KIBBUTZ BE’ERI, southern Israel — Matti Caspi signed his last autograph and sat back with a sigh. It was Thursday afternoon, and the renowned musician had just completed his 23rd performance in eight days.
This last one was in the dining hall of Kibbutz Be’eri, no more than a few kilometers from the border with Gaza.
“Do you want an espresso?” asked Carmit, a kibbutz member standing nearby.
“Yes, please. A long, wide one,” said Caspi, with a tired grin.
He looked exhausted, dressed in a rumpled linen shirt, his bloodshot eyes underlined with dark circles. For more than a week, Caspi and his wife have been traveling around the communities down south, near the border with Gaza, performing a litany of old favorites and crowd requests in front of each audience.
“I’m also the driver,” he said.
Caspi didn’t arrange the impromptu tour with his manager — he didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy — but instead packed up his car with his equipment and set off down south with his wife. On the way, they called a friend in Beersheba, of whom they requested to set up a performance for a group of local kids stuck in a sealed room.
“I had been sitting in front of the television for two days, until I felt like a caged animal,” said Caspi, who lives in Kfar Saba. “I had to do something.”
It was later that day, while visiting injured soldiers at Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center, that Caspi bumped into reporters from Radio South. They ended up helping him coordinate his first forays into the kibbutz and moshav communities near the border with Gaza.
That was eight days ago.
Since then, he’s been to kibbutz after kibbutz — “they all blend into one another” — including Kerem Shalom, on the border, where he performed for just three families and the soldiers stationed there. They told Caspi they hadn’t had a performer visit them in years. That surprised him, given that other performers are also making the rounds of the embattled communities.
For now, though, his mission is clear.
“I’ll keep on doing this every day under it’s over,” he said.
Fear isn’t much of a factor for the 65-year-old Caspi, who lived for many years in the northern community of Kfar Vradim, and spent a good number of years dodging Katyusha missiles from Syria.
“There were no real sirens in those days,” he said. “They would just walk around with a megaphone, telling us to get to the shelters.”
It would take two hours to make a cup of coffee in between the missiles, he said. They would put the water up to boil, head to the shelter, come back and put the kettle back on. “I know what this is like,” reminisced the singer.
Caspi added that performing for the soldiers and kibbutz members “feels right. It’s an important thing. That for a minute, they forget everything. They need it. They get to see the other members of their community, after being all closed in for days on end.”
Carmit, the kibbutz member who helped organize Caspi’s visit at Be’eri, said she dismissed from mind everything during his performance.
“I forgot there’s a war while I was sitting here,” she said. “We’ve had so many performers here in the last few weeks. But you came in the middle of the day, and everyone came out, and stayed for the entire performance.”
It helped that it was a relatively quiet day at Be’eri, said Adi Efrat, a member who handles human resources for the kibbutz. In this area, “relatively quiet” means a day with few or no rockets. Or any other kind of incursion from Gaza.
Then again, nothing has felt normal for weeks on end. And having a musician like Caspi show up in the middle of what should be a normal workday? It’s just more of the new normal at Kibbutz Be’eri.
All they want is showers
The kibbutz, which is home to about 1,100 people, including 540 members, is in a significant stage of flux. Some of its members, particularly the families with young children, have been taking a break from the tensions of the recently discovered tunnels, ongoing rockets and gunfire from nearby Gaza, and staying with family and friends up north and in the center.
In the meantime, the kibbutz has opened its gates to the hundreds of soldiers stationed nearby, feeding them, doing their laundry and offering them showers, often in their own homes.
“That’s all they really want, a shower,” said Maayana Hershkovitz, who works in the main office of the kibbutz. “It’s become something of a hobby.”
The soldiers are everywhere. They were in the dining hall, chowing down on plates of schnitzel and rice, while listening to Caspi. They strolled up and down the pathways of the kibbutz, making their way to and from the gym, where hundreds of them are sleeping.
Their cars — for many of them were called up as part of the army’s reserves units and had to leave their “real” lives of work, spouses and kids — are parked in the kibbutz parking lot, often covered with a thick layer of mud-colored dust that becomes a canvas for kids’ doodles and words of encouragement.
Despite the support and help that the kibbutz offers the soldiers, their presence underlines the terrible sense of danger and unease that marks this latest war in the region, said kibbutz members.
“I can’t sleep,” said Hershkovitz. “I can’t take bike rides around the kibbutz with my friends, I can’t bike the short distance to the beach.”
