Working in the dates was one of the best volunteer jobs, and considered a respectable job amongst the members. It was demanding in terms of physical attributes and hours worked, plus it required operation of heavy machinery and a comfort of heights. Our net work in the dates comprised the second largest profit making entity on kibbutz, making it an important and somewhat central entity of the kibbutz work scene. It soon became an integral part of stay here, both in terms of field work and personal growth.
I started to learn a lot in the dates. I was introduced to a life in agriculture. Waking up between 5:15 and 5:45 and working until three or four in the afternoon six days a week, really gave me a respect for the profession. I was the only volunteer in the dates, the remaining workers were either kibbutznics or pre-IDF kids. This gave me valuable contact with some members, and was where I learned and theorized most about life on Arava. I realized that I spent 30% of my conscious reality thirty feet in the air, amongst the trees picking dates, and it was there that I really started putting one and two together about life on this kibbutz.back to top
The land where stood the trees of the Matah was once a barren expanse of sand dunes. With financial assistance from the Jewish National Fund, bulldozers came to Kibbutz Arava and bulldozed land just south of the kibbutz. In the Spring of 1975, the first date trees were planted in what is now the Northern end of the orchard. These trees being the oldest, today reached a height of over 36 feet. In several more years, they may be too tall to harvest, but for now, they were producing some of the finest dates in Israel.
Currently, the Matah contained 120 acres, and boasted 2,800 date palms. There were two varieties of dates growing in the orchard. My favorite were the plump, moist medjool dates. The second variety of dates were the smalller, more aromatic deglet noor dates.
Kibbutz Arava, as most other kibbutzim in the region, decided to grow dates because it was a profitable venture. Date growing was a great business because many people loved to eat dates. The Israeli market could absorb more dates that produced, so date growing remained quite promising for the kibbutz. In addition to selling in Israel, all the date growing kibbutzim, together, marketed their dates abroad, selling them in England, France, Spain, Austrailia and even in the United States.
Israel’s main competitor for selling dates is California. The Californian date market has been more affected in the last five years by the Israeli market than the inverse. This is because Israel has two advantages over California in selling dates internationally.
A comparison between Israeli date production and California date farms reveals several interesting contrasts that highlight labor dynamics on kibbutz. On kibbutz, labor was scarce and thus expensive. The kibbutz members, themselves, were the main labor force out in the fields picking dates. The latest in modern technology was implemented to ensure that the greatest amount of dates could be picked in the least amount of time. Large tractors with tape decks and hydraulic tools were the norm in Israeli date picking. In California, where farmers relied on migrant workers to pick dates, less modern tactics were used. Readily available cheap labor in California allowed farmers to compromise money on technological advances which increased productivity. Instead of tractors, ladders were used to reach the dates which were then harvested with machetes. This more primitive way of harvesting dates took more time, but as labor was cheap and plentiful, productivity was not as important as it was in Israel. If it were Americans picking California dates, I bet that they, too, would enjoy the high-tech enmities that Israeli farmers use.
Another technological advance that kibbutz used to save money was aerial pollination. It was quite simple in theory. An airplane flew over the date trees and dumped pollen all over the place. In two hours time, the whole orchard was pollinated and ready to grow next years dates. More traditional methods of date pollination involved blowing pollen onto each bunch of dates using an airgun. This method was extremely precise, but excruciatingly slow. If one considered the 2,800 trees of Kibbutz Arava’s date orchard and multiplied that times 15 bunches per tree, one would come up with a figure of around 42,000 bunches of dates that needed attention. This equated to at least one months work for ten people. The rapidity of aerial spraying saved the kibbutz an immense amount of time and labor costs.
My days of picking dates began to progress. As I lay down one night, I thought about my kibbutz experiences. Life in the dates was a challenge. It was hard work, and I was working longer hours than most of the other volunteers. This was O.K., though. Many of the other volunteers were working in the date packing house, performing the most menial and boring job on kibbutz. They were sorting dates by size and packing them in boxes for exporting. How lousy! Life expectancy in the date packing house was about three weeks, and I had seen many a volunteer come and then leave in complete frustration and disgust about their kibbutz experience. I was happy that I was working in the dates, because time flew by, and I was able to talk with people and theorize about kibbutz life. As I lay, my eyes closed, images of dates passed through my mind. I couldn't stop thinking about dates. Dates, dates everywhere dates. No more dates! Dates, dates, dates, dates... .
Da-da-da-dat... da-da-da-dat. I stumble out of bed and accidentally knock this annoying alarm clock to the floor while trying to find the snooze button.
