Monday, May 31, 2010

Kibbutz Architecture

Here is an interesting review of a new book about the kibbutz and "utopian architecture" by a pair of Israeli architects (who aren't kibbutzniks). It also mentions that the Venice Biennale—the world's most important art show—will include an exhibit on the architecture of the kibbutz at the Israeli pavilion this year. I'm making plans to meet and interview both the authors of the book (who I believe are also designing part of the pavilion) and the curator of the Venice exhibit while I'm in Israel next month. I'll be fascinated to hear their expert perspectives on how the kibbutz was designed to reflect its progressive ideals and how its design related to earlier visions of utopia.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Through the Kibbutz Door

Here is an interesting link to pictures and a brief (and cryptic) description of an art installation based around photos taken of the doors of houses and apartments at Kibbutz Yeraon. I'm not sure if I can make sense of the "art speak" that describes the intent of the piece ("The sculpture points to fraction/collapse of the social ideal, an attempt to reconstruct and to preserve fragments of utopian realm..... A critical reflection – home door as a portrait, the split verge, the individual lacking a proper ideological space"), but it looks like a very creative way to play around with images of kibbutz life in a highly original context. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Review: The Galilee Eskimos

If newspapers write the “first draft of history”, then documentary films offer a more considered, less-hurried and yet still-relevant appraisal of the past. Added to that perspective, the creative world of fiction—whether on the page or the screen—lets readers and audiences see the great themes of modern life through an extra fish-eye lens of the imagination, in which the artist can fill in gaps in (or otherwise distort) the documentary record or use historical events as the backdrop against which invented characters spring to life. 
Most of the films about the changes to Israel’s kibbutzim (all made in the last five years) that I’ve watched, reviewed and labeled under the label of “privatization cinema” (or perhaps “cinema shinui” is more accurate) have been documentaries about real people and real places. Not so The Galilee Eskimosand yet this fictional odyssey, released in 2006, sheds as much light as the other movies on the question of what it means to be a kibbutznik in the year 2010.
I actually watched The Galilee Eskimos last November, before it screened at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, but only had a chance to view it again earlier this week. I enjoyed the Israeli-made comedy-drama just as much this time as before…. which is to say, quite a bit. The story is by director-producer Jonathan Paz (whose other films include Zaya and Rakevet Ha’Emek), with a screenplay by Joshua Sobol, one of Israel’s leading playwrights and himself a former member of Kibbutz Shamir. The best way I can describe The Galilee Eskimos is “Cocoon meets The Bad News Bears, with Sten Guns.” Trust me.
The story is simple enough: one morning, a dozen elderly residents wake up to discover that the members of their deeply indebted kibbutz, founded 60 years earlier along the Lebanese border, have abandoned them in the middle of the night and run off. “They left us to die,” laments one of the retirees when they finally realize what has happened, “like the eskimos do.” The only other person is the hired Chinese care-worker, who knows something about how a society can be both communist and capitalist at the same time.
The motley crew of elderly kibbutzniks, half men, half women, are comic exaggerations of different personality types: The flighty children’s house nanny who keeps breaking into song. The feisty ex-army-type who digs up a stash of old weapons and wants to fight the War of Independence again. The lusty couple who were always too bohemian to fall into the bourgeois trap of love—until suddenly it seems too late. The senile oldster haunted by memories of his childhood and a sense of impending doom. The wheelchair-bound filmmaker whose cynicism and thoughts of suicide are balanced by his own nostalgia for the early days of kibbutz life. Together, they quarrel and joke and gossip and still—despite creaking, nearly spent bodies—lust after each other.
Finally, they must come together once more, collectively, when a nefarious developer buys the insolvent kibbutz from the bank and seeks to evict the “Galilee eskimos” so that he can build a casino-resort. There are many funny scenes, including the seniors’ desperate ploy to grow worms as a money-making enterprise, or bathing together in the nearly empty swimming pool, or trying to defend their home with weapons, as one member puts it, “nearly as old as we are”.
The movie is also, in small part, a love note to the power of film itself. A climactic moment comes when the group sits outside to watch four decades of footage shot by Yolek the kibbutz filmmaker: the erection of the first stockade, a long assembly debate about whether private tea kettles would ruin collective life, and then scenes of children playing in the kibbutz, which bring tears to all their eyes as they all weep over the loss of their own children, their own youth, and their own hard-fought-for home. It’s a powerful emotional punch in an otherwise lighthearted film.
Again, I don't dare give away the ending. The Hollywood plotline that The Galilee Eskimos mostly follows, of underdogs against bullies, usually ends in a clearcut victory for the heroes. But the gravity of changes to kibbutz life in the real world is too strong for such a predictably happy ending in this fictional version. And Jonathan Paz's film is too honest and original to let its characters—or its audience—off so easily. 
Check out the trailer below...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Testing, testing

