A tribute to a kibbutz icon
By David E. Kaplan
For me as I’m sure for sure for many generations over many years, Arnie Friedman – who passed away earlier this month on kibbutz Yizre’el in the Jezreel Valley near Afula in north-eastern Israel – was the wide, warm, welcoming outstretched arms of his beloved community.
You did not need a sign at the entrance that read in Hebrew “Welcome to Yizre’el”, you just needed Arnie standing there to meet you.
I recall as a journalist, my last published article on Arnie. It was two years before corona and his line:
“It’s never too late”.
What did he mean by that?
The story that unfolded revealed so much of the character and humour of Arnie, of selfless service to others, his commitment with the capital ‘C” to the Jewish youth movement in South Africa ‘Habonim’, and of finally fulfilling dreams, no matter how long it takes!
In 2018, I wrote that 83-year-old Arnie Friedman would be walking down the aisle. Not the one that comes first to mind – being happily married to Peggie – but another aisle that he missed walking down over sixty years earlier in Cape Town, South Africa. Due to circumstances having denied him the opportunity of enrolling at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1950, in 2018 Arnie walked down the aisle at the Max Stern Academic College of Emek Yezreel in Israel to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree.
And Peggie, who stood with Arnie under a Chuppah in 1957, stood beside him again as he was conferred his degree – the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.
It had been a long time coming.
In his final years at SACS in Cape Town in the late 1940s, “I, like my mates, already started taking preliminary subjects at UCT in preparation. You could do that in those days.”
However, for Arnie, it would lead nowhere!
The family were in dire financial straits and could not afford university tuition fees. Following his father’s return in 1944 from the war in North Africa, he opened a business with an uncle “that struggled,” said Arnie. “Having battled the Nazis, I did not have the heart to pressure my Dad who was now battling financially.”
Studying at university was thus put on hold.
“It remained on my to-do list; just a question of – when.”
Arnie took a job with Woolworths, where much of his salary went to help support his family, but when after a few years, it became feasible to enroll at UCT, “Habonim in Cape Town asked me to be Mazkir Klali (Secretary General), which I accepted.” And then, at the end of 1955, when Arnie again thought that “the time is right” to study, it was not his family that now needed his support, but the State of Israel.
Habonim in South Africa had received a letter from Shimon Peres (later president of Israel) who in the mid-1950s was Director-General of the Ministry of Defense and involved in the planning of the 1956 Suez War, in partnership with France and Britain. “In his letter, which he addressed to Jewish youth movements all over the world,” said Arnie,“he revealed that there was a strong likelihood for war sometime in 1956, and that the State of Israel would welcome young men volunteering to fight.”
UCT would again have to wait!
“A whole gang of us from the Movement – some students, some not – volunteered, and on the third day of arriving in Israel we were drilling in uniform.”
However, “our katzin (“officer”) was less than impressed. He took one look at our overweight and scruffy crowd standing before him and bellowed in broken English, “Why did they not send us money instead to buy arms instead of you useless lot. What are we expected to do with you?” We were really shaken.”
That night, Arnie and his mates met in their barrack, “and we decided to show him. We pulled ourselves together, lost weight, trained seriously” and proudly emerged a formidable fighting unit.
“We were ready for battle,” but their first skirmish however was not against the Egyptians in the ‘Suez Campaign’ but what became known as ‘The ZOA Campaign’.
THE BATTLE OF THE BABES
On the eve of their paratrooper course, the South African Zionist Federation in Israel (Telfed) together with Nahal “splashed out on a party at the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) for us.”
After all, this was the first group of Southern African Nahal volunteers.
“We arrived washed, combed, boots shinning and clean uniforms,” says Arnie. “To our delight, also invited to the party was a group of girls from some college as our dancing partners. The atmosphere was most convivial – good food, a band, dancing partners, plenty of beer, as well as a bit of the more potent stuff !!!”
Suddenly the party was ‘INVADED’ by a group of tough-looking paratroopers. “Not only did these gatecrashers polish off all our refreshments but without a “by your leave”, butted in and took over as the dancing partners with our girls.”
This was a declaration of war!
Tempers were kept in check until the final notes of Hatikva “when the first fists started to fly and within seconds, the scene was something out of Western saloon brawl. The Nahal commander and Telfed staff member, Simie Weinstein tried to calm everyone down, but to no avail. He was pushed backwards into a large glass door which shattered into piece. Tables and chairs went flying.
