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Returning to an adopted homeland

On the 70th birthday of his old kibbutz, an American celebrates the ties that bind

Email|Print| Text size + By Bill Strubbe
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2007

IBBUTZ EIN HASHOFET - I always know I'm back in my adopted second home by the familiar potpourri of citrus blossoms, bus fumes, and fried falafel wafting on the Mediterranean breeze. It always seems like only yesterday that one jet-lagged, Catholic-raised, bell-bottomed hippie American kid unknowingly checked into a grungy hookers' hotel in Tel Aviv and ended up living on a kibbutz for four years.

It was 1975 and the Yom Kippur War of two years earlier lingered in collective agony, and Golda Meir, though recently deposed, held sway. Indelible still is the thrill of sitting in the kibbutz dining hall 30 feet away as the legendary matriarch spoke about her life.

Three years have elapsed since my last visit, but on the occasion of the kibbutz's 70th anniversary, as I drive north to Ein Hashofet, about 12 miles south of Haifa, I quickly pick up where I left off. I reflexively revert to aggressive Israeli driving tactics, sunflower seed husks expertly split between tooth and tongue litter the rental car, and my rusty Hebrew is starting to rev up.

At the kibbutz I catch up with adopted family and friends, get acquainted with new grandchildren at the swimming pool, and bicycle through the impressive gardens (visitors often ask how the kibbutz was able to locate in a park; 70 years ago it was bare dirt and stone). I survey the new residential neighborhood springing up, the two-story houses far outshining the simple one room I once lived in.

The three small factories on the kibbutz's perimeter have expanded, and my kibbutz father, Danny Dekel, rails against the incursion of the electrical factory into his beloved avocado orchards. But light industry long ago supplanted agricultural products like apples, pecans, chickens, and dairy cows as the main source of income and indeed has made prosperous this community of 750 people.

In the last two decades, most of Israel's 270 or so kibbutzim have succumbed to capitalist privatization, and while ardent socialists like Dekel bemoan the diminished collective - children no longer sleep in communal children's homes; a computer in the dining room registers food taken rather than the formerly free, unlimited quantities - here at Ein Hashofet, whether you teach children, repair tractors, crunch numbers, or milk cows, everyone still receives the same salary and benefits. That irks some members, who will eventually pack up and head for Tel Aviv or make a go of it overseas.

The outflow of the post-army young and those seeking a more private life has always been an issue, but in recent years it is counterbalanced by a resurgence of interest in kibbutzim shown by beleaguered, stressed-out city folks seeking a simpler, higher-quality life. Many kibbutzim now have the luxury of choosing the crème de la crème from waiting lists of aspiring kibbutznik wannabes.

An increasing number of people combine the best of both worlds: They live on the kibbutz but work outside, still putting their incomes into the common pot. My friend Amatzia Dayan (nephew of Moshe Dayan) has been a sought-after tour guide for 20 years, and he's agreed to take me out for a day trip. Dayan greets me with a big smile from behind his white beard and we set out for Zippori, an ancient city north of Nazareth, where dozens of gorgeous mosaic floors have been unearthed, one in a Roman-era villa depicting Greek legends and another commemorating the festival of a record-breaking Nile flood season.

Later we drive to Tel Megiddo, where 32 years ago I sat reading chapters from James Michener's "The Source," the bestseller that made the hillock famous. With a panoramic view of the Jezreel Valley, this archeological mound, created from the ruins of 20 civilizations, presided over a strategic caravan crossroad - now an unrecognizable bustling intersection - that connected the desert to the sea. An hourlong tour through King Solomon's gates and the horse stables, grain storage cistern, rubble of homes, and the fantastic engineering feat of the tunnel to the spring (the "Source" of the book's title) and I was transported back in time.

Besides to see friends, a trip to Israel without visiting Jerusalem would be, well, like going to Paris and skipping the Louvre. As I look down from my favorite perch above the Damascus Gate, the sight of the stream of humanity beneath me is something I never tire of: bedraggled Abyssinian clerics, Hasidic Jews averting their eyes from Scandinavians in skimpy shorts, wizened women in embroidered Palestinian dresses peddling sabra fruits, a bevy of nuns, and camera-toting tourists from the world over.

