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Life on an Israeli Kibbutz

By Aharon Habenstradt


Ezra's sharp, angular face might have been carved out of stone. His fierce visage surveyed the village and it's inhabitants, and his unsmiling expression accurately reflected the lack of satisfaction he found in his surroundings.

His problem, if one were to call it that, was that he was a perfectionist. His family, having little choice in the matter, chose to attribute his obstinate dissatisfaction to lofty idealism. Ezra drove himself mercilessly for the good of the moshav and he expected nothing less from others. In his mid-sixties, he refused to allow passing decades to slow his pace. He was in charge of all landscaping in the village, which meant the lawns in front of at least one hundred homes, the main lawn in front of the Beit Knesset, the trees in the shaded playgrounds, as well as the rose bushes and flower gardens in front of each home. His schedule was an unending series of setting up lawn sprinklers, pulling and rearranging the hoses according to a strict schedule designed to maximize greenery while minimizing the amount of water used. He grumbled constantly about those ignorant, selfish individuals who opened their own sprinklers as they pleased, dismissing their fears of dried out, brown grass as nonsense. He considered himself to be, not inaccurately, a master botanist with intimate knowledge of the needs of each species planted. His carefully kept records of daily, monthly, and annual rainfalls allowed him to calculate the mean differences and adjust his own watering schedule accordingly.

In a village with seventy or so equal partners, where each member was supposed to work with equal dedication and where all profits were divided equally, it was, of course, impossible to ensure that every worker would be equally conscientious or equally effective in his work. It was certainly impossible to expect, in a community which drew its members from such varied backgrounds, that all temperaments and approaches to work would be the same. For Ezra, though, there was no room for any approach other than the one he knew: order and punctuality.

One could view Ezra's outlook somewhat ironically, for it was so obviously a result of his Germanic upbringing. Even while the Germans had destroyed his family along with most of the Jewish world in Europe - and had sent him fleeing to France where he hid among gentile farmers, learning agriculture skills and botany, until he was finally caught and sent to a concentration camp - still, he could not recognize his temperament as stemming from the cultural milieu of his childhood.

Meyer, his evening study partner, was a short Hungarian whose bent-over, quiet demeanor belied the extensive Torah knowledge he possessed. At the same time, the authority with which he quoted texts allowed him to pontificate on the pros and cons of business investments and the vagaries of political alignments. His basic theme was that mazal, luck, played an inordinate part in the affairs of the Jews, of the world, and of the village. It accounted, and who could deny the truth of it, for the miraculous escape of these few partners, while millions of others were gone, for no particularly good reason. It accounted for the loss, in the elections, of those who promised financial help for the village. It accounted for the failure of the etrog orchard that Meyer was in charge of, and for the consistently poor returns from the vineyards that Meyer supervised. Similarly, it accounted for Meyer's poor health and inability to put in full work days.

Most probably it was Meyer's obvious piety and ability to expound complex Torah thoughts that enabled Ezra to accept his study partner's explanations of his agricultural failures. Surprisingly, Ezra never accused Meyer of incompetence, even though it was Meyer who decided to plant the etrogim in soil later deemed unsuitable. It was also Meyer who claimed that the vineyards would not produce adequate crops because the wrong variety had been planted.

Eventually, Meyer moved to the less demanding work of the chicken coops, where the thousands of eggs laid every day needed to be scrupulously cleaned and weighed before being sent to the central egg marketing board. Ezra, his study partner, was his obvious replacement in the vineyard.

Meyer spent a few weeks with Ezra showing him the vineyard, reviewing the procedures he followed for watering, fertilizing and fumigating. He shared his extensive knowledge of the insects, diseases and climatological catastrophes which unceasingly assaulted all attempts at success. And he shared with Ezra his deep contempt for the Arab workers the village was forced to employ in order to work the crop.

