“Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood” by Rachel Biale— Those Were the Days

Biale, Rachel. “Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood”, Mandel Vilar, 2020.

Those Were the Days

Amos Lassen

“Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood” is Rachel Biale’smemoir made up of linked stories about growing up on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1950s and 60s. It was a time when children spent most of their time in a children’s House. 

The memoir begins with a prologue from her mother’s diaries and from of Rachel Biale’s mother and from letters her parents exchanged when her father served in the British army. She describes what her parents experienced when they escaped from Eastern Europe and went to Israel. They fled from the Nazis in Prague in 1939, spent five years on dangerous sea voyages and were interred i in British refugee camps. Yet even with this, her parents maintained their socialist and Zionist value and brought them to the kibbutz. 

Rachel’s parents felt that was nowhere that could be the kind of utopian society they longed to see and decided to live on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin. Her earlies memories are from when she was three-years-old and a member of the children’s society and for a god part of the book, the focus is her childhood years. She also writes about the lives of the adult kibbutz members, including Holocaust survivors. 

Kfar Ruppin is in the valley of the nearby Jordan River and Biale was there during an important time in the history of Israel—the 1950s and ‘60s. The kibbutz was founded in 1938 by German Jews and Czechs who fled the German occupation, and sat 800 feet below sea level.

Biale’s memories look at how profoundly kibbutz life and the State of Israel has changed. We seehow her kibbutz childhood influenced the woman she became. Children on the kibbutz were expected to contribute to the broader community. In third grade, Biale was already in charge of a group of dairy cows. Above all we see her family’s commitment to build the young Jewish state at a central moment in Israel’s history.

Many things have changed since then. One of the most significant changed was taking down the children’s houses in the 70s and 80s. Many felt to do this was to change the original concept of the kibbutz experience which was built on a work ethic. It altered what childhood looks like. The biggest changed came in the 90s with the privatization process. Today, the kibbutz has become a much more diverse and inclusive community. The rigid, ideological, rather constraining system is no longer there, and there is a lot more freedom and independence. People  now have greater room to do as they please within the community’s parameters, yet everybody shares space, a communal social and cultural life, and major decisions.

The political scene in Israel has also changed greatly. There was a time, when I loved on kibbutz in Israel that the country was dominated by the Labor Party, which backed the kibbutz movement. When the right wing under Menachem Begin came to power, this changed and a very strong anti-kibbutz sentiment used by Begin and subsequent right-wing party leaders rallied their supporters. However, it was the Six-Day War was a disastrous victory that was responsible for the greatest changes in the country.

Regarding the settlements, Biale says that settling in the Golan seemed like it was the extension of the early kibbutzim ideology of settling into “empty areas.” However, these were not “empty areas”. What seemed to be the continuation of the kibbutz idealism, of creating kibbutzim and developing agriculture was basically co-opted and abducted by the extreme right wing in the project of settlements in the West Bank.

Biale felt it was important to write about the people who created “this utopian, strange community and the extreme danger they lived through to give her an idyllic, safe, healthy childhood.” They were able to keep part of their inner world and the cultural and cosmopolitan world of Europe. They fled their countries and abandoned their families in order to survive, yet they remained emotionally connected to their European childhoods. They came from highly educated cultured families, and they managed to sustain that intellectual and cultural world.  Even while on the banks of the Jordan River, they always remained Europeans.

Rachel’s family eventually came to live in America where she had her political awakening about Israel and the occupation. She began sto think about Israelis in relation to Palestinians and the social discrimination against Mizrahi and North African Jews. After the army, she decided I to return to the United States for college and she married an American Jew thus changing her life. Nonetheless we see the influence growing up on the kibbutz had on her and we are lucky to be able to read about it.

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