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Professor Tom Berman, internationally renowned aquatic scientist from Kibbutz Amiad
by George Alexander, March 23, 2014
Last week I was shocked to read in a year-old issue of Haaretz that Tommy was found dead in the Galapagos Islands. Apparently he fell from a cliff while hiking alone. He was 79 years old.
When we first met, we were two poor kids at Rutgers who could not afford to live in a dorm. Due to the generosity of Rabbi Julius Funk z”l, we were allowed to live in the two wings of the Hillel House stage, in exchange of setting up chairs and tables for events and locking up afterwards. We were immediately attracted to each other with our backgrounds in Europe and of growing up in Zionist youth movements, he in Habonim in Scotland and I in Hanoar Hatzioni in Cuba.
After graduating, Tom went on to earn a PhD in microbiology at MIT, returned to Kibbutz Amiad in Israel and became responsible for setting up the Kinneret Lab. As its first director Tom participated in designing the basic approach that has been so successful, involving extensive and persistent lake monitoring and an integrated approach to limnological research. Israel owes much to Tommy for the survival of the Kinneret. Many bacterial species are named after people, either the discoverer or a famous person in the field of microbiology. Bermanella, isolated in the Red Sea is named after Tom Berman. In a Wikipedia article listing over 300 bacteria named after people, Tommy’s Israeli nationality is the only one not listed. I have taken care of correcting that! I think Tommy would have approved. Tommy was also a published poet. (search Amazon.com). If one can acquire yichus by association, Tommy was my connection.
As a tribute, I would like to present in his own words what it was like to grow up in a Zionist youth movement.
Autobiographical snippets by Tommy Berman (Kibbutz Amiad, March 2009)
In June 1951 I left Glasgow and set off to become a “pioneer in the Land of Israel”, a participant in what I firmly believed to be the most noble manifestation of the Zionist-Socialist enterprise, Kibbutz.
But the path to the goal of Hagshama Atzmit or self-fulfillment as it was then termed by the Movement, was not direct. Before “going on Aliya” to Israel, (“making Aliya” in the curious language of our American comrades) members of Habonim were expected to spend a minimum of 2 years at a Hachshera (training farm) in England, living together as a commune and becoming inured to, and perhaps slightly adept at, various aspects of agriculture and communal living.
This system of Hachshera was really an relic dating back to the pre-World War II times. Because the “classical” Zionist youth movements in pre-WarEurope were unable to obtain sufficient immigration permits to Palestine for their members, they hit upon the idea of exploiting the waiting time as a period of training for the future pioneers. They set up training (Hachshera) farms where movement members lived in communes working in agriculture until they could go to Palestine. All the Zionist Youth Movements in Britain were running Hachshera farms during and after the War. At first these were mainly filled by youthful refugees coming from the European youth movements, who were then joined by people from the British movements. Because of the tremendous difficulties in obtaining immigration permits (Certificates) to Palestine prior to 1948, most of the “trainees” spent several years on the hachshera farms.
This became the norm even after Israel was founded and restrictions on immigration no longer existed. In addition to keeping people on hachshera for years, the movements required considerable numbers of their senior members to remain in Britain to function as “Movement workers” i.e. to staff the central offices in London and to run the various local chapters. And all that was still not considered sufficient “preparation” to becoming a regular kibbutz member in Israel. Even after arriving in Israel, usually as part of a Garin (group), movement members were expected to spend at least another year of hachshera on another kibbutz, before they would arrive at their “own” and final kibbutz destination.
So this was the path upon which I was setting out, having finished my secondary school education with a Scottish Higher Leaving Certificate, comprising of four Higher Level subjects: Maths, Science, English, French and one Lower: History. I was shaking off the dust and grime of Glasgow and setting off for one of the three Habonim Hachshera farms.
Now it so happened that during the summer of 1951, the Movement was running a short but intensive education course called somewhat pretentiously “The Habonim Institute” at the Reading Hachshera farm (officially called Zichron Yisheyahu) located just outside a tiny village, Hurst Grange, near Twyford, Berkshire.
