Searching for Seinfeld

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld played a small, but crucial role in Israel's history. Like other celebrities, including Bob Hoskins, Sacha Baron Cohen, Sigourney Weaver, and Helen Mirren, Seinfeld volunteered, age 17, on a kibbutz. A reporter sets out on Seinfeld's trail. Story from "The Virtual Kibbutz."

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Searching for Seinfeld

 

“Who is Jerry Seinfeld?”

Her question startled me. How could it be that there was someone who didn’t know of the popular stand-up comedian, star of the hilarious television sitcom that bore his name? Everyone in Israel watched the show, I had assumed, and reveled in the hysterical antics of Jerry, Kramer, George and Elaine. But I had assumed wrong.

She was quite apologetic on the phone, explaining politely that she never watched television and that the only time she actually turned on her set was to glance at the nightly Mabat newscast, and sometimes, because of her many weeknight meetings, she didn’t even watch that.

“Why are you calling?” she asked me again.

“I am trying to track down Seinfeld’s whereabouts in 1971,” I explained. “According to the information I have about him, he volunteered on your kibbutz that summer. It’s for an article I’m writing.” I had already introduced myself as a features writer for one of Israel’s leading daily newspapers.

“On our kibbutz?” she asked incredulously. “Well, we do get a lot of volunteers here, but I don’t know if he was one of them. I don’t recall that we had a volunteer who was a comedian with his own television show.”

“Oh, he wasn’t a comedian or a television star back then. That was 27 years ago, before he became famous,” I said, trying to bring things into focus for her.

“Why are you looking into this now?” She sounded confused.

“His show, Seinfeld, is going off the air this year in the United States. It’s one of the most popular shows there and it is broadcast here in Israel as well. My editor thinks it would be very appropriate to publish a story now about Seinfeld’s kibbutz days. That’s why I called you.”

“Well, I don’t recall anyone by that name,” she repeated.

She was the logical person to call, my editor had told me. Her name was Naomi, and she was the kibbutz’s mazkira—its general secretary. A mazkira on a kibbutz was not an office clerk, my editor had said, trying to explain the function. She was the community’s top elected official, in charge of the kibbutz’s daily affairs, its members and public relations. I had told my editor this was all known to me. My sister lived on a kibbutz on the Golan Heights and I was well aware of the many functions of a kibbutz mazkira.

“Perhaps I could come up to the kibbutz and talk to some of the people who were around in 1971?” I suggested.

“Oh, we all were around back in 1971,” she said. “Although I was a bit younger then,” she added quickly, apparently doing some quick calculations in her head. Twenty-seven years was a long time.

In the end she agreed to my request. She gave me instructions how to get to the kibbutz, as it was far to the north, and we set a time when we would meet.

Driving up to the kibbutz the next day, I wondered whether I was on a wild goose chase. After twenty-seven years, probably no one on the kibbutz would even recall a volunteer by the name of Jerry Seinfeld. After all, the mazkira said the kibbutz hosted many volunteers. How would anyone even remember this particular one, especially when he wasn’t a comedian or famous at the time he was on the kibbutz? How could I even be sure that I was heading to the right kibbutz? There were many such communities all over Israel. Perhaps my editor had been wrong and there was no feature story to be written about this minor episode in Seinfeld’s past. I was afraid I was going to waste a whole day for nothing.

It was not unusual for my editor to send me to investigate stories in Israel’s north. I had already written a feature about an Akko resident who believed he had been kidnapped by aliens; a man from Metulla who had been reunited with his birth mother after forty years; and triplet brothers from Kiryat Shmona who had just enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces, in separate units. If there was a story generating human interest anywhere north of Haifa, I got the assignment.

But this story was different, something special for me. My editor knew I was a big Seinfeld fan—I rarely missed a show. Maybe it was the year I spent tending bar in Manhattan shortly after I finished my army service that gave me an insight into Seinfeld’s special brand of New York humor. Or maybe it was the fact I spent my days writing boring newspaper reports that would be read and quickly forgotten, while I secretly longed to write comedy.

Comedy writing was a desire I knew I would never fulfill. I was already in my early forties and was thankful for the opportunities provided me by writing for a major newspaper. The pay wasn’t the greatest, but at least it kept my wife, two children and me fed and comfortably housed. I especially enjoyed getting away from the dreary Tel Aviv office on assignments. I rarely exercised and I was developing the first signs of a potbelly; the occasional reporting I did in the field while visiting people and sites in various parts of the country offered me a well-appreciated breath of fresh air.

In any case, I had a sincere curiosity as to what had brought Jerry Seinfeld to a kibbutz in the early 70s, and wondered what sort of experiences he must have had while he was in Israel. What this article needed, and what would make it special, was something that would conclusively prove Seinfeld’s kibbutz connection.

