Levi Attias will try his hand at whatever comes his way, it seems, and spending six months in a kibbutz in Israel dwelled somewhere on his bucket list, so come the day, off he went.
“As a Jew, it was never a commitment but I really fancied the experience and indeed, off I went to a kibbutz for about six months and it was a wonderful event which I can say I truly enjoyed.” Levi declares. After that he went to university in Jerusalem and spent five years in total in Israel. He was in his late teens when he joined the kibbutz. “Yes, I went over with two other local Jews – one male, one female – in 1974 which marked the first anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. They chose a religious kibbutz staying for three to six months and I went to a secular one, Kibbutz Ein Tzurim, designed for non-Hebrew speakers such as tourists and immigrants.”
A kibbutz is a settlement unique to Israel. The idea, founded in the early 1900s and called Degania in those days, was based on agriculture. Today there are close on 300 kibbutzim in Israel and many of them have diversified away from their agricultural roots into manufacturing a variety of goods including high-tech industry and a diamond cutting factory grossing millions of dollars annually. Those entering become kibbutz members of a voluntary society larger than their own family and go there to work and enjoy a full community life sharing everything. Still today, life in a kibbutz is one where communal roots are maintained with a strong sense of community co-operation in all activities.
“It’s a wonderful experience interacting with many individuals from around the world and many are non-Jews,” Levi tells me. “I interacted with many English, American and some French too. ‘Volunteers’, as we’re called, are assigned to a family – I joined an Argentinian family with whom I would have food, chat and socialise.” Clearly a pleasant time to have by all, but it’s true to say – to use the saying in reverse – ‘there’s no play without work’, and bell ringing at 5am was the daily wake-up call for Levi and everyone else. “Oh yes, unless you were on night time, security guard duty which meant you’d sleep through the morning for a few hours after your shift. Otherwise, you’d get up to a light breakfast and then off to work, in your overall and cap, heading for the cotton fields and orange groves for the rest of the morning. You’d have a break for elevenses of fruit and bread and plenty of water which was available from a container at any time of the day to hydrate you from the very hot Middle Eastern sun. After lunch it was too hot for outdoor work so we spent the afternoon in the classroom on Hebrew Language courses or, in my case, brushing up on the language, as I invariably dozed off in the Israeli heat! Meals came from much of our own produce like chicken and vegetables for supper, Israeli salads, hummus and other foods. Some evenings were spent at a BBQ, gathered around a camp fire chatting, relaxing, storytelling, dancing and singing. I remember singing Antonio Machin songs which surprisingly, they seemed to enjoy!”
He would want you to pick four or five of them up at a time by their feet.
Your work at the kibbutz is remunerated in the form of pocket money (Levi recalls receiving, in 1975, a few pounds a week.) Jobs are varied, Levi tells me, from those security night shifts to working in the kitchens, the leather factory, cotton picking, milking cows or cleaning out farm houses and sheds and assisting vets with the animals… “How can I forget on one occasion, going into the turkey enclosure imitating the ‘GL-L-L-L-L-L gluck!’ of the animal and having thousands of turkeys reply with a deafening sound. To assist the vet, he would want you to pick four or five of them up at a time by their feet and hold them up whilst he injected the area of their ankles. The end of your palm just below your thumb is not unlike the area the vet aims for in the turkeys and he jabbed his needle right there, which you can imagine made me jump out of my skin!”
Many of the Jews Levi met there knew about Gibraltar as some had connections going back to Morocco, where so many of Gibraltar’s Jews came from. During his stay in Israel and whilst still in University he – as students tend to do for a little pocket money – took on a job. “You may remember a clothes shop in Main Street by College Lane, where the Euphoria DVD store is now. ‘Attias the Tailor’ was my father’s business and that’s where I learnt to sew, so I got myself a job sewing in a tailor’s business in Jerusalem whilst I was studying.” Whilst at university Levi made sure he remembered his home town by not just having a very large poster of the Rock on his bedroom wall but also pictures of Gibraltar politicians of the 70s plastered all over the walls making him Gibraltar’s No 1 ‘political groupie’!
A number of Gibraltarians – including non-Jews – have experienced life in a kibbutz, and youngsters (those wanting to take a sabbatical after university maybe) and the not-so-young can go there too. “It can take a few months or even a year to get there. I was in acting school in London when I applied, so I didn’t mind the waiting. Eventually you’re accepted through a kibbutz organisation in London.” I understand there may be a fee and you’ll need a medical certificate indicating you’ll be fit to work, especially in the heat. “I remember we were picked up at a very hot Tel Aviv Airport and stayed in a hostel in the city and then driven to your designated kibbutz,” Levi recalls, “I really recommend it. Bible bashing of any religion is not allowed, nor discussions about politics, and you would be reprimanded if caught. The experience is a healthy one and a place where you meet many people from all over the world. I really enjoyed it!”
If you feel you would like to live through the kibbutz experience, talk to members of the Jewish Community on the Rock who may be able to help or Google the Kibbutz Programme Centre in London to find out more. Clearly an experience of a lifetime, so are you up for it? Trade in your work on the land for room, board and companionship… in an Israeli kibbutz!