The Jewish festivity of Shavuot brought back memories of a kibbutz in Israel’s South and its South African connection
By David E. Kaplan
“Where you spending Shavuot?” I asked my physiotherapist as I lay flat in his clinic in Ra’anana while he worked on my recalcitrant right knee. Known as the Jewish “feast of weeks” – although celebrated over one day – Shavuot commemorates the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai to the Jewish people and celebrated with families eating dairy food.
“I’ll be spending it with my family, my parents, where I was born and grew up – on the kibbutz.”
“Which kibbutz?” I ask.
“Revivim. It’s in the south. You ever heard of it?”
If Shavuot is a festivity of revelation, there was more revelation to follow.
Not only had I heard of it, I knew all about it having written years earlier about its South African connection that so few know, in particularly its connection to the small town of Parow, outside of Cape Town, where I grew up until the age of four.
The story begins in the 1930s when Jewish aspirations and nationalism were aroused by Zionist leaders touring Jewish communities around the world inspiring the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in biblical Palestine. They were followed by emissaries of the JNF (Jewish National Fund) encouraging Jews to invest in the future Jewish state by purchasing land in Palestine. One of the communities they focused on was South Africa and history records their efforts were well spent. One such inspired family was Barney and Fanny Berold from Parow, a developing town outside Cape Town. Barney was a successful industrialist who owned and ran Plywoods – Parow’s first factory. My late father, worked at Plywoods who used much of his salary of £12 a month (later raised to £15) to support a fledgling ‘Cape Gate Works’ of which he was a cofounding partner – Parow’s second factory – to survive. Cape Gate was started in 1929 during the Great Depression, and according to my Dad, that in the early months apart from his salary at Plywoods, “our only income came from selling petrol from a manually operated pump.”
A few years before the passing of Freda Pinkus in Jaffa, Israel, the then 94-year-old daughter of Barney and Fanny Berold, revealed to me in an interview her parent’s love for the Jewish homeland, “not yet Israel.” At a time when few visited Palestine, could even afford to travel there, “My parents visited Palestine twice in the 1930s, first in 1932 and then 1936 when they met the Zionist activist Avraham G r a n o v s k y. Later he changed his name to Granot and would be a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, a member of the Knesset and chairman of the JNF. However, back in 1936, the JNF were negotiating with an Arab to buy his land in the Negev when this South African group with my parents arrived and Granovsky asked if anyone was interested in buying it.” The British Mandate Authority allowed Jews to purchase land, but not to establish settlements. “The land was totally out of the way, a desolate landscape some 36 kilometres south of Beer Sheva. There was nothing there except a British Mandate police station. During World War II, a large British army base was established, which served as a stopover from Suez to the centre of the country. Anyway, as far as I know, my father was the only one interested and he bought 825 dunams. Of course it did not sound financially attractive, but my father was a Zionist. He was not investing for profit but in the future of the Jewish People.”
A few months later, “he passed away in Paris and my Mom returned to Parow. In 1939 our family received transfer of the property.” This might have been the end of the story until Freda’s brother George Berold, while stationed in Egypt during WWII “took leave to visit Palestine. He went to see Granovsky hoping to see the land and report back to the family in South Africa. Granovsky dissuaded him saying that there was a war on and there were no roads to reach this area. Probably the only way to reach the area was on camel, which I imagine would not have been too appealing to my brother with only a few days leave! Anyway, Granovsky then asked George if the family would consider donating the land to the JNF for the purpose of establishing a kibbutz.” It was quite a daring idea as it would be the southernmost kibbutz at the time with no access to piped water. It would demand of its members immense grit, determination and vision. It would also require the acquiescence of the Berold family of Cape Town. George said he would discuss with the family who all agreed. “This was the land that the JNF gave for the establishment in 1943 of Kibbutz Revivim.”
However, it was not so simple.
DESTINY IN THE DESERT
While the small group received the Berold parcel of land to fulfill their dream of settling the Negev, they had to be careful as permanent settlements were illegal. To circumvent British Mandate regulations, Revivim was established as an “Agricultural Research Station” and formally named ‘Mitzpe Revivim’ or ‘Revivim Lookout’. Settlers pretended that the antenna they used for radio contact was essential in “testing climate conditions”, and were so convincing that the British bought the story. The radio was hidden in a first-aid kit!