After getting stuck in traffic in downtown Haifa, I turned north at the Checkpost Junction and drove past Akko. When I reached Nahariya, I checked my map, thinking somehow that I had missed the turnoff I was supposed to take. I glanced at the notes from my telephone conversation with Naomi and after traveling a short distance, finally found the road I wanted. I arrived at the kibbutz shortly before ten in the morning, three hours after leaving my home in north Tel Aviv.

She was drinking a cup of coffee when I walked into her office. She told me it was her third cup so far that morning and offered to make me one. I politely refused and took a seat across from her at the messy desk. Files, letters, and documents were piled everywhere, and a plastic Inbox was overflowing with issues apparently not yet dealt with. The living history of a kibbutz in paper, I thought to myself.

“So, you came all the way from Tel Aviv to look for this Jerry Seinfeld?” Naomi said with a laugh, smiling at me from behind her steaming coffee. She was quite young to be a kibbutz mazkira, I thought, maybe in her mid-30s. Her face was pleasant enough, but it seemed to me that she had barely bothered to deal with her hair. The unruly black strands, with hints of gray streaked among them, made her look much older, I thought. She was dressed modestly in jeans and a bright red blouse. I wondered if all kibbutz women were this unconcerned with their appearance.

“He was a volunteer here back in 1971,” I said, even though I knew I had told her this on the phone. “Perhaps we could talk with someone who would have known him back then?”

“Let’s see,” she began, putting down her coffee on the desk. She looked pensive for a moment, and then her eyes lit up. “We could try the accounts office.”

“The accounts office?”

“Yes, that’s where we do the bookkeeping. They keep records of insurance and the like. If this person was a volunteer here, he would have had to be insured when he was working. For his own good.”

“That sounds like a start,” I said, appreciative that we would at last begin talking to some of the kibbutz members.

As we walked over to the accounts office, Naomi told me a little about her kibbutz.

“We’re relatively small; we have slightly more than 200 members,” she began, as we walked along a sidewalk bordered by wide expanses of green lawns, shady trees and well-cared-for flower gardens. The sky was cloudless and magnificent; we didn’t enjoy such fresh air in metropolitan Tel Aviv.

“Our kibbutz was founded in early 1948 just before the state was established. Many of our founders were Holocaust survivors. Say, are you going to be writing about our kibbutz in your article?” she asked suddenly.

“It could figure into the story,” I admitted.

“I see,” she said hesitantly. “Well, there’s our dining room.” She pointed to a long structure to our right, its entire façade a wall of large glass windows. “And next to that is our moadon—our clubhouse for members. That’s where we relax in the evenings.”

“Actually, the story is going to be more about the people here on the kibbutz,” I said, trying to be polite. “I wonder what motivated Jerry Seinfeld to come here, and who were the people he met.”

“Oh, we’re all quite friendly and hospitable,” Naomi said quickly. “Just one big happy family, really. We’re not a perfect society—we have our problems like everyone else. But we are stable, both financially and socially.” Momentarily she looked embarrassed, as though she had revealed something she shouldn’t have.

She then told me a bit about the kibbutz’s various industries, its avocado orchards, banana groves, chicken coops, cowshed and fishponds. She told me about the small electronics factory, which did subcontracting work for a well-known Tel Aviv-based company. She told me about their plans to participate in a new, regional tourism venture being developed at nearby Rosh Hanikra.

“This comedian obviously wanted to help us with all our various enterprises,” she pointed out, as if a listing of bananas, avocados and electronics was enough evidence to make her case. “That’s obviously why they come—the volunteers—to help us with everything we’re doing.”

But I was not convinced. Based on what she had told me, it was far from clear what would attract any person to volunteer on a kibbutz.

The accounts office was nothing more than a large room, with cluttered shelves and colorfully marked files lining the walls, leaving barely enough space for four small desks in its center. Three older women were at the desks, peering at green computer screens while punching on their keyboards, one finger at a time. A printer was sputtering loudly in the background, reams of paper piling up in a mess on the floor.

“Sharona, can we talk to you for a minute?” Naomi asked, introducing me as a newspaper reporter to one of the women. “You keep the insurance records, don’t you?”

“You know that I do,” Sharona answered, a bit disturbed that her data inputting had been interrupted. She kept a ruler carefully positioned on a paper full of handwritten figures as she stared at us over the rims of her bifocal glasses.

“We’re looking for information about a person who volunteered here in 1971,” Naomi explained.

“We don’t have information that far back. What’s this for, an investigative report or an insurance fraud?” Sharona teased. The other two women looked over at us from their computer screens.

“No, we’re looking for information about a specific volunteer,” Naomi replied. “Someone by the name of Jerry Seinfeld.”

