When the Kibbutz Was A Kibbutz

Categories: Israel
By Amnon Shamosh

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, every kibbutz had a Dining Hall to nourish both the body and the soul. And even without an Ark for Torah Scrolls it was redolent of sanctity and faith.  Three times a day we sat there around our own Shulhan Arukh (which was not  the 16th century “Prepared Table” of Jewish religious law.) We took our meals there, and it served as our social, cultural, spiritual and ritual center. Community singing that rose to the heavens was heard there every Friday and holiday eve.  If neither “Eli, Eli Shmah Koli” (My God, my God, hear my voice) nor Hannah Senesh’  “Eli Eli, may these things never end: the sand and the sea, the murmuring of the waters, thunder of the heavens and man’s prayer” was not prayer then I don’t know prayer.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, every Sabbath eve and on all festive occasions the Dining Hall floor shook from the hora and an entire repertoire of folk dances.  During the couple dances we drew spiritual elevation from the earthly momentum of rising skirts.  Perspiration dropped into our Russian embroidered shirts that had been pressed in the communal laundry in honor of the Sabbath.  This Sabbath-sweat differed from the smell of pioneers after a hard day clearing stones in the fields or milking cows.  One couple after another stopped dancing and unobtrusively went out into the moonlit night. Since our crowded housing created an imposed togetherness, the couples had no privacy so they made their way to the hay loft. Try explaining to their grandchildren what “to the hay loft” betokened.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, it had many, many social reformers from all exiles and all outlooks.  We even had a shoemaker from the nearby maabara  immigrant camp who reformed shoes.  After a few years he died.  Meanwhile the social reformers became reformers o f our own newly devised social outlooks and forms.  They enacted bylaws for weddings, bylaws for temporary visitors, and a plethora of bylaws – both odd and necessary – that hobbled members’ feet and imprisoned their spirit.  Mass overcame essence, it limited freedom and constricted horizons.  They called it privatization and it was written by lawyers.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz it had extreme ideological streams that were reflected in the conflicting outlooks of their members. There were three movements led by archbishops and synods.  One pair of bishops was Meir Ya’ari and Yaakov Hazan of Kibbutz Artzi who were opposed by Tabenkin, Zisling and Ben Aharon of Kibbutz HaMeuchad.  Slightly less authority was wielded by Lavon and Rotenstreich in Ichud HaKvutzot.  How right history was when it named the country’s airport for Ben Gurion for he soared above all of them.  At that altitude the divisions appeared artificial even laughable:  whereas history will remember the divisiveness and hair splitting politicians as mere footnotes.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz I was pleased and proud that I had chosen it as my way of life. There were many like me. A sense of mission lifted our spirits, even as our strength diminished.  We made many foolish errors; undoubtedly innocent. Whoever left a kibbutz remained bound by invisible ties to its pulsating heartbeat and still believed in a better, more just and humane world.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, we used to say: “ein davar”, never mind, we don’t have a pool but we have a living stream to splash in.  The food is offal but on Shabbat we’ll get chicken.  Never mind, next year will be better. Until one day we awoke and found that there was no Davar newspaper and no Al Hamishmar newspaper.  No ideology and no values

