Imagining the Kibbutz
Visions of Utopia in Literature and Film
Imagining the Kibbutz
Visions of Utopia in Literature and Film
“Thanks to the extensive outlook and the copious collection of texts, Imagining the Kibbutz is a valuable resource and a welcome contribution to the field of kibbutz studies.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
“Thanks to the extensive outlook and the copious collection of texts, Imagining the Kibbutz is a valuable resource and a welcome contribution to the field of kibbutz studies.”
“In a brilliant analysis that is both comprehensive and penetrating, Ranen Omer-Sherman illuminates the vast spectrum of literary and cinematic narratives that emerged from one of the most radical and thrilling social experiments of our time: the Israeli kibbutz. Omer-Sherman writes with authority and passion, in prose that will excite the scholar and layperson alike. Part literary critique, part social history, Omer-Sherman’s book sheds light not only on the narratives of the kibbutz but also on the utopian enterprise itself, from its heady idealism to its bitter contentiousness. I was, quite honestly, unable to put it down. Anyone interested in Israel, literature, film, or the myriad ways in which artistic expression reflects and shapes the birth and growth of a modern nation would do well to read this book.”
“The kibbutz is an extraordinary human, social, and economic accomplishment, widely recognized as one of the most impressive achievements of Zionism. The impact of the kibbutz has always far exceeded its numerical size, and Imagining the Kibbutz makes us realize that this is also the case with the visions of the kibbutz in Hebrew literature and in films made in or on Israel. Ranen Omer-Sherman very skillfully combines the particularity of the local scene with universal human experience transcending space and time, such as the clash between individual desires and unyielding national imperatives. Combining the critical outlook of the academic outsider with deep, loving insight acquired through his own personal experience, the author portrays the kibbutz as a crucial microcosm for understanding Israeli values and identity. The book proves that the reports of the kibbutz’s death are greatly exaggerated; it is still a vibrant society making an inspiring imprint both on Israeli reality and Hebrew literature and film. Imagining the Kibbutz is a very relevant and up-to-date book, enhancing our understanding of contemporary Israel at large.”
“Imagining the Kibbutz is not only a masterful study of literary representations of the kibbutz, but also a portrait of a country—Israel—through the lens of its most radical experiment. Tracing the evolution of the kibbutz from its utopian beginnings through economic crisis and ideological disillusionment to its current hybrid forms, Ranen Omer-Sherman illuminates the tensions between individualism and collectivism, capitalism and socialism, diaspora and national identity that lie at the heart of Israeli society. A probing analysis of a wide array of imaginative renderings of the kibbutz experience, this important book should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding Israel’s individual diversity and collective soul.”
“What makes Imagining the Kibbutz particularly compelling is its emphasis on the affective power that the kibbutz exercises upon the individual. Ranen Omer-Sherman guides us through a diverse array of literary and cinematic texts with sensitivity and astuteness, urging us to bear in mind culture’s humanizing function even in its representation of the most intensely politicized situations. A deeply engaged and delightfully engaging writer, Omer-Sherman balances his experiences with the kibbutz with a discerning and rigorous critical eye, confronting its complexities and contradictions in order to suggest that in many ways these reflect paradoxes that continue to inhabit the core of Israeli identity itself.”
“The kibbutz has always played an outsized role in images of Israel, representing in microcosm the ideals upon which the nation was founded. The kibbutz embodied, in its purest form, the inherent tension between common goals and individual interests. As Ranen Omer-Sherman gracefully demonstrates in this penetrating analysis, the literature growing out of the kibbutz experience is also an outsized component of Israeli culture. From the outset, the kibbutz was ‘always in crisis,’ portrayed sensitively in the many novels, short stories, essays, and films inspired by the tension between ideology and reality. This landmark study also puts the recent ‘normalization’ of the kibbutz into clearer perspective, making it clear that its role in the broader society remains central. Anyone with an interest in Israeli culture and society will find this book indispensable in highlighting a critical dimension of the Israeli experience, past and present.”
