Living the Zionist dream

With the kibbutz movement marking 100 years, six volunteers recall how, for a few months, they had the time of their lives

By Katie Taylor, November 25, 2010
Dan Patterson at 18 (centre, in checked shirt) poses with his fellow volunteers at Kibbutz Beth Haemek in 1978. His time there ‘has had a big influence’, he says

Dan Patterson at 18 (centre, in checked shirt) poses with his fellow volunteers at Kibbutz Beth Haemek in 1978. His time there ‘has had a big influence’, he says

Paul Kaye
Kibbutz Gvaram, 1983

It was 1983, I was 18 and had just finished my first year in Nottingham doing a degree in theatre design, but wasn't sure it was the right course for me so I took a year out. I'd had a great month in Israel with a group of 30 kids two years before so I washed dishes in Maxwell's restaurant in Hampstead for a few months to make some money and got a flight out to Tel Aviv. I imagined that I'd travel about for a while, work my way through the Sinai and then go to Cairo, sit on top of a pyramid and do some sketching.

My flight to Israel was diverted to Frankfurt for some reason and I fell asleep there waiting for a connection. My money belt got nicked as I slept and so I arrived in Israel penniless. That scuppered my travel plans somewhat so I went straight to the Kibbutz Representatives office in Hayarkon Street to get fixed up. Some fat Israeli in a vest smoking Dubec Royals just stuck his finger randomly on a list of kibbutzim that he had on a clipboard. It's odd to think that you make so many decisions in life to get you where you get but, in actual fact, my kids wouldn't exist if that fat Israeli's finger had touched the list a millimetre higher.

Kibbutz Gvaram lies on the edge of the Negev desert between Gaza and Ashkelon. It has about 270 members. When I got there I was told to report to the envelope factory and see the boss Yaron. I had bright red hair at the time and a few rips in my clothing and he took one look at me and refused to let me in the building. It didn't look like I was going to last long on Kibbutz Gvaram but thankfully the volunteer leader, a wonderful lady called Hava, had a soft spot for me and landed me a job milking cows instead. My new boss turned out to be Rafi Katz, the finest man I've ever known. I ended up marrying his daughter, Orly, and we have just celebrated our 21st anniversary. Getting robbed in Frankfurt was the best thing that ever happened to me.

While on the kibbutz, I formed a band with some volunteers and we did a tour of bomb shelters on neighbouring kibbutzim. It was so great. They were quite backwards musically over there so I basically pretended that I'd written all these Velvet Underground and Sex Pistols numbers we were playing.

There were a few Millwall fans out there at the time, I seem to remember, and loads of Scandinavians. People from all over really - about 60 volunteers all living in this little wooden village. There was a born-again Christian group living near us as well. Their leader was a guy called David Olsen who was seriously full-on. They thought we were devil worshipers, playing our freaky music and being more than a little bit out of control. The fact that we built a club and called it the Olsen-a-Go Go didn't help. I blame the arak.

Because Gvaram is so close to Gaza there were tens of thousands of Palastinians coming in through the border every day to work. This was pre-intifada and Gazans were coming into the kibbutz all the time. Working with the cows, we'd be trading milk for various produce they brought in with them and a group of us would always sit and drink coffee. I'd have conversations translated for me.

The borders were open both ways and groups of volunteers used to go down to Gaza market on a Saturday, drink tea, play backgammon and try to score a finger of hash. There was definitely a trust and co-operation back then which, of course, has long gone. A Bedouin family passed through the kibbutz every year and stayed for a couple of months.

Gvaram is still very much a home from home after all these years. The kibbutz communal dining room is pretty much closed now so it's not the place it once was. It used to be the centre of everything - the heartbeat of the place like it was on all kibbutzim. It's all so fractured now - there's mortgages coming in and different pay structures for different jobs. All the agriculture's pretty much gone and it's outside workers who mainly run the factory. That pure socialism only really worked for two generations.

Baroness Susan Greenfield
Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, 1970

When I was 19 I visited Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, which translated, means the "Bridge of Glory", situated in the north near Haifa. I went with a group on a gap-year programme called Bridge in Britain, organised by Lord Janner. There was an equal number of boys and girls. We arrived at Haifa on the Zimline boats, and I was there for six months, March until September 1970.

I had never been to Israel before. At the time, I had an idealistic view of the country and the idea of a kibbutz in terms of socialism, and wanted to see it for myself. This was probably because before going I had read Bruno Bettelheim's The Children of the Dream, which is about children living on a kibbutz, so I was already interested.

I had quite a variety of jobs there. The boys tended to work outside and the girls worked inside, in the kitchen or launderette. I worked in the baby house, which was a bonus as I was exposed to a basic level of Hebrew. I could practise the language with the young children, who were at the same level as me. The disadvantage was that I was exposed to peanut butter sandwiches all day - not very healthy and quite fattening.

The kibbutz had a banana plantation and both Israeli and Arabs worked there. There was a separate kitchen for the plantation workers as it was quite far from the main site. I worked in this kitchen, cooking the breakfasts and lunches for the workers, which was a whole day's work in kibbutz terms, from about six in the morning until two in the afternoon. I think this was the most interesting job I had. I got the chance to speak to both Arab and Israeli workers, and I also learnt a few rude Arabic words. I liked this job the best. I was by myself and I wasn't told what to do.

I remember once coming back from a trip to Jerusalem to find the kibbutz in total silence. Ketusha rockets had been fired from Lebanon and three or four had landed in the fields. Nothing was damaged but everyone was so frightened. I remember the British Ambassador talking to us, telling us not to over-dramatise the situation when writing our letters home.

