Twenty years ago when I was fresh out of college I came to Palestine during a wanderyear, and was excited by the spirit of the Jewish pioneers, the halutzim who were rebuilding the land. I was impressed especially by the groups who had established communal farms. So I came back a few years later and lived and worked with such a group; I wrote a novel out of this experience, called Yehuda. It was about a farm called Yagur, on the Haifa plain, and the hero was a comrade named Yehuda—a highly talented violinist who had to set aside his musical education in order to be a halutz.
Yagur was a barren collection of cabins on the stony lower slope of Mount Carmel. There were about eighty comrades, living five or six to a small room, and that summer we ate hardly anything but eggplant, which grew plentifully in the garden. We had chopped eggplant for breakfast, baked eggplant for lunch, and eggplant pancakes for supper. All the dairy produce went to market. There wasn't a full-grown tree in the yard, and we looked out over the bleak plain of Haifa; there was no other settlement.
At the close of the book there is a long rhapsodic passage by one of the minor characters, an unimpressive patched-pants shrimp. He tells the dream of the colonists. What houses they will build, what irrigation schemes they will carry out, how their children will be educated, how their cattle will increase.
When I returned to Palestine, I went to Yagur again, to see my old comrades. Everything in that rhapsody has come to pass, and many things have been multiplied tenfold.
Of the eighty original settlers, some seventy still remain on the spot. But they have been joined by many others; Yagur has become a large commune, with fourteen hundred people, five hundred of whom have attained membership in the group. And still there are not enough hands to carry out all their projects, for they are in a continual ferment of building, of growing.
The big step came some years after I left, when the commune was able to obtain funds for its first power-driven well. Until then, water for house and land had to be brought by wagon, and in barrels. With the well, irrigation on a large scale was possible, and intensive cultivation brought need for many hands.
It was comrade Blum, who recognized me as I entered the commune's little office, who told me this as we began to walk around the farm. “I recognized you right away,” he said. “I read that you had arrived in Palestine. You haven't changed much.”
Nor had he; some of the others had aged, some had settled to that permanent ageless appearance of good farm people. “Remember me?” each asked with his own grin or wink or laugh, and each added: “Well, there've been some changes here, eh? You didn't recognize the place, did you?”
I hadn't. I'd come up a lane of shade trees through a luxuriant little park where once had been the bare stony yard. In this park I'd noticed a few tents, and indeed there were high-peaked three-man tents scattered all through the colony; the pioneering days remained, coexistent with the colony's accomplishments. Imbedded among the trees, I also noticed a few ancient cabins, though the barrack in which I had lived no longer existed.
The park opened to a large white building in simple modern style, with wide verandas. This was the dining hall and center of communal life; here the comrades ate, argued, listened to lectures and concerts. Instead of the old long wooden tables and benches there were now rows of neat cafeteria-style tables, each with six chairs. The high-ceilinged cheerful hall accommodated five hundred diners at a time; on the walls were paintings by members of the commune—some quite good. Beyond the dining hall was another garden, with a large pool containing goldfish. Some kids were watching them.
On one side, then, came farm buildings—huge barns, model stables, machine shops, blocks of model chicken-runs, dairies. On the other side were the dwellings—a series of two-story white concrete buildings. In the first of these was the community office where I'd found Blum.
He was very solid, heavy-set, with a good head. We started on our tour; first he wanted to look in on the children's village. One of his little girls was having an electrical therapy treatment for a skin sore.
In the old days, the only concrete building on the place, besides the granary that we were constructing, had been the children's house. Now there were four hundred kids at Yagur, and their special domain, on the slope above the adult living section, contained nurseries, kindergartens, a school, and a hospital.
“Remember Chayim?” Blum said, as we passed a wagonload of produce driven by a red-headed lad. “There's his son, a worker already.” The grown boy had about him that air of absolute self-possession seen in no other Jews but the Palestinians. He yelled a Hebrew joke about the “American renegade.”
On the way to Yagur, on the bus, there was a young girl coming from a special school session in Jerusalem to which she had been sent. She sat near me, an absolutely classic Hebrew beauty, with dark short curls, long throat, olive skin. She was quiet and composed until a rural station where another comrade from home mounted the bus. From then on she sizzled with life, telling scornful little jokes about the city, passionately absorbing bits of news about the comrades at home, exhibiting a personality so complete, so self-assured, that I suddenly realized she was the first happy Jew I had seen in a year of travel in Europe and the United States. Even on the way to Yagur I had felt a pride in my old comrades, a wish to applaud their product with a “well done!”
