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By Aharon Habenstradt
Ezra arranged to take Eliyahu and Achmed down to the vineyard the next morning. Ezra drove a Fiat tractor that was expressly built narrow so as to be able to maneuver in the limited spaces between the vines. Eliyahu sat high up on one large wheel guard, while Achmed sat on the other. Ezra drove carefully, aware that driving with passengers perched precariously on the wheels was against basic safety rules, yet resigned to the fact that the village wasn't about to free an extra tractor for their use. No conversation was possible, as the roar of the tractor overwhelmed all other sounds until they reached the vineyard which was on the bottom of a steep slope. Eliyahu could see his house at the top of the hill, and indeed had spent many moments looking out his living room window at the very spot where he now stood.
"We're going to need to prune the vines very carefully, and I'm not sure exactly how to proceed. The books say that each standing vine can only support nineteen to twenty-one fingers from which grapes will grow. Now, each finger needs to be cut back to only two or three joints. Each joint will grow a shoot with several bunches of grapes. If the finger is too thin and there are too many joints, the finger will break, or even if it doesn't, the grapes will appear to grow well, but will suddenly dry up. So we have to chose strong wood.
"Also, if it's too thick, that's also not good, because that branch can overwhelm the rest of the vine and it won't produce its maximum. So you have to be careful. Also, it's best to pick branches from all over the area of the vine so that one branch won't shade the others." As he spoke, Ezra took out his professional pruning shears, and cut carefully as he chose his branches. After twenty minutes or so, he counted and found he had left twenty-five fingers, so he agonized again before cutting another four.
Eliyahu had his own pruning shears - smaller than Ezra's because they were originally meant for cutting roses - but he watched and listened carefully. He tried the next vine. Ezra winced as branches he would have left were ruthlessly discarded. Ezra counted seventeen fingers. He quickly cut off three that were too thin to support a full cluster.
"The books aren't clear if we really lose anything by having somewhat fewer fingers. It may be that each of the remainders will be heavier in weight and make up for the lack of clusters."
Achmed spoke up. "We do it differently."
Ezra gave him his shears. "So how do you do it?"
Within seconds, Achmed was cutting and pulling apart the vine. He opened it up by cutting out the center branches, then quickly pruned in a circle, leaving large areas between the fingers. Ezra counted quickly. "Twenty-nine fingers. Way too many."
"The vine can take it. Look - it's thick here. Look at the roots. This vine hasn't given anywhere near what it could give for years." Achmed pulled away at the weeds that were choking the base of the vine, revealing a thick, strong trunk. "All the strength is going to the trunk when you could be growing grapes instead."
Ezra's eyes squinted in thought.
Achmed continued. "Look. You worked twenty minutes on one vine. That's three an hour. Maybe you'll get into a rhythm and do four or even five an hour. That's forty a day - the most. You have a hundred and eighty vines to a dunam, which means you can do maybe a dunam a week since you have to water and spray too. You'll never finish in time. The whole job needs to be done in two weeks or the vines won't be ready when first bloom starts. You need ten good workers at least.
Ezra looked out at the expanse of row after row of overgrown unpruned vines. There was no way he could do it - even with Eliyahu and Achmed working full time along with him.
Achmed spoke again. "I have a cousin who knows grapes like the back of his hand. He was born in a vineyard, and he has a group of ten workers that can cut a dunam a day apiece. The whole job will be finished in two weeks.
"How much does your cousin charge for pruning the whole vineyard?"
"He charges the same as everyone, even less. I'll tell him to give you a special deal."
Ezra wasn't going to have any more to do with the Arab workers than he needed to, but he knew he needed to be there at least at the beginning to make sure that his instructions were going to be obeyed. He and Eliyahu borrowed an open jeep from the field crops branch since they had to meet the workers at first light in the vineyard. They promised to return the jeep by the time the normal workday began.