When Meyer had left for the chicken coops, Ezra set out to put order into the vineyards. He soon realized that Meyer's maps were mere approximations, and so he set out with tape measure and ruler, painstakingly measuring to the centimeter the distances between the rows and between each vine. He calculated the amount of water needed for each plant and formulated a system which rotated placement of the irrigation pipes so as to insure a minimum amount of work time to obtain a maximum exploitation of the available water. He ordered textbooks in German on vineyard practices and studied the learned works of professors. A variety of government agricultural experts came to advise him on the latest advances, but Ezra gave only cursory notice to their advice since, for the most part, they were barely out of college, and Ezra held that they hadn't been given proper grounding in the basics of land management.

Even with the best of intentions, Ezra could not take on all the extra work without some help, so the village appointed Eliyahu as his assistant.

Eliyahu was a young man who had recently married one of the member's daughters. It was the village policy to give their young couples a rent-free home for the first two years of married life so that the husband would be able to sit and study Torah without having to take on any work responsibilities. The members had decided that in order to ensure that their children continue to live and cultivate their village, they needed to make sure that the new generation was steeped in Torah values. Only then could they faithfully fulfill the dreams of the founding families to rebuild a life in a village such as they had known in Europe.

Eliyahu, who had learned in a major yeshiva, was the son of parents who had also suffered in the camps. There was every reason to expect that he would take his place as a help and as a link in an eternal chain. Eliyahu, moreover, had the same sort of chiseled looks as Ezra. Similarly, he spoke carefully, weighing his words, and showed the utmost respect for his elders. Ezra understood, at least intellectually, that a young man who had never worked, and who had no practical life experience, could not be expected to immediately understand all that needed to be done. Accordingly, he took Eliyahu to the various lawns, explained the watering schedules, tried to give a short background in agricultural principles, and set out a list of instructions that Eliyahu could follow while he, Ezra, left to rehabilitate the vineyards _ for Ezra had discovered that Meyer had miscalculated the size of the vineyard and had been giving inadequate supplies of water and fertilizer, and that the weeding had been too late to prevent the nutrients in the soil from being wasted. He had a vision that, if he was right, the vineyards could produce double and perhaps many times more than what they had until then. Eliyahu realized soon enough that pulling hoses and setting up the sprinklers according to Ezra's schedule was a backbreaking, never-ending, mindless chore. After several days, his bones were aching and he could hardly stand straight. He took to going home to rest every few hours, but the thought of getting out of bed only to return to his grueling schedule took the wind out of his sails. He just couldn't do it. He explained his position to the work supervisor. What sense did it make to take a full partner, whose organizational skills and intelligence should be utilized to their full extent, and waste all that talent on a job that any simple Arab laborer could do, and for a pittance compared with what the village paid for a member's work. There was an Arab who had worked in one of the factories, but who was deemed too simple to work the factory's machines. The problem with this Arab, Achmed, was that he had one eye that didn't function together with the other, which left him looking slightly crazed. His frightening demeanor had already caused comment from the women when he came to the mini-market to buy his groceries. What would they say if he were now to be seen wandering around the village? Wouldn't the women be afraid for their lives? Eliyahu saw Achmed as a potential savior, and assured the supervisor that he would calm the women.

The next day, Achmed in tow, Eliyahu went from one lawn to the next, instructing him on where to move the hoses, explaining to any housewives they encountered that Achmed was really a simple, harmless fool who need not be feared. The women could see that he was essentially simple, but they remained suspicious when, as he pulled the hoses, he accidentally broke roses in the flower beds. "Be careful! Achmed! Achmed! Look what you did. If you didn't see it this time, remember for next time."

And, of course, Eliyahu was right. It didn't make sense to use members to do menial, repetitive work. Eliyahu was now freed to ride the lawn mower tractor, relatively advanced technology which couldn't be trusted to a simple laborer. Of course, Eliyahu had never worked with machinery, so all repairs were done in partnership. Eliyahu read the repair manual while Achmed unscrewed and disassembled the parts, cleaning and oiling, greasing and replacing as was needed. In truth, they worked well together, and each needed and depended on the other.

