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Thursday, October 30, 2014

An Anatomy of the Death of the Kibbutz: Review of Amos Oz, Between Friends

My grandmother Dora and her sister Batya were the sole survivors (so we thought, years later, a brother would emerge in Ukraine) of their family, having both moved to Palestine before the war. But Dora and Batya could not have had more different paths in their new life in the new state of Israel. Dora married into a prominent family and raised her kids in the vibrant bubbly urban culture of the young white city, my beloved Tel-Aviv. Batya married a devout kibbutznik, Yekush, a true believer as Amos Oz might describe him, and they raised their kids in kibbutz Ein Hahoresh (below is a picture of children of the kibbutz’s infirmary bathing in the sun in the 1940s). Poet Abba Kovner, a longtime member of Ein Hahoresh, wrote a poem about my uncle Yekush, a ballad of wonder of a man who was a thirsty intellectual, an antique collector, a historian, and the lifelong garbage collector of the kibbutz, never wanting another job but the essential one he had. Yekush was unique even for his time in his humility and selflessness. Even at the peak of the idealist era, human nature meant that there would be conflict and tension within the close-knit collectives of the new state. Envy, resentment, ego, discontent, doubts, cynicism, and more simply, human nature, would eventually bring an end to the dream of the kibbutz. Yes, kibbutzim still exist today but mostly by name only. The kibbutz as a utopian vision and an institution, the purist combination of socialism and Zionism, has ceased to exist. The kibbutzim of today no longer have communal infant dorms; parents are allowed to kiss their children good night and tuck them in. The kibbutzim of today can no longer order their young adults on when and where to go to college. The kibbutzim of today are basically privatized rural gated communities with differential wages and private property.

 Last week, I finished Oz’s latest, Between Friends. I read it in English, which I usually don’t do with books translated from Hebrew but that was the copy I had. The translation is good but even the title inevitably misses the key point of the book: Friends, haverim in Hebrew is also the word for members. Between Friends is an interwoven collection of short stories of the members of the fictional kibbutz Yekhat. They are all haverim because they are all members of the kibbutz but they are most certainly not all friends. They are occasionally friends, but also enemies, lovers, ex-lovers, bullies and, most frequently, simply strangers. That they call one another Haverim, friends, makes the loneliness, betrayals, and disillusionment of camaraderie sharper. Yekhat’s funny guy, who is also the distraught dad of a bullied child (and a stamp collector like my uncle Yekkush) quotes Levi Eshkol who said that a person is only human, and even that, only rarely. Ein hahoresh


The poignant unresolved scenes of human suffering at Yekhat are not unique to the kibbutz. A friend moves one day out of his wife’s house to the house of his lover next door. A friend is distraught by his lifelong friend dating his young daughter. A woman leaves her husband of many years and turns to her married childhood friend who has always been secretly in love with her for. A man dying of lung cancer cannot seem to stop smoking and does not want to stop working despite his body failing him. A misanthrope gardener takes pleasure of recounting sad world events; he befriends a widower but when she attempts intimacy he flees. Teens are lost and feel suffocated by the pressures and legacies of previous generations. The stories are human but the expectations, so often unmet, of the members of the kibbutz are that their friends will rise above their human vulnerabilities and create something new, collective, stronger.

Little Boy is the heartbreaking story of a five year old who is bullied at the kids’ sleeping quarters. When his father teaches him about the world through his stamp collection, “stamps are small visitors from distant countries each telling a story”, the child asks if there are countries where children are allowed to sleep with their parents at night and where children are not mean and don’t hit. The father answers that there are good and cruel people everywhere. In his heart, the father thinks, “here, cruelty is sometimes disguised as self-righteousness or dedication to principle.” (This sentiment is later echoed in other stories. One member Osnat muses about how at times, at the kibbutz, even compassion is a form of cruelty. Member Henia thinks bitterly, “in the kibbutz today, if you’re standing on your feet, everyone is just waiting for you to fall and if you fall…they all rush to help you up.”) The Committee for Preschoolers prescribes to the parents of the bullied toddler to resist the urge of trying to protect and intervene. The committee (always a committee) instructs the parents to be firm and to wean their child from self-indulgent “cry baby behavior”. The mother complies. She stops hugging or kissing him and orders the dad to do the same. The dad has a nervous breakdown after his son escapes to his parent’s house during another helpless night of bullying.