Achmed had gone back to his village to recruit his cousin and was to return with the workers. As the jeep turned off the main road onto the dirt path into the vineyards, they spotted a white Peugeot station wagon parked near the grove of trees at the edge of the vineyard. A small fire with a kettle of water had been set up and a huddled group of Arab men dressed in coats against the morning chill, red and white kaffiyas wrapped around their heads, were crouched down on their haunches drinking hot coffee. Achmed was there, and introduced his cousin Jabril. Jabril was short, friendly, and tried very hard to be pleasing. He agreed to all of Ezra's warnings about the necessity for caution in the pruning. He translated Ezra's instructions to the group as Ezra demonstrated the kind of work he expected, and he assured Ezra that all would proceed smoothly. Ezra pointed out that several vines in each row had been tagged with colored ribbons: blue, green, red, white, in various combinations. These, Ezra warned, were not to be touched, as they were part of his experiments and needed special pruning which he would do personally. Jabril pointed out the special vines and in a loud voice warned the workers to skip those vines. They then spread out, each worker starting his own row.
Ezra watched them, and as Jabril translated, corrected first one worker, then another. "Not so many fingers. Take off the thin ones. Throw the discarded vines in the center between the rows so they can be gathered afterwards." After half an hour, Ezra and Eliyahu returned to the village for morning prayers. It would have to be Eliyahu who would deal with the workers; they were too much for Ezra's nerves. Ezra would concentrate on the special experiments.
As the day wore on, the workers removed their coats and sweaters, dropping them over the newly-pruned vines. Eliyahu made up a list of food the workers wanted bought for them from the village grocery store. Ten loaves of bread, five cans of tuna in tomato sauce, five containers of sour cream and several large bottles of Coca Cola. He rode the tractor back and forth several times that morning, sometimes bringing spare parts for the workers' pruning shears, sometimes a sharpening stone.
Ezra worked on his tagged vines from the farther end of the field, putting as much distance between him and the workers as possible. At around eleven o'clock, Ezra's canteen of cold drinking water finished, so he returned for a refill. As he approached the area where the workers had completed almost half a row, his expression turned livid when he saw that one of his tagged vines had been pruned. He ran towards the worker, his arms raised threateningly. The boy who had cut that row saw Ezra and began to run away. The workers stopped, frozen, as Ezra ran towards them.
Jabril intercepted Ezra. "What happened? Don't worry. I'll take care of whoever did anything wrong. Show me."
Ezra slowed down. He came to the pruned vine, threw his pruners on the ground and studied the plant. "Stupid Arabs. Can't trust them to do anything without damaging it. I knew I should never have trusted them."
Jabril called out to the boy. He had crouched behind some other workers, but now came timidly forward. He seemed ashamed. "Come here! Immediately!" Jabril called. The boy moved closer. Suddenly Jabril bent down and picked up a stone the size of a baseball and hurled it straight at the boy. Hit in the stomach, the boy bent over, crying.
"Come here!" Jabril picked up another stone, but the boy was running away now, and the rock missed him. Another rock was thrown, but by now the boy was far away.
The violence of Jabril's action had stunned everyone.
"He's my son, and he knows that if we cause any damage, you'll fire us. I swear he won't do any more work. I'll kill him if I have to."
Ezra drove back to the village to replenish his water supply. He was upset about the cut vine, but he was stupefied that someone would throw a rock at his own son. It wasn't that bad a mistake. It would make his results less accurate, but that didn't mean that a person should hit another human being - his own son! - with a rock.
The workers took the interruption as a sign that it was time to take a break for lunch. They gathered in the wooded grove and soon their fire was wafting the sweet aroma of burnt kindling. Eliyahu took the opportunity to inspect the progress of their work. Jabril joined him and they moved slowly down first one row, then another. They had to step carefully through the tangle of cut branches and Eliyahu remembered that Ezra had suggested that two adjacent workers toss their pile of discarded cuttings into one common row, which would leave one clean row which would be easy to walk through. Jabril would snip at an occasional branch which he felt was too long, but Eliyahu was amazed at how the original completely anarchic tangle, vine after vine had emerged, clean and clear, fingers outstretched, ready to capture the new year's grape clusters.
They returned to the workers. Jabril took some bread, dipped it into a plate of olive oil and offered it to Eliyahu. Eliyahu smiled, but refused. The bread was pushed into his hands. All eyes were on him. Eliyahu tried to give the bread back, but Jabril urged him to eat. "Taste this olive oil," he said. "It's from the first pressing from my own trees. There's none better."
Eliyahu smiled, but refused. One of the workers spoke up angrily. Achmed, who was sitting with them, translated. "He says it's a terrible insult not to join when someone invites you to a meal. It means you think his food is no good. No matter how friendly the Arabs try to be, the Jews always think that they're too good to eat with us." The air became tense. Eliyahu sat down on the ground among the men.