This is just a test post (typed while my 2 year old daughter snores in my lap) to try out an app that will (fingers crossed) let me add fast posts from the road while travelling in Israel next month.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPod

Friday, May 21, 2010

Eco-Art Village

I'm putting together an itinerary for my return trip to Israel in June. Last year, I focused on interviewing experts who could teach me more about the history of the kibbutz, especially the changes of the last 20 years. This trip, I'm hoping to visit many of the unique communities in Israel—not all of them kibbutzim—that have taken up the ideals, a century later, of the kibbutz movement's founders, and are carrying them into the future. I'm hoping to blog about my impressions for the entire month of my trip.

I recently came across this fascinating enterprise—the Vertigo Dance Troupe's "eco-art village"—that brings together two of my passions: the creative arts and ecological literacy. I'm hoping to connect with some of the principals and learn more about their plans... and maybe try my dance moves under the stars in their geodesic dome! 

Pitching Kibbutz Life

Here is an interesting article about Kibbutz Kerem Shalom in the Negev, right near Gaza, that has dwindled down to about 60 residents and 26 members. Because of the relative peace of the past few months, they have launched a P.R. campaign to attract new residents, pointing out the tranquillity (when rockets and mortars aren't falling on a community whose name translates as "Vineyard of Peace") compared to city life. Their promise: "a traditional kibbutz just like the good old days." Plus, free university tuition.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Review: Eight Twenty Eight

Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant!
These were the words that kept running through my mind as I watched Lavi Ben Gal’s delightfully eccentric, utterly original and often laugh-out-loud funny movie Eight Twenty Eight. To call it a “documentary” doesn’t do justice to Ben Gal’s creative vision, for that word suggests a straight-up journalistic-historical approach to the material, where the writer-director has produced a cinematic concoction that is far more subjective, self-conscious and deliberately elusive—part personal essay, part memoir, part commentary on the slippery art of making movie memories of the past. And it’s damn fun to watch.
I’ve yoked this film under my sub-genre of “privatization cinema”, but even here, Eight Twenty Eight defies categorization. Nitzanim, the kibbutz were Ben Gal grew up, on the coastal plain between Gaza and Tel Aviv, has undergone some form of shinui (or “change”), but we’re never told when or what. We just discover the evidence of the change as the director goes wandering around the kibbutz after years of living in Tel Aviv and only visiting infrequently; there are Thai guest workers and the dining hall is run by Russian-speaking contractors and kibbutzniks set up second-hand shops on the grounds of their home. 
Ben Gal has both a goal and a deadline in his journey home: he has received a letter from the kibbutz managers, after turning 28, that informs him that he has a year to decide whether he wants to be a member or not. The film chronicles that year, as he tries to match his memories of the past with the kibbutz he now encounters. His interior monologue, at times Woody Allen-like in its self-conscious worrying, narrates this journey, as he admits that “memory—especially my memory—shouldn’t be relied on 100%.”
His focus as a filmmaker falls not on quotes and opinions from traditional interviews but rather on obscure yet poetic details of the kibbutz that evoke memories (a patch of grass, the junk yard he once played in, the various pathways through the kibbutz, the way his father walks, a photo from 1914 of his grandmother as a young girl in Poland, the faded pattern of her playing cards) and seemingly random moments from the quiet lives of the remaining members. Nitzanim, caught in Ben Gal’s lens, feels like a ghost town at times. And yet it still comes to life for the seasonal round of collective festivals, although even here the kibbutz struggles: by the end, the members celebrate Passover as individual families, not a community, and have to rely on the Thai guest workers for entertainment at Shavuot. “The ceremonies keep happening,” Ben Gal observes, “as if without them, the kibbutz would cease to exist.”
Ben Gal is comically ambivalent about his memories of these festivals, during which the children play a prominent role in dances and songs. “As a kid, I loved and hated them,” he recalls, and then, as he films youngsters practicing the “Dance of the Four Species”, he says in a deadpan delivery: “Thanks to this dance, I discovered my allergy to figs.”
Later, he goes to the kibbutz synagogue to film elderly members preparing to mark Rosh Hashana and panics when he realizes that they’re expecting him to stay as the tenth Jewish male to make up the minyan. Even when “The Mexicans” arrive to fill the quota, Ben Gal worries it will look bad if he slips away. When he visits the kitchen where he once did a monthly shift, the hired staff who now run it invite him inside to film but then think he’s weird for shooting footage of the floors and the pots. “Do you think he speaks Russian?” one hired worker asks another about Ben Gal. (He does apparently, or at least got the sequence translated.) “I think he’s cuckoo. Tell him to leave—he’s getting in the way.” The scene is both absurdly hilarious and touching: the filmmaker, already ambivalent about whether to stay or go, is not wanted on his own kibbutz even by the hired help. At least the crusty old gatekeeper of the kibbutz, whom Ban Gal feared as a child, encourages him to remain and raise a family.
Throughout, kibbutzniks offer suggestions to Ben Gal on how to make his movie: Add this subtitle, Film me for 30 seconds, Now stop. Other people direct the film as much as he does, and the fourth wall between the filmmaker and his subjects constantly dissolves, just as the line between his memories and his present-day encounters begins to blur. The most astonishing moment comes when Ben Gal—who says he never lived in his parents' home, but always in the communal children’s houses—is told by his mother and father that, no, in fact he did live with them for at least three years while growing up. And yet he has no memory of this time.
Both the filmmaker’s journey and the movie conclude with… well, I couldn’t possibly give away the ending. I can only say that it feels perfectly suited to the unique mood and character of both this wonderfully eccentric film and its creator. Track down Eight Twenty Eight and see it if you can.

