Bovines, Brunch and Ruth Dayan

Ruth Dayan, wife of Moshe Dayan, reminisces on International Women's Day about milking cows on Nahalal and learns about the lot of today's female dairy farmers.

BE'ER YA'AKOV - In 1934, Rachel Schwartz, who spoke Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, German, Turkish and Russian, held degrees in chemistry and education, and was famous in Jerusalem for being the first Jewish woman to own and drive her own car around town, got in her beloved Morris Minor and drove her 17-year-old daughter Ruth to Moshav Nahalal's agricultural school.

"Did you go there for love?" Ruth, who would soon after marry the moshav's most famous son Moshe Dayan, is asked today. "Not at all," replies Ruth, who turned 95 last week. "In fact I left many loves behind, poor souls. I went there to fulfill my dream of milking cows."

Ruth Dayan - 14.3.12

Dayan had, actually, never seen a cow before she set off to Nahalal. After all, the daughter of intellectuals had lived in London between the ages of two and 11, and then landed in Jerusalem's rarefied Rehavia neighborhood, where she attended the prestigious Gymnasia Rehavia school. Cows were few and far between. "You could fairly say," she will admit, "that I was a little scared of them."

It's a sunny Thursday morning, and Dayan is sitting down for brunch with Agriculture Minister Orit Noked and dozens of Israel's female dairy farmers in Be'er Ya'akov, a local council in central Israel founded in 1907 by Jewish immigrants from Dagestan.

It's International Women's Day and to celebrate, the minister and the Israel Dairy Board has invited them all to "Tal Taleh," a popular dairy farm-cum-boutique restaurant in town, to chat about - what else? - cows. "Does anyone even milk them anymore?" asks the elegant Dayan, dressed in a long colorful dress and bright red cardigan, looking around at the round tables laden with fresh goat cheeses and strawberry yogurts.

"Of course we do!" the ladies call out in unison.

"By hand?" Dayan presses on, cocking an eyebrow.

"We milk the goats," someone offers. "Or when something goes wrong with the machinery," another pipes in, taking a bite of couscous salad.

Much has changed in Israel's dairy farm scene over the years. In the 1890s, the combined herds of all Jewish settlers were said to number 774, all of the local breed - a very small cow with yields of between 300 and 1,000 liters a year.

When Dayan arrived in Nahalal, there was no electricity, let alone milking machinery. Her first unenviable job was to take care of the sick cows, of which, she says, there were always far too many.

Today, following years of research, breeding and investment in the sector, Israel is the highest milk producer per cow in the world, despite the desert landscape, heat and lack of water. The country has close to 1,200 dairy farms, and its cows - mostly crosses between local breeds and Dutch imports - are internationally renowned for their record-breaking high yields: 11,600 liters per year on average. The very best of the best, the cows of Kibbutz Sa'ad in the northern Negev, are said to produce an astonishing 16-17,000 liters per year.

But not all is well in the Israeli dairy world these days. This past summer, a facebook protest against cottage cheese prices, which have risen dramatically since the government deregulated them several years ago, ended with 300,000 people around the country taking to the streets to protest the general high cost of living in Israel.

A government committee soon recommended, among other measures, controlling dairy prices, instituting economic milk market reforms and - gasp, choke - enabling the import of hard cheeses and powdered milk products. A dairy ladies' morale-boosting brunch was definitely in order.

Nurit Levin is a third generation dairy farmer who, together with her husband and four children, runs a farm of 60 cows on Kfar Yehezkel, a moshav in the Jezreel Valley. She sells the milk onward, as many others here do, to Tnuva, Israel's largest dairy products manufacturer, which was boycotted last summer as part of an offshoot protest after it refused to lower its prices.

Levin's grandparents founded Kfar Yehezkel with a group of friends when they arrived from Russia in the early 1920s, and were given a cow each by the local Jewish authorities. In the 1960s, her parents switched over to using cow milking pumps and then a decade ago, under the watch of Levin, who holds a masters degree in computer science, the farm became one of the first in the country to introduce a robotic milking system.

But while the cows, the yields, the technology and the challenges may have changed, some things, the women in Be'er Ya'akov note - simultaneously tucking into the pound cakes and some more yogurt - have remained remarkably the same. First, the number of women in the dairy farm business is still minuscule, and second, as Levin notes, the ones who are involved, like the men, are all rather passionate. You have to be, she adds, for it's no job to get rich from.

Most of those gathered attest that they are just getting by. And the new recommended government measures, they believe, will end up harming them most - not the big manufacturers or the supermarket chains - causing more than 400 small family dairies to close.

"I might have brought in robotics, but I still interact plenty with the animals," she says, describing how she wakes up at dawn to feed the cows, takes care of their health and cleans up after them. Her choice of profession, she says, is a lifestyle one. "You have to care. You have to want and to enjoy this life."

"We all get very attached to our cows," agrees Dayan, who ended up settling in Nahalal for 15 years after Moshe, who approached her to ask for English tutoring on her first week there, proposed less than a year later. Subsequently, through the years her husband served as Israel's chief of staff, defense and then foreign minister, as well as after her divorce from him in 1971 and his death a decade later. Dayan found herself drawn to other pursuits. She founded Israel's ethnic craft and fashion house Maskit, and has worked on behalf of underprivileged women, Jewish and Palestinian alike, as well as immigrants and Bedouin.

But once a dairy farmer always a dairy farmer, as there must be a saying, somewhere.

"I'm not nostalgic for those days per se, but I do miss the cows," reflects Dayan, going back in time to tell stories of Kochava, who was a particularly difficult cow, and Sikarika, a gentle sort.

"On the day of our marriage," Dayan tells the women, "the so-called Jerusalem aristocratic set all came up, by bus. We filled the washing tubs with corn on the cob and the Arabs came from the nearby villages, and friends came from Kadouri by bicycle, and we all danced the Debka."

Under the wedding canopy she wore a Russian peasant dress, and Moshe donned his felt Russian cap.

"Right after the ceremony, when we were sitting down under the walnut trees, I heard the cows calling out to me," Dayan continues, relaying how she changed into her work shorts and set out to the sheds to do the milking. Soon, everyone followed, and the whole party moved over. "That is where I liked being," she says. "I didn't mind the smell at all."

The brunch is winding down and Dafna Koren, a petite women in a checkered shirt and boots who started a dairy farm of 40 cows on the Golan Heights, shyly comes over to say hello. "I really could relate to your stories," she tells Dayan.

Koren, who grew up in Petah Tikva and has a degree in social science, always dreamed, for reasons neither her friends nor parents ever quite understood, of being a goat herder. "Cows were really my second choice," she admits and then shrugs, pushing her daughter, who has joined her for the event, forward to shake Dayan's hand.

"But I ended up a dairy farmer," concludes Koren. "And I loved it. It's where I belong now."