by Rabbi Amy KleinFrom the Winter 2013-2014 issue ofJewish CurrentsWHEN I MOVED THREE YEARS AGO from Harel, a kibbutz located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to Kibbutz Lehavot Habashan in the Hula Valley of northern Israel, I discovered that even native Israelis have no idea where the Hula Valley is located. When I said that I was moving north, I was asked time and again if it was near Haifa, and when I said no, I was asked if it was near Afula. Afula and Haifa are north in Israel the way San Francisco is north in California — there’s lots more up there. Most of the time it didn’t help when I said, “Near Kiryat Shemona,” so I simply started saying, “Near Lebanon.”
For my eldest son, the question was whether we would be closer or farther from Gaza. “Much, much farther,” I said with a reassuring smile. We hadn’t been so close to Gaza on Kibbutz Harel, but he had classmates who were within the radius of rocket fire, and it worried him. A few months after we moved, he realized where we were living. “We are really close to Lebanon and Syria aren’t we?” “Yes,” I replied, again with a reassuring smile.
After growing up in suburban southern California, I always wanted to live in the country. I fantasized about farmland, forests, and streams, fresh mountain air and wildlife, a simple life in a cabin with a fireplace and a pile of books and time to read them. Considering that you can’t drive more than two hours in Israel without running into an international border, I’ve done okay by moving here. From the kitchen window of our modest home in what is called an “expansion neighborhood” on the kibbutz, I have a view of the hills forming the western edge of the Golan Heights. In the winter, there are rainbows almost daily in front of those hills, created by the 4 p.m. rain that gets lit up by the sun setting over the Ramat Naftali Mountains on the western side of the Hula Valley. Our back porch looks across the valley, and just past the land where our neighbors have yet to build is the last bit of a teeny stream that runs through the kibbutz. The wildlife literally comes across our doorstep: good-sized, friendly toads, lots of spiders, ilaniot (Middle Eastern tree frogs), tiny smamiot (Mediterranean house geckos), and crabs as big as my hand. There are also snakes, of both safe and poisonous varieties. At the kibbutz perimeter, jackals howl most nights, and fearsome wild boar sometimes share the road encircling the kibbutz with people who are walking for exercise.
AS IN THE REST OF THE COUNTRY, there is no real spring season here up north, just a couple of weeks of nice weather around Purim. Then comes the hamsin (meaning “fifty” in Arabic for the fifty days it lasts in Egypt), winds that bring the summer along with sand storms off the Sahara Desert to dirty up your Passover spring cleaning. It will be mild for a month or two, and then it gets hot, but the heat is dry and usually bearable, given the multitude of springs in the area, not to mention the Jordan River.
Fall is marked by the sharkias (from the Arabic shark, meaning “east”), dry, roaring, easterly winds that shake and abuse the young trees and plants in our garden and upturn the neighborhood trampolines. Every morning during a sharkia we go out to check the damage in our garden, and I am reminded of my childhood home in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, where the autumn bought fierce Santa Ana winds and the danger of forest fires. October and November also bring the Hula Valley one of nature’s glorious phenomena: The great bird migration from Europe and Asia to Africa along the Syrian-African Rift Valley passes through the little strip of land known as the Levantine Corridor — and right through my backyard.
IN THE 1950S, THE JEWISH NATIONAL FUND DRAINED THE HULA VALLEY MARSHLAND in an effort to rid the area of malaria and make the land arable. The results were only somewhat helpful to agriculture, and disastrous for the ecosystem. In the 1990s, after heavy rains flooded a small area, the larger area known as the Agmon Ha-hula (Hula Lake Park) was re-flooded in an effort to revive a nearly extinct ecosystem. Half a billion migrating birds now pass through the Agmon Ha-hula on their way from Europe to Africa and back.
The pelicans come first, with boat-shaped beaks and heavy bodies that flash silver-white and then black underwings in the sun. Black storks are next, lighter-framed than the pelicans and more streamlined and beautiful in their blackness. There are also powerful and dramatic birds of prey, the lesser spotted eagle and the long-legged buzzard, joined by mallards, gray herons, great cormorants, and more. As the fall turns to winter, black kites, spotted eagles, and common buzzards stand out alongside the common kingfisher, shelduck, and glossy ibis.
