Israel Story: In the Movies

I just helped my daughter read her lines for her Advanced Theatre class (as advanced as it gets in 8th grade, that is) which sent me back to my day in the movies. Yes, you are talking to a star of an Israeli movie.

The thrill of anticipation at possibly being discovered on this outpost of civilization in the Middle East hit the female members of the ulpan and volunteers when we found out that a scene from an Israeli movie about reserve duty would be filmed on our kibbutz. The primping promptly began.


Ulpan: a Hebrew-language immersion program. The specific ulpan that I was on was based on a kibbutz, where you studied Hebrew for half of the day and worked on the kibbutz for the other half. The main rationale behind this program was to bring young Jewish adults from around the world to Israel, have them fall in love with Israel and then either make aliyah (move to Israel permanently), or go back to their home countries and spread the word of how wonderful Israel is, and then remember their fondness for Israel when they are making money, which would cause them to donate to Israeli causes.

Volunteers: Young adults who worked on the kibbutz full-time for a small stipend, in exchange they received room and board and a chance to live in a foreign country while they pondered what they will do with their lives when they get back home. The volunteers generally came from Europe and had not attended college, and so this was part of their post-high school life before the grind set in.

Reserve duty: Israelis (boys and girls) serve in the army after high school, and then after their three years (boys) or two years (girls) of mandatory service they need to serve on an annual basis for a certain number of days every year for many years to come. This means that much of the Israeli army is composed of reservists, who generally take this duty seriously (that is those who aren’t trying to get out of it).

On the day of filming we were told to wear colors. By this time I had received my formerly lost backpack, and wore what was probably a non-descript outfit since most of my clothes were purchased to be comfortable for my year-abroad trip. We had to meet with a woman who was responsible (well, she had a clipboard) to note what each of us was wearing just in case they needed to reshoot the scene.

We then went into the club room which had been prepared for the filming, which means it was hot. Hot as in artificially hot and not like it would be hot outside under the white-hot sun of summer (which it wasn’t yet, since in the summer the Lebanon War had already started and all of these actors pretending to be reserve duty soldiers would really be reserve duty soldiers serving with their units). No, hot as in what happens to a room whose windows are blacked out with heavy curtains and lit with many very bright lights. The heat in the room alone was enough to make me know that I would never want to be in the movies.

But the inexorable boredom of the day was even worse than the heat. My God, it was a five minute scene and it took hours to film. Talk of mind-numbing. But wait, we’re getting to my moment in the klieg lights.

Out of all the Finnish, British, Irish, French, South African, New Zealander(?), and American women there the director chose me for a staring role. Yes, I was “Girl who with Candy Dish.” (No, there will be no snickering or ironic statements about giving me a candy dish to carry, at that time I was a size 8 and as you all know, able to stop strong soldiers about to board buses with my smile.) Yes, I was filmed walking across the room from where I stood to get a candy dish and back again, offering it to those reserve soldiers who had come to relax at our kibbutz. (The very premise of having mostly-married midlife reserve soldiers being entertained by twenty-something foreign women on a kibbutz is absurd and sexist, but I think it was to fit into the plot of men figuring out how their lives were going since they had been in the army as young men.) Only one take of my walk across the room was needed, so I either have a natural affinity to acting, or candy.

The day went on endlessly, as did my reading with my daughter's lines from “A Children’s Hour,” but I got through both of them. I figured that the scene would be cut, with no memento of my acting career. But I was wrong.
A few years later, when I was already married, my mother-in-law called to say that she thought she had just seen me in a movie, but that was not possible. YES! I was not cut, I had my moment preserved. Too bad my moment of fame was so insignificant, but then again, it did give me a one up on my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, and that was not to be taken lightly in light of the fact that nothing I did was ever as good as anything her children did.

Israel Story: Wanderings With and About David

David (or Dudi if you prefer) and I were to become good friends. “Good” in the way that a 20-year-old who is too shy to make a move, and a 21-year-old who is not attracted enough to make a move herself and yet attracted enough to not want to discontinue the relationship, can be good.

