stalks of the plant, like bony claws erupting from the broken soil. And the need to burn away this stubble for fallow. And the tang of gasoline from a trailer-borne tank attached to a tractor, and its hose and nozzle, and how the petroleum reek itched the nostrils and sheened the skin. And the waves of heat as the doused stalks of the depleted plants erupted into flames, a burning bush along the Jordan River, and how we sprinted from this wall of fire to spray and ignite the next row of cotton plants. And how, on the ride back home, sitting in the trailer, we watched a dribble of fuel trace a line from the still-smoking fields and leave a trail all the way home to the kibbutz.
On other days, we were assigned to “harvest” rocks from the cotton fields. In the early years, when kibbutzniks first settled the valley, this was the land’s most fertile crop—a perpetual growth of rocks out of land that had once been swamp and marsh, as though the earth’s mantle were sending its own hard seeds to the surface. More than 40 years later, the Huleh Valley still produced a bounty of stones that needed to be removed before spring planting. Stripped to our shorts, we would trudge behind an idling tractor and hurl skull-sized builders onto the trailer it pulled. Occasionally, we would stop and try to lever a heavier, more deeply embedded rock out of the soil and carry it away. It was dirty, ankle-twisting, mind-fogging work. Rarely did a kibbutznik join us to do anything other than drive the tractor—and even then it wasn’t worth his time, as our slow progress down the length of the fields meant the vehicle only needed to turn around every hour or two. Even a volunteer could do that. It felt like prison work, like we should have been joined at the ankles by iron shackles and crooning soulful spirituals as the sun beat against our bare shoulders. We would curse when we couldn’t dislodge a boulder and curse again when we missed the trailer with a pitched rock and curse once more when someone else’s errant toss struck the toe of our boot.
Yet, for all our complaining, we relished those moments together, taking a break at the end of each row, smoking and laughing and mopping gritty sweat from our brows and necks. We knew that these labours were not as endless as they seemed, that because we were the first to rise and beat the sun to the valley bottom, we would also be the first to quit our shift, the first to raise raw red faces into the stream of the shower, the first to lounge in the shade of the Ghetto porches with cold bottles of Goldstar in our half-rigid hands.
We didn’t know it at the time, but years later we would run this rock-picking duty through the blender of our nostalgia, too, when these hands of ours had grown soft from massaging computer keyboards instead, and our long days in those burning fields of stone would acquire a patina of pseudo-heroism, like we had been wrestling with the land itself, pitting all that simple strength of youth to tame the earth, rolling one boulder at a time. True pioneers, every last one of us.
Nor could we guess that even this lowly volunteer assignment, like so much of the kibbutz’s fieldwork, would end, too. Soon enough, as the 80s gave way to the 90s and the new millennium, kibbutz farms from Dan to Be’er Sheva hired low-paid guest workers from Thailand to replace the largely free labour of international volunteers or even hired Arab hands. The Thai workers worked harder, complained less, didn’t get drunk and rowdy every other night, and didn’t require the same constant cycle of retraining as our clan of itinerant and often unreliable backpackers. Even as rock pickers, we were about to become obsolete.
When I visited Kibbutz Shamir last June, I was surprised to learn that the kibbutz no longer takes international volunteers, that it hadn’t for five or six years. The reasons were largely economic: since privatization, much of the work formerly done by volunteers is now assigned to kibbutzniks or to hired outside labour, from nearby communities or Asian guest labourers, which maintains a more efficient continuity—you’re not always training a new set of backpackers—for managers.
My friends on the kibbutz said that they missed the volunteers—the energy and new perspectives that they brought to the kibbutz. (Of course, my friends are biased: most are either former volunteers or kibbutzniks who married former volunteers.) When I visited the kibbutz movement’s Volunteer Office in Tel Aviv, there was a line of disappointed travellers who were being told that there were no spots available anywhere at that time, which suggests that other kibbutzim have also cut down or eliminated their use of international itinerant labour.
