Israel and Kibbutz life: first impressions

Arriving in Israel

The view

So here I am, two weeks in since I arrived in Israel, with the Carmel mountains stretching out beside my window, and the cool, blue Mediterranean humming in the distance.  There is definitely something special about the land here. It carries with it a depth of history that seems to echo from soil and relive itself out again with different characters facing the same dillemas as those that preceded them. The landscape here remains motionlessness, inviolable, bearing witness to us – playing the same foolish game of life, making mistakes, feeling, living , breathing and fighting. Countless people must’ve traversed the ancient roads that are now paved with bitumen, traffic lights and railroad tracks. New houses with Mezuzot are built beside ancient quarries that were appropriated by the Romans to build the outposts of their empire – that today only extends outward into museums and history textbooks. That is what makes Israel special. Past, present and future converge as one, here in the crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe. And I feel like I’m in the middle of it, together with everyone else. This is truly history in the making.

Before I arrived in Israel, I always imagined that upon landing, I would suddenly feel something special – like a rush of exctacy to the brain, dilating my pupils with fundamentalist fervour. Needless to say, as I stepped into the terminal I felt numb and sleep deprived – the advertisements in English for McDonalds and Coca Cola seemed to give me the impression that I was in some strange suburb of Melbourne rather than the Holy Land. Western Culture is far-reaching, and fails to discriminate between countries, I thought to myself.

The delayed culture shock only hit me whilst I sat in the taxi from the airport – during the drive northward from Tel Aviv. On face value, the scene was no different from what you would expect in New York or London. There is little difference in the range and quality of cars on the road. Road sings and traffic lights bear resemblance to their counterparts in Oz. The fact that the driver spoke Hebrew didn’t phase me either. What hit me was more subtle: there was a large minority of drivers that completely disregarded the road rules. If changing lanes without indicating was to be the worst offence that I spotted, then I would definitely still be in Melbourne. The perpetual ‘road stress’ that I witness on a daily basis here stems from the ongoing tension of protracted war and conflict. When surrounded by a sea of enemies eagerly waiting for their opportunity to drive you into the sea, every minor formality and road rule pales in comparison. No wonder then, that more people are killed in Israel (during peace time) from traffic accidents, rather than suicide bombings. This is by no means a critique of Israeli society – but merely an observation of a people tired of war and hungry for peace.

This constant need to push and ‘be first’ is indeed, a double edged sword. On the one hand, Israelis may come off as too pushy or arrogant (when in fact the opposite is true) , but on the other hand this unique brand of ‘Chutzpah’ breeds innovation and diligence that is only heightened by the inexorable existential threat. For example, Israel’s high tech sector is the envy of the Middle East (“nicknamed “The Silicon Wadi”), and her economy rivals that of all the surrounding countries, despite having no oil and a minuscule population of only 7 million.

Kibbutz life:

Some of my pre-conceived notions about Kibbutz life in Israel have been both shattered and reinforced. I always imagined the Kibbutz to be a nuclear hub of staunch, sun-tanned idealists, plowing the fields by day, and recounting tales of heroism around a bonfire by night. Needless to say, this is the 21st century, and a life of pure agriculture and neo-socialism is economically unsustainable in the real world. This particular Kibbutz is comparatively wealthy – mostly due to the large plastics factory that exports materials around Israel and abroad (in fact it makes up 80% of the Kibbutz’s income). The old days in which children lived separated from their parents are over. Many sectors of the Kibbutz are privatised, Kibbutz members and their families have their own houses, and the food costs money (although workers and members receive a monthly budget from the Kibbutz to spend in the dining room.)

In many senses, the traditional Kibbutz movement – just like the Romans – is confined to the history books. Today, it is simply an attractive place to live and work. Yes, everybody receives the same monthly allowance in the dining room, and Kibbutz members still vote on matters of importance. However I believe that humans are by nature, acquisitive: we want to own, to have more, to aspire to lead and to buy low and sell high. We are naturally competitive – so it was only a matter of time before human nature trumped over ideology.

From the first day, I was assigned to work in the cowshed. My job consists of collecting cows, trudging through hills of cow feaces and urine, milking the cows, returning them to their barns and then washing away piles of excrement with a high pressured hose. Once I got used to the smell (I would describe it as spending time in an airtight room with an un-flushed toilet, with the smell of hay seeping in from under the door)  the work became more enjoyable. The cows are scared-‘shitless’ (pun intended) of us, and their entire social hierarchy within the barn collapses once a human approaches. Some cows are more eager to be milked. Others take some cajoling. A small minority are purely phlegmatic, and resist milking attempts quite violently. Perhaps once they realize their strength, they might band together like in ‘Animal Farm’ and mutiny against our tyrannical rule. But seriously though, they need to be milked. Otherwise their udders might explode like a blended milkshake.

