It was 1963. One border was peaceful.
My elderly Uncle Joseph had often spoken to me about the ancient Hebrew alphabet and how each of its letters had cosmic significance. Just by tracing the characters, he said, one could invoke healing. He spoke passionately about Israel and the first immigrants.
“They had virtually nothing to start with,” he told me. “Each family was given a tent and a goat, and all they had to eat was what they could grow. The settlers worked together and founded communal farms, Kibbutzim, some of the earliest around 1920. What they have achieved is wonderful.”
He paused a while. “One of the wonderful things you will see when in Jerusalem,” he continued, “is Jews, dressed all in black according to the ancient tradition, sitting outside their shops with open prayer books, uttering their prayers in the street.”
His enthusiasm fired me. Uncle was the only Jew in our family, and radiated inner peace and wisdom. He showed me a magazine article he had kept.
“Throw a stone at a Sabra,” I read, “and he’ll pick it up and start building with it.”
The Sabras are the Israeli-born: proud and beautiful new nation, every young man and woman a soldier at eighteen. Many lived in the Kibbutzim, where they worked without pay for the common good in communal ownership and with participation in decision-making. The kibbutz provided for their basic needs, and medical care.
I wanted to discover more, to experience life in the Kibbutz. I also wanted to learn this language of the sacred characters. In youthful enthusiasm I took long leave and set out to see for myself. I planned to stay in Israel for six months and to learn Hebrew, hopefully Ancient.
The boat from Marseilles landed at Haifa. I breathed in the unexpected heat. Before I had got half way down the gangplank, language lessons had begun.
“Shalom,” said a young man, first thing. “Want to come to bed with me?”
“Shalom,” I replied, taken aback. “No thank you.”
And off to the next one.
So this was God’s land! Life was earthy, immediate, and bubbled vividly on the surface. Language lessons were going to be secular! Over forty years have passed, but the experience is as vivid as if it had taken place yesterday.
Getting around Israel was easy in those days. People were friendly, hitchhiking was safe, and one could reduce costs by working one’s way round the Kibbutzim. Visitors only had to work half-day. In exchange they were given food and lodging, a blue or beige cloth hat, toothpaste, soap, and some stamps. In London, I had met a young man who had just returned from six months in Israel. He gave me the address of a Kibbutz south of Haifa.
“Find Dov and Hannah. Tell them I sent you.”
They were easy to find; everyone knew them. “A friend of Michael’s is a friend of ours,” said Hanna, making me welcome. “You can choose where you want to work; indoors or out.”
Lodged in a small wooden hut with a Turkish girl, I joined the apple-pickers. The alarm rang at four-thirty in the morning, while it was still cool (the maximum average temperature would be rising to 30.8 degrees) and we were given bread and butter, jam and tea, just to start us off. At 5 a.m. a jeep drove one to the apple orchards. I loved this. Before the morning was properly under way, three hours’ work up a ladder was done, with one’s head in colorful, sweet-smelling, heavy-laden branches.
At eight the jeep came for us and drove us back for breakfast. Kibbutzniks worked hard and long by personal commitment, and came back ravenous. Breakfast, laid out on a trolley in the dining-room, seemed like a celebration: bread and jam, eggs, yoghurt, curd cheese, freshly picked cucumbers, large sweet onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and the sweetest midget bananas straight from the plantation, as well as milk, tea, and coffee.
Everyone ate in the communal dining-room and the noise was terrific. It only quietened a little when the workers set to with gusto. Food was available in unlimited amounts; only the meat was served in portions. And the taste of the home-grown vegetables was wonderful. Suppers were light, and similar to breakfast: salami, avocadoes, and olives were added to the morning’s fare.
Dov and Hannah were around forty, and obviously very much in love. In fact, I thought they had just got married. Friendly, open, and tremendously welcoming, they told me some of their story. They had lived at the Kibbutz from the beginning in tents. “All we had to eat was the tomatoes we grew. We even made jam with tomatoes. But to this day our children can’t stand the sight of a tomato!”
By 1960 the first signs of wealth had appeared in the Kibbutz. The progress from tents to wooden huts led to the building of very small apartments for those who had been there longest. Dov and Hannah lived in one of these. Their hospitality was wonderful.
“They must be on honeymoon!” I said to a neighbor, which brought a smile.
“Dov and Hannah? They married very young and quarrelled violently for about twenty years. Once we even thought they were going to kill each other. Then, one day, they fell head over heels in love! And that’s the way it’s been ever since.”
“This afternoon our daughter will come to visit,” said Hanna. (Children were raised communally and separately, and the older children had assigned duties in the kibbutz.)
“But this is beginning to change,” she continued, “for it has not turned out very satisfactory.”
(Since 1997 no Kibbutz has separate children’s housing any more, and families may now have dinner at home, and spend the evening privately instead of communally, if they so wish.)