It was decided that it would be beneficial to me (and also help swell the number of participants) if I attended the Habonim Institute prior to starting my career as a regular Hachshera member. This was most fortuitous because the courses given at the Institute were actually of an extremely high caliber and I did indeed learn a great deal in the two or so months that I was there. Thus it came about that I had a very educational entry into the community of “true believers”. (In a strange way, I suppose that I still continue to be a “believer”. Certainly not as fervent or naive as the youngster of 50+ years ago but nevertheless I still maintain my beliefs in many of the basics that were so self-evident to us then. (Which makes it all the harder to reconcile myself to what is going on in Israel now and to what this country has become).
The Head of the Habonim Institute was David Patterson, who later became a Professor of Semitics and founded the Institute of Modern Jewish Studies at Oxford. Other lecturers included people like Shimon Appelbaum, an archeologist and expert on Roman agriculture who later lived in Jerusalem, and Freddy Kahn, an architect now living at Bet Haemek. They also brought in lecturers from outside. The only one that I remember was Krishna Menon who was the Indian Ambassador to the U.K. and spoke about “The Indian struggle for Independence” or something similar. We were a bit upset by the fact that Mennon, who was a buddy of Nehru and a long-time Socialist, was driven up to our commune by a uniformed chauffeur in a Rolls Royce!
Hebrew (known as Ivrit, a very major subject), Israeli and kibbutz related material were taught to the Institute participants by a resident couple of shlichim, Nehemia Ginsburg and his wife, Emmy Horowitz. Emmy was a highly regarded child psychologist and educator with a great deal of influence in the Kibbutz Movement. I remember her as a very strong, somewhat domineering, personality; perhaps people were slightly scared of her. In retrospect, I’m not sure how well many of her ideas about bringing up children have stood the test of time. Nechemia was a charming, delightful, highly cultured man, small and balding with a gentle smile, an engaging twinkle in his eye and a very strong German accent. He had studied philosophy at Heidelberg but somewhere along the line had gone off to be a chalutz in Palestine. He and Emmy were founder members of Kibbutz Kfar Szold, in the northern Hula valley.
When there was the great ideological-political split of the Kibbutz Me’uchad movement in 1950-51 (based on the degree of leftist sentiment and organization and alignment with the prevailing Socialist parties), they had left and moved to Kibbutz Givat Haim (Ichud, the more moderate of the Kibbutz movements that emerged from this crisis). Nehemia worked in the citrus orchards but was often been involved in kibbutz administration at various levels. I had met Nehemia several times before at various Habonim activities and when he had visited Glasgow. Nechemia and Emmy had two daughters, Michal (of whom more hereafter) and Hanna who were with them at Reading hachshera during the Institute course.
Nehemia was my “favorite” shaliach. I admired him greatly and he undoubtedly had a strong influence on me during my later Movement years. . He was my ideal of a true chalutz, today I suppose he would have been called my “role model”. Of course, he was genuinely pleased to see that I had come on Hachshera. (I remember Nechemia would say to me, in his heavily accented English ”Ach Glasgow… such a vonderful place,..such nice vonderful chaverim …but… not enough chalutzim…..” Years later, in Israel, he would invite me to participate in various Kibbutz Movement functions, usually public discussions about where the kibbutz was heading. I remember being very flattered at being invited to one public debate that Nehemia arranged at Bet Berl (a kibbutz sponsored academic center that eventually became a Regional College) which had as participants, in addition to myself, Abba Eban and Muki Tsur . I would go to visit Nehemia and Emmy now and again at Givat Haim. The last time I was there must have been in the early ‘90’s. I had told Nehemia about my visits to Czechoslovakia and he took me to the Tereizenstadt Museum in Givat Haim and introduced me to the people there. He also gave me a book by Ruth Bondi “Edelstein against the Clock”; the biography of the man who was the Head of the Jewish Council in Tereizenstadt for several years. Both Nechemia and Emmy died some years ago.