The agurim (cranes) are the story of the season. From Finland to Ethiopia, they fly in families, calling to each other in flight so as not to lose contact. About 30,000 to 40,000 cranes spend the winter in the Agmon Ha-hula. When there are thousands in the sky or in a field, the noise is tremendous.
Nature specialists developed “The Crane Project” in an attempt to maintain a delicate balance in the area’s ecosystem, and they execute it carefully (and with many concerns about interfering with nature). In order for the cranes to continue migrating to Africa, they need to rest and refill their energy reserves; at the same time, they must be discouraged from staying, which is done through control of their food sources. From their arrival until mid-November, the cranes are allowed to forage the post-harvest peanut crop in the agricultural fields. From mid-November through December, the cranes are prevented from foraging in the fields, and during the winter months, the cranes that do not fly on to Africa are fed in order to keep them from ravaging the newly seeded crops.
The Hula Valley’s “Hidden Wagon” tour, especially the last one before sunset, provides a nature experience that is as thrilling as all the historical sites in Israel combined. The wagon takes you off-trail, where you can get a closer look at the birds, the nutriyot (coypu or river rat), and, if you are lucky, the local jungle cats. Then the wagon parks at the side of the lake and, as the sky grows dark, the squawking cranes lift off from the surrounding fields and fly overhead, landing flock by flock in the lake.
THE LEVANTINE CORRIDOR is the strip of land connecting Africa with the rest of the world. The Hula Valley has therefore been home to human settlements over the length of history. Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, a Lower Paleolithic site on the Jordan River bank, dates to 750,000 years ago and contains evidence for the earliest use of controlled fire outside of Africa. A mile north is the Mousterian site of Nahal Mahanayeem Outlet, which dates to 60,000 years ago and was inhabited when homo sapiens and Neanderthals coexisted in the area (contributing to the argument over whether Neanderthals were actually a different species from Homo sapiens). The site of ’Enan, dating to 12,000 years ago, is the location of one of the first permanent agricultural settlements. At Tel Dan in the northern Hula Valley are remains from Neolithic, Canaanite and Israelite cultures spanning from 4500 to 733 BCE, and to the south is Hazor, with Middle Bronze (1750 BCE) and Israelite (9th-century BCE) remains. At the foot of Mount Hermon is Banias, first settled in the Hellenistic period as a cult center to the god Pan (“Paneas” became “Banias” in Arabic). It later became a major Roman city, and still later, the border between the Crusaders and the Muslims. Jumping forward in history, in 1883 during the period of the First Aliyah, Yesod Ha-Ma’ala, the first Jewish moshava (settlement), was founded on the western shore of the Hula Lake.
My new home, Kibbutz Lehavot Habashan, was founded in 1945. Its founders, or “stone-hewers” as they call themselves, are an amazing group of individuals. The day after their arrival, the cabins they built were blown over by the sharkias, but neither this, nor the malaria, nor the basalt-filled land, nor the wars deterred them. The founders group includes Gila, who at 92 is still the most gracious and beautiful woman on the kibbutz; Aryeh, the dean at 94, who smokes cigars, drinks a beer every day, and attends lectures at the regional senior center; and Jackie, a 91-year-old wonder who every day walks the three-kilometer perimeter road of the kibbutz — twice! At the Yom Ha-Shoah observance at the kibbutz this year, the organizers highlighted the lives of female heroes, resistance fighters, and smugglers of Jewish children to safety during the war. It took a few moments for me to realize that the three life stories told were of three modest Lehavot Habashan women whom I greet on the kibbutz sidewalks and with whom I have the honor to study when I lead an occasional Jewish text session on the kibbutz.
DESPITE MY CONNECTION TO THE FOUNDERS, and even though I had already been living in Israel for thirteen years when we moved to the Hula Valley, I felt like a new immigrant upon our arrival. With Los Angeles really a part of my psyche, I had been perfectly at home on Kibbutz Harel, which is situated at the edge of an area of Israel that is as wine country as it gets here, with the added advantage of being only a 45-minute drive from Tel Aviv. The population there was fairly transient, as in Los Angeles, with no one having much of a long generational claim on its culture. In the Upper Galilee, by contrast, even residents with a three- or four-generation claim are looked upon as newcomers. It seems that human migrations are a thing of the past.