Disillusioned Kibbutznik

Here is a curious news article about a talk given by an economics prof in the States. He had lived on a kibbutz, but became disillusioned with socialism and later even progressive politics—and became a libertarian who promotes individual rights and minimal government. He claims his changing beliefs are based on "empirical evidence", but they might also be "blamed" on the progression from liberalism to conservatism—from dreams of utopia to skepticism about radical change—that often seems part of the aging process. Despite my hopes for a cooperative future of peace and sharing, I sometimes hear my Inner Cranky Old Man coming through when I talk these days, too.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Review: Keeping the Kibbutz

The Hula Valley extends into the northernmost reaches of Israel, what’s often called the “finger of Galilee”, and borders Lebanon and the Golan Heights. It’s a stunningly beautiful landscape of rolling hills, swamps drained and tilled into lush fields and orchards, and the earliest (and best conserved) flow of the Jordan River, all shadowed by the snowy peak of Mt. Hermon. It was the picturesque backdrop to my life and work for nearly eight months on Kibbutz Shamir. The fiery, lingering sunrises and sunsets are still burned into my memory—and, for that matter, the photo at the top of my blog.
It’s also home to the kibbutzniks of Kfar Giladi, one of the first communal settlements in the area, founded in 1916. Nine decades later, Giladi voted to privatize in 2003. Since then, the landscape—on the opposite side of the valley from Shamir—has remained the same, but the life of its members has changed. Keeping the Kibbutz, a new (and as yet unreleased) documentary from two young American filmmakers, charts those changes and some of the disappointments felt by kibbutzniks left behind by privatization. Co-director Ben Crosbie was born on the kibbutz but moved to the U.S. at age three and visited occasionally growing up. In 2007, he returned to Giladi with his co-director, Tessa Moran, and let their cameras roll as kibbutzniks talked candidly about their feelings and the increasingly market-driven, individualistic management of their once-communal home.
The film (Crosbie and Moran generously sent a preview copy to me) begins with a quick introduction to the history of Giladi and the early ideals of the kibbutz movement: the philosophy of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”; the communal child-rearing; the socializing in the dining hall; the collective harvests in the cotton fields. Flashforward to the present: the children have long since moved into their parents’ home, the dining hall is half-empty, day labourers are hired to do field work (and cotton is no longer grown), and everyone gets a different wage—just like the rest of the world.
Many of the kibbutz films I’ve watched seem to follow the famous stages of grieving: Degania (anger and bargaining); Kibbutz (depression). In Keeping the Kibbutz, we get to see kibbutzniks who have reached that fifth and final stage—who have accepted, however reluctantly, the changes that have overtaken their community but still look back with fondness and nostalgia at the unique communal society from which they all emerged.
The film does a sumptuous job of evoking that nostalgia without lapsing into sentimentality, thanks in large part to the humour and honesty that the handful of main interview subjects bring to their experiences. Throughout, the filmmakers juxtapose archival footage and photos with similar contemporary images of farm and fisheries workers, children and parents, to show that for all the changes, there is a continuity of life and community on Giladi.
During the filming, two of the older residents get told that their wages are being cut or their services are no longer needed on the kibbutz, and we see their pangs of self-doubt (or bemused resistance on the part of puckish Frankie, a former lager lout from South Africa who came to Israel to dry out and ended up marrying a kibbutznik) that accompany the loss of the identity they had formed working for their community. Giving retirement-aged members meaningful work was always a key part of the original kibbutz ideal. In fact, the optical factory where I worked at Shamir—and that has since become a multi-million-dollar international enterprise—was originally created as a make-work project for oldsters.
“I’m like excess baggage,” says Frankie when he reads the "Dear John" letter from kibbutz management. “Only you can take care of yourself and your needs,” one of the managers later tells him. He just shrugs and says, “I hate the word ‘money’.”
Uzi, another member, gets laid off from his repair job on the kibbutz—even though he is never given a chance to explain the reason the repair shop never shows a profit in its accounts is because, for decades, the kibbutz wasn’t supposed to make money and therefore fudged its accounting in various ways. “I like to do things for people,” he admits. “This is my god. I don’t need religion.”
In a later scene, Uzi takes one of the filmmakers for a glider ride high above the Hula Valley and viewers get a panoramic sense of why the kibbutz members are so deeply attached to this landscape, so reluctant to leave, even as their community changes from its original ideals. The film is filled with beautiful images of the kibbutz and its hilly environs, evocatively backed by a gorgeous piano and guitar score by composer Preston Hart.
“I love the kibbutz,” says Uzi’s wife, Kathy, who arrived as a volunteer in 1968 and married into Giladi. “It breaks my heart that it has to change. I’m sad that my children grew up in a special society that doesn’t exists anymore.”
But she says these words with a smile on her lips, and not a bitter one. She seems to have accepted the changes, adapted to them even (she "buys" and then runs the kibbutz store), and the film ends with a scene of a backyard barbecue in the last light of dusk, with friends and laughter and a sense of community that has altered perhaps but hasn’t fully disappeared. The old socialist principles have been shed, but the members are still “keeping the kibbutz”.
Check out this trailer for the documentary and watch out for the film at festivals in the coming year…

KEEPING THE KIBBUTZ: Trailer from Eidolon Films on Vimeo.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Review: Kibbutz

