Jamaica in the Desert

Rastafarian culture has become an integral part of the life at Kibbutz Tze'elim in the Negev. One thing they don't want to talk about is marijuana.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

On bicycles, they rode through the kibbutz gates to meet Bob Marley. They were only 12 years old and had no idea how far their rickety bikes would take them. The reggae festival, called "Voices from the Third World," which was held at nearby Eshkol Park in 1986, is one of the milestones in the sequence of events that led a group of youngsters from Kibbutz Tze'elim, in the northern Negev, to adopt the symbols and the worldview of Rastafarian culture from the Caribbean and to get the rest of the kibbutz to follow suit.

In the morning, Udi Barak, 33, walks the green trails of the kibbutz barefoot, a wool cap on his head. Collected under the headgear and filling it are heavy dreadlocks. "The dreadlocks are a weight I take on myself," he says. "It is a type of protest. I will not cut my hair or wear a tie, I will not be led. It is a protest against the fact that it's a dog-eat-dog world, that we have not achieved redemption." He doesn't whistle, but he seems to be singing as he walks, maybe even hovering at a low altitude. At 10 A.M., he notes that the patriarch Abraham passed by here.

A bond with the Lion of Judah

The reggae beat pulses from a small apartment near the barn. Nothing unusual in that here. The slow monotone beat goes well with the blazing heat and miraculously even manages to stir a light breeze for a few moments. Along a row of square, unappealing houses the people have set up lean-tos made of date palm leaves. "The tropical vegetation here and the lean-tos in every yard create a feeling as though we are in a small village in Jamaica," Barak says with obvious pleasure and continues walking at the pace of a tour guide. It's important for him to explain, to be sure that the smallest nuances are clear to the outside observer.

The oppressive heat seems to pass him by. "It's something that developed," he says. "No one says to the kids `Take a Bob Marley CD and listen.' That is something that exists around them all the time. When they go to the pool, for example, they pass my place and hear that music. In fact, they hear it everywhere. They already walk with the beat because the beat is in the air. When we were children, and today, too, you would hear that music every place you went. It has accompanied us for years. It all started with Bob Marley. All the ideas about the Rastas started from listening to his songs."

The kibbutz secretary, Tali Rosenweig, 37, does a lot of laughing in her office. Somehow, every sentence she utters concludes with a broad smile that often turns into rolling laughter. Since the reggae festival in 1986, she says, the kibbutz has undergone a slow but deep process of drawing close to Rastafarianism, which is manifested at several levels. The process has added a singular character to life in the kibbutz, she believes. What began as a kind of childish enthusiasm was gradually transformed into one of the defining elements of the kibbutz.

"It is constantly passed on from the older to the young generation," she says. "Our young children know that part of their essence in Tze'elim is to get to know the reggae music tradition. There is a singular relationship between the generations in Tze'elim. There are very close relations between all the ages - people in their thirties sit with people in their fifties, and 10-year-olds sit with 16-year-olds. That characteristic made it possible for things to develop as they did.

"This culture is an integral part of the kibbutz, and when I talk about youngsters I am talking about very young children. My son, for example, who is three, is already talking to me about Bob Marley. And it's not that we talk to him about that subject. It just comes from what he absorbed. In the kibbutz they are exposed to it naturally."

The belief of the Rastafarian culture focuses on the image of Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), the last emperor of Ethiopia, and on the power with which Ethiopia is imbued as a spiritual and religious symbol. Ethiopia is considered a bastion of African independence - the only country on the continent that did not submit to European colonialism and to two millennia under white man's rule; it was not conquered until 1935, by Italy, and then only for a brief time. Ethiopia thus became a source of inspiration for blacks.

The Rastafarian movement sprang up in Jamaica as a popular movement seeking to return the black man to Africa and viewing Ethiopia as the ancestral land of the black race. Ras Tafari ("inspirer of awe" in Amharic) is a title that was assumed by Haile Selassie. The followers of Rastafarianism believed that Haile Selassie is the messiah, ordained by divine force, and that he will ingather the Africans from the Diaspora and lead them to freedom.

"The religion developed at the beginning of the 20th century, when all kinds of socialist and communist theories spread throughout the world," says Dr. Irit Back, who teaches African history at Tel Aviv University. "The Rastafarians maintain that they are socialists who support values such as equality and brotherhood. As for Haile Selassie, he made extreme use of the symbols of the dynasty of King Solomon. They claim that they are descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Selassie called himself `Lion of Judah' and linked himself to the sanctity of the Jewish people. He succeeded in taking his mysticism to new heights and others, too, did so for him.

