The color white, in a procession of white shirts, changed my life.
There was nothing remarkable about those shirts. They were perfectly plain, and in any other place might well have been worn to the office on a routine workday. But this was Kibbutz Sa’ad, one Friday evening in March 1978. How did I come to be there?
Well, my husband and I had left cold, rainy London the previous Sunday, together with 20 or so others, in their twenties or thirties, who were just beginning to think of making aliyah. Some of the group, including my husband, had never been to Israel before. Some – like me – had come on holiday in the sixties and it was almost a different country now in so many ways. Before we committed ourselves to a complete change of lifestyle, we decided to join up for a two-week, intensive spying-out-the-land Pilot Tour organized by the aliyah branch of the Jewish Agency.
It was very well planned, and we were taken more or less from Dan to Beersheva, visiting development towns, kibbutzim, going to visit schools and absorption centers for new olim (immigrants), hearing lectures about Israel’s modern history, and getting advice about the financial aspects of settling in Israel and the help given to new olim. We hurtled around the country on a bus, Shauli, our energetic “Abba” for the trip, with us all the time, encouraging and empathizing; a fund of informal knowledge. We slept only 4-5 hours a night, determined not only to see as much as we could, but also to brainstorm with the people in our group, as we were all bombarded with information, maps, plans, and impressions.
We got into the habit, after the evening lecture session ended, of sitting up with hot drinks and going bit by bit through the day, asking the others what they’d thought of, say, Karmiel, or Kiryat Gat. Could we live in Tel Aviv, with its hot, humid climate, would we settle in the hills near Jerusalem? Should we just go where there was work? But did we know what kind of work we’d do in Israel? The needs of the country, and our expertise, might not blend.
Could we retrain? My husband thought he might retrain as an electrician. (He worked in administration in England.) Making a living was, of course, the major concern. Language was another worry, but so was the question of leaving family. Could we deprive the children of my husband’s parents, their only grandparents, and his sister and family, their only aunt and cousins? Could we deprive their grandparents of two of their grandchildren?
One unexpected bonus of our two-week trip was meeting up with some of our Israeli family. My mother-in-law’s brother had married an Israeli girl in 1948 and had three children. They lived in Jerusalem. Our cousin, Eytan, was in the first intake of medical students at Ben-Gurion University, and on the day when we knew we would be visiting the University in Beersheva, we arranged to meet there. We thought the plan probably wouldn’t work out, but when we climbed down from the bus, there he was, sitting on the wall waiting for us!
Eytan and his parents were intrigued by our sudden appearance on the Pilot Tour, particularly because it was only a few months since he had stayed with us in the UK and we hadn’t mentioned any such plan. We had had something of an epiphany in the intervening months…. When his parents managed to phone us (this was long before the invention of the mobile phone), Aunt Avigail said we must spend Shabbat with them at the religious kibbutz where her sister and family lived – Kibbutz Sa’ad, in the northwestern negev, right near Gaza.
Before coming on the trip, we had all been told that we had to stay with the group and no private arrangements would be allowed. However, the leaders understood that for us to see what Shabbat was like on a religious kibbutz would be of value to us. They agreed that we could go, but made us promise to return to Tel Aviv on motzei shabbat. They – and we – had no idea just how valuable the experience would be.
We went by bus to Sa’ad. When we arrived it was about two hours before the start of Shabbat and we saw people in regular work clothes going about their business. Our uncle and aunt took us past the huge cowsheds, a poultry farm, and fields where carrots, potatoes and other crops were growing in abundance. It was a warm, spring day. We took off our jackets and enjoyed the feeling of the sun on our backs. We went with Avigail to meet her sister and husband, who then showed us to the small kibbutz apartment where we’d be staying over Shabbat.
A Shabbat urn was ready with hot water and a tray set out with coffee things and yeast cake. We showered and changed into our Shabbat clothes and started out to the shul. On our way there, we caught up with a crowd consisting of mostly men and boys also on their way to Kabbalat Shabbat. Each one was wearing a white shirt over Shabbat slacks.
We went into the shul, furnished in light wood, and looked around us. Everyone was in a white shirt in honor of Shabbat. Only an hour or so ago, these men had been coming home from their work shift at the end of a busy week, grubby and tired from working with the animals or in the fields or factories. Now, they were changed, both in appearance and – I thought – within themselves.
The change from the everyday, mundane world to Shabbat – the weekly taste of the Olam Haba – was incredibly striking. I glanced over towards my husband. His face was at the same time puzzled, as if he was working out some long-troubling problem, and full of wonder and relief, as if he had finally found the answer to it. It was as if at that moment, he realized that we too could have an experience where it would be Shabbat with all its beauty, not just for us, and the Jewish neighbors in our road, but for everyone around us, in our street, in our neighborhood, in the totality of our environment.
That was the high spot of our Shabbat on Sa’ad. It was interesting to eat in the kibbutz dining room where, of course, white was again the dominant color, and a rare treat to be with Eric, our reserved English uncle, and Avigail, our lively Israeli aunt. The next day, we walked around the gardens of the kibbutz with their giant cacti, all the time accompanied by Eric’s whistling, “It’s Now or Never.”
We took the hint. We made up our minds on the bus back to Tel Aviv that, yes, we would come on aliyah with our two young daughters. The white shirts and what they represented had cast a kind of spell on us; they would cause us to leave the land of our birth and everything that was familiar to us and seek our fate in the Promised Land.
It’s now 39 years since our aliyah, and I am constantly awed by the amount of siyata d’shmaya we have received in these years of living in Israel. Our two little girls are now married with children, and I am defined in the family as the savta from Jerusalem, a wonderful title!