The Old City's stone ramparts and towers are steeped in history and legend. Each of the eight gates breaching the massive walls bears Muslim, Hebrew, and English names reflecting the saga of the city, and indeed, of Western civilization. At Damascus Gate (visitors can also enter at Jaffa or St. Stephen's gates), I pay the $3 fee, climb the steps, and spend hours circumnavigating the fortifications with fantastic views both inside and outside the city walls.

Throughout the Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish quarters, every bend in the shadowed lanes overwhelms the senses: fresh-baked pita bread, heaps of aromatic spices, rhythmic voices of yeshiva pupils intermingled with the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. Signs lead to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the hallowed Western Wall, and the golden Dome of the Rock, Islam's third holiest site.

Not to diminish the severity of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, and the fact that security issues are ever present, but in Jerusalem, and in Israel in general, most of the time you would never know anything was awry. Awareness and caution are always advised, but in the end life - and tourism - simply go on.

In the New City, sites I am sure not to miss are the Knesset, Israel's Parliament; the famous Chagall tapestries, a feast for the eyes and the soul; and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, which gives witness to Israel's painful foundations and the subsequent displacement of many Palestinians. At the Holy Land Hotel, the model of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus has always helped me grasp the layout of the ever-changing city walls over the millennia.

Back at the kibbutz, preparations for the big anniversary event steam ahead. The kitchen prepares a festive dinner for 1,400 people, various photo and art exhibitions are hung, a stage goes up overlooking the valley, and rehearsals are in full swing. My contribution is painting a huge water tank in front of the dairy farm with 40 giant tropical fish to make it look like an aquarium. One thing Ein Hashofet has retained is its commitment to cultural and artistic endeavors encouraging music, singing, dance, and theater. The multimedia grand finale of song, skits, and video clips on huge screens, with the full moon rising center stage (they planned it that way), followed by food and folk dancing, does not fail to impress. Touchingly, Dekel is even honored with an award for being the most veteran agricultural worker - over 40 years.

After the festivities have subsided, I need a bit of a break from all this communal hoopla and recruit my friend Jonathan Gross to take off with me for a couple days to the Golan Heights, where I once helped plant gardens at a new kibbutz. One might wonder why anyone would bother with this seemingly desolate plateau, a parched expanse strewn with basalt that nearly resembles the face of the moon. But when gazing down upon the vulnerable communities in the Hula Valley 2,000 feet below that were once threatened by Syria looming above them, it's easy to understand Israel's reluctance to hand back this disputed high ground.

The Golan has been inhabited for thousands of years. Paleolithic remains were unearthed in the north, and Bronze Age dolmen stones, still casting their elongated shadows at sunset, have witnessed the rise and fall of the Persians, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, Turks, French, and Syrians. The Golan is now home to about 20,000 Israelis and 25,000 Druze Arabs, an 11th-century Islamic offshoot, their secretive faith including a belief in reincarnation.

Ignoring the wisdom regarding traipsing about in the midday sun, we set out on the path leading to the ruins of the city of Gamla ("camel" in Hebrew). Indeed, the spur-like promontory on which Gamla was built resembles a dromedary's hump. In 66 AD, the Jewish inhabitants revolted against the loathed Romans and constructed a wall that kept the armies of King Agrippa II at bay for eight months. When the walls were finally breached, a ferocious battle ensued, the 9,000 residents retreated to the rocky summit and, rather than surrender, flung themselves into the abyss. Gamla fell into oblivion until rediscovered in 1968, when the oldest synagogue in Israel was uncovered there.

Later I look forward to visiting one of my favorite places, the Hexagon Pools, so named from geometric pillars formed by the cooling basalt. The road down is part of an original, intact Roman road, one of several that traversed the area. Halfway down the trail my anticipation rises at the sound of waterfalls. At the bottom, I strip down to underpants and plunge into the chilly water. From the dry hills above one would hardly know such a lush place as this exists.

We head south on the Golan and at a road junction a minaret rises above the walls of a battered mosque, while across the way a rusted car perches jauntily atop a blasted building. As Gross points out where his platoon fought in the Yom Kippur War, I recall that somewhere in the vicinity my kibbutz mother's brother was killed in a tank battle.

