Aaron Leibel’s ‘crazy or courageous’ Israel odyssey

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Aaron Leibel
In his memoir, Aaron Leibel writes about his transformation from a kibbutz “apple farmer with a Ph.D.” to journalist. (Bonnie Leibel)

By David Holzel

In 1972, Aaron Leibel moved from Maryland to Israel without even having set eyes on the country. A 30-year-old Baltimore native with a doctorate in political science, he was accompanied by his wife, Bonnie, a Jew by choice from a rural Protestant family, and their two small daughters, one of them a newborn.


He had been an indifferent Jew, but Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War ignited a Zionist fire, particularly in Bonnie, and she insisted the family make aliyah to what Leibel now calls “a Third World country with a First World military establishment.”

“I think it was really courageous or crazy or something,” Leibel said in a recent interview.

Leibel, 79, a former arts editor and proofreader for Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times, has written a memoir of his family’s 16 years in Israel, “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s.” In Hebrew, the words for “figs” and “alligators” can be confusingly similar to someone who isn’t fluent, such as a new immigrant.

The family began their life in Israel in an absorption center in Jerusalem. Few Western immigrants, or olim, at that time were religious, Leibel writes. Most were attracted to Israel’s pioneering ideology. The prime minister, Golda Meir, was herself a socialist immigrant from the United States.

Not long after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the family moved to Kibbutz Kfar Giladi in Israel’s far north. There, Leibel became “an apple farmer with a Ph.D.”

Depending on the season, he helped set up the irrigation equipment, trimmed trees, watered them or harvested apples. It was the kind of work the Zionist founders believed would create the new Jew. The reality was a bit different.

“It was a new experience,” Leibel says. “But I think it would be an exaggeration to say that I was happy.”

Except for breakfast, something Herzl never mentioned in “The Jewish State.”

“One of the joys of working in the apple orchard was breakfast,” Leibel writes. “We got to work early, especially in the spring and summer, to avoid the unbearable midday heat. At 8 o’clock we knocked off for breakfast and drove to a little hut.” A hired worker “prepared the meal, which included fresh coffee and eggs cooked to order. We also had fresh bread, butter, various dairy products including cottage cheese and yogurt and tomatoes and cucumbers, which we made into an Israeli salad. What a feast!”

On the kibbutz, Bonnie gave birth to their third daughter. In his book, Leibel refers to the daughters by name — Lauren, Abby and Debra — and by number, according to birth order. Around this time he was drafted into the Israeli army and continued to serve 35 days of reserve duty a year until the family left Israel.

In 1977, the family relocated to Jerusalem, where they bought an apartment in a working class neighborhood. There was a beautiful view to the east, but a leak in the wall whenever it rained. Leibel went to work as assistant night manager at the Plaza Hotel. He began submitting articles to the Jerusalem Post and soon was employed at the English-language Newsview magazine, where he joined the roster of “underappreciated and badly underpaid” journalists.

He found his home among the grumbling English-language journalists and ink-stained artists, and a career in journalism.

While this is Leibel’s story, Bonnie, from her spot offstage, seems to be the tale’s prime mover. She’s hardest hit by the pull of the Jewish homeland. Her medical background — as a research nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Washington, D.C. — makes her employable in Israel. And in a country now known as the Startup Nation, she was one of the first people there to be proficient on a computer. She introduced the PC to Hadassah Hospital.

“Without question,” Bonnie is the hero of this story, Leibel said. “There is no possibility that I would have made aliyah if it weren’t for Bonnie.”

There is poverty, and the Leibels were prepared to endure that. And then there is economic desperation, which is something else. Working two jobs each and overextended at the bank, as most in Israel were during the days of high inflation, they realized they were circling the drain as the debt on their overdraft loans grew larger and larger.

In 1986, they left Israel. Their two eldest daughters stayed behind in the only home they knew.

Leibel said he tries to be positive about his past. “I try not to have any regrets about any part of my life.”

The past is the past, especially 35 years after returning from Israel.

“But one day, I was sitting at my computer, daydreaming, and I started remembering about my life in Israel. And I started typing.”

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