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.