"Bob Marley played a large part in this: he was one of the believers. Marley made a tremendous contribution to Rastafarianism. He was the one who popularized the religion, and in his songs he articulated the ideology of the movement and turned it into a universal ideal. In his art, he took a local phenomenon and expanded and disseminated it through the world."

Nowadays it is a global culture seeking what is held in common. Its foundation of values transcends races and nationalities, so that, paradoxically, "whites," too, find a place in it. Rastafarianism is a type of call for an alternative, for one order. Its message is that people do not have a specific location or racial affiliation, but a state of consciousness. "It is here, of course, that the marijuana comes into it," Dr. Back says. "It plays a very important role. Smoking [marijuana] has a very important ritual and practical role in Rastafarianism. Its aim is to bring about ultimate liberation, to reach a consciousness that makes possible a more direct connection with God."

As might be expected, the Rastafarian culture underwent a process of adaptation to Israeli reality. Rastafarianism as practiced in Kibbutz Tze'elim is not a religious phenomenon: no one in the kibbutz worships the emperor of Ethiopia - who, by the way, was a corrupt and despotic ruler. Nor is the phenomenon measured by the number of kibbutz members who sport thick or thin dreadlocks. The kibbutz members in Tze'elim have adopted a value system that espouses peace, "one love," unity and socialist elements that draw their inspiration from the songs of Bob Marley. Marley has taken the place of the socialist ideologues of the kibbutz movement, his songs getting a collective hearing in the kibbutz. Marley's songs, which gave a voice to the poor and proclaimed the plight of the oppressed, have become the soundtrack of Kibbutz Tze'elim. It is a soundtrack that belongs to three generations whose members connect with the happiness and sadness of reggae.

Rastafarian culture has conferred something analogous to the religious concept of teshuva ("penitence") on Kibbutz Tze'elim. Ruthie Tanner, 50, who is a member of the first group of kibbutz-born children, is involved in a holistic practice called "the power of softness." She has good eyes that tend to discern subtleties. After cutting off a phone call with a girlfriend, she elaborates: "Even people in the kibbutz who are unaware of the philosophical depth of Rasta are familiar with it and live it as an approach to life. I think what started the connection between the people of Tze'elim and this phenomenon can be traced to their bond with the desert, with the rootedness of the `native.' To this aspiration to seek a connection to more ancient cultures.

"I think what draws people to Rasta as a way of life is the attraction to something rooted, primeval. So it is not by chance that it happened in Tze'elim or that the members of Tze'elim connect with it. I, too, as an adult member of the kibbutz, am very connected to it. On reggae evenings I dance with people who are a bit older than me and also with very young people. The way we dance together and enjoy and connect with the music is really unusual."

A few years ago, in her capacity as the director of the year-long activities of the bar mitzvah group in the kibbutz, Tanner organized a project with the aim of becoming familiar with music and dance as a way to transmit social messages. "Within that framework, I saw how attentive our children are to reggae material, to the meaning of the content, how much they are aware of the place that Bob Marley came from and what he meant when he sang. They are able to make the connections to the social messages, to place matters in a deeper context."

A natural connection

They meet at the pool and dive deep. A blinding yellow sun continues to brutalize the earth and scorch the rooftops. This is the height of the week's heat. Representatives of the Rastafarian hard core sit around a big table laden with cups of black coffee and jars of water. The connection with Rastafarian culture, they say, emerged out of a crisis.

"The true Rastafarians here are the people who established the kibbutz - they went the farthest," Udi Barak says. "They took the ideas to the farthest place, in the sense that they actualized them in practice. They told themselves that they were all equal to one another, that they were creating a big family in which everyone is responsible for everyone else and everyone gives as much as he can and receives as much as he needs. In my view, they are the real Rastafarians. At the end of the 1980s, when the values of equality started to erode in the country overall and in the kibbutz movement especially, and everyone thought about the VCR his neighbor had and he didn't, something snapped. We clung to Rastafarianism."

"The connection was very natural," Amnon Barshavsky, 27 and shirtless, continues in a deep bass voice. Currently he resides in Tel Aviv but he always lives in Tze'elim. His eyes shrink when he talks. "There's a very clear parallel between the values of the kibbutz and Rastafarian culture," he says. "Rasta is not a religion, it is ideas of unity. They talk about unity, about justice, about living without running after the external world so much, the city, the pursuit of money and something endless. Something that never ends. Rasta talks about living without such pursuits, about being free and not submitting to the capitalist system, which pushes everyone to run for himself. The aim is to simplify and lead a modest life."

