My Kibbutz Connection

At the very northern tip of Israel, less than a mile from the Lebanese border, lies my family’s kibbutz; Kfar Giladi.
For a brief and fascinating background on the kibbutz, click on this Wikipedia link.

In the fall of 1938, my mother’s first cousin, Shirshara Jaffe Itai and her husband Abraham, left their kibbutz, Kfar Giladi, with their 4 year old son Avner (they left baby Yuval to be cared for by the kibbutz children’s program) to come back “home” to Riga, Latvia where they had grown up. Shirshara and Abraham and about 100 others from the greater Riga area had traveled to Palestine about 7 years earlier to help build a socialist Jewish homeland. As the storm clouds of war were converging on Europe in 1938, in their youngest son Hemy’s memory of family lore, it wasn’t clear what their objective in going back was all about. It could have been to organize Latvian- and Lithuanian-area Jews to gather their possessions, say their goodbyes, and emigrate to Palestine. As quickly as possible. Or it could have been to gather political and/or financial support. Nor was the outcome of their effort clear.

But by the Summer of 1939, Shirshara, Abraham and Avner successfully made it out of Riga, and smuggled their way back into Kfar Giladi. Those Jews who didn’t leave would see Germany invade Poland in September, Latvia taken over the next year, and all would almost certainly then perish in the Camps thereafter. Jewish immigration into Palestine under the British Mandate was illegal then, and Kfar Giladi was part of a major smuggling route into the area.

80 years later, I am sitting next to Avner at the Kfar Giladi Passover Seder. The Seder is unlike anything I have ever seen or could imagine for such an occasion. The whole event an enormous production, with 700 kibbutzniks dining and singing along as music and dance and theater performances carry the multitude through 4 hours of bedlam. It is marvelous! And yes, these avowedly secular – and mostly irreligious – Israelis – go through the gantze megillah (whole story), chow down on Ashkenazim essentials (gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzoh balls, and far far too much food) and manage to make it through 4 cups of wine just fine.

With the exception of one verse in English of “Go Down Moses,” everything is in Hebrew. Avner kindly summarizes the gist of the evening to me as it evolves. An early dance number has a dozen young women and girls, dressed in biblical-era garb, formally expressing an Exodus scene in movement. Turns out that Shirshara, who led the dance and theater program at the kibbutz for decades, had done the choreography for this dance piece 50+ years ago and it is an annual tradition to have it performed at Seder.

For Avner, it is a deeply emotional reunion, as he both led music in the kibbutz for years, and hadn’t lived there for more than 50 years. His talents were viewed by the kibbutzniks as too great not to share more broadly, and all agreed he must relocate to the urban core of the country and pursue where those talents could take him. Avner went on to be Israel’s foremost choral director (see a reference to his career here), but at his heart, he still remains a kibbutznik. All through the night, former students come up to him to pay their respects.

The Pushing and Pulling of Migration

The core story of Passover, of course, is about the yearning for freedom that motivated the Israelites to migrate away from slavery and oppression and migrate to a promised land of milk and honey. The Torah, however, is not a single story, and history neither starts nor stops at any time period. For every action, there are complex causes and continuing consequences. The Israelites freed by G-d, proceed to defy his commandments, are punished by being required to roam homeless and stateless for 40 years, and then are allowed to enter into Canaan. In this final act of migration, G-d directs the Israelites to invade Canaan and slay every native man, woman and child so that they could not come back later and retake the land. This is what progressive rabbis would call “a challenging passage” of Torah. This also wouldn’t be the first or last time that the area now known as Israel/Palestine would be subject to violent invasions. Its peoples and their cultural supremacy would frequently change hands.

The underlying legitimacy for Jewish settlement in 19th Century Palestine (conceived predominantly under the concept of Zionism) had both a push and a pull rationale. The push was the all-too prescient belief that European anti-Semitism left Jews at risk of death if they stayed in Europe. The pull, was the notion of return to a land that was a core part of the ethos of Jews in the diaspora. The underlying tragedy and the basis for conflict since has been that the Jews were moving to a land already dwelt in by a different people. At the beginning of Jewish immigration into Palestine in the mid-19th Century, Jews represented an estimated 3% of the area population.

We now live in an era of human history where migrations of people throughout the world are both physically easier than ever before to accomplish, and also a profound source of tension which is leading to cruelty and violence. In every migration there is the ideal of freedom for those individuals either fleeing danger or yearning for a better life in a new land. In every migration there is the risk of unwanted or unfair displacement of indigenous communities. Every migration is chock full of real and potential heroics and injustices.

This last Thursday, on Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaShoa) at 10 am, sirens blared and most Israelis stopped driving or whatever else they were doing, and stood for two minutes of silence to think about the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. But not all Israelis did this. At ulpan, I saw my fellow Arab students milling about, making themselves scarce at the appointed time. In a classic lack of empathy, many Arabs have been taught that the Holocaust was not real, or at least there were legitimate choices for the post-war Jews other than Palestine. In a classic lack of empathy, many Jews have been taught to believe that the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Migration conquers all emotion and all reason.

My most thought-provoking experiences in this exhilarating visit to Israel, Jordan and Palestine have been when I have tried to juxtapose the daily lives of individuals I encounter with some level of understanding of the larger forces – historic, political, economic – at work on their lives. For most, though not all, of these interactions, a deeper understanding of each person’s relationship to their family’s migrations has been a key to the stories of their lives and those of their countries.

7 thoughts on “Migrations

  1. Thank you so much Daniel for your very thoughtful views of the difficult situation in Israel.   Manifest destiny has been the motivating force of almost all countries and we see it being played out all over the world today. Russia is on the move, China is on the move, and so are many groups in Africa, South America,  etc. But, for some reason,  the lens of world interest focuses on tiny Israel and its conflicts, I, as a Jew, am not proud of how Israel is treating Palestinians or continuing to take more land. I also know how important Israel has been in providing a safe haven for persecuted Jews and I want it to succeed as a country.  But at this point,  I believe the Palestinians are up shit’s creek without a paddle, especially as there seems to be little or no help from their neighboring Arab brothers and sisters, and they don’t seem to have a viable self government for Israel to deal with. I can only hope for a peaceful solution to this messy situation. I believe you and Jean are coming to the reunion in Santa Rosa, so I look forward to seeing you then.Love,Shelley Sent via the Samsung Galaxy S8, an AT&T 5G Evolution capable smartphone


  2. Thanks again for all your insight .Oh what history.As Rodney King asked can’t we all just get along..? It’s not that easy apparently Mickey and Earl Le Clair Sumner


    1. And to a great extent the answer to his question here in Jerusalem is “yes.” Just walking down the street or in the light rail, you see Haredi of all different uniform types, secular Jews, Arabs, and tourists just going about their daily lives shoulder to shoulder. Women of every age walk the streets at every time of the day in relaxed safety. Toleration abounds! Or at least appears to, amidst the craziness of gun-toting green-suited IDF teens laughing and flirting with each other.


  3. This title is very relevant to one of my german courses. I have been reading from Paul Celan’s – “Todesfuge” along with other pre and post war refugee movements around Europe. Another author from the time of the fall of the Berlin wall, May Ayim began one of the first Afro-Deutsch movements which represented a minority group facing major racism during reunification.

    All of this is centered around identity and language which is obviously very relevant to your whole journey Daniel.


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