“What, Jerry Seinfeld? Did you say Jerry Seinfeld?” Sharona stood up abruptly, her ruler no longer guarding her all-important data.

“Yes, have you heard of him?”

“Of course. Naomi, just because you never watch television doesn’t mean that the rest of us kibbutz members are out of touch with the real world. Do you think Jerry Seinfeld was here… You mean to tell me… You can’t be serious!”

Until this point, I had remained quiet in the background, allowing Naomi to ask the questions. But now, as I realized Sharona had heard of Jerry Seinfeld, I felt maybe I had an ally in my quest. Maybe she could help speed up this assignment.

“According to my information, Seinfeld volunteered on this kibbutz back in 1971,” I told her. “Do you think we could look into any records that would prove this? Or would you know of anyone who would have known him at that time?”

Sharona’s mouth had remained open the entire time, as she took in what I was telling her. “But we wouldn’t have such records,” she said at last.

“What do you mean?” Naomi asked.

“Well, first of all, we only keep accounting records seven years after each fiscal year is closed,” she explained, looking to her two open-mouthed colleagues in the room to support this statement. When they nodded their heads in agreement, she continued. “And secondly, the regional council handles all insurance forms for our volunteers. People who come to the kibbutz to volunteer need insurance, and they usually arrange this in their home countries before they come. But in order not to increase the kibbutz’s liabilities in case of an accident, we always take out volunteer insurance through the regional council. They might have some record.”

“You mean to tell me that in all of our archives, we don’t have anything which includes a list of former volunteers?” Naomi declared, looking around at the file-filled shelves.

“I can’t believe this. Jerry Seinfeld was actually here? On our kibbutz?” Apparently Sharona was a Seinfeld fan and could hardly wait to tell everyone about this.

“Isn’t there anyone here who would have dealt with him at that time?” I asked impatiently.

“Well, you might want to talk to Eva.”

“Eva?” I repeated hopefully.

“Eva is in charge of volunteers on our kibbutz,” Naomi said. “That’s right, we could talk with Eva.”

Thanking Sharona, we left the accounts office. I could see Sharona and the two other women in the room talking excitedly among themselves. One of them was picking up the phone. Little did I realize how quickly the news would spread. Having a reporter on the kibbutz obviously wasn’t thrilling news. But, the possibility that comedian Jerry Seinfeld had once been on the kibbutz, now that was the most exciting piece of gossip they had to talk about in a long time.

Eva was an older woman with a kind, gentle face. She greeted us as we entered the laundry, and removed the long apron she had been wearing over her simple dress. She apparently had been sorting ‘whites’—piles of underwear deposited at the laundry by kibbutz members and identifiable to their owners only by small yellow numbers sewn into the seams. Naomi introduced me and explained my mission.

“When did you say he volunteered here?” Eva asked.

“In the summer of 1971.”

“I’ve only been in charge of volunteers for ten years,” Eva began. “So, I don’t remember him at all. Before that, Rosa was in charge, God bless her soul. I think that Rosa was in charge of volunteers for many years, until she became sick and I replaced her.” Eva shook her head sadly.

“How many volunteers do you have on the kibbutz?” I asked, trying to salvage some information that I could use in my article.

“This varies, depending on the season,” Eva said. “During harvest season, we’ve had as many as thirty, but in recent years, there have been less. Times are harder now—we only have twelve, but one of them is leaving next week.”

“Where do they come from?” I asked.

“Oh, from all over. Mostly from Europe, though. Scandinavia, Germany, Holland. We have one volunteer from Japan, and last month there was a girl from Brazil and a boy from Mexico. They come from all over the world. Occasionally from the United States as well.”

“Why do they come?” This was the crucial question, and the answer might provide me with some insight to Seinfeld’s mindset when he was a teenager. Although I had an inclination as to their reasons, I wanted to hear an explanation from someone like Eva, who had actually dealt with volunteers directly.

“Oh, they come for many reasons—many of them quite idealistic. Some of them are looking for a communal way of life, for their vision of utopia. They hear stories and reports of the good side of kibbutz life—our idealism, pioneering spirit, equality and collective ownership. They hear how we are turning the desert green as we settle the land. They think that by staying with us, even for a short time, they can fulfill these idealistic desires. That maybe some of our good attributes will run off on them.

“They’re young, most of them anyway,” she continued. “Many have just completed their university studies, yet they don’t know what they want to do with their lives. Before they settle down, they want to experience life, different kinds of life, different lifestyles. Coming to Israel to volunteer on a kibbutz is part of their growing up process.”

“They’re just like Israeli youths in a way,” Naomi offered. “Israeli youths, after they complete their army service, have an intense desire to travel, to see the world. I think this is quite similar.”

