Tuesday, August 3, 2010

First Days on Hachshara . 1948-49

Hurst Grange. (1948-49).
The idea of going on Hachshara (the communal farm, or commune) was finalized at a concert of Beethoven’s 9th symphony performed by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Whether it was the words of Schiller (Ode to Joy, all men are brothers) or the stirring music that sealed my decision to go on Hachshara, I do not know. I turned to my Madrich (Group leader), Zvi Frisch, who was at the concert and said something like “ I am ready”. I was fed up with high school, with studying piano, and, what I then considered the decadent life of Glasgow Jewry (Jewish social clubs, Ballroom dancing, etc). I had had all these years of Zionism and socialist indoctrination, having joined the movement at around 10 years old, graduated to the Daily Worker, and was imbued with the idea of creating a ‘utopian” society. This could only be done through going on Aliya to Israel and living in a Kibbutz. I must have been quite a romantic, and decided that this was a superior way of life than going to university and following my contemporaries in study or business. Of course I had come under the influence of the movement and its leadership, which frowned on the idea of a university education. In fact if you read the minutes of the discussion in the movement at that time, you will find that this was a deliberate policy, to persuade young people not to go on for higher education even if it was possible. Thus at the age of 16.5, some time in 1948 I arrived at Hurst Grange, near Reading (at that time Twyford was the nearest train station and was just a village). I had come from a very middle class home, and had never done a days hard work in my life except for pulling out a few weeds around the rhubarb patch in the back garden. By this time the family had moved up to Holeburn Rd, in Newlands, one of the newer suburbs on the South side of Glasgow.
That I ended up in Hurst Grange was just chance, since the movement had three training farms, “ “Reading” as the one at Hurst Grange was called, David Eder Farm, near Horsham, and a third at Bosham, in Sussex. The idea was that this would be training for kibbutz life in Israel. Hachsharot (commune) as these were called were actually set up in Europe before the war, and continued in the UK after the war as a means of organizing the immigration into Palestine, which was under a quota by the British authorities. This of course was relaxed with the creation of Israel, but the concept of using these as a training farm, and possibly the future leadership of the movement was maintained. In fact it turned out to be a very idealistic kibbutz life compared to the real thing, and even idyllic. The premise was that we would work as farm laborers if such jobs were available, and pool our earnings. I don’t remember how much I earned but it all went into a common kitty. I am sure it was not very much, as farm laborers, particularly unskilled did not earn very much. In fact we often worked piecework, being paid by the row we hoed, or number of boxes of sprouts or lettuce or carrots we harvested. Although we believed in the equality of the sexes, for the most part it was the chaverot (girls) who did most of the cooking and the housework although occasionally one of the guys would be in charge of the kitchen. We lived on a very limited budget, and tried to be very self sufficient, i.e. not taking help from outside, although I am not sure how much Hechalutz (the parent organization. meaning the Pioneer) and the Zionist organization subsidized the training farms. In most cases we were about 20 young people of both sexes, mostly single with a few married couples, either both from the movement and in some cases one was there because the other belonged to the movement. Occasionally non-movement people did join for ideological reasons, mostly socialist ideas. I must emphasize that this was not like the communes of the 60’s, no drugs, hot tubs etc. It was a working commune and very self disciplined.
We ran the place very democratically, the instrument of decision being the asepha (meeting) where all of us would participate in discussion on what we considered “ important “ matters. These important matters revolved around social items: internal about personal relationship or about our relationship to the outside world. We were most definitely not religious, completely secular, and although we did celebrate some Jewish holidays (selectively) they were related to the season (agricultural) or given a nationalistic flavor.
We also elected a secretary (Mazkir), treasurer (Gizbar), and various committees particularly to attend to our cultural (tarbut) needs. Culture was very important, particularly music (classical) and intellectual discussions on philosophy, Zionist and socialist writers etc. I do not remember there being any interest in “ pop music” or pop culture, which might have been natural for a group of youngsters. I was on the Vaad ha Tarbut ( the cultural committee) However we did relax at times and sing old pub songs, and dirty ditties, this was the “ British” coming out in us. This was a specialty of certain chaverim ((comrades), mostly those from a Cockney background. We really were an odd mix of British and Jewish culture, and I suppose in retrospect we were an odd group of kids. We definitely were not the run of the mill teens or young people. We also very much believed in the idea of an educated peasantry, doing a lot of self study , reading on our own, learning Hebrew etc.