Our officers called for a ‘retreat’ and we were herded into waiting buses.” On the way back to base, first aid was administered to cut cheeks, bleeding noses and hurt pride.
“No doubt about it,” says Arnie, “the paratroopers were a far more experienced fighting unit. Nevertheless, our SA Nahal boys acquitted themselves very well. We carried our bruises with pride. This was our first military battle in Israel.”
However, Arnie had further internal ‘battles’ – either to return to South Africa and university or stay in Israel with his garin (group) that had just been joined by a Habonim garin from Australia on Kibbutz Ginegar near Afula.
Arnie did return to South Africa, not to UCT however, but to marry his beloved Peggie with whom he returned, and together settled with his garin on the young kibbutz of Yizre’el.
Times were tough, and Arnie recalls “we were given a hut without a toilet or shower” and only with their first-born, “were we provided a hut with a bathroom. But those were the days, and everyone in the country, one way or another, was roughing it. We were young; we did not come to a built-up country but to build the country. We were idealists.”
Studying at a university seemed ever-further away as the days, months and years would turn into decades and Arnie would establish his reputation as kibbutz head of volunteers and young groups studying at Yizre’el’s ulpan programmes.
Imbued with the ideology of Habonim – “The Builders” – Arnie was living the ‘collective’ dream, but he never ever gave up on his personal dream of studying for a degree.
And then, one day some seven years ago, “Now a pensioner”, Arnie saw a poster on a notice board addressed to the “over fifties” who were looking to study for a BA at the local college.
“Finally, my time arrived, and with permission granted by the kibbutz, I signed up. Although it was for the over fifties, for most of the four years that I took, I was the oldest student.”
Arnie’s only sorrow was that his sister in Australia, who so supported him studying for this BA and assured that she would attend his graduation, passed away a month earlier at the age of 93. “At least she knew that I had finally fulfilled my dream.”
Noting in 2018 that it was the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Arnie recalled Herzl’s most famous line:
“If you will it, it is no dream.”
That summed up the Life of Arnie!
It also reflected the idealism of Arnie and his comrades on Yizre’el when their idealist was really put to their test. I remember Arnie telling me the story.
SWIMMING AGAINST THE CURRENT
In 2012, after a stormy meeting, Kibbutz Yisrael members turned down a massive offer at the time for a majority stake in the kibbutz’s swimming pool robot cleaning company, Maytronics. It was modeled after the South African Kreepy Krauly, but taken to a whole new level of sophisticated robotics.
It would have made each member of the kibbutz exceeding rich. But as Arnie explained, what does the word “rich” mean?
Apparently at the meeting that was leaning towards accepting the offer and would have changed the nature and social fabric of the kibbutz, a South African member got up and asked the question: “If we accept the offer, could the buyer then relocate the business elsewhere, off the kibbutz?”
When the answer came in the affirmative, a debate ensured, which the South African members proved persuasive. As Arnie explained: “Yes, we will be rich, but we will be poor in sacrificing the lifestyle and values we cherish.”
Arnie told me that a member of the kibbutz came up to him afterwards and said:
“We are indebted to you South Africans. You reminded us of why we chose to live on a kibbutz and the importance of holding onto its values.”
On a personal level, I remember the close relationship we enjoyed – in contact daily – when I chaired the organizing committee of the Habonim 75th anniversary in 2005 on kibbutz Yizre’el, where some 1,700 ‘chevra’ from all over the world descended on this socialist emerald patch in in Jezreel Valley. During the daily grind of organizing, Arnie was that anchor that kept everything on an even keel. He moved mountains with such ease and always with a smile.
THE RIGHT TRACK
It was Arnie that thereafter introduced me to the famous annual Gilboa Walk, where people of all ages and from all over Israel and abroad participate as well as all the youth movements in Israel. It was moving to see all the kids from the youth movements walking in their uniforms and singing songs of idealism. It was poignantly described as a “remnant of Israeli togetherness”.
Each year, Arnie would call me to organize our friends from the south to join the Yizre’el members for the walk, followed by lunch on the kibbutz. It truly was an experience of warm “Israeli togetherness”.
The highlight was always afterwards, tea with Arnie and Peggy in their delightful garden.
Wonderful memories – farewell my friend.
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