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, on Saturdays and holidays during the fruit harvest we got up before dawn feeling good despite tiredness and despite losing a day of rest spent with the children . The togetherness and common effort reminded me of waking early for Slichot prayers in my childhood.  We regarded the harvest as a holy service.  The seeming desecration of the Shabbat was not regarded as such by the builders of the homeland who later got their “Sabbaths” back, adding them to their annual vacation days.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, we lay on the lawn looking up at the star studded sky and at the bare arms of the young women in the hashlama group that had come to re-enforce the kibbutz.  Together we ate watermelons, seeds-and-all, singing sentimental songs to the Volga and the Danube accompanied by the murmuring of the nearby Hatzbani stream. “How Beautiful Are the Nights of Canaan.” Beautiful, too, were the girls with their short pants. How beautiful we were in our own eyes.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz there were a number of elected office holders, there was a domestic Mazkir , the “mayor”), an external Mazkir who was the treasurer, and a Purchaser  who spent all week in the big city buying supplies for the agricultural branches and for the members: from farming machinery to seeds to women’s bras and children’s socks.  And the Purchaser’s son got a rooster on a stick. Red and sweet.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz it had a small notions store free for all members. It had toothbrushes, soap and shoelaces, cigarettes, chocolate and candy, brooms and condoms.  Every one got what they needed.  The weekly General  Meeting debated long hours on the definition of “needs” and their limitations For instance Shloimaleh lost a comb every week at work in the fish ponds.  Would it be proper to limit him without compromising the value of “to each according to his needs”? The meetings debated this question seriously until Shloimaleh grew bald.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz there was a communal shower that had a corrugated sheet metal partition, with holes between the women’s and men’s sides.  Both were fully exposed and not only physically: also how they undressed, hung their clothes, soaped up, rubbed  a towel on their backs or pounced on a pair of rare wooden clogs thus exposing to the other side the unmediated psyche of  the pioneers. For instance, when we were in the shower of kibbutz Kfar Giladi we waited expectantly to step into the wet clogs of the veterans of “Hashomer”, that first defense organization founded in Palestine in 1909.  We imitated how they wiped their backs and crotch.  And we wiped our ears thoroughly not to miss a word of the stories they told of their exploits.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz it made its fatal mistake on two issues: the tragic split that stemmed from political extremism coupled with inflexibility in the absorption of the mass Aliya of those who came from Arabic speaking lands.  The madness and absurdity in the split went so far as to divide families and to cause kibbutz members to come to blows. The following example illustrates one such missed opportunity. An important kibbutz in the Jezriel Valley took in a large group of children from Syria who had immigrated before their parents.  The kibbutz assigned them its best educators and laid on many special treats.  But in unthinking jest the members called the newcomers “barchash”, horrific flying gnats.  Anyone who has worked in the fields in summer knows how insufferable and maddening and hateful these tiny insects can be.  And despite talking and singing in Arabic, the young immigrants were sensitive and perceptive enough to realize that with the coolness of winter the barchash disappeared.  Immigrants from the East found neither the kinship, tradition, nor compassion so essential to them.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, there was a General Meeting every Saturday night.  The main speakers had permanent seats and fixed opinions.  Differences of opinion was the name of the game.  These led to barbs and insults and profanity.  The General Meeting turned into a shouting match of expletives.  What did we discuss?  What didn’t we discuss?  Everything from a tractor, to a comb, to a bathtub.  From permission to go abroad, to attending gardening courses or an extension course for a kindergarten teacher. The “evil inclination” had a field day.  The General Meeting, the vaunted basis for kibbutz democracy, declined from year to year and foretold further declines.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, an umbrella was an out-and-out urban bourgeois accessory.  A jacket and tie were for Purim costumes.  All the children wore high-shoes.   Oxfords were for city folk.  Silk stockings were hidden deep in the closet. Cosmetics was a dirty word, with the accent on “cuss”.  Dyeing one’s hair was worse that a dyed-in-the-wool hypocrite. Four dress shirts for the (veteran) member demonstrated that “each would receive according to his needs.”   A bank account was only for the Treasurer and the Purchaser.  We didn’t lack for anything.  And even the daily “Davar” newspaper was delivered every morning, so we could read about yesterday’s world.  The old world, where everyone went around unashamed with money in their wallets