As I write this, two scenes from the cowshed come to mind:

"The carousel"

1. The cows are milked on a large automated carousel, with tube-like sucking machines that we attach to the udder. The milk is then collected into a large vat, and shipped off for packaging so that people all over the country can enjoy cereal, cheese and coffee. One particular morning, at around 4:30am in the heat of work, the song ‘Aint no sunshine when she’s gone‘ by Bill Withers played through the loudspeakers. The cows remained at their stations cluelessly staring at each other from both ends of carousel, as they slowly rotated around the centre, as the sucking machines emptied their udders. This scene seemed to come straight from a horrible nightmare – the cows placidly bobbing to the music like kids on a merry-go-round in first gear. For some unexplained reason I found this situation quite comical, and I just felt the need to record this moment here for future reference.

2. Washing away the large, clumpy piles of cow-shit from the floor with the hose is a long and tedious experience. In the long stretches of time during this activity, I often become mesmerized by the rivers of “chocolate” and “caramel” foam that stream past my feet and into the drain. When the high-pressured water hits a large build-up, the cow-poo is thrown into the air like a mini-meteor shower, and then gracefully floats down the gooey river upon returning to earth. I once had the unpleasant experience of opening up the hose onto the adjacent wall, and immediately thereafter, the cow-remains ricocheted backward into my face. If I can endure this, then every slimy, sticky or disgusting thing that I will ever encounter will probably pale in comparison. Taking out the garbage isn’t so hard after all, mum!

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10 things that I miss about Melbourne

As I sit 10000 meters above sea level, with the monotonous hum of the airplane engines gliding me into stranger shores, flashbacks of Melbourne – the city of my childhood – indelibly sketch themselves upon my mind like a memorable film.

The familiar city skyline, stands proudly on the horizon like the ramparts of a medieval castle; the algae-blue of Port Phillip bay superimposed on the endless ocean licking the curvature of the earth outside my window seat. So without further a due, as my childhood blends into memory which blends into nostalgia, here is, quid pro pro, the 10 things I miss about Melbourne.

1. Graffiti –

Crawling from the pavement – as an outstretched hand clinging to life below the sand – Melbourne’s graffiti is forged in the night, coming to life by day, and then returning to the shadows, only to be replaced again with the rising sun. Weird cartoons, political statements, illegible tags and signatures – graffiti is a subculture unto itself, and reflects on society as a whole. We, the interpreters, the amateur art critics, the lovers of impromptu art –  take away tid bits of inspiration with each passing glance: hours of painstaking, unrecognized work facing the train-line, pleading for recognition from the distracted and uninitiated. Perhaps what inspires me the most, is not the beauty or quirkiness of some of the artworks – but the fact that the work is anonymous. The graffiti artist seeks to leave his mark and gain street cred, but his public displays function as our collective voice. A subculture of the day, that is borne of the night.

2. Crickets

Apart from the occasional severe heatwave or devastating flood – the next worst thing about the Melbourne summer are cicadas. Eating away at your brain with their incessant signature ‘chirp’, the crickets bury themselves deep beneath street lawns and backyards – spawning to life when the temperature hits a cool 35. Accompanying their monosyllabic symphony is the unparalleled beauty of the setting sun, usually throwing an orange backdrop across the city sky. Many times I tried unsuccessfully to track down the army of hidden cicadas and extinguish their mind-numbing mating cries. As yet, each attempt ended shamefully – the cicada would lie low for a couple of hours – only to restart like a broken record once I made it to bed.

Crickets 1. Yours truly, 0.

3. Four seasons in one day.

Each discussion about Melbourne invariably turns to the state of the weather, and every single time – without fail – somebody lets out (mid conversation) the triumphant cliché: “We’ve had four seasons in one day.” And indeed, this overused, trampled maxim does have an element of truth to it. Mornings are cold – the embodiment of winter – with a thin later of dew coating the grass, accompanied by the frosted windows of each car that make for some interesting street art. As the dew melts and lunch trickles by, sanguine autumn leaves line the leafy streets, and a light shower from the bay coats the city in a pluvial mask. By afternoon, you must escape the oppressive heat, as the clouds give way to our neighbouring star – casting down all those who dare to enter the cool murky waters of St. Kilda beach. By dusk, the city recovers – like a newly baked loaf straight from the oven – providing a pleasant “Spring-y” end to the lesser liked three seasons, as they prepare to wreak havoc upon Melbourne’s inhabitants the next morning.

