And So We Sing Our Longings

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published July 10, 2008, issue of July 18, 2008.
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It’s become my custom, these last four or five years, to spend the final days of my visits to Israel at Kvutzat Geva. Geva is a kibbutz in the Emek. (Emek means “valley,” and there are many named valleys in Israel — Emek Bet Sh’an, Emek Hefer and so forth, but there is only one that is simply the Emek. That’s the Valley of Jezre’el, which stretches from Bet Alfa to Nahalal; it is home to a number of Israel’s most venerable kibbutzim, Geva among them.)

It is no secret that the kibbutz movement in Israel has slipped into decline these past few decades, many having chosen very substantial privatization instead of the collective arrangements that were their classic hallmark. More than a few that still carry the designation “kibbutz” have by now sold their lands to developers; their members, who work where they find employment in the private sector, own their own homes, send their children to private school (if they can afford to), are charged per item for meals taken in the dining hall (which they rarely are); their “kibbutz” has become, for almost all practical purposes, a self-governing village.

Not so Geva, which was founded in 1921 and is one of the 35 or 40 kibbutzim that remain very much within the collective tradition. Six hundred people (300 of them children) live here; of the adults, only 25 or 30 are employed in agriculture — dairy cows, sheep, almond orchards, grains, fish ponds (carp and St. Peter’s fish) — and 110 in Baccara, the kibbutz factory that produces electric valves for industrial systems, gardening and agriculture.

It’s a $40 million dollar enterprise ($15 million in exports), with growing subcontracting arrangements in China. Four or five of Geva’s members require 24-hour-a-day nursing care, and the kibbutz provides it, as it provides electric wheelchairs for the elderly who need them and spiffy three-bedroom homes for young couples who want them. Such are the ways of a real kibbutz. Geva is best known in the country for its 15-member folk choir, the Gevatron, winner last year of the Israel Prize, awarded annually to individuals and institutions that have made distinctive contributions to the society. Founded in 1948, it performs worldwide and some 50 times a year here in Israel; its mix of the latest folk songs and the most popular oldies continues to draw sell-out crowds, as was the case the other night at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv at a concert attended by 2,800 people.

Over the years, the members of the Gevatron have become my friends. They’ve visited me in Boston four times and whenever I’m in Geva, once or twice a year, we spend an evening together. There’s a functional spread — cheeses, herring, breads, watermelon — and wine, whiskey and soft drinks. We chat and munch for no more than half an hour and then Gidon takes his guitar in hand and we sing, typically for a couple of hours.

Full disclosure: I am not a singer, nor the son of a singer. I say “we sing” because I sing along, sort of, confident that they’re strong enough to overwhelm my too often off-key renditions.

The singing is not, however, for my benefit. They really don’t have all that much to say to each other; one manages a computerized lathe facility in Baccara, another drives a truck, another’s a nurse. Their songs are their connection.

I’ve been with them more than a few times after a performance, late into the night, when their tradition is to stop at a restaurant on the way home and have a serious meal — and every time, they fill the silences with song. (In Israel, the restaurant manager or owner, if he’s there, realizing it’s the Gevatron, will often call his family to hurry and come hear them.)

All this by way of introducing a passing moment from my June visit.

We gathered in a somewhat ramshackle shack at Geva, usually a hangout for kids in their late teens, decorated for reasons no one can recall with photographs of harness racing. We’d finished off more than a few bottles of excellent wine (Gidon’s son is now a vintner) and were well into a set of especially rousing songs when Yoel’s cell phone rang. On the line was Ilan, the Gevatron’s gifted musical director and accompanist, calling with the sad news that his father had died. His death was not unexpected, but when Yoel passed the news to the group, there was an immediate shift in temper.

And Roni began to sing, and others joined in, a quiet Naomi Shemer song, an adaptation from Psalm 55: “Listen, God, to my prayer and don’t overlook my plea. Who will give me wing so I can fly and live like a bird? I will call God 
and he will save me.” (The original Psalm is much, much darker.) And that was followed by the familiar “Avinu Malkeinu,” which was the only song my mother retained as she lingered after the stroke that finally took her.

It is, I think, of more than passing interest that so many of us — including kibbutzniks who are entirely secular in outlook — revert to religious language in times of stress. It’s not foxhole religion that takes us there; it’s more nearly an adaptive mechanism, an evolutionary response for dealing with mystery, for finding a place of solace in the face of the otherwise unfathomable.

So we sing our longings — and I note that without conscious intent, three of the columns I’ve written here in Israel have dealt with song: “Shir LaShalom,” the Yemenite nusach during the Torah reading at the bar mitzvah I attended in Jerusalem, and now this.

Perhaps, I muse, that is one way I deal with the often unfathomable mystery called Israel.


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