"Me and Achmed have worked together for a while, and Achmed has told me something about Arab customs. Achmed prays five times a day; the Jews only pray three times a day. The Arabs can take several wives. Achmed's father has two wives. The Jews can only have one wife. God gave the Koran to the Arabs and they have to listen to it. We Jews have the Torah and we have to listen to it." Achmed translated. "Our rabbis said if the Jews sit down and eat bread together with their Arab cousins, soon they will be good friends. The Jew will invite the Arab to eat also, and soon he will offer him wine to drink because the Jew can drink wine and then they will be very friendly and they will say, 'We are brothers — let's marry our children to one another.' Then the Arabs will be angry because their children will not follow their ways, and the Jews will be angry because their children will not follow their ways." Achmed translated. "So our wise men have said, 'Better not to start. Let each people eat by themselves. Then they can work together, they can be friends together, but their children will follow the ways of their fathers. And that is the better way." The men nodded as Achmed translated.
Jabril shook his head. He spoke in Arabic. "You are missing out on some very good olive oil." They all laughed, and Eliyahu understood him even without a translation.
The meal over, the workers bowed down for their prayers, then returned to their work. Jabril had them toss the prunings into alternate rows, and soon the bent figures resumed their rhythmic cutting. Several men sang as they worked, and when all seemed settled, Eliyahu walked to where Ezra had the tractor and the two of them returned to the village for lunch.
Asher was waiting for Eliyahu outside the shul at the end of davening. "Can I give you a word of advice? Some of the older members have been grumbling that you haven't been doing any of the night-shift fumigation. You know, Ezra's over sixty, and he's not getting any younger. Don't you think you should take some of the burden off him?" Eliyahu had to hold back to keep from answering angrily. He forced himself keep an even tone as he explained. "Listen, Ezra can't take care of the workers; he gets too tense. He constantly reminds me about the sprinklers, but I can't send Achmed to move them since I need him in the vineyard to translate. I'm willing to help with the night work, but Ezra's never taught me how to use the tractor-operated duster, and he acts like he's the only one in the world who can take responsibility for anything."
"Eliyahu, I'm just trying to help you raise your position of respect among the members. I know that you have hopes of becoming a member of the Executive some day, and there are those who feel that you, as an outsider, don't really feel the proper respect for the older members."
Eliyahu shook his head. It seemed as if no matter how much effort one put into one's work, there was always a judge and jury returning to call out a guilty verdict.
"Why not ask him if he would teach you the fumigating?" Asher persuaded. "Tell him you need the experience. In the meantime, he can take care of the lawns that morning while you're getting a few hours sleep — and Achmed can keep the workers on schedule. By now, you should have a pretty good idea of how much they prune each day and you can warn them that if they slack off, you'll deduct it from their wages." He gave Eliyahu a pat on the back, and as they passed the roses at the border of the main lawn, Asher bent down to inspect the stems. "I think these green leaf suckers are getting out of hand. Beautiful flowers, though."
After evening prayers, Ezra borrowed the jeep and picked up Eliyahu. They drove to the locked bunker where the poisons and pesticides were stored. Ezra unlocked the heavy metal door, and as he pulled it open, a thick film of dust rose. They both coughed, but entered the dimly lit room. Stacks of one-hundred-pound paper sacks were arrayed on wooden pallets. Shelves were lined with cans of liquid pesticide. Black skulls and crossbones were printed prominently on the labels. Ezra brushed off the labels from various sacks till he found what was needed for the vineyard. He grabbed a sack, one hand on each of the two nearest corners, and motioned to Eliyahu to grab the other two corners. Together they struggled through the remnants of broken sacks, their shoes quickly coated with white powder. First one, then another of the sacks were loaded onto the jeep. The light was turned off, the door bolted, and then Ezra drove to the garage.