Happier memories are those of the club-house where there was music and dancing. The kibbutz had a siesta in the afternoon but rather than sleeping we used to go dancing instead.

I remember meeting a lot of Americans and worldly backpackers and many older people who still had the numbers tatooed on their arms; it wasn't that long after 1945.

I still consider the kibbutz an ideal life. Everything was done for you - someone did your washing, someone cooked for you. It was also liberating not having a salary. I don't know how I would feel about Israel if I hadn't gone. I went back to Israel on holiday when I was about 25 or 26. I had become what I hated - a rich tourist.

Josh Howie
kibbutz Ein Gedi, 1993-1994

At 16 I saw the film Exodus and read the book and from that I became a crazy Zionist. I wrote essays at school about Israel and the idea of claiming the land. So at 18, the day after my A levels had finished, I was on the plane, ready to do my bit. I got to the kibbutz and I was put on an ice cream kiosk - my Zionist dream went up in smoke.

I wanted to reclaim my Jewish heritage - I am from West London and I didn't have many Jewish friends - and I thought this would be the place to be embraced by my people. But when I got there, I was the only Jewish volunteer out of 50. Most were either South African or German.

The kibbutz's attitude towards the volunteers was that they thought that volunteers come and go and they weren't bothered about them. There wasn't much integration. From the other volunteers I actually experienced a lot of antisemitism and anti-Israel feeling - I couldn't believe it.

I met a lot of mad people. You do get mad people on kibbutz - many who are running away from things. One guy I knew was a complete psycho - I think he was on the run from the South African police. But it was great to be with people from different parts of the world. It was a real eye-opener, especially as a posh kid there all by myself. The kibbutz was the best time of my life, although my Zionist image was ruined forever.

Ivor Baddiel
X factor scriptwriter
Kibbutz hatzor, 1985

I went on ulpan at 22, which I organised myself. I had spent a large part of my youth in Habonim, which enforced socialism, Zionism and Judaism, so in 1985 I wanted to give Israel a bigger go.

Half my time was spent learning Hebrew and the other half was spent working. If I had class in the afternoon, I would work in the kitchens in the morning, and if I had class in the morning, I'd spend the afternoon picking oranges.

I didn't get on well with the kitchen. I remember having a row with someone after they asked me to wash eggs that were going to be boiled - what is the point in washing eggs if they were going to be steralised in boiling water? He was Israeli and we both shouted. I preferred being outside than stuck in the kitchen preparing breakfast.

In the orange groves there were always a lot of play-fights and chucking fruit at each other. I remember a lot of Scandinavian girls, and one night, on new year's eve, I got very drunk and passed out on the dance floor - it was a very good night.

I actually got thrown off the kibbutz once. Although I had a strong work ethic, I was very dossy about doing classwork. If you turned up 30 seconds late, you would have the door shut in your face - that happened to me a few times. Once, a few friends and myself were hanging about in a room when we should have been in class. The director of the kibbutz picked me out and invited me to leave.

After that I went to visit Egypt and caught malaria.
I came back to Israel feeling very unwell. I had nowhere to go and the kibbutz was happy to help me, so I ended up back at Hatzor.

The kibbutz movement is an incredible achievement. It is the nearest the world has come to the purest form of communism. I think the reason it is not working so much now is that the later generations don't have anything to work for. Fifty per cent of kids born on kibbutz now leave - I think there is just no challenge to stay anymore.

Dan Patterson
Comedy producer
Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, 1976, and Kibbutz Beth Haemek, 1978

Both my kibbutz experiences have had a great impact on me, not least that my mother and father both lived on Kafar Hanassi before I was born. But it was Beth Haemek that had the biggest influence.

I went with Habonim, on a year abroad. It was an idealistic time. Israel had just signed the peace treaty with Egypt and had won the Eurovision Song Contest. There was a feeling of optimism. Habonim were encouraging us to make aliyah and I did think about it- I was young and going on kibbutz was the best time of my life.

My job was in the plantations, picking bananas. I had to get up at 4.30am. It was a magical experience to see the world at that time in the morning. The sunrise was just beautiful.

To be honest, I did find picking bananas a bit boring, so I used walk around with a radio attached to my belt, tuned in to the BBC World Service. I had this strange Israeli–British existence, listening to radio plays and shows while picking fruit.

I remember one highlight. It was the 50th anniversary of Habonim, and I met the President of Israel, Yitzhak Navon. He had a huge Israeli flag with him. When I got back to my room, there was another huge flag on top of our building - it turned out one of the boys had stolen it from the President.

Stewart Curtis
Kibbutz Ayelet hashahar, 1977

My kibbutz was in the north of Israel, near Haifa. I was a student, aged 17, when I visited for two months. I had family living in Israel and I just wanted to experience life there. I had a job as a lifeguard, which was interesting as I'm not a very good swimmer. Luckily, I never had to save anyone - the one time someone needed saving, another person got there before me. They stole my thunder.

There were a lot of concerts at Ayelet and I remember seeing Stan Getz, the saxophone legend playing live. I was very excited. I was even more excited when I later supported him at a gig in London.

Being on kibbutz made me want to join the Israeli army. It gave me a strong Zionist feeling. But my girlfriend (now my wife) put a stop to that. I also thought about moving there but I went to music college instead. I was young and I was taken in by everything.

Last updated: 12:11pm, December 1 2010