In Hectic Tel Aviv, Green Still Survives

Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori

Ehud tugged on Gili’s blue sweater, which was tied carelessly around her waist, and her small bouquet of fiery red poppies scattered over the muddy ground, like a Lag Ba’omer bonfire. Gili burst into tears. With a thunderous voice the agriculture teacher scolded Ehud, and warned that if he caused problems again, he could forget about the radishes and scallions.

In fifth grade, we used to travel once a week for an agriculture lesson to a farm. We would climb up Napoleon’s Hill, in what is today a part of Hayarkon Park, and be absorbed into the magical world of the agriculture teacher, who always wore khaki shorts and high shoes. We were Tel Aviv children. We grew up among narrow yards, lots of asphalt and buses, and the trip to the farm was a fun day out. It also provided the boys with a variety of opportunities to harass the girls. We hoed and watered, planted and harvested, and at the end of the day would return home with the loot: flowers, scallions, carrots or radishes, depending on the season.

A latter-day lesson in agriculture in Hayarkon Park.Credit: David Bachar

The farm is still there, in the same place. Nowadays, though, it is visited by children who, if they so desire, can also grow vegetables on the Internet on a virtual farm called FarmVille, a game on Facebook to which little ones (and sometimes their parents, too) can become addicted. FarmVille is a brilliant idea hatched three years ago by Zynga. In this agricultural-simulation game, each participant receives a plot of land, tools and fertilizer, some of which actually has to be paid for by credit card. He grows, waters and harvests his vegetables there, and sells them to his friends on the social network.

If city kids once believed that on moshavim and kibbutzim people ate vegetables straight from the field and drank milk straight from the cow, today they are convinced that it’s much faster, more efficient and far cleaner to raise crops and animals on the Internet. Fact: Within 24 hours, the following grew on my virtual plot, pest-free: dark-green soybeans, shiny dark purple eggplants, and strawberries that will be ripe and ready to eat a few minutes from now. And all without leaving the house, without getting my hands and shoes muddy and without Ehud pulling at Gili’s blue sweater in the hope of getting some attention.

Whatever the case, at several places around the country, local councils operate farms which are open all year round to schools for agriculture lessons, and on Shabbat and holidays to the general public. On the Sunday of Hol Hamo’ed (the intermediate days of Passover), hundreds of parents streamed with their children into 70 dunams (about 17 acres) of open green space in Hayarkon Park, in one of the most attractive areas of Tel Aviv, on the border of Ramat Gan. The space was originally an orchard, purchased from the Templers by Lithuanian Zionist Yitzhak Leib Goldberg in 1918. Eventually Goldberg who was dubbed “the unknown baron” by Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff purchased areas adjacent to his orchard and gave them all as a gift to the Jewish National Fund, which transferred them to the Tel Aviv Municipality. So we have Goldberg to thank for the fact that all that green has survived, at least until now, and wasn’t swallowed up by the high-rises built by the real-estate moguls.

“Before he gave the area to the JNF,” says Sharon Ram, “he donated it on condition that the entire area would remain green and agricultural forever, and nothing would ever be built on it.” Ram is the project manager for the company that operates the farm for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Economic Development Authority, which belongs to the Tel Aviv municipality.

At the first stop on our farm tour, we sowed wheat. Yoav Levy, the coordinator and instructor, marched in the virgin field followed by a trail of parents and children dressed in their finest. On the first day of Hol Hamo’ed, the parents were still full of energy and encouraged their children to participate in the task. Wheat is the second most common grain in the world, explains Yoav, with rice being the first and corn the third. And what do we make with wheat? “Flour,” says Avi, one of the children in the group.

The youngsters received small hoes, dug holes in the ground, poured a few seeds into each one and covered them gently with the hoes rather than their hands.
In another two months, in time for the Shavuot festival, the wheat will stand tall in the field and the children are invited to come and harvest it. Afterward, at a different activity area on the farm, they can crush the grains with a mortar and pestle, make flour out of them and bake pita in a taboun (traditional clay oven).

The FarmVille Internet game.

“And how do we keep away the birds?” asks Yoav. The children looked around to find a scarecrow, but there was none in sight. The traditional scarecrow has been replaced in the wheat field by a more up-to-date one: Old CDs, glittering in the sun, were threaded onto wires and hung overhead; they swayed in the wind and kept the hungry birds away.

Carmi Sternberg and his 6-year-old daughter Rotem live in Ramat Gan, not far from the farm, and are familiar with the activities. In Rotem’s kindergarten, they also sometimes plant spearmint and radishes. “But the boys do it,” she adds. “The girls don’t because the girls don’t want to.”

Why, because they don’t like to get dirty?

Rotem: “I think the girls don’t want to get dirty from the earth. But I don’t care, I planted spearmint.”

Meira Ferziger and her daughter Hadar, 8, came from Beit Shemesh for a day of fun with the entire family, including her parents, who were visiting from the United States.

“We’re here for the first time, it’s very nice,” says Meira. “The main thing is you can get the children out of the house and their routine. We know what agriculture is, we have beds of spices in our garden.”

Yoav, 18-months-old, came with his father Ido from Ramat Hasharon. They’re not planting wheat. They came to breathe the air and experience nature.

The field of wildflowers looks like a huge colored carpet. Armed with scissors, the children run around among, picking the flowers. Some of the parents are standing on the side. The earth is muddy and immediately sticks to your shoes.

Eran Sarid of Ramat Gan is encouraging his son Ofek, a 3-year-old with an impressive mane of golden curls, to use the flowers to prepare a wreath as a gift for Mom. Ofek likes the red ones best, followed by the white ones and orange ones, too.
Yuval Bigger, 10, and his mother Ruti are also frequent visitors. “We pet the animals, pick flowers and there’s also a story hour,” says Yuval.

“It’s better to do it here than on the Internet,” says Ruti, who is apparently aware of the competition.

In the petting corner we stroked rabbits, but they don’t seem particularly happy about it. The agricultural instructor hands every child or adult a basket from which a rabbit with long ears peers out, frightened and trembling all over, and every caress only intensifies the trembling. The rabbits seem to glance around as though assessing the distance between the basket and the nearby bushes. It’s quite clear that if they had their preference, they would prefer to be left alone.

Haggai Arad from Moshav Kochav Michael, between Kiryat Gat and Ashkelon, came to pet rabbits with his wife and two children, Eliya and Zohar. “Not exactly to explain to the children about agriculture,” he says, “because our children know where vegetables and milk come from, but in order to be with the family in a natural environment.”

The sheep corner was empty. The animals were lying in the shade and successfully conveying the message: “Don’t even dream about petting us.” And besides, their wool was dirty and muddy after the rain. In addition, the farm in the park features a small winter pond, where frogs and other animals splash around; a bird-watching area, where the birds are identified and marked so they can be kept track of; a transparent beehive; olive picking in the orchard, during the season; an archaeological excavation site, covered with a tent, in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority; a booth for making ancient Egyptian jewelry; a pottery corner, and more.

One of the farm’s main attractions is a “garden for each resident”: Tel Aviv residents can rent either a 40- or 17-square-meter garden, cultivate it and grow flowers and vegetables. “At the moment all the plots are taken and there’s a waiting list,” says Ram. “We are running the place in accordance with our vision of bringing children and adults back to activity in nature.”

It was fun. The children got tired and wanted ice cream. The parents breathed a sigh of relief and checked off the box “What to do with the children during such a long vacation.” A little glimpse of nature, agriculture and Zionism.