Within minutes they turn to another world. Every so often Sharon Barak, 26, takes out a red bandanna and wipes his perspiring face, then folds it twice and puts it back into the pocket of his work pants. As the day passes the halfway mark, they reveal their closeness to ideas that were introduced against the background of the black nation's struggle for liberation. It is astonishing to see how naturally they bind themselves, spiritually and ideologically, to the black culture, and how the state of consciousness of the African slaves is relevant to them as a metaphor for their lives. They talk about it avidly. Sharon Barak notes that Haile Selassie's birthday fell a few days earlier but also that there were no celebrations marking the event in the kibbutz. "There's no need to overdo it," he says.

Point of encounter

While a police officer examines the possibility of renting rooms for his subordinates involved in implementing the disengagement plan, the group sitting around the table talks about Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), one of the leading thinkers of the Rastafarian movement. "Garvey worked for equal rights for blacks," Sharon Barak says. In the United States, he founded a mass movement that called for a return to Africa and for restoring the honor of the black person. One of his ideas was to found a shipping company called the Black Star Line, but it didn't work out." As the police officer goes to inspect the guestrooms, Sharon Barak talks feelingly about ancient Ethiopian Christianity. He then says that there are points of similarity between Rastafarianism, Zionism and Judaism and that there is a salient connection between Rastafarian culture and their collective way of life in Tze'elim. "The simplicity," he says. "We residents of Tze'elim are the simple folk, we come from below."

Here they are still trying to preserve the character of a commune. The kibbutz, which earns a living from field crops (peanuts, carrots, potatoes), a tire factory, a dairy, a chicken coop and a highly developed tourist industry, is one of the few kibbutzim that continues to maintain a full collective and social way of life. "In Tze'elim we live like 30 years ago, because that's the way the people here are. Everything here flows very slowly," one of the group says. "Economically, the kibbutz is surviving with an effort and is not breaking, but is also not enjoying a boom time. Over the years we were not at the top and we did not sink to the bottom, and maybe that's why we didn't undergo the crises that other kibbutzim did."

The first attempt to settle the site was made in 1945 when a group of Hungarian immigrants established an outpost in the northern Negev. However, they left toward the end of the War of Independence to establish Kibbutz Kfar Hahoresh, and it was only four years later, in 1949, that Kibbutz Tze'elim was formally founded, by a group of 40 young people. The core group consisted of groups of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe and members of a North African pioneer labor youth movement called Habonim Dror. Today there are 120 households in the kibbutz.

Amnon Barshavsky turns his blue-eyed gaze toward the cypress trees. "There is a geographical encounter here," he notes, pointing in two opposite directions and at the same time delineating a cultural encounter as well. "Leaving the kibbutz, you can see a line of cypress trees. If you go south of the avenue of cypresses, you find sands of Egypt and Ethiopia. Take the other side and you continue to Asia and Europe. You can see the connection with the eye, a line with dunes on one side and fields on the other. Our parents, too - contrary to most kibbutzim, where the members came from the same place and so have something culturally limited about them - created something different by their very connection to this place. Our parents' generation came from Morocco, Poland, France, Argentina and Algeria. In that situation there is openness; from the outset no exclusivity attaches to the `sea of grains' and other things can also develop."

They sip steaming coffee and actually want to say that Rastafarianism is a point of encounter, the line of the equator, the zero point, a type of clinging to tribal-biblical roots. They want to say that they did not really go far but came home. So it was important for them to dwell first in the historical description of Ethiopian Christianity that the Rastafarians admire so ardently. That Christianity preserved Jewish elements, such as reggae music, which integrates content and melodies from Jewish sources.

That is why it is important for Udi Barak to mention feelingly his trip to remote villages in East Africa, places where he was the first white man the inhabitants had ever seen. "It was like in the Bible. People lived there according to the biblical laws," he relates in a deeply nostalgic tone and pauses to dwell on a moving chance meeting he had with an elderly Ethiopian man. "He showed me parchment scrolls on which were drawn all the canonical stories of the Bible. He showed me drawings of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah's Ark, Jacob and his sons. As he unrolled the scroll the drawings continued until King Saul and King David, and then came scenes from the New Testament."