I hoped to attend the daily Hebrew class in the afternoons, but was not admitted. At the time, language training was only made available to immigrants who were to be at the Kibbutz for a full year. However, with or without Hebrew, one was soon drawn into frequent exchange.
There was an amazing vitality in this land; the very earth vibrated through one. Nowhere else did my hair ever shine as it did in Israel. One way or another, this energy surged and made itself felt. Invitations were offered with startling simplicity. Best to learn the language for this at once!
There were four greetings one absolutely had to know: Boker tov—good morning; erev tov—good evening, and laila tov—good night, and of course, “Shalom!” often followed by: “Which do you prefer: good-evening or good-night?”
One did not need much vocabulary: in those days (1960s) everyone was a comrade; to designate another person, just use the word haver. Nor did one need to know how to count to more than three.
Shtayim—two: we-two, two comrades;
Shalosh—three: when two are not alone.
Communication was simple and direct. It always began with the greeting Shalom! This would soon be followed by we-two-comrades, with an offer to laila tov, to-go-good-night. And then there was that vital word LO, which quite definitely meantNO!
With plenty of eyebrows, gestures and smiles, I soon became an expert in this new language. But I remained relatively detached.
“I already have ehhad haver—in London!” I would insist. “One comrade back there, to whom I’m faithful!”
“Oh well, Shalom!”
And that’s where it would end.
This open approach seemed so natural.
I was fascinated by the sheer feline beauty of the young; they belonged to a new, uninhibited race, proud of their land and their freedom. I would watch the military vehicles as they drove by. It always surprised me to see how beautiful were the young soldier-girls, sitting beside each other in the trucks, holding their guns.
The work and commitment to the communal good on the Kibbutz was intense. Because of the heat, everyone had a long break after lunch, resuming work around 3 p.m. But when Jeff, a young American arrived, he did not do likewise. Instead of taking a siesta, he returned to his irrigation work in the fields right after lunch, and continued to work till supper. The Israelis said they had never ever seen anyone work like him.
It was a strict Kibbutz rule, that the Rosh Hashanah celebrations were strictly private; no outsiders. But Hanna and Dov took me with them anyway. All work stopped that day. I did not understand the words, but could feel the beauty and power and hope as the young sang and everyone prayed together.
One month later I moved on. With my shoulder bag and blue cloth hat, vital in the burning sun, I hitchhiked up the road till darkness fell. Then I simply made for the nearest Kibbutz, where I was simply accepted, and shown to a wooden hut, shared d by three young men, currently away on military duty. Next morning I was given work: picking grapes with a group of adolescent immigrants in rehabilitation. I loved being among the vines; Eve could not have asked for more.
A few days after I had arrived at this new Kibbutz, I was introduced to a plump, dark-haired woman who spoke English. She was visiting her cousin. She stared at me intently for a while, then fired at me a volley of questions: How old was I? What was I doing in Israel? How did I get to this Kibbutz anyway? Did I have any children? And why not? Was I married? And why not? Did I at least have a boyfriend?
I met this onslaught meekly; and when through, she said, “I’m Jocheved. When you are near Tel Aviv, phone me, and come to stay.”
Two weeks later, ten miles from Tel Aviv, I phoned to ask whether she still meant it.
“Lunch is hot, your room is ready,” she said. “Why did it take you so long?”
When I arrived, Jocheved embraced me as if she had known me all my life. Then she introduced me to her husband, who emerged in a wheel-chair. She had a three-year old son, whom she adored. She was teaching him to whistle and was enormously proud of his little-bird attempts to copy her.
“You can have Joshua’s room,” she said and moved him out.
The family lived in a pleasant, cool house with an open inner courtyard. David had lost both of his legs in the World War II. At that time Jocheved had been a field nurse. Her eyes sparkled as she remembered. “I fell in love with his blue eyes, the moment I saw him lying injured in the tent. Later he got new legs. Today he can do everything. Even play tennis!”
Jocheved treated me like a member of the family. She cooked marvellous Middle Eastern meals, with delicious fresh vegetables. I loved being with them. Every morning she mopped the stone floors. Their home was sparklingly clean.
“And they say that Jews are dirty!” she said scornfully.
“You are welcome to stay as long as you like,” she continued, as I helped her clean. I stayed for a week. Her husband even found the time to show me the sights around Tel Aviv.
From there I took a coach trip to Eilat, and saw how they had made the desert bloom. The bus bumped along over the red majestic desert track in the sweltering heat, until quite suddenly everything was green! Here one could buy sweet, cool grapes, straight from the desert vineyards. Now I learned the right word for this: Yoffie! It meant wonderful, most wonderful. And absolutely whooping.
“Yoffie!” said the folks who saw the cool green grapes.
“Yoffie!” I echoed, sinking my teeth into their flesh.
