Plaque Honoring Naomi Shemer's Eucalyptus Grove Raises Controversy

The people of Kvutzat Kinneret can argue about anything, says Ya'akov Melamed, a member of the kvutza, or small kibbutz.

He was explaining the heated discussion underway Friday evening, next to a sign that the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites (SPIHS) had placed at the entrance to a eucalyptus grove immortalized by kvutza member Naomi Shemer, the songwriter who died in 2004.

They could not agree with anything on the sign. "It's Rashumon," a veteran member said, referring to the subjectivity of recollection, named after a Kurosawa film.

When was the song written, when was the eucalyptus grove planted? Everyone has his own version, with documents to match. Melamed says the people of Kvutzat Kinneret take special pride in their heritage.

"Some of our pride stems from commemoration. We've already placed many plaques here that relate our heritage," he said, citing Gan Rachel, named after the early 20th century poetess Rachel, and Gan Ben-Zion, named after Ben-Tzion Israeli, a member of Kvutzat Kinneret who smuggled in date seedlings from Iraq in the 1930s.

Their devotion to commemoration is what fuels their disagreement over the sign's details. One veteran kibbutz member is said to have refused to come to the dedication ceremony because the sign states that the grove was planted in 1917, while he believes it was planted in 1912.

Friday evening's ceremony was meant to commemorate Naomi Shemer, who made the kvutza's eucalyptus grove famous. At the ceremony, Sarah Stoler, the daughter of Kvutzat Kinneret founder Shmuel Stoler, dropped a bombshell: not 1917, and not 1912. Rather, 1921. She read a letter her father had written, in which he describes the time before the dam was built across the Jordan River at the outlet of Lake Kinneret: "The Jordan flowed freely, and on days when the water rose, a toxic swamp was created that was swarming with fever mosquitoes."

An embankment was constructed to prevent the water from seeping out, but it did not help, and on Tu Bishvat 1921, Stoler wrote, it was decided to plant the eucalyptus grove to keep the water level down.

It was not long before the plants dried up. "We were stubborn. We planted them again and they also ended their lives as quick as a flash. We planted a third time. This time we placed handfuls of dark earth from the Jordan's banks and fertilized every planting hole ... we said a prayer that the plants would take. They took and began to grow quickly," he wrote.

"One of the most amazing stories of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel took place here," SPIHS deputy director Omri Shalmon said. "And here, the Australian eucalyptus, so un-Israeli, became an Israeli symbol thanks to Naomi Shemer."

Nachik Mark, the son of Kvutzat Kinneret founders, said: "Naomi Shemer's song tells about the places of our childhood. Right behind [the grove] is the Metor House," pronouncing the word "motor" the way the founders did when referring to the pump house built in 1908 to irrigate the fields.

"We passed through the grove on our way to and from school in Degania. We used to get the roofing for our sukkot here, and the bananchikim [banana plantation workers] would cut stakes from the trees. You have to understand, there were other groves in the area, and this legendary grove had only 100 trees."

Melamed notes that there were arguments over the exact location of the grove. "She wrote 'bridge' and not 'dam.' You have to understand that when she meant 'dam,' that's what she wrote in three other songs. When I called to ask her what grove she meant, so we could put up a plaque with the story, she said 'stop driving me crazy. Put up the sign whenever you want.'"

Melamed supports the 1912 version - his sources say the planters were paid in four installments by the head of the Kinneret Farm (a training farm for agricultural workers started by the World Zionist Organization) based on the trees' rate of growth. The first installment was made when the trees reached half a meter, and the last, when they reached four meters.

In a letter read at Friday evening's ceremony, a young pioneer woman, Rivka Sapir - Shemer's mother - described the harsh standards of an older, simpler time: "Once, after I handed saplings to one of the veteran women planters, I dared, awe-struck, to plant three saplings at the end of the row. To my undying shame the three were pulled out of the ground and replanted with an encouraging compliment: 'Don't plant anything - yours won't take.' I believe I never had such black moments ever again. The sun set, it got dark, and I didn't return to the farmyard. I ran into the eucalyptus grove on the Jordan's banks, I lay down among the trees and wept."

In 1970, about eight years after Shemer wrote the song that was to become an icon, she wrote in a letter: "For a moment, I imagined that this corner of the Jordan Valley where it was my privilege to have been born, is the only place where real things were created, which have a beginning, a continuation of the song - the song returns to the planters and the motion lasts."