Now, as I went with Blum through the children's village, he pointed out to me a few darker, more oriental youngsters, playing with the others. “Those are Syrian children, some Turkish—we brought in a whole group. You can imagine how it is there when parents will send away their babies, just to get them out of the land. We have a few older children from the concentration camps already, too. Each child is attached to a family here, so he doesn't feel different from our own children who have their parents.”
The children's houses were arranged by age-groups, each with its sleeping rooms, playrooms, washrooms. The various rooms were cunningly designed so that the nursery teacher could always have the children under her eye. The tile floors were constantly being scrubbed; the playroom was tidy. Outside, a flock of kids were making a garden, giving a personal name to each sprout they planted.
An eight-year-old blonde girl, Blum's elder child, pattered around him for a bit, and then we went to find her three-year-old sister, and walked her to the commune's medical center, which housed the electrotherapy equipment. It was in one of the older buildings, but Blum informed me “a medical center is in the plan for a new building next year,” and showed me the spot they had selected for the construction.
The center's equipment was complete, with a dental annex containing two chairs and an artificial teeth laboratory.
We went up the slope a little, and he pointed to the old vineyard, where I had once toiled. Part of it was already uprooted; two new buildings were in construction. “That's for a new school. Beyond, we'll take up some more of the vineyard for a teachers' academy that's to be built here, for teachers from all the communes.” We came to the rear boundary of Yagur's land on the slope. “Here, you see, we have laid the foundation for a house of culture. It will be nearly as large as the dining hall. If we only had more people, more hands, we could get at it this winter. We are short of people for everything, you'll see.” He pointed up the mountains. “We've been asking the government to let us have part of the mountainside, for years now. We could build, up there. But so far, the British haven't given it to us.”
We went around to the farm side of the yard, and Schaour joined us, still wearing the thin cynical smile of socialist suspicion for the outside world. While we walked through the model dairies, the full barns, while they showed me the mechanical grain elevator and the feed mixers they had installed, Schaour kept up a running fire of wry political comments on the British Labour party, and on America. The essence was: the only help we can expect is what we bring through our own strength.
They showed me the storehouses, and the mechanized community laundry, and a clothing factory with four machines on a belt-line production system making work-clothes, the plant nurseries which earned thousands of dollars a year supplying seedlings to other farms and flowers for Haifa. Blum's wife worked in the nurseries. “I started here twenty years ago. It's nice work, I like it,” she said.
A building crew was building additions to the chicken roosts. “We would add still another row,” Blum said, “but we haven't enough workers to take care of the fowl. You see, we have sixty men from the commune still away in the army. But even when they get home, we won't have enough hands. We don't rely on fanning alone, now, you understand. We have all sorts of other projects that absorb people.”
One of these is a weaving factory for blankets, rugs, tablecloths. It has its own building, with several looms, and the products are sold in Cairo and Damascus. Then, too, the comrades of Yagur have set up a can factory, with machines turning out everything from pint-size cans to five-gallon gasoline tins. “We could use fifty more people here alone, right now.”
The farm's thousand acres are planted in wheat, corn, vegetables; there are apple and pear orchards. “What happened to the banana groves?” I asked, remembering the great labor that had gone into them.
“They weren't successful, so we pulled them out. The soil is too heavy. However, now we may try again, with another variety. With our irrigation, we'll also put in citrus. We could do a lot more, use a lot more land for intensive truck gardens. The city will take all we can grow—but we haven't enough people. We need more people, everywhere.”
At Supper, more of the old-timers greeted me—Weitzman, brisk and managerial as ever, in riding boots and jacket. “Remember how you fed the threshing machine in the harvest? Well, that's all over with now. We have combines, habibi!” And Rotman, and Bialystoker, and Ben Ari, remembering the Arab riots of 1929, when Ben Ari's wife was seriously ill and we had to run her through the blockaded road to a hospital in Haifa. And Guta, an ex-schoolteacher, came and sat at our table; she was just back from Egypt, having been a nurse in the British army. “I wanted to do something in the war,” she explained.
