Wednesday, September 04, 2013

It was 40 years ago today - My gap year, part 1

4 September 1973 marked the beginning of the most important year of my life. It was the year in which I changed from a youth into a man and the year in which I learnt the meaning of the word 'responsibility'. These days, such a year would be called a gap year, but this term had yet to be invented in 1973.

-- some historical background
Until a few years beforehand, the Zionist youth movement 'Habonim' maintained a farm in Sussex which served as a training establishment for young men and women before they emigrated from Britain to Israel. This farm was supposed to give them experience before they settled in the primarily agricultural kibbutzim of the 1960s. I was too young to know much about this farm, but I did spend a week there in the winter of 1966 (aged 10). The farm was probably closed down at the end of the 60s because of financial reasons, but there were other changes happening. The number of senior Habonim members who were students had increased - so there were far fewer older members who could go and work on a farm - and air fares from Britain to Israel had become affordable, meaning that one could go to Israel and experience 'the real thing'.

A programme was started in 1970 called 'Shnat Hachshara' (a year of preparation), in which school leavers could spend a year on kibbutz, preparing for eventual emigration. Although most of the year was dedicated to working, time was also spent learning the Hebrew language and learning about Israel.

I was in the fourth group to participate in this programme. As this was still fairly new, there were all kinds of people around who were free to participate, not necessarily only those who had just left school. So my course was very heterogenous, whereas in following years, the groups were much more homogenous. In my group, there were three barely seventeen year olds (myself and two Scottish youths - in those days, Scottish youth finished school a year earlier than their English brethren), there were eighteen year olds who had finished school, and there were several older youths who had left school much earlier and had been working at various jobs, marking time. This heterogenity would be a problem throughout the year.

I wrote earlier this summer about finishing school with underwhelming results. Had I been anyone else, it would have been a good idea to stay another year at school (or a sixth form college), but I was dead set on participating in this programme and nothing could change my mind.

We were supposed to travel on 3 September - a historical date in itself - but there were problems with the aircraft, and after a few delays, we spent the night in an airport hotel (at the airline's cost) and eventually left 24 hours later than intended.

My group - as the three previous groups - would spend the year in Kibbutz Bet Ha'emek, near Nahariyya, in the north western part of Israel, a very tranquil area. This kibbutz had been founded by a group of British Habonim members in 1948/9 although over the years it had taken in members from many countries. Thus while Hebrew was the official language, most people there could speak English as well as other languages (French and Dutch spring to mind). The original settlers had children about the same age as my group, which aided our integration.

In those days, the ability to work well was considered to be the most important facet of a kibbutz member, so I had devoted some time to thinking about where I would like to work. I had some discussions on the subject with a good friend of mine who had been in the third group: working in the fields didn't sound appealing, and milking cows certainly didn't attract me. He told me about one branch which seemed very intriguing: a hatchery for chickens. I decided that I would try and work there.

The first few days after arrival were very confusing, as one might imagine. We elected a member of the group to be our work organiser - he would meet every evening with the kibbutz work organiser, learn how many people were needed in each branch of the kibbutz then assign group members to those branches. I imagine that we all aspired to working permanently in a branch, but first we had to become acquainted with the branches, and secondly we were dependent on the needs of the kibbutz.

I was told that there was no vacancy in the hatchery, but that I would work in one of the chicken runs. So on my first day of work (probably our third day on the kibbutz), I was woken at around 5:40 in the morning and staggered off to where the chicken runs were (someone might well have taken me because I had yet to visit that area). I remember that we (someone else from our group was assigned here as well) sat around in a stone building for about fifteen minutes, drinking tea and being told in broken English what we were expected to do. Then we were launched into our careers - or thrown in at the deep end, depending on which metaphor one prefers.

As opposed to most chicken runs, where the chickens are grown for meat, these runs were for breeding chickens: the eggs were fertile and would be collected to that they could be transferred to the hatchery. Our job was simply to walk up and down the runs, collecting the eggs. Just to put things in perspective, these chicken runs were upto 100 metres in length and maybe ten metres wide, so doing a complete collection took a few hours. There were several runs in the complex.

Down the center of each run were wooden structures into which the hens would enter so that they could lay their eggs. We had to walk down the run, poking our hands into these structures (like pigeon holes), feel around for eggs (the holes were filled with sawdust so it was never clear whether one would find an egg) then extract them and put them in the trays which we were carrying (30 eggs per layer). Sounds simple. Unfortunately, it would happen that a chicken sitting in a pigeon hole would peck the tentative hand reaching into the structure, causing the recipient to jump in shock. Also, the floors of the runs were covered with chickens (naturally), and the cockerels didn't take well to young, well brought up British youths wandering about. So these cockerels used to charge at these youths - run at them and flutter their not inconsiderable wings. 

I found this very difficult to take; I was told to walk as confidently as possible so that the chickens would automatically get out of the way, but I couldn't handle this easily and so lasted there for only a few days. I did work one or two days during this period in the chicken hatchery, but I didn't really understand what I was expected to do and so probably didn't make much of an impression. 

September was the time of the cotton harvest and I remember spending a few days on my own in a large container. Every now and then, a tractor would come along and dump a load of freshly picked cotton into the container. It was my job to jump up and down on the cotton, thus compressing it and allowing more cotton to be added. Of course, these days there is a machine which does this work.

We would work one day then learn Hebrew the next; I think that this was a better arrangement that the previous year, when they would learn Hebrew for a few hours then work for a few hours. Being good at languages - and having learnt Latin - I didn't have much of a problem learning simple Hebrew, whereas my companions had problems with tenses and declensions. Of course, we were also learning Hebrew at work - the first words which I learnt were "Bo le'echol"  (come and eat) - which I was told at regular intervals.

We were assigned 'kibbutz parents': we became adopted by a family and would go there for tea most days. These meetings allowed us to ask about the kibbutz and all the strange things that were happening to us. Later on, we used to visit other people for tea, thus getting to know more and more kibbutz members. For some reason, the family which was supposed to adopt me couldn't, so after a few weeks of being an orphan, another family adopted me.

The first few weeks between our arrival and Rosh HaShana (the Jewish New Year, which that year would have fallen around 28 September) were thus spent getting to know our new environment. Little did we know what was about to happen.....

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