Thursday, September 05, 2013

Late September/Early October, 1973 - My gap year, part 3

I don't remember a thing about the New Year celebrations on Kibbutz Bet Ha'emek, late September 1973. On the other hand, I do remember the celebrations held there two years later, and I will assume that, with minor corrections, the same things happened in 1973.

This would mean that the entire kibbutz had a celebratory dinner on the lawn outside the dining room, everyone sitting at long trestle tables. Before the meal, there would have been a short ceremony with a few songs played by kibbutz musicians, along with a few readings. As the New Year is the only festival celebrated in Israel over two nights, the whole thing would have been repeated the following night, although without the ceremony. 

[For those that don't know, outside of Israel, every festival is celebrated for two nights - this is because "in the old days", people in the Diaspora couldn't know when the actual celebrations were taking place in Israel, so this way they were making sure that there would be at least some overlap.]

For me, there were a few differences between 1973 and 1975: in 1975, I was one of those 'kibbutz musicians' playing the songs in the opening ceremony on the first night. For the second night, I fried seven hundred pieces of chicken shnitzel: it didn't bother me to work on a holiday, seeing that I was only on the kibbutz for a short time, and anyway, I still would have one day off.

A week and a half later, it was Yom Kippur. In 1973, this fell on a Friday night (many years later, I was to research the Hebrew calendar and discovered that Yom Kippur can only fall on certain days of the week; the length of the year has to be adjusted by inserting days to ensure this). It was October 6, the birthday of one of our group. After a few years of not fasting, I had decided that year to return to the habit of observing the fast, although this didn't preclude me from doing other things, like listening to music.

At around 2pm, I and a few others were in our clubhouse, listening to records played on the sole record player available to us. One of my room-mates shared my love of Van der Graaf Generator, so 'Pawn Hears' was on the turntable. As anyone who knows the record will be aware, the final sections of the second side are somewhat extreme - so extreme that we didn't realise for a moment that the noise we were hearing was not a combination of Hugh Banton and David Jackson, but rather air raid sirens. The Yom Kippur war had started.

Like almost everything else at the time,  we understood little of what was happening. Everyone gathered outside the dining room for the meal which concludes the fast, but already male kibbutz members were beginning to be a rare species.

We awoke the next morning to new circumstances: we would spend the next few weeks picking oranges in the rain, supervised by our contemporaries: the kibbutz youth who were in their final year of school. After a few weeks, we returned to our previous setup of learning Hebrew one day and working the next day, but of course, everything had changed.

I don't want to make light of one of the most important events of modern Israeli history, but although I was there, I wasn't really there. We didn't know - at least, not at the time - what was happening at either front. I assumed that if anything really bad would happen, we would be airlifted out, but that assumption was never put to the test. At that time, I had yet to form any connection with people who were drafted into the army, and later on, those who returned weren't exactly enthusiastic to tell about their experiences. The English language newspaper didn't contain very detailed information (presumably due to censorship) and we didn't understand the little that was printed. On the Saturday after the war started, we were woken at about 6am by the air raid siren so we stumbled off to the nearest shelter. Eventually we were told that a plane had been seen over the skies of Haifa but that we were not in any danger.

The immediate result of the war was that our entire programme changed overnight. People often weren't available to carry out activities which had been planned, resources country wide were reduced, areas of the country were out of bounds (our trip to the Sinai peninsula was greatly affected) and our youthful exuberance was at odds with the general demeanour of the country. For example, in November, we wanted to hold a fireworks party; when we finally managed to find someone who sold fireworks, he refused to sell us any, saying that the country wasn't ready for such a party.

So we had a completely different experience to the group that preceded us. I don't know which year 'had it better': they probably had an easier time, but we saw things that they didn't.

A new member joined our group: one of the "Birmingham Simons" had stayed on at school for a third year in the sixth form, presumably to study for the Oxbridge entrance exams, but once the war had started, he left his (optional) studies behind and came to join us. This was not the Simon with which I had spent some of the summer of 1971, but rather "the other Simon". As it happens, we were to spend the next few years together (I certainly do not imply any gay relationship) and became good friends on certain levels (but not on personal matters). When I wrote a few months ago about academic failures, I wrote that there were a few reasons why I didn't repeat my final year at school. If moving from Bristol to Cardiff were one very good reason, this war was an even better reason.

After bringing the orange harvest, I don't remember anything until the end of November. I don't remember where I worked: I think that I put in a few pointless days in the kibbutz maintenance stores but apart from that, nothing springs to mind. I didn't work in the hatcheries nor in the chicken runs, which means that I must have been employed in some form of agriculture - but I don't remember (obviously, the work made a deep impression on me). Things, though, were to change....

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