Going Up to the Country

Call them 'gentleman farmers' - a group of Tel Aviv professionals and artists who travel north each weekend to work small plots of land that they have bought. It fills the table and calms the spirit.

Yehuda "Judd" Ne'eman stands facing a group of bushes, a large sharpened scythe in his hand. He is exceedingly troubled by the thistles that threaten to overrun his orderly plot, which is bordered by rocks. A director and producer of dozens of films, and a professor of film studies at Tel Aviv University, Ne'eman, who has already crossed the 70-year mark, stands there debating his options. The thistles are growing on the plot that belongs to the neighbors, who have not come to work it for two weeks already. He is worried that the thistles will take root in his property and "sweep through it like a storm."

For more than a year now, Ne'eman, a winner of the Israel Prize for film, has been cultivating his 1.5-dunam plot (just under half an acre), located in a well-established community (whose identity the group wishes to keep confidential) near Zichron Yaakov. "I come every Saturday. This is my quiet. It's enormously satisfying; had I known it was like this, I would have started sooner," he says.

Sixty Tel Avivians - most of whom live on four adjacent streets in the city center - purchased agricultural plots this year in the same community, and are energetically cultivating them. All are busy people: They see patients, hold meetings, teach. But one or two days a week they report for arduous farm work - hoeing, planting, harvesting - and "refill their batteries" in the process, they agree.

"This is agriculture in the purest sense of the word," says Erez Pilz, a realtor ("improver of property rights," as he puts it), who organized the group. Psychotherapist Nina Brandwein acknowledges that her friends think she's "nuts" to work like this once a week. "But I know how much it gives me," she says.

For around NIS 30,000 - about half the cost of a late-model used car - you can buy a half-dunam of agricultural land, tend and grow vegetables on it, and if you're lucky, reap the earthly rewards fairly quickly. Brandwein, for example, has greatly cut down on vegetable shopping since her plot began yielding cherry tomatoes, herbs, zucchini and eggplant.

The drive from Tel Aviv to the community takes an hour. You will not see tractors or big plows here, just hoes and pitchforks. City folk of all ages don work gloves and bend down to yank out weeds with their hands - or, in Ne'eman's case, with a mammoth scythe that he had made to order in Austria. Ne'eman says he held it a few times, and images from his childhood resurfaced and he remembered how to use it.

"My grandfather was among the early settlers in Mazkeret Batya, and I visited him a lot as a child and worked during the harvest. Maybe it stayed with me from there?" he muses.

"Ne'eman's plot is very orderly," Pilz says, with appreciation.

Twenty years ago a good part of the group that purchased the plots together founded their own preschool for their children, which they were involved in running, on the outskirts of the Carmel market in Tel Aviv.

"The couples and the children stayed in touch over the years," explains Pilz, who is the grandson of Aryeh Pilz, the man who built Tel Aviv's first shopping arcades and the Dizengoff Center mall. Erez Pilz managed the family business, studied photography at the Camera Obscura school, showed his work at exhibitions, and shot a documentary film, "Euphoria," with his wife, Tamara Pilz-Hunter.

"Friends who have questions regarding property always come to me," he says. A year and a half ago he got such a question from Iris Levita, his teenage daughter's math teacher, who inherited agricultural lands from her grandfather, and consulted Pilz about what to do with them.

Pilz: "I told her I had an idea: The agricultural land had to be preserved. I telephoned Brandwein and proposed that she join in, buying land for individual crop allotments. Right away, she said, 'That's my dream,' and began contacting acquaintances. It's not exactly a community garden. We are not a community. Everyone receives a plot of land, and it is registered in his name."

Nina Brandwein and her husband, Tuvia Brandwein, a pediatrician, bought 1.5 dunams, as did Ne'eman; Shlomo and Rachel Auerbach, formerly the owners of a film production company, bought 1 dunam, and so forth. Twenty-seven dunams were sold to 50 buyers over the course of a year.

'It gives me joy'

It is 11 A.M. on a sunny Shabbat, following a particularly chilly week. The first urban farmers arrive; they usually come equipped with a hoe, gloves and a thermos of tea. Nina Brandwein, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, eagerly crouches down near the ground, while her husband wields a scythe.

"I'm not much of a farmer," he admits. "At first I would sit and watch Nina work. One day she asked me to bring her water, and began giving me jobs. Ever since then I don't sit around. It gives me joy."