My eyes focus. 5:07. I have eight minutes to get to work. My roommate turns over in his bed as I stumble to find my work clothes. They are in a pile outside my front door. I look at my shirt, torn and dusty from the last two weeks of work. For some reason, I have not yet motivated to take my work clothes to the laundry and check out a new pair of work clothes, but this is O.K. As I run out the door, I think to myself, “I'll get clean clothes later today, if I can remember.”
The Big Dipper is just setting in the West, and I glimpse over to the east into Jordan, where a hint of the new day’s sun is coloring the sky. The mountains are turning a most beautiful purple.
I hastily enter into the dining room, where several groups are sitting. There is the irrigation crew, enjoying the last of their coffee. Then I spot someone in my crew.
“Is Josh here yet?” I ask, wondering if my supervisor has shown up. The response is a nod yes. I quickly pour myself I cup of hot tea and let it steep a minute. I then add cold water and gulp. The cup is empty in thirty seconds, and I am out the door.
I walk behind the dining room and find Josh. He is filling our water coolers for the day’s H2O supply. The cold water from the filtered water system spills to the already warm pavement when it overflows from one of the coolers.
“It’s gonna be a killer today!” Says Roye, one the workers. 110º F for the last week and I don't think I can bare another day of that heat. I give thanks that we work in the shade of date palms, otherwise, I would switch jobs.
We load up into the Peugeot crew/utility vehicle and head down the road toward the Matah. Today there are nine of us. Four members, one visitor, three pre-army kids, and myself, the lonesome volunteer. The truck heaves and billows, dipping and rolling on these rotten springs, like a boat, as we head off the highway onto a dirt road; the towering date trees engulf our little vehicle, shading it
Leah, our supervisor in the date orchard, wants to have a quick meeting with all of us this morning to discuss the harvest tactics over the next several weeks. However, one slight problem—the whole conversation is in Hebrew. Leah is talking and asking questions, people are responding and suggesting ideas, occasional laughter follows what seems to be a joke. This is all that I can make out with my limited Hebrew and judging people’s facial expressions. Racheal whispers pertinent translations in my ear as the conversation continues.
We are switching to stage two of the harvest. Now we are going to pick most of the dates off of the trees, as opposed to the selective harvesting which we had been doing for the previous few weeks. The selective harvest entails one person holding a half full box of dates while the other person pours a limited amount of ripe dates into the already heavy box. It is strenuous work as you are constantly lugging boxes of dates around. In this next stage, we will simply cut off whole bunches of dates and put them in huge cartons on either side of the tractor. When these side cartons are full, we will lower the machine and a forklift will take it off and replace it with an empty. Cool, I thought, this sounds easy.
Was I wrong. My eyes focus on Josh. Josh is holding this massive claw like thing in the air—the mazmara hydrolit (a.k.a. the hydraulic clippers). I was just getting used to the endless machine guns in Israel and now someone busts these things out. A nervous chill rises in my spine. I mean these things look like they can take an arm off someone in a second. Josh explains that these clippers are going to be used for the rest of the harvest.
“We are going to chop off entire bunches of dates from the trees.” He makes a swooping motion as sort of an example and hands this heavy, greasy piece of industry to Michael, who smiles. I just hope that I'm the one not working near the cutting end, catching the dates as they fall, and avoiding those claws of death.
We split up in teams, as we usually do. I am with Michael for the first quarter. Darn, I thought. Michael really likes to move fast and he gets stressed out over dropping even one date. But time does fly because he sure has a lot of interesting things to talk about.
We head toward tractor number 2. I check the oil, hydraulic fuel, gasoline, and the radiator water level. Michael walks around the machine looking for any punctured tractor tires. Anyone who has ever worked with date palms knows that each leaf, or palm frawn, has a long, woody stem with hundreds of long, narrow leaflets growing from it. These leaflets are thorns before they mature, and they are sharp. Date thorns can puncture tractor tires in no time. But to top it off, there is a bit of poisonous anesthesia on the tips of the thorn, so when you get pricked you don't even feel it. Just a stream of blood rushes down your arm and then it’s too late. The poison enters your body. Within an hour, your nearest joint to the puncture becomes unmovable, temporarily paralyzed for the next day or so. One time, last year, Leah got pricked so deeply in the back that she couldn't work for two weeks!