Given that we were really a bunch of kids and amateurs, the standard of the program at the Habonim Institute was amazingly high. In addition to all the academic subjects, we also learnt quite a lot of Ivrit. Of course, despite the intensity of the courses and the reading assignments (items like Louis Mumford’s “Civilisation and Cities”) we managed to have a wonderful time socially. Unlike some fortunate others, I (as usual, it seemed) was unable to find a “girl friend” which caused me considerable anguish at the time. But the ten or twelve weeks of Habonim Institute whizzed by. Then, having had my intellectual and ideological batteries well charged, I graduated to the status of a regular chaver of Reading Hachshera.
Hachshara proper starts
In retrospect, our existence at Hurst Grange could be viewed as a very strange exercise in collective masochism. There we were, a small group of city-bred youngsters of mixed sexes, (our numbers fluctuated between 14 to 20) living as a “kibbutz” (or what we fondly imagined to be a fair imitation of one), in a dilapidated mansion in the midst of rural England. I doubt if any of us had ever really worked before in our lives. Now we were earnestly attempting to transform ourselves into farm laborers, cycling miles to work in the early (really early) morning and back again towards evening, doing the most menial jobs and at the same time trying to live an intense communal, social and cultural life. (One the popular Movement slogans of the time was that we were preparing ourselves to become a “cultured peasantry”!).
And indeed our lives were intense. Of course, the major element, in terms of hours expended, was Work. Work was the dominant “value”. The first obligation one had on Hachshera was to prove oneself to be “A Good Worker”. I suspect that for most, certainly for me, that task was initially more or less pure torture. In retrospect, I suppose that learning to overcome, or at least endure, the physical hardships of farm work were a good education for all kinds of future situations. (When things got particularly bad, we had the saying “Not to worry, it’s all good hachshera!”).
Being totally unskilled, like almost everyone else, I could only aspire to the simplest of farm jobs, competing with the “local yokels” who were obviously much more competent than me. At Reading, unlike the “Chava” (David Eder Farm) and Bosham (the other two Habonim training farms [hachsherot] in those days), there was only a very small farm actually within the grounds of Hurst Grange. Three or four of the resident female members worked “at home” either in the kitchen, laundry or at general housework. A few of the boys worked on the “farm” under the supervision of an “outside” manager, a non-Jewish Austrian refugee who had been a farmer in his homeland. (Mr Weiser, or Charlie as we called him behind his back, had a very strong Austrian accent. His frequent, drastic mangling of the English tongue when giving orders and instruction managed to baffle his listeners and provided us with many anecdotes and much snide merriment. Mr. Weiser also had a very prominent scar on his forehead. We were always much amused, at the poor man’s expense, when he would say, “You see dat, I got a hole in my head.” ).
Since there was little employment at the “home” farm, most of us had to find “outside” jobs with the local farmers. These were not too easy to obtain and usually entailed a long bicycle ride to and from work. So all of us who are graduates of Reading Hachshera have our tales of cycling to work in the early, dark, morning hours of winter, in rain, snow or just mere frost and ice on the roads and of returning in the dusk of late afternoon, numbed from a day’s hard grind. Stories of endless punctures and falls on the clapped-out, ancient bicycles that were our transportation fleet.
Bicycles were a critical part of our Hachshera infrastructure. As a result, there was an important and heartily detested community job called “bike man”. This would usually fall upon the newest recruit to cross the threshold of Hurst Grange. Thus, when I appeared, I was duly “elected” to the task. As I have already implied, most of our bikes were antique and in horrible condition. The bike man, in his spare time, was supposed to keep them in a functioning state. That meant endless repairing of punctures, adjusting chains and who knows what else. Previously, I had fancied myself as a bit of a mechanic, but this kind of stuff rapidly turned me off. I vaguely remember finally ripping up someone’s inner tube in a fit of rage, instead of thriftily patching it, (as was expected), in order to prove that I was totally unsuited to the task of bikeman. Indeed after that incident, some other victim was coerced into the job.