When my DVD copy of the documentary Kibbutz arrived in the mail late last year, I was so busy that I didn’t have time to put it into a player for a couple of weeks. When I did, I was disappointed that it had gotten damaged during its journey from Israel to the West Coast of B.C. The film's producer quickly mailed a new copy. This time, I immediately popped it into my computer at work to make sure it functioned, so I’d be ready to view it when I had more free time. An hour later, I had watched the film in its entirety—and become so engrossed in the account of the slow, sad unravelling of Kibbutz Hulata that I nearly forgot to pick up my daughter at daycare!
Kibbutz, released in 2005, is one of the first examples of what I call “privatization cinema”—that’s why it gets to claim the simple name of its title. Interestingly, while other films chronicle the debate around and prelude to the vote to privatize on different kibbutzim, Racheli Schwartz's documentary tracks instead the stages of grieving and disillusionment that follow Hulata’s decision to reduce its communal commitment to its members. What makes Kibbutz so affecting is the personal intimacy and extended context that Schwartz brings to the material. In fact, it was originally subtitled “A Personal Diary.”
A member for 30 years, the filmmaker isn’t just a visitor offering a snapshot by an outsider of her kibbutz. Instead, her film follows various members (including her  own family) over the course of five years—three older women, from the founding generation, become symbols of the kibbutz’s lost ideas and abandoned history, as they die off, one by one. Schwartz, who asks people questions from behind her lens, admits early on that “making the movie helped me to decide to stay.”
It can’t have been an easy decision. Her film opens memorably with the story of a laid-off citrus worker, a member of the kibbutz, who hanged himself from a tree overlooking the orchards where he once worked. These same orchards are later sawed down for being unprofitable. Schwartz captures remarkably revealing footage of a privatization consultant, hired by the kibbutz, going through a list of enterprises and expenses and telling kibbutz managers how many employees to lay off and which operations to shut down. “The kibbutz was the main way to make settlement possible,” the financial advisor tells Schwartz later. “At some point, it was finished.”
The filmmaker has an ear for such memorable quotes. “We are going through a process of breakdown,” says one member. “They stole the kibbutz from me,” announces another. One kibbutznik wonders if the fact that Hulata—located south of Shamir and named after the Hula Valley—was built on the absorption of underprivileged reason was partly why it has failed to thrive in the hyper-capitalist 21st-century. “Since the changes on the kibbutz,” he laments, “people only talk about money.”
Schwartz also has a keen eye for images that carry symbolic weight. When managers decide to first privatize and then shut down the communal dining room, her camera lingers on the skinny cats looking vainly for scraps and then fixes on the stopped clock in the empty hall. She reveals how the simple act of growing shrubs becomes for many members a defiant act of walling themselves away from their neighbours. She interviews an employee of the kibbutz laundry, his salary slashed because his labour is now deemed menial, who has turned to religion because he feels his kibbutz has turned its back on his own family, and yet he still saves the loose shekels he finds in his machines and gives them to families more needy than his own. (His own son, affected by the changes, also tries to commit suicide.) She observes a music teacher packing her car full of wind and string instruments and driving off, before narrating: “A kibbutz that has reached the point that it has to sell its musical instruments has lost its way.”
