“Eretz Israel, my beloved,” papa often says. Usually, the remark comes as he’s gazing out at the endless countryside plains. You can see the love in his soulful blue eyes. And appreciation as he bows his head to the land.
It was 1912 when papa first set foot in Eretz Israel. Back then, he was a young lad of fifteen, arriving alone after a long, lonesome trek from Russia. He never talks about the experience or why he left. Just says, “That wasn’t my country.” The words flow with bitterness. We’ve learned over the years about pogroms and much anti-semitism in Russia. And the family tragedies that came about from both.
“Why Eretz Israel?” I’ve asked him over the years. “Sunshine and Jaffa Oranges, and Uncle Lev,” he replies with a wide smile. His uncle Lev was one of the first Tel Aviv settlers in 1909. He received a small plot of land where he built a home, which became papa’s home for a few months. But papa craved the countryside. He was a farmer at heart who wanted to work the land. And he wanted to honor his father, who deeply believed in communal settlements, by joining a kibbutz.
With kibbutz life a calling, papa packed his bags and trekked again. This time the journey was short and exciting. In broken Hebrew, he’d ask for directions. And in broken Hebrew, people replied. Though many knew Yiddish, the settlers were committed to speaking in their new language.
Papa arrived on the kibbutz and immediately took to farming. With time, he became known for his understanding of the land. Farming for him was an art and science, and he spent much time extensively studying all that was available and writing letters with pages of questions to scientists worldwide when information was not. Evenings were often spent learning a language to read a book or write a letter. By his thirties, papa spoke eight, with a library of correspondence in them all neatly arranged in stacked boxes around our small home.
Papa found much joy in being a kibbutznik. He thrived in an environment where people felt equal, fulfilled in working the land, and while impoverished financially, they were rich in feeling accomplished and together. And adding to the joy, it was also on the kibbutz that he met mama. As they tell the story, mama arrives one day on the kibbutz with her parents. Papa, sixteen and beginning to think about marriage, sees her and knows. “I’m going to marry her,” he says to a friend. Tall and handsome with a calm demeanor, papa caught mama’s eye too. She approached him before he could approach her.
“I still remember her smile at that moment we met,” he tells us. “And her strong voice. She spoke with much conviction.”
They married shortly after. A year later, I was born on the kibbutz.
My early memories and most after that were spending time with kibbutzniks and papa. Mama didn’t like kibbutz life. She was an ardent Zionist who wanted to take part in the movement politically. Starting as the kibbutz representative, she grew in stature over the years, spending much time traveling away for meetings. But papa always welcomed her home with flowers on the table, a warm hug, and a gentle kiss. He loved her dearly.
We gathered around the radio to hear the news. Loud cheers and many hugs came with the United Nations announcing partition. The dream was now real. Eretz Israel was to become a nation officially recognized by the world. But the celebration was short-lived. With the announcement came an understanding that war would follow. The surrounding Arab countries refused to accept partition. They vowed to attack if Israel was to form. We knew they would.
Years of sporadic violence had worsened in the recent past. As momentum for nationhood grew, resistance did so as well. The time leading up to and after the partition was full of strife. We worried for mama’s safety whenever she left the kibbutz for meetings, as many roads, including the main one between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, were lined with snipers attacking Jewish people. On one bus ride, the man sitting next to mama was shot and killed. Mama came home with her blouse bloodied. Papa nearly fainted thinking she had been hurt.
Even on the kibbutz over the years, there had been skirmishes. Though, in general, we were friendly with our Arab neighbors. Sometimes I’d hear papa and his friends on both sides discussing the topic. “Such is the world. We have to learn to share and live together,” papa would say.
On May 14th, 1948, Eretz Israel became the State of Israel. The next day, Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Syria, and others attacked Israel.
Papa and I had joined the defense movement. Now we were armed and part of a battalion. And we were under attack. As we hunkered down behind the wall of an ancient building in Jerusalem, a home where our ancestors of many generations back watched their young grow old, papa looked at me and said, “I’m proud of the woman you’ve become.”
The war went on for over a year. Many died. Israel lost nearly one percent of its population. After the war, we watched our Arab neighbors leave. And papa cried that night. For all the turmoil and conflict, some of his closest friends were now gone, their lives uprooted. But in the end, Israel survived the attacks and held on to statehood. Eretz Israel was truly re-born.
“Eretz Israel, My Beloved” is a work of historical fiction. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.
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