Memoir | Seeing Green in Southern Israel

By | Dec 13, 2023
Israel, Jewish World, Latest, Memoir
a black and white image of a woman holding a sack full of avocados, which are in color.

On the drive down to Kibbutz Sa’ad, I alternate between gazing out the window and trying to get the Homefront Command app to work on my phone. It’s November 5, the first time in a month I’ve left the environs of my city in central Israel, save for the five-minute visit to my son on an army base near Jerusalem. The dust kicks up along the fields on the sides of the highway, and we wonder if this is from tanks, tractors or the wind. My husband and I have each taken the day off work, and along with our two daughters, we are joining the thousands of volunteers across Israel responding to the call of the kibbutzim and family farms. The Hamas assault on October 7 has sent the entire country into a tailspin—the unfathomable loss of 1,200 lives, more than 240 hostages taken into Gaza, 300,000 people from the south and the north displaced, communities destroyed, 360,000 reservists called up, and thousands of other large and small ways Israeli citizens and Jews around the world are experiencing this catastrophe. We cannot escape our pain-infused new reality; it consumes most of our waking minutes and our sleep is seared with sorrow.

The crisis in the agricultural sector is acute, as 8,000 Thai farm workers have fled the country, and the complete closure of the West Bank and Gaza since October 7 means that the 20,000 Palestinian agricultural laborers cannot enter. The farms desperately need help: picking fruits and vegetables before they wither on the trees or vines, preparing the soil for new plantings and saplings, sorting and packaging what’s been picked, weeding, pruning, and any number of daily tasks that we who buy our produce in supermarkets or at farmers’ markets rarely think about.

a man and a young woman stand next to a large yellow crate full of green avocadosI am nervous. I wonder about the sensibility of all four of us traveling together. What if there is a fresh barrage of rockets while we are there, a few kilometers from Gaza? Kibbutz Sa’ad is one of 45 communities located within seven kilometers of Gaza, otherwise known as Otef Aza or just “the Otef.” The area where you have 15 seconds to reach a safe room when a siren goes off, meaning Hamas is firing its rockets. In the fields of Sa’ad, there are no safe rooms or miguniot, outdoor shelters. A Hebrew word I did not know until after October 7, when hundreds of young people attending the music festival near Kibbutz Reim tried taking shelter in them. But the miguniot are designed to protect from rockets and shrapnel, not from terrorists shooting and throwing grenades at point blank range. From the festival alone, more than 360 people were killed and dozens more were taken into captivity, including our friends’ son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, and my former co-worker, Andrey Kozlov.

Google tells me the nearest shelter is a nine-minute walk from where we’ll be. During our hour-and-20-minute drive, the news anchor interrupts his broadcast when rockets are fired at another sector of the Otef. If the four of us are killed by Hamas rockets, we’ll be leaving behind our two sons, both of whom are serving in the IDF, one in his regular service—his unit tasked with collecting intelligence from the field to thwart terrorist attacks—and one in the reserves, doing all-night shifts at the Homefront Command. At least the boys will have each other, I think. It is impossible to brush the morbid thoughts away.

As we get closer, we see the vestiges of war everywhere. Checkpoints to get through various areas, army vehicles, a Zaka truck. Zaka volunteers are on call 24/7 to rescue, recover and identify fatal casualties of terrorist attacks, traffic accidents and other disasters. There is little traffic on the roads as entire communities are being housed elsewhere: hotels in the Dead Sea, Netanya, Tiberias, Jerusalem, other kibbutzim and youth hostels around the country. At my friend’s brother’s kibbutz, Alumim, the members need special permission from the army to be there, and while we know that Sa’ad has become an army base, we do not know what we will find or if we will be turned back.

The artillery blasts and loud booms continue in the background, but I’m too engrossed in the physical work to hear them or give them any thought.

We are headed to Sa’ad to pick avocados, because my husband once lived on the kibbutz for four months, a counselor for a gap-year program. That was the winter and spring of 1996, and we were engaged. Due to the rash of suicide bombings, his students weren’t allowed to leave the kibbutz for the weekend, so instead, I’d take multiple buses from Jerusalem to spend every Shabbat there. We had a wonderful, warm adopted family on the kibbutz, whom we loved very much and continued to visit for several years. Last week, when my husband reinitiated contact and our kibbutz “mother” responded, I nearly burst into tears at her message. The entire community had been evacuated to a hotel at the Dead Sea, for how long, no one knows.

