Liran Golod shares childhood memories of her Russian emigré father’s dedication to his orange grove in northern Israel.
I have always admired the beginning of the first tale from Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, “The book of the Grotesque”:
The writer, an old man with a white mustache, had some difficulty in getting into bed. The windows of the house in which he lived were high and he wanted to look at the trees when he awoke in the morning. A carpenter came to fix the bed so that it would be on a level with the window.
How could I have not adored this story, those trees? All my father ever wanted was to own an orchard. He wanted it so badly that when he immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union he decided to live in the most remote village in the northern countryside of Israel, where he could afford to buy a farm. The border with Lebanon was so close that we could actually hear the whistle of a missile before it landed, and there were plenty of them back in the ’80s. For some reason the Katyushas kept falling in my father's beloved orchard, wounding the trees and the oranges, but it didn’t stop him from watering, fertilizing, cultivating, and fighting evil pests and vermin. Every winter the trucks would come and load dozens of crates, brimming with Ortaniks, Mineolas, Valencias, and Washingtons on their way to markets in America and Europe. Strangers all over the world were eating my father's oranges, drinking their juice, knowing nothing about our lives at the end of the land, our joys and despair.
The crisis was gradual, so we called it a crisis only afterward. One by one, farmers in the region started to cut down their trees. Arnoshka’s orchard at the west end of the village—gone. Yehuda’s orchard next to him—gone. The next season, it was Shmil’s. The children were surprised. They roamed the fields, climbed the uprooted trees that lay upside down on the earth, their branches still seeking the sun, their precious secret roots exposed to everyone’s eyes now. It was a disturbing sight, a quiet disaster.
We asked why, and my father explained that there were no profits. The water bills were too high with the drought—and the farmers racked up more and more losses and eventually gave up. But not my father. Oh no. He kept staring lovingly at his orchard every morning, through the vast windows he designed especially for this purpose. My mother begged him—please, Arkady, let’s get rid of them, we can’t afford to lose any more money, but he just cursed in the language we didn’t understand and that he’d never bothered to teach us, and shook his head.
The solution he found was quite simple. One day he just stopped altogether—no more fertilizing, no more fighting pests, almost no water. The orchard was left to nature’s mercy.
“You are strong,” he told the orchard, walking between the trees, petting trunks and leaves. I was there, he took me with him. We were caressing and comforting: “You will make it,” we told the orchard. And it did.
Winter came and found us unprepared. Truth to tell, many of the trees got very sick, attacked by the usual suspects, with and without wings, and besides them the wild boars, nocturnal creatures that made a real mess, and, of course, the lack of water. But in spite of it all, there they were, round and ripe, brightly colored, clinging to the branches like suckling pups—the oranges. The trucks didn’t come that year—the quantity was not enough for export, but there were still hundreds of them to harvest, and they started falling on the ground. Thus began the orange frenzy.
At first we enjoyed it. Organic oranges, who would have imagined? Fresh and free to grab. We squeezed and squeezed, using the manual juicer—drinking two glasses in the morning before school, two at lunch, and three at dinner, but it was not enough. My mother urged my father to buy a heavy-duty juicer, and soon she was making jams and concentrated juice. She baked orange cakes and orange cookies and scones, she cooked turkey with oranges and chicken and beef and fish, and tried every recipe that contained the word “orange” in it, but there were just too many of them. We tried to keep some in the fridge, but we had only the one, alas. So my father brought it a companion, very old and shaky, and we filled its shelves from top to bottom. At nights the two fridges would have loud conversations with each other, mumbling and grumbling, and always ended up the same way—one coughing, the other snoring in response.
We gave oranges to friends, family, and passersby, but eventually we just let them pile up on the ground, a sea of dying oranges, hovered over by eager mosquitoes. A sweet stench soon spread all over the farm and reached every house in the village. It was heavy, thick, inescapable. The last remaining orchard in this little northern place was proving to be a rebel.
Years went by and eventually the orchard showed signs of wearying. During the harvest season, if someone had examined the trees closely they might have seen a number of pale-orange preemies just barely hanging on. Then something strange happened—the orchard stopped bearing fruit, except for the five trees that were closest to our house. It was a little miracle, we all agreed, though we were not children anymore and definitely did not believe in miracles.
It was only a few weeks ago that I discovered what really happened—of course my father had been nurturing those five chosen trees. He is dreaming once again of his orchard making a comeback. And if you happen to be in the neighborhood, ask for Arkady’s farm—no, actually his Hebrew name is Arie. Ask for Arie. It means lion.