Most visitors have heard about the famous Dead Sea spas, but few know of the spas in the north. Nestled in the Yarmuk Valley on the Jordanian border, Hammat Gader once served as a retreat for Syrian military officers. As we pass down its palm-lined road through well-kept gardens, it's evident that Hammat Gader has been radically upgraded since a group of friends and I sneaked under the barbed wire into the bullet-riddled ruins in 1976. Now with a small zoo, crocodile ponds, bird show, water slide, Roman ruins, and numerous pools, baths, and powerful water jets, there is enough here to keep us busy for most of a day.

Returning home, we stop for a brief visit to the Arbel Cliffs, with a lovely view of the Golan rising above the Sea of Galilee. Not wanting to miss Rosh Hashana, we return to the kibbutz in time to join the members gathered at the orchard's edge as the sun sets over the Mediterranean. A group of children sing, as well as a quartet of men, followed by recitations of wishes for the Jewish New Year. Foremost are hopes for improved relations with Middle East neighbors and prayers for peace.

Standing among my adopted extended family, I get teary-eyed knowing that for them the daily headlines are a painful reality with loved ones lost. I also feel a deep joy that the kibbutz, and Israel, for better or for worse, have an abiding place in my heart.

Bill Strubbe, a freelance writer in Oakland, Calif., can be reached at bsbillbs@yahoo.com.

If You Go

When to go

Unless you like it hot, humid, and teeming with travelers, avoid Israel in June, July, and August. September through November is still warm and pleasant, and in late winter through May the verdant landscape is bursting with spectacular wildflowers.

Where to stay

Hof Ginosar Hotel
Kibbutz Ginosar (North shore, Sea of Galilee)
011-972-4-670-0300
ginnocom.co.il
Near the lake, with rooms that are simple but pleasant. Double $165-$210, includes breakfast and dinner buffet.

Mitzpe Hayamin
Midway on road between Rosh Pinna and Zefat
011-972-4-699-4555
mizpe-hayamim.com
Relais & Châteaux hotel and spa, with a view of the Sea of Galilee and the Hula Valley. Double $275-$500, includes breakfast and dinner.

The King David Hotel
23 King David St., Jerusalem
011-972-2-520-2552
danhotels.com
Israel's most famous and luxurious hotel with a decidedly "old world" feel. Rooms $700-$6,000 (Royal Suite).

Jerusalem International YMCA
26 King David St.
011-972-2-569-2692
jerusalemymca.org
Clean, simple, yet more than adequate. Across the street from the King David but a fraction of the cost. Double $110, includes breakfast.

Where to eat

Eucalyptus
7 Horkenos St., Jerusalem
011-972-2-624-4331
At this Jerusalem favorite, begin with sorrel soup, followed by chicken stuffed with figs and tamarind, then tahini-apricot dessert. Chef Moshe Basson also teaches cooking classes and herb foraging classes in the city's hills. Dinner $15-$20.

The Armenian Tavern
79 Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road, Jerusalem
011-972-2-627-3854
Located in a church decorated with rustic wooden tables, panels of hand-painted tiles, and indoor fountain. Serves hearty soups, salads, and meats, seasoned with Armenian herbs. On Friday nights, special traditional dishes from neighboring family's kitchens are brought in for a homestyle feast, $6-$15.

Auberge Shulamit
David Shuv Steet on the road between Rosh Pina and Zefat
011-972-4-693-1485
shulamit.com
One of Israel's finer dining experiences - with a breathtaking view - specializing in smoked meats and fish. Try the chestnut soup and goose livers with wild berry sauce. Dinners $25 up.

What to do

Amatzia Dayan
011-972-4-903-5371;fax 011-972-4-903-5403
amdayan.com
25 years experience as a guide, speaks excellent English. Creates personalized tours for individuals, families, small groups. Rates from $375 per day.

Hammat Gader
At the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, 13 miles from Tiberias.
011-972-4-665-9999
hamat-gader.com
Day spa or overnight, with hot springs, pools, crocodile farm, bird show, elegant ruins.

The Tower of David Museum
Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem
011-972-2-626-5333
towerofdavid.org.il
Sunday, Thursday, Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday and holidays till 2. Admission $7.

Information

Israeli Ministry of Tourism
goisrael.com
Extensive information about sites and attractions.

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