The Tel Avivian farmers needed guidance. Most of them enjoyed the encounter with the land from the outset, and began to collect tips from nursery owners. They bought olive trees from an experienced grower and wrapped them in plastic sheeting in preparation for frost; they planted vegetation meant to serve as natural insecticides. Anyone expecting rows of plowed land with wires stretched along them here will be surprised: The property resembles a wild field. Only careful scrutiny reveals the outlines of the separate plots. Any deviation from the path brings cries of despair from Pilz, lest one treads on sprouts that are invisible to the typical urban eye.

"See those - they're still small," he scolds, and points to a row of hidden herb plants. Along with them, the Pilz-Hunter plot boasts wild flowers and fruit trees.

Says Erez: "I spent eight years wandering the winding halls of Dizengoff Center day after day, even after terror attacks, when the place was in bad shape. Now I'm looking for other places, with natural light and open air." Two weeks ago, on Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor day), he adds, "100 people visited us here and planted, friends and relatives. It was quite a happening here."

So far the urban venture has not raised any eyebrows, including among the local "country folk."

"On the contrary, everyone has been supportive so far," Nina Brandwein says.

"Except for the wild boars that devoured our watermelons last summer," Ne'eman corrects her.

"This is our own private yard," she continues. "We feel closer to nature this way. It requires a certain amount of tolerance - like watching your neighbor without commenting and without getting upset. Perhaps it is no coincidence that a large number of my friends are in their mid-40s," says Brandwein, who owns a psychotherapy center in Tel Aviv for people of that age and older.

"There is a temperament that is suitable to this environment. You can work even with the neighbor's music blasting in the background. It's disruptive, but you let it slide. I've conducted workshops on my plot and they left a strong impression. The open space and the quiet played an important role. If a person becomes a peasant farmer and it makes him happy, that's a tremendous thing."

Sometimes, Brandwein admits, she feels like bringing in a spray gun and killing all the pests, but nonetheless she aims to keep her crops natural and organic: "It's not written in the rule book. If someone wants to spray [with chemicals], he can. We can only hope that he'll realize that it will disturb others," she says.

The objection to spraying might explain Ne'eman's nervous contemplation of his neighbor's thistles. "We don't spray," he says aloud, as if to remind himself, wielding his sharp scythe and looking almost intimidating. "We pull them out with our hands."

Ne'eman is not the only one who has shown up today, in a small family car loaded with work tools. Not far away are Rachel and Shlomo Auerbach, who were involved in the preschool with the filmmaker and his children, and have a plot here, too.

"I am a busy person," says Rachel Auerbach, who owns a ceramics studio. "I escape to this place to clear my head." She planted trees: olive, pomegranate, fig, orange, Santa Rosa plum, avocado and mango. "I bring tomatoes home, I brought watermelons when we had them. This entire past year we ate butternut squash; they wanted to throw me out of the house because there was so much of it. The land provides everything, also lots of weeds," she says, waving a sickle around. "I arrive home exhausted, but it's tremendously satisfying. A kind of meditation. My greatest joy is when the kids come with friends and don't want to leave because they're having fun."

The property belonging to psychiatrists Galit and Daniel Becker is just a step away from Auerbach's. He lectured at Brandwein's institute, and when he heard from her about the venture, he knew at once that his wife would be keen on it, too.

"He knows I'm a nature lover," says Galit Becker. "I am drawn to proximity to the land, to the ability to feel it, to the fragrance and the peacefulness. Something strange happens to me in this place. Here four hours zip by just like that. We return feeling spiritually uplifted, refreshed after a few hours of physical labor. It's therapy and magic."

The Beckers planted fruit trees and flowers, and "now we have begun to take an interest in medicinal plants. We saw such a garden while traveling in the Pyrenees," Galit Becker explains. "There is a feeling of sharing. If someone likes broccoli, he is welcome to pick from our plot. It is so different from the Tel Aviv experience, where you want only to protect your lot against invaders. On Saturdays we try to make things pleasant, eat together, chat a bit. Friendly relations are important, even if this is not a real community."

All of the new farmers share the feeling that the land and the trees are stronger than life, and will remain here forever, even after they are gone.

"This is the first time I have felt that I will be leaving something behind," says Rachel Auerbach, "for the children to have."