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Struggle – 1968

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Author – Yoram Selbst

Translation from Hebrew– Nina Selbst

“Look Elisha”, said the bald and stocky Abraham, who was farm manager that year, “painting is not a productive activity. I understand perfectly well that someone has a hobby, that he loves to paint.   Personally I really like the portraits you paint for us every now and again and perhaps even think it important to preserve the memory of the founders of the kibbutz, but painting is not a productive branch.”

Shimon, the kibbutz secretary came to his support. “We gave you permission to cut your work day by two hours so that you would have time for your hobby but that was only for a year and the year is up. A hobby is a hobby and you’re missed and needed in the fields.”

“The sweets are also missing you”, shouted David Kulmus, one of the joint managers of the sweet factory. 

“And I’d be happy to have you in the orchard”, added Abraham dryly.

“You can paint portraits of the tourists staying at the Rest Home”, added the silver-haired Leon who managed the Home, “the Holocaust survivors whose stay is financed from Germany really long to be remembered.” 

“In short”, Abraham summed up the discussion, “the chaverim agree that, however much they value and respect you personally, painting is not an economic branch.” 

“But”, said Elisha, his voice breaking with emotion, “give me the time and opportunity to learn and develop.”

“Learn from the example of Meyer Abramski”, responded Mordechai, the bookkeeper.

Yair Abramski had been slouching in his chair lost in his own thoughts and taking no part in the bi-monthly meeting in the dining hall.  Hearing his name mentioned he pulled himself erect, straightened the spectacles on the bridge of his nose and began to pay attention to what was being said.

“Yair Abramski”, pondered Elisha.  “What has painting to do with Yair Abramski?”  

“Look!” said Shlomo, our skinny secretary, “Yair asked for permission to study philosophy and sociology at the University. We didn’t approve his request.  Do you ask why?”

Yair’s story didn’t interest Elisha in the least, but still he asked why and Shlomo rushed to answer. “Because there’s no kibbutz in the world that has any need for a philosopher or a sociologist!”

“Naturally we didn’t want to deprive Yair of the opportunity to learn and develop so we sent him to study literature and history and look how well that turned out.”

Yair remembered the meeting at which that decision had been taken and expressed his doubts about whether the best choice had been made.

Sarka insisted. “It was the best possible outcome.”

Yair fiddled with his glasses once again and said “I’m not sure.”

Raya Lipson, wife of Shlomo, our secretary, commented “He is an outstanding teacher of literature and history.”

Ernesto the manager of the Rest Home added his thoughts. “We are sending Shalom to study hotel management.”

And Batya added “My Moomie will also soon be sent to study hotel management.”

“You understand Elisha,” summed up Shlomo, “that painting is not an economic branch.” 

 “If at least you would sell your paintings……” sighed Abraham, the farm manager.

Elisha enquired whether anyone had heard of van Gogh.

Emma Frigan responded. “Really Elisha, who hasn’t heard of van Gogh?”

“And how much did he earn on the most expensive picture he sold in his lifetime?”

David Feiver, the electrician, responded, “Last week a painting of his was sold for forty-eight million dollars, enough to keep us running for quite a long time.”

“But you are not van Gogh” stated Shlomo.

“In his lifetime” insisted Elisha. “For how much was the picture sold?” He went on to explain that in his whole life van Gogh had not succeeded in selling a single picture.

“For how much?” asked Sonia, who was sitting next to Emma, pushing her hearing aid into her ear.

“He didn’t sell anything at all”, shouted Emma into the grey-haired Sonia’s ear.

“If he didn’t sell anything why did the kibbutz waste money on him?” asked Sonia.

Some chuckles were heard. Elisha was agitated and disturbed. He rose from his seat and spoke in a voice shaking with emotion: “My dear chaverim, I came here today to ask for your help. Two hours a day are not enough for me. I’m asking you to allow me to establish an economic branch, to become a full-time artist.  I’m asking for a budget for canvasses, paint brushes and oil paints, a budget for silk screen prints, for posters and catalogues, a budget for an exhibition or two in galleries in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a budget for further study. I’m asking you to find me a studio where I can make paintings of a higher standard than is possible in a shed used for storing ammunition, that hasn’t been renovated since the War of Independence.  And I also need space to store my paintings. There is no room left in my home or in the shed. You must know that for the past two years I have spent most of my time painting portraits. Some of you have sat for me, some even have my oil paintings hanging on their walls.  I feel that I must continue to develop in this direction so in order to make progress I am also requesting a budget to bring models who I can paint…..”

“Models?”  Neta interrupted him with a shout. “Models?  Have you gone crazy? Is that what the kibbutz needs?  Half naked models in mini-skirts, faces smeared with provocative make-up, wandering around underfoot along the kibbutz pathways, coming into the dining hall to stuff our meatballs into mouths smeared with lipstick.  Is that what’s lacking in our lives? Our children will see them. Our youth will follow their example. Our young people, what will happen to them? Models are not a model for any youth!”  

“No!” Elisha hurried to explain. “The models will be fully dressed when they walk around the kibbutz. They’ll only get undressed in my studio.”  

“Get undressed?” screamed Neta. “You mean that they will be as naked as on the day they were born, with not a strip of clothing or even a hairpin to cover their flesh. I don’t understand you Elisha. You grew up here, in our kibbutz. Tell me, so that there should be no understanding.  You wish to be the artist of the kibbutz and in our name to paint nude women?”

“Yes!” answered Elisha with shining eyes, nodding his head up and down in affirmation. “It will be an  honor to be the kibbutz artist.”

“Dear sir” continued Neta “it was not for this that we established the Gordonia movement while we were still in Poland. We did not board those rickety immigrant ships and bring socialism to this land so that some  weed like you could paint naked women in our name. Without us the state  would never have come into being.”

