Monday, August 8, 2016

Midwest Meets Mideast #8: The Socialist Agenda

The kibbutz is a uniquely Israeli institution. For those of you not in the know, the kibbutz is a rural socialist collective community in which members work together, farm together, live together, protect each other, and embrace the socialist philosophy, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The first kibbutz (Degania) was established in 1909, nearly 40 years before the establishment of the State of Israel. Currently, around 270 are scattered throughout the country.

The kibbutz was both an ideological and practical solution for Jewish pioneers trying to reclaim their ancestral home. Ideologically, Eastern European Jews embraced a socialist doctrine where Jews looked out for one other, particularly after centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust. Practically, the kibbutz was the most effective way of farming a desolate land, protecting each other from unfriendly neighbors, building a community of shared values, and raising and educating a new generation.

A couple of months ago, I found myself explaining kibbutzim to my children. Although I assume they must have learned SOMETHING about Israeli history in Hebrew school, apparently the kibbutz movement got short shrift in their studies. How disappointing. When I was a kid, the kibbutz was the most fascinating part of Israel. I could scarcely imagine a place where people all worked together to farm bananas, oranges, dates, almonds, and other exotic non-Midwestern crops; where children lived together in a separate house and only saw their parents for 4-6 hours a day; where everyone shared meals in a central location, just like at summer camp; where hard work was not only expected of everyone, but was considered a virtue. These were all foreign concepts to me.

Certainly, much has changed in the kibbutz movement over the years. Fewer Israelis embrace the kibbutz, preferring a more capitalistic lifestyle. Children in the kibbutzim now live at home and are raised by their parents. Salaries in the kibbutzim are often commensurate with experience and level of training, not based solely on need. And the primarily agricultural nature of the kibbutz has shifted to a much more industrial model. However, at its heart, the kibbutz still represents the soul of the country. The belief that all your countrymen are your family is what has kept Israel alive and kicking for 68 years. It is an amazingly seductive philosophy.

In fact, when I was 12, my parents, embracing this thinking, formed a family co-op with another family in Indiana. I suppose to them the concept was not far-fetched. My father was raised by socialist Workman’s Circle parents. Both of my parents earned their PhDs in California in the late 60s, and therefore were not strangers to non-traditional family structures. The adults in the other family were modern-thinking academics who had lived in Israel for many years and seen the kibbutzim first hand. To all of the adults in the equation, merging the families into a single household of four adults and four children for four years made perfect sense. Housing, food expenses, and childcare (particularly babysitting) became much more manageable. And as strange as this arrangement seemed to their own parents, to their friends, and frankly to the Indiana community as a whole, all members of the co-op have remained incredibly close to each other, even after our two families went our separate ways. Our relationship is non-traditional, but they remain misphacha (“family”) in every single way, except by blood.

When we were planning our trip to Israel, I desperately wanted to show my children a kibbutz up close and personal. Luckily, I had re-established Facebook ties with Yonat, the daughter of a “shaliach” (Israeli emissary) who had been assigned to South Bend, Indiana, when I was a lad. The fact that I had not seen Yonat in 30 years didn’t make no never mind. Remember, this is Israel. We are all mishpacha.

So, on Monday July 11, we piled into our rental SUV and drove from Haifa to Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, located in the beautiful western Jezreel valley in northern Israel. Yonat met us once we announced ourselves at the gate. Naturally, she looked fit, trim, and gorgeous, as one would expect from a kibbutznik who had become a physical therapist after a lifetime of activity and hard work. Naturally, I did not look fit and trim, as one would expect from an office-bound Midwesterner.

True to Israeli form, she and her family showed us amazing hospitality, taking us on a tour of the kibbutz, taking us to the “chadar ochel” (dining room) for lunch, taking us all back to their house for dessert and schmoozing, and eventually taking us to the kibbutz swimming pool. In return, I brought her exotic spices from the United States: cajun spice blend, filĂ© powder, and BBQ rubs.

After all of the days of touring historical sites, the down-to-earth nature of the kibbutz fascinated my younger son. He asked question after question about the cow barn (which smelled horrible), about the cheese shop (which smelled, but not too horrible), about the fresh lychees (which smelled and tasted wonderful), and about the childcare center (whose smell I am sure varies from day to day). My older son was interested in the memorial overlooking the kibbutz, a stone structure listing the names of the kibbutz members who had fallen during the Israeli wars or while serving in the army. Both boys however were perplexed by the dining hall. “You mean, you can take as much as you want?” I think they might have opted to stay and volunteer on the kibbutz right then and there if it weren’t for that whole hard work philosophy thing.

We ended the day with a relaxing swim in the community swimming pool. A bunch of grandmotherly types were organizing games for the young children. Realizing that Pugsley, my younger son, did not speak Hebrew, they bounced between Hebrew and English and immediately included him in the activities. I was impressed at how easily and naturally the elderly ladies played with the children. They were clearly equally comfortable with children they knew from birth as well as strange children they knew for all of 30 seconds. It was a beautiful example of Israeli hospitality, Israeli kindness, and Israeli mishpacha all rolled into an afternoon of fun.

The trip to Mishmar HaEmek was definitely a highlight of the vacation. I nearly had to drag my family from the pool so we could head back to Haifa, partly because I wanted to hit the road before dark, but mostly because I felt we had used up our welcome. As we were leaving, Yonat pulled me aside. “Zev,” she asked, “can I ask a personal question?”

“Sure,” I answered.

“What was up with your family and the co-op? I mean two families living together in one house? Who does that? I can’t even imagine.”

I had absolutely nothing to say.

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