We joked about the absence of eggplant at the meal. Supper is the light meal in the communes; we had a couple of tomatoes each, other vegetables, boiled eggs, cheese, butter, milk, yogourt, tea. It wasn't luxurious, for the comrades lead a simple if no longer a spartan life, and “lux” is a word of sly opprobrium. But everyone got as much as he wanted to eat—which wasn't always true in the old days.
Afterwards, I had to deliver a lecture. I've lectured before many kinds of audiences, including a few rather learned ones, but nowhere have I felt humbler than before the comrades of Yagur. There is no sharper and better informed group in the world, I believe, than a group in a Palestine commune. They are up on everything. They even knew the personalities and records of several American Congressmen. And of course they knew every wrinkle of European politics. There are people among them from all lands, and recent arrivals include a short, absolutely indestructible type who fought for a couple of years in a Russian partisan group, and another partisan who holds a Hero of the Soviet Union award. Of him, the comrades proudly say, “He was a Communist for twenty years, but in the end he said he realized the Jews had to have their own homeland, and so he became a Zionist, and came here.”
There was a guest room in one of the new buildings. In these houses, each couple lives in one room: the rooms are not large; they generally are well but simply furnished, with a bed, desk, a few chairs, and pictures. The favorite pictures are Van Gogh reproductions; his raw-colored landscapes are in perfect key with the Palestinian scene.
The comrades' dwellings have a special character, a kind of proud simplicity that is quite distinct from austerity, though the buildings, architecturally, suggest monastery buildings, with their rows of doors.
Though there is in the high social-moral character of the halutzim a spiritual kinship echoing the religious idealism, the communism of the early Christian sects, re-embodying a kind of noble ethos that has hung waiting in the very air of Palestine, the similarity goes no further. The modern halutz overflows with outgoing energy, with participation in life rather than withdrawal.
I remember, twenty years ago, remarking to one of the comrades as we walked across the fields that a commune, being an enclosed entity, was an ideal place to study life. He turned angrily on my youthful remark. “Here, we don't study life. We live it.”
We had a big breakfast—smoked fish, eggs, coffee, etc., and then I loafed around. After a while, one of the women called to me from the dairy. When I got back to America, she wanted me to look up her sister in Brooklyn. “I think perhaps she and her husband are rich. They write to me, and on their letters is printed something about furs. Anyway, I have been telling them for a long time to come and visit us. So you, too, tell them to come.”
She looked out over the fields, the broad fields across the river Kishon, and her gaze circled back to the commune, the rows of buildings, the schools, the engine house, the model stables and barns. “Perhaps they are rich in Brooklyn,” she said, “but I want them to come here, and see our riches.”
Naturally, before I left, I asked for the hero of my early novel—Yehuda. He was not there. For many years he had been taken off farmwork, and assigned to cultural activities; he had written and arranged music for festivals in all the communes in Palestine; he had been working to develop native themes, new themes, in the Hebrew tradition. “Now we have sent him to the conservatory in Jerusalem for a few years,” the comrades said. “Our Yehuda is studying composition in Jerusalem for us.”
Iran into Yehuda on a stairway in Jerusalem. I was going up to a reception for foreign journalists being given by Moshe Shertok, the political spokesman of the Jewish Agency. Yehuda was wearing a mackinaw and was rushing down the stairs, with his head down, in the characteristic manner I remember of old. He was hurrying off to avoid meeting a lot of people; I had quite forgotten that the halutz, Yehuda, was the brother of Moshe Shertok.
All around Palestine, I had heard sung a most beautiful melody, as translucent as the sight of Lake Kinnereth itself; it was a melody to the words of the late poetess Rachel Blaustein, and it was the song of the lake. Yehuda had written it; and as we were about to make a film in Palestine, I spoke to him of the possibility of using this song in the film and of his perhaps composing music for us.
“I am only learning. I am only beginning at last,” he said. Naturally, we could use his songs if they were fitting, but just now he was composing the festival for the Passover at Yagur. Surely I would come there to the Passover? He was going to conduct the orchestra and the choir. I had spent the previous Passover in Frankfort-on-the-Main, among GI's who were furtively bringing matzoth to the few surviving Jews of the community—furtively, because this constituted “fraternization.”
I went to Yagur and witnessed a new thing in Judaism. But it was also a very old thing, and this was explained to me by comrade Eisen, who was small and tough as the reddish stone of the hill, and who was chairman of the cultural committee.