And so began my first post-college boy-girl friendship/relationship. And I wonder now about what could have been. Yes, there were men with whom I exhibited my temporary loose qualities, but not with David. And there certainly were none who wooed me as he did. And me, well, I did not deserve his attentions. Or maybe I did. It’s just that the end is so painful for me, since I am still ashamed of myself; I thought that I was so mature, but in reality, I was as young and unthinking as anyone I might have mocked.

It was a lovely romance reminiscent of the kind that happened (I assume) when a man and a woman got to know each other by spending time with each other before they had sex. 

Not only that, but David was my weekend knight-in-shining armor taking me off the kibbutz for a change of scenery and company. Of course, that was when he got to take off his knight uniform and relax. So every few weeks when he would have a weekend off (he was doing his military service), we would spend Saturdays together. But it wasn’t just the two of us, it would be with friends from his army unit and their girlfriends (also in the army). Maybe he used me to show that he had a girlfriend, when, in fact, we had never kissed. Who knows?

Those were wonderful trips. A bunch of carefree 20-year-olds (at least for those hours together) walking through the rivers that feed into the Jordan River and standing under waterfalls whose waters originated in Syria or Lebanon. We would find restaurants in off-beat places, or go to a friend’s house for tea in a glass and biscuits (some Britishisms remained from the time of the Brits in Israel). Yes, those Israeli soldiers might be strong and mighty, but they are young and still finding their way from childhood into manhood. One moment they are in high school and the next they are being taught how to protect the homeland.

Any way. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. What was this? We didn’t talk much; after all, my Hebrew was still sketchy and his English was not too impressive. I was thinking that this should probably end, since it was so undefined and I was beginning to feel that maybe I was leading him on.

And then the first Lebanon War began (June 1982).

Reality came knocking hard. Many of the men on the kibbutz were called up to their units. The boyfriend of my one female Israeli friend on the kibbutz was called up. Even though she had lived through wars and skirmishes and situations before, she was overwrought.

And a “friend” with whom I exhibited my looseness on the kibbutz, someone I barely spoke with even though his English was good since his father was American, sought consolation after learning that his best friend from the neighboring kibbutz had been killed.

A few weeks into the war, the extremely handsome soldier from the kibbutz came back for a few days leave bringing me news of David—that he had been injured. He had received shrapnel to his skull.

I’m figuring that he must have told me what hospital he was in because a day or two later I went to visit him. He wasn’t as bad as I feared, but I must admit, I was pretty freaked out by the whole experience. A friend wounded in a war was so far from my life expectations, and then to be treated as his serious girlfriend by his parents and his friends, and, at this point, by him, was overwhelming. I can remember that the way he looked at me had changed, and I wasn’t ready for that. It had a very very serious quality to it. (I guess being wounded in battle would be a pretty likely circumstance to bring about an epiphany.)

The first night I visited him I slept on a chair in his room. The next night I slept in a hostel in Tel Aviv. Sleep. Hmm. The hostel was full, so I was given the manager’s bed. Everyone seemed to be watching some important soccer game, while I literally crashed on the bed. That is until I rolled over and discovered a shard of glass in bed with me. End of sleep.

I went back to the hospital the next day and spent a few hours with him and then I went back to the kibbutz. A couple of weeks later, I went to visit him when he was recuperating at home. (Digression: his home was large and lovely, and his parents as welcoming as any potential daughter-in-law could want.)

Finally, he had the nerve to kiss me. Maybe his epiphany told him not to be shy any more. But I said no, in all the awkwardness of feeling that he needed me, but feeling, too, that I couldn’t be needed by him. And so that is how I left him. With a white bandage wrapped around his head and an intense look of disappointment. Or was it frustration at not getting what he wanted? It doesn’t matter, because since that moment I have regretted how I acted. And though we are not supposed to carry our sins or our disappointments in ourselves from year to year, and maybe I am making my self and my life out to be more dramatic than they really are, I still regret how this ended and that I did not contact him when I returned to Israel seven months later to see how he was and to explain myself.

But by that time I had met my future ex-husband (I kid you not, at a different bus stop), so what was the point of stirring  up his feelings again, since he had probably moved on by then any way.

* * *

Israel Story: Weekend in Tzfat (Safed)

It turns out that not all of my relatives who had immigrated to Israel had been killed in Arab riots in Jerusalem and Hebron at the beginning of the last century. No, there was a strand that was going strong, having moved from their last home in South Africa about ten years before. How did I discover this? Well, the scion of that branch of the family stopped by the kibbutz one afternoon not long after I had arrived in Israel looking for the small package that I had to deliver to him. Yes, my irresponsibility and procrastination goes way back. But I digress.

