Uncle Moshe Rejoins the Old Gang

For my 12th birthday Uncle Moshe gave me 'a strong avuncular handshake,' as he put it. Of all my gifts, I actually liked it the best.

For my twelfth birthday, our maid Tony made chocolate cake filled with whipped cream. My Aunt Aviva made cream puffs filled with mushrooms and chopped liver, and took me to her hairdresser, David, the most expensive hairdresser in central Carmel, and on a major shopping expedition - clothes at Motzkin and shoes at Dan Gavrieli, the best-known fancy stores on Haifa's Herzl Street. Aunt Sarah brought bananas from the kibbutz and a suitcase as a present. Aunt Hertzelah gave me what was was an unimaginable sum of money for me at the time, while Uncle Moshe gave me "a strong avuncular handshake," as he put it. Of all the gifts, I actually liked it the best. It embodied everything Moshe was to me: opinionated and knowledgeable, but mainly a man with an excellent sense of humor.

Uncle Moshe scorned materialism. On his kibbutz, Beit Keshet, gifts were not customary, as they were at Gesher Haziv, Aunt Sarah's kibbutz. And the children slept in children's houses. Once when we brought an outfit for my favorite cousin, Hagar, the clothes were given to another girl from her children's house because it was that girl's turn to receive a gift of new clothing.

illustration - Avi Ofer - Sept 24 2010
Avi Ofer

Uncle Moshe was a passionate kibbutznik. One could say an extreme idealist. Not only was he one of the kibbutz founders, but for most of his life he was one of the most active ideological leaders of the Mahanot Olim movement. Friends of mine knew Moshe because they had been members of the movement, or were raised on kibbutz. Older acquaintances of mine had served with him in the Haganah, which he joined at 14, studied with him at Kadoorie Agricultural School, fought with him in the Palmach or were instructed by him in the Palyam.

Kibbutz Gesher Haziv in the Western Galilee, a substantial portion of whose members were related to my mother through blood or marriage, was a kind of second home for me. We came far less often to Beit Keshet, where Moshe lived with his wife, Ruti, and eventually their four children as well. Beit Keshet may have also been slightly more distant physically from Haifa than Gesher Haziv was, but it was undoubtedly much more distant ideologically. Every time we came, usually in Aunt Aviva and Uncle Zvi's car, the kibbutz kids ran after us shouting, "city slickers, city slickers," or "the city slickers are here." The communal sleeping arrangements made it impossible for me to sleep there. I was afraid to sleep alone with other children. My brother Zvika came more often.

From my early childhood I remember going there for a memorial service. A man who looked very old to me took the stage. Later Mom told me that it was our president, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, whose son Eli was one of the seven who had died in the battle to defend Beit Keshet; they were graduates of Kadoorie, like my Uncle Moshe.

That battle, in which he did not fight, forever changed my Uncle Moshe's emotional world. He named his eldest son Sefi, after one of the seven. The day, 12 and a half years ago, that both my parents died, as soon as I stepped into their home Moshe grabbed my shoulders and said: "Are you talking to me about bereavement? I'll tell you what bereavement is. I was only 23 when I had to go and inform the parents of my seven best friends that their sons had been killed." Apparently this was to give me some perspective, so that I would see things in proportion, because what are two parents compared to your seven best friends?

The writer Haim Gouri, who studied in the same class as Moshe in Kadoorie, once told me how Moshe's academic prowess did not contradict the fact that he was also a wild kid. All his life, Moshe was proud of the fact that whereas Yitzhak Rabin, who was two grades above him, finished school with a 97 average, he, Moshe, had a 98 average.

He was awarded five Palestine pounds by the British Mandatory government for his academic excellence. He used it to buy a cow, the first of Beit Keshet. And so for quite a long time, Uncle Moshe was a cowboy too.

At one of the memorials for my grandfather, while we were still sitting around a long table at Maxim's restaurant, Moshe told my twins about this, and they started to sing excitedly, "Uncle Moshe had a cow/ e-i-e-i-o/ He couldn't milk her/ so she milked him/ He pulled its foot he pulled its tail/ and all the shit flew over him/ Uncle Moshe had a cow ... " Moshe, who didn't quite hear the words, was very moved by the gesture and applauded vigorously. My mother laughed so hard she started to cry.

Uncle Moshe died a month ago, during the very week we were to commemorate the third anniversary of the death of Ruti, his beloved wife, the mother of Sefi, Nimrod, Yair and Hagar. Ruti was the light of his life, and even saved his life, indirectly, at least once. That was when he didn't participate in the operation in which his good friends were killed, because he was in Tel Aviv to meet with his future in-laws and to make wedding arrangements. Now, in death, Moshe has joined her, his seven friends, and my mother, whom I miss so much during the holiday season. Maybe they'll tell one another a few chizbatim (tall tales ).