Michael starts up the machine and drives to the first tree. Tractor driving has got to be the funest thing about the whole job. I mean you are in charge of this massive machine which could take out the entire grove if you desired; and there is this little lever which raises the platform that we are on, thrusting us into the tree tops. In addition, there is a loud tape and radio, which works, but Michael hates listening to it above the racket of the purring engine, which has to always stay on to power the hydraulic clippers. I am learning to operate the tractors, but today, since we are rushing, Michael will be the driver, as his years of experience lead to a smooth and quick assent to the dates.
We rise up into the trees. I look about. Tractor 1 is already in the trees and number 3 is still grounded. Hmm, must need more gas. I wished that our tractor needed more gas as Michael hands me the death clippers. Since Michael knows considerably more about dates than I, he will pick which date bunches are ready to be snipped and I will cut. With the simple pull of the trigger, I cut through the thick stem connecting the dates to the trees. Michael catches the bunches of dates and hurls them into cartons on the side of the tractor. It goes something like this:
“This one. Hurry!” Clip.
“Now behind me...Are you there?” Clip.
“To my left!” Clip.
“Above me!” Clip.
“Behi——WAIT WAIT!” he shrieks. “I'm not there yet...O.K.” Clip.
We half fill up the large carton on the left side of the tractor with six bunches of dates. Michael rushes to the other side of the tractor, jumping over my entanglement of tubing which connects the clippers to the tractor. The procession continues.
“Hurry, Brian! Down the line. Where are YOU!?”
But it’s too late. I am tangled in a mess of oily tubing—I am stuck. I soon straighten up the mess and we finish the tree.
“Nine minutes flat. Not bad,” smiles Michael looking at his watch.
“I want to finish this pass by lunch.” My eyes squint, peering down the two rows of trees we are in between. I'm wondering how we can possibly harvest 18 trees in the next two hours?
It takes about eight minutes to harvest a tree and six minutes to drive to the next tree. We are moving fast. Every so often Michael instigates a break. So we take five and enjoy one of Israel’s very finest, the tender succulence of a freshly picked golden brown, mapley medjool date. What strikes me as funny is that over the whole roar of things, and amongst his extreme haste, Michael will sometimes casually take off for twenty minutes at a time to discuss date picking theory with Josh, who is driving around in the Peugeot, fixing broken water lines and making sure everyone is doing O.K. Michael just runs off and leaves me with nothing to do but catch the donkeys who roam around aimlessly eating weeds and shrubs on the date orchard floor. I think it is quite funny.
Soon a rhythm begins to take place—
“Above me.” Clip.
I am working with Michael quite smoothly. Now would be a good time to informally interview Michael, when he is at his best, picking the dates of Kibbutz Arava. I initiate the conversation;
“Hey Michael, do you feel that the kibbutz of Israel offers the world an alternative to global capitalism?” Michael responds in his subtle New York accent;
“Behind me.” Clip. “Are you kidding? Absolutely not. These days, most people are too brainwashed to want to live this way.
“Other side.” Clip. He continues;
“What the kibbutz can do is show a personalized example of an alternative community that exists on a small scale.”
I nod agreeingly.
“You see, Brian, the Israeli government and the public both accept, and are often in support of the kibbutz movement. It is as much a part of our country as Jerusalem. Down the line.” Clip. He continues;
“The kibbutz produces 70 — 80% of the industry consumed in Israel. Also, a large portion of Knesset electorates (the Israeli parliament), army officials, and ministry members are kibbutznics. Left.” Clip.
“So you see, the kibbutz is quite tied into Israel’s economy and government...” I space out for a minute...
“BRIAN!—— You’re dropping a shitload of dates!” My eyes focus on a stream of perfect dates falling to the ground and then bouncing all over the place. Woops. I gulp down ½ litter of water and try to focus. Michael continues.
“Brian, look at that highway over there.” Michael glances to the North where there is a patchy two lane road.
“That is the main connector from the North to the South. All the roads in Israel are like that. We dream of a day when we could have a divided highway. Yet in America, many freeways are divided with five lanes on each side. And there are a great many potholes; construction is needed badly. But all anyone can do is bitch about whose fault it is, and not simply just fix the damn roads. America is on its decline. Everyone’s mind is made up and no one is willing to compromise anymore. This is why the kibbutz would not work in America.” Clip. Clip.
Michael positions the tractor in the next tree. “Ready, go!” Clip, clip.
Michael is really into our conversation and continues. “One large area in Western science is psychology. Psychology is the study of the ME. The study of what is wrong with me, and how can I fix this. These days so many people feel that there is something wrong with them—Down the line.” Clip.