Actually I was probably one of the very few who had a reasonable bike. This was because I had brought my Hercules “racer” (with 3 speed gear, no less!) from Glasgow. I suppose that the bike was left at Hurst Grange when I went on aliya. (Many years later, when we came back to Amiad in 1964, we brought Debby’s bike and it was one of the first (if not the first) on the kibbutz. I had used Debby’s bike quite lot when we lived in Cambridge, cycling to and from M.I.T. But the most consistent, least enjoyable and longest cycling that I ever did was during my year and three-quarters at Reading Hachshera).
Learning to be a farm laborer
As I mentioned, being considered a “Good Worker” was the highest acme of praise that one aspired to on hachshera. My first job was with a certain Mr. Barker who had a small dairy farm with about 25 Jersey cows. In addition to myself, known immediately as “Jock the boy” because of my then broad Scottish accent, there was Jim the cowman. He was a relatively young fellow, probably in his thirties, who proved to be very kind and helpful to me in my first steps as a farm laborer. I’m sure that he thought that I was totally mad in wanting to take up this “profession”. Mr. Barker, on the other hand, was quite convinced that I was an imbecile because I found it very difficult to understand his broad Berkshire accent just as he couldn’t figure out what I was trying to communicate to him. So he used to give me my work assignments in a very slow, loud voice, repeated at least three times. I don’t know what Mrs. Barker thought of me. She was a nice kind lady who used to come out at breakfast time with hot mugs of cocoa for Jim and me. I believe that she even forgave me on one of the rare occasions when I was allowed to drive the tractor with a cart and somehow managed to get mud from the wheels all over some clean laundry that she had just hung out on the line behind the house. I was horribly embarrassed, Mr.Barker and Jim found the incident hilarious.
Of course, it was only very seldom that I was given anything to do as responsible as driving the tractor. Most of my time was spent dunging out the cow barn, shlepping sacks and bales of hay and straw (I had to learn the difference) around and other lowly tasks as befitted my station. I also learnt that when a cow stands on your foot, she generally does so with a relatively slow, seemingly deliberate action and even frantic pounding on the animal’s flank will, at best, produce only an equally slow removal of the pressure.
One horrible job that I remember vividly was harvesting mangolds (pronounced “mangles”) in icy, early winter mornings from muddy fields. I was given a small, very sharp sickle-shaped knife and shown how to grab the leaves, pull the root out of the ground and with a single, graceful movement chuck the mangold onto the cart while at the same time slicing off the leaves with the knife. (With luck and practice one could learn to do this without slicing off a finger or two). After a fairly short time, I was frozen, totally soaked, covered in mud and reasonably proficient with the knife!
Another delightful job, was “hedging and ditching”, this was good for whenever there wasn’t anything much else urgent to do. For this job, I was provided with cutters and slashers and other deadly weaponry to do battle with the briars and tangles of the English countryside. In this part of the country all the fields since time immemorial were marked off by hedges and ditches that needed to be kept trim and clear of assorted undergrowth and rubbish. The good thing about hedging and ditching was that I was usually on my own and could really “skive off” if I felt so inclined. But, of course, my employer would check up on me to see how many yards of hedge and/or ditch I had cleared that afternoon.
There were other farm jobs demanding varying degrees of sheer physical toughness. At hay making time, I had to learn how to pitch up the heavy bales onto a wagon; usually two of us with pitchforks would skewer the bale and together throw it up. Alternatively, I was sometimes given the job of stacking the bales on the wagon. This demanded nimbleness of foot and deftness of hand to build the bales in such a manner that they would not fall off during transportation. Only very rarely did I get the cushy job of driving the tractor while others worked with the bales.
