My Word: Kibbitzing on the kibbutz

My fondest kibbutz-period memories include sitting on the grass under the night sky with the rest of the garin picking up the words to Israeli classics as someone strummed a guitar.

Kibbutz Deganya Alef 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Kibbutz Deganya Alef)
Kibbutz Deganya Alef 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Kibbutz Deganya Alef)
‘If you don’t know a soldier and don’t have a connection, even a weak one, to a kibbutz, you’re not really Israeli,” somebody once told me.
Having joined an IDF Nahal garin on a kibbutz just six weeks after arriving in the country, I fortunately quickly met both criteria. And even now, more than 30 years later, I still think of Sa’ad as “my” kibbutz, although I admit the connection is tenuous. I also have more fun wandering down memory lane than I had stumbling along the kibbutz paths during my first nine months in the country, hit by the culture shock of coming from London to a Negev collective in a country which was still more at the starting up than the start-up stage.
Nonetheless, when a couple of years ago my son had to do a school project on a kibbutz – any kibbutz – I did what came naturally: I called my kibbutz abba and imma for help. That’s after all what families are for and, decades down the line, they of course were still happy to answer the call.
Along with the basic information on the kibbutz and its history, David and Sarah Jackson provided all the necessary answers to questions like “Would you recommend kibbutz life?” (“Definitely”) and “What do you like about living on kibbutz?” (“Waking up to the sound of birds and living among friends,” if I recall correctly).
As Kibbutz Deganya Alef celebrates its centennial this month, the country is awash with nostalgia – and, yes, it seems that almost everyone has some kind of link to a kibbutz. Although there is, kibbutzstyle, a not-so-hidden hierarchy: those who still live on the meshek (as it is known in most kibbutz movements); sons and daughters who left; those who served there in Nahal, or came for weekends through Garin Tzabar and other frameworks for lone soldiers; members’ relatives; hachshara youth programs; and downward to the volunteers.
NOWADAYS AS the kibbutzim change form and grow housing projects where once they grew agricultural products, you’d also have to add a special category for those residents, neither members nor complete outsiders, who live in the newly constructed neighborhoods. And for the truly tenuous connection, the sort you might seek if you’re desperate and your child needs to hand in a project with two days’ notice, there are those who spend their vacations in kibbutz hotels, guest rooms and luxury wooden cabins equipped with a Jacuzzi – a far cry from the primitive conditions of the early kibbutzim.
This being Israel, the collective memories come accompanied by songs from times gone by. The radio is playing the Ehud Manor-Matti Caspi collaboration “Tov li bakibbutz” (“It’s good on the kibbutz”). The Gevatron, Kibbutz Geva’s legendary ensemble formed with the state, is enjoying a revival, and I can’t help thinking of the seminal kibbutz song “Yesh arema shel hevre al hadesheh,” roughly translatable as “There’s a pile of friends on the lawn.” You can translate the words but conveying the concept is much harder.
Indeed, my fondest kibbutz-period memories include sitting on the grass under the night sky with the rest of the garin picking up the words to Israeli classics as someone strummed a guitar, regardless of the fact that some people had to get up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows or pick melons and carrots before it got too hot to work outdoors.
Times have definitely changed. When we sang of “Nahal going out into the fields” we knew its real meaning. Amid all the controversy about the use of foreign workers, I can’t understand why the country doesn’t again use the enthusiastic and cheap workforce of the IDF’s awkwardly named “Fighting Pioneering Youth.” I confess, however, I was a Nahal failure – suffering an excruciatingly dislocated shoulder as I fell from a tree while picking grapefruits when the garin was serving on an outpost on the Gilboa Mountains. Shortly after that I transferred out of the corps into the regular army. I knew I would never be a true kibbutznikit – I can’t ride a bike.
Today, most of the workers in the fields, vineyards and orchards seem to be from Thailand.
DURING A visit to Kibbutz Ortal last month I also saw how much dairy farming had changed. Inviting a Jerusalemite journalist to tour the dairy sounds the equivalent of suggesting a kibbutznik watch the traffic lights change during a trip to the big city, but it was fascinating. Ortal, way up on the Golan Heights, boasts the biggest computerized dairy in the Middle East.
Its 800 cows are milked in a huge, rotating dairy parlor, each animal stepping in and out of the revolving gates in one of the most orderly lines you’re likely to find in these parts. My kibbutz guide, Neta Niron, said she has seen even Dutch dairy-farmers open-mouthed at the sight, although it could be the hypnotic effect of watching a never-ending parade of cows going around.
A vegetarian, I think true progress will be finding a way to leave a calf with its mother and still have milk to spare, but I admit the cows I saw did not seem to be suffering.
Many of the discussions spurred by the Deganya celebrations are another look at that once-central kibbutz way of life – lina meshutefet, when the kids slept in communal children’s houses. Nearly all the talk has focused on what this did to the children’s psyche in their formative years, but I wonder how mothers coped with having to put even tiny babies into the communal facilities rather than having them sleep at home.
Although it suited the guiding principles of equality and collectivity, the communal sleeping arrangements in many cases seem to have be born out of necessity. Kibbutzim under threat of attack built the children’s homes first so the kids would be safer while the parents were still living in tents.
The kibbutz dining room – hadar ochel – has also changed. Once the best place to see the human food chain (and who was willing to sit next to the man who’d just come in from the refet still stinking of cows’ muck) in some kibbutzim, it is now optional rather than mandatory. On a trip last year to Kibbutz Ga’aton, home to the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, I noted that the dining room had been converted into a dance studio. And staying with friends on a small Negev kibbutz during Pessah, I was treated to a sight that would have been anathema to the pioneers – a member of the stridently secular Hashomer Hatza’ir movement, it nonetheless had a religious kashrut supervisor and Beduin kitchen workers.
Still there are certain features that unite all kibbutzim. Nobody has an address: Kids give you directions based on members’ names. There are plenty of dogs roaming around, and the children can tell you what each one is called. No kibbutz would be complete without its petty and sometimes major rivalries. This is why there are kibbutzim of the same name but in different movements affiliated with the Mapam and Mapai political parties of old, including Ashdot Ya’acov Ihud and Ashdot Ya’acov Meuhad and Ein Harod Ihud and Meuhad.
One former kibbutznikit told me the split was ideological, regarding support for or rejection of Stalin. I expect far more arguments were, in the past, the result of disagreements over the work roster and, today, the extent and effects of privatization. The neighbor’s grass, especially on a kibbutz, is always greener. The main thing is wherever you go, you’ll still find members prepared to sit down and sing together.
The writer is editor of the International Jerusalem Post.