Digging Up Israel's Zionist History in a Vegetable Garden by the Lake

Exactly 100 years later, the Young Women's Farm is blooming again.

Dressed as a pioneer, as is required by his job as a guide at Hatzer Kinneret, Avshalom Ben-Zvi was weeding the vegetable garden behind the site's historic buildings on Sunday.

"I have trouble understanding how those pioneering men and women lived here, and all the more so when I'm working in the vegetable garden," he said, wiping sweat from his brow in the heavy heat that smothered Lake Kinneret's southern shore on Sunday.

Avshalom Ben-Zvi - Gil Eliyahu - 17102011
Gil Eliyahu

Hatzer Kinneret was set up in 1908 to train the pioneers of the Second Aliyah - the second major wave of immigration to pre-state Israel - in agricultural labor. Today, it is run by the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites; the guides are all graduates of the Mahanot Haolim youth movement.

The vegetable garden, which Ben-Zvi and his colleagues set up only recently, is meant to recall the gardens worked by the female pioneers of Havat Ha'almot (the Young Women's Farm ), which was established exactly 100 years ago. Hatzer Kinneret's director, Zahava Hakham-Gabay, said the goal was primarily educational.

"We want groups of young people to work here and connect to Hatzer," she explained. "The vegetable garden is also meant to give the site a little color. Hatzer is devoid of color. On the one hand, we want to preserve what used to be here as closely as possible; but on the other hand, we want a little color at the site."

She is also hoping to recreate the terraces where A.D. Gordon, a leading ideologue of Labor Zionism, and his fellow pioneers once worked. The original pioneers grew a variety of produce on these terraces, from vegetables to citrus saplings, irrigating them all with water carried in buckets from Lake Kinneret. Hakham-Gabay is now seeking volunteers with knowledge of agriculture to help redevelop them.

Havat Ha'almot existed at Hatzer Kinneret for only six years, from 1911-17, but acquired a key role in the pioneering mythos. According to Dr. Smadar Sinai, who researched the role of women in the Second Aliyah, "Havat Ha'almot became a legend because of the women who were there" - and first and foremost, poetess Rachel. Its prominence also stemmed from its location at Hatzer Kinneret, which was "the melting pot and womb from which [pioneers] spread out all over the Galilee," Sinai said.

Finally, she noted, the story of Havat Ha'almot had garnered more attention in recent years because of the restoration of Hatzer Kinneret and the publication in 2006 of Shulamit Lapid's novel, "Havat Ha'almot" (published in English as "Nunia" ).

Havat Ha'almot was founded by Dr. Hannah Meisel, an agronomist, to teach young women to farm. Though it wasn't part of Hatzer Kinneret, it was right next door to it. During its six years in operation, it trained about 70 women.

"The farm was a place of female independence, a place where the issue of equality between the sexes entered the [pioneers'] consciousness for the first time," said Hakham-Gabay. "Hannah Meisel wanted women to be independent. The pioneer women wanted to be partners, but in the end, they became laundresses and cooks. The farm's goal was to change this situation."

Sinai explained that on most of the early agricultural settlements, women were last in line for jobs working in the fields. Meisel thus concluded that "the way to help those young women become integral parts of the Zionist revolution was to train them to be farmers' wives.

"A farmer's wife has to understand everything that affects the household economy. Incidentally, aside from agricultural training, this included learning cooking and nutrition," Meisel added.

The young women trained at the farm indeed felt that they were partners in a real revolution. "We're receiving a special part of the field that will be all ours, to work as we wish, according to our abilities," wrote Shoshana Bluwstein, the sister of poetess Rachel who was trained at Havat Ha'almot. "It's a glorious time. What a liberation!"

It takes a lot of imagination to sail back in time to those early days at Hatzer Kinneret. Now, Ben-Zvi and his colleagues hope the vegetable garden will at least give visitors a taste of the pioneers' back-breaking agricultural labor.