It’s a powerful, damning sentiment in a beautifully wrought documentary that offers a deeply personal yet rigorously researched perspective on the privatization debate. I don’t know if you can generalize from the experiences of Hulata to all kibbutzim, but those communities still considering the prospects of privatization would be wise to watch this movie and learn from the mistakes documented so powerfully in its images. For anyone curious about the film, check out the trailer below...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Fear and the Kibbutz

I just read two interesting, if very different articles, that touch on the hopes and fears of living on kibbutzim near the turmoil of the Gaza Strip. The first (called "Fear in a Little Bit of Heaven") is by a South African journalist touring through Israel, who observes both the success of rural kibbutzim and the general sense of fear and insecurity that shadow the nation, especially when he visits Kibbutz Be'eri in the south. As he writes:
For a South African it is astonishing to see people giving up all private property, whether cars or houses, and everyone earning the same salary and donating all other income to the kibbutz, which then looks after their family.... In contrast with South Africa, Israelis boast that they have no rural poverty because of the kibbutzim and their focus on agricultural production. The people who live in the kibbutz we visited described their communal life as being "like a little heaven". 
But at the Kibbutz Be'eri, just 7km from the Gaza Strip in the south of Israel, the illusion of an idyllic rural lifestyle was shattered. Residents told us that the settlement had been hit by rockets from the Gaza Strip, fired by their Palestinian neighbours. The fear of an attack was a daily constant. "But we should live not to allow fear to control us," said Vivien Silver, part of the kibbutz leadership.
The second article is part of a fascinating series of family profiles that I've been following in Haaretz. (Each ends with family members rating their happiness level out of 10.) I don't know if it's a coincidence, but many of these stories have looked at the lives of kibbutz residents. This week's article introduces readers to a widowed single mother struggling with health problems and the constant anxiety of potential mortar or rocket attacks while living with her daughter in Kibbutz Nir Am, also near Gaza.

Her life story, with its twists and turns, as well as her now constant debate about whether to stay or leave the kibbutz, make for fascinating, if troubling, reading. Being a single parent must be tough enough without the fear of rockets falling from the sky:
"Once, when I was taking Yam to kindergarten, a mortar shell flew over us, and another time I flopped myself on top of her." She considered leaving the kibbutz, but always stayed - to spite everyone, she explains, because they all expected her to be weak. Most of the residents use tranquilizers. "The tension is unbearable. You stay because of the honor, because of the place, because of the school." If the security situation becomes very bad, she does not rule out the possibility of moving to the center of the country.
I look forward to more of the profiles from "Family Affair". These journalistic snapshots offer a window into the lives and hopes and fears of real Israelis (and kibbutzniks) in a way that the general conclusions of academic papers or the faux-authenticity of reality TV can never do.   