Efrat hasn’t seen her teenage kids for weeks. She and her husband sent them up north to their cousins, because she can’t trust them when they’re at home. If Efrat’s at work, and there’s a Code Red — warning residents to lock their doors due to a possible incursion — she doesn’t know if she’d be able to wake up her son from a teenager’s deep, morning slumber.
And while her kids are old enough to know what to do when there’s a siren, she’d rather not have them lying on the ground, arms over their heads.
“My main job is to be a mother, and I don’t feel like I’m giving my kids real security here,” explained Efrat. “There’s danger here every day, it’s clear to me.”
At the nearby row of bomb-proof preschools and daycare centers, the substitute caregivers were cleaning baby bottles and wiping down counters after a long day of work. Several of the permanent caregivers are away, taking a break from the stresses of the current situation, said Shani Miles-Itach, one of the head preschool teachers.
“I can’t blame them,” she commented, shrugging her shoulders. “I’m devastated by what’s happening here and what’s happening in Gaza. But I wish the UN would go in and finish this for us.”
Comfort in routine
The kibbutz members try to maintain their sense of routine, said Efrat, but it offers limited comfort. The swimming pool, one of the summer vacation standards, is only open for a few hours each day, and usually just for swimmers doing laps.
Over at the kibbutz petting zoo, where a volunteer staff keeps the snakes, peacocks and chickens in their separate, immaculate spaces, the only visitors are soldiers, taking advantage of the shaded grass and benches on the hot July afternoon.
People go to their jobs, but for some, their work has been halted.
At the kibbutz dairy, where Dagan Peleg and his staff of two make six different artisanal cheeses from cow’s milk — aging them for six months and selling them to nearby kibbutzim and wineries — his third staff member has been busy taking care of the soldiers. That’s his new job.
“Ya’akov gets calls 24/7,” said Peleg. “Sometimes he has to feed a unit at midnight.”
The war has a way of interrupting kibbutz business as well. Besides Be’eri Printers, the kibbutz enterprise that processes digital printing, the kibbutz shares a dairy with two other nearby kibbutz communities, and still earns a steady income from its agricultural fields.
Peleg said he’s lost two-thirds of the dairy’s monthly income; he hasn’t been able to sell any cheeses this month. Their catering business, a sideline of the dairy, with an eclectic menu that features their homemade cheeses, has also suffered: Clients canceled bar mitzvah parties and end-of-year celebrations.
“It’s a pain, but I’m not going anywhere,” said Peleg. “I have everything I want here.”
There’s no place like the kibbutz
If not for the war, it’s easy to see why the residents still love Be’eri, one of Israel’s few remaining, traditional kibbutz communities.
Like other nearby kibbutz communities, Be’eri was established before the state’s establishment as one of the 11 points of Jewish settlement in the Negev, helping to assure a Jewish presence in the area prior to the partition of Palestine. It’s a wealthy, established kibbutz, with lush, green grounds that belie the hot desert surroundings, and pastoral, mostly one-floor homes with expansive, plant-filled yards.
The dining hall is spacious and well appointed, with two coffee-bean-grinding espresso machines — but no cashier, pointed out Peleg, a feature that has become all too common at many of the formerly cooperative communities that are now privatized.
There’s a waiting list for new houses, said Efrat, as many second- and third-generation members want to return to the kibbutz with their young families. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the assisted-living facility is at full capacity, with a building that is rocket-proof, ensuring that the elderly residents don’t have to go anywhere when rockets fall.
But it’s no way to live, Efrat commented, always wondering about the next war, or worrying when Hamas will dig a tunnel all the way to Be’eri.
Her husband, who grew up in Be’eri, remembers eating falafel and buying bicycles in Gaza. She still thinks about those possibilities, but is holding out for something more practical.
“I know we’re never going to eat hummus in Gaza again, but we can’t just be here to hold the border,” she said. “We stand for something here, something in this age of capitalism and individualism — that’s our strength. But if we’re going to get the next generation to come here, we have to be able to keep them here. It’s become harder to protect that.”
It’s reminiscent of that iconic Caspi song, “It’s Good For Me on the Kibbutz,” written with Ehud Manor:
And in the evenings, the whole crowd meets up/
Debates and discusses/
And in the end it gets quiet on the farm/
On the city on the situation/
How it was and how it is now/
And maybe everything is for naught/
And sometimes you just can’t think anymore.