In the kibbutzim, Eisen explained, there was growing up a whole new way of celebrating religious festivals. For the Palestinians of our time recognize that the sources of the holy days are in nature festivals of the dim, distant past; they are in the rituals of planting and of harvest; they are tinged with sacrifice for rain; they are kin to the nature festivals of other peoples; but they are ours, molded by the special ways of our thinking and the special events of our history; and now that we have returned to the land which is the source of much of our ritual, they wish to reintegrate the ritual by relating it to this source, and renewing it in the very spirit of its origin.
Thus, the rituals that were formed and transformed in the synagogues of exile are here being transformed again: they are being put back to the earth, and their original meaning is being given more open expression. The Passover Seder receives again some of the elements of the rites of spring, just as the festivals of autumn become more purely harvest festivals, with presentations of fruit, and dances in the field.
It was not only at Yagur that the Seder was being observed in a fashion somewhat unique and born of the place, as I was to see. In the kibbutz of Ramat Johanan, across the Haifa plain—now drained, cleared of malaria, and completely returned to productivity since my early days in Yagur—in Ramat Johanan, the Seder was being celebrated outdoors, with ceremonial dances, and music by the shepherd-composer of that community, Mattatiahu. And in every settlement in Palestine, a great deal of thought and inventiveness had gone into the task of finding their particular interpretation for this most significant of our feasts.
Here, at Yagur, I found that the Seder was to be held within the great dining-hall. Now, though it was the most spacious dining-hall in all Palestine, it was nevertheless necessary in daily life for the inhabitants of Yagur to eat in turns because they could more than fill their hall, twice over. Yet, on this occasion, they were to feast all at one time, and to include the many guests who had come to Yagur's renowned Passover.
They had taken out the tables and constructed long narrow board tables, with benches, more than doubling capacity.
But then I had wondered—how could fifteen hundred people celebrate, in unison, a service that required the participation of each, and which was usually an intimate family festival? How would the spirit of the Seder be preserved?
They had solved it by providing a central platform, upon which the Hagada was to be recited, sung, and danced by selected members of the commune to the accompaniment of their orchestra. The entire service had been composed by Yehuda and was being conducted by him—not as a patriarch conducting a Seder, but rather in the manner of an orchestral leader, in the archaic sense, symbolizing in his person the unity of the chorus with the audience-participants.
Meanwhile, on the long tables, the traditional dishes of the Passover services were laid out beforehand, the bitter herbs and the egg dishes, the matzoth, and the meat.
The service began with a processional of children, girls, and young men, bringing offerings of grain to the stage. There was a dance symbolic of planting and of harvest.
Then they ranged themselves in choral groups, like a great family with members of all ages. And the Hagada was performed. The account of the Exodus was given sometimes through a single line sung in the voice of a child, sometimes in a few lines of recitation by an older man, sometimes in a short chorus sung by part of the group, or by the entire group. The four questions were sung by various children, and the responses recited by various elders. There were several brief dance movements, in each a row of maidens and a row of youth dancing with gravity. In the music, one could hear echoes of the traditional synagogue chants, and of the singsong of prayer, and of the robust halutz music of this era.
It was as comrade Eisen had promised, a return and a renewal. And I realized that life in Palestine itself had solved more beautifully than any writer could have imagined the dilemma that I had set in my early story of Yehuda, the conflict between his life as an artist and his life as a pioneer. And the Passover in which I took part was the proof of a great deal that has been claimed for Palestine. Here and nowhere else the continuation of the folk-form was taking shape according to the very life of the community.
I Next saw Yagur just after it had been invaded by the British army and “immense stores of arms” were discovered there. I accompanied the first party of newspapermen who were led there to witness the cunning and diabolical ways in which the Jews had secreted their weapons.
Against the gate, the comrades had jammed their trucks, tractors, and farm implements, so that there was an insurpassable barricade. But the British tanks had gone through the fence, off to one side, and entered the yard through the little park.
I had come in great apprehension, for there were reports in Jerusalem that the great dining-hall had been razed and that all Yagur was in ruins, the vineyard trampled, and the cattle destroyed. But with relief I saw the dining-hall erect and intact, except that all the windows were smashed, and all the chairs and tables were piled in the yard.
