January 1978

“Sabra,” Friend, Jan. 1978, 42


Pearl held tightly to the handle of her small suitcase as she and her mother and father walked up the dusty road from the bus stop toward Kibbutz Habbonim. They had arrived in Israel only two days before. Her parents wanted to learn to speak Hebrew and work on a kibbutz.

The sun was beating down on Pearl’s bare head. Her hands and face were wet with perspiration and she wished they could have stayed in Tel Aviv.

“Look, those are banana plants,” her father said, pointing to the tall, large-leafed green plants growing all along the road.

As they walked up over a small hill, the kibbutz lay before them. The tan-colored buildings with red-tiled roofs were clustered close together and surrounded by green fields and orchards.

“We’ll go first to the secretary of the kibbutz and then to the children’s house,” her father said. He lovingly took Pearl’s hand in his and asked. “You’re not afraid to stay there are you?”

Father had explained to her that she would be staying in the children’s house with many other boys and girls while her parents slept and ate somewhere else. She would see them for only two or three hours each afternoon. At other times they would be working on the kibbutz or attending their Hebrew classes while she worked and attended hers. Pearl was still a little apprehensive. “You are nine years old now,” her father continued, “and I think you can learn to live without Mama and me so close.” Then he squeezed her hand and Mama hugged her, worry showing in her eyes.

Later, they went to the children’s house. Cool green vines hung over the front porch, and through the screen Pearl could see small children playing on the floor. The door opened and a tall dark-haired woman smiled down at her.

“So this is Pearl,” she said. “I am Hannah. Say shalom (peace) to your parents for right now and come with me.”

Pearl turned and hugged each of her parents very hard. “We’ll be back this afternoon,” her mother said, smiling encouragingly at their daughter. Then they turned and walked quickly away before Pearl could see the anxiety in their eyes.

Inside, the room was dim and cool. Cribs and small beds lined the walls. Pearl and Hannah stepped around babies and toys as they walked through. Older girls were playing with some of the babies or caring for them.

“This is the room for the very little ones,” Hannah explained. “You will be with children near your own age, of course.”

They entered another room, long and narrow with beds and small chests along the walls. The small windows were open with a light breeze moving the curtains, and the room was bare except for a few pictures above some of the beds.

“Here is your bed,” Hannah said, sitting down on it and motioning for Pearl to sit beside her. Pearl noticed the bed had only one sheet and a woolen blanket folded on top of a thin mattress. “You may put your things in the drawers. Later you will receive clothes from the kibbutz,” Hannah added, and then explained about the bathrooms, the dining hall, the classroom, and some of the rules. Finally she put her hand on Pearl’s arm, and looked at her intently. “Now,” she said, “this is the last time that I will speak to you in English. From now on I will speak only in Hebrew.”

Pearl felt a kind of panic rising within her. “How will I understand you? I don’t know Hebrew at all,” she said.

“You will understand because you will have to understand. You may ask questions in English until you begin to learn Hebrew, but I will answer you in Hebrew.” She smiled at Pearl. “Come,” she said. “I will show you to the classroom for the children your age.”

Hannah pointed it out to her and then left. Pearl was lonely, frightened, and confused. The boys and girls all spoke in Hebrew and sang several Israeli songs, clapping their hands to the rhythms. They paid little attention to Pearl, who longed for the time when she could be with her parents again.

After a meal of simple food in the dining hall where Pearl sat and ate by herself, she was allowed to walk up to the kibbutz store and meet her parents. She hugged them as though they had been apart for a week. Sitting on the cool grass under a large tree, her parents said they felt lost in their Hebrew classes, too, which made Pearl feel a little better. It was wonderful to be with them again.

That night in bed Pearl tried to hold back her tears. Children were sleeping all around her, but she had never felt more alone. Some had said shalom to her and gazed at her briefly, and then resumed laughing and talking with each other. Finally Pearl turned her face into the hard pillow and cried, not caring if the others heard her.

“Baby,” someone said.

“Crybaby! Crybaby!” several others took it up.

They know that much English anyway, Pearl thought bitterly. They are mean and cruel. She stifled her crying, and finally the taunting stopped. Pearl fell into a restless, dream-filled sleep.

For two days Pearl ate and slept and studied and worked by herself. She made no effort to be friendly to the other children, and they ignored her. She felt alive and happy only during the beautiful, quiet time she spent talking with her parents. She had never loved them so much or felt so close to them.