“From its emergence in pre-war Palestine until its privatization in the mid-1980s, the kibbutz was an iconic symbol of the settlement of Jews in their historic land. The lived experience of that utopian experiment was sometimes too controversial to deal with in nonfiction, but found expression in literature and film. Ranen Omer-Sherman has produced a valuable survey of such representations, which he considers wistfully, yet hopefully, at a time when kibbutzim are succumbing to privatization, even as some cling to their erstwhile promise of communalism.”
“A volume whose sharp insights and wide-ranging analyses (some of them appearing here for the first time in English) contribute greatly to our understanding of the histories of and shifting perceptions surrounding one of modernity’s most fascinating ideological movements. Informative for the specialist reader as well as accessible for students and a general lay audience, Imagining the Kibbutz promises to shape the ways in which historiographers, ethnographers, literary and cultural critics, and even authors and artists themselves discuss portrayals of the kibbutz phenomenon in the decades to come.”
Ranen Omer-Sherman is the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence Chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville.
List of Illustrations
1. Trepidation and Exultation in Early Kibbutz Fiction
2. “With a Zealot’s Fervor”: Individuals Facing the Fissures of Ideology in Oz, Shaham, and Balaban
3. The Kibbutz and Its Others at Midcentury: Palestinian and Mizrahi Interlopers in Utopia
4. Late Disillusionments and Village Crimes: The Kibbutz Mysteries of Batya Gur and Savyon Liebrecht
5. From the 1980s to 2010: Nostalgia and the Revisionist Lens in Kibbutz Film
Afterword: Between Hope and Despair: The Legacy of the Kibbutz Dream in the Twenty-First Century
We did not attune our expectations to a distant morrow, but to their lifetime. As soon as today is over. Quickly, in our time. Not dreams of a far-off future or the Kingdom of Heaven at the end of a dark tunnel. It would all be right here, tomorrow. This little acre. This mule. This child. The redemption will come here and now and not in a generation that is all saints or all sinners or on the day that the tears of Jacob and Esau cease.
The impossibility of utopia is less a demonstration of the failure of conviviality
than an ongoing proof of our determination to keep on trying.
Even more than two decades after leaving the kibbutz, I need only close my eyes for a moment or two for its rich textures and sensations to rush back in almost unbidden with startling intensity: the growling rumbles of tractors bearing wagons of sun-scorched and sweat-drenched laborers up the dusty road from our fields and orchards, the furnace heat under white desert summer skies, the gentle bubbling and hissing of the drip irrigation, the pungent aromas of rotting orange peels and manure in the cowshed. The dining hall’s incessant scraping of moving chairs, small talk, excited debates, anarchic herds of roaming children, wicked jokes, and explosive laughter, all of it reverberating and filling the humming air, the bountiful refuse of eggshells, cucumber peels, olive pits, and globs of sour runny yogurt topped off with cigarette butts all stewing in the aluminum kolboinik atop each table. Then, at night, the drowsy and companionable silences of those sipping Wissotzky tea after being reluctantly roused for the early milking shift. The exhausting work—how ever did we summon the energy for those passionate arguments in the late nights of the members’ assembly? Those seemingly endless days all came and went in a rapid stream, yet now they pause and linger because neither heart nor mind ever wishes to relinquish any of it.
In today’s virtual community, however, idealists (academic or otherwise) increasingly inhabit their own hermetic worlds, and it has not been my good fortune to know very many (aside from a few aging red-diaper babies and veterans of the Civil Rights Movement) who have really lived their social vision consciously, day in, day out. To a great extent, this study is inspired by the many extraordinary years I was fortunate to share with some remarkable people, a few of them gone now, who actually acted on a fairly radical political vision. Although they could be as petty, scandalous, or annoying as just about anyone else, to a striking degree, they were also tireless and often even truly selfless. Sharing a preternatural utopian impulse, they were perfectly willing to spend their lives laboring on 110-degree days within the confines of an isolated settlement of homely prefabricated dwellings and sparse greenery, patiently rotating jobs and working unseemly hours whenever that was required of them, in plain view of the modest cemetery they figured to one day inhabit. There is no other way to put it: we came to the kibbutz with a sense of joyful purpose. As if intuitively attracted to the kind of place where, to borrow from Frederick Buechner’s spiritual imperative, “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (95), we eagerly and, yes, so naively plunged into what is surely one of the more strangely optimistic but ultimately successful ventures in the history of human societies, for decades the most productive socialist system in the world (well outlasting the Communist regimes of the Eastern Bloc). It was world making at its purest, unhindered by nostalgia or our immediate pasts, every choice consciously, painstakingly made.
