Over the next few months I plan to use my memories, journals and hindsight to write pieces on different places I have travelled to and all of the places I have called home over the past 37 years. I am going to start this series off with this piece describing my life working on a kibbutz. This is the first of a few pieces that I shall be writing about this very special time in my life, as one essay just won’t even begin to evoke everything. When I left Israel, during the summer of 2004, my plan was to write a novel on my time spent there, memoir slash memories, and I got about halfway through and abandoned it. I shall be using and possibly even quoting from these chapters written over 11 years ago.
I have piles and piles of journals dating back to 1988 as well as many half-finished and finished typed journal-like documents hanging out on my laptop in folders, just waiting for me to do something with them. I do pride myself on having an amazing memory, but I’m glad that I documented so many things because when I go back to read pieces I surprise myself by laughing and crying, hurtling right back to those moments, as inane or crazy as they were. My 20’s were a cluster of quite amazing whirlwinds, different elements forcing me to make certain choices that I may not have made by myself and pushing me to test my own limits. During that time I did a lot of travelling, never really knowing where I wanted to be, and never really knowing where I would stay.
One of my trips ended up lasting over a year and came at a very important time in my life. I was very depressed and stuck in a situation that didn’t seem to have any type of positive outcome (all related to half of my close family living in the US and me not being able to live near them for various reasons, mainly immigration-related – that whole story can be told another day). So when one of my aunts invited me to come visit her in Israel and help her with her two small kids I jumped at the chance. And once my 3 month visa ran out I decided to try out life on a kibbutz. I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, and it was the best decision I could have made at that point in my life. I learnt so much about myself, my strengths and also my weaknesses. There is nothing like a little communal living to forge the character!
I grew up very shy, and spent a long time creating walls for myself to hide behind. You know when you often hear people describing someone as appearing standoffish but in reality they were just shy? That was me. Being outside in public, especially if it meant having to speak to people outside of my close group of friends was a constant struggle. In the second half of my teens I discovered that alcohol was a great way to dismiss the shyness and fears, but alcohol wasn’t available at all times. Well it was, but I was smart about it, I wouldn’t drink during class or exam time. I still remember the exact terror I felt before and during the presentation of my MA thesis. I don’t even know how I managed to appear calm and together with the turmoil going on inside me, fueled by coffee and cigarettes, but I did. About a year before going to Israel I actually stopped drinking, because I felt constantly anxious and nauseous, afraid of everything. My nerves were even more frayed after 9/11 and depression set in with agoraphobic tendencies. Leaving my apartment in Grenoble , and then my mother’s house in California was always a huge effort, tied with stomach cramps and real fears. I always pushed through, forced myself so to speak, but it was a constant effort. The only place that felt safe was being home with my cat and books to crawl into. This is why the trip to Israel was not only an enormous challenge for me, but also a new beginning of some sorts.
My aunt (who has literally travelled the world and ended up settling down in Israel) took me to the Kibbutz Program Center in Tel Aviv where I was given the choice of a few kibbutzim. I had been in the middle of the Arava desert all summer, in Hatzeva, halfway between Be’ersheva and Eilat, so I decided to go up north, right by Nahariya and the Mediterranean Sea. I lived on Kibbutz Evron for over 7 months. It was 2003 and I was 25 years old.
I still vividly remember the moment that I walked into the kibbutz. Luckily the volunteer house was easy to find, but I had to gather all my courage together and ask one of the people sitting outside the way to the office. He happened to be a really nice Korean guy called Sean (I think) and he immediately put me at ease. Ina, the volunteer leader, who became a fabulous mother figure for those of us who stayed on for longer than others, made me feel like I had made the right choice in coming too. She gave me the choice of some volunteer boots (basically combat/work boots which I loved of course), showed me where I would be working and my room that I would be sharing with another volunteer. And that was it. I was home for the foreseeable future. I met all of the volunteers that night (I think there were 11 others at that time). That group of volunteers was what I would later call the “calm” group. I was expecting a bunch of hellraisers, but they weren’t. There was Gabi, my roommate from the Czech Republic who had a boyfriend on the kibbutz and who left a week or so after I arrived. There was Trine from Germany. Adam from the US, Lotti from the Netherlands and a big group of Korean volunteers. And then Viliam from Slovakia, who became a good friend and who was on the kibbutz for even longer than I was. My first job was to work in the kitchen, starting at 6am, finishing at 3pm, with two 30 minute breaks for breakfast and lunch.
I don’t know how you imagine a kibbutz, but many are not 100% communal areas nowadays. There are often outside employees working in the different communal areas, and Evron was one of these. Over 50% of the workers in the kitchen and dining room were paid employees. It was actually a great mix because we got to work with people from all over the world, some native Israelis, some recent or not so recent immigrants, some who didn’t speak a word of English and with whom we had to figure out communication. I learnt quite a bit of Hebrew (and Russian) while I was there. Most Israelis speak good English which is really helpful because if you don’t know how to read Hebrew even the simplest of task, like looking for a bakery or a shoe shop, can be tough.
