30 May Not Kansas: Uri of the Date-Palms
Shalom to the whole family. Ever since I sat among you last week during the Shiva mourning period, I’ve been stringing together some Uri-memories that I would like to share with you, from the time we first met when I was a high-school kid in the 70’s and came for a few months, and afterwards when I moved here and made my home next to yours. Uri the Educator It’s common knowledge that Uri was a date-palm expert, a planter, a tree man. Everybody knows he was a great manager, a leader, one who was followed. You knew him as a husband, a father, a grandfather. Those who researched learned that he was a refugee, a fierce child, a survivor. I wanted to say a few words about Uri the educator. Priorities It was our first Shabbat on kibbutz as high-schoolers in the seventies. I had the good fortune of being “adopted” by you all, and Uri told me to sit next to him in the synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat. He explained to me: There are kibbutzim that invest first and foremost in having a fancy communal dining room, and pray in a simple building. Here, we decided to build a fancy synagogue, while meanwhile we eat in a simple building. Don’t separate yourself from the community After the silent Amidah prayer was over that evening, Uri looked out at some of the folks who were still standing in silent personal prayer, long after the prayer leader moved on to communal prayers. “Something’s not right,” he said. “The Bet Knesset is fundamentally for ‘Knesset’ – for coming together as a community – and only afterwards for prayer.” Humility For years, I had no idea about Uri’s childhood in the Holocaust. He simply never mentioned it. Once, when I went to visit another faraway kibbutz, he said: “Please give warm regards to ‘Big Red.’” When I got there, I asked for “Big Red” and found a mountain of a man with a huge crop of red hair. When I passed on Uri’s regards, he threw his head back and gave a great laugh. “Ah, yes, Uri, hahaha! I carried him on my back in the snow for a few days!” And then he walked away… Uri would not talk about himself very much; he barely spoke at all anyway! But I knew there must be some incredible story there. Only years later, when a book came out about the French-Jewish efforts to save kids during the Holocaust, did I read to my amazement about this child, who did not know his name or his birthday, who was a leader of a gang of Jewish vagabond kids, who always managed to survive and thrive, who always cared for the rest of the group, and who – when he miraculously arrived in Israel in the late 1940’s and was asked his Hebrew name – just blurted out “Uri”…and it stuck. Respect and Understanding For years, Uri told me how important it was to learn Arabic. I took a basic course, but never got far past that. He stressed how not only the spoken word was important, but also the written word – and how literary Arabic was different from colloquial Arabic. “How can you possibly hope to understand the conflict in the area, if you don’t know the language? It’s important to read newspapers, listen to the radio, and understand out neighbors in their own language.” Caution But we did live close to the border. Even before I understood what was going on strategically, Uri told me: “There are always a few kibbutz members who have weapons on them – usually concealed.” (At the time, I received this information with total amazement, as if I were just handed a blueprint of the nuclear reactor in Iran.) And once he told me out in the date-palm fields: “Please go get the tools from the shed; I would of course give you my bike so you could get there and back quickly, but I can’t because I have a weapon hidden in the back there.” I had no idea what exactly a weapon was, how it worked, or how to use it. I just got off the boat! And here is Uri, teaching me unknown and faraway things, trying to make me feel a part of the community.
Keeping in Touch Uri would not let anybody get away: every member of the date-palm crew had to come one night a week to his home for a meeting. No other workplace or branch in the kibbutz did this. When we got there, everything was explained: the big picture, the little details, statistics, instructions on how to use new tools, expected yields, new research, pests and how to deal with them, health and safety issues – together with great cake, all kinds of drinks, and of course…dates. Most evenings I dozed off on the couch; we were up every morning at 4:00 am! But it didn’t matter – I was part of this effort, I was part of the team, part of this community. And we were proud date-palmers! I became so connected to date-palms, that when I had to go back to the U.S. to finish college, I missed those meetings more than anything, and I was always thirsty for knowledge of how the date-palms were doing. But what really had a huge influence on me were Uri’s letters when I was in college. Here’s one of the busiest men around – a world-class authority on date-palm and olive trees. And he’s writing me letters on a regular basis, giving me updates on everything: the family, the security situation, the kibbutz, farming, and most of all – the date-palms. Numbers, yields, earnings, development, the crew, everything. And I’m a nobody, just a kid, who knows if I’ll ever come back? Why should he care? But he did. He knew. He knew that out there in the plains of central Missouri, his letters arrived at their destination and were eaten up by a thirsty and yearning reader. I used to read those letters over and over (often with a dictionary), and keep them like they were treasures. “First plant, then go greet the Messiah.” (from the Talmud) Your son and brother passed away when I was just a visitor to your kibbutz. And of course when I heard the news, I just wanted to leave, to go away, and let you all be alone with yourselves. You shouldn’t have to deal with visitors, with strangers, with outsiders. I figured you need to mourn, to deal, to be left alone. Mainly, I didn’t know at all how to deal with death. I had never known it before. I arranged to go away for Shabbat to a place in Jerusalem, and I left the dining hall early that morning to get my backpack and leave. As I left the building, I was shocked to see Uri himself planting a baby date-palm tree right there. “Shalom Michael.” But I wanted to escape so that I wouldn’t have to deal with situations like this! Too late. “Uhm…Shalom. I decided to go to Jerusalem for Shabbat.” Uri answered: “You can stay here with us, no problem! You don’t have to go away.” “No, I think it would be best if I went to Jerusalem.” Uri said: “Okay, if you prefer that, fine. Just stop by the house and tell the family that you’re going, so they won’t worry.” This was exactly what I was trying to prevent. He added: “Stop by there and say hi and goodbye, okay?” I was trapped; there was no getting out of this now. So I walked by the house, but it was hard for me to walk in. I finally opened the door and entered. “Ah, Michael, there you are. Why are you carrying a backpack? Are you going somewhere?” Here is a family who just lost a son. They haven’t even buried him yet. There’s still trauma in the air. And the grieving parents are only caring and worrying about me – a transient teenager – making sure everything was alright. There were great lessons to be learned from those seemingly small actions. One last memory. One morning, very early, Uri called me out of the crew to come work with him on something. He gave me a strangely-shaped shovel, and he held a weird-looking (and very large) sledgehammer. Without speaking, he led me to the edge of the date-palms, and showed me where to hold the shovel around the young shoot that was growing out of the mother palm tree. Then, with a few powerful hammer blows (no, he never missed and I still have all my fingers intact), the baby shoot was removed with its entire root system from the tree, and we immediately planted it in the new row of date-palm trees – the next generation. This entire process took place in total silence. I had no idea what I was about to do, but when I realized what I was doing, I was very moved – and honored – to have this experience with Uri. Now I can tell my children and grandchildren: I once planted a date-palm tree with Uri the Date-Palm Man. I once knew a man who was– in the words of the Talmud – like our father Abraham: “He spoke little, and did a lot.” May his memory be for a blessing. Michael Note: Uri Landau, of Kibbutz Shluchot in the Bet Shean Valley, was a world expert in date-palms and olive trees. He passed away last week at the age of – approximately – 84.