“But, there is also something else,” Eva added. “Many of our volunteers are devout Christians. They believe they’re coming to the Holy Land on a religious pilgrimage. On their vacations, they travel to Jerusalem and to Bethlehem. They go to the Christian sites around the Kinneret—the Sea of Galilee. They believe they are walking in Jesus’ footsteps, so any work they do on the kibbutz is part of some type of holy mission.”

“But aren’t some of your volunteers Jewish?” I asked.

“Of course,” Eva replied. “But the majority are not, at least not on our kibbutz. There are many programs for volunteers that combine kibbutz work and Hebrew studies, available to Jewish youths from the United States, England, and other countries, but these programs are located on other kibbutzim. We rarely get Jewish volunteers here.”

“How long do volunteers stay?”

“Some come for several weeks, while others stay a few months, even a year,” Eva told me.

“And some have stayed for good,” Naomi added.

“What do you mean?”

“A few of our volunteers ended up marrying kibbutzniks. They converted to Judaism and became members on our kibbutz.” Naomi gave me the names of a number of volunteers who had married into the kibbutz family and were now permanent members of their community.

Eva provided a few more details about the experiences of volunteers on the kibbutz. They were housed in an area known as Hamahane, ‘The Camp,’ and worked according to a daily work roster in coordination with the kibbutz’s needs. Most of them had permanent jobs, but they could occasionally be enlisted for short terms of duty washing dishes in the communal dining room, or packing fruit in the regional packing cooperative.

“They have a good life here,” Eva concluded. “We get along well with our volunteers and our kibbutz becomes their Israeli home. They continue to stay in touch once they go back to their homes and to their lives overseas. I think that the kibbutz, our kibbutz and others as well, serves as a good ambassador of our country.”

“Thanks to Eva, our volunteers have a warm, friendly reception on the kibbutz, and it’s a good experience, both for us and for them,” Naomi said, obviously hoping that this warm description would make its way into my article.

By the time we finished talking to Eva, a small crowd had gathered outside the laundry. Some twenty kibbutzniks of various ages had heard reports of the newspaper reporter and his quest to find traces of the famous Jerry Seinfeld in their home. Word had quickly spread from member to member; nevertheless no one was coming forward with the information I was seeking, linking Seinfeld to this short episode in his pre-celebrity past.

“Are you sure Seinfeld was here on our kibbutz?” one young woman shouted, moving toward us with a bit of hesitation.

“Oh, yes,” I replied, momentarily switching from my role as a reporter to that of one being asked the questions. “We did some initial research, checked with his public relations firm and verified the fact that he volunteered here for a few weeks during the summer of 1971. But I wanted to find confirmation for this on your kibbutz.”

“Did Seinfeld say anything about us?” someone called out.

“Well, not exactly,” I said. “But he did joke about working here. He apparently said, ‘How can a nice Jewish boy from Long Island get up at 6:30 every morning and pick bananas?’”

This drew an outburst of laughter. One of the kibbutzniks asked if Kramer from the Seinfeld show had also visited their kibbutz, but I didn’t bother to respond.

I looked around the small crowd, half expecting to see a tall, weird member who resembled Kramer, or maybe a balding, round fellow reminiscent of George. Maybe one of the kibbutz women was similar in character to the flighty Elaine. Now that would be an interesting article, I thought. If I could trace the roots of some of Seinfeld’s future sitcom companions to people he met on this kibbutz, why that would be a sensational story! But as I smiled at the people asking me questions with curiosity as great as my own, I realized that this was a bit too much to hope for.

There was one additional piece of information that I didn’t mention. Jerry Seinfeld had said he had hated kibbutz life. I wasn’t sure if this statement was part of his routine stand-up monologue, or if he really had had a bad experience on this kibbutz. Maybe he had been joking. Was it out of politeness that I didn’t mention this comment?

A stout, older man moved to the front. He was what I would have easily described as a typical kibbutz member—he wore a dark blue work shirt, its top unbuttoned to show off a hairy chest, blue shorts and black work boots. He sported a bushy moustache, and to top everything off, he was wearing a kova tembel, the floppy, round kibbutz hat.

“Bananas, you say?” the man asked.

“Yes, if I recall his words.”

“Then he probably worked with Yoshko in our banana groves.”

“That’s right! He probably worked with Yoshko,” Naomi exclaimed cheerfully, as though a heavy load had been taken off her back. “Yoshko has been working in the bananas for more than thirty years. If your Jerry Seinfeld worked in the bananas, Yoshko would remember him.”

The man who had made the suggestion was introduced to me as Rafi, the hatzran. When I asked him what that meant, he told me that he was a handyman, in charge of maintenance around the kibbutz. His work, he said, could be as varied as unclogging a drain in the communal kitchen, or hanging a picture on the wall in one of the kibbutz’s kindergartens.