There are plenty of progressive Meretz voters on my kibbutz, and the very liberal Tel Hai College is the major employer in the region, yet the area is fairly set in its ways. Girls dance and boys play soccer. Nevertheless, the region is very diverse and its influences are many. With only 50,000 residents, there are kibbutzim, moshavim (agricultural collectives), moshavot (small, early pioneering settlements), and cities. Residents of the kibbutzim are primarily secular Ashkenazim, while those of the moshavim are primarily Mizrakhim of traditional religious background.
In the Golan Heights are Druze towns and villages, the largest being Majdal Shams, with 9,000 residents. Being near the Lebanese and Syrian borders, it is an area with lots of memorial sites for fallen soldiers, from Joseph Trumpeldor at Tel Hai (1920) to the helicopter disaster at She’ar Yashuv (1997), which killed seventy-three IDF soldiers, to the twelve reserve soldiers killed by a Katyusha rocket while waiting for orders at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi during the Second Lebanon War. These sites are destinations for school trips, nature hikes, and holiday outings.
Residents of the city of Kiryat Shemona include Moroccans of the 1950s mass immigration, more recent Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, and a handful of haredim (ultra-Orthodox). Centers of Jewish life include the Yeshivat Hesder, where soldiers combine military service with study, and small, traditional neighborhood congregations, found also on moshavim and in the smaller towns.
In the kibbutzim, there is a smattering of Jewish text study and Kabbalat Shabbat programming, but enthusiasts are few and they struggle to maintain momentum. The influence of the secular renewal of Judaism and the Reform and Conservative movements felt in the center Israel is absent in this periphery of peripheries. The second-generation atheists among the partisan fighters and Holocaust survivors who built the Hula Valley kibbutzim are divided between those grew up on United Kibbutz Movement kibbutzim, which had rich, secular traditions for Jewish holidays, and the anti-religionists of Shomer Ha-tzair kibbutzim, who used to observe Yom Kippur by working and eating pork for lunch, and who favor celebrating civil holidays like Independence Day and Memorial Day. I live among the latter, which makes it a bit hard for me, as a Reconstructionist rabbi, to find my place.
My “expansion neighborhood” includes many Mizrakhi families from Kiryat Shemona, some secular Israelis from the center of the country, and third-generation local kibbutz members. Last Yom Kippur, I co-led a wonderful, secular observance of study, readings and song in the moadon (social room) for about twenty-five participants. The discourse was intellectual, personal, and spiritual all at once. Others chose to celebrate at the kibbutz pool. Still others attended the Orthodox minyan because they are stuck on the kibbutz — on Yom Kippur, no one drives in Israel — so they figure they might as well get in a little time with the Creator of the World, and if so, best to do it “right” in bet knesset shel abba (a synagogue like their father’s).
Many people on the kibbutz now know I am a rabbi, but when it is time for their sons’ bar mitzvah, even the more secular don’t think that I, a woman, might be able to teach their son to chant Torah and haftorah and all the rest that goes with the ceremony. I did recently teach the grandson of immigrants from Argentina and led his ceremony on a neighboring kibbutz, and I now have as student on my own kibbutz the son of immigrants from Peru. (Jews from places where liberal Judaism exists seem much more likely to seek a meaningful connection to Jewish tradition that is consonant with their values.) I am not sure whether I will get my first bat mitzvah student until girls start playing soccer in these parts, but I am glad at least that my boys, as “rabbi’s kids,” won’t be my first students.
As it turns out, living so close to Lebanon and Syria has not weighed my sons. The biggest problem so far is that there is no “Dungeons & Dragons” summer camp in the area. Other than that, my eldest says he likes not living near a big city, as long as we get to Tel Aviv during summer vacation. Speaking like a parent, he says that the schools are great, and speaking like a kid, he notes that while the kibbutz doesn’t hold any mystery, there are places yet to discover.
The large numbers who flocked to the Orthodox bet knesset on Yom Kippur did depress me for a week, truthfully. Then the birds began migrating soon after into the little strip of land known as the Levantine Corridor — and through my backyard — and my spirit soared again.
Rabbi Amy Klein, a contributing writer to our magazine who has lived in Israel since 1997, is coordinator of community programs for Yuvalim, the Pluralistic Center for Jewish Identity and Culture at Tel Hai College in the Upper Galilee. She serves on the board of Rabbis for Human Rights and volunteers weekly at the Elem center for youth at risk in Kiryat Shemona. Klein is a former deputy public defender for Los Angeles County.