At harvest time, I worked for a few days with an itinerant “threshing crew” that came from outside. This outfit had a large Field Marshall tractor that powered an old stationary thresher via a long drive belt. (This vintage, diesel tractor had an enormous single cylinder and was started by first screwing a special hot glowing plug into the top of the cylinder and then cranking a handle. Sometimes the operator substituted a lit cigarette instead of the plug, which seemed to be equally effective. The tractor would give a massive cough, literally jump up into the air, belching black fumes, and then settle down to a monotonous slow “chug-chug-chug”). The crew that came with this rig was a pretty rough lot who looked as though they would cheerfully slit old ladies’ throats if paid appropriately. I was totally terrified of them. From the rear end of the thresher came forth enormous wire-bound straw bales. My job was to hoist each bale onto my back as it came off the thresher and carry it to the stack. Since I could barely lift the bales, I had a horrible time trying to keep up with the team and earned all kinds of jibes and curses for my general incompetence as I staggered around.
From the above you can understand that, in those days, much of the corn (in Britain that means “grain”) was still harvested without modern combines. First the grain would be cut with a harvester and binder which would leave rows of sheaves in the field. The sheaves would then be made into “stooks”, each consisting of 6 or 8 sheaves, that stood in the field for some days to dry out. Subsequently the stooks were loaded onto a wagon (this was a relatively pleasant job) and brought to a threshing machine as described above.
All in all being a farm laborer was a very hard grind for me. I remember spending much of my time during the first months of hachshera contemplating how I could possibly get out of this situation without “losing face”. I suppose that I never found an easy answer to that; so there I was, stuck in my ideological rut.
When I began work as a farm labourer, I was being paid the grand sum of somewhat less than 3 pounds sterling a week. After I turned 18, my pay was increased. I remember being very proud at receiving a few shillings over 3 pounds. Now I was bringing in a real man’s wage to the hachshera communal kitty!
I think that it was just after the hay harvest that Mr. Barker’s son came back from school or university and I found myself out of a job. If nothing else, my experience at the Barkers’ had removed any illusions that I initially held of wanting to become a cowman. I realized quite quickly that animals are a seven day a week, fifty-two weeks a year responsibility. So my interest shifted accordingly to plants which would presumably require somewhat less attention and would allow me at least to have a day off, now and again.
My next job was on a market garden farm that grew tomatoes and cucumbers in greenhouses. The English climate does not permit these crops to be grown outside in the open. Greenhouse cultivation was and probably still is, quite a skilled and tricky business. Before a new crop was planted out, the soil inside the greenhouse was prepared by treatment with “steam sterilization”. This was done by first digging out a shallow trench about 2 meters wide by 1 meter long into which was placed a set of pipes with nozzles connected to a steam generator. The pipes were then covered by the soil immediately behind the trench, thus forming a new trench. Steam was passed through the pipes for about 5 minutes, effectively sterilizing the soil above. After that, the pipes were pulled out and placed in the trench that had been formed behind the treated section. The operation was repeated until all the area of the greenhouse had been covered.
This procedure called for a lot of wheeling around of wheelbarrows full of soil, and that was initially my main task. When first asked whether I knew how to wheel a wheelbarrow, I said “Sure”. Unfortunately on one of my first runs with a very heavy, very full wheelbarrow I came wobbling around a corner, smack into one of the main wooden posts supporting the greenhouse. It was a miracle that I didn’t succeed in demolishing the whole structure. Obviously this episode did nothing to endear me to my employer, but the rest of the crew found it highly amusing.
Apart from this I don’t remember much about my time as a tomato and cucumber grower, only that someone before me had made some excellent and detailed erotic pencil sketches on a few of the above mentioned wooden support pillars which I often studied closely.
On being a pigman!
After a few months, the greenhouse operator decided to dispense with my services and I cycled around the countryside again, looking for work. This time, I landed a job as “assistant pigman” at the Reading University Farm. Here, among other delights for the instruction of the agricultural students, there was a breeding herd of Wessex saddleback pigs. The Head Pigman was an ancient geezer, who, to my disdain, did not believe in tractors but drove around in a pony cart powered by an equally ancient pony. (“This ‘ere is the oldest working pony in all of England” I was told proudly).