Only Ezra was unimpressed. His sharp eye caught the dried out patches of grass Achmed had missed when he moved the hoses without the needed precision of placement. He noted the burned areas where Achmed had carelessly dripped week killer, indiscriminately killing grass and flowers. But what could he do? He was trying to rehabilitate a major agricultural branch, which, if successful, could bring tens of thousands of dollars into the village's coffers. And he was stretched beyond his capacities. He was working from before sun-up, until late at night. Only the set times for prayer and Torah study interrupted the endless flow of work and the meticulous records of each hour spent, each cube of water given, every bag of fertilizer spread, every tank of fumigant sprayed. There were, of course, different theories regarding proper agricultural practices. Ezra, a scientist at heart, tried different approaches on different areas of the vineyard. Each experiment was carefully described, dated, and it's limits delineated. He may have had his ideas about which ideas would work and which wouldn't, but he held himself to scrupulous scientific neutrality to rid his experiments from any hidden bias. And with the same honest scrutiny that he gave to his labors, he had to admit at last that he couldn't continue on alone at his breakneck pace. He sat with the work supervisor and explained the situation.

Asher listened carefully as Ezra explained the situation. His eyes shifted uncomfortably from Ezra's intensive stare. He looked down at his cigarette, and at the tattooed number on the hand that held it. He had known Ezra from the camps. Ezra had been a fanatic even then. The village put him in charge of landscaping because there was very little damage he could do there. He could run around to his heart's content, and, as long as he didn't cost the village any money, no one complained. Of course, no one was willing to work with him, and no one was willing to trust him to make rational, balanced fiscal decisions that would affect the livelihood of the village. The decision to let him take over the vineyards had been made at a meeting of the executive committee at which the general feeling was that the village couldn't simply allow the vineyard to be uprooted. Uprooting vines is a Torah prohibition. Of course, the Rav could be asked to find an exemption which would allow the land to be freed for more productive work, but nobody had the stomach to start the long involved discussions that such a decision would entail. Why not let Ezra try to do something with the vineyard? It wouldn't cost the village anything. And, if even Ezra with all his fanaticism couldn't find a way to make it grow productively, the Rav couldn't very well object and claim something else should be tried first.

Asher tapped the ash off his cigarette, watching it intently. "Listen, Ezra. I know you've taken on quite a job, but the village didn't budget for any extra workers for the vineyards this year. Meyer didn't ask for any extra help, and when the Executive voted to let you try your hand at it, no one had any idea that you'd come back asking for an extended budget." He waved away some of the smoke that was obviously causing Ezra discomfort.

"Listen, Ezra. No one's saying anything about your increasing the water ration---"

"But the vines weren't getting the recommended dosage!"

"As I said, nobody's begrudging you extra supplies. Whoever's in charge of a village subdivision has the Executive's full support...even though the field crops were counting on that extra ration. You know the Agriculture Department doesn't just hand out water allocations. The government still holds us on a pretty tight rein. And the accounting department just left me a note...," he rifled through a pile of papers that sat on his desk. "Here it is. They've brought to my notice that the supply of fumigants is almost double what Meyer used_"

"Meyer hadn't calculated the correct amount of land we have to cultivate. According to my calculations, if we give just--"

"Ezra, I'm not saying a word about any of the running expenses. That's your responsibility and you have our complete trust. But when it comes to hiring workers, well, that's more complicated."

Ezra looked down at his hands as he struggled to shape an argument that would convince everyone that if only he could do what he knew had to be done, the profits would be enormous.

"Listen, Ezra, I have an idea. You know, when the village put Eliyahu in your charge as an assistant, it never mandated that he would only work for you on the lawns. He was even given that Arab to work with him. Why don't you take them to the vineyards for a few hours? So the grass won't be so green. So the roses won't be so red. I think that if you think if over, maybe you'll agree that, as pretty as they are, the lawns are a luxury, while if what I understand from you is correct, the grapes can put a lot of bread on the table."

"Bah! I need workers, not a spoiled -- and not a crazy Arab!"

"If you'll listen to me, Ezra, take what you can get for now, and if and when the executive is making up its budget next year I can present a balance sheet showing a clear profit, I'll be the first to say, `Ezra's put bread on our table.' And, Ezra, we all know that it doesn't have to be a large loaf. There were those of us who are alive today because someone gave just an extra crust. Just turn a profit, and next year it'll be an entirely different story."

Copyright 1997 Aharon Habenstradt





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