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Reform Judaism Magazine

I often describe myself to my writing students as a "magaholic": as a former editor, frequent contributor and devoted subscriber (I'm pushing 20 subscriptions), I love the combination of information, opinion, imagery and personal storytelling that a good magazine can provide. (My wife calls my various piles of half-read publications strewn around our house as "Camp Davids".) That's why I was delighted when a contact at Kibbutz Lotan emailed me a link to a story from the Winter 2009 issue of  Reform Judaism, taglined as the "world's largest circulated Jewish magazine". 

I love the earth tones of this cover and the desert spin on the iconic "American Gothic" rural couple. The cover makes me want to pick up and read the magazine. Instead, I had to satisfy myself electronically—as you can, with a link to a good story and Q&A about the ecological initiatives at Kibbutz Lotan or a downloadable PDF of the cover and full article. 

A Kibbutz Resurrected

Here is an interesting counterpoint about Kibbutz Hanaton—the Conservative (or "Masorti") religious kibbutz described as "divided" in an earlier article. This story depicts how a community that had dwindled to 11 members has managed to revive itself (as a privatized kibbutz) and attract Israeli families who are neither fully secular nor rigidly orthodox in their spiritual beliefs—and perhaps act as a small beacon of compromise across the chasm of religion in Israel. Every kibbutz, like every story, has at least two sides...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Deporting a Kibbutznik

I somehow missed this intriguing (albeit depressing) news item about a Japanese woman who came to Israel as a kibbutz volunteer on Samar (the legendary "hippy-anarchist" kibbutz north of Eilat), married a kibbutznik, and a few years later admitted to authorities that she and her husband were divorcing, after she had lived off and on in Israel for a decade. She was promptly ordered to be deported and forced to leave Israel this March.

All this, despite the fact that the kibbutz had elected her as a member by an unprecedented majority because members thought the dance instructor was such a vital member of their community. The kibbutz has protested the government's decision and plans to keep her membership open for as long as it takes her to be allowed to return—which might be some time, if ever.

"I have no status in Israel now," she said. "My situation is the same as Palestinians who need invitaions from Israelis and permission to come to Israel. And yes, the way the country is being run is a certain reflection of its people, this is true. But I have become connected to the Israeli way of life, to how people open their hearts straight away. I loved my life in Israel and I want to return to my home."

Review: Degania: The First Kibbutz Fights its Last Battle

 Degania: The First Kibbutz Fights its Last Battle is a documentary with a definite point of view—the film’s bittersweet subtitle should make that clear—like a Michael Moore film without the presence of the lumbering U.S. agent provocateur. It is also a fascinating account of a watershed moment in the 100-year history of the kibbutz movement: the decision by members of Kibbtuz Degania A, the original communal settlement in Israel, to privatize their community in 2007. This news broke internationally, as the world finally took notice of the changes that had been transforming kibbutzim over the previous 20 years. It also became used — by free-market bloggers around the Internet — as the final nail in the rhetorical coffin of socialism.
Yitzhak Rubin’s 56-minute account of the last days of Degania as a fully communal kibbutz begins, curiously, with scenes of American Christians getting baptized along the banks of the Jordan River, not far from where Kibbutz Degania Aleph was founded. The movie then outlines the founding myth and storied history of this influential community (including its vital and valiant role in the War of 1948) through interviews and archival footage. But it soon makes clear that changes are afoot. Despite nearly a hundred years of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (and relative wealth compared to other kibbutzim), some members and leaders at Degania have been lobbying to alter the fundamental egalitarian structure of their community.
Here, the movie excels at letting viewers play fly-on-the-wall to the heated debates and civil strife caused by the public (and private) debate that precedes the vote to privatize—how it sets brother against brother, friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour. As one anti-privatization member asks, Why do members who want to privatize need to irrevocably change what is unique about Degania, when anyone who wants to live in a private neighbourhood can simply walk out the gates and find a “normal” community like that anywhere in Israel or the world.
Despite the radical origins of Degania, in 2007 its more bourgeois trappings are what make people want to stay: its slowed-down rural life, its sense of family, safety and security, where kids can run free and parents know that someone will bring their children home, amidst a world (and a country) of potential danger and uncertainty. It’s pretty clear that the filmmaker sides with the traditionalists of Degania, but we still get to see the arguments of the other side, led by kibbutz director Shai Shoshany (who I interviewed last year). Even for longtime residents, like Yoya and Alan Shapiro (a daughter of a Degania founder and her American-born husband), the choice is tough: they know that many of the younger members want change or they might leave.
Finally, the filmmaker takes us right into the final pre-vote general assembly before balloting on the proposed initiatives. Shoshany asks Rubin, the director, to wait outside and not film the proceedings, but the canny filmmaker keeps his camera rolling and captures memorable footage of the turbulent back and forth of this all-important historic debate. This is how a dream ends: democratically and divided. (That said, in Degania and other kibbutzim, a vote to change the economic structure of the community requires a super-majority, usually 75 to 80%, rather than 50% plus one.)
In the end, the anti-privatization members lose the vote and must accept the will of their peers. In 2007, Degania introduced differential salaries and other free-market initiatives to their once communal economic structure. When I visited last year, I only had a chance to interview Shai Shoshany, the kibbutz director, so I got little personal sense of how the privatization plans have panned out for the other kibbutzniks. That said, I did come across this interesting news video, shot a year after the vote, which suggests that the Shapiros, originally resistant to the changes, have seen benefits to their community—or at least accepted the inevitability of change.