To my surprise I found myself quite liking the pigs and enjoying the job. Since this was a breeding herd, the sows lived in excellent conditions. Each had a private unit of a little shed with a small open yard that was moved across a grassy field every day or so. Thus the sows always had fresh clean grass in their yards. In fact, the pigs kept themselves very clean if given half a chance. Pigs are really extremely intelligent and attractive animals that, like poor old King Richard III, have suffered from incompetent PR for centuries. Less prepossessing was something called “Tottenham pudding” that we fed the pigs daily. This delicacy was cooked, presumably sterilized, garbage that came, warm and reeking, in large metal containers. The pigs loved it, I did not.
The Chief Pig was called Reading Conqueror the Ninth, I suppose that he was the father of most of the piglets that we produced.
After a couple of months, the Head Pigman announced that he was retiring, and so, by default, I inherited the pony and cart and became the sole custodian of the pig herd. Of course for all sorts of really professional jobs (e.g. castrating the little piglets, ugh!) I had to call in outside “experts”. But more or less I was the boss and after a while I was even given a tractor and trailer to replace the pony and cart.
I recall one incident from my early days as pigman. We had just had a new, large litter of piglets. The Head Pigman pointed to the runt and told me to “get rid of it”. I found this hard to take, so instead of knocking the little creature on the head, I wrapped it up carefully and cycled home with it to Hurst Grange. The piglet instantly became a great attraction to the girls on hachshera who initially force-fed it milk with a fountain pen syringe and then devotedly and successfully nursed it through the initial stages of piggy-hood. All went well until one day we received word that we were about to be visited by Mrs Williams and some other WIZO ladies who kept an eye on us and worried about our material, moral and spiritual well-being. Obviously we could not confront the good ladies with a blatantly non-Kosher Pig on a Jewish Hachshera. There was consternation and panic, but eventually we decided to conceal the offending animal in one of the ramshackle sheds in the back garden. I seem to remember that the ladies’ visit passed without incident, but after that we decided that it was too risky to keep our piglet. So she was given to Mrs. Weiser (our farm manager’s wife) who brought her up “as her own”. In fact I was told that for several years subsequently, Mrs. Weiser would take her pig on a leash and with a colorful pink bow into Reading. At least that story had a happy ending!
One day I had left the tractor in the meadow and had gone off to do something. When I returned I was horrified to see that the tractor had started to move under its own volition. Then, on coming closer, I saw that the tractor had acquired four legs… Finally, I figured out what was going on. Reading Conqueror IX, who was quite a large pig, had escaped from his pen, gone for a stroll in the field and had decided to investigate the tractor. Somehow he had tangled himself up in the machine. So, nothing daunted, our pig had continued his walk, simply dragging the tractor along with him. I don’t recall now how I managed to separate pig from tractor.
Another embarrassing moment also had to do with a tractor. (If you gather from these anecdotes that I was at that time mad keen to drive tractors you would be quite correct). It was a Sunday, and for some reason I had to go to the University Farm to do something with the pigs. Without asking anyone, I “borrowed” the Fergie ( our little grey Fergusson tractor) from the Hachshera to travel to the University Farm in style by “motor” instead of by bike. But just outside Hurst Grange, I managed to skid into a ditch and all my desperate efforts to extract the Fergie were to no avail. So I was forced to go back, confess that I had taken the tractor and enlist the help of some stalwart comrades to manhandle it out of the ditch. It goes without saying that in the end, I cycled to work that day.
Social Life on Hachshera
Despite the fact that our numbers on the hachshera farm were quite limited, fluctuating from about 14 to just over 20 at any given time, we lived a most intensive social life. We were very strong (you might say fanatical) on culture (“tarbut” in Hebrew), as befitted future members of the “cultured peasantry”. If I remember correctly, only one evening a week and maybe Sunday mornings were designated as “free time” which we were supposed to utilize for “self-improvement”. Otherwise, there were organized activities in which everyone was expected to participate; Ivrit lessons, assorted lectures, committee meetings, and, most important of all, the weekly “Assefa” (General Assembly) where matters of great (and oft-times very little) pith and moment were debated interminably.