After a short pause, Barak declares, "We are not the chosen people; the Torah belongs to everyone. Abraham is our roots, he unites us all, all the religions. If we look at him, there are no conflicts and no need to create separations and fences. Bob Marley, too, sang about the exodus from Egypt, about emerging from slavery to freedom and about redemption. Every person has his slavery."

The Well

"That is a shadow that looms over everything," says a kibbutz member, referring to the subject of drugs. "Generally, everyone is very much afraid of the story of the drugs," she notes, "mainly because a lot of outside people come to the reggae performances that take place here. From that point of view, there is a bit of an oppressive feeling."

The phenomenon of drugs that accompanies the Rastafarian culture is an unresolved matter that keeps coming up in the regular meetings that take place here. Michael Susgrad, the kibbutz coordinator, treads the hot coals cautiously but succeeds in maintaining a firm tone. "We have a very clear line from the point of view of the kibbutz institutions - that the use of drugs in the kibbutz is forbidden. We have a special committee that deals with the subject. If it is discovered that a member used or experienced [drugs], the committee tries to help him at the social and therapeutic level," he says. "This is definitely a problematic issue and I think that sometimes the cost exceeds the benefit. I would not want to be on the map of alternative music in a drugs context. We have had a number of musical events in the kibbutz. They succeeded economically, but in the end we have to examine whether this does not hurt us from the social point of view."

Amnon Barshavsky is familiar with these concerns but thinks there is no cause for great worry. People, he says, tend to connect too quickly between reggae and drugs. "It exists because part of Rastafarian belief says that if it's grass and it's nature, who can tell me not to smoke it?" he explains. "For example, you won't find tripping here. There's no getting away from it: in a place where everyone wears blue work clothes and suddenly there are dreadlocks and colorful garments, the difference causes apprehension. Sure you can look at us as `those guys with the joints,' but that would be a mistake. The institutions persecute it in the knowledge that it exists, but in the end I think it is a subject that is more open in the kibbutz as compared with other places."

Nevertheless, the African culture continues to root itself in the kibbutz at a rapid pace. Last spring, for example, a family reggae festival was held in Tze'elim. The Spring Festival, as it was called, was set up on a shoestring budget, but the organizers were stunned by the response, as 1,200 participants arrived for the 24-hour event. Whole families came from all over the country to dance and to listen to Israeli bands sing and play reggae. Huge banners of Bob Marley and Haile Selassie - the only true emperors - flew everywhere. There was a tremendous feeling. So much so that Tze'elim is now considering the idea of preceding the Spring Festival with a mini-festival, perhaps of one performance. No decision has yet been made, but it is clear to everyone involved that they have to do something.

Another establishment manifestation is The Well, a pub. Since it opened, in 1997, The Well has been a warm home for reggae music and a meeting place for Rastafarians who are not members of the kibbutz. Most of the week the pub plays music of the 1960s and 1970s, with Thursdays devoted to live performances of any genre. The reggae performances, of course, draw the largest and most devoted crowds, with people coming from all over the country to spend a night of reggae in the wood structure that was once a grain silo.

Recent performers at The Well include the international group Yossi Fein and the Eccentrics and Jamaican artists Jah Mason, Bamboo Station (from the Virgin Islands) and Disciple. Because the kibbutz does not have the wherewithal to pay for performers from abroad, most of the Jamaican artists who appear at The Well do so out of friendship. Jah Mikes, a Jamaican musical producer who owns a recording label, has become attached to the place and brings in his artists regularly in return for a few days of lodgings. Among the Israeli artists who maintain a steady relationship with Tze'elim are the members of the rap/hip-hop group Shabak Samech, who worked on their album "Cnaan 2000" in the kibbutz.

Two decades

It's 8:30 P.M. and Udi Barak is tired as he parks his bike next to his house. After his two children are asleep, he looks back 20 years. "When I look at the beginning and see what's happening today in the kibbutz, I feel very optimistic. There was a wedding here yesterday. The young people danced the whole evening, but when a [reggae] song by Alpha Blondy was played, they danced differently. I saw it. When he sang `Baruch ata Adonai, Baruch ata Yerushalayim' [Blessed art thou, God, Blessed art thou, Jerusalem], they danced from the heart. It is imprinted within us, in our way of thinking. Rasta and reggae restored something that had faded; through reggae the old values of the kibbutz are preserved. It moves me every day anew to see that the young people here still believe in sharing, that they want to live in partnership, for one another."n



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