By Ellis Shuman,
The war had been raging for 40 days when Eli reported to the orchards. Seven in the morning and he was the first one. The only one. Was he in the right place? Was he in his right mind to have driven an hour and a half from his relatively safe home in Tel Aviv to this remote orchard in the relatively unsafe south? All was quiet at this hour—no rockets, artillery, or jets overhead—but everything could change without a moment’s notice, and he was a bit nervous.
“It’s completely safe there,” he had reassured Batya the previous night when he announced his intention to volunteer at the kibbutz. “There have been no rocket alerts or incidents in that area.”
“Still, you’ll be very close to Gaza,” she replied, a worried look on her face. “You should go to some farm near Netanya instead.”
“I’m going where I’m most needed,” he insisted.
And that was that. He woke up before his alarm rang, put on the hiking boots he hadn’t worn since his hiking trip in the Bulgarian mountains ten years earlier. He took two pitas out of the freezer and made cheese sandwiches for his lunch. After packing a bottle of mineral water in his bag, he was ready to go.
“I should be back in the early afternoon,” he whispered to Batya as he kissed her on the forehead.
“As long as you come back in one piece,” she replied without opening her eyes.
They needed him; he told himself repeatedly as he drove south. Thai and Nepalese workers had fled from the country in the aftermath of that horrific Saturday the previous month. Who would work in the fields? Who would pick the crops? Volunteers, that’s who! And he had stepped up to the plate. He was sixty-five years old, but damn if he couldn’t help save Israeli agriculture.
Now he stood at the highway intersection which Waze indicated was his destination, and he was alone. He watched the heavy traffic passing by—the delivery trucks and the Gaza-bound army jeeps—waiting for someone, anyone, who would direct him to the orchard. He looked at his watch once again. They would soon show up as promised, he told himself, and he would play his role in the war effort, as insignificant as it might be.
A white pickup pulled off the highway and came to a stop next to Eli’s Kia sedan. The driver signalled him to follow, so he started the motor and eased his foot off the brake.
Clouds of dust kicked up on the unpaved road. Eli kept a tight grip on the steering wheel, swerving around the countless potholes. He drove alongside rows of newly planted trees, too young to bear fruit. He wondered if they were orange trees, or maybe lemon. Surely citrus. That was what the Facebook ad had mentioned, leading him to sign up at this southern kibbutz.
The pickup turned left, onto another dirt road, and Eli followed. The trees were bigger here, and he could clearly see the fruit on their branches. Green spheres, some of them hanging low, nearly touching the ground. The pickup stopped; Eli pulled up behind it. He got out of the car to meet its driver for the first time.
“I’m Gershon,” the white-haired man said, reaching forward to shake his hand. “Welcome to our pomelo orchards. Pomelit, actually, a smaller variety of pomelo. Sweeter, also.”
“Am I the only one?”
“You’re the only one at this hour. Others will arrive, hopefully. Are you ready to get your hands dirty?”
As they walked between the rows of pomelo trees, Gershon provided background about the orchard. “It’s a cooperative between a business entity and the kibbutz. I’m a kibbutznik, but not from around here. Some 70% of the produce is for export; the rest is for the local market. Before the war, we employed Thai workers, some daily workers from Gaza. Now, they’re all gone. We’re weeks behind with the harvest. If it wasn’t for volunteers like you…”
Gershon didn’t need to finish the sentence. Eli felt he had landed in the right place at the right time.
Gerson directed him to the start of a row. The trees here were bursting with fruit. Pomelos. Thick-skinned pomelos.
“Pick everything,” Gershon instructed him.
“Even when they’re green?”
“They’re not grapefruits. This fruit is ready for market.”
Minutes later, Eli was all alone. His hands searched among the leaves for the ripe fruit. Much larger than expected, they easily snapped off the branches with a twist of his wrist. He quickly filled the bag strapped over his shoulder. In the sandy space between the rows, he carefully emptied the pomelos into a large container, making sure not to damage the fruit, which would lower its value. He returned to the tree and resumed picking.