Anyway, he picked up his package and invited me to visit the family at their home in Tzfat. (In English this is usually spelled Safed, but that spelling is so far from the original Hebrew pronunciation that I cannot bear to use it. So try to make a little spitting sound and get the name out in Hebrew.) It was their holiday home away from their Jerusalem home. Tzfat is famous as a center of Jewish learning (of the Madonna kind) Kabbala, and for being an artist’s colony. Sounded like a plan to me.

A few weeks later, I made the journey. I hitchhiked from the kibbutz to Tiberias. (No lectures on hitchhiking, in those days in Israel it was safe. Well, that is until my friend and I were almost kidnapped on another trip, but not because we were Jewish but rather because we were young American women of the supposedly loose kind. All of these digressions.) From Tiberias I took the bus to Tzfat.

Their home was truly lovely. It was an old stone house, or rather a few old stone houses joined to make one labyrinthine home with all sorts of nooks and crannies. I got to meet my Israeli family, which was lovely, and I was made to feel part of the family. Yes, if you have a guest do the dishes and throw out the garbage you can be sure that you have permanently endeared her to you. Present were also two of their daughters and two of their sons-in-law, both of the women were pregnant, which left me, the one able-bodied woman, to help the matriarch. (Let's not even go into the men not offering to help or being expected to help, that would surely be a digression.)

Other than having to do chores, it was a lovely weekend, with lots of singing around the dinner table and home cooked meals that I had not had since arriving at the kibbutz where everything was home cooked, but home cooked for a “family” of 500 is not quite the same as for a family of ten.

On Saturday night my cousin drove me to the bus stop in Rosh Pina, which is part of the way down to Tiberias. On Fridays bus stops and buses are filled with soldiers going home for Shabbat, and on Saturdays after dark (when the Shabbat is over) and Sunday mornings the bus stops and buses are full of soldiers on their way back to their bases.

As I stood waiting a tall, dark and handsome soldier started talking to me. (No, this is not mr ex, for those who might be wondering.) We chatted while we waited for our buses to come.

A few weeks later an extremely handsome man from the kibbutz was asking for me. Ah, heart palpitations of the positive kind. But no, in his extremely poor English he was telling me that one of his buddies wanted to speak with me. Yes, I was being tracked down. I had told the bus stop man the name of the kibbutz where I was living, and a soldier from his unit—this soldier—lived on the kibbutz, and he asked him to find me and speak to me. I must say, I was the talk of a very nosy town because of this for a few days, and I was reveling in the attention. Knowing that you are being pursued has a lovely ability to bring light to one’s sense of being.

I recall telling him that yes, his friend could call me for a date.

And so a few days later Dudi (I kid you not) called to ask me for a date. I must explain, David is as popular a name in Israel as it is here, and so you have the various variety of variations; the two that I could never bring myself to utter being Dudi and Dudu. And so, I was to go on a date with, Dudi, although I told him that I could not call him by that name, for sometimes a rose really does smell like, well, you get where I’m going here.

I had been told that all Israelis are poor; that all Israelis live in crowded apartments (not like me with four of us in a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom); that all Israelis have teeny tiny cars. Well, David dispelled all of those rumors. He arrived in a huge Volvo and took me to a Chinese restaurant in an old stone house in Tiberias.

This son of a Romanian father and an Egyptian mother was to dispel other rumors, including those that tall, dark and handsome men are rough and tumble. But I think I must stop here, you have other things to do and I must mull over this part of my Israel story before I can proceed in the telling. And I need to bring forth memories of this long-ago time, and savor them (and be remorseful, too) before they are ready for the page.

* * *

Israel Story: An Explanation

Since my mind does not work in chronological fashion, I figured that I should tell you that the stories that make up the "Israel Story" will not be told in chronological order; rather, they will be told in the order that they come to me and as I am able to fully develop them into vignettes.