We arrive at the gates of the kibbutz, the junction beyond which the roads—toward Nahal Oz in one direction and Alumim in the other—are off-limits to civilians. But when we explain to the soldiers that we are here for the katif, the picking, we are let through. Our contact directs us to drive to a meeting point, and though we see no one, we get out of the car to wait. Immediately, massive, loud blasts assail our senses. Artillery? Shelling? Gunfire? The unmistakable sounds of war. I jump and flinch at each boom. After four weeks, we’ve gotten used to the sound of the Air Force above our heads all day and night, of the thunderous clap of the Iron Dome, but not this. Not earsplitting roars every few minutes. My husband encourages me to “chill.”

I am not chill as we wait 10, 20, maybe 30 minutes by ourselves. Incredibly, my younger daughter, 14, joins her math class on Zoom. I try to distract myself with word puzzles.

“Be happy about every boom,” my older daughter says. “It means the army is fighting Hamas.” She is full of rage at the situation. She has good friends from Kibbutz Kfar Aza, across the road from Sa’ad; it is these friends whom she was most worried about as events unfolded on October 7. One of her friends lost his father and uncle. All day and the next and the next, we waited for news of her close friend Gali, Gali’s twin brother Ziv, and another friend, Alon. Only on day 9 or 10 did word arrive that all three are presumed to be hostages in Gaza. Tomorrow, she turns 23, and helping in the agricultural sector is how she wants to spend her birthday. “Maybe someday I’ll live in the Otef,” she says. We’ve read articles discussing the communities that want to rebuild, return, start from scratch, though not everyone feels that way, understandably. How will the 70,000 residents of the Otef be able to recover trust in the government, in the IDF, after such a massive failure to keep them safe? How will any of us?

Our contact finally arrives, and we climb into his UTV for the 10-minute ride to the avocado trees. “This is how we win, by getting back to work,” says Matiya, our contact. The 15 volunteers here today are more than usual, he tells us. His Thai workers have left, save one or two who have moved to Tel Aviv. We ask if he had Palestinian workers from Gaza. Indeed, he says, 12 workers, good people who worked seven days a week, alternating between Sa’ad and other locations. On October 7, as they tried to flee the area, they too, were murdered by Hamas terrorists.

We are each given a gray sack to drape over the shoulder, along with a one-minute explanation of how to pick the fruit. There’s no twisting or cutting; with our bare hands we are to pluck the avocados off their stems. “Leave no fruit on the tree,” Matiya says. We begin.

The avocado trees at the Kibbutz Sa’ad are full of fruit.

The trees drip with avocados. Brim. Overflow. I take pictures because only a photograph could accurately convey how a single tree could hold so many, perhaps 100 or more avocados. Twelve months ago, after the last shmita (Sabbath) year finished, we planted an avocado tree in our backyard. It has yet to produce fruit, but when it does, I’ll be excited to get ten avocados each season.

While picking, I do not count how many avocados fit into my sack, but based on the three-kilo bag I had purchased from the back of another farmer’s van the week before, I estimate every full sack is around 12-15 kilos, the equivalent of 26-33 pounds. Perhaps that’s four or five dozen individual avocados. I may not be a farmer, but I am the daughter of an accountant, and it’s in my nature to count things. I endeavor to keep track of how many sacks I’ll fill today.

Each time the sack is full, I haul it to the harvest bins a row or two away, three or four giant plastic agricultural containers connected to each other and attached on one side to a tractor or a UTV. I hoist the heavy sack to the edge of the container, duck through the strap and remove my hat, and push/dump the avocados out. Once the containers are full, Matiya or his partner drive them off and we begin filling the next set.

I stop counting after the tenth sack. We’ve been at it for half an hour, and my back is beginning to ache, but I do not stop, as if constant movement will stave off the pain. I lift my arms high above my head. I stoop or squat to reach the low fruit, picking, picking, picking as fast as I can. I am a machine, my mind emptied of every horrible thought since October 7. From the safety of the trees, the thick branches and large leaves muffle the artillery booms. My skittishness of an hour ago has disappeared completely.

Inside the avocado trees, my head swims with green, with the bounty of this pear-shaped fruit. Some avocados are quite hefty, others are the size of my fist but still commercially viable. Only the babies—which look like tiny, thick pickles—are left on the trees. Some trees are shaped in such a way that I can scoot inside and sit on the ground, atop fallen leaves and discarded pits, and pick from the low-hanging branches. I am certain that the back of my jeans is muddy or yellow-green with mushed avocado. From these little hideaways, I fill a sack, sometimes two, without moving.