Hurst Grange was an old rambling run-down mansion that had seen better days. I think the house probably still exists, or it did a few years ago. I shared a room with another newcomer, Nat Ritsky from London. The chevrah (group) was made up of a few of us newcomers, mostly younger members of the movement, and older members in the early 20’s many of whom were born in Europe and had come to Britain as refugees. Although I knew how to cycle, I had never cycled long distances. This was essential if I wanted to get to work in one of the nearby (or not so nearby) farms. We had a collection of bikes left over from other members. I quickly learned the ropes and the next day (my first) was sent out to work with Nat and Leon, other new arrivals. I do not think any of us had ever been close to a cow before and here we were in front of a pile of cow dung, shoveling the stuff into a cart. It must have looked like a scene from a comic movie or Monty Python show. We all struggled getting the fork into the pile, and equally struggled lifting it up and moving it into the cart. It probably looked like an exercise in slow motion. Nat was a well-built, dark boy, about my own age, with dark curly hair. He came for the East End of London. Leon was a gangly, pimpled skinny young man, I think from NW London. Nat had been a tailor’s apprentice and Leon a hairdresser’s assistant. I do not think either had been very involved in the Habonim, certainly not as much as I had been. It was tough work. None of us had handled pitchforks and shovels before, and with great difficulty we extracted the material, which was all compressed together. Although we thought we were working hard, when it came time to go home, the farmer in no uncertain terms told us to go home and never come back. Although we were cheap labor, our productivity was such that he preferred local labor.
Thus my introduction to Hachshara, and farming, fired after one day on the job (This was not to be the last time it happened, but that belongs to another era. When I arrived in New York, I was penniless and had no profession other than what I had learned from working in the Kibbutz. There were no sheep in New York. I got a job in the fruit market as a book keeper through the Hebrew Immigrant Society, but was fired after one day because of illegible handwriting and not knowing how to keep books.). I do not know what happened to Nat or Leon, but both returned to London after a short time. During a visit to Kfar Hanassi in Israel in 2007 I met a distant relative, (Irene, wife of Nocky Shine (deceased)), and it turns out that she was instrumental in convincing her nephew many years ago to go on Hachshara. This was the same Nat Ritsky. Apparently he left the Hachshara after a few months and became a London taxi driver.
The next day after this incident I was sent to work in a local market garden. The owner of the farm was a Mr. Lobjoit, a nice gentleman farmer. He employed quite a number of the crazy “Jewish kids”. I must have worked quite well since I did not lose this job but did all sorts of jobs around the farm, including harvesting various kinds of greens, feeding the pigs (who always wanted to take a bite out of me), and milking the cows. This was before milking machines were common, and I also learned to drive a tractor, a Ferguson and Ford, which placed me in a good position later on in life. I actually used my tractor driving skills to help put me through college 15 years later! These were the type of tractors where you had to use all your strength to turn the starting handle which had a terrible kick back, not like today with automatic ignition.
I have pleasant memories of this time, and although the work was hard it did not bother me. I learned a lot about agriculture, and the exposure to different tasks came in handy later on. The worst job, as I remember, was picking Brussel sprouts covered with ice in a cold frosty morning. I remember one freezing morning picking these ice-cold sprouts with one of the girls Aliza, I think from London. She cursed like a trooper, and amazed all the local yokels with her vocabulary. I remember Mr. Lobjoit taking me aside and asking whether all our girls behaved like this! What could I say. Swearing like the yoklels had become a way of speaking for some people, or perhaps is was a rebellion against a NW London upbringing. I loved working in the cowshed, it was warm and cozy, even if it smelt a bit, and sitting next to the cow and milking by hand was quite a calming experience. I became a good cowman, and grew fond of the cows ,knew them by name, the usual, Daisy, Heather etc. and it helped that I had a love of animals (previously cats and dogs). As far as I can recall I worked at Lobjoit’s all through my period at Hurst Grange. Certainly my Hachshara was a success in learning how to work, and to some extent enjoying it. I also may have been one of the few to have a stable job. Apparently Lobjoit’s was a famous market gardener, there being a type of Cos lettuce called after the farm.
Next Chapter: Love on Hachshara

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, and adventurous in a strange land with new ideas.