I also feel that I should clarify that my original intention when I graduated from college, since I only knew that I wanted to be a writer, was to be an au pair in Italy (pretty impressive). I had studied French and Italian in college, mastering neither, but loving Italian, and so hoped to go to Italy to work on my language skills (cough cough meet some Italian men cough cough). But the family I had made plans with decided to go to Argentina for a while, leaving me in the lurch.

“Israel, why not go to Israel” someone recommended.

“Yes,” I said, “why not go to Israel.” I figured that I would meet someone with whom I could travel around the world there, since I was adventurous enough to travel to Israel alone, but not enough for the solo European tour. I had also dreamed of living in Australia (another story altogether) and figured that this could be a way to reach that goal.

And then I found the program (Kibbutz Ulpan) where you live and work and study Hebrew on a kibbutz for six months. That seemed ideal to me: getting to go abroad and not have all of the stress (at least not right away) of being on my own. You know, just me and my (lost) backpack.


An Israel Story: Tomatoes Anyone?

My life in Israel started on a kibbutz, which is basically a community of a few hundred families that lives and works together, and shares in all of the support systems of that society. Everyone works for the kibbutz, in different capacities, and even those who work outside of the kibbutz deposit their salaries into a common fund. [There are a few hundred kibbutzim (plural for kibbutz) all over Israel; the first one, established in 1910, was down the road from where I lived.]

Since I lived on the kibbutz in 1982, things have changed, but at that time all of the members ate their meals together in a community dining hall. Just think, you could go years without having to prepare a meal, or you could go a year or two preparing meals for hundreds; or you could not fold a towel for years, and then, well, you could supervise volunteers from all over the world as they folded towels in the laundry for you and your neighbors. There were children’s houses for the care of children so the parents, especially the mothers, could go to work. The premise here (remember this idea goes back to 1910) was that instead of one woman staying home to take care of one child, the kids would be “pooled” together so that mothers could go out to work, and the adults could take turns caring for each others’ children.

In short, a kibbutz is a self-contained socialized system. As I said, things have changed (for example, the ascendancy of the communal dining room has waned, and more people work outside of the kibbutz than at that time), so what I am recounting is life as I knew it then, and as it was followed on the kibbutz where I lived for six months.

First Job: Tomato Selector
My first job on the kibbutz was in the preparation room. I, of course, had no idea what the “preparation room” was, but quickly found out that it is part of the kitchen, where the food gets prepared. Made sense. So off I went in my very worn cast-off clothes, since my own clothes were still somewhere between New York and Tel Aviv.

I was placed in front of a large sink and counter, and told to inspect a couple of crates of tomatoes. I was to rinse the tomatoes, put the good ones in large bowls in preparation for being served in the dining hall, and put the bad ones back in the wooden crates.

I don’t know about you, but up until that time I had never encountered a tomato outside of a supermarket. Since I grew up in an apartment, I had never even encountered a home-grown tomato. My tomato expectations were: red, uniform shape (meaning round), firm, and clean. But the tomatoes in the crate did not conform to that standard; there were mushy parts, there were green parts, there were tomato booboos. They were not round. They were uninviting. And they were not clean. (Okay, I did understand that that was part of my job.)

Going through one crate, out of the hundred or so tomatoes that I inspected, I found about four tomatoes that I thought were of almost supermarket-quality. I was proud of having saved the kibbutzniks from having to eat less-than-standard tomatoes.

My supervisor came over to inspect my work. She was horrified. I was made to understand that I am a wasteful American woman. She gave me a knife and told me to cut off the bad parts and not to be so picky.

What? It had never occurred to me that just because part is bad, that does not mean that the whole is bad. I thought that the entire tomato must be perfect in order to be purchased or eaten. Why had I never seen these imperfect tomatoes before? I mean I had touched tomatoes with bruises, but these were not bruises, these tomatoes had serious issues.

I welded the knife and picked up the first rejected tomato. I felt it; there were mushy parts. Conquering my revulsion, I cut off the mushy parts and placed the surgically-altered tomato into a bowl. And on I went, dispensing with imperfections and creating a new kind of perfect tomato. In the end, there were about ten tomatoes that were not salvageable. The process was perspective-altering. It had never occurred to me that just because part of something is not good means that the rest is not good.