“Whatever breaks down, I fix it,” Rafi declared proudly. “And sometimes, I fix things before they break as well!” He didn’t explain what that meant.

Rafi offered to drive us to the banana groves where Yoshko was working. His jeep was parked nearby, he said. As we walked, Rafi offered an alternative explanation why Jerry Seinfeld, or any volunteer for that matter, would want to come work on the kibbutz.

“Sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” Rafi told us. “That’s why the volunteers come here.”

“Rafi, that is not true!” Naomi protested.

“Well, maybe the drugs part is not true here,” Rafi admitted. “We are very careful that our volunteers don’t dabble in that. But the sex part, now that’s true. It’s a regular area of free love down there in the volunteers’ quarters. They take turns with each other—everyone is sleeping around.”

“I think that Rafi is exaggerating,” Naomi whispered to me. “Please don’t put this in your article. Our volunteers are really well behaved, and there are definitely no drugs on our kibbutz. Off the record, we have had some incidents and anyone caught using drugs is kicked off the kibbutz immediately, and believe me, I can vouch for that.”

“I don’t remember this guy,” Rafi commented as we approached his jeep—a dilapidated, green vehicle missing a back door. It was filled with maintenance equipment and kibbutz garbage—an overflowing tool box; pieces of plumbing pipes; a broken shelf sitting on metal brackets; a small, white sink. Naomi sat up front, and I crowded into the back, bumping my legs on the rusting legs of a solar water heater. Rafi raced the engine. We were off.

The jeep sped past the dining room and past the offices I had visited earlier. I spotted my car in the parking lot and wondered how much longer I would be on this assignment. We drove outside the kibbutz’s gate, but before we reached the main road leading back toward the coast, we turned off onto a bumpy dirt path that ran parallel to rows and rows of banana trees.

I couldn’t see the bananas themselves—the fruit of the trees was hidden from view, and apparently from birds and insects as well, in huge, blue plastic bags, carefully bound at the top. I stooped forward in order to avoid hitting my head on the roof of the jeep. Naomi was talking to Rafi as we drove, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

The jeep pulled to a stop in a small clearing next to an old, abandoned bus. At least, that is what it looked like to me—an Egged or Dan city bus of the type in use by the cooperatives maybe ten or even fifteen years ago. The bus had obviously been here for some time—the two tires that I could see were flat. Bars protected the windows of the bus, and most of them were boarded up from the inside. I soon learned the bus wasn’t actually abandoned, for it was used by the banana groves crew and the venerable Yoshko—the kibbutznik who had been working with the bananas for more than thirty years.

“Yoshko, are you in there?” Rafi called, as he turned off the motor. When a tall, skinny man came out of the bus, we got out of the jeep. Like Rafi, he wore a blue work shirt and shorts, but his head was bare, and he was clean-shaven.

“Well, to what do I owe this surprise visit?” Yoshko asked, coming up to greet us. “And Naomi, when was the last time you came to visit your father here in the bananas?”

“Your father?” I turned to Naomi in surprise.

“Yes, Yoshko is my father. Didn’t I tell you that earlier?”

“Well, you did mention that the kibbutz was one big happy family. I just didn’t think to take your words literally.”

“We are a multi-generational community,” Naomi said, giving her father a hug. “Yoshko was one of the kibbutz’s founders. As was Rafi.”

“And now my daughter is the mazkira,” Yoshko said, obviously quite proud of the fact.

As Rafi returned to the jeep, straightening out the mess in the back where I had been sitting, Naomi introduced me to her father and explained my purpose.

“I don’t read your paper,” Yoshko said. “I happen to believe your competition is better.”

“Yoshko, you shouldn’t tell him that!” Naomi said.

“Well, it’s the truth. I used to read Davar until they closed that paper down. Nothing has been up to that level since.”

“What about this volunteer?” Naomi asked her father. “You ever hear of him?”

“Jerry Seinfeld, you say?” Yoshko muttered, trying to think. “Jerry—was that his name?”

“Yes,” I said, hoping to be helpful.

“Well, we’ve had many volunteers here in the bananas over the years, especially during the harvest season. I can’t seem to picture him. Wait a minute. Jerry—was that his name?” he repeated.

“Come on, Yoshko, do you remember him or not?” Naomi said impatiently.

“Come inside,” Yoshko said unexpectedly, pointing to the bus. “I think I have something to show you.”

We bent down to enter the old bus. The interior of the vehicle had been hollowed out, with all the seats removed. The entrance, by the bus’s main door where the driver had sat, had been turned into a small office for Yoshko. An old table served as a makeshift desk, and a few discarded dining room chairs were positioned nearby. On a small shelf behind the desk were a gas burner, a small kettle and a few glass cups. Further into the bus, I could see plastic crates filled with irrigation pipes, huge spools of string and an open cupboard with Yoshko’s tools. It was stuffy inside; a layer of dust coated everything, leaving an unpleasant odor.

