Friday, October 30, 2009

The Very Best of Garin Tzabar: Finding our Haystack

My very favorite day with my garin began and ended atop Miz'pe Ma'tanya, the lonely spur standing sentry outside the gates of Kibbutz Tirat Zvi. At dawn we ran sprints, five guys chasing each other up and down the sandy slopes. A silver dollar in the inky sky was our only illumination hours later, when my garin returned to the hilltop to roast marshmallows, sing songs and celebrate the birthday of one of our own. A sprint and some songs are, of course, only bookends. It is the stories, and this time even the storyteller, that made today so wondrous.

A graveyard played host to my meeting with the storyteller. Framed by row upon row of hundred year old tombstones, with the first chill wind and rain of the season adding to the ominous surroundings, the storyteller proceeded to unravel a tapestry of tales about the people he calls "the founding fathers and mothers of the Jewish state," the young Zionist pioneers (chalutzim) who lived nearby and are today buried along the banks of the Sea of Galilee, in Kineret Cemetery. These chalutzim, the storyteller fervently explained, did not come to the land with realistic expectations. Instead they clung to their dreams and, in doing so, reshaped reality. The will of their generation is captured in the words a contemporary named David Grun wrote in his diary. Years before he changed his last name to Ben-Gurion, young David wrote "I have come to this country to transform the landscape and by doing so I will transform my soul."

The storyteller told us many more tales. He describe the malaria and heat that drove many early Zionists to the edge of madness, leading even a dedicated activist like the future Ben-Gurion to bemoan "this cursed land." He showed us the all too human lives of an early Zionist leader like Berl Katznelson, whose untold dedication to his tomato plants was only exceeded by a truly bizarre love triangle with his wife and her best friend. He sang the songs and shared the tragic life of Rachel, the poetess of the pioneers whose longing for the land and her unfulfilled aspirations are reflected so well in her poem, V'Ulai (And Perhaps):

And perhaps, none of this ever really happened?
And perhaps, I've never woke up with the break of dawn,
and went out to the field,
and never have I broke a sweat working the land?

And maybe never, on long, burning days,
Long, burning hot days of harvest,
Never have I found myself singing
from the top of a wagon loaded with sheaves?

Never have I rinsed myself
in the ever-peaceful and innocent blue
of my Kineret..?
Oh, my Kineret..
Were you real, or was I only dreaming?

The storyteller added a final tale, one whose macabre nature was so out of place by the pure waters of the Kineret that nature itself chased us back to our bus with a bitter wind and rain. Only a few years ago, so the story goes, a similar wind ripped away some bushes to reveal a mysterious gravestone near the center of the Kineret Cemetery.

While the inscription on the stone claimed the grave as the final resting place of a farmer named Nathan whom had taken his own life (an all too common occurrence during those trying early years), the sinister decorations of a devil, sword and pentagrams lead scholars like our storyteller to suspect that Nathan was in fact slaughtered by his devil-worshiping friend. Kibbutz records recount how in the first decade of the twentieth century, a cult of devil worshipers were thrown out of the commune. Rejected by their Zionist peers, the cult moved to the nearby hills. Their fate, like the disturbing gravestone discovered at the heart of the Kineret Cemetery, remains a mystery.

The identity of our storyteller may have remained a mystery as well were it not for the passion in his words that reminded me of another storyteller from my past. Five years ago, an utterly unremarkable looking man visited the sleep-away camp where I was working for the summer. When he left a few days later, the utterly remarkable stories he shared had adopted a vivid place in my memory that would never be relinquished.

Both stories were intensely personal. One described a chance encounter between a wizened David Ben Gurion and the storyteller. All of age fourteen and only weeks removed from moving to Israel with his family, the storyteller was confronted by the sheer personality of Israel's founding father. The meeting changed him forever, erasing his misgivings on moving to a new land and setting him off on his future career as a historian of early Zionism.