All topics were grist for the Assefa mill; who did what job, why were the rooms in such a state of filth and disorder, what had caused the fight between X and Y, how much money could be allotted each week for sweets and cigarettes, what was our political stance concerning the split in the Kibbutz Me’uchad in Israel, how many people could attend the wedding of Brenda and Mickey and who would we send to represent our group, would we accept some household utensils as a gift from the WIZO ladies, etc, etc, ad infinitum.
Assefa discussions were occasionally acrimonious and often protracted late into the evening, despite everyone having to rise early next morning. We were great believers in “openness”, this meant that sometimes matters became quite personal and occasionally very nasty. But by and large we got on together pretty well and the friendships formed then have lasted over the years. Some of the protocols of our Assefot have been preserved; reading through them now I find it almost incredible to believe that we actually lived that way.
In addition to deciding the main issues of our lives in the Assefa, we also ran our society by a host of committees, probably as many committees as we had members. I remember being in charge of the Culture Committee at one point. This gave me the privilege of going to meet Yigal Allon at the Twyford railway station and walking with him to Hurst Grange. We were quite flattered by the fact that he had accepted our invitation to give a talk. At that time he was spending a year studying in Oxford but he was already famous as the ex-commander of the Palmach and a legendary war hero. Years later, when he was Israel’s Minister of Education and I went to see him about a joint Galil-Elyon Emek Yarden Regional College I was most flattered when he remembered me and our walk (or at least claimed to do so).
Another “chevra” position that I held for a while was that of “gizbar” (treasurer). I don’t recall exactly what financial responsibility the job entailed. Certainly the sums of money involved were ludicrous but that was the only time that I have been called upon to be responsible to my community in the sphere of economics.
Every Friday evening there was an Oneg Shabbat program of readings, music, sketches or whatever. We took it in turns to arrange this program and actually it was amazing how creative many of the chaverim were. However, our collective creativity found its greatest expression at the time of the “chagim” which were celebrated punctiliously. Of course our emphasis was on the secular, Zionist interpretation of the holidays. I especially remember one Seder Pesach when we made up our own hand-painted Haggada in the form of a scroll with each hachshera member contributing a section. I have no recollection how we “celebrated” Yom Kippur, but it was certainly marked very seriously in some secular, but Jewish-Socialist-Zionist oriented fashion.
For festivals and other occasions, people would write and perform “zigs”. The Habonim Zig may be considered a distinct art form that alas is now almost extinct. Probably the last outpost of the Zig is at Kfar Hanassi where, for instance, some excellent examples of the genre were staged at Ilana and Raffi’s wedding.
To say that we lived frugally would be quite an understatement. The food was pretty basic. Those of us who worked “outside” were provided with sandwiches for breakfast and lunch. The sandwiches that I ate were peanut butter and jam or processed yellow cheese. There were stories about people having condensed milk powder or sugar as sandwich spreads in times of real economic hardship! At any rate, outside worker’s sandwiches were prepared each evening for the next day. I used to take (and eat) seven sandwiches, three for breakfast and four for lunch. I think that we also had vacuum flasks for tea. Supper was the big meal of the day and was prepared by the kitchen worker, always one of the chaverot. (No question of female equality in this department!).
Smoking was very much “in”, at least among the male population of the hachshera. Almost all the boys and a few of the girls smoked and the size of the cigarette “ration” was a matter of much contention. I think that the allowance did not amount to more than 20 or 30 fags a week. So most of us preferred to receive tobacco (one small packet of bottom-of-the-barrel grade, St Bernard’s Shag Tobacco) and to “roll our own”. Smoking was perceived as a basic, natural, physiological need….little did we know then …
Swearing and foul language were also very much part of the “ambience” of Hachshera. To some extent we picked this up from our local yokel colleagues at work but somehow it had become part of a kind of “macho-halutz image” which was cultivated in the Movement. I suppose that it was an expression of our “rebellion” against the staid, complacent Jewish middle-class society from which most of us had come. Whatever the motivation, I suspect that our personalities were not made any more attractive or pleasant by our proficiencies with assorted four-letter words. And I must admit, not with any pride, that I was one of the more talented in this respect.
