More than 200 sheep and goats crowd eagerly next to the iron gates. The grazing hour has arrived, as the woolly creatures are well aware, and they have long since lost patience. Kids and lambs gather around the two-legged creatures like love-starved puppies, producing a chaotic cacophony: bleating from the sheep and goats, deafening barks from the sheepdogs, loud cackling from the hens. A lone calf lowers its head in quiet respect and gives itself over to caressing hands. Janice Buie stands behind the excited herd, while Naomi Buie stands alert in front, and at a signal opens the gates and runs like a deer toward the western grazing area.

The herd charges out happily and heads east: 1-0 in favor of the four-legged creatures. “This is the only herd in the world that leads its owners,” admits Bat Sheva Buie with a smile, joining her sisters a vain attempt to wield human authority.

“Come on, love, come join your sisters,” she says, affectionately trying to persuade Tzipi and Rima, the two wayward sheep leading the eastward movement. Only a while later, when the sheep have sated their immediate hunger, do they agree to march after the pretty, high-spirited women who speak a charming mixture of English and Hebrew. The shepherdesses and their charges will now spend some time on the green hills dotted with the white of the blossoming almond trees next to Moshav Luzit.

Six siblings live together in the little house on the moshav, whose backyard borders the natural grazing fields. Janice, 55, owns the herd and is a full-time shepherdess; Isaac, 53, is an electrician; Elizabeth, 51, works as a cook in a popular cafe in Ashdod; Esther, 47, earns her living on the assembly line of a water purification plant; Naomi, 45, works as a housekeeper and bakes breads and cakes that are sold at home and at food fairs; and Bat Sheva, 39, makes a living from incidental jobs in agriculture and housekeeping and makes goat cheeses.

Even those who work outside the family farm are full partners in caring for the herd: taking them out to graze; raising and nurturing the lambs and kids ‏(at night during the birthing season, the family shares its crowded house and its beds with nurslings who have had difficult births or have been rejected by their mothers‏); and in guarding against thieves. Taking turns, one of the siblings sleeps in the sheep pen every night to prevent theft. Hanging next to the back door is a waterproof blue suit of the kind worn by Scandinavian sailors, sent to them from a brother who lives in Europe to provide insulation from the cold to the duty watchman.

“We’re fulfilling our parents’ dream,” explains Bat Sheva. “They dreamed of being shepherds in the Land of Israel and didn’t get to do that. We’re living their dream. The day we bought the first five sheep was the happiest day of our lives. We didn’t imagine that this business is so demanding, but it fills our lives, serves as a substitute for things we missed and brings us great happiness.”

Way of the patriarchs

Alice and Moses Buie, an African-American couple, immigrated to Israel in the mid-1960s. Both were born in Mississippi to Christian families who were descendants of freed slaves. They raised their firstborn children in Chicago and, with their strong belief in the Bible, dreamed of a life as farmers in the Holy Land. In the mid-1960s they immigrated to Israel, together with nine other African-American families, and received immigration papers.

“They asked to go to a moshav or a kibbutz, in order to recreate the life of the biblical patriarchs and earn a living from agriculture, but were sent straight to Dimona,” says Naomi. “I was 3-years-old and I remember that our parents disappeared overnight. The day after we arrived, they were sent to work in the Kitan textile plant. And they worked there to their dying day.”

The nine families that came with them despaired of the difficult absorption process and returned to the United States within a few years. Alice and Moses insisted on staying.

Shortly after their arrival in Dimona, the followers of Ben-Ami Ben Israel, known as the Hebrew Israelite Community, arrived. “We’re not part of the community and never shared their lifestyle and faith,” explains Bat Sheva. “We consider ourselves Jews who observe all the commandments of the written Torah, but the rabbinical establishment doesn’t accept us and the authorities consider us all of a kind.”