The first settlement began with only three men and as the research station slowly grew, eventually women were allowed to join. One of these brave women was Golda Meir’s daughter. The stars were not only a fascinating desert night sighting. They sometimes appeared to on the ground as it did when Hollywood star, Anne Bancroft was shown around Revivim by Israel’s former premier, Golda Meir.
However, in the 1940s, Revivim was isolated and fraught with danger.
Battling the elements was tough but soon they would have to confront a new enemy – their fellow man! A portent of what was to come occurred in December 1947 when a Kibbutz Revivim car was ambushed and three members of the kibbutz were killed. Then in 1948, Revivim became the center of Israel’s defense of the Negev during the War of Independence. An airstrip was built to fly in supplies and the caves which were once home to the pioneers became the field hospital and main base. Kibbutz members valiantly withstood heavy Egyptian attacks and 34 soldiers, including one woman, fell in the ensuing fighting, all recorded in a museum there today.
After the war, Revivim emerged as a pioneering center for desert agriculture. It played a huge part in the massive success Israel has had in making the desert bloom and the story of its development as revealed in its Mitzpe Revivim Museum popular to tourists, presents a colorful insight of a hard-fought journey won. It mirrors the journey of modern Israel. My physiotherapist regaled me the stories of his youth on Revivim:
“What a wonderful place to grow up. I knew nothing of life outside the kibbutz. The kibbutz was our world. We didn’t watch TV; I had many friends and we played and explored and built things and developed a feeling of camaraderie. Everyone on the kibbutz ate together in the chadar ochel (communal dining room) and where we celebrated together the chagim (festivities). I am proud to say, the kibbutz today is still mostly a collective, adhering to its founding principles. I always look forward to returning. I’m not only visiting my parents but revisiting the values of what I still hold dear.”
PRESENCE OF PAROW
Google Kibbutz Revivim and you will find that it was established in 1943 by a youth movement group from Rishon LeZion that included new immigrants from Austria, Germany and Italy on land given to them by the JNF. You have to deep search to extract from whom the JNF acquired it, that is, the Berold family from Parow.
Even many who live there are unaware of the South African connection to their home. One such was Joyce Friedman (née Kanowitz) from the USA who was born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1943 and when she was 18, immigrated to Israel and moved to Revivim where she became a member. She wrote to me some years ago following the publication of my first article on Revivim:
“When the 1967 war broke out, many groups of volunteers arrived, amongst them South Africans and it was my job to be their madricha [leader]. They did well for themselves and I was proud of them.
After living in Israel for 12 years, l met my husband who is an American, and we got married at Revivim. After two years, we moved to the USA in 1974.
Recently, my nephew in Israel sent me a copy of your article regarding Kibbutz Revivim and the financial link between it and the South African Jewry. It made for very interesting reading as this was the first time l had ever heard about it. Even while being on the kibbutz, no one had ever told me about the funding. Funnily enough my cottage faced the old fort, so l was constantly reminded of the kibbutz’s history.”
Revivim has another connection to Parow in Wendy Cohen-Solal. born in Parow to Ivan and Raiza Israel and who settled on the kibbutz. In subsequent visits to Revivim during the 1950s, Fanny Berold kept up the connection with the kibbutz her family made possible, by donating money towards a rose garden and a library. During the 1967 Six Day War and the aftermath,” said her daughter Freda, “there were many Southern African volunteers on Revivim; I’m sure some of them, their forebears, could have come from Parow.” Today the kibbutz is held in high regard for its pioneering use of saline and brackish water. One of its members, Yoel de Malach, received the prestigious Israel Prize for his efforts in this field. Despite being a desert kibbutz, Revivim’s dairy farm once won the prize for the largest quantity of milk produced by any farm in Israel. No less surprising it also has a “fish farm” – in the desert!
On the occasion of Revivim’s 75th anniversary some years ago – the Pincus and Berold families were honoured for their family’s enriching history embedded to the kibbutz no less embedded than the Negev’s desert rock. While many Jews donated money to buy land in Israel, “As far as I know,” said Freda, “Revivim is the only case of actual privately-owned Jewish land being donated for this purpose.”
From Cape Town’s ‘Northern Suburb’ to Israel’s southern desert, South Africans have been fulfilling the prophesy of Isaiah that in “A dry and thirsty land, where there is no water” they shall make the desert bloom.
While Revivim became the heart of the Negev it was the heart of South Africa’s Berold family that made it all happen.
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