“I would offer you something to drink, but I wasn’t expecting visitors,” Yoshko said, and I smiled. “Now, where was that…?”

He moved slowly over to a wooden board, resting against the side of the bus. Pinned-up on the board were clippings of articles about bananas; detailed descriptions of crop diseases; and tables denoting irrigation schedules and quantities. I could see a faded work schedule listing the names of the banana crew from the last busy season. But that was obviously not what Yoshko was looking for.

“Here it is,” he declared loudly.

Naomi and I made our way to where Yoshko was standing, if you could call stooping in the narrow confines of the bus standing. He was pointing at some letters carved into the wood of the board. They were barely distinguishable, but looking carefully, I could see the letters J, E, and R. The uneven carving ended without forming a word.

“That says ‘JER,’” I noted.

“That was where he was carving his name,” Yoshko said. “One morning, when he was supposed to be out helping us pick bananas, I came into the office and found him here, carving into the board.”

“Are you sure about this?” Naomi asked her father doubtfully.

“Oh, I’m quite certain, now that I think of it,” Yoshko continued. “That guy never wanted to work. He was always looking for excuses to sit down, to take a break. Look, I can understand this. He was a young kid, maybe just out of high school. He probably never held a real job before. And here he was—thrown into work on a kibbutz. We start our days very early in the bananas.”

“They say he became a comedian,” Naomi said.

“A real comedian? I can imagine that. He was always cracking jokes, making the others laugh,” Yoshko recalled. “I just could never get him to work.”

“It’s not very conclusive,” I said, fingering the three carved letters—J, E, R. How could I be sure the person had intended on writing ‘JERRY’? Maybe the person had been actually carving ‘JERUSALEM.’ What other words were there in English, starting with those three letters? I suddenly thought of one—’JERK.’

“He was Rita and Max’s boy, if I recall,” Yoshko noted.

“Do you think so?” Naomi asked him.

“What do you mean?” I asked, looking away from the unconvincing carving on the board.

“On our kibbutz, well actually on many kibbutzim, we have a tradition where kibbutz members ‘adopt’ volunteers,” Naomi explained. “It makes them feel more at home to have a kibbutz family—a home away from home.”

“I’m almost sure about it,” Yoshko said. “I remember once I sent Rita to ‘The Camp’ to look for him. He had overslept, probably on purpose. Not the only time that happened, I imagine. But that was all a long time ago.”

We thanked Yoshko for his help, Naomi hugged him goodbye, and we went out of the bus-office. Rafi was sitting in the front seat of the jeep, but he didn’t appear to be in too much of a hurry. He had the morning paper spread open on top of the steering wheel, and he was busy reading the sports pages. With a quick glance, I noticed that it was not the paper I worked for, but rather the competition.

After a short, bumpy ride back through the banana groves, we reentered the kibbutz. Rafi drove us past a semi-circle of long, low buildings that needed a new paint job and were raised partially off the ground on stilts. When he stopped, I didn’t know why, or what we were looking at.

“That’s ‘The Camp,’” Naomi explained, turning around in the jeep’s front seat to face me. “That’s where our volunteers live. Do you want to walk around?”

I looked at the old buildings. A laundry line strung between two rooms sported a collection of colorful T-shirts and mismatched socks. A number of empty beer bottles lay on the ground alongside one of the paths. Near the sidewalk, a garbage pail was overflowing, and there were trails of cigarette butts on the ground. A bicycle with its front wheel missing was leaning against one of the walls. All was in sharp contrast to the well-kept grounds I had seen elsewhere on the kibbutz.

“No, that won’t be necessary,” I replied. Maybe I was cutting corners and should have visited the camp. But I was getting impatient to meet more people who had actually been in contact with Jerry Seinfeld. There was no need for me to see a room where he may or may not have slept, and may or may not have had sex, 27 years ago. After seeing the incomplete carving in the bus, I wasn’t expecting to see a ‘Jerry slept here’ sign in the volunteers’ quarters.

We drove on, and I bent forward, lowering my head. Moments later, Rafi stopped the jeep and I got out of the back, my bones aching from the ride. I brushed myself off and saw that we were near the members’ houses. The one-story houses were similar in appearance, with only the number of bicycles parked outside and the arrangement of plants on the small outdoor porches differentiating them one from another.

Rafi excused himself—he said he had to check out an electricity short in the accounts office. A moment later, the jeep was gone.

“Are you really a reporter?” Naomi asked as we walked up the path to the screened front door of one of the houses.