The thorny branches scratched his arms, despite his having worn a long-sleeved shirt. Some of the fruit hung low, and he dropped to his knees to reach it. The sand was soft, but an old leg injury made the effort a bit discomforting. He pulled another pomelo out from its hiding place amidst the greenery.
Pomelos. Branch after branch, tree after tree. The citrus smell was heavenly, the quiet serene. He was alone in the orchard, with no signs or sounds of the war that had brought him here. Alone, and he felt wonderful.
The sound of approaching voices made him stand up, adjust the bag on his shoulder. It was Gershon, leading a small group of volunteers. Most of them appeared to be his age, although there was a young couple as well. Gershon nodded to Eli and then introduced the new arrivals to the work. They divided themselves among the rows and began picking. Pomelos piled up in the square container on the sandy path.
Eli continued to work, smiling at the thought of Batya just waking up to the empty quiet of their Tel Aviv apartment. They had been living alone for so many years—their two sons were in the States with their growing families. There had been frequent telephones of concern since the war began, but the rocket attacks on Tel Aviv were nothing to worry about. Most of them were shot down by the Iron Dome defence system.
Eli was too old to serve in the army reserves—his days as a combat medic had ended long before—but at least he could do this. He looked up at the bright blue expanse of sky. So close to the Gaza Strip, so close to the war, but he felt completely at ease. Safe.
The sound of a woman crying interrupted his thoughts. It was coming from the next row. He walked around the tree where he was working and onto the sandy path. It took a moment until he spotted her. She was sitting with her back against a tree trunk, her head held low and her face half-hidden by a large-brimmed sun hat. Her shirt and pants were khaki-colored. Removing a pair of work gloves seemed a task too difficult for her to handle, and she was crying.
“Are you alright?” Eli asked as he approached, but it was clear that something was wrong.
The woman looked up and wiped the tears from her face with her still-gloved hand. “I’m OK,” she said, and he was about to turn away. “No, I’m not OK. How can any of us be OK?”
He didn’t know how to reply to that. What she said was true, of course. The war had been raging for forty days and no one in Israel was OK. Everyone was struggling to deal with the aftermath of the horrific Hamas terror attack, some more than others. Perhaps this woman had a personal connection to the war?
“Is there anything…?” He wondered what words of comfort he could offer. Had a loved one of hers been killed? Had someone she knew been taken captive? Perhaps a family member had been called up for emergency reserve duty in the army. There were so many ways that this war affected Israelis. Too many ways.
“No, thank you,” she said, struggling to her feet.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked, surprising himself with the boldness of his offer.
She forced a smile and turned back to her tree, back to the pomelos in her row.
He continued to pick the heavy fruit, pulling them one by one from the thick thorny branches. He worked in silence, comforted by the simple physical task he was performing. Simple and repetitive, his bag filled quickly. He went to the container to empty it and she was standing there, not moving, gazing at the cloudless blue sky. When she heard him approach, she smiled. A genuine smile this time.
“I’m Eli,” he said in a friendly greeting.
A sense of calm eased her features, and she introduced herself. “Nava. Where are you from, Eli?”
“Tel Aviv. You?”
“Holon. So do you often come to the pomelos?”
He laughed. “No, this is my first chance to volunteer.”
“Mine, too. I needed to get away from everything. From the television newscasts, the horrid headlines. I needed to clear my head,” she said.
“We all need to clear our heads,” he agreed.
“Please excuse me for what you witnessed earlier. I rarely get emotional or teary, but these days… Well, you know.”
“It’s normal, isn’t it? To feel this way?”
“Of course,” he said. “It’s the situation.”
“Yes, exactly. The situation. What a fucked-up situation!”
This caused him to laugh. He waited for her to say more, but she adjusted the bag on her shoulders and returned to her pomelo trees.
Later, when he took a break and rested in the shade, when he ate one of his now-soggy pita sandwiches, she sat down next to him on the sand and took off her sun hat. She had light brown hair, styled much like Batya’s. But that was the only resemblance to his wife. Nava was younger, maybe in her forties. She was slim, her features pleasant. The kind of woman who would have attracted him twenty years ago.