In any case, this film is a vital document both as a historical record of the first and best-known kibbutz and as an incisive sociological unpacking of how privatization occurs in such democratic communities. It’s well worth watching as Degania marks 100 years since its founding with a year of celebrations and a huge three-day ceremony in early October, when Israeli president Shimon Peres and members of cabinet will visit Degania and help to honour the occasion.
Degania can be purchased or watched as pay-per-view online here. As I was looking for links, I also came across this fascinating footage from 1937 of Degania from the Spielberg Jewish Film Archive. The narration is perhaps typical of its time—a bit over the top—but it makes for fascinating viewing on the centenary of the first kibbutz. Whether it has fought its last battle, I leave up to others to debate...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Preaching against Consumerism

Consumerism may have tried to kill the kibbutz—by offering young members the American Dream of infinite choice (in everything from cereals and deodorants to lifestyles and personal philosophies), with the promise that happiness might be just one more credit-card charge away...and certainly can't be found in a community in which everything is shared. 

Now educators in the Kibbutz Dati religious movement are trying to teach against the all-embracing mindset of modern consumerism, developing a curriculum that encourages students to look for happiness in their communities rather than their possessions and develop a belief that maybe less really is more.

For a more satirical spiritual take on anti-consumerism, my favourite preacher is the Reverend Billy (who I interviewed many years ago) and his hilarious Church of Life After Shopping. 