A decade later, the storyteller's life was changed once again when he found himself leading three hundred Ethiopian children through the deserts of Sudan. Threatened by wild animals, Sudanese mercenaries and a deadly concoction of hunger, exhaustion and fear, the children's exodus to Israel nearly ground to a halt one night in the deserts of Sudan. After instructing the older boys to carry their younger peers, the storyteller asked everyone to look upon the moon and take strength that this same moon was shining over Jerusalem and that its light would guide them home. Operation Moses would indeed rescue some eight thousand Ethiopians Jews from the famines of East Africa to the promised land of Israel. It makes for a thrilling and moving story, in no small part due to the storyteller's first-hand experience and fervent eloquence.

When I heard the same fervor in the voice of today's cemetery guide, I knew without a doubt that the teller of stories from my past and present were one and the same. Joel Goldman, as the storyteller is called, turns out to be an activist and scholar, working within the Ethiopian community and researching the diaries and records of the early Zionist pioneers. He left us with a final message, charging each of us to find that thing in life that makes "you jump off your haystack in the morning," to tackle your dreams with the same daily enthusiasm the chalutzim displayed despite the nearly overwhelming struggle they encountered in realizing their dreams.

After leaving Joel it would have been easy to call the rest of the day a wash. The rain was unrelenting and the communities around the Kineret offer little in the way of indoor distractions. Or so I falsely presumed. A divine chocolate factory in Deganiah, and a few scoops of some of the best ice-creams this normally chocolate averse sucker has ever tasted, assured the day would only continue to shine.

Within an hour the sun had retaken control of the heavens and we were overlooking the Kineret from the heights of the Galil. Back in 1867, Mark Twain capped his scathing review of the lake area with the words "No ingenuity could make such a picture beautiful to one's actual vision." No doubt, were he alive today, the author of Innocents Abroad would have something very different to say about the view and the ingenuity that created the modern neighborhood. Aside from the sinking water line, today's Kineret is truly a shimmering harp amid the bronzed and burnished heights and the green communities along its banks.

After a last supper of sorts at a splashy restaurant in Tiberias (the supper marks our last time, shabbat excluded, we will all be together before the army), the bus trundled home. A few miles from the kibbutz I slipped off to Maoz Hayim to visit the family of my friend who had fallen in the last war in Lebanon.

I arrived as the youth of the community were honoring the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. While the former Prime Minister lived a life far richer and more heroic than any Leon Uris protagonist, Israelis mainly use the day of his assassination to dwell on the dangers of internal divisions and political extremism. Disunity and misplaced passion have led to human ruin since Cain first struck down his brother Abel. All of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, can be fairly read as nothing more than a Divine search for a community that will not repeat Cain's sin. And although Joseph is the one who ultimately ends the Divine search, Yitzhak is clearly the biblical figure--evident via his camaraderie with his brother Ishmael and his desire to see both his sons, Esav and Yakov, succeed him--who most identifies with the Divine desire for brotherhood. Perhaps another lesson to consider amid the legacy of Rabin's tragic death.

The day ended as it had begun. Atop the lonely hilltop that stands guard over my home of Tirat Zvi. In bygone days the hill was known by a bevy of names. Today Miz'pe Ma'tanya is named for a twenty-one year old who gave his life for his country in 2002. Twenty years earlier, Ma'tanya Robinson's parents had made aliyah, believing that in Israel they would find that which would make them want to "jump off their haystacks every morning." I cannot say whether they found it. All I know is that as my garin sat atop Miz'pe Ma'tanya, roasting s'mores and conversing in the shadows of the birthday boy's favorite hip-hop tunes, I was ready, come every morning from tomorrow to eternity, to jump up and out and tackle this hill with my guys by my side.

1 comment:

  1. todah rabbah! Joel's stories are available in ntsc format dvd's at "" DVD's #2 and #3

    we enjoy him very much. we miss him too.