Driving around Israel with my husband is always a journey into his life before we met, since Aryeh was born and raised in pre-state Palestine and I’m third-generation American. But this time was different as he pointed out places that were going to take on new meaning as the weekend progressed.
Last fall, Aryeh was invited to attend the 60th reunion of his military unit’s induction into the Israeli army. His unit was a Nahal group (a program combining military service and agriculture) named Tzur that was posted to Kibbutz Lavi, in the lower Galilee, in 1954. Since the kibbutz now has a well-known guesthouse, the choice of location was a natural.
My husband has, of course, spoken of his army service in Israel, but I had never been to Lavi, and so the information he shared always remained rather abstract. As we drove along, getting closer and closer to Lavi, Aryeh pointed out the various small kibbutzim and towns that he had stopped at, as he literally made the milk-run every morning before sun-up. All the towns had dairy cattle and he — with his love of cars and driving — as part of his duties, drove to all the other farming communities early every morning and brought the milk to the local dairy in Ein Harod for processing.
As we drove into the Lavi, Aryeh kept trying to match what he saw now with his memories. However, when the unit was stationed in Lavi, it was a new kibbutz with very basic infrastructure, and a far cry from the well-manicured place that it is today. Everyone recalled the deep mud caused by the fall rains and how their shoes became caked since there were no paved paths then. Today, there are cement paths and lush plantings everywhere. Scattered throughout are the private homes of the kibbutz members.
I came along to this weekend with a certain amount of trepidation. As the only American, I expected to be the odd-woman out. On the other hand, I could treat the weekend as an anthropologist might.
Only 16 people out of the original 35 were able to come, and most came with their spouses. There were several marriages between kibbutz members. Since this was the 60th reunion and the age of induction was 18, the average age was 78. Encouragingly, most of the participants were in good health. The weekend was not over-planned. Only time and location were decided on; the expectation was that everyone just wanted to get together, talk and reminisce. People continued to arrive throughout the afternoon on Friday and clusters started gathering as we prepared to daven Kabbalat Shabbat. It was heart-warming to see all these older people greeting each other with warm familiarity. I could see tears glistening in Aryeh’s eyes as new people kept joining the group.
Because we were a large group we had a room set aside for us to take all our meals together. Friday night there was banter and story telling and we all got acquainted. Many of the spouses didn’t know each other but people were friendly and included me in the conversations. Many spoke English but it was easier for the Israelis to speak Hebrew and for me to respond in English, and both sides managed quite well.
Shabbos morning after davening we were all invited to the home of Miriam and Asher Alduby for kiddush. He was the only member of the unit who stayed on to become a member of the kibbutz. They have a lovely home and the walls were decorated with Miriam’s colorful and expressive oil paintings.
At the final meal we went around the circle so everyone could share his or her personal history after Army service. Among others we had a diplomat who had served in various posts including Burma and the Vatican. One person was involved in running an art museum in Ashkelon, and someone else made synagogue furniture that is sold around the world.
As an American, I was particularly struck by the regular mention of fallen comrades. Some were members of their unit; some were people that they knew. One of the women present lost two sons in two different wars and burst into tears several times. About half of the group were Sephardim, and they mentioned the blatant discrimination that they faced in the early years. These are not staples of conversation in the States.
It was a rare and wonderful privilege to be allowed to peer so clearly into a different world — particularly when it is a piece of recent history.
Sura Jeselsohn is a long-time resident of Riverdale involved in community matters.