In those days a reasonable period of Hachshera was considered to be a minimum of two years. Many people also were required to spend further time on “Movement work”, running various Habonim branches all over the country. It had been decided by the Movement Secretariat that most of the group at Hurst Grange would go on Aliya in October 1952 as part of the first contingent of the newly formed Garin (so-called Garin Gimel). By that time I had been on Hachshera only slightly more than a year and a half. According to the Movement criteria of that time, I had not completed enough “hachshera” and therefore I was not eligible to go with the rest of the group.
Fortunately for me, there was a problem caused by the fact that H.M. Government had just altered the army call-up rules to include people who worked in agriculture. Therefore I was in imminent danger of being inducted into the British Army if I remained in Britain. At a memorable Assefa (the minutes of which are preserved) I managed to convince the “chevra” that I should come with them on Aliya rather than be dragged off to Her Majesty’s Service; this was certainly the happiest evening of my whole Hachshera experience!
Our hachshera at Reading (i.e.Hurst Grange) was considered to be the most left-wing or radical of the three Habonim huchsherot that existed then. So, for example, while the others were members of the Farmers’ Union, we belonged to the Union of Agricultural Laborers. We were all devoted readers of the New Statesman and of the extensive collection of Gollantz’ Left Wing Book Club volumes in our library. The chaverim from Reading tended to take more extreme positions on Issues of the Day.
This was a period just after the great Pilug or Split in the Kibbutz Hameuchad which was precipitated over attitudes to the opposing ideologies and policies of the Soviet Union (and its leader, Stalin) and the United States. The latter was still in the throes of rabid anti-communism and McCarthyism. Habonim had still not decided to which of the emerging kibbutz movements (Ichud and Kibbutz Hameuchad) it would affiliate. I remember a few of us from Reading going to some major Movement meeting where this issue was discussed. We were in the small minority who demanded that Habonim should maintain its ties to both kibbutz movements and that each new Garin should be free to decide to which movement it would go. In our view there was not much to prefer between the two, or, for that matter, between the USA and the USSR. Needless to say, Habonim remained solidly “mildly pink”, and was tied to the more moderate Ichud Hakvutsot ve Hakibbutzim. Subsequently a new Youth Movement allied to Kibbutz Hameuchad was set up in the U.K. and was the cause of considerable rivalry and bad feeling.
Summing it up.
In retrospect what did I gain from my Hachshera experience? Certainly it was one way of being thrust into the “real world” after my sheltered and spoilt upbringing in Glasgow. Of course our Hachshera was a very artificial world. But I definitely learned that I could manage in rough circumstances, probably this background enabled me to endure my Israeli army service. Hachshera provided a practical schooling in living with other people and learning to accommodate to other people’s whims and desires. Hachshera certainly equipped me with the stamina and resilience to withstand, at least for a while, the sheer physical hardships of the first years in Israel.
I also believe that I learnt to be responsible and to give my best to the task in hand, irrespective of its perceived importance. By the end of my Hachshera period, I had absorbed the rather peculiar mixture of quasi-sophistication and what we imagined to be chalutzik practicality and down-to-earthiness (mostly, I suspect, crudity) that formed our cultural and social milieu. I fancied myself to be very sophisticated and yet down to earth with a mature outlook on life formed from an intimate knowledge and wide experience of agriculture.
In fact, when I now read my letters from that period it is painfully evident that, in fact, I was a rather crass, callow and very naive young man with a starry eyed sense of mission, a product of several enjoyable years of Movement indoctrination. Not much changed when I first arrived in Israel, at least not until I was confronted with the realities of the Israeli army.