“Of course I’m a reporter,” I said, a bit annoyed at the question.

“I don’t see you taking any notes,” she said.

“Oh, I’m taking notes of everything,” I said, pointing to my head. As we came up to the house, I wondered if anyone would be at home in the middle of the day. And whose home was it?

“Don’t worry. If they’re not here, it won’t be hard to find Rita or Max,” Naomi said, as though she had read my mind.

Rita was home. She greeted us with a warm smile and an invitation to come inside. She appeared to be in her early sixties, and with her kind face, and plump, friendly appearance, she could easily fill the role of someone’s kibbutz mother, I thought.

Naomi introduced me and told her what I was investigating. “I’ll call Max,” Rita said excitedly, asking us to sit down on the sofa in what appeared to be a combined living room-dining room. The room was sparsely furnished. There were a number of family pictures hanging on the wall. On one side of the room was a bookshelf, which I could see was filled with books written by Amos Oz, David Grossman and A. B. Yehoshua. Standard Israeli literature for kibbutz reading, I thought. A large pot filled with a green, leafy plant served as the room’s only separation from a small kitchen area beyond.

Max, it turned out, worked in the metal workshop. He walked into the room a few minutes after Rita phoned him, and I smiled to myself when I saw he was wearing stained blue shorts and shirt—the standard work uniform of the kibbutz. He was a short, heavy-set man, probably in his sixties as well. He had a round, serious face with a goatee. A pair of plastic safety goggles rested on his balding head.

“What’s this I hear about our Jerry?” he asked, sitting down on a modest, but comfortable-looking lounge chair.

“Before you begin, let me get our guests something to drink,” Rita said.

“Please don’t bother,” I told her.

But Rita was not to be discouraged. She scurried over to the kitchen, opened up a small refrigerator, and before I could say anything else, she placed a plate of fruit on the small table in front of the sofa. A moment later she came back with a platter of biscuits.

“I am sorry that I don’t have any cake to serve you,” Rita apologized.

“Rita, this is just fine,” Naomi said.

“Oh, it is really no problem at all,” Rita said. “Now, would you prefer coffee or tea? Or maybe something cold to drink? We might have some cola in the fridge. Let me go check.”

The quickest way to proceed with this interview, I realized, was to accept Rita’s kind offers and let her see I appreciated her hospitality.

“One sugar,” I told her, when she brought me a cup of instant coffee. After she placed a cup in front of Naomi as well, Rita dragged over a plastic kitchen chair and finally sat down.

“He was always telling jokes,” Max said, after I asked the couple what they remembered about Jerry Seinfeld. “That much I remember. But many times we didn’t understand his jokes.”

“We spoke English with Jerry,” Rita explained. “But sometimes we didn’t quite get the meaning in his punch lines and his funny stories.”

“Monkeys,” Max said suddenly.

“What?” Naomi and I both asked at the same time.

“Monkeys,” Max repeated. “He said something about sending monkeys to pick the bananas instead of forcing young Americans to do the work.”

I laughed, trying to picture the young Seinfeld trying out jokes in front of audiences not ready to appreciate them. “Tell me what it means to ‘adopt’ a volunteer,” I suggested. I was jotting down a bit of what Rita and Max were telling me, and Naomi smiled at my efforts to prove I really was a note-taking reporter.

“He used to come over here in the evenings after work,” Rita said. “And on Shabbat. I would always make sure to have some cake for him, and he liked cola, if I recall. Never drank coffee or tea. I also gave him plenty of fruit, but he laughed every time I offered him bananas!”

“He wasn’t much of a worker,” Max remarked. “Always complained about getting up before sunrise, claiming he should be allowed to sleep until noon. He said that Yoshko, you’ll have to excuse me Naomi for saying this, was a real taskmaster. I think he described your father as ‘Pharaoh.’”

Naomi laughed. “Yoshko said that you once had to go to ‘The Camp’ and wake Jerry up, that he had overslept,” she said to Rita.

“Oh, I don’t remember that,” Rita said, but then she quickly added, “Maybe I did go wake him up once or twice.”

“He got along well with our children,” Max pointed out. “Liora, our daughter, was just a year or two younger than Jerry. The two of them hit it off together. And Ron, our son, was always quite excited when Jerry visited the house.”

“Liora is living in the United States,” Naomi whispered to me.

“No need to be upset about that,” Rita said. “Liora and her husband, Mark, have a fine family. They live in the Baltimore area.”

“Rita, didn’t Jerry give us a tablecloth?” Max said, sitting forward in his chair.

“Tablecloth? Oh, my. That’s right.” Rita hurried to the kitchen area and poking through some of the cupboards. A minute later she came back carrying a green and white tablecloth.

“Jerry gave us this at the end of his stay on the kibbutz,” Rita announced.