Like many others, during my kibbutz years, I often felt a sense of euphoria but sometimes also disaffection and withdrawal. As I gradually began to discover during that sojourn, there is a significant body of extraordinary literature brimming with a heady mix of ardent idealism and lonely alienation, richly illuminating the complex responses many of us have experienced. Over time, many of those works became intensely meaningful companions for me in periods of both faith and disaffection. First and foremost, there were the works of Amos Oz (a veteran of more than thirty years of collective living), his early kibbutz stories often written in the collective persona, an ironic voice leaving delicately veiled traces of malaise in its wake that, back in those days, struggling at times to hold onto my idealistic ardor, left me shaken.
That curiously supercilious tone immediately distinguishes the language of Oz’s first novel, Makom aher (Elsewhere, Perhaps; 1966), guiding us on our first steps into the unfamiliar world and fraught psychological minefields of the fictional Kibbutz Metsudat Ram. Here we are made to understand the collective’s symbolic place in the surrounding topography, the exacting but attractive surfaces of utopian engineering (a notable contrast to this frontier settlement’s threatening existential situation in the ominous pre–1967 War period and to the inner torments of the souls within), and finally its unapologetic elitism:
[Our] buildings are laid out in strict symmetry at one end of the green valley. The tangled foliage of the trees does not break up the settlement’s severe lines, but merely softens them, and adds a dimension of weightiness.
The buildings are whitewashed, and most of them are topped with bright red roofs. This color scheme contrasts sharply with that of the mountain range . . . at the foot of which the kibbutz lies spread. . . .
Along the lower terraces on the slope stretches the border between our land and that of her enemies. . . .
. . . There is a kind of enmity between the valley, with its neat, geometrical patchwork of fields[,] and the savage bleakness of the mountains. . . .
The houses, as we have said, are brightly painted. They are laid out at regular intervals. Their windows all face northwest, since the architects tried to adapt the building to the climate. Here there is no agglomeration of buildings clustering or ramifying haphazardly down the ages, nor blocks of dwellings enclosing secret courtyards, for the kibbutz does not have family homes. There is no question of separate quarters for different crafts; the poor are not relegated to the outskirts nor is the center reserved for the wealthy. The straight lines, the clean shapes, the neatly ruled concrete paths and rectangular lawns are the product of a vigorous view of the world. That was what we meant when we stated that our village was built in a spirit of optimism.
Anyone who draws the shallow inference that our village is stark and lacking in charm and beauty merely reveals his own prejudice. The object of the kibbutz is not to satisfy the sentimental expectations of town dwellers. Our village is not lacking in charm and beauty, but its beauty is vigorous and virile and its charm conveys a message. Yes, it does. (Elsewhere, Perhaps 3–5)
Notwithstanding the scattered hints of dread toward the internal human disorders and external hazards that invariably transgress the community’s prudent geometrical designs (which do not altogether distract from the mischievous fun Oz perpetrates with this affectedly portentous voice), there is no mistaking his palpable reverence for its essence, the nobility of the historical mission underlying it all. Today, it deeply impresses that, as an “outsider” still in his twenties, Oz’s mastery of literary art could achieve such equipoise. Forsaking the familiarity of his father’s Jerusalem home to rush wholeheartedly into the alien life of the kibbutz, he yet remained enough of an individual to poke fun at that insular society’s exasperating self-seriousness even as he so aptly captured its condition of anxious vulnerability: “The huts bestow a pioneering character on the whole picture, the air of a border settlement ready to turn a resolute face to impending disasters. So does the sloping fence that surrounds the kibbutz on all sides. Let us pause here for a moment to evoke your admiration” (Elsewhere, Perhaps 6). Yet, in spite of that light note of mockery, such “admiration” flowed forth from all over the world at the very moment Oz was writing—and for many years to come. Attractive portrayals abound in the fiction and memoirs of even those writers most critical of the kibbutz, perhaps in acknowledgment of our intrinsic human yearning for utopia (sometimes even after we are disillusioned).
