Haifa, Kibbutz Usha, O Jerusalem

Dunreith stands in front of the building at Kibbutz Usha where she lived as a volunteer in 1986.

We had another full day of travel today, this time returning to Haifa, Israel’s largest port city with a series of upward climbing roads and clouded views that reminded me of San Francisco.

After a tasty sandwich and coffee, we walked around the Ba’Hai Temple and its spectacular gardens before heading north to Kibbutz Usha. Dunreith lived there in 1986 and 1987, and had not been on the premises in 20 years.

Fortunately, Anita, one of her best friends from that time, was still there and available to spend some time with us at the beginning of her shift at the kibbutz’s Optiplas factory.

We also walked to the kibbutz’s graveyard, where Mendel, Dunreith’s kibbutz father and a partisan during World War II, lies next to his wife Tzippora.

Nearly all of the country’s kibbutzes have changed almost completely-some would call it a near palimpsest-since their original days of claiming territory toward building the Jewish state Theodore Herzl envisioned after witnessing the Dreyfus trial in the mid-1890s.   Not unlike the end of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Usha now pays its workers wages, does not have collective child rearing, has dropped its payments for health insurance and are in the process of making the homes on the property privately owned.

Both Haifa and the kibbutzes appear in the books I have been reading about Israel.  Martin Gilbert’s history of Israel had some material about the kibbutzes’ founders-Usha was heavy on Holocaust survivors, while others had more of an Eastern European flavor, not that the two categories are exclusive-while Collins and Lapierre’s O Jerusalem talks about the importance of Israelis securing Haifa while battles raged in other parts of the fledging nation like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

I finished the seminal work yesterday, and must say with confidence that it is very likely to appear in my Top 10 list for 2009.  Written in a cinematic style with a dizzying array of characters whirling in front of the reader, O Jerusalem conveys the epic drama, the pitched battles and the blood soaked land that resulted from what Israelis termed their War of Independence.

The authors tilt toward writing from a pro-Jewish and pro-Israeli perspective both in their inclusion of characters, in the narrative trajectory they adopt, and, some would argue, in their closing invocation of hoping for peace between the warring sides (Some pro-Palestinian people might say that stance is begging the question of moral accountability for the actions).   That said, Collins and Lapierre neither back away from the history’s brutally unsavory moments, like the massacre and rapes at Deir Yassin, nor do they write in a triumphalist manner about Israeli’s coming into existence.

The book is absolutely rife with gripping details, whether it’s David Ben-Gurion crying for the first time in his adult life after denying a childhood friend’s request for guns to keep the people under his command alive, or Dov Joseph’s desperate plans for survival in Jerusalem as Abdullah Tell’s plan to squeeze the city into submission appears to be bearing fruit.

Collins and Lapierre’s work is essential background reading that I wish I had encountered when I was younger.  I’ve started reading Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate at my mom’s cousin Gary and Amy Marcus’ recommendation, and the novel will be hard pressed to top O Jerusalem.

5 responses to “Haifa, Kibbutz Usha, O Jerusalem

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Books of 2009 « Jeff Kelly Lowenstein’s Blog

  2. Hi,
    I enjoyed reading this article about Kibbutz Usha, where I stayed with a group of college students in autumn 1976. We all lived in the Big House and some of us were able to work in the Optiplas factory. At that time, the factory was in a tiny building next to the chadar ochel and they were building the new factory, just across the yard from the Big House. I typed many of the letters that corresponded with European customers. Of course, that cushy job only came along a couple of times; mostly I worked in the kitchen with that nightmarish conveyor dishwasher, or in the dining room.
    It was fun visiting Usha again through your eyes. Shalom.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Many thanks, Sue, for this note and memories. I’ll let my wife know about your experience, too. She came about a decade later and I imagine that you knew a lot of the same people.

      Where are you now?

      Jeff

  3. Jeff,

    Like Sue, I was a kibbutznik at Usha in the winter of 74. At the time, I picked grapefruits, set up irrigation systems for avocado trees, artificially inseminated chickens, and moved chickens from hen houses to cages -ready to ship to market.

    The work was hard. The orchards in February were muddy. The chicken houses, well, you had to be there…But, I loved my experience, especially loved the leban, and all the food served at the dining hall.

    I didn’t envy the girls who were relegated to work there, and can only imagine what their experience was like; but, I must say, my experience was an experience of a lifetime.

    If there was a factory on Usha during my time, I never saw it, though I vaguely remember other members talking about it. I too lived in a large, basic dormitory building, with two mates in a decent size room. We raised chickens on our porch that I rescued, and they were left to the care of the permanent residents when our time came to leave. (They thought I was their mother, and followed me around.)

    So, like with everything else, things have changed in kibbutz living. Thanks for sharing your experience. Maybe one day I’ll be able to go back, and see the place for myself.

    Thanks,

    Adam Herchold

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