I stood beside the road with a traveling backpack and a yarmulke, my arm extended, hitchhiking to the junction from Ramat Raziel to catch a bus home. I was singing “Lev Tahor,” a verse from Psalm 51 meaning “pure heart” that I’d been singing all Sabbath long. A car stopped, and a bearded man in a knit yarmulke picked me up. As I entered his car, he turned to me: “I’m Oren… So where you going?” Damn. I’d begun to hate this question, especially when asked by religious people. “Kibbutz Lahav,” I answered, expecting a gasp. Unfazed, he further inquired, “And what do you do there?” Again, I hesitated, this time with dread. “Uh, well… I work on their pig farm.”
And just like that, I managed to overwhelm and confuse Oren, as well as myself, while simultaneously expressing the contradiction that pig farming in Israel played in my life for the two months I spent working at Kibbutz Lahav. Luckily, Oren was an open-minded man whose parting words to me were: “God put you on the pork farm for a reason.”
The kibbutz and its pigs sit comfortably in the northern Negev, just 30 minutes north of Beersheba, surrounded by the Lahav forest, Israel’s largest manmade woodlands. Pine trees, scattered acorns and orderly planted “wild” grasses and flowers seem somewhat out of place in the desert hills. The iconoclastic kibbutz similarly appears incongruous in a Jewish part of a Jewish country, next door to religious Kibbutz Shomeriya. As I learned over the course of two months, though, the kibbutz, just like the forest, fits into the complex web of Israeli and Jewish identity in more ways than one.
Toward the end of January, I moved onto Kibbutz Lahav in an effort to understand the phenomenon of pigs in Israel. While there are a number of similar farms in Israel, Kibbutz Lahav is unique because, as its slogan suggests, it is “the meat from the Kibbutz.” All the other pig breeders operate in a zone in the North dominated by Christian Arabs, the only place where raising pork is legal, according to a 1962 law. Kibbutz Lahav, a Jewish-run farm, proudly operates outside the legal zone.
Lahav’s pig breeding gained widespread notoriety because of its legal loophole, almost talmudic in its ingenuity, in which the kibbutz is exempt from the law and can rightfully raise pigs for research as a part of its Animal Research Institute. Thus, the kibbutz raises pigs for science and eats the excess, developing over the years a rather staggering excess. For many years the institute was no more than an ad hoc veterinarian research institute, which, on the scientific side, boasted little more than the successful splicing of an ibex with a goat.
“Israelis weren’t ready to pay more money for it,” said Dodik, a kibbutz elder whose last name I never learned, as was the case with most people on the kibbutz.
Today, as a result of the recent biotech boom, the institute is the center of Israel’s most spectacular medical advancements, where religious Jewish scientists are among the hundreds of researchers who use the pigs for innovative experimentation.
Despite the institute’s success, raising and processing pig meat is the main purpose of the farm, as the 10,000-plus animals suggest. Most workers commute from Beersheba each morning. Jewish immigrants from Argentina and Russian immigrants with little Jewish background make up the largest proportion of the 50-something workers. On any given morning, the workers are spread out among the 15 or so indoor buildings, administering antibiotics, slaughtering and butchering, inseminating sows and moving pigs to the fattening rooms from their weaning rooms.
Eshai, a proud Israeli-born pork eater — and self-proclaimed messiah (he was born on the Ninth of Av, the prophesied birthday of the future messiah) — was my supervisor for most of February. He seethed with a cynicism toward all things Jewish and traditional. I once asked him why nobody collects and sells pigs’ milk. He answered me, grinning: “Pigs’ milk isn’t kosher.”
One day after work, when changing out of my coveralls and knee-high boots, a new immigrant from Brazil, Yehoshua, was discussing his former religiosity with Marcos when he mentioned in passing that he still didn’t eat pork. “Me neither,” I interrupted their conversation, excited to discover I wasn’t alone. “I keep kosher.”
Then Marcos chimed in, in his equally broken Hebrew: “Yeah, neither do I.” And there we sat, three confused Jewish pig farmers, when Imat, the Palestinian Muslim pig farmer, who also didn’t eat pork, entered the room.
How can you spot a kosher pig farmer? We blended in — except for Yehoshua, who always wore facemasks in a last-ditch effort not to inhale or ingest the same air as the pigs, or the floating fecal dust. Early on I also donned a facemask, but unlike Yehoshua, who can hardly understand Hebrew or English, I got the jokes and insults, such as “Jewboy” and “rookie,” from the Sabras, not to mention Eshai’s looks, which implied “pansy.”
It was when I learned from co-workers that our manager doesn’t eat pork, and that his manager and the head of the entire pork operation has a pork-free home, that I first felt at home, comfortable as a kosher Jew on the kibbutz. Through such revelations I saw the pig-breeding center as home to the same neurotic Jewish traditionalism that courses through my veins.
Such contradictions shed light on the beautiful and confusing Jewish identity of Kibbutz Lahav and its pigs. On Friday night in the kibbutz dining room, there is a Sabbath display of candlesticks, a challah cover and a Kiddush cup. Kibbutzniks thus have the Sabbath on their minds as they eat their special meal of braised pork or ham on the ceremonial white Sabbath linens. During our celebratory barbecue just prior to Purim, management handed out mishloach manot, traditional Jewish gift baskets, to all the workers, with a note wishing everyone a “happy Purim.” Most workers ate the hamantaschen as dessert after the grilled pork spare ribs. One Thursday, while I was shopping in the kolbo — the kibbutz grocery store — a panicked woman ran behind me to speak to the cashier, urgently asking if she could leave a ham in the freezer and collect it tomorrow for Friday’s dinner. When she left with permission to do so, I turned to the cashier woman, smiled and asked her if the meat was “for Shabbat.” She nodded, and we both laughed.
According to Dodik, one of the kibbutz founders, Lahav embarked on pork production by chance. In 1952, the year of the kibbutz’s founding and a period of major food shortages in Israel, the struggling Lahav received a gift of one boar and two sows from a neighboring kibbutz. After a number of years, and thanks to the will of a few kibbutzniks, those pigs became the kibbutz’s financial linchpin. As kibbutzim have been failing and Lahav, in particular, has had trouble, the pigs have remained a stable revenue producer, an unlikely friend to a Zionist institution.
And even though most kibbutzniks no longer “work in the pigs,” the porcine influence on the kibbutz is nearly impossible to miss. Ten thousand-plus pigs howl throughout the night, along with the desert jackals. There’s a dreaded western wind here that brings with it the inescapable and potent scent of industrial hog waste that cannot possibly be ignored. In the dining room there is almost always a pork option. The kibbutzniks find no need for the silly euphemisms used by greater Israeli society, like “white meat” and “white steak.” Pork, or at least the right to raise it, serve it and eat it, is no doubt a point of pride at Lahav today, and part of the kibbutz’s national legacy.