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The International Writers Magazine
: In Israel

Smile Even When Your Heart is Breaking
Lola Haze

"The teelim fall everyday here," he says, "but they don’t always hit something." He is referring to the missiles launched from Gaza into the neighboring areas of Israel. Derot is the biggest city the Palestinians can hit from where they launch and it gets hit frequently. Half the city is destroyed and currently evacuated due to the constant attacks. Near Derot, there are several kibbutzim that receive what they call "friendly greetings from their neighbors." They maintain a jovial attitude about their situation despite the uncertainty that plagues them daily.
The kibbutz was, to me, the symbol of Israel, so on my first visit to the country, I asked my husband, a native Israeli, to arrange a visit. Rueven, his uncle, picked us up at the train station in Ashquelon and took us to his home, Kibbutz Ziqim. The roads there were dusty and dry and we were greeted at the entrance by a guard house and a fenced gate. I was beginning to doubt the authenticity of the relaxed local attitude when Reuven said, "Don’t worry, it’s just a formality." Inside, the scene was much different. I was first greeted by a statue made by their "house artist." It was a menorah fashioned out of the missiles that had fallen on Ziqim. I asked Reuven how long it took them to collect all eight. He said he guessed about six months. I was again struck by their ability to make fun of their dire situation. On past the menorah we went, on foot. On the fringes of the Negev Desert there are scrub brushes and hearty grasses but mostly a lot of dry dirt. But the center of the kibbutz was a well kept oasis. The lawns were still green and showing only a tint of summer yellow, flowers were blooming, and fruit and olive trees dotted every yard. A sense of peace blanketed everything. Couples were enjoying morning coffee on their porches, inviting neighbors to join them. Not a single house had a fence around it, not a single dog was tied up or caged, and not a single child was mindful of the road.

The houses were arranged in a large circle facing the center of the compound in which stood a building Reuven referred to as "the children house." In this kibbutz, children are raised more by the group as a whole than by his biological parents. At age six, children cease to sleep at their parents’ house and go to live in the children’s house. Their parents still get to see them, of course, virtually anytime they want, but they are encouraged not to develop too strong a sense of individuality. Each person at the kibbutz must support the whole and no one gets to have anything unless everyone else gets to have it too.

As the tour of the kibbutz begins, Reuven points to a mid-sized field between his house and the children’s house. He says this is where all the children were playing several months ago when a missile fell there. Amazingly, no one was hurt. Doors were blown off the hinges of neighboring houses and everyone present was terrified, but not a single child was injured. After that, they had an alarm system installed. The system is based on radar so when a projectile enters the zone, a mechanical voice says over the loudspeakers, shahar adom, meaning "red horizon." Residents were instructed to take cover upon hearing this, but some immediately began to ask, where? They had a few old bomb shelters scattered around but often the alert gave them only 15 seconds to find shelter. This was when they began installing a bomb shelter in every house. These shelters conveniently added an extra room that most families now use as a guest bedroom, a convenient addition because the guest bedroom is the staple of Israeli culture, even more so than bad driving. Motels and Hotels are rare in Israel because most people know someone in every city and take any and all chances to visit friends. If economics dictates aesthetic taste, then Israelis are minimalists. But even with every resource strained, all apartments are equipped with a guest bedroom.

Rueven talked continuously as we walked along the gravel road that runs all the way around the kibbutz and soon we were at our first stop: pinat hei. Literally translated, it means "life corner" but when Israelis translate it to English for me, they say "animal corner." In the U.S. it would be called a petting zoo. Animal corners are very common in Israel and can be found in many parks and kibbutzim. The animal corner at Ziqim had a plethora of species but was in general disrepair and it was clear the animals in the petting zoo hadn’t been pet in quite a while. Rueven explained that in the information age, not even kibbutznik children are as interested in animals and the outdoors as they used to be.

Go to the Mattresses

Kibbutz Ziqim supports its residents with a mattress factory and a dairy. At the mattress factory we were alternately greeted warmly or ignored. This is common Israeli behavior. When not on the phone or in the car, Israelis are without exception friendly and talkative, sometimes excessively so. But unfortunately, Israelis spend a great deal of time in their cars, on their phones, or both.

On our way to the dairy I was at once excited and anxious. I love animals and wanted to see all the animals at the kibbutz, but I had heard horror stories about how animals are treated at commercial dairies or ranches. At this dairy, cows were divided into three groups and each group took its turn at each station every day. The stations were: rest, shower, milk, eat. The cows moved contentedly between each station, seeming especially eager to reach their turn at the milking station. When the shower was turned off, the cows would form a line on the ramp to the circular milking platform and as the platform revolved, a new space would open up and the next heifer would take her place. Machines were then attached to the udders and a digital display would light up that recorded all the information about that cow for the day. I stayed to watch this process long after my companions had lost interest.

Reuven left us after the dairy to attend to his own business and we were free to explore the kibbutz on our own. As we left the dairy, I found two dogs sitting on a porch and stopped to introduce myself. One was what appeared to be a Great Dane/German Shepherd mix and the other looked like Pit Bull/Golden Retriever. Both were shaved for the summer but still retained a tiny poof of hair on the tips of their tails, which made them vaguely resemble lions. This is also a common Israeli phenomenon. Nearly all dogs, large and small, Poodles or Pomeranians, are shaved for the summer but allowed to keep that small part of their former hair: their lion tail.

After lunch at the cafeteria, Reuven drove us to the beach and gave us what seemed like simple directions for walking back. Directions are never simple with Israelis. When inquiring about the best train to take or the best road or the proper bus route, for best results, take a scientific survey of at least ten people. The most common answer just might be the correct one. It just might. And when all else fails, do not follow road signs. About 40 minutes into what was supposed to be a 10 minute walk through spacious fields, we were lost on red dust road outside an army base. My husband managed to get the attention of a lookout in a watchtower and yelled up to her to get further directions. A shouting match later, we were instructed to go back to the last highway sign and take the road opposite of what it said to take. Miraculously, this got us back to the kibbutz, albeit exhausted, sunburned, and, for some reason, missing one half of my swimsuit.

I was relieved to finally be back and allowed myself to relax for the rest of the walk. As we entered the housing area, a yellow dog trotted past us wearing a ridiculously wide grin. The back half of her body was covered in what looked like mud but smelled like sewer waste. She gave a woof over her shoulder to her partner in crime, a Collie that seemed to be on its way home too and promptly fell over to nap in her yard. This seemed a perfect analogy for Israeli culture: they can be waist-deep in shit and still smile.

Mini Bio:
Tomi Laine Clark is a shifty, fickle and dangerously curious San Francisco-based writer. She dips her hand indiscriminately into all the arts, including: poetry, prose, essay, photography, knitting, scrap booking, drawing and painting. She hopes to one day try all the arts, languages, and foods the world has to offer.
Lola Haze
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