In the story Father, a pre-teen boy is sent to the kibbutz by a welfare worker as a boarder after his mother dies. In his 2002 memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness (which I read in Hebrew, and which also has a flawed translated title: in Hebrew it is a story of love and darkness – not a tale which connotes inventive fantasized fictionalization) Oz, lengthily narrating his life (understandably, the crispness of Between Friends was more difficult to achieve when the author was so invested), tells us about the suicide of his mother which led to his father sending him at the age of fifteen to live in a kibbutz as a lone child boarder (Yaldei Hutz we called them when I was growing up: Outside Children). In Father, Moshe, the outside child, is discouraged by the kibbutz members from visiting his sick father in the city. The kibbutz teachers encourage the boy to get a haircut, learn to swim, and loose that archaic religion (Shabbat? Kosher? Tradition? What would Marx says?) upon which he had been raised. They say, “the visits to your relatives pull you away from us. And you are almost one of us now.” They ask, “what is it that the city has that we don’t have here?” He says nothing but thinks: “Strangers.”

In Deir Ajloun, a teen who has returned to the kibbutz after completing his military service wishes to accept his uncle’s generous offer to put him through college in Italy where he would study mechanical engineering. The uncle not only defected from the kibbutz many years ago but also from Israel, living in the diaspora, married to a shiksa Italian, forgetting the-fate-of-the-jews (Oy! Nowadays we call it brain drain! http://tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/154483/brain-drain-or-gain either way, we feel guilty about it http://www.jpost.com/Features/In-Thespotlight/Professor-Brain-drain-is-good-for-increasing-global-Israeli-footprint-339574 ). The mother (sister of the disloyal uncle), Henia, tries to lobby Yekhat members, possibly her friends, to vote yes on this special request. But she hears loud “no”: her fellow kibutzniks believe that such gifts from rich relatives strike a blow to the principle of equality. My grandmother’s sister encountered the same kind of opposition when my grandparents helped out with opportunities for their nephews. History101, the principle of equality taken to the extreme is an ideology that easily replaces old ideologies, here the old religion, archaic Judaism which Moshe, the outside child, is urged to rid himself from if he wants to belong. This new religion is “just as full of sins and transgressions, prohibitions and strict rules…Marx is their Talmud. The general meeting is the synagogue.”

Beyond the equality/gift problem, in Yekhat the Higher Education Committee decides what exactly the child will study such that it will benefit the enterprise. Yekhat already has two mechanical engineers, what do they need another for? Henia encounters cold responses even from those who she believed to be true friends. “Really, And why should I vote for him? When my Zelig asked to work in the vineyard six years ago, did you support him? You all voted against him. All you hypocrites and paragons together. Then you spoke so nicely at his funeral.” So goes the slap on the face by her close friend Brunia and Henia responds, “don’t worry, Brunia. I have a very long memory, too. A very very long memory.” Friendship, in the life long membership sense, is suffocating – people and judgment and observation are everywhere from the day you are born to the day you die but loneliness is equally pervasive. One member, a kind quiet woman, reflects, “most people seem to need more warmth and affection than others are capable of giving, and none of the kibbutz committees will ever be able to cover that deficit between supply and demand. The kibbutz makes small changes in the social order but man’s difficult nature doesn’t change. A committee vote will never be able to eradicate envy, pettiness, or greed.” Small changes in the kibbutz social order loom against the background story of Deir Ajloun, the too-big-to-look-directly-at dislocation tragedy of the abandoned neighboring Arab village.

The final story in Between Friends is about Martin, a dying member/friend, perhaps the last true believer, a vegetarian shoemaker, the Gandhi of kibbutz Yekhat, a Dutch survivor who had left his previous kibbutz because of ideological disagreement. He believed that property was the original sin and could not witness his previous friends/members collect German reparations.  Like my uncle Yekush, Martin was “an intellectual and also a man who believed in the importance of physical labour, a man of principle and of uncompromising hard work.”  He sees even the smallest slips of the kibbutz members (think: wearing pantyhose; getting a vacuum cleaner) as a slide toward the doom of petty bourgeoisie. Material pleasures, which women more than men will be bringing into the sacred haven of the kibbutz, will be the death of ideology. The book ends with Martin’s funeral. His eulogy, quite obviously, is a eulogy to the kibbutz: “He saw (as a Holocaust survivor) in his own eyes how low human beings could sink, but still he came to us imbued with belief in people and in a future burning with the bright flame of justice.”  As the book is ending and we are reading the eulogy, Oz is demanding that we question this alleged disconnect between having witnessed the worst and expecting the best out of human beings. Rather, to truly internalize the lessons of the past we are better off recognizing, rather than denying, deep human contradictions.


Posted by Orly Lobel on October 30, 2014 at 04:11 PM | Permalink


Hi Orly
I am currently visiting your native country and am incredibly impressed by the wealth. I have visited several cities and I see many BMWs, Jaguars even a few Porsches. I have been to houses with pools. Most women are dressed very stylishly and the cafes and bars are packed. The weather while over the last few days has been rainy is magnificent and reminds me of Southern California. I extremely puzzled why you left such a Paradise.

Posted by: visiting scholar | Nov 4, 2014 7:40:31 AM

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