We Were the Future

By Yehudah Mirsky
Thursday, June 2, 2011

Few uniquely Israeli institutions have ever held the world's imagination like the kibbutz: a radical Jewish experiment in communal living, social justice, economic egalitarianism, and the reorganization of family life. Indeed, perhaps the most radical innovation of all was the "children's house" (beit y'ladim), to which the youngest kibbutzniks were taken, often straight from the delivery room, to be raised in common—if also in close proximity to their parents, whom they would see for a couple of hours a day.

A decade and a half ago, the last kibbutz to maintain this strange—some would say inhuman—practice finally restored its children to their families for the night. But what was it like to grow up in that now discarded way? In We Were the Future, a new and extraordinarily affecting Hebrew-language book, the writer and editor Yael Ne'eman, tells the story.

Ne'eman's volume joins several other kibbutz memoirs that have cast a steady gaze on the movement and on the ideologies that once held so many in their grip and today seem like messages from another planet. Carmit Gai's Journey to Yad Hannah (1992) relates the catastrophic dissensions over the Soviet Union and Stalin that tore apart the kibbutz of her childhood. Last year's award-winning Going Home, by Assaf Inbari, traces the story of his own kibbutz, Afikim, from its hopeful beginnings to its and socialism's joint collapse.

Ne'eman's focus is on the children, and in particular on her own childhood (she was born in 1960) growing up on Kibbutz Yehiam in the western Galilee. It is hard to read this book without being angered and mortified by the kibbutz method of child-rearing. And yet Ne'eman, avoiding the twinned distortions of hypercriticism and nostalgia, manages to tell a story that is also full of delights. Above all, she is compassionate not only toward the children but also toward the parents, many of whom were Holocaust survivors and veterans of the brutal fighting at Yehiam during Israel's war of independence. As if that were not enough, they were then called upon to sacrifice parenthood's intimacies as well as the ability to provide for those of their children who chose to leave the community—as, with abundant feelings of guilt, Ne'eman herself would do in her early twenties.

For the children, life on the kibbutz was a life of regimentation: only two kinds of shoes allowed; no individual toys; morning wake-ups by nannies clapping and exclaiming, "Good morning, children, three soldiers killed along the Suez Canal last night! Time to get up!"; exactly one hour and fifty minutes a day with one's biological family.

This regimentation was born of a great romance, the dream of a New Man, a New Jew, the vanguard of humanity in its long but sure march to equality and justice. Ne'eman captures both the regimentation and the romance in a dreamy, associative, dry style that forms an exquisite counterpoint to both, as well as to what she describes as the blind, dreary, "all-explaining causality" of kibbutz ideology. 

Her kibbutz was, like most, utterly secular. Though Ne'eman doesn't say so in as many words, kibbutz doctrine and its gospel of labor were, for all intents and purposes, God—and a harsh one at that:

We felt that we were unworthy of the doctrine. The output had no end, for initiative could always find more and more things to do. . . . We failed to satisfy the doctrine, mute and gentle as it seemed, asking nothing for itself, seeking only considerateness, with no demands: "to each according to his need." But who knows what need truly is, it has no bound or limit. Our doctrine was never satisfied. We felt guilty.

None too surprisingly, those who come off worst in Ne'eman's telling are the ideological bureaucrats. Their efforts to squeeze every living moment into the service of the revolution left the kibbutz youngsters searching and frightened, and, in the parentless precinct of the children's house, cast back on their own devices. Powerfully she evokes what it meant to grow up in such circumstances: in the vast chasm separating the worlds of parents and children living in the exact same time and place, in the longings for love, human connection, and meaning that at once animated and did battle against the pretensions of ideology. 

This life in the shadow of a great abstraction finds an echo in Ne'eman's somewhat disembodied voice and in the personas of many of her characters, who don't quite come alive as much as they pass along or through the stages of her life. And yet her love of the place and its people is unmistakably on display in her tender depictions of the gardens, the fields, the workshops, the kibbutz buildings: each the product of back-breaking toil. So, too, is her respect for the members' achievements in war, settlement, agriculture, community building, cultural creativity, and sheer stubborn life force. 

Unlike Inbari, Ne'eman doesn't detail the collapse of the kibbutz's ideological foundations, although she does ruefully take note at the outset of what "we didn't know": namely, that "in 1960 we were born to a star whose light had long died." For the most part, she focuses instead on her own collapse—her incapacity, when she first left the kibbutz, to grasp how it was possible to live any other way. This realization, she says "split me."  And yet one may be forgiven for speculating that it is also what prompted and even enabled her to leave.

How so? "The group," Ne'eman writes, "was all of time and all of space":

The group was not a class and study was not the point, they were only a means. Sport, music, hikes, scouting, labor—all were additional means to realize the creativity of each one, and realize socialism. Each helped the other where he was weak. The point was not to create identical people, but to create an equality of opportunity that would grow the most out of each one in the group.

In other words, it may be that in leaving the kibbutz, Yael Ne'eman fulfilled at least some of the core intentions of the institution's founders—the enabling of each individual to flourish through a life with the larger whole.

Though the classical kibbutz foundered on the laws of economics, in both its successes and its failures it bequeathed a larger and richer sense of human possibility. And while its arrangements ran counter to certain basic human needs, they did answer to another need—the need, as Martin Buber put it, "of man to feel his own house as a room in some greater, all-embracing structure in which he is at home, to feel that the other inhabitants of it with whom he lives and works are all acknowledging and confirming his individual existence." There is a certain comfort in that thought.

Yehudah Mirsky, a contributing writer for Jewish Ideas Daily, will be on leave for the next three months working on a book about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook for Yale's "Jewish Lives" series.

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/wewerethefuture

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