For who can resist warming to this classic snapshot of the kibbutz’s indisputable pastoral allure, as seen through the eyes of Inspector Michael Ohayon of Batya Gur’s famous mystery novels? Largely indifferent, if not altogether hostile, to the kibbutz as an institution that he finds markedly unwelcoming to Mizrahi Jews like himself, Ohayon is nevertheless charmed by its attractive spaces and alluring rhythm of life:
Michael sensed the contradiction between the tempo of his movements and the surrounding serenity. Children rode bicycles on the paths, and three toddlers were being pushed in a mobile playpen. . . . The young man pushing it and the toddlers sitting inside were tanned and serene. . . . On the lawns . . . parents sat with their children. . . . Again Michael took in the cultivated landscape around him, the pruned, thick-trunked trees, the sign saying ‘Six-hundred-year-old sycamore’ on one of the massive trunks, the greenness of the lawns, the merrily dancing sprinklers. Once or twice old women in golf carts forced them to step off the path onto the lawn. [He] passed the culture center, the sports hall, and the spacious playing field, from which they could hear cheering and a thudding ball; [he] passed playgrounds with jungle gyms and slides. People in bathing suits were returning from the pool on their bicycles. (Murder on a Kibbutz 214–15)
Similarly, Avraham Balaban’s memoir Shiv’ah (Mourning a Father Lost; 2000), though often a caustic and wounded account of childhood deprivation, affectionately conjures up the enthralling epic of labor and pioneering in the upper Galilee in language that washes over the reader in breathless ebullience:
Imagine a group of people in a not very big house, who have committed themselves to sleeping together, eating together, bathing together, and toiling on the land together. . . . The ancestral land yields wheat and olives and milk. You can’t know what it feels like to return home in the evening, sit on the shadowed concrete steps, and pull off your work boots, knowing that you’ve picked a quarter-tonne of apples, and the picking movements linger in the weary body . . . like a mild intoxication. The work does not give [the pioneers] a new heart, but it does sometimes produce a countryman’s contentment, a countryman’s joy and honest sleep. On feast days there is such rejoicing that the heart seems to melt, and even on working days, after supper . . . there is laughter and idle chat in the corners of the dining hall. An old comradeship envelops the inhabitants. (Mourning 34)
You would have to be completely obtuse not to be entranced by Balaban’s language, so knowingly does his empathic portrayal of the zeal of the past rekindle the dream that once inflamed so many. Even the late Tony Judt, more famously known for his sharp criticism of Israel, was at first enraptured by the kibbutz experiment, toiling three long summers as a young volunteer during the 1960s. Judt’s “Kibbutz” memoir recalls his early days, “proselytizing Labour Zionism as an unpaid official of one of its youth movements.” Years later, like most anyone who sojourned on kibbutzim at some point during their youth, he simply cannot suppress his early romantic ardor, his giddy sense of adventure:
For the neophyte fifteen-year-old Londoner encountering the kibbutz for the first time, the effect was exhilarating. Here was “Muscular Judaism” in its most seductive guise: health, exercise, productivity, collective purpose, self-sufficiency, and proud separatism—not to mention the charms of kibbutz children of one’s own generation, apparently free of all the complexes and inhibitions of their European peers (free, too, of most of their cultural baggage—though this did not trouble me until later).