Review: Inventing Our Life

If you see just one movie about the kibbutz, it ought to be Inventing Our Life: Kibbutz—The Fourth Generation. (I'm not saying you should just watch one kibbutz movie; in fact, I've seen five in the past few months, with two more on the way—but I realize everyone may not be as obsessive about the history and future of the kibbutz as I am.) 
The catch? The film isn’t finished yet.
Toby Appleton, the producer/director, kindly mailed me a “rough cut” of her 82-minute documentary, while she continues to drum up funding to complete post-production. But “rough cut” doesn’t do justice to the diamond she has created. Inventing Our Life  is a remarkably compelling work of documentary filmmaking that deserves the widest possible audience.
All of the other kibbutz documentaries I’ve seen so far have been informative, even provocative and well worth watching. However, they tend to focus on an individual community and then contrast its pioneering days with its present struggles. Appleton’s film takes a wider view and examines the kibbutz movement as a key thread within the greater tapestry of the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. And yet for all this long view, the film still speaks with an intimacy that strikes an emotional chord in the viewer, thanks to the anecdotes and opinions of the kibbutzniks she interviews. It’s a fine balance between macro-narrative and micro-narrative that Inventing Our Life walks masterfully.
After about 10 minutes of introductory interviews, the storyline loops back to the anti-semitic pogroms in Russia that motivated the Zionist movement and the early founders of the kibbutz to settle Palestine, illustrated by classic footage from a 1920s Zionist propaganda film. Later, members of Kibbutz Sasa, founded by Hashomair Hatzair youth-group pioneers from the U.S., describe their kibbutz-style training camp in New Jersey and then how stories from the Holocaust only steeled their determination to found a Jewish state. Even here, the documentary doesn’t shy from potential controversy:
“This was an Arab village,” one  of the founders of Sasa recalls of their arrival to the kibbutz site in 1949. “We had serious qualms about coming to an abandoned village where people’s lives had been uprooted.”
The rest of the film carefully walks viewers through the kibbutz heyday in the 1950s and 1960s (and the vital role of kibbutz soldiers in the Six Day War), while acknowledging that a failure to help assimilate the waves of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries in the years after Independence helped lead to the kibbutz movement’s isolation from the rest of Israeli society, especially after the right-wing and anti-kibbutz Likud came to power in 1977.
The rise of a more capitalist-inclined “me generation” in the 70s and 80s is charted, as well as the financial shock of hyper-inflation and then burdensome debt loads in the mid-1980s, all of which resulted in an entire generation of young kibbutz-born members deciding not to return to their communal homes.
Here, the movie takes on even more complex tones as the issue of privatization (or “renewal”) is raised. We see the question from multiple perspectives, in multiple communities. If the movie has a main focus, it is on Kibbutz Ein Shemer, which is in the midst of hammering out a privatization proposal and debating it amongst its members. Still other kibbutzim appear throughout the film. Kibbutz Hulda, by contrast, has already closed down its dining hall and voted to privatize as a way to draw back young members. Kibbutz Sasa nearly came to the same decision but decided to remain resolutely communal; as one member says, paying different wages for different wages is a “red line” (or what another kibbutznik calls “the Jerusalem issue”) that can’t be crossed: “Anything else, then don’t call yourself a kibbutz.” 
Appleton also profiles members of “urban kibbutz” Tamuz in Beit Shemesh about their  revisioning of the original kibbutz ideals within an urban context focused on social justice and education. “We are somewhat like Degania in the first days of Degania but more anarchistic,” observes one Tamuz resident. “Cities are where most Israelis live,” says another,  “so cities are where real social change must occur.”
One of the strengths of the film is the insight of its articulate interview subjects, which include everyday kibbutzniks but also poets (Avraham Balaban, Eli Alon), philosophers (Avishai Margalit, Yochanon Grinspon) and storytellers (Rakefet Zohar). An ingenious narrative “trick” used by Appleton is to give people’s names, occupations and then indicate which generation of kibbutznik they are but not reveal, until the final few minutes of the film, whether they have remained on their kibbutz or not. Even the composition and lighting of these various interviews are beautifully rendered.
In the end, Inventing Our Life offers a bittersweet homage to the history and future of the kibbutz, one that balances lamentation for its lost ideals (“All dreamers end up on the floor,” says one of the poets) with the possibility for change and the vital importance of the entire project. “I think the kibbutz was the most interesting thing to happen in this country,” says Margalit, “because human beings lack serious experimentation in their lives. I think this was the most dramatic experiment and the most important one.”
Despite the breadth of my own research, I learned a great deal and was fascinated by the archival footage that Appleton unearthed. More impressively, both times I watched the film, I found myself tearing up with emotion by the end, as the “children of the children of the children of the dream” describe the importance of the kibbutz and its altruistic philosophy to their own sense of identity. I challenge any viewer not to be moved by this fine, fine work of documentary art.
And if there are any philanthropists out there who want to invest in an almost-finished doc, drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch with the director.

That’s all for now—I’m halfway to my goal of 100 blog posts to celebrate a 100 years of the kibbutz. More film reviews to come…

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Kibbutz Divided

The magazine from Haaretz published a long and fascinating, if a little depressing, feature article about the strife at Kibbutz Hanaton. The kibbutz was founded in 1984 by American immigrants of Conservative Judaism background. (For those who don't know, Conservative is "medium" on the spectrum of religious Judaism—with Reform on the "mild" end and ultra-Orthodox on the "spicy"... or maybe vice versa. You get the point.)

Like many kibbutzim, Hanaton fell on hard economic times and its membership dwindled. The kibbutz took in young men and women