I have never seen so many avocados. It’s dizzying after a while. I close my eyes and the fruit hangs before me; I think that a low-sighted person could do this work. Simply by reaching out one’s hands and touching, the fruit is there to be picked.

Julie Zuckerman with a sackful of freshly-picked avocados.

After about two hours, our daughters have had enough and my back is screaming in pain, but we tell them we’re staying until the end. Matiya brings a loaf of bread, a few packages of cheese, water bottles, a can of pickles, a can of olives, some tuna, humus. Our fellow volunteers come from all over Israel, and many have a connection to Sa’ad. Another American-Israeli from Yad Binyamin whose daughter did her national service at the kibbutz. A religious woman from Yerucham whose son-in-law grew up here. A man from Gizo and a woman from Tel Aviv. A young woman about my daughter’s age who has just returned from Australia.

After a short break, we resume picking. Occasionally I find myself in the center of the tree, where I can perch at the intersection of the trunk and a large branch. Several times I pause to grasp the thick branches themselves. I hold on for a beat or two, in reverence. The physicality of the tree is something I can believe in, solid and pure and true. I think of the scene in Ted Lasso when the Mexican character Dani Rojas says “Fútbol is life,” and I want to shout, “Avocados are life.”

The artillery blasts and loud booms continue in the background, but I’m too engrossed in the physical work to hear them or give them any thought. By 2 pm, the last containers have been filled and Matiya tells us the picking is over for the day. We hop on the sides of the container with the other volunteers to pose for a final picture.

One of the other volunteers who grew up on the kibbutz gives us a lift back to our car. His parents still live on Sa’ad, and he and his family were at the kibbutz for the holiday meal on Friday night, October 6, debating whether to stay over for the night, though they ultimately returned home. He explains what happened at Sa’ad on the 7th: “Around 11 am or 12 pm, about 30 terrorists tried to enter the kibbutz. Three members of the kibbutz’s rapid response security team engaged with the terrorists at the gate.” A group of soldiers arrived to join the battle, and then a tank arrived, firing on and killing most of the terrorists, which is how the members of Sa’ad were saved. “A miracle,” he says.

We do not yet know of Elisheva Rose Lubin, a 20-year-old lone soldier from Atlanta who was part of the kibbutz’s rapid response team, helping to fight off the terrorists; we will only learn her name the following day, after she is stabbed to death in a different terrorist attack in the Old City.  

Our drive home is mostly silent. We are tired and sore, our clothes and shoes and hair are dusty and covered in the detritus of the fields. Our legs and arms are scratched and bleeding from the prickly weeds. Dirt is embedded under every fingernail. But we agree: this is the best day we’ve all had since October 7. It’s hard to explain how fulfilling it’s been, working the land as the early Zionists did, putting our hands on the trees and helping to harvest one small source of sustenance. I want to cry in gratitude to the trees for grounding me, for giving me something tangible in which to trust. For rekindling a flicker of hope. When I close my eyes tonight, I know I will see green.

A few days later, I hear these lines, from Agi Mishol’s new poem, “Shelter,” translated by Joanna Chen:

Now, when everything has a time

And everything is horror

When the orchard reaches out

And the ground is plowed

I do as Rilke says:

I let beauty and terror happen to me

Without thinking it’s final.

I will return to the trees as frequently as I can. Borei pri haetz. Blessed be the farmers, the volunteers, the soldiers, who allow us to be a free and sustaining people in our land. Blessed be the trees.

Julie Zuckerman’s debut novel-in-stories, THE BOOK OF JEREMIAH, was published in May 2019 by Press 53. A native of Connecticut, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children. Learn more at Julie’s website or subscribe to Julie’s monthly author newsletter.

2 thoughts on “Memoir | Seeing Green in Southern Israel

  1. Linda SALKIN Kulp says:

    Julie’s account of her and her family’s activism reminds me that the State of Israel was born from the many activists who plowed and seeded and picked year after year. Yet here in 2023 there is still a need for all kinds of activism.
    ‘Papa’ Ben Gurion would have been proud of their backaches and their hearts.
    I am also. Thank you, Julie.

  2. What a moving and vivid account of this experience. Thank you for sharing. I will share this with my sister, who is going to Israel with her husband in February as part of a JNF group to work on farms or kibbutzim or wherever they are sent. This will be inspiring.

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