I adored it. Eight hours of strenuous, intellectually undemanding labor in steamy banana plantations by the shores of the Sea of Galilee, interspersed with songs, hikes, lengthy doctrinal discussions (carefully stage-managed so as to reduce the risk of adolescent rejection while maximizing the appeal of shared objectives), and the ever-present suggestion of guilt-free sex.
Fond kibbutz coming-of-age reminiscences by North American or British Jewish writers who, like Judt, became briefly acquainted with kibbutz life (whether or not they enjoyed amorous adventures in the volunteer quarters or orchards) are not all that uncommon. The American-born immigrant Yossi Klein Halevi launches his masterful historical study of the unraveling of national unity in the years after the 1967 War with this empathic scene, in which an Israeli paratrooper seems to find his greatest happiness toiling in his kibbutz’s citrus harvest:
In the orange orchards of Kibbutz Ein Shemer, Avital Geva, barefoot and shirtless in the early-morning sun, was frying eggs in a blackened pan. Turkish coffee was boiling in the aluminum pot, and his friends were laying out plates of tomatoes and cucumbers and olives, white cheese and jam. “Ya Allah, what a feast!” exclaimed Avital, as if encountering for the first time the food he had eaten for breakfast every day since childhood. It was mid-May 1967. Avital and his crew had been working since dawn, to outwit the heat of the day. Rather than return to the communal dining room for breakfast, the young men allowed themselves the privilege of eating together beneath the corrugated roof they’d erected for just that purpose. Could there be greater joy, thought Avital, than working the fields with one’s closest friends and sharing food grown by their kibbutz? One could almost forget about the crisis on the Egyptian border. (3)
Here is the primal scene that allured so many other young people: the warm camaraderie in simple labor certainly, perhaps even the appealing hint of danger that was never entirely absent. Yet, more strikingly, we encounter the same kind of appealing utopian simplicity in the evocative imagery of a writer from a strikingly different background, Atallah Mansour (b. 1934), a young Arab journalist and native of Palestine who wrote one of the least known yet utterly remarkable works in the literary history of the kibbutz. Indeed, B’or hadash (In a New Light; 1966) was the very first Hebrew novel published by a Palestinian Arab and, though filled with its Arab protagonist’s anguished struggle to belong, it is generously openhearted in setting the scene: “The sand is white and so are the houses. The red-tile roofs, abetted by the small vegetable gardens, turn the landscape into a naïve kindergarten drawing” (In a New Light 20). Whether or not they ever experienced the life of a kibbutz, those who read the novels of Gur and Mansour or the memoirs of Balaban and Judt will likely succumb to the warm tug of their alluring renderings of bucolic community life—that is, until things take a more dystopian turn, as they often do in the disenchanted nuances of many kibbutz narratives. For such writers (self-critical insiders and outsiders alike), writing honestly about kibbutz life demands keeping at least two central contraries in mind at once—the absolute necessity of euphoric dreaming and the mellowing inevitability of disillusionment.
These brief vignettes serve to illustrate that, for almost all who doubt whether they harbor a secret attraction to communal life, such uncertainty vanishes upon their first visit to a kibbutz, if only for a brief glimpse. What they perceive there will likely strike a deeply resonant chord even when they cannot imagine themselves actually living in such a place. Such encounters often elicit the sense of wonder and even wistful daydreams of alternative lives sometimes associated with visits to monasteries. After all, people since antiquity have sought ways to opt out of mainstream society to launch schemes of utopian communities (think of the Essenes, the late pagan Athenians, and other communities that formed in the ancient Mediterranean world), a trend that only intensified in the modern age (witness Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unrealized dream of a Pantisocracy on the banks of the Susquehanna and the actual proliferation of nineteenth-century communes in the United States). Yet important distinctions between the self-understanding of these short-lived experimental antecedents—or even contemporary American exemplars such as the Twin Oaks Community, East Wind, and The Farm (whose members numbered 1,500 in the late 1970s)—and the kibbutz must be acknowledged. As journalist Daniel Gavron points out: “Where other communes rejected society and retreated from it, the kibbutz embraced society and sought to lead it. The symbiosis between the kibbutz and the surrounding community is what gave it its strength and influence” (3–4). Still, like any other human institution, the kibbutz in its fullest realization evolved in some ways and devolved in others, adapting to the internal and external forces severely buffeting it over a century of transformation. The study before you examines some of the most provocative narratives (created mostly by insiders but occasionally by outsiders), to imaginatively portray that ensuing struggle over generations.
