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‘Inventing’ A Way Of Life, And A Nation With It

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
April 26, 2012

In 1945, shortly after my father was demobilized from the British army, my parents packed their bags and went to help found a kibbutz near Galilee, in the north of what was then Palestine. Along with a crew of other young Jewish socialists and refugees from European anti-Semitism, these two city dwellers set to work draining swamps and replacing them with fish ponds and fruit orchards, building collectives out of spartan shacks and collective dining halls, and raising their children in communal nurseries. (I was one of those children, but aside from the Stepford stare you can hardly tell.)

Unlike many women who quickly came to resent handing over their babies to be cared for in batches, my mother loved the extrovert life of the kibbutz, as well as the chore-free time it gave her with her two children. My father, a loner who liked to do things his way, never came to terms either with the stringent rules of the collective or the failure of those around him to observe them to the letter. Within six years, my parents left the kibbutz with us in tow, and in another four, stymied by the difficulties of survival in an emergent subsistence economy, they returned to London.

One of them, at least, regretted that decision forever. In the atomized wastes of suburban London, I feasted on my mother’s vivid memories of communal life. I’d go on to spend time on various kibbutzim between bouts of schooling, and in 1971, as a college graduate, strident egalitarian and young bride, I prepared to follow in my parents’ footsteps.

But when it came to the crunch, I balked, realizing that the kibbutz — a radical reorganization of the family designed to spring women from their traditional roles, yet which employed them primarily as cooks, laundry workers and preschool teachers — was no place for an eggheaded city girl with vaguely artsy ambitions. Remembering my previous sojourns, I also had to admit that the scrupulously egalitarian social arrangements of which I so approved had on a daily basis bored me silly. In theory, utopia is thrilling; in practice, it can be a recipe for monotony.

Those dilemmas, among many others, are explored in Inventing Our Life, Toby Perl Freilich’s sympathetic but probing account of the rise, fall and rebirth of a movement that defined the early character of the fledgling state of Israel. Disproportionate to its numbers (only 5 percent of the rapidly growing nation of immigrants), the kibbutz movement — founded by fugitives from Eastern European pogroms but devoted to Soviet principles of absolute equality — fed the country’s political and military elites, and shaped its commitment to democratic socialism. It was in the kibbutz, dedicated to nature, agriculture and self-reliance, that the muscular New Jew rose from the ashes of the Jew as a helpless victim of persecution.

Until, that is, those same New Jews, weary of regimented living and restless for adventure, left the kibbutz in droves to travel the world, then embraced the vital, chaotic and robustly capitalist Israel that emerged in the 1980s. They broke their parents’ hearts — and by the very Darwinian principles it sought to overcome, the kibbutz had to adapt, to reinvent itself again, or go under.

Freilich, who made the similarly excellent 2003 documentary Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers, comes to her subject with a generous curiosity and a gift for digging beneath the usual debates about socialism vs. capitalism. Instead, Inventing Our Life hosts a conversation about a utopian dream as it encounters the realities of social change and human limitation. One grizzled founding father tells of having commandeered the abandoned houses of fleeing Arab villagers in order to build his paradise on earth. “It was difficult,” he says, apparently only half aware of the way that act violated his commitment to social justice. “But we took it.”

In addition to the older kibbutzniks who remain committed to the first principles of collective living, Freilich finds youngsters who returned or joined the kibbutz on their own terms, reshaping it in ways that nurtured their desire for an ethical and affluent life they could control themselves. She tracks down a philosopher and a poet who remember their kibbutz childhoods with affection tempered by frustration at the enforced conformity, and in some cases the trauma of being ridiculed merely for straying from the norm.

Today there are 270 kibbutzim in Israel. Most have industrialized and privatized; as one older member observes wryly in the film, “The only purely socialist kibbutzim are the rich ones.” Some kibbutz members own stock options and second homes. Cash-strapped kibbutzim have hired privatization consultants and abandoned strict income equality in favor of differential pay for different work. Only a handful still raise their kids communally; most have closed their dining halls.

Judged by the ideological terms on which it was founded, you could say the kibbutz experiment has failed. I, for one, could never have made a permanent home there. Yet the sense of community was real, and those cavernous dining halls supply some of the happiest memories of my youth. You can keep your rock-concert reminiscences: For me, there was nothing finer than Shabbat dinner with several hundred of my close family, dressed in white with flowers on the tables, arms linked as we sang for our supper. (Recommended) [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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