“Yoffie!” had said the young fellow back there at the gang plank, as he spied me, ripe for the picking. Hebrew classes were live, and definitely modern. With Yoffie, Shalom, ehhad haver, boker tov, erev tov, and laila tov—my vocabulary was complete.
That, and a good thumb for hitchhiking, was all one needed.
Next I found my way next to a much smaller Kibbutz, under the Golan Heights on the northeast borders of Israel and Syria, where I joined the grape pickers. One of the elders told me a story.
“It is hard to find privacy on a Kibbutz,” he began. “Well, not long ago on this kibbutz, there was a young couple, desperately in love. Now, this farm has only one tractor. One Sunday afternoon, the two of them decided to borrow the tractor to steal away for some private time. They had barely come to a halt in the fields, when shots suddenly rained down on them from the Golan Heights, the rocky plateau some 6,500 feet above them. (Captured by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981). Alarmed, they hid under the tractor until the shooting stopped. There they remained till darkness fell, then drove back to their kibbutz unharmed. But they looked very sheepish when they were asked to explain why the tractor was limping!”
I stayed in this community for a week. Many older Europeans lived there, too, and talking with them was easy. They were quieter, and very different from the Sabras in their ways, courteous and more cultured. More poetical. One older German gentleman, who took to me, even declared, “I will address you as did Elisabeth: Hail, Mary, full of grace!”
I arrived in Jerusalem late one afternoon. Rather lost in the hustle and bustle of the central station, I looked around for some help. I had read that many of the taxi drivers were also tourist guides, famous for their culture and ability to speak many languages. I decided to treat myself to a single taxi ride through the center of Jerusalem to my hostel. I found a driver who spoke English, and got in. He was an older man with a pleasant voice. Before depositing me at the convent near the City Gate, he said, “Would you like to come on tour with me? I’ll show you all around for free.”
Surprised and delighted, I accepted his offer.
Bullet marks pocked the walls of the convent and there was a guard on the roof. There was an inexpensive basement dormitory, empty save for a girl from Eastern Europe, and a lot of mice. Sporadic shots could be heard at night. Jerusalem was being shot into. But no one shot back.
The taxi guide turned up two days later as promised. He seemed very pleased with himself.
“Now there are only the two of us,” he said with that look in his eye.
“Are you married?” I asked hesitantly, once we were on our way.
“Sure!” he replied. “I even have three children. But I have free time in the afternoon.”
“But I don’t go out with married men!”
“You don’t? But all the women come here for that!”
“Yes. They come from the Scandinavia countries and many other places. They complain that their husbands are cold or something.”
“You mean you didn’t know?”
I kept quiet. Evidently, both the men and the women here were perfectly forthright!
“You’re different,” he said suddenly, in an odd kind of way. “That’s O.K.! I’ll take you for a tour all the same. Just for the fun of it; nothing else.”
And he set out on a long morning drive to the Judean hills. On the way he pointed out a few sacred sights—somewhat distractedly, I thought. All at once his face brightened.
“I know what’s wrong with you!” he declared. “You’re a virgin!”
I grinned. So, he’d been mulling things over! There was a long silence.
“Well then, you must be a blue stocking!”
I chuckled: a cold intellectual indeed!
Up in the Judean hills he parked the car to let me enjoy the view of Jerusalem below. He got out and came to stand beside me. I thought he would point out the landmarks and speak to me of their history. But no, he seemed too preoccupied; his brow furrowed. Suddenly he came out with, “Now I’ve got it! You ‘re one of those women who only like women.”
My laughter shook him. To my untold amazement, the man now turned lyrical.
“You are Yoffie!Yoffie! Yoffie! ” he chanted. “Indeed, you are the last good woman!” Whereupon he drove me back to the hostel and dropped me off with perfect decorum.
I loved being in Israel, and in between working on the kibbutzim, I made my pilgrimage to the sacred Christian places. Galilee, Jerusalem, Nazareth. And Bethlehem, only eight kilometers away. There were moments that touched me deeply: a walk through Jerusalem’s old city, the men praying at the Wailing Wall; the startling proximity of the three faiths—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—with their 300 places of worship: synagogues, churches, mosques, and monuments. And in particular, Bethlehem, where I met an old Arab man sitting and eating on the steps of his house on the edge of a narrow cobbled street. He smiled at me so graciously, broke his bread and gave me half.
Time passed so quickly; it had become mid-October. But I found the burning heat wearying. Reluctantly I decided to leave after only two and a half months. I had not learned ancient Hebrew, but had seen wonders: though the last was still to come. My ticket eluded me. I went to collect it in Tel Aviv, only to be told it had been sent to Haifa. I hitchhiked up the coast to Haifa, but the ticket had been sent back to Tel Aviv. Back in Tel Aviv, they said, “So sorry, there must be some mistake, the ticket’s been sent back to Haifa.”