“He gave you a tablecloth?” Naomi asked.

“Yes, it was his way of thanking us for our hospitality that summer,” Rita replied. “We still use the tablecloth on festive occasions, though we rarely eat fancy meals here in our home.”

“You still have a tablecloth Jerry Seinfeld gave you nearly thirty years ago?” I asked incredulously. I fingered the cloth.

“It’s really nothing unusual,” Max said. “We have hosted many volunteers over the years, and we are still in touch with many of them. We recently received a postcard from Peter; he’s from Switzerland. And Werner, from Germany, came by to visit us with his family a few years ago. It was great seeing him after so long.”

I continued to look at the tablecloth, wondering how I could work this into my article. Was this what I was looking for—the tangible proof that Seinfeld had really been here on the kibbutz? How could I be sure he had given Rita and Max this as a present?

We continued talking for a few more minutes, but Rita and Max couldn’t recall any other particular highlights of the summer in 1971 when they had hosted Jerry Seinfeld. They did say they hadn’t heard from the comedian since his kibbutz days but they were pleased that he had his own television show. They never watched Seinfeld, but their daughter Liora had frequently commented on it from the States.

“Thank you for all your help,” I said, as Naomi and I rose to leave. “You have been very hospitable to me, as well.”

“Oh, it’s no problem at all,” Rita said. “I just wish we could have helped you more.”

“No, that won’t be necessary,” I replied.

“I’m glad you took some notes,” Naomi joked as we went outside. “Now, I’ll be waiting to see this article in print. Only then will I believe that you really are a reporter.”

We began to walk on the path back toward the kibbutz’s center, to the dining room, Naomi’s office and the parking lot where I had parked my car. Suddenly, Max ran up to us, quite out of breath, and begged us to come back to the house.

“I just thought about something,” he said, panting heavily. “There’s something else…”

He didn’t complete the sentence. We followed him back to the house, and sat down again on the sofa. Rita had already cleared the plates and cups from our short visit.

“Liora, she was just a year or two younger than Jerry,” Rita began.

“Her birthday is in July,” Max said. “Jerry was here for her party.”

“Yes?” I waited for them to go on and explain their excitement.

“Anyway, I bet we have some photos from her party that year,” Max said.

As Naomi and I waited impatiently, Max disappeared into the next room. A moment later he was back, carrying a number of large photo albums. He placed them on the table in front of us, and I could see they were labeled according to year. Max picked up a green album, with a sticker pasted on its side marking it as ‘1971-2.’

We watched as Max flipped through the pages. “That’s Liora, and next to her is our son, Ron,” Rita said, indicating a faded snapshot of two young teenagers. She described the other pictures on the pages—photographic memories of her children growing up on the kibbutz—but Max appeared to be searching for one specific photo.

“Here it is,” he announced triumphantly.

He pointed at a picture depicting a number of people sitting around a table. The table was covered with the same green and white tablecloth I had fingered moments before. The gathering was quite obviously a birthday celebration, because there were presents wrapped in colorful wrapping paper and ribbons next to a white frosted cake. The words, ‘Happy Birthday, Liora’ written in pink frosting were clearly visible on the top of the cake.

Behind the cake sat a beaming Liora, whom I recognized from the other photographs. Next to her on one side was Ron, and Rita was standing behind him. On Liora’s other side was a young man, with long black hair and a pair of dark, wide-rimmed glasses. The young man was smiling—an almost silly grin. Looking closely, I could see the resemblance. Yes, if he wasn’t wearing the glasses… It was him! I was looking at a very young, skinny, long-haired, teenage-version of Jerry Seinfeld!

“Jerry was here with us for Liora’s fifteenth birthday party,” Max said, as though it wasn’t obvious from the photograph. “I can’t remember what he gave her as a present, but I am sure he gave her something.”

“Can I borrow this?” I asked. Now I was excited. “You will get it back; I can assure you of that.”

“Of course,” Rita replied. “That summer, Jerry was a true member of our family. Almost like another son.”

“Even if we couldn’t understand his jokes,” Max added. “I didn’t think they were very funny.”

I thanked Rita and Max again, and Naomi and I left. I walked along, glancing repeatedly at the small photograph taken in the summer of 1971. I smiled as I looked at young Jerry Seinfeld, not yet discovered by the world, pictured celebrating with his kibbutz family.

There weren’t too many kibbutzniks who remembered him. There wasn’t a lot of evidence proving he had actually volunteered on the kibbutz, and yet I had found the proof that would tie my feature story together and bring it to a fitting conclusion. In my hand I held something tangible and real, connecting Jerry Seinfeld to his kibbutz days, twenty-seven years ago.

 

 

Read more stories by Ellis Shuman in The Virtual Kibbutz.