Neeman, Yael. “We Were The Future: A Memoir of the Kibbutz”, translated by Sondra Silverston, The Overlook Press. 2016.
Memories of Kibbutz
I am surprised that we have not seen much written about the kibbutz now that so many have privatized and as a person who spent many years on kibbutz, I am always interested to hear what others have to say. In the history of Israel, there is little that can come close to the stories of kibbutzim; the collective settlements have been written about extensively over the years.
The kibbutz was a radical Jewish experiment in communal living, social justice, economic egalitarianism, and the reorganization of family life. Indeed, perhaps the most radical innovation of all was the “children’s house” to which the youngest kibbutzniks were taken, often straight from the delivery room, to be raised in common—if also in close proximity to their parents, whom they would see for a couple of hours a day.
The kibbutz has been the subject of many sociological studies, and has been praised as the only example in world history of entire communities attempting, voluntarily, to live in total equality. Everything sounded so good for a long time but then we began to hear about the dark sides of the kibbutz, which has been criticized in later years, mainly by children who were raised in these communities and who now see it “as an institution which victimized its offspring for the sake of ideology”.
Yael Neeman was a child of the kibbutz and she draws on the collective memory of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who grew up in a kibbutz during their height and who now intimately share their memories with her. While this is Neeman ‘s personal account of growing up in the kibbutz movement; it is also an extremely honest examination of the dangers of pioneering and a new lens through which to see the history of Israel.
Neeman was born in 1960 in Kibbutz Yehiam, which when first settled in the 1940s seemed to be a particularly vulnerable and nonarable piece of land. The author describes not only her own experiences of growing up in kibbutz culture, but also the violent and activist story behind the concept. Because the idea of kibbutz is quite socialist, it has no connection to religion which quite simply means secular living. The founders were dedicated to communal living and this included the group rearing of all children. Neeman, like the other children on the kibbutz, only saw her parents for just under two hours per day. However, it is important to understand that each kibbutz decided as to how its children were raised and while this was the way that Neemen and many other children were raised, it varied from settlement to settlement. On the kibbutz where I lived and worked, the children slept together but spent their afternoons and early evenings with their parents until it was ultimately decided that the family unit remained complete and children and parents began to live together.
Neeman’s group did everything together, from sleeping to showering, without regard for gender or individuality. In her early memories she writes about the violence into which the kibbutz was born and the threat under which it still lived throughout Neeman’s childhood. Kibbutz Yehiam is located near the Lebanese border and beginning in 1948, a lot of time was spent defending sieges by the Arab Liberation Army and lack of food and water were constant threats. Later and only through backbreaking labor were the kibbutz members able to reclaim the land from its original rockiness and thereby use it to raise bananas and other foods.
When she was twelve, Neeman left the kibbutz and went to a collective educational institution and it is clear that the experiment in collective education left the children with great emotional and social gaps. I got the impression that she is still struggling to understand how this unusual upbringing shaped and affected her.
Neeman’s experience was one that was common to many others and is no longer. With Neeman’s focus is on the children, and in particular on her own childhood, we get different look at kibbutz and it will anger readers about the way children were raised. However, she seems to be able bypass hypercriticism and nostalgia by also writing about the good times the children had and she writes with compassion not only toward the children but also toward the parents, many of whom were Holocaust survivors and veterans of the brutal fighting at Yehiam during Israel’s war of independence.
Life on the kibbutz was a life of regimentation not only for adults but for children as well: only two kinds of shoes allowed; no individual toys; morning wake-ups by nannies, exactly one hour and fifty minutes a day with one’s biological family. Yes this was regimentation but it was born out of a great romance and the dream of a New Man, a New Jew who was to be the vanguard of humanity who would march toward equality and justice.
Yehiam was totally secular and it was understood that kibbutz doctrine and its gospel of labor were, for all intents and purposes, God and a very harsh one at that. Kibbutz workers were always working and always finding new things to work at. Many felt that they could not live up to the doctrine but they seemed to love trying. The output had no end, for initiative there were always more and more things to do. Many believed completely in asking nothing for oneself, seeking only consideration, with no demands: “to each according to his need.” But who knows what need truly is, it has no bound or limit. Because the doctrine was never satisfied, there were feelings of guilt. I lived on kibbutz but worked off which meant that my salary went straight to the kibbutz and as we know, an academic salary dies not change much during one’s tenure. However, on the kibbutz was the strongest work ethic I have ever seen. People who should have been enjoying their golden years continued to work — they felt obligated to the group and there were many times that kibbutzniks who should have been home in bed nursing an ailment were working as if they felt fine. Neeman sees the ideological bureaucracy that tried to squeeze every living moment into the service of the revolution as those that frightened the kibbutz youngsters. There was a large gulf that separated the worlds of parents and children who were living in the exact same time and place and who had the same longings for love, human connection, and meaning
Yet we also sense her love of place and its people and we find it in her descriptions of the gardens, the fields, the workshops, the kibbutz buildings: each the product of backbreaking toil. We are very aware of her respect for the members’ achievements in war, settlement, agriculture, community building, cultural creativity, and sheer stubborn life force.
What we do not get are the details of the collapse of the kibbutz’s ideological foundations. The focus is on her own collapse and how after she first left the kibbutz it was hard to understand how to live any other way. The group had simply been a means to realize the creativity of each one, and realize socialism. The point was not to create identical people, but to create an equality of opportunity that would bring the most out of each one in the group. Perhaps this is why those who come to kibbutz from the West do so well—it is their decision to live for the group. One of the main intentions of the kibbutz was “the enabling of each individual to flourish through a life with the larger whole”. The classical kibbutz foundered on the laws of economics and in both its successes and its failures it bequeathed a larger and richer sense of human possibility. Even though its arrangements often ran counter to certain basic human needs, the kibbutz answered the need of feeling one’s own house as a room in some greater, all-embracing structure where he/she is at home, and “at the same time feels that the other inhabitants with whom he lives and works are all acknowledging and confirming his/her individual existence.”