On the third day, as Pearl was making her bed, Hannah came to her, accompanied by a small dark-haired girl.

“Pearl, this is Bella,” Hannah said in Hebrew. “She just arrived from Poland. Perhaps you can be friends.”

Pearl understood the word friends, chaverim. She looked at Bella and wondered if they could be friends. She would not know English, so how could they understand each other? Hannah left and Pearl finished making her bed while Bella silently watched. Then they walked into the dining hall and ate together, but neither made any attempt to speak. After breakfast the girls went to the classroom, but Pearl felt uncomfortable having this strange, quiet girl following her everywhere. During their noon chores she noticed Bella watching, but Pearl tried not to stare back.

The next afternoon after visiting with her parents, Pearl returned slowly and reluctantly to the children’s house. Hannah stood on the porch waiting for her. She put her hand on Pearl’s shoulders. “Pearl,” she said, “I told you before that I would not speak to you in English again, but I am going to do so one more time because I have something to tell you that I want you to understand. Please come with me.”

She took Pearl’s hand as they walked through the kibbutz. The sun was scorching, and Hannah took a small blue cap from her straw bag and put it on Pearl’s head. They walked between the banana plants with their welcome shade and then into a dusty and hot open area. Ahead of them Pearl could see a wall of tall pale green prickly pear cacti.

When they were closer, Hannah motioned for Pearl to sit on a large, smooth rock. She took from her bag an empty tin can, a glove, and a small knife. Pearl watched her curiously. Hannah put on the glove, took the tin can and began knocking green, egg-shaped balls off a nearby cactus. When five or six had fallen to the ground, she rolled them around in the dust with the sole of her sandal, crushing the spines that covered the balls. Then she picked two up in her gloved hand. With the other hand she slit a cross in the skin of the fruit with her knife. She squeezed, and the skin pulled back. She held it out to Pearl, who carefully picked the bright red fruit out of the dusty skin and put it into her mouth. The fruit was incredibly cool and juicy and filled with small seeds that slipped down her throat. Pearl had never tasted anything so delicious, and smiled when Hannah offered her another.

After they had each eaten three, Hannah sat down near her. “In Hebrew, Pearl,” Hannah began, “this cactus is called sabra. You can see that it’s very prickly. The spines protect it so that it can grow large and produce fruit. The fruit is surprisingly sweet and very tender. Didn’t you think so, Pearl?”

Ken (Yes),” Pearl answered in Hebrew.

“A person who is born in Israel is also called a sabra,” Hannah continued, “and is like this sabra—prickly, sometimes hard on the outside, but inside tender and sweet. You were not born in Israel and neither was I. I came here from England when I was eighteen. I married here, but my husband was killed in the fighting. I was lonely and homesick for the pleasant green of England, but I wanted to serve Israel just as your parents want to, so I stayed here and learned to be a sabra. You must learn this too.

“We live in constant danger from those who would destroy us. We must be strong and ready to fight. You must learn to protect yourself like the sabra so that taunting and ridicule will not reach you because of your prickly spines. But inside you will be tender and sweet, kind and helpful, ready to nourish others. Do you understand?”

“I think so,” Pearl answered. She looked at the cactus in front of her. A small bird had pecked a round hole in it and darted swiftly inside to build a nest, unafraid of the sharp spines.

Hannah prepared a few more of the prickly pears for Pearl before they walked silently back to the children’s house. Hannah smiled at her as they parted inside the door. Pearl felt a glow within, in spite of her feeling of guilt for the way she had treated Bella. She lay on her bed for a while, thinking of the sabra and the things Hannah had told her. As she lay there, two girls her age walked through the room. They looked at Pearl and laughed. “Baby wants her mama and daddy,” one said in English, nudging the other.

Pearl smiled and raised her hand in greeting. “Shalom chaverim,” she said. The girls looked at each other quizzically and smiled. “Shalom,” they replied.

Pearl gathered her paper and pencils for afternoon classes. On her way to the classroom, she looked for Bella and saw her standing in the hallway.

“Come on, let’s go to class,” she invited, taking Bella’s hand and pulling her along. “Let’s say the alphabet in Hebrew,” she said, beginning, “Aleph, Beth, Gimel …”

Bella smiled radiantly and said them with her, and together they walked to class.

Illustrated by Parry Merkley