4. Public transport

Everybody in Melbourne says that hate it, but nobody can live without it. This love-hate relationship with the mass transit system has existed in Melbourne from the beginning of time, when our ancestor, John Batman rented out his horse and carriage after losing a poker game to John Faukner. Perhaps Melbourne’s single most identifiable feature is the iconic green tram that snakes its way from the CBD to the suburbs. Every train ride into the city is always an interesting experience: when the train is empty you have the freedom to rest your head against the glass and doze off to the view of abandoned warehouses, parks and family homes. When travelling at peak hour, you squeeze in between a white collar lawyer and patriotic footy supporters, huddling alone in that last gap of fresh air, whilst you listen to the revellers singing the Collingwood anthem al the way to Frankston.

5. Footy

Speaking of revellers, nothing electrifies this city more than footy. It is Melbourne’s very own, born and bred – and our proudest export to the northern states. Whilst I’m not an avid supporter, nobody can escape the media obsession with the Australian game – on and off the field. From the latest player frug scandal, to the injured list, to fantasy football. For 8 months, we all hold our breath to deliberate and argue and bet on, who will win this week. Cricket, rugby and basketball are evicted from the schoolyard and the national psyche – and one game takes over – footy. Luckily I brought one with me overseas, to continue the tradition.

6. The ‘alternative’ image

If I had to stereotype ‘The Melbournian’ – it would be the alternative, inner-city ‘trendy’, sipping latte in a gentrified bohemian café in Carlton, whilst plotting the next Youtube revolution. Besides the fact that the Melbourne electorate was the first in the country to vote in a Greenie, Melbournians have always had a tendency to aim for the ‘hip’ offbeat style – like a cross between a self-aware hippie and a struggling musician with an obscene amount of hair gel. And I like. There is something about being ‘alternative’ that encourages self-thought and innovation. There is a war raging against conformity and Melbourne is in the middle of it. Kudos.

7. The beach

As you’ve probably figured, Melbourne is not the #1 summer tourist destination of Australia, although it does have a few iconic beaches that line the bay. My personal experiences of swimming in Port Phillip range from vomit-induced cholera to radioactive poisoning, however as long as one doesn’t enter the polluted waters, Melbourne’s beaches have something for everybody (except swimmers). From the over-hyped beach huts in Brighton to something further down the Mornington Peninsula, I’m gonna miss predicted a series of wavefronts when a supertankers waltzes by on the horizon.

8. Multiculturalism and food

The last time I heard anybody brag about plain ‘ol steak and mashed potatoes was …. never. And with such a wide diversity of cultures and cuisines, why would you? My suburb – as a microcosm of Melbourne – contains an eclectic sample of Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Mexican and 7-elevens, so there’s never a boring day when experimenting with a new palate. Since there is no distinctive ‘Australian cuisine’, we seem to have adopted the entire range as are own – but then again, this might just be a consequence of globalization in our society. Nevertheless, still missing it.

9. Queen Victoria Market

There is a humble modesty in earning a living at the market. Each person inquisitively doting along is a potential customer. Each vendor guards his produce like a hawk, waiting for the next sale. One would expect in a capitalist paradigm, that so many similar stalls grouped together would drastically bring prices down in fierce competition. Not so aboard Queen Victoria. The produce might be fresh, but Big W is often cheaper. But just wandering amidst the flurry of shoppers, buskers, ethnic vendors and tourists is a serene experience. Finding parking is a separate issue. For some reason I’ve always romanticised the market vendor. Not as a career prospect, but whenever I think of them a certain image comes to mind: Arriving at the market before the break of dawn, unloading the carts in the icy cold, and putting on that ubiquitous apron, in preparation for another day of hopes and dreams, customer and hagglers, and the continuous sounds of life.

10. Family

Ye, corny I know. But this is probably the thing that I miss the most in Melbourne. Because at the end of the day, it’s just another city, with people and transport and buildings and everything that goes with normal cities. But my family and loved ones quietly wait there in subdued anticipation – as I move ever farther to a distant land. Now that’s definitely something to long for.