“Psychology promotes healing, but all to often, Americans go out and buy something to make them feel better. There is the media which enforces this trend of the ME. Commercials blasting all day “If you don't own this you’re not good enough, there’s something wrong with you. Buy, buy, buy.” Then, there is the American suburbia phenomenon, where many people just go and leave the community and all the troubles it currently has. These people buy their home in suburbia where they can hide, and enjoy their newly bought items, temporarily alleviating their “what is wrong with me?” question. And finally, there is mobilization. Everyone has cars, enabling people to get to their psychologist, the department store, and their house out in suburbia merely by stomping on a pedal and steering. Cars help to enforce the American dream, that of consumption. Above me.” Clip.
“So you see, these things don't combine well in a community oriented, somewhat communal society, like the kibbutz. People can't have all of these distractions. There just isn't enough money or time. However, what people can have here is a peace of mind, knowing that the work they do directly supports them, their family, and the community. We have the assurance here that all of our needs, not necessarily our wants, are taken care of. Such needs are housing, work, food, health care, education, and community activities. It’s funny, but many Americans are so caught up in their agendas they don't even have these basic essentials.” Clip. Clip.back to top
Michael looks at his watch and yells out, “Breakfast!” Breakfast indeed. The moment I've been waiting for. Michael lowers our platform to the ground. I wipe my forehead clear of sweat and climb into the back of the Peugeot. Josh drives us to the dining hall. I am really dirty, but the dirt is clean, and washes off immediately in the dining room sinks.
Breakfast is on a rotational schedule where every other day there is a hot breakfast divided by the cold cereal day. Today being Thursday means we get to sit down to a nice pancake breakfast. I am waiting in line for Elise, the pancake maker, to get it together and finish the next batch of her famous pancakes.
“Hurry up Elise.” I mumble under my breath. We only have forty five minutes for breakfast, and I need all the free time available. Finally I stack my plate with six steaming cakes. I go to the other long table and get my usual. Lettuce with tomato, carrot and some of this garlic dressing and some yogurt. (The thought of having lettuce for breakfast didn't sound the least bit appetizing prior to my coming to the Middle East but now it was an everyday experience).
The dining room is full today. Probably because its pancake day. Members have their own kitchens and on cold cereal days many members go home to eat. But today it is full in here. I look around and see the familiar faces: Other volunteers, the army kids, the KIES students , and various members. Breakfast is from 7:00 — 9:00 and people come at various times. For some reason, the date crew are always the last group to come in for breakfast, and sometimes we barely make it for the pancakes. I am working so hard, and I swear, if I ever miss those pancakes I'll quit. But there seems to be this telepathic communication going on between Josh and the dining room, because there is always enough food right when we walk in.
With my tray full of food, I sit down next to Max. Max is a Russian kid, who came to Israel about five years ago during the massive Russian Jewish immigration to Israel. Max is fascinated with American sub-culture such as ATM cards and jargon. We always manage to get into some trippy conversation about such things. Across from me is the funniest guy in the area, Eagle. Eagle came to Arava exactly twenty years ago. He is single, and I often wonder how he keeps himself company way out here in the middle of nowhere. He is always hanging out with the volunteers, and there is a never ending flux of us, so I guess he has a lot to do.
Also at the table are Daniel and Elise, the inseparable female English volunteers. These girls manage to always bring a soap opera element to kibbutz life. They know all the gossip, such as what clothes people are wearing, who’s working where, and who’s doing who. They are an integral part of the social scene here as they seem to know about all the parties, movies, and events in our kibbutz, in neighboring kibbutzim, and in Eilot, the nearest city. Daniel and Elise can be quite bothersome at times, but I love them anyhow. Besides, I always have a good time hanging out with them.
Living here in Israel with people from different countries really gives me chance to discover the stereotypes about each nationality. For instance, and take no offense, the Israelis are often rude, the English are often shallow and stupid, however they don't trip out and get depressed like Americans do. The French are downright uptight; the Danes are dishonest. The Swedes are all blonde, with one exception. Canadians are very mellow and reserved, in comparison to the obnoxious American counterpart. Australians and New Zealanders love to travel. Russians are lazy and don't like to work. South Africans are... I glance at the clock, 9:45 a.m. and it is time to return to work.
I lay on the grass by the parking lot hoping that Josh won't show, but he does. We load up and head down the road. We arrive to the Matah and break into teams. I am with Racheal. Racheal is great, but real particular about the way we harvest. Things have to go in a certain order and remain in that order when you are working with Racheal. Its not speed that counts, but order. We start working. Clip. Clip. Racheal doesn't yell like Michael does. She just grabs the bunch she wants me to cut. Every so often, I cut a bunch before she has a grip on it and she shrieks,
“Wait Brian, I'm not there yet!”