Hitchhiking was usually quite easy in Israel. Drivers were generous and quick to stop. I had taken rides in all sorts of cars, among them a black sedan with an elegant Arab gentleman; another in a battered blue truck full of squawking chickens, driven by a Romanian. The day before my charter flight was due to leave, I finally found my ticket in Tel Aviv, and early in the morning, stood on the side of the road once more, thumb out. But no car passed. Not even one. Not that particular morning! The road was swelteringly hot; as the hours passed, the temperature kept rising. I was on my final lap to visit a family to whom my Uncle had given me a letter of introduction. It was midday when a car finally appeared.
I got in gratefully, confident that my by now extended vocabulary had equipped me for virtually everything.
“Shalom,” I greeted him, as he drove on. “Do you speak English-French-German?”
“No!” he boomed, shaking his head: “Tourk!”
I knew nothing of the splendors of the Ottoman Empire, but there flashed into my mind a line from a poem learned at school about the Turks at the time of the Crusades: “and with his scimitar split them clean in two. ”
“Let me out,” I gesticulated. “Right here!”
Unperturbed, this Turk smiled at me reassuringly, and said, with words and mime, “You tourist, I tourist! I’m not going to knife you!”
With a sleight of the hand he made as if to draw a keen blade out of his right knee-length sock, brandished it in the air, shook his head vigorously, and with a hearty laugh, tucked the imaginary knife back into the sock again.
“Anyway why stop at Natanya?” he continued with perfect composure. “We-two could drive up north, all romantique, and I could show you around this place and that. Then we could picnic under a tree, and go-good-night-ing under the stars!” His eyes lit up at the thought of such unlimited promise.
“Lo!” I said. “Most certainly not! I have one comrade in London. Echad haver!”
“Are you sure? London is far away, you know! Too far for him to find out!” His eyes sparkled.
But I pointed to my heart and repeated firmly: “One comrade in London.”
“Aha!” he said, his face a fountain of smiles. “You are a good woman, I see! So you can belong to your one-comrade down to your middle.” His hand split the air clean in two. Overcome by the sheer weight of genius, he beamed at me and added, “Down to your waist for your man, and all the rest for me!”
Unable to contain my surprise, I replied, “Oh! Thank you, thank you! But my friend in London would be most upset.”
Which had no effect on him whatsoever; neither did the tears I traced down my cheeks. So I shook my head gravely: “Allahwould not like this,” I said. “He really would not!”
Now this required his full attention. The man drew up the car at the side of the road and turned to face me earnestly. Then he placed his right index and middle finger lightly on his thumb, relaxed his wrist in the typical gesture, and raised his hand above my head. “Yoffie!” he burst out, “Yoffie!” Emphatically his hand circled the air past my chin, my neck, my chest, as at each stop, he sang his whole-hearted approval. It lingered in the air above my waist. He sighed passionately and as his voice rose in crescendo, “Yoffie! Yoffie! Yoffie! ” and his hand continued to circle to the beat of this mantra, till it reached my feet. Whereupon he drew back his head, closed his eyes fervently, opened them once more, and pointing to the Heavens declared,
“Allah would approve of you,
Oh Allah would
And so do I,
For the top and the bottom half of you
Y O F F I E !”
And with this blessing, he dropped me courteously at Natanya, where I was welcomed by Naomi, a young woman whose family were Uncle’s friends. To her delight, the first thing I did, was to spill out my latest adventure.
“We used to live in Cairo,” she told me, “and my parents were determined to marry me off. Every afternoon I had to sit there politely, while my mother introduced me to yet another eligible male. But you should have seen the men she brought! They were middle-aged and fat, one uglier than the other. I refused every single one of them. Yet my mother kept bringing in more men and in the end I ran away to London. There I fell in love and got married. Now I live here with my Englishman, and we are very happy.”
We sat outside on the terrace of their lovely bungalow, breathing in the sea air, while she served tea with home-made Egyptian pastries and Rahat-Lokoum, Turkish Delight.
“The Autumn weather is wonderful,” she said. “One can always eat outside and be sure it will not rain. My husband and I really love living in Israel.”
In 1993 I returned to Israel (no longer of vine-leaf age) to do a study course with Professor Reuven Feuerstein, a world-renowned cognitive psychologist, who developed “Instrumental Enrichment” programmes to help underachievers reach their potential. I learned from him that the immigrant youths I had been picking grapes with thirty years previously had been his protégés. I was also privileged to revisit Jerusalem. It was still possible to do so in peace.
Watching the news today, my heart goes out to all those who live in the Middle East, on both sides of all the borders, as they try to achieve and maintain peace.
Sophia Tellen is a freelance writer and member of the Geneva Writers’ Group. She has fallen in love with Travelers’ Tales, and wishes she had discovered them sooner.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.