I was touching down in Tel-Aviv from my weekend in Germany while Mubarak was deciding what to pack for his quiet exodus out of Cairo. Located 60 miles north of the border with Egypt (and 5 miles west of Jordan) Neot S’madar is surrounded on three sides by the largest Israeli Military Tank, Infantry and Air Force bases — but with no TV, no radio and limited Internet access, it’s not the BOOMs echoing in the background every so often that occupy minds here, but rather the “inner noise”…. The voices in our heads that dictate and define the relationships we have with ourselves, each other, the community, the earth….
It took 2 buses to get me back to the Kibbutz, both jammed with Israeli soldiers heading to their bases after weekend leave with their families. 18- to 20-years-old, most will experience “war” during their military service. I looked at the young faces as I boarded those buses and wished I’d had the presence of mind to pick up a candy bar for each of them … a small token of gratitude for their attitude. Instead, I bribed one of the female soldiers on the last leg with a bar of chocolate for her seat — and befriended both her and my seatmate. There was definite concern about the ‘shifting sands’ so-to-speak, going on in the direction we were heading … With the eyes of the world watching their every move, they hope for understanding — and peace, in a complex world/all they’ve ever known.
The war drums may be beating on CNN but for now, all’s quiet on the eastern front.
The night before I left for Germany, one of my neighbors Max who works in agriculture, invited me over for a jigger of Middle-Eastern schnapps and a two-hour walk, in the dark, over hills and stones. “No liquor weekdays?” is what I’d heard … “Over 50, it’s okay” was his response. Tanned and relaxed in a battered blue sweat-shirt, jeans and his signature white [Arab-looking] bandana, he’d been trying to convince me to face the dark without my flashlight: no chance.
There was a lot to see — and a lot more I could have seen with my flashlight. He had some good stories but about an hour out, he stopped, dumbfounded: “Why didn’t you ask me if I am in a relationship?? Don’t you want to know??”
I didn’t know if I wanted to know. Which was entirely weird. My inner noise wasn’t registering anything beyond an opportunity to talk (versus sit in silence) with someone age appropriate. I’m here, he’s here, and so are 149 others. I’m just starting to recognize faces — can’t even associate names yet. Clearly, I’m hungry for information — where am I? Then, about you …
This is a very small community. The original pilgrims came here 20 years ago from Jerusalem in couples — or as singles who eventually coupled up. With hundreds of volunteers passing through for various lengths of time, they’ve got written and unwritten rules to protect their inner voices from getting them in to too much mischief. Interestingly, not unlike their counterparts who have unlimited access to TV, radio and the information highway, many of the original couples are divorced. Some are still here with new partners (a few of those new partners are volunteers who stayed). Some have moved away. A few met here as volunteers — and stayed.
There are no strings. With rare exception, you can come and go as long as there’s a bed available; you can own whatever you own on the outside (it belongs to only you). When you’re here, you’re part of the fabric of the community. When you leave, you’re not.
Max does have a girlfriend. “Who you see me touch in public, is not her,” he muttered. There is no public display of affection. Now I’m curious…!
Families sit together on Friday night and Saturday meals — that’s the only clue of who’s with whom … but split couples may sit together with their children so who you see side-by-side might not be current. “We’re very affectionate privately,” he assured me, “We evolved this way as a group … out of respect,” he said, “for those without a partner.” Singles can ceremonially “declare themselves a couple” – let no man covet another man’s honeybun.
To recap: married couples live together (with their children); they all give a lot of visible affection to everybody (except their partner) — and the single folks discreetly sneak into their lover’s caravan “whenever” to do the hokey-pokey.
Everything else rotates … their housing (seriously minimalist) and their jobs, every 2 years or so. There are constant business meetings to inform and discuss; in 20 years, not much has actually changed (including the menu — if you know what day of the week it is, you pretty much know what’s for lunch). They work hard … this place is an oasis in the middle of a dessert, created with tender loving care: quiet streams, refurbished caravans, production houses. The chickens are fed, goats are milked … Olive, pear and date trees, apricots, plums, grapes, herbs — all get bottled or packaged by hand — and sold at their restaurant 2 kilometers away, or distributed to 100 retail shops, for support. They’re healthy, they’re gorgeous and their wardrobe is a page out of a FREE PEOPLE catalog — mismatched comfortable colorful layering.
They came together through a shared interest in education and in examining the essence of “inner noise.” Neot S’madar has evolved into a quiet place for people seeking time alone, a respite from outside noise. Twenty years later, they’re still exploring their connection with each other, their community and us — who have the privilege of passing through.
I completely forgot it was the 1st anniversary of my father’s passing the night Max walked me around the dessert without a flashlight — until Max asked and we realized it was February 1. We lit a candle and I smiled in silence for a moment. He’d have loved this.
What seemed vast in the dark is actually do-able in daylight. I’ve befriended some of the women now who have shown me more of the property — and even managed to find some pretty spectacular spots by myself. After a few weeks here, people are talking, taking care of me, making sure I’m okay with the work. They’re surprised I haven’t shown any signs of leaving — yet.
As I grow more fond of “here, now” I wonder if I could adapt to a daily diet of organic veggies and a routine of packaging herbs day after day. These are very smart people who opted out of the mainstream, to build a better widget — why is this so appealing?
I believe in extended family; I like communal living — I look great in comfortable layers. The number of older male Kibbutzniks may be limiting, but hundreds of volunteers pass through every year… and … well … I betcha the kind of guy I’d like to spend the rest of my life with is the kind of guy who would like it here, too.
NOTE TO SELF: Hang on to the flashlight