Order finally comes and I start rapping with Racheal. We start talking about the infamous Kibbutz Arava debt.
“Racheal, I understand that Kibbutz Arava is 1 million shekels in debt...”
She interrupts, “One million, who gave you that figure, more like fifty million!” (15 million US dollars.) Clip. Clip.
I continue. “How has this happened?”
Racheal looks at me with concern. “Well, the last three years have brought bad whether which has created unprofitable seasons in agriculture. Plus, with outside competition, selling prices are falling. Also, the government, under Netenyahu, has ended state funding for the kibbutzim. Add this up and here’s your debt. We need to start making money, but we are not going to sell out and industrialize.”
I shrug my shoulders, “What do you mean?”
She continues, “Well, many kibbutz have switched to an industry economic base. They make plastic goods, shoes, whatever. The work is boring, dangerous, toxic, and it creates hierarchy in the workplace. We'll have none of that here.”
I ponder the figures for a second. I wonder how Arava is going to survive. I continue, “What are you all going to do here to make more money?”
Racheal responds, “Well there’s three options now. One, simply fold and leave this place, but, then what? None of us are about to leave, anyhow. Two, sell out and industrialize, but I'm leaving if we do that. There is talk about opening a rock quarry, but I am against it. Three. we'll have to come up with more creative financial schemes to keep us afloat... ”
I interrupt, “Like the Kibbutz Institute for Environmental Studies?”
Racheal continues. “Yeah, like that.”
I think for a moment. I look at Racheal and ask, “What about the rock quarry? If you, the kibbutz, don't tap that resource, someone else will. And if it means the end of Arava, don't you think that it should be considered as an economic option since it is going to be exploited regardless of who manages it?”
Racheal moves her head from side to side and says, “The rock quarry is so damaging to the environment. The dust, noise pollution and erosion just doesn't make it worth it for me. I'd rather have our kibbutz fold and split up than do that.”
Silence. Clip. Clip. Clip...
Soon we finish a row of trees. It is one o'clock. The sun is in the highest part of the sky, and it is hot. I smile as we lower the machine in preparation for the lunch break. After lunch, work goes by fast, so the hardest part of the day over. Five days down and one to go. When I get back to America, those two day weekend that I always thought were too short will seem like an eternity to me. Ah, when I return home, in four months. Well, I'll take each day as they come, can't think too far into the future. Hopefully the weather will soon be cooling down. I smile and walk towards the Peugeot.
The days started to go by fast and October was coming to a close. The date harvest had finally ended, and the harvest stress began to dissipate. The melon harvest was now in full swing, and now that was where all the stress was. The date harvest was the best in years. We harvested 86 tons of grade alef medjool dates, and 200 tons of grade alef deglet noor dates. (Grade alef was synonymous to grade A in the United States.) The dates brought in over one million shekels, or U.S. $330,000.00, in profit.
The main expense in the dates was water, which obtained an annual bill of over U.S. $100,000. Obtaining water, in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the East, was quite an extensive task for the kibbutz. The date trees of Kibbutz Arava were originally irrigated with sweet (fresh) water. It soon became unprofitable to import enough fresh water to sustain the date trees. There were local wells, but the low elevation of the water tables caused them to be quite salty; they were not as salty as sea water, but too salty for human consumption. The date palms could survive on the salty ground water, though. Unfortunately, date trees grown with salty ground water often didn't produce fruit as large as date trees grown with sweet water. (Even though Kibbutz Arava’s dates were watered with salty water, they still obtained sizes larger than any other date I've seen.) Using salt water for irrigation also increases the salinity of the soil, making it less usable in the future.
A new global trend to cut cost of water is using treated sewage water for irrigation. Treated sewage water is quite inexpensive, and often free. In Israel, treated sewage water comes from Eilot and is piped 25 miles north, all the way to Yotvata which is located 10 miles south of Kibbutz Arava. All the kibbutzim physically within range of the treated sewage water, use that water, because it is currently free. Treated waste water is less salty than the ground water that Kibbutz Arava currently uses.
Next year, Kibbutz Arava has plans to plant a new date orchard 15 miles south of the kibbutz, taking advantage of the free treated waste water. This will create distance between the kibbutz and its agricultural fields, but the money saved in water would greatly surpass the price off commuting to the orchards every day. Because of this water dynamic, there may begin a new trend of kibbutzim growing their produce away from kibbutz, in one general area, where water prices are cheapest.
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