When I heard that the girls were off from school the day after Shavuot last week, I decided it was time to do something for someone else. Since our arrival, I have devoted the bulk of my time to building up my yoga studio and, more recently, trying to get a memoir writing class going. I even joined an English language networking group to help facilitate the process. But I know that once these pieces are in place and I feel professionally satisfied, I will be ready to reach out, to volunteer, whether for an organization or on my own.
One of my favorite non-profits in this country with which I am intimately familiar is called Leket, Israel’s national food bank. With Leket, volunteers can make sandwiches for school children who go to school without, rescue and redeliver surplus meals, as well as glean fields and orchards. When Simone and I were invited to a mother-daughter sandwich making morning in honor of a friend’s bat mitzvah celebration last fall, it was my first time volunteering for that project but not that organization. Back in 2006, our extended family, ranging in age from 2 to 70, gleaned onions in celebration of Benjamin’s bar mitzvah and again three years later for Daniella’s.
According to Leket’s website, “tens of thousands of volunteers glean fruits and vegetables from fields and orchards annually. They rescue thousands of tons of agricultural crops every year that are left to rot at the end of each season. Produce is collected from hundreds of farms and packing houses around the country and is temporarily stored in refrigeration rooms of the organization. The produce is subsequently transported to hundreds of organizations serving those in need throughout the country.”
When I told the girls my idea for our Monday morning off school, neither of them objected. I invited friends to join us, but some said it was simply too hot out to dig while others had made different plans. We forged ahead. Much to my surprise, no one balked.
As instructed, we wore long pants, closed shoes and hats with our sun protective shirts. We loaded up on water. At 8:45am, we set off for the Shiller Farm on the southern edge of Rehovot, about 30 kilometers southeast of Raanana. The brainchild of Sandy Kolb, an American-born lawyer turned farmer, the farm consists of 80-dunam fields that give away an estimated 25 tons of vegetables a week. Leket brings volunteers five days a week, several times a day, to glean whatever is growing: potatoes, oranges, beets, kolrabi, onions. And as luck would have it, each time we have picked over the years, we have always landed upon onion season.
When we approached the field, two people were already crouched in the ditch, each one sitting atop of turned over blue crate, picking onions from the bed between them and tossing them gently into a third crate. Leket’s man on duty, Amir, introduced us to the couple and then showed us how to pull out the onions, remove the stems, sometimes twisting strongly, and depositing them into a crate. Amir then explained a busload of 30 Americans was late or lost and another car full of people hadn’t made it yet either.
The girls and I hauled over six crates, turning one over to sit on in the ditch and put one in the middle for onions. As soon as Amir left and we got into a rhythm, conversation started with our fellow pickers. They wanted to know the usual: where we were from originally, how long we had been living in Israel, what we did, what grades the girls were in at school. Were we happy? When I asked them their status, I learned that this retired Canadian couple comes to Israel every other year for the fun and beauty of it, because there is so much to see and do, and they want to see and do it while they still can enjoy. He was a social worker and she, an occupational therapist. They have two grown children and grandchildren in Canada and the US and no family in Israel. In their three week visit, this was their fifth time picking for Leket.
A half hour into it, Simone started asking me what time it was. We stopped for a water break. Fifteen minutes passed and she asked again. We drank. I stood up to stretch, walked toward the larger crate into which we were dumping our smaller ones and then squatted, picked, twisted off stems and tossed directly in, bypassing the small crate altogether. When Simone asked me the time again, I promised that as soon as the large crate was topped off, toward 11:30, we would stop. Ninety minutes in the 86 degree weather was hard on the body.
And yet, despite the pounding sun, it felt so satisfying, as if we were making a difference, contributing in some small way, to the Shiller farm, to Leket, to the country’s hungry. While some of the onions were misshapen and bruised, most were smooth and silky, almost mouth-watering.
At 11:30, the girls dumped their last crate of onions into the large one, bid farewell to the Canadians and walked back up the dirt road to the car. Minutes later, after filling another small crate and dumping it into the bigger one, I followed them. We were hot and hungry, tired and filthy. Our faces were bright red and our hands were swollen. I actually had the beginning of little blisters from twisting stems with force.
At the makeshift faucet in the parking lot, we washed our hands and faces in attempt to rid ourselves of the onion odors, drank more water and happily got in the car to head home. I picked under each of my nails to remove dirt to no avail.
There is something powerful about digging in the dirt, plucking food from the ground that will be cooked and served and eventually eaten, understanding the connection between the earth and its inhabitants. Don’t misunderstand: I have no desire or intention to leave city life and become a farmer. But I got tremendous pleasure, as did Daniella and Simone, from working the land. We were proud to have played our part, to have gotten our hands dirty.