And, to be candid, I wrote Imagining the Kibbutz in part out of a sense of dismay and even a degree of anger at how rapidly the kibbutz’s extraordinary achievements are fading into mythic irrelevance. I share the sentiments of Yossi Klein Halevi, who, in an interview that often stresses his roots in the Betar Movement and his onetime loyalties to Revisionist Zionism, paused to passionately affirm the extraordinary legacy of the kibbutz: “Did Zionism really produce this mass movement of egalitarian communes? What a story. How have we allowed this movement to fade away, without at the very least saying thank you. We are a society of ingrates. We owe our existence to the kibbutzim” (Green).
Most kibbutz historians categorize the movement’s development in relation to three social paradigms. In the early kibbutzim of the 1910s to 1920s, an intensely communal aspect prevailed; in the next two decades, with the rise of national and political aspirations, the kibbutz sought a role in the surrounding society; and in the 1950s, entrepreneurial ambitions competed with, and eventually overshadowed, the kibbutz’s communal and political tendencies to culminate in the late twentieth-century hafrata or privatization model of our own time. Whereas many have charted the atrophying effects of political events (in particular, the 1977 election of Menachem Begin as prime minister after three decades of supportive Labor rule) and economic stresses (the abrupt loss of subsidies, tax breaks, and other forms of government support), few have highlighted the acute psychological stresses these inflicted on kibbutzniks, who had once proudly considered themselves an aristocracy of pioneers (as already glimpsed in the passage from Oz’s Elsewhere, Perhaps). What followed was a debilitating blow to that pride. As historian Anita Shapira notes:
The kibbutz was the crown jewel of the labor movement’s social creativity. It combined a vision of equality, devotion to society, and recruitment for national missions. The values prized by the kibbutz were physical labor, a simple lifestyle, a culture of low-key restraint, and making do with little. There was no other sector in Israeli society whose values so opposed those of Begin and the culture he represented. Begin realized that if he wished to change the narrative of the state, he would have to undermine the status of the kibbutz as the most important creation of Zionism. (Israel 386–87)
It is not hard to imagine the sense of siege, the magnitude of estrangement that kibbutz veterans felt in the toxic atmosphere unleashed by what Shapira dubs Begin’s “deadly criticism” (386) following so many decades of their service to the state’s needs on so many vital fronts. They were bewildered to find themselves accused of living “off the fat of the land . . . their wealth originat[ing] in . . . resources that had been kept from the development towns” (386). Shapira acknowledges “a grain of truth” in the stereotype: “but no more than a grain.” With considerable justification, she argues that the kibbutzim “earned their relative financial robustness with hard work, and for many years had endured harsh conditions” (386). The new stereotypes that rapidly gained currency owed much to the fact that “their pastoral appearance highlighted the contrast between them and the development towns,” which had indeed suffered years of neglect (a story we will encounter in chapter 3).
As Shapira shows, it was inevitable that Begin’s discordant language “fell on willing ears” (387), the issue becoming only more complicated with the Left’s initially unpopular protests against the 1982 Lebanon War since the kibbutzim remained “bastions of the leftist elite.” Sadly, “the fact that the number of kibbutz members among the combat troops exceeded by far their relative proportion in the population did not prevent the incitement against them” (387). But, as early as the 1960s, even before the Likud’s crafty manipulation of the disenfranchised Mizrahim through its grotesque vilification of the kibbutz and Begin’s distortion of historical memory, a severe internal shift in attitudes toward the individual and the collective had caused unprecedented turmoil within the kibbutz. And that interior metamorphosis bore unanticipated consequences, which later proved explosive in the drastically changed conditions of privatization that the surrounding society imposed.
