My 1976 ‘pilgrimage’ to Bethlehem as a kibbutz volunteer

In September 1976, just turned 19, I gave up my recently acquired ‘proper’ job, working in the Magistrates’ Clerk’s Office in Chorley, packed my brand new rucksack carefully (wasted effort as the El Al security took it apart almost to the stitches) and flew to Israel to work on a kibbutz. 

There were several reasons for this rash action, some of which related to a very nice Jewish boy I had met the previous year. Having grown up in a gentile in Lancashire, this wasn’t a something I had come across before.

I was placed at Kibbutz Ein Hamifratz, which means ‘eye of the bay’ situated on the north end of beautiful Haifa bay.

Lesley with her big rucksack and her sister Eve, Preston Station, September 1976

Working on the kibbutz, where I stayed for nine months, became a defining moment.  Completely new outlooks, knowledge, opinions, skills (I became a top grapefruit picker) thrown into a recipe of wonder, excitement, all shaken up and served with sweet Israeli wine. 

My kibbutz story could probably fill a book. But it appears that the season of all things Crimble is rapidly approaching, so I have been asked to share with you my memories of Christmas in Bethlehem.

I would first like to re-iterate I was 19, away from home for the first time, and living as a volunteer on a kibbutz can be a very eye-opening experience. Whilst the kibbutzniks I met were quite sober people, generally mature and sensible, kibbutz volunteers on the whole while I was there were otherwise. They came from all countries and cultures, some Jewish some not, predominantly young, and interested in those things that young people, the world over, find fascinating.

We worked hard, and during our one day off a week – well we enjoyed the sweet Israeli wine and promoting international co-operation.  

So – Bethlehem. Everyone had to send their passport off and have it stamped to gain entry to the town on Christmas Eve.

This accomplished, I left the Kibbutz at 6am on Christmas Eve in company with a random selection of Brits, Canadians and Americans. On the train to Jerusalem, carols were sung and sweet Israeli wine was imbibed. It was then the expected thing to walk the 6 miles south to Bethlehem (prosaically “Bread House”). A kind of pilgrimage.

Lesley among the satsumas, Ein Hamifratz. 1977

Consulting Google today it says 1hr 45 mins. If – you don’t get lost, or run out of sweet Israeli wine. We didn’t get lost, although some of our party wandered off and were not seen again, and we definitely did not run out of sweet Israeli wine, or beer either come to think of it. But I have no idea how long it took us. We did run out of carols and there was a nose-dive into rugby songs. Pilgrimage?

Arriving in Bethlehem, and passed security, through a somewhat alcoholic haze we slowly realized that we weren’t the only ones to have had this idea – the world and their donkeys seemed to have congregated in Manger Square, and there was absolutely no chance of getting anywhere near the Church of the Nativity, let alone in it. 

Philosophically we decided to have a rest and some more sweet Israeli wine, finding a nice wall to lean against. There was no plan. We had brought our sleeping bags, but that was where any forethought had ended. 

There may have been further caroling. There was definitely more sweet Israeli wine.  Gradually the leaning became horizontal and the little collection of English speaking pilgrims passed into a blissful sleep.

Lesley, Gordon, Ian (Canadian carollers) and some sweet Israeli wine on the Police Station wall

I woke sometime later, and foolishly put my head out of my sleeping bag. It appeared to my bleary eye that every single person in the square, hundreds of them, were staring at me and my well-oiled companions. I quickly retreated back into my bag and closed my eyes.

My next conscious thought was at 6am. I cautiously peeked out. Apart from two very festive-appropriate donkeys the square was completely deserted. Was it something I said?

As I struggled with joined up thinking an Israeli policeman ambled towards me, gently grinning, and offered me a chocolate. 

“Happy Christmas” he beamed. “Todah raba” I replied. Christmas breakfast! I then realised that the wall we were sleeping against formed the side of the police station, and as it was mostly a blank white wall, the midnight service from the church, screened worldwide, was also projected on to it. That’s what they were looking at! Phew!

As my fellow hang-overs emerged there was a definite meeting of minds – we need to get home. But as we gathered our wits and sleeping bags we noticed that the Church of the Nativity, appeared to be accessible.  

There was a small crowd, grouped around the entrance to the crypt stairs – the church is above the presumed sight of the stable, which being 2,000 years old is now underground.  We joined the queue, and gradually moved downwards.

I haven’t any photos, they weren’t allowed. There was the smell of incense and a hush.  Candles glimmered. Prayers were breathed. We stood and looked into this small space, beneath a small church, in a little town, in a troubled country. Thoughts stilled.

Sundry fellow volunteers, carousing. Dutch, Israeli, American, English, Canadian and Japanese.

Although an atheist, I believe that Christ existed, and am in awe of and glad for the fact that his teachings have survived and have helped to imbue this earth of ours with a clear sense of right and wrong, with compassion, with love.

I say helped because, of course, every major religion shares the same basic tenants – be kind, be honest, do good.  Help each other, respect each other, love each other.  

We managed to get back to the kibbutz ok, somewhat subdued and thoughtful. Pilgrimage? Maybe.

Yes, most of the 24 hours are a somewhat misty haze, but the sweet Israeli wine didn’t take all the memories.

So – have yourselves a merry little Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Diwali – whatever brings you happiness and peace.

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