Working in the kitchen was hard, but a lot of fun. For a while I was the only volunteer in the kitchen, cleaning and preparing vegetables, meat, different foods. Filling and cleaning the huge food carts, taking orders from the cooks and chef, and generally running around and lugging heavy items. I loved, and still love, manual labour. I love the repetition, the ease of being able to accomplish each task well and mainly not having to worry about something once it is finished. I love setting up a routine and perfecting it, and I also love doing my job well, no matter what it is (even when it involved marinating chicken, which for a vegetarian was pretty gross). I loved joking with all the guys in the kitchen and sneaking out for quick cigarette breaks when no one was looking.
Volunteer groups are continuously evolving. There are always a few volunteers who stay longer, but when I was there the usual length of time that a volunteer would stay was around 2 months. For a lot of the time I even had a room to myself which was quite lovely. The initial group that was there when I arrived quickly evolved into a more rowdy and crazy group, a group of people that I will always remember with a lot of love and a lot of nostalgia in my heart. Some of them still remain good friends today, and we follow each other’s lives on social media. There are others who I remember fondly and wonder what has become of them. We were all there for a reason, a lot of us were trying to escape something in our lives or find something, and it brought us all together. Communal living isn’t for everyone, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought it was for me before living on Evron, but it can actually be a wonderful experience, and even lifestyle. To this day I still wonder what my life would have been like if I could have stayed. Friendships are built hard and fast and goodbyes were always traumatic. There was Erica from Seattle, Andrea from Colombia and Sasha from Russia. Helge from Denmark. Haun from Korea. Later Nick from New Zealand, Fernando from Colombia and my little Dwarfie, Isabel from Guatemala. Of course there were others, but with some the bond was stronger.
I moved from the kitchen into the Dining Room, which became my main job for the duration of time I spent there (more about this specific job in another post). I also volunteered to work on Fridays, so instead of having Fridays and Saturdays off I had Saturdays and Sundays. That one day off alone was exactly what I needed to maintain a balance, and I usually spent it reading on the beach. Erica and I had found this somewhat private beach just over the main road and I continued to go there long after she flew back home to the States.
As I settled in I created my own routines, and started to feel comfortable, not only in my own skin, but also in the life that I started to live. For some reason, being away from everything I knew helped me shed some of the tough skin I had acquired and also helped me break through a few of the walls around me. The people, as well as my surroundings, made me feel like I really belonged, probably for the first time in my life. I had no fears in being myself, stating my opinions and actually letting loose. It was all about living life in the now and creating memories for the future. There wasn’t really a future anyway at the time – I didn’t want to imagine life anywhere else, especially after I fell in love. I basically fell into the kibbutz life as if it had been created especially for me. Instead of being a resentful follower I naturally took on more of a leadership role and stopped fearing the unknown.
Evron was the perfect fit. It was not a religious kibbutz, but traditional religious holidays were made into happy occasions which we all participated in. And when Christmas rolled round Ina helped us organize our own perfect little Christmas celebration, which as with every party, every week, ended in a huge drunken party. I started drinking again the first weekend I stayed in Evron and didn’t stop again until years later – although at the time it really was all fun and games. We partied in different kibbutzim, at the pub in Evron, in the volunteer house, in front of the volunteer house, and often kibbutznik friends, especially Maor, Shelly, Doron and Tuti, would join us. So many memories of dancing the night away, a bottle of cheap vodka in one hand, a cigarette in the other. The same songs playing over and over again because they reminded us of good times, of dancing close, of kisses and whispered thoughts, of laughter and friendship. Some songs I most likely wouldn’t have even given the time of day in another life like that one Usher song that still takes me straight back there. Other songs that were always part of my life, like certain INXS tracks, that took on a much deeper meaning.
Maybe it was just the fact that life was indeed temporary there, suspended for the duration, which enabled me to just be myself, let loose, and live? Or maybe it was just because I had finally found a place and people who accepted me as I was, no hidden agenda, and helped me feel like I belonged. Whatever your thoughts on Israel may be, at the time it was the one place where I felt at home, especially when nowhere else did. I was lucky enough to be able to renew my visa so many times, a months-long strike in the interior ministry helped, but it came to a point when I actually really did have to leave. It broke my heart, for more reasons than one, and I will always long to go back again and visit my old haunts.
Images of cleaning the volunteer house with the music blasting on a warm winter’s day, in a bathing suit top and shorts; smoking weed with the boys and giggling about the most absurd happenings; dressing up in a bag of abandoned Purim outfits and running across to the 24/7 to buy 10 Shekel vodka; walking into Nahariya with Isabel and stuffing our faces with all-you-can-fit-in-a-pita falafel; walking out to the avocado orchard with Andrea and getting so lost on the way back, stuck in the mud in the rain; fighting with Fernando and then making up 10 minutes later; drinking little cappuccinos from the machine with a cigarette in the sun outside the dining room; smoking Noblesse Lights and listening to Galgalats; chocolate and Bissli from the kolbolit, making our 200 Shekels last as long as possible; waking up for work after two hours of sleep and working the hangover off in the kitchen; living, loving and laughing as much as physically possible. That’s not to say there weren’t any moments of sadness, but they were usually limited to happenings of the moment and the romantic adventures that were undertaken by most of us. There really was a sense of freedom that comes with having left everything behind for a while.
Kibbutz Evron no longer takes volunteers and is situated a few miles south of Nahariya, not far from the Lebanese border. You can find out more about the kibbutz here.
I also have some photos up on Flickr from that time here .
To be continued…