Cultural exchange: Life on a Kibbutz

It’s the start of summer season here in Israel, which means busy-ness and some business on Hannaton, the kibbutz in which I live in the lower Galilee. In addition to the kibbutz, Hannaton is also home to a spiritual and educational center, as well as a guest house. If you were a member of USY or a Ramah-nik, and went on a summer Israel program any time after 1982, it’s extremely likely you slept in the Guest House, ate in the Hader Ochel (dining hall), and dropped an asimon in the orange pay phone that still exists just outside the dining hall.
Yesterday, an American group visited us at Hannaton. Not a group of youngsters, but a synagogue group from Massachusetts. Members of the kibbutz and kehillah (non-kibbutz members who like to hang out with kibbutz members…aka “kibbutz wannabes”) were asked to join the group in a potluck dinner in the Hader Ochel. Our family decided to join the fun.
The group from Massachusetts stopped at Hannaton just for dinner and for a taste of “the kibbutz experience.” The good news for them: At 6 pm, when their bus pulled up, the cow smell from the Refet was at its most pungent. The bad news: That’s probably as kibbutz as it got.
It’s amazing how Americans have no clue that kibbutz life, as we all imagine it, no longer truly exists in Israel. Please don’t misunderstand this statement as smugness. Until I was planning for my Aliyah, I wasn’t aware either that most kibbutzim went bankrupt and therefore had to privatize and give up a lot of their holdings and way of life. I also didn’t understand that most kibbutz members now work outside the kibbutz and get to keep their paychecks. I didn’t know that these new modern kibbutzim made way for family cars, and that the dining halls were often leased out to catering companies for outside groups, no longer for kibbutz member communal meals.
I guess the good thing about the poor job Israel does in Hasbara (PR) is that Americans still have this lovely fantasy of glorified kibbutz life. Which, by the way, after speaking to some adult Israelis who actually grew up on a kibbutz and spent their days in “the children’s house,” it wasn’t as glorious as I always imagined it to be.
After getting over their initial disappointment that the family they were sitting with spoke English with heavy New Jersey accents, our assigned visitors from Massachusetts asked us what it’s like to live on a kibbutz and what kind of work we did here. I had to explain to them, as I’ve explained to my son’s Hebrew school teacher in N.J. and to other friends Stateside, that only one or two people actually still really work on the kibbutz. I explained that choosing to live on a kibbutz these days is almost the same as choosing to live in a condo, but without the doorman.
That, of course, is a bit of an exaggeration, particularly on Hannaton, which is very much a vibrant, intentional and involved community – not at all like a condo, which sucks you dry with fees and insists that you keep your walls painted white.
Many kibbutzim, like ours, are going through a revival. And despite the fact that they no longer share socialistic intentions or lifestyle choices, they do share particular ideals and ideologies.  I told our visitors that we moved here to be in the countryside; to allow our kids the opportunity to experience nature and independence; and to become a part of a community that decided that spending time together as a community was important and valuable.  I explained to them the concept of pluralism and how relevant it is to modern Israeli society. I explained to them how unique Hannaton was -- that we have reform, conservative, orthodox, and secular Jews all living in the same community (a rarity outside the city!) Despite my heavy American accent, I think they got the picture. (Perhaps, Israel should hire me to handle hasbara. Anyone have connections in the ministries?)
For us, dinner with these guests was a lovely experience. I love that American groups visit us on Hannaton – that I can gush to them about how happy we are here. That I can be their visual example of what a new olim family looks like. I imagine that it’s often a surprise for them.
My husband and sons do not wear kippot. I sport my own head of suburban mom hair and Old Navy jeans. We look like secular American Jews, not the ones that first come to mind when you imagine the families moving here from the States.
When dinner was finished, our friend Ian, also a fairly new immigrant from New Jersey with also (sorry Ian) far from an Israeli accent, led the group on what I am sure was a lovely tour of Hannaton. I didn’t join them, as I was an audience member of an impromptu skit my and Ian’s kids were performing in the trash dump next to the Makolet.
(Yes, you read that right. Trash dump.)
As our kids sang the ABC song at the top of their lungs and danced around in the dirt with sticks, the kids that were part of the American group wandered over and observed.
Finally, I thought and laughed, these American visitors get a true taste of kibbutz life.
Who needs an Israeli accent when you’ve got impromptu skits in the trash dump and dancing around in the dirt with sticks?