The siblings prefer not to discuss the attitude of Israelis to their black skin. Nor do they want to discuss the searing childhood insults or the way in which the children of the family were received in Israeli society. “Sometimes it was hard,” is the most extreme statement the sisters are willing to utter. “When we grew up we learned to stand up for ourselves. Our parents, who were ethical and delightful people, taught us to deal patiently and courageously with whatever happened.”

In the late 1970s, the family’s legal status was canceled. Years during which the nine children, most of them born in Israel, should have devoted to studies or to finding a partner and starting a family, passed without a legal status and with a bureaucratic battle over the right to remain in Israel. In 1990 the father of the family died, two sons returned to the United States and one emigrated to northern Europe. It was not until 1996 that the status of permanent residency was returned to those who remained.

Those who went overseas started families of their own and those who remained in Israel don’t waste their time on anger or bitterness. “I’m no longer an American,” says Bat Sheva, “and even if I’m not completely Israeli, this is the only place I have.” They are an optimistic group, full of joie de vivre. Toward evening, when they all return from work, and people and animals gather in the warm living room, the laughter and childlike good spirits can be heard from a distance.

Like pets

In 1999 the family left Dimona for Moshav Noam, and in 2000 they bought the first five sheep. “Mommy Dearest is the only one left from the first herd,” says Janice, pointing to an old, dignified sheep who receives the respect reserved for the founding generation.

Even today, when the herd numbers over 230, the siblings give each sheep or goat a name, to identify each by its unique features. They talk to all of God’s creatures, large and small, with the seriousness and love usually reserved for the human race. “That’s why the herd is so wild. When you raise a herd of sheep like pets, they think that we’re supposed to follow them, and not vice versa,” laughs Bat Sheva. “Mother, who passed away in 2005, got to see the beginning of the herd and the first steps on the way to fulfilling the dream,” adds Naomi. “She also taught us basic things, such as how to milk and how to build a milk matrix.” In 2006 Bat Sheva took a professional cheese-making course in Beit Dagan.

In 2009 the siblings moved to Moshav Luzit in the Judea region. “We let the herd lead us,” they say, “and what’s good for them is good for us too. Here the grazing areas allotted to us are near the house, we don’t have to pass through agricultural fields, and the neighbors are very nice. The only problem is that there’s almost no public transportation.”

In the past two years they have been selling milk products and cheeses made by Bat Sheva: wonderful cream from sheep’s milk, 17 percent fat, the likes of which is very hard to find in large commercial dairies; amazingly delicate labaneh ‏(“In our family we don’t like sour flavors”‏); white cream cheese ‏(“In our family we don’t like additions of herbs or spices‏); good feta cheese, and Camembert-style cheese. The hard varieties, like gouda-style cheese, are made only for the family’s use for now, mainly for lack of space to age them. The cheeses are sold under the name Mozalis, a combination of the names of their beloved parents. And, by prior appointment, the charismatic and well-spoken Bat Sheva holds delightful cheese-making workshops.

In addition to the good, simple cheeses, there are also Naomi’s wonderful baked goods. Pumpkin or sweet potato quiche; tea biscuits made with cinnamon; fig and walnut pie; lentil and corn bread; and cheesecake from their own goat’s milk. Naomi is the one who inherited the talent for baking and the traditional recipes of mother Alice, and she is very successfully following in her footsteps. A generous slice of classic American apple pie with the family’s cream is a pleasure not quickly forgotten.

This year the Buies will be participating for the first time in the Mateh Yehuda ‏Food Festival. Dozens of home cooks and food artisans who open their homes and their workshops to visitors in this lovely part of the country participate in this delightful food festival, which is celebrating its 12th anniversary. Wine and food tours, traditional ethnic meals, a happening that will involve local beer breweries and rural food markets are only a few of the events offered during the five weekends of the festival.

Mozalis Sheep and Goat Farm, Luzit, 054-4791536 ‏(closed on Shabbat‏). Cheese-making workshops by prior appointment; fresh breads and baked goods must be ordered in advance.

Mateh Yehuda Food Festival, March 1-31,
www.m-yehuda.org.il