One kibbutz spokesperson also told me that, despite the line-up I witnessed, volunteering has become less attractive because there are fewer agricultural jobs for young volunteers to do (like me, most come from the city and find toiling in the cotton fields or avocado orchards for a few months an exotic working vacation) and the remaining needs tend to be for “service” jobs like kitchen and clean-up duty—and who wants to travel halfway around the world for a McJob they could get at home?
It’s clear the heyday of the kibbutz volunteer movement has passed. (When I told a friend recently I’d been a volunteer, he said, “That’s a very 80s thing to do.”) Travellers who might once have journeyed to Israel to work on a communal kibbutz or moshav now often head to different countries to do WWOOF’ing—that is, to be a Willing Worker On Organic Farms. There’s a whole movement, which began in the U.K. in 1971 and which I’d first heard about over a decade ago, and I was reminded of it again by a recent article about a WWOOF experience titled “Costa Rica: A 21st-century kibbutz.”
I find it interesting that, for international travellers at least, ecological-minded communities and farms such as the WWOOFers, the Eco-Village Network and the Green Kibbutz Group now embody the spirit of communal learning and adventure that the kibbutz movement as a whole once held out for them.
If the dining room is the centre of communal life of the kibbutz—where gossip is traded over meals and decisions debated at general assemblies—then the volunteers’ bar (or “Volly Bar”) was the hub of volunteer life, for better or worse, during my tenure at Kibbutz Shamir. Every Friday evening, after Shabbat dinner, most of the foreign volunteers and a handful of the younger kibbutzniks would gather in the ramshackle cabin to drink too much and get to know each other. There was much craziness and camaraderie, but also some serious sharing and learning, too—at least for a kid from the suburbs of Ottawa, encountering for the first time people of my own age who were living through the geopolitical dramas of our age, rather than just reading about them in the newspaper. My first bar night on Shamir was a revelation.
Thurs. Oct. 27 
I don’t think I could begin in my awkward writings to do justice to the events of the last evening, but I must give it a try anyway.
I spent most of the night pulled up at a stool at the volunteers’ bar, quaffing “Goldstar” beers (only 60 agora for a pint—that’s about 2 pints for a Canadian dollar) and chatting with other volunteers. The beer was surprisingly good, relatively light tasting (I think it is 4.8% alcohol) but not like American piss-water beer.
Paul, a South African, and I exchanged stories on a number of topics and common interests including music (he likes Pink Floyd, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynyrd among others as well as despising the throbbing disco music that is apparently played continuously at the bar), sports (he was interested about the Wayne Gretzky trade and how the Oilers were faring), politics (he knew a great deal about the upcoming American and Canadian elections), and travelling (he and a friend had spent 4 months driving across North America in a van).
The most fascinating conversation of the evening, I was just a mediator in. Ali, a young Arab living in an area of the Golan Heights captured from Syria by Israel during the Six Day War, and Paul took turns questioning each other and discussing the tense situations in their respective nations. Paul feels that change is a necessity in his homeland of South Africa, but a slow change, one that he says is already in process, not the violent revolution proposed by Nelson Mandela whom Ali said he respected greatly. Paul does however feel that Mandela should be released as he could cause more damage to the government by becoming a martyr in prison than he could as an old man with his freedom. Ali says, despite living in Israeli territory, he still considers himself a Syrian, though he doesn’t seem to harbour any resentment for the Israelis, as he works beside them, picking fruit for the kibbutz.
On Tuesday, October 25, 1988, I arrived in Israel in a light-headed daze of dislocation, sleeplessness and culture shock. I can’t recall how long it took to travel by plane to Tel Aviv all told. I’m pretty sure we stopped in London, at Heathrow, before continuing on. I vaguely remember sitting between two large middle-aged men in the dark suits and brimmed hats of the ultra-Orthodox. One complained to a steward that his special-order meal, while labeled “kosher”, hadn’t been approved by his particular rabbi. I was starving and tempted to ask if I could eat the meal but pretty certain that definitely wouldn’t be kosher.