This first lesson in a new land was a good lesson to learn; in fact, it became more than a lesson in tomatoes, it became a life lesson. If a tomato is not all bad, don’t discard the good parts along with the bad. In life, this insight enabled me to understand that there is good with the bad, and to look for the good parts, and not to focus on the bad parts. Yes, this could be a useful lesson. Only problem was, I went overboard, and focused too much on the good, forgetting that the bad was not cut away as with a tomato, and so was still a part of the whole. I guess there are some problems extrapolating things from tomatoes to people. So the revised lesson has become: focus on the good, but don’t overlook the bad.

* * *

An Israel Story: Welcomed by Song Birds

I feel like indulging in sweet nostalgia. You know, the kind that bars the bitterness that came after, the kind that transports you to happier times before the fall. And now, now that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are upon us (the “big” Jewish holidays), I am thinking of Israel, and the years I lived there, especially the time when I first got there, before I realized that this would be my home for more than seventeen years, when it was still the place of my first young-adult discoveries.

The First Morning
It was February, so I was surprised to wake to the sound of birds outside my window. I peeked between the curtains, unsure what I would see, after all, I had arrived at the hotel in the middle of the night after an eleven-hour flight and I hadn’t seen anything. In fact, I had no idea where I was, except somewhere in Israel.

Pulling back the curtains, using them as a shield since I was naked (my bright red backpack with my things for my year’s journey had been lost), I was confronted with the brightness of a morning sun streaming in through the leaves and branches of a huge tree, a tree that blocked the entire window in all its green glory. And when I looked up, through the green leaves I could see a radiant sky-blue sky. Oh, the glory of springtime in the middle of what was supposed to be winter. I had left Buffalo in the middle of my fourth cold, murky December there, and two months later I left New York in the middle of the slushy, steel-colored winters of my childhood and youth. But now, now I woke to a brilliant Israeli morning, and it was only six o’clock.

I was a twenty-year-old college graduate starting on my grand adventure. I closed my eyes and listened to the incessant calling of those birds and felt the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the tree, and I found myself coming to life.

The drive to the kibbutz where I was to live in a work-study program for six months was a journey in every sense of the word. The kibbutz was at the southern tip of Lake Kinneret (in English it is usually called the Sea of Galilee); the drive took us from the populous Tel Aviv area (I discovered this from a more alert passenger) through the Jezreel Valley. I was driven there, along with seven others, by a driver from the government department that ran the work-study program. We were headed to different kibbutzim in the area. (More on life on a communal farm in another posting.)

As much as I tried to stay awake on the drive, I fell asleep. Car rides, even fifteen minute ones, generally lull me to sleep; that is unless I am driving.

I awoke to another unforgettable sound: sheep bleating. I woke up because the car had stopped, and the car had stopped because a shepherd (yes, they really do herd sheep) was crossing the road with his flock. We waited patiently while the sheep got to the other side and we all looked at each other, aware, finally, that we were not in America any more.

The vision of Israel that I had in my mind was of desert. I expected to see sand every where, or at the very least for everything to be in shades of beige. But when I looked up from the mass of sheep I almost gasped: there was a verdant carpet of rectangles of green laid out all across the valley that we looked down upon. It was truly a glorious sight.

It was truly an awakening in the modern/ancient land of my ancestors; what a glorious sight and feeling. As I beheld the view, my mind beckoned forth the Holocaust stories and Israeli pioneer stories that I had practically fed on from the moment in December when I decided that I would start my world travels in Israel.

The drive went slowly as we dropped passenger after passenger off at the kibbutzim they would be calling home for the next six months. Mine, of course, was the last one on the route. But that way I got to drive through the Jezreel Valley and then down toward the Kinneret (as it’s called in Israel) and past the ancient city of Tiberias, and over a tributary of the Jordan River where I saw people in white robes standing (later I was to find out that this is the site where many Christian pilgrims to the holy land get baptized), past a burned out Syrian tank on the side of the road (I found this out later), past banana trees (I also found this out later, how would a city girl know what a banana tree is?) on either side of the road, and then into the kibbutz that I would happily call home for six months.

And the first person who met me there was the hyper-active director of the program who ushered me into a room full of well-worn clothes to replace my missing ones (which would arrive three days later by taxi from the airport after my backpack had been found). And my new life had begun. I thought it was symbolic that I came practically naked, only me, to meet my new experience, to partake, finally, in my life.

* * *