Attentive readers of my study may conclude with some justification that, in the earliest kibbutz narratives, the individual is tested, whereas, in later decades, the collective itself seems to bear the burden of demonstrating its capacity to accommodate individual aspirations and even human weaknesses. By the 1960s, that shift seems to reflect the growing restlessness that swept through the movement. In his eminently worthy study of the post-1950s kibbutz, historian Alon Gan uncovers “the ideological roots that prepared the ground for the radical changes we are witnessing today” (43). Hence, amid the plethora of critical external transformations and pressures described by many kibbutz economists and sociologists, there also emerged the sharply divergent sensibility of the young kibbutzniks themselves. At a kibbutz youth conference held by the Ihud Movement in 1971, a member from Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra spoke of the need to satisfy the aspirations of members of a new generation no longer content to spend their entire lives working in a cowshed: “Until now it was customary to adapt the wishes of the people to the needs of the kibbutz, and they were dominant. This was usually accepted without opposition. But now the younger generation is promoting a new approach, calling for changes in the kibbutz structure that would provide more opportunities for the realization of a greater variety of aspirations in the occupational domain” (Gan 43). Writing in 1985 from the perspective of a much earlier generation, Zerubavel Gilead, who arrived at Kibbutz Ein Harod as an eleven-year-old in 1924, decries the
worldwide skepticism of the younger generation about the validity of traditional idealistic values, and the worldwide permissiveness that springs from the skepticism. Although the kibbutzim, and indeed the country as a whole, have generally been free of the conflicts between the generations that have afflicted most of the world since the 1960s and beyond, the spirit of rebellion against accepted values has expressed itself among our young in a new tendency to insist on what they call self-realization—meaning the realization of what they deem to be good for them individually, without much reference to what may be good for the community as a whole. . . .
This drive toward self-realization . . . has led to a significant increase in the number of azivot (departures). (Gilead and Krook 279)
Whether or not one bemoans the degradation of the traditional kibbutz, this critical shift clearly laid the foundation for the radical processes of privatization that followed the economic crisis of later years. In his elegantly succinct formulation of what ensued, Gan argues that “the idea of self-realization created an upheaval in kibbutz perceptions and discourse, diverting the focus from the individual as a means to the realization of the aims of society to society as a means to the realization of the individual’s potential” (43). As we will see in chapter 1, intimations of this monumental swing—from the primacy of the collective to the primacy of the individual—surface as a source of anxiety in some of the earliest literary narratives by kibbutz writers.
Gan’s exposition of the critical fundamentals underlying that notable shift is compelling:
The kibbutz movement preserved the collectivist ethos as its formative and guiding principle. While opposition to this ethos was already in the air in Israel, the kibbutz movement fought against this “destructive tendency.” The principles of the collectivist ethos were laid down by the pioneer generation. The 1948 generation made its own contribution by adopting the “culture of we,” consolidated as the [Palmach] soldiers . . . gathered around the bonfire. The kibbutz made the collective tasks a top priority and demanded that the members comply—that they sacrifice their private desires and aspirations to the needs and demands of the society. From the early sixties on, however, we can discern a growing tendency to divert the emphasis from “we” to “me.” (38–39)
Gan captures the individualistic departures from classic values, precedents leading to the subsequent dismantling of collectivization, in the starkest terms: “From the kibbutz as a meaningful way of life to the kibbutz as a home; from ‘exclamation marks’ to ‘question marks’; from ideological discourse to psychological parlance; from ‘we’ to ‘me’; from the collective to the self-realization ethos” (33–34). Whereas the founders conceived of their lives as a bold alternative to the debasing effects of capitalism, those born in the kibbutz regarded themselves as simply at “home,” a natural way of being that did not demand “any ideological justifications” (34). And that difference gave rise to all the questioning by kibbutz writers, culminating in the critical narratives of doubt and recrimination addressed in the later pages of this study. Self-consciously, the earlier writers recognized that if the kibbutz was somehow intended to be a permanent departure from or a radical discontinuity with recent Jewish history, that grandiose revolution failed (and as we will discover in chapter 1, sobering misgivings emerged even in portrayals by writers who were among the most fervent ideologues). Yet such was the mythic power of that revolution that its allure persists for many.