Once in Israel, I thought my luggage had been lost (I note this in my journal) but later located it, although I can’t recall the panic I must have felt. I do remember the abrupt shift in climate: I’d left amid an early snowstorm in Canada and arrived in (what felt to me) a sweltering heat wave in Tel Aviv. I recall lugging my backpack and duffel handbag (both with the requisite Canadian flags stitched across them by my mother) through the sliding doors of Ben Gurion airport, into a wall of heat and a clamorous throng of people. My eyes felt blurry. Signs were being thrust out, covered with words that I could almost but not quite read, like the bottom line on an optometrist’s exam. Then I clued in: Hebrew, of course. (Yes, I was either that naive or that out of it!)
Back in Canada, I’d arranged for a kibbutz stay and carried a letter of introduction, but I hadn’t been assigned to a specific community yet, so I had to journey into downtown Tel Aviv (by bus, taxi or sherut—I don’t recall) and locate the volunteer office. I remember a small, dimly lit room, and the coordinator indicating a map of Israel, the narrow geography of (to me) an unknown nation. Where would I like to go? he asked. The south, the north, or the centre?
We were in the centre of the country already, and I felt like I might perspire into a salty puddle if I had to step into the sun again. The south—into the Negev Desert—was definitely out of the question. I’d grown up in two of the coldest cities (Winnipeg and Ottawa) in one of the coldest nations in the world. I wasn’t built for the heat. I asked to head north.
The coordinator consulted his book, looked at the map, and then pointed north—far north—to Kibbutz Shamir. Before I could make out the dot, my eyes drifted farther up (but not that much farther) to the words “Lebanon” and “Syria”. I was hardly a Middle East expert, but I was news-wise enough to recognize that relations between Israel and its northern neighbours had been anything but cordial, especially since the Lebanon War of 1982. Still, I’d made my choice. I would head north, to what Israelis called “The Periphery”, nearly to the borderland slopes of Mt. Hermon.
When I found the central bus station, I realized that I was one of the few people (male or female) of my age (20 at the time) neither in uniform nor armed with an Uzi or an M-16. I think the only real gun I’d ever seen before was a Luger pistol owned by a great-uncle, a relic of the Second World War. Here, in Israel, weapons dangled as casually from shoulders like fashion accessories. I felt a little naked, and conspicuous, without one.
The bus ride took me to the town of Qiryat Shmona, and then another ride across the Huleh Valley to Shamir. By then, night had fallen, so I didn’t get a sense of the valley or the kibbutz. I had dinner in the dining room, met a few other volunteers, and then collapsed in my new room.
Reading my account of the next morning, my first on Shamir, stokes old memories. The landscape over which Shamir looks—the Huleh Valley, bisected by the Jordan River—remains a calming vista of lush farmland, orchards and irrigation ponds, although only a few years ago it was ground zero for Katyusha rockets launched by Hizbollah fighters in southern Lebanon. The sunset photo atop this blog was taken last June, just a few kilometres north and a little higher up the slopes from Shamir.
And there was a strangeness, too, to this rural landscape, with the mongoose (I’m still not sure of the plural!) that slipped between the cabins and the eerie shriek of the “rock rabbits” that lived on the embankments of the kibbutz and the keening howls of the wild dogs at dusk beyond the barbed-wire circumference.
It would take me a while to understand the perhaps unintended irony behind the reference to the volunteers’ neighbourhood, set apart from the kibbutzniks’ quarters (and now empty—Shamir hasn’t taken volunteers in several year), as The Ghetto. The name evokes the cramped shtetls and prejudice that Eastern European Jews hoped to escape by immigrating to Palestine and founding the agriculture-based kibbutz movement. It also suggests the doomed yet valiant uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust—a story I would only learn later when I visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum outside of Jerusalem.
There was beauty in this land, especially for a kid from the cookie-cutter suburbs of Canada. But there was a darker story, too, that I was still too blinded by the novelty of my experiences to be able to read.