The early years of Les Sheer who left a legacy on the landscape of Israel
By David E. Kaplan
Johannesburg-born, Les Sheer would frequently say to people, “Thank God for Israel, for without it I would never have had the most interesting life I have had.”
How right he was!
The passing of Les (“Chaim”) Sheer at the age of 93 on the 13th October in the city of Rehovot in central Israel, brought back memories of when I attended his 80th birthday party thirteen years ago. It was an illuminating history lesson that began for his 50 plus guests of family and friends packing into a bus and learning about the pioneering life on Timorim. Included among the guests was the late South African industrialist and philanthropist and former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, Mendel Kaplan, whom Les had been his anchorman in Israel for his multifarious business and philanthropic interests. On this day, we were like schoolkids as Les held court as schoolmaster.
His personal history mirrored the history of Israel.
The bus did not head south to where moshav Timorim is situated today near Kiryat Gat, but north to a picturesque hilltop opposite Nahalal in the Yizreel Valley. It was here in 1948 that Timorim was originally established as a kibbutz by a core group of some 20 South Africans, all members of that country’s Bnei Zion youth movement. Many of them, like Les and Tzippy Sheer, got married before leaving South Africa. The bus puffed its way up the steep serpentine hill, where perched on top, stands the modern-day community-settlement of Timrat.
“The trees on the side of the road were planted by Tzippy,” says Les proudly, manning the bus microphone. “We were paid the princely sum of one pound a day by the JNF. It was hell climbing up this hill at the time, particularly through the mud in winter, and so one of our first jobs was building a road.”
It was on this road – albeit it improved over time – that the bus in high gear strained its way up to Les and Tzippy’s early life in Israel.
Life “at the top” then was a far cry from today’s Timrat referred to as the “Savyon of the Lower Galilee”. Savyon in central Israel is one of the wealthiest municipalities in Israel.
The group only stayed there some three years.
The cataclysmic schism that tore apart the Kibbutz movement in 1952, “splitting families and friends, affected us even though we were a community unconnected with the conflicting ideologies,” explained Les. Even in South Africa, the ideology of Bnei Zion was politically neutral, other than the firm conviction of settling in Israel. With the sudden and dramatic splitting of kibbutzim on ideological grounds – depending which side of the Cold War lay one’s allegiance – more land was needed “and they wanted ours,” said Les.
Not that it upset Les who as Merakez Meshek was responsible for the management of the settlement. “We have wonderful memories, but economically it was impractical.” The kibbutz fields were nearly a two-hour drive away by tractor, east of Afula, near the Jordanian border and “being so far away, we used to set up camp there in season spending periods of a week to ten days at a time.”
As for showers! “In our dreams!,” bellowed Les. “We had no such luxuries. The water was brought in a mobile tank and used only for cooking, drinking and very sparingly for washing.”
“So where was the water for irrigation?” I enquired.
“We farmed only “dry” crops – wheat, barley, corn and hay, all reliant on rainfall. If there was a drought, you had it.”
Life was harsh.
“Our wives used to take turns cooking. Life was also dangerous. We always had to be watchful for Arab marauders. There was no fence separating us and Jordan and we used to have an extra person on the tractor with a rifle over and above the driver who had his Sten gun beside him. We had some close shaves, but that was frontier life.”
And to the question “What did you live in?”, Les replied:
“Converted wooden crates that the immigrants in those days brought their furniture in. We carved out doors and windows and could house up to four in a box.”
Back on the hill, business was better. “We had a few guys who had been sheet metal workers in South Africa. They set up a business and our first order was to supply the ducting for air conditioners to the first Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv. This business became so successful; it was the precursor for Miromit (the world’s first solar heating factory), which is Timorim spelt backwards.” Another big order, reveals Les, “was to make the ducting for Peres’ textile plant in Dimona.”
All laughed at Les’ hush-hush verbal substitute for Israel’s nuclear reactor!
THE MILKY WAY
“All over these hills,” Les pointed out to his guests “we had a huge herd of sheep. One day I offered to help with the milking. To this day I still do not understand why they have to do this at 2am. Nevertheless, I reported on time and was directed to the six sheep down the row. It was pretty dark as there was no electricity, only paraffin lamps. I followed their lead by squeezing the teat in a downward motion and the next moment found myself sprawled on my back. Determined not to let a sheep get the better of me, I attacked the teat again and…thump! After being kicked a third time, the boys were hysterical. They had set me up with a bloody ram!”
