The Birthday Boy Died, the Party Lives on

For Nahik Sela, the outburst of joy was a sign that the evening was taking off. "We did it," he shouted gleefully. One might have thought that there had been some doubt.

Like they have every year for the past three decades, hundreds of past and present members of Kvutzat Kinneret were there to celebrate Shulke's birthday, which was on New Year's Eve. However, the birthday boy himself did not attend. He died 30 years ago.

The audience, which included people born after Shulke died, began to get wild as midnight approached, said 29-year-old David Harhol, a third-generation Kinneret member and a member of the Shulke Committee, which organized the party.

"We have been preparing the party for three months. Shulke is a concept that is difficult to explain. It's something in the heart. It is something within every Kinneret member. When I was in the army, I 'killed' my grandmother three times [as an excuse] to attend the Shulke parties. Quite a few friends plan their trips abroad so that they will be back in time for Shulke. It is a wild feast, definitely not your normal party."

Many participants grew up on the kibbutz and left, but make a point to return on Shulke's evening. These include brothers Gil and Yiftah Harhol, who left 15 years ago. "We were raised on Shulke," says Yiftah. "Such an evening couldn't be held anywhere but Kinneret. The people of Kinneret are the last of the Mohicans, they do what they want, they have an esprit de corps."

"This is a tradition that exists nowhere else in Israel," says Ben Tzur, another committee member who was recently discharged from an elite military unit and also never met Shulke. "It is something unique at Kinneret," he said proudly.

All in all, it seems that local pride, plus a desire to keep a tradition and have a good time, are what make the Kinneret members celebrate the evening religiously, year after year.

Shulke, also known as Shalom Petrovsky, was born in 1906 in Vinnitza, Ukraine. He was exiled to Siberia for Zionist activity, and in 1926 came to Kinneret. "He was a bit of a whippersnapper, and Ben-Zion Israeli (one of Kvutzat Kinneret's founders) did not want him," recalls Eli Stein, whose parents were Shulke's friends. "They finally agreed to let him stay, and over the years his colorful character became an inseparable part of the Kinneret's scenery."

In time, Shulke began celebrating his birthday on January 1, perhaps because he did not know his real birth date, some say. Others say this was a way to celebrate New Year's Eve, "the Gentile's holiday, and the old timers did not want to celebrate it here."

Dudu Bobrow says the birthday celebration began as a limited and modest event; a door was opened between two small apartments, creating a small hall where revelers drank cognac, vodka and beer, ate herring that Sonia Stein prepared and meat from every possible source, and sang Russian songs while banging on bottles.

"Shulke invented the Law of Conservation of Mass," says Gal Kinarti. "Meat that fell on the garage's greasy floor, a bone left at the end of the meal - it all returned to the pot. They never threw away food."

In Kinneret members say that Bobrow religiously maintains this tradition.

Shulke was a skilled smith, a farmer all his life, an agricultural machine repairman with an unending zest for life and a love for mankind. Even though he was not one of Kinneret's key figures, his character that became the source for the traditional celebration. Shortly before his death, a friend promised him that they would continue to celebrate his birthday even after he dies.

"I will still pee on your grave," Shulke promised the friend, but died a few months later.

Besides agriculture, Shulke filled security and public service roles: In 1933 he was a member of Hapluga Hanodedet (the 'mobile company') in the Jordan Valley, outside the settlement's fence. In 1946 he was sent to help kibbutz Gezer, and spent two years there. In 1975, when he was 70 years old, he joined a volunteer battalion, the Blue Brigade, to refurbish damaged tanks.

In 1977, at a meeting of the Israel Association of Field Crop Growers, he received a medal for his farming diligence and achievements. At Ramat Sirin, where he worked and developed the farming area, a memorial monument was set up to honor him, and the people of Kinneret named one of the dry river beds in Ramat Sirin for him - Wadi Shulke.

Eli Stein says, "Shulke was a special character. He had a natural zest for life, and a simple and cultured manner. A cigarette at the tip of his mouth that he would roll over his tongue to entertain children; a leather cap with the visor turned backward; a twinkle in his eye, a smile on his lips, and clogs on his feet - these were his identifying marks."

Stein recalls the special way of life that surrounded Shulke and his group: "They would sit at my father's [place] over 'garbage' that they found, a dead chicken. The lavatories were in the corridor, and they used to cook on a Primus there. Many members who were not invited used to peek through the windows."

"It is an evening that you love without really knowing why," says 24-year-old Tamir Yarkoni.

"I, like most people here, did not know Shulke, but even as children we would wait for this day. There is a kibbutz holiday, but Shulke became the real holiday. It is a holiday for all, the young and the old," he says, happily hanging on 70-year-old Sela, asking: "Where else would you find such a connection between age groups?"

Yarkoni says, "The evening is effective because it gives people legitimacy to be merry and relaxed. It is a totally Kinneret evening. What is Kinneret? Arrogance, love of the kibbutz from the moment you were born and being against everybody else. It is like an elite army unit where you are ready to do everything, and Shulke became a day of identification with these values."

Sela sees in the evening a proof of the kibbutz movement's endurance in spite of everything, and believes that the cohesion and joy that this evening produces is a response to the schadenfreude from the kibbutzim's problems.

The winds of privatization have not spared Kinneret, but despite the concerns, Shulke survives. The change led to a modest entrance fee of NIS 15, but the old-timers were excused and allowed in for free.

A band played on stage all night long, and Shulke's picture and poem written in his honor hung overhead. As a tribute to Shulke's modest meals, there were large quantities of beer and a stew cooked in a 100-liter iron pot, brought in by forklift.

Shulke especially loved Russian songs. Instead, his followers sing him an anthem: "On the Sylvester he was born/ That's why we shall celebrate it forever/ Because that is what Shulke ordered us/ The joy shall not end here."