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, there weren’t air conditioners for the melting heat, but there was a warm atmosphere – a melting pot of diasporas.  There wasn’t a cosmetician but there was beauty.  The nurse in the infirmary – a kibbutz member, of course – would accompany each patient to the hospital, and bring a warm meal and smile to the bed-ridden patient at home.  We knew every child by name, his good points and bad; we knew the regular guests, relatives of every member.  If anything we knew each other too well.  The motto was never tell a member everything you think about him.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, socialism was the name of the game.  This was the most successful socialist experiment of the 20th century, maybe of all time:  a voluntary, apolitical, practical, ordinary socialism that was in line with the morality of the prophets and brought wellbeing and satisfaction to tens of thousands of kibbutz members for a hundred years.  Many erred seeing it as the fulfillment of the ideas of the Communist revolution whereas, in fact, it tried to fulfill the ideas of the French revolution:  Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.  Of necessity, zealous pursuit of equality stifled freedom, and the tension between the two impacted on brotherhood.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, it had pretensions to change man’s nature.  The naive assumption – a reverse paraphrase of Genesis 8:21 – was that the inclination of man’s heart is inherently good.  One only had to create a suitable environment around a person and give the children a quality education.  A hundred years have passed in a few hundred kibbutzim, and it seems that actually it was man’s nature that changed the Kibbutz.  Even God couldn’t change man’s nature and keep him in the Garden of Eden.  See the Book of Books.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, my house was visited by many authors from around the world, from Kirghiz to China, all the way to Australia and Argentina.  Many of them asked a question I found hard to answer.  How is it that every morning thousands of people get up in hundreds of kibbutzim and go out to work, without supervision, without reward, without threat of punishment?  They work hard willingly every day with purpose and enthusiasm, out of commitment to an idea.  What instills a sense of responsibility in them, the desire to do what they were assigned to do?  What does a kibbutz do about those who stay in bed or go out for a hike instead of going to work?  I answered that we don’t have anyone like that and saw doubt in their eyes.  I added, and if there were to be too many like that, there couldn’t be a kibbutz.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, it was an interesting experiment of establishing a secular Jewish culture, comprehensive and enriching ..  This historic challenge, so vital for a country with a majority of secular citizens, was sidelined leaving us with a heavy sigh in our hearts, together with the entire kibbutz movement.  A whole generation grew up on the kibbutz Pesach Seder, on the harvest ceremony of the Omer, on the festive pageant bringing in the first fruits on Shavuot, on the plantings of Tu B’Shvat, and on the communal, enthusiastic Kabbalat Shabbat celebration.  But it didn’t know how to transmit any of this.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, education of the younger generation held the highest priority.  The goal was that the children wouldn’t rebel, but would continue on the path that we had started.  Communal education demonstrated an exaggerated self-confidence.  Motivated by the need to have women in the kibbutz work “productively”, children’s houses with communal sleeping arrangements were built.  Theories were propounded about the advantages of the system and the belief that if children lived,   studied, and grew up together, they would adjust and love the communal life.  But the communal sleeping arrangements broke down under the pressure of the mothers and the children who grew up in them.  The following generation didn’t follow.  Both children of the kibbutz and its proponents integrated very well indeed into the environing society.  Personal ambitions that had been frustrated in the kibbutz rose to the fore in the army.  Perhaps in the arts and in academic studies as well.  The kibbutz valued mediocrity and promoted it.

When the kibbutz was a Kibbutz, I wrote a book, “A Kibbutz is a Kibbutz is a Kibbutz.”  The title was based on Gertrude Stein’s famous saying, “A rose is a rose is a rose.”  I compared the kibbutz to a rose, beautiful, colorful, sweet-smelling, and prickly.  I agreed with Stein’s assertion that no verbal definition could equal the fullness of its beauty and uniqueness to anyone who had not seen it, to anyone who had not lived it. As a rose, the kibbutz drank from the blessed spring of socialist Zionism.  In the new century it makes do with sewage water.  Will it live?  Will it flourish?  For another hundred years?  And perhaps more.  “Our hope is not yet lost.”

Everything I’ve said up to now is manifestly the result of subjective thinking and insights.  It was hard for me to articulate them.  I would be happy if there were people, here and there, who would agree with me.  I would be gratified if my words raise a smile, a longing, a sigh or a hope.
Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch, June 2009
Translation: Trudy Greener and Amnon Hadary

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3 Responses to When the Kibbutz Was A Kibbutz

  1. nell mc cafferty says:

    dear amnion, i was in kibbutz maay’yan baruch in 1967 , with y volunteer friend ann o’donnell, also from ireland.i regret to say that i do not remember you, and probably you don’t remember me: we worked in the small orchard with John, and in the big orchard with Sarah. Sarah had a number tattooed on her arm, but it was not allowed to talk about that. i knew Peggy, aunt of aviva from america, and peggy’s companion Ralph who had lost one leg in the 1948 war. My godparents were John and his wife, whose name i forget( I am 69 now!) While there, a new arrival from south africa was hannah with her parents and her father almost immediately had a stroke – that gave me my first insight into how the young kibbutz had never had to cope with illness or old age; as did the affair between peggy and the married ralph, which shook the community. If you can give me any information about the people named here, i would be deeply grateful. I Have ordered your book ” A kibbutz is a kibbutz is a kibbutz” from the library. Thank you. nell mc cafferty (I’m an author myself, now)

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