“I had to do this,” she said, raising her hand to point at the trees. “To do something, anything, to make me forget.”
“Are you…? Do you…?” Eli wasn’t sure how to phrase the question he wanted to ask.
“If you’re wondering if I’ve suffered a personal loss in this conflict, the answer is no. That would be horrible, of course, but we all feel like we know someone who was murdered. We’re all mourning.”
“Exactly,” he agreed.
“That day. Everything changed on that horrific day. So many lives lost—men, women, and children, all of them innocent. So many taken by Hamas into the horrors of Gaza. So much property destroyed. And it’s all our fault.”
“Our fault?” He put the unfinished part of his pita back into its plastic bag and took a long sip of lukewarm water.
“They failed us. Our incompetent government, our army. Our intelligence agencies, and they say we have the best in the world. We have tanks, fighter jets, Iron Dome, and even nuclear weapons, and yet we allowed this to happen on our border. They drove in on motorcycles, dammit!”
“There will be inquiries after the war,” he said, wiping crumbs off his pants.
“After the war? They say we’re going to destroy Hamas, rescue all the hostages, but it’s a war we have no chance of winning. The world is against us, and we lose no matter what we do. Such terror, and the world says that it’s our fault.”
“We didn’t bring this upon ourselves.”
“You think that? It’s our arrogance, our feeling of invincibility, our refusal to accept the dangers at our doorstep. They were planning this attack for years. They tricked us, and we looked the other way, saying it could never happen. Well, it did. And look at the shithole we’re in. There is no winning this war, that’s for sure.”
She was saying aloud exactly what he was thinking. Exactly what everyone was thinking. If there was anything that this war had done, it had brought Israelis together like never before. The country had been on the brink of civil war, combatting the misguided reforms of its extremist right-wing government, but now the citizens were united. Destroy Hamas. Bring back the hostages. But maybe what Nava said was true. There was no winning this war.
“My therapist says I shouldn’t take this personally,” she said. “But how can I not? If I had been living in those communities, I would be dead now. If the terrorists hadn’t been stopped, they would have driven all the way to Holon. Hell, we’d all be dead!”
He understood her pain, as it was everyone’s pain. Her tears were his tears. Her crying had taken him by surprise, but these last few weeks had taken an emotional toll on everyone.
“Shouldn’t we get back to work?” he suggested.
“Yes, back to work. That’s what my therapist told me. I’m a travel agent, but there are no tourists these days. I needed to get away. I needed to do something positive amidst this negative life we’re living. And that’s why I’m here. Picking pomelos. And I don’t even like pomelos! They’re sour, they’re impossible to peel. The skin so thick, so much pulp to throw away. Pomelos! Who would have thought!”
He laughed at that. Pomelos were certainly not his favorite fruit either, but here he was, in the south, not far from the combat in Gaza. She had mentioned her therapist. These were days when there was a need for national therapy. Maybe the only thing to do, the only way to heal oneself, was exactly what he was doing. Coming here to pick the pomelit fruit.
Later, when the strain on his muscles was more than he could bear, and when his arms were scratched to the point of bleeding, Eli nodded farewell to a grateful Gershon and got back into his Kia sedan for the drive north to his home in Tel Aviv. Realizing he hadn’t said goodbye to Nava, he considered getting out to look for her among the trees, but Batya would get worried if he returned too late. And who was he to Nava, anyway? He had learned little about her, other than that she lived in Holon, was currently unemployed, and that she frequented a therapist. Even so, he felt like he knew her. They were going through this together, along with every Israeli.
There was no winning this way, but hopefully, they would soon emerge from this painful period. The country’s volunteering spirit was strong, and it didn’t matter whether you were cooking meals for soldiers, donating clothes to the displaced residents of the Gaza-area communities, or working on the farms, like him. Didn’t this show what Israelis felt about their country? Picking pomelos—a symbol of Israeli resilience. He’d come next week to pick some more. Yes, they would get through this together, he again thought, as he eased the car into the northbound traffic.