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.

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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.

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