On another occasion, when “we were on hachsharah (preparation) on Gvat before moving to Timorim, we were working with these young guys who had just been released from the Palmach and they thought they knew everything. This was the period of the Tzena (period of austerity when Israelis stood in line for rations) and I was learning about growing fodder. This bloke comes in, sees no milk in the cooler, so opens the fridge and helps himself to some bottles. I tried to stop him.”
“What are you interfering for?” he bellowed at Les, “so I walked on into the dining room for lunch. About ten minutes later the man in charge of the cows came storming in, shouting:
“What the bloody hell is going on here! The expert has come to do the artificial insemination of the cows and all the semen in the fridge is gone. Who the hell is responsible?”
The question needed no answer. Everyone turned to the only person in the dining room who had vomited!
The South Africans were joined by a group of survivors from the Holocaust. “They were a wonderful bunch of hard-working young people, who had lived on their wits to survive. For the most part they had missed out on an education and some of them did not even know their own birthdays. One fellow took the name of ‘Pesach Purim’, because he remembered celebrating his birthday sometime between the two chagim. (festivities)”
It was for the most part hearing about the horrors of the Shoah (Holocaust) in Johannesburg in 1945 that made Les determined to settle in the new Jewish State. “My parents were dead against it, but the Shoah was the final straw. All the memories of my schooldays came flooding back of being taunted – “Jew boy, go back to Palestine.”
At age 21, Les took their advice.
Fruits of his Labour
The intervening years in the 1950s between leaving Timorim and being sent on Shlihut (emissary) to South Africa on behalf of the Jewish Agency, saw him working on a major national project for the government and the Jewish Agency impacting on the lives of thousands of new immigrants. Supported with another South African, Yitzchak Abt, Les organized a team which planned the development of the Lachish Region. This was an area of a million dunams of land stretching from Ashkelon to Beit Guvrin, encompassing the “new” Timorim that was no more a kibbutz in the north but a moshav in the south. Les was the overall strategist, Abt the expert in agriculture. Their mission – a race against time to settle the thousands of immigrants mostly from North Africa – Tunisia and Morocco – who were pouring in and earmarked to settle in this region. The real challenge was that these new immigrants knew little about farming and yet, with large families, would have to survive by engaging in agriculture.
Through Les’ strategic planning and Yitzchak Abt’s innovative genius in irrigation and agriculture, they succeeded with Lachish becoming home to thousands of immigrants and their children who established moshavim, kibbutzim and towns. A drive today through this region, we see greenhouses, vineyards, orchids, fields and forests – a topographic testimony to the labours of Les and Yitzchak who helped transform this once rocky and sparce terrain into Israel’s verdant heartland. What is more, so successful were their labours that their ideas emerged as the prototype of regional planning beyond Israel to other developing countries around the world. In the ensuing years would see Apt lecturing in Panama, Venezuela and Malawi with a map of Lachish behind him, revealing – “How we did it!”
Son Avner Sheer, remembers those days as a young kid living in a small apartment in Kiryat Gat, which had only been established in 1954. However, in the same way as his father on his 80th remarked that the trees on the way up to Timorim in the north of Israel were planted by “my wife Tzippy,” Avner reveals that, “When I pass through in my car the region of Lachish, I think these trees were planted by my Dad.”
Back to our Roots
Love of the land was in Les’ DNA and on his moshav, Kfar Bilu B near Rehovot, he developed one of the finest private bonsai gardens in Israel. It was little wonder that he was enlisted into the Friends of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens Society and soon became its head. It was in this capacity while being responsible for the Kaplan-Kushlick Foundation in Israel that he then brought Mendel and Jill Kaplan “to get this garden moving…..We have to do something!” That was back in 1979.
And moving they did.
Today, the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens (JBG) stands as an island of serenity amid the din of a city that resonates to the four corners of the earth.
Having the largest collection of living plants in the Middle East the JBG displays over 6000 species in geographical sections simulating the local landscape of bio-diversity hotspots around the world.
On my last visit, it was heartwarming to see all the schoolchildren there digging with spades instead of texting on their smartphones. Indeed, over 1,200 young pupils visit the botanical gardens each week to plant flowers and vegetables. With 92% of Israel’s population living today in cities, “it is vital for these youngsters,” asserted our guide, “to discover that produce does not grow on shelves in their neighborhood supermarket.”
Imparting knowledge by example was so much what Les Sheer was about.
To know him was a “Sheer Delight”!
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