Imagining the Kibbutz aspires to fulfill what I have long felt to be an urgent need—to provide an altogether different perspective from that afforded by the long tradition of kibbutz research amassed by social scientists and other investigators of various spheres of kibbutz life (industry, agriculture, education, economics). Inevitably, such investigations have neglected the individual, that precious and intimate realm to which the writer’s imagination is invariably dedicated. Some of the most compelling works I address exhibit distinctly extranarrative lives that deeply resonate with their authors’ very personal entanglements with the history of the kibbutz, lives that ensure the humanizing provenance of their art. The relationship between literature, the rise of the kibbutz, and the individual is a fascinating story, one whose beginning Iris Milner astutely recounts:
The first decades of the kibbutz were marked by a consistent rise in its status as a leading, indispensable factor in the Israeli social and political milieu. Literature’s commitment to the support and reinforcement of this status is apparent not only in its treatment of the kibbutz setting . . . but also in the dramatic narratives that it presents. This is particularly evident in the historical novels that follow the development of specific kibbutzim through their initial stages. The chain of events these novels commonly recount starts from the very first steps of the communal group and leads to its successful establishment. The overt message thus relayed clearly relates to the advantages of kibbutz ideology and practices in “conquering” the land of Israel and in accomplishing the desired metamorphosis of the allegedly sick diasporic “Jewish” body into a vital, manly, cured Israeli one. (164)
Decades later, even though the kibbutz no longer held the lofty, commanding position Milner describes, I found myself as profoundly stirred by its values as countless other youths had been before me. So many of us were utterly enthralled by the kibbutz’s revolutionary aura: “Egalitarianism and equality . . . presented not only as just and moral social causes, but as crucial conditions for the realization of national, Zionist aspirations” (Milner 165). Accordingly, in the 1970s, I leaped at the opportunity to help establish a young kibbutz, Yahel, in the southern Arava Desert with other young people from Israel as well as the United States. And though every day seemed to present daunting challenges, both agricultural and social, in those halcyon and endless days, it seemed to many of us that everything was possible.
Some of us felt that we had found fulfillment beyond anything we had ever thought possible, and we could not imagine ever leaving, whereas others were soon discomfited by the lack of privacy for individuals or families or by the difficulty of adjusting to a life so far removed from urban pleasures. Years after moving away with his growing family, Ellis Shuman, a close friend with whom I once worked in the kibbutz cowshed and who had served for a time as kibbutz secretary, published a dozen stories in English examining the struggles of a variety of kibbutz members adapting to “new realities.” Today, his collection The Virtual Kibbutz: Stories from a Changing Society (2003) strikes me as a profoundly perceptive portrayal of new developments, one that also grapples with the themes that have long preoccupied the literary witnesses to the rise and perpetual transformation (or deterioration) of the kibbutz. Since my friend is both a genuine autodidact and a natural optimist, it is hardly surprising that his stories are largely hopeful. Even as they range across the sharp vicissitudes faced by ordinary individuals (the turmoil of youth, the crisis of aging) as well as society (relations between Arabs and Jews, the wrenching shift from socialism to capitalism), more often than not, they conclude on notes of reconciliation or gentle open-endedness, tending to affirm the kibbutz’s extraordinary ability to adapt. Yet, after experiencing thirteen years of communal life, I find myself more drawn to the few stories in his collection that are decidedly darker, more ambivalent in tone. These feature veteran kibbutzniks dreading changes that threaten the values they have spent lifetimes defending or former kibbutzniks looking in from the outside.
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