There the vineyard's tractor was waiting next to a metal box that looked like a washing machine drum. Two wide flexible pipes spread out from it's back side like a hideous handlebar mustache. At the rear of the tractor were two arms that lowered and raised when the driver slid a movable handle located near the rear wheel. Each arm ended in a hollow circle that allowed various equipment to be attached by entering an extruding pin, which was then fastened shut with a metal safety clip. Ezra mounted the tractor, turned on the lights, and, driving in reverse, carefully positioned himself so that the rear bars approached the extruding pins of the duster. Eliyahu pushed the duster to get the pins to enter the holes while simultaneously trying to keep his fingers from getting caught between metal and metal. Eliyahu raised one side of the duster while Ezra, bent backwards on the driver's seat, tried to lower the lever to the exact height of the duster pin. The bars couldn't lower enough, so Eliyahu raised the duster on one side, straining to insert the pin in the hollow bar, finally placing it in, and with the other hand, snapping the safety latch closed. Then the other side was brought close to the tractor and locked in. Then a third, higher bar was connected which allowed the duster to be stabilized. Ezra then turned and drove down to the vineyards while Eliyahu followed in the jeep.
Ezra left the tractor near the top row, then joined Eliyahu at the jeep where they unloaded several sacks, advanced the jeep and unloaded several more, until finally they returned to the top row. Ezra gave Eliyahu a small pad with instructions of how fast the tractor needed to travel and how fast the independently turning drum would spew out the fumigant. Ezra adjusted the flexible arms so that they were bent slightly back and out, ensuring, he explained, maximum penetration of pesticide to the bush. Eliyahu marveled at the foresight that saw the need for clear alternate rows, the certain knowledge of how many sacks were needed to dusted an exact number of rows, and how Ezra knew exactly where to leave the sacks.
Ezra raised and lowered the lever which adjusted the duster, rechecking its angle and stability. He showed Eliyahu how to tighten the chains that connected to the lower bars which prevented the duster from swinging from side to side. Ezra showed Eliyahu how to load the powder, tearing through the thick double-wrapped heavy-duty paper with the sharp point of the pruners that both men kept with them at all times. And finally, Ezra handed over his gas mask, pulling it over Eliyahu's face, and tightening the rubber straps in back. The bottom, near the mouth, contained the filter, and the bottom, which needed to close when the chin bulged, as Eliyahu's beard prevented full closure. Eliyahu tried first rolling then stuffing his beard into the mask so that he wouldn't be able to smell the acrid sulfur, but Ezra was urging him on, so he mounted the tractor, rubbing the goggles clear as best he could of the dust and checking the notepad Ezra had given him.
He lowered the duster to where Ezra had indicated and lowered the hand-operated gas throttle to the indicated speed. Then, turning the independently operated rear motor which sent the duster spinning through a cacophony of screaming motors, Eliyahu released the clutch and the tractor raced blindly between the rows, across the vineyard. There was no stopping now. If anything stopped in the middle, some vines would get too much powder, others, too little. Eliyahu gripped the wheel praying that the rows were really as straight as they seemed and that he wouldn't be sent flying, bleeding over rough ground and broken metal. The tractor exited the row and Eliyahu slammed on the clutch which lowered his speed, then turned off the rotating duster as he turned the tractor to the next clear row for the return voyage.
He raised the gas mask to breathe cool, natural air and watched in wonder as the dust rose slightly among the vines before settling like fog in a mountain pass. Taking a deep breath, he lowered the mask and with all motors roaring, he was racing back. The duster! He had forgotten to activate the duster!! He pulled at the lever, but it was meant to be activated at lower speeds. The gears screeched, but caught anyway, and the duster began spewing fine powder. "Maybe Ezra didn't see," Eliyahu hoped. At the end of the night he'd circle back and complete those vines at the end of the row that had been missed. He drove over to the waiting jeep, stopping the tractor and the duster almost at the same movement. Ezra checked the duster's angle and stability, tightening one chain and releasing the other slightly to allow the duster to sit more firmly in the center of the bars. Then, bidding Eliyahu a good evening, Ezra backed up the jeep to the main road and returned home.
Eliyahu, alone, felt the breeze turn cooler as the night deepened. Filling the sacks alone was difficult. He rested one end against the opening of the duster, then with a knee pushing up, and gripping the sack with both arms, lifted it until the white powder cascaded into the drum. Careful not to leave any remaining material in the bags, which would result in a shortage, Eliyahu closed the drum, placed rocks on the empty bags so that they wouldn't blow away, and proceeded to the next row. Mask down, he raced into the darkness singing — his song, amplified and insulated from the night by the surrounding rubber — a mad, wild song from the days of his yeshiva, exulting in the romance of the new Jew, the strong Jew, the Jew of a new time.
Copyright 1997 Aharon Habenstradt
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