Friday, May 13, 2011

The Dishwasher


I had come to Kibbutz Shamir for what I knew would be a working vacation, and so, after a free day to tour the community and get oriented to my new living arrangements, I was assigned my first work shift. Like every fresh arrival, I began behind the controls of the dishwashing machine. The kibbutz wasn’t meant to have any hierarchy. The community, at least in its origins, was founded on a belief in radical equality. Every job was as important as the next. Every worker was as vital as his or her neighbour. There was no “men’s work” or “women’s work”. No such thing as “menial” labour. All labour was good labour—as long as you put in your shift and didn’t complain. All labour strengthened the body and cleansed the mind of selfish doubts. All labour brought the individual closer to the collective.

Except manning the dishwasher. That job sucked, and nobody could pretend otherwise. There was a reason it was assigned, without fail, to a volunteer. Because kibbutzniks didn’t want to do it. And another reason that it was assigned, again without fail, to the freshest volunteer meat to fall off the bus. Because volunteers learned to hate it, too. But you had to start somewhere. And so I pulled on a blue workshirt, tied an apron, and began my apprenticeship behind the kibbutz dishwashing machine.

Dishwasher. The word doesn’t do justice to the trundling, steaming, hissing, clattering assembly-line contraption. If you’ve ever lived on a kibbutz, you know the beast, ubiquitous to communal dining halls from Dan to Be’er Sheva. Forget the squat, hygienic, self-contained Maytag parked under the counter of a North American kitchen. Imagine instead a Chinese dragon screwed together out of scrap metal and industrial duct-work, thin legs bolted to the concrete floor, circling its own tail as it huffs and belches and disgorges the acrid ingestimenta of someone’s half-finished dinner. 

A conveyor belt fed plastic trolly squares—some ribbed to hold plates and trays, others open to catch scatterings of cutlery and cups—in an endless triangular circuit.  Kibbutzniks sloughed off the leavings from their plates and trays, and deposited everything onto this hot-steam merry-go-round. The dishwasher on duty had to keep up with the post-dinner rush and pull scalding hot flatware from the trays and sort and stack everything in special trollies and dollies and containers and scrub any gristle or grime that the machine missed. When the growling, retching, scraping soundtrack of the machine ever rose to a pitch like it was in mortal pain, then you had to jump for its stop button and reach into its murky belly to retrieve the errant fork that was jamming up the works. If the dishwashing machine died on your watch, there would be hell to pay. I bet you’d be on the next bus out of the kibbutz.

The work itself wasn’t strenuous or nerve-wracking. (Not compared to the chicken house.) But you soon got ground down by the Sysiphean monotony of the ever-cycling trays of dishes, the dearth of on-the-job camaraderie (beyond the “I’m-glad-I’m-not-you” salutes from the far side of the machine), and how the tiled-walls held the moisture rising out of the machine’s furnace and turned the dishwashing chamber into a fetid sauna that left even the freshest work shirt steeped to its last fibre in the malodorous memories of a hundred meals. Quite simply: by shift’s end, you looked bad and smelled worse. Food scraps seemed in infiltrate every nook in your clothing, hot-pressed into your skin’s exposed pores. A long shower in the communal bunker could hardly rid your body of the stink of that place. A full exfoliation seemed in order. But why bother? You had to do it again the next day for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner again.

Still, I learned to take small satisfactions, even in this job. By the end of my first week, the routine had helped me integrate into what had first seemed an alien environment. My presence, cloaked in a veil of mist behind the steampunk contraption, announced my arrival to the community of the kibbutz, as members glanced up from their trays and briefly took note of a new face. Outside employees weren’t yet the norm on the kibbutz. Certainly not ones with shoulder-length blonde hair.

I fell into the rhythms of each shift. Gathering the empty dishware trollies and utensil containers. Summoning the machine into noisy motion. Peeking out the side door as the first diners arrived—the elderly residents, the families with children. Rolling up my work shirt as the shift reached a crescendo of discarded plates and bowls, half-swept of food, and kibbutzniks exchanging greetings in the tight space of the dish-dropping chamber. Then, after the rush of diners was nearly done, there arrived the stacks of scraped-out aluminum serving pans and meatball trays and oily soup tureens and the other messy collateral from the kitchen and dining hall. I bent to this task, my audience diminished, the echoes of friends and neighbours disappearing through the dining room’s doors. By the time it was all ready for the next meal, and I could shut down the machine, the once clamouring hall had quieted. The silence was striking. Only a few kitchen staff remained. Perhaps a still-hungry kibbutznik poked amongst the fridges.  

Work was assigned by rotation at least. You knew you weren’t stuck at a job for good. At least that was the way it was supposed to work. In the equation of the classic kibbutz: Every job was equal and every worker, equal, too. Ergo, every worker was equal to every job. Members could be shuffled willy-nilly between positions, so that it wouldn’t seem that one was being favoured with a cushier assignment than the next. Of course, this was perhaps not the best way of acquiring experience and technical savvy in a particular line of employment. That didn’t matter. Not in the pioneer years at least. Specialization was a bourgeois failure. Specialization is what the shtetl Jew had been forced into—as tailor or cobbler or money-lender—by the mercurial dictates of their oppressors. Specialization is what they had left behind in the Old World.

Here, on the hard soil of the Galilee, specialization wouldn’t get you far. It wasn’t needed to pull rocks from a cotton field, or drain a swamp, or erect a fence, or geld a bull… well, perhaps gelding required a little practice, at least for the cow’s sake. 

Most famously, the kibbutz secretary—the leader of this leaderless community, the person charged with ensuring that direct democracy ran smoothly—was allowed to hold his position (and it was usually a he) for a year or more. But when that term concluded, and a new kibbutz secretary elected, the old leader was assigned, by the rules of the rotation, to the job of the dishwasher (or perhaps to peel potatoes in the kitchen or pitch food to the pigs). It was an institutionalized gesture of humility, a reminder to leave pride at the gates of the kibbutz. That you can never rise above your station in a village of equals. That nobody should be too proud to scrub a pot or two. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.


3 comments:

  1. 'ingestimenta' !

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  2. I stole that word from a Gordon Lish story I read years ago. I always thought it perfectly captured that combination of low-tech machinery and gastrointestinal grossness of the kibbutz dishwasher. Some shifts you felt as though you had been digested by the machine yourself! :)

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  3. really boring, thought you would talk about your importnant expereinces there meeting israelis and other volunteers.

    ReplyDelete