Hotter Than Hell: Life as a Kibbutznik
by Jonathan Adams
Kibbutz: plural Kibbutzim, Hebrew Qibbutz ("gathering," or "collective"), Israeli collective settlement, usually agricultural and often also industrial, in which all wealth is held in common. Profits are reinvested in the settlement after members have been provided with food, clothing, and shelter and with social and medical services. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
4am. Another day dawns across the Negev Desert, a hint of cool mist lingering in the air that will inevitably give way to another scorcher. Two weeks ago, I would have been considering switching off the Playstation and going to bed at 4am. Now, it's when I go to work…
Like most Kibbutzim, Ein Hashelosha is miles from anywhere and hosts a diverse range of moneymaking ventures designed to support the microcosm of life that exists here. Fields are abundant with watermelons, potatoes, lemons and corn while the factory turns out cardboard boxes and the turkey farm provides enough meat for a small but very hungry country. However, my job is not to burn in the pastures or wade knee deep in turkey excrement but rather to maintain the windows, paintwork and doorknobs of our small community. Welcome to life as a kibbutznik.
The day begins with no breakfast or morning paper but by cracking straight into today's list of assignments. My boss is a jovial English guy named Tony who came to Israel seeking his Jewish heritage as a young lad, married a rather fetching Israeli girl and never looked back. A mechanic by trade, he now has three children and has lived and worked on the kibbutz for the past 20 years. Over the roar of his quad bike he reels off the early morning duties that involve installing plumbing systems, painting front doors and digging rather large holes with rather inadequate shovels. "You'll lose a few pounds before breakfast today mate!" he yells with a grin. I look down at my rapidly diminishing waistline and just hope I make it through to my toast and cereal at 7am in the dining hall.
Eating, like most things on the kibbutz, is very much a group activity. The community is home to about 500 kibbutzniks, 30 volunteers and 12 South Koreans who are here, improbably enough, to learn English. The majority of residents are descendants of South American Jews who came over from Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia and founded Ein Hashelosha in 1951. The kibbutzniks have little contact with the outside world, the occasional shopping trip or visit to hospital the only reason to leave the base, and that's the way they like it. Despite the proximity of the kibbutz to the Gaza Strip it's hard to believe this peaceful community exists in one of the most war-torn regions on the planet. After dumping our plates and comparing bumps and bruises with the field workers I trudge out into the oppressive heat and head back to the house where Tony is preparing to crawl under the foundations and repair a burst water pipe. "Give me a shout if you see any snakes" shouts Tony as I pass him the wrench. "Will do", I yell back as I thank the stars that it's him and not me slithering through the mud and stagnant water.
The working day ends at 12 Noon, at which time we reassemble in the dining hall for lunch. Kibbutz food tends to be edible and sustaining but little like the home comforts most of us were previously accustomed to, hence the trimming of many an excess pound from the volunteers midriffs. After lunch I head for a few hours kip and prepare myself for the most important part of the day, my meeting with the Mafia. Not a group of balding, overweight Italian-Americans but the small bar built inside a bomb shelter on the edge of the kibbutz which provides the focal point for the fun-loving volunteers who are, lest we forget, supposed to be on holiday! The volunteers hail from all over the world, with about half from South America and the bulk of the remainder from the UK. All are fond of a few evening snifters to ease the pain of a hard day's labour and the younger kibbutzniks usually join in. Working on a kibbutz is certainly hard graft, the only rest day being Shabbat (Saturday), the Jewish Sabbath. Then again, there are benefits, such as organized trips around the country which allow us access to places we may never have seen independently such as The Golan Heights, Nazareth and the Israel-Lebanon border in the north of the country.
Drinking on the kibbutz is a messy business. Removed from the pseudo-civilized haunts of student unions and traffic light discos, the weary workers quickly get tucked in to their cheap vodka mixers and the inevitable madness begins. Life stories are told, guitars appear and the challenges to manhood (and womanhood) are thrown down. Typical escapades include jumping from the dining hall roof into the kids' sandpit, downing towering measures of generic booze and the Formula 1 Mower Racing Challenge. Needless to say, the salty old kibbutzniks frown on such antics but have grown used to the high-jinx of volunteers after many years of welcoming them into their fields and factories. By 11pm all is quiet, save for a little bed-hopping, and the partygoers turn their thoughts towards tomorrow's labours. And hangovers…
And so it went on for the next 2 months, work-sleep-drink-sleep, every day a new challenge, every night a new friend, conquest or cool scar. Kibbutzing is intense but the work hard, play hard ethic quickly takes hold and most find the experience rewarding, memorable and certainly character building.
Dos and Don'ts:
DO your homework. Kibbutzim have different climates, varying proximity to local towns and specialize in different industries.
DO bring high-factor sunscreen. Temperatures of 40 and above are not uncommon in high summer.
DO bring enough cash to buy luxuries and get yourself back to the airport. You do get paid but only the teetotal tend to leave a kibbutz with anything like a profit. Most kibbutzim operate on a credit system for drinks and shopping which leaves many in debt by the time they come to leave.
DON'T expect a free ride. Kibbutz work is strenuous and those not pulling their weight will be told to shape up or leave on the next bus.
DON'T sign up if you can't finish your contract. Most kibbutzim have at least an 8-week hitch and frown on those who choose to leave early. Skipping off during the night is an option but only if you can walk to the nearest town or main bus route. If you go early you'll be expected to pay back the costs of any trips or activities the kibbutz have provided.
About the Author
Jonathan Adams is a travel & culture freelance journalist from Edinburgh who has lived and worked in Korea, Canada and Israel.
Image courtesy The Jewish Agency for Israel