Chaya, who always had something of the romantic in her, addressed Eliav. “Dear Eliav, in my mind’s eye I see the youngsters gathering outside your window to peer at your works and at the objects that you wish to bring from the city to draw  ….  shame upon us ….. what have we done to deserve such troubles and humiliation?”  Chaya covered her face with her hands and sobbed quietly. 

Elisha drew his long, delicate fingers through the thinning black hair that he spread over his scalp, covered his face with his hands for a moment, then rubbed his hands together and finally exclaimed, “aha, aha, aha, look, by the way, ahem, ahem, there is an alternative….”

“Alternative?” mused Sarka, who was nearing the end of her sixties.

“Alternative!” repeated Eliav in a soft and doubtful tone.

“I hope that it is something logical” said Abraham. “Up to now I’ve heard nothing that has made sense.”

“It’s possible to cut expenses” said Elisha.

“Cutting expenses is always a good idea”,  said Shlomo, the farm manager.

“I can….” said Eliav “but perhaps you won’t like to….”

“What can you?”  Rachel, Ernesto’s wife pressed for an answer from one of the back seats.

“I can paint chaverot of the kibbutz”.

“Chaverot of the kibbutz” screamed Neta. “You are planning to paint chaverot of the kibbutz in the nude and then publish their pictures in all sorts of catalogues and display them in bourgeois galleries of the lowest type?”

“Yes,” answered Eliav.  “They are cheaper than models, in fact they cost nothing and they are no less beautiful than the models.”

Rachel, the rather obese chavera who ran the laundry, raised her voice. “I don’t know a single chavera who’d be willing to strip naked in your studio for you to paint her.”

”I already have two volunteers”, declared Elisha,  “not one but two, both highly respected members of the kibbutz.”

“Volunteers? Members of the kibbutz? Who are they?”  Neta raised her eyebrows and demanded to know.

“Volunteers” insisted Elisha, but refrained from giving their names. “members of the kibbutz. You all know them. Give your permission and I’ll paint them.”

The chaverot stole embarrassed glances at one another.  Some of the chaverim fixed their gaze on the floor. Raya Lipson, wife of the kibbutz secretary, spoke up, “Under no circumstances!  It is not for us. We will not agree that oil paintings of members of our kibbutz in the nude should wander around the world, even if they are genuine works of art.”

“Look” said Elisha “it is difficult for me to believe that you wish to be numbered among those who will go down in history for preventing genuine works of art from being created. And in any case you have nothing to worry about.  I will display the pictures of our chaverot only in one particular gallery in Gordon Street in Tel Aviv.  Only those members of the kibbutz who are really interested in my works will go to see them. Those who aren’t interested or feel uncomfortable can simply stay away.”

“Heaven help us” Sarka cried out. “To what depths has the kibbutz descended!  How low has our general meeting fallen! Look at what we spend our time discussing – paintings of our unclothed chaverot to be displayed on the walls of a bourgeois art gallery in Gordon Street in Tel Aviv. It is inconceivable! Quite inconceivable!”

Abraham ran his hand over his bald head and said, “We need to talk about pruning the trees in the orchard.” He turned to Yossi, the work manager and instructed, “Put Elisha down for work in the orchard next week and let’s see how it goes.”

Michal, Elisha’s beautiful wife, who was sitting in the front row and had not said a word until then, turned to him and declared, “If the chaverim don’t want to help, my beloved, you are welcome to paint me.” Elisha rose from his place and stood beside her, stroking her flowing black hair. He pressed his head to her belly and in a low and gentle voice declared, “I would love to do so, my beloved wife, to paint your heavenly body, to offer the world a glimpse of your infinitely magical beauty, but tomorrow….”  Here his voice broke and he paused before continuing, “But I have been conscripted to prune the trees in the orchard tomorrow ……. so, for the time being nothing of your hidden qualities or gracious beauty will be revealed to the world.… and I…..” He fell silent. A moment later he turned around and sat down next to Shlomo Lipson, our secretary, who was chairing the meeting. 

Months later Elisha asked for permission to hold a small exhibition at the entrance to the dining hall. Chaverim enquired what name he wished to give the exhibition and he answered, “My Beloved Michal.”  Neta and Sarka, who had seen the pictures, swore that they would burn down the exhibition if he dared to display them.  

Michal and Eliav left the kibbutz soon after and the whole matter was forgotten. I too left the kibbutz after some months. However, a year or two later I happened to be in Gordon Street in Tel Aviv where a poster advertising an exhibition by Elisha caught my attention. I dropped all other business and hurried to the gallery.  A collection of colorful oil paintings and some delicate sketches of nudes, all by Elisha, adorned its walls. I found the pictures beautiful.  I identified portraits of two members of the kibbutz and was not quite sure about two more.  Without a moment’s hesitation I recognized Michal, Eliav’s attractive wife, as the star of some of the sketches and many of the oils.  I smiled to myself to think of those of whose secrets I’d only caught a hint on the pathways of the kibbutz now on such public display.  I approached the woman in black selling catalogues at the entrance and remarked with a smile, “Elisha is really a very gifted artist. It is a fine exhibition. I’d be interested to know how the members of the kibbutz have reacted to it.”   The old lady chuckled.  “They’ve all been here to see their chaverot … naturally each on their own, occasionally in pairs ….. you surely understand.” 

I smiled to myself and left the gallery. My mood was pensive. As I strolled  slowly down Gordon Street I caught sight of Neta and Sarka chatting with my wife on the pavement  opposite.


———————Note: The male and female members of the settlements of the kibbutz movement commonly refer to one another are known as chaverim and chaverot. The English equivalent is comrades.

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