Why does a fifty-seven year-old psychoanalyst, upon moving to Israel, harvest persimmons and avocados? But, my first answer is to remember A.D. Gordon‘s words, this fiftiesh early twentieth century Russian immigrant former shopkeeper. After generations in the Pale, where Jews were proscribed from owning land, Gordon moved with his family to Palestine; he insisted on working the fields, draining swamps, moving boulders, digging ditches, planting and harvesting crops. Essay writing was for evenings. He wrote: the aliyah Jew’s relationship to the Land is reciprocal: the Jew redeems the Land, but is redeemed by it, or in his simpler, clear Hebrew, “Build the Land and be rebuilt by it.”
But, my more immediate answer is personal.
When I arrived for a conference in Israel in October 2000, the Second Intifada also arrived. Conference cancelled, I stayed for two weeks, working with Moishek, the 65 year-old kibbutz-born head of agriculture on Kibbutz G. Seeing my soft writer’s hands, Moishek has me stick stickers on the meichalim, the massive shipping crates filled with tea-rose or apricot-gold tinged persimmons. Moishek demonstrates: tears off old sticker, crumples it, tosses it to the ground, paste on new ones so we get credit by the export company.
When Moishek returns at the end of the day, job’s done and I’ve picked up the trashed stickers. He’s impressed, “ Why did you pick up the old stickers? I explain, “Out of respect for the Land.” I don’t say that my father would have had my head if he saw me tossing ripped stickers on the ground.
Next, day, I am promoted: shoveling manure by hand into saplings in the potting shed.
When he sees that I have survived shit-shoveling, I am promoted to pruning the fig trees in the orchard. The fig trees have a primitive look: lobular-leaved like Matisse’s paper-cut-outs in his bedridden years; its fruit seems to bulge tumorous from the limb, becomes more discrete, and upon ripening. If not harvested, the figs bursts open at the bottom, exposing its seeds and is invaded by clouds of fruit flies.
Final promotion before graduation is to trim the young decorative trees, set them straight, prune distracting limbs and crossed branches, set their fingers on an upward reach to the heavens. He teaches me about cambium layers and how to partially strip tree bark to control growth.
We go to the hadar ochel, the communal dining hall, to have coffee at 9 am, having started work at 630. He laments how since the kibbutz decided to contract-out the food services, they now have to eat kosher. Haval, awful.).
Afterwards, we drive to the natal, the tree nursery; his five-year-old granddaughter is marching by with her nursery, to pick pecans from the ground. She waves. He explains how much she wanted a dog, and her mother unable to tolerate it, sent it over to Moishek. Who now cares for the girl’s pup; she comes by daily after school to play with it, walk and feed it.
For the next four years, in my San Francisco office, on a discrete wall where only I can spy it, I post a photograph of Moishek. He poses awkwardly, in military stage rest, legs a kimber, hands clasped in back: not one for photos, this avocado grower, this reluctant warrior. His emblematic dark blue, kibbutz shirt has sleeves rolled roughly above the elbow. His baggy pants reveal holes, rips; a worn leather belt across his concave belly has its end tucked in. His pepper gray hair is cropped short. His bearing reveals unwittingly his military background in Navy Special Forces.
In 2005, I make aliyah and call Moishek. He welcomes me to work on Fridays when I am free from Hebrew studies. Dugri, (to the point), when I arrive, he asks if the work might not be too strenuous. I respond with my memories of reading AD Gordon. After I say that such honest work is healthy for me, Moishek accepts this but with a joke. In Hebrew he says, “Work is healthy, which is why only the sick work.” I tell him, my non-capitalistic leanings (such as they are) came early. Around this time of year, Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, when my father and I were in shul, our synagogue, and I was perhaps nine, I noticed one fellow, tallit-wrapped, during the ashamnu, bagadnu. This prayer is a recitation of all our sins, in alphabetic order, during which we are to strike our hearts with each beat of the word. I turned to my father, point to the man fully wrapped in his black -stripted tallit, like a death shroud, as he beats his chest so hard, it echoes through the shul. I ask my father why the guy pounds himself so hard. My dad glances up, pauses, looks down at me and answers, “He’s a businessman.”
I was not destined for business.
I pick for Moishek.
I pick to feel the land.
In the other stories, I try to answer what draws me to kibbutz fields. But, it is mostly the people — Moishek, the Bedouin family of persimmon harvesters, the Thai workers. It is my attempt to complete the cycle my father initiated after he left concentration camp, choosing America over kibbutz, as he could not bear living in another “camp.” It is also my need to come closer to the land and its annual cycle; my way to absorb and tell the tales of this Land.
Copyright N Szajnberg 2020