Combine history, old and new, throw in love, music, and action, hop between a few countries, and you got yourself a page-turner. But what makes Jessamyn Hope's new novel, Safekeeping, really exciting, is that most of the plot is occurring in a (fictional) kibbutz, and tells the story of volunteers as well as other intriguing characters .
Safekeeping, a novel by Jessamyn Hope, 2015
The kibbutz and the volunteers lives are described with such vivid details, that we had to enquire and find answers to our curiosity concerning the author's kibbutz experience. Jessamyn Hope was kind enough to share her experience with us:
*What brought you to the kibbutz (and when/which kibbutz was it)?
A number of things led me to volunteer on a kibbutz in the summer of 1994, between my junior and senior years in college. My mother had died in my teens and my father’s house was not a happy place, so on one level I was simply looking for somewhere else to pass the summer. Then, like a lot of backpackers who volunteer on a kibbutz, I was young and eager for adventure. Lastly, I had recently become captivated by the story of the kibbutz and Israel.
The story of a Jewish country being founded in the wake of the Holocaust inspired me, both as a Jew and as someone who was trying to move on after some personal hardship. I would check out history books from the library and stare at the black-and-white photographs of Holocaust survivors working in the kibbutz fields, awed by their perseverance.
The first kibbutz I volunteered on was my great uncle’s kibbutz, Gesher HaZiv, four miles from the Lebanese border. It’s with intense nostalgia that I remember my first few minutes on the kibbutz. After three long connecting flights, I took a taxi to Tel Aviv and caught a northbound train, which was filled with sleeping soldiers. My excitement grew as I watched the passing countryside with my face in the wind rushing through the train window. After disembarking in a small town and walking down a long rural road, I was finally taking off my backpack in my little room in the volunteers’ section. I remember that moment so vividly: the spartan room, the late-afternoon sunlight on the bare wall, the quiet, the smell of the eucalyptus trees outside the door, the excitement I felt at being in Israel, the excitement of being young and free.
Jessamyn at the gate to Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv, 1994
I loved my time on the kibbutz so much that the next summer I went to live on my cousin’s kibbutz, Ramat Yohanan, where I did an ulpan, volunteering half the day and studying Hebrew the other half. Afterward I did another ulpan on Ma’agan Michael, a kibbutz nestled between the Mediterranean and Mount Carmel. And for several years, I continued to spend time on Ramat Yohanan because I was in a relationship with a kibbutznik I met there.
The members of the ulpan at Ramat Yohanan, 1995
*Were you actually volunteering there? If so, in what area/field of the kibbutz?
I had many jobs on the kibbutz, from wiping down tables in the dining hall to folding clothes in the laundry to assembling plastic toilets in a factory. Some of the jobs, like washing dishes, were not new to me, having worked in fast food joints as a teenager, but working in the factories and the fields was unlike anything I had ever done before or since. My first assignment was to sort lychees. We sat on upturned crates, sifting through piles of red drupes, every now and then pausing to eat one. Before that summer, I had only seen lychees once they were peeled, processed, and canned. Many of the fruits and vegetables I worked with that summer were unrecognizable to me in their natural state.
Volunteers eating breakfast in the dining hall of Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv, 1994
Every job I had on the kibbutz made it into the novel. And while we are on the subject of kibbutz work, I would like to say that the kibbutz work uniform—the blue canvas shirt, the beige pants, the boots—is still my favorite outfit.
*Are any of the characters based on any of the kibbutz members?
All the characters have a detail or two inspired by members or volunteers I met on the kibbutzim, but the characters long ago became unique individuals who share very little with their real-life inspirations. There is an enormous difference between “inspired” and “based.” For instance, in the novel, a volunteer named Claudette suffers from OCD, as I have, but unlike me, she’s a painfully shy woman raised in a Catholic orphanage.
*Have any of your readers approached you with questions about the kibbutz or Israel? Do you feel that you better understand life in Israel?
I am asked questions about the kibbutz and Israel all the time. I answer them, while reminding people that I am a novelist, not a scholar of Israeli history. My first goal is to tell an engaging story that reveals something meaningful about life. That said, I did do a lot of research to write the novel, because it was very important to me that the story illuminate accurate history.
Not everyone has been lucky enough to have been a volunteer on a kibbutz, like the readers of this newsletter. Most people know very little about Israel, only what they glean from the news or Facebook posts, most of which is difficult to follow without extensive background knowledge, and some of which is fallacious. So it makes me happy when people who knew very little about Israel tell me that the novel gave them a deeper understanding of the country and Jewish history.
The volunteers of Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv, 1994
*Are you still in touch with any of your kibbutz friends?
I have relatives on two of the kibbutzim, which keeps me returning to them. And although I lost contact with most of the volunteers, one became my closest friend.
Since publishing the novel I have received emails from people who were on the kibbutz with me, people I hadn’t heard from in twenty years, and this has been extremely moving. They have written to say that the novel really affected them by bringing back their time on the kibbutz. And I haven’t only heard this from people who shared that summer with me. Former volunteers from the 60s, 70s, and 80s have written to say the same thing. It seems I am not the only one who carries a strong nostalgia for the time they spent on a kibbutz.
Bonfire on Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv, 1994
*Any other novel in the works?
I have three ideas for my next novel, all with fascinating settings. Knowing how long it takes to write a novel, I have to be careful which setting I choose. I need to be sure I want to spend every day for the next few years there as much as I wanted to spend them on a kibbutz.
*After having read the book, it was fascinating to read your answers. Thank you Jessamyn Hope, and good luck on your next book. Keep us posted.
~Ayelet Ben-Zvi, Editor.