An army guide conducted us on our tour. In the dining-hall, there were about thirty women, looking haggard and tired, excitedly arguing with a British officer over the question of pilferage. The spokeswoman was Dvora, an elderly comrade whom I knew. Almost hysterically, she was repeating the charges that the soldiers in their searches had taken all the personal belongings, watches, cameras, momentos, even the clothes from every room in the colony.
The officer insisted that his men had been severely warned against pilfering, and that most of the belongings would be found in some dump-heaps where they had been deposited “after examination.”
Soldiers with regulation army mine-detectors were still combing the yard with the careful step characteristic of men carrying this device. The guide assured us that the detectors were the latest model, highly sensitive, and would “pick up a nail ten feet down.” Yagur's sewer-pipes lay dug up and bare, across the yard.
Now the guide showed us the cunning and diabolical trick of the Jews. “Would you imagine,” he said, “hiding a cache of arms under the cradles of their kids?”
We went into the model children's house that I had visited only a few months ago with Blum and his little daughter. On the stair-landing over which we had passed on that day, the British mine-detector had made its find. A two-foot square of tile and cement had been lifted, carefully enough, out of the landing, and there in a metal container the searchers had found a dozen rifles.
This was the crime repeated in several buildings in the colony, in the dining-hall, in the water tower, in the granary, and in the outpost ditches.
Each time, the guard begged us to observe and marvel at the ingenuity with which the weapons had been concealed. Each time, he asked, like a man seeking justification, whether this was not indeed fiendish.
And I saw headlines already forming in the minds of my fellow-reporters, mostly from British journals, headlines about “vast Jewish arms caches.”
And I saw also how it had been during the past years, when such as Benari and Blum and Eisen and Yehuda were cementing together these buildings, and had carefully put away the few dozen rifles in the children's house that they might be able to make a last-stand defense of the children in case the colony were attacked by Arab bands; and I saw them putting a few dozen rifles in the dining-hall, the final central bastion of defense for the colony; I saw them placing hand grenades at strategic points around the outer limits of the yard, their first line of defense.
I remembered 1929, when there had been only a few revolvers for the defense of the entire colony, during the period of the riots, and how we had moved all the women and children into the new concrete granary, and how we had taken our defense posts with pitchforks and pieces of pipe as weapons. Fortunately, the attack had not materialized; there had only been sporadic shooting from the next Arab village, firing at any Jewish vehicles that attempted the run into Haifa.
But, naturally, one could not expect that the discovery of the “arms cache” would be presented in that light. For the British had found a battery of mortars, too—they had hauled them out of their underground storage place, all bright and shining and well-cared for, enough mortars to scare off an attacking force of several hundred Arabs, scarcely enough to break up a small column of armored cars. But this was the final proof; these were the weapons for “mechanized warfare” against the British army.
It was true, on the other hand, that the invaders had done their digging carefully; they had not blown up any buildings, and they had torn up only such portions of floors as were necessary to their task; they had not killed any cattle; and they had ruined only a small part of the vineyard, where their tanks had had to maneuver.
All of Yagur's men and boys and many of the women had been arrested. Soldiers were camped in the living-quarters. I heard one remark, “These people had a paradise here.”
When our film was completed, and I was about to leave Palestine, I stopped again in Yagur. It was about half a year after the invasion. The men had returned; the last few had been released from detention only that week. Two of the leaders were under indictment as being responsible for the possession of the stores of arms.
All traces of the search had been obliterated; the windows were replaced in the dining-hall, the floors had everywhere been made intact, and the sewer system had been put together again in the ground.
Eisen and Bialystoker and Blum sat with me at supper. They told me how comrades from neighboring settlements and workers from the Nesher cement plant had come as soon as the soldiers pulled out, and had donated several days of work to cleaning and restoring Yagur.
But they estimated that the event had cost the colony upwards of $120,000. The greatest loss had been in the man-days of labor of all those who had been held in custody. Then there had been a direct loss of many thousands of dollars through pilferage and looting by the soldiers. Beyond this, there had been losses in crops and in produce; the yield from the cattle had been far below normal for several months, and the harvest had suffered severely.
“But we are home again,” they said. “We are working.” And they wanted me to see where they had completed the first building for the teacher's seminary they had spoken of at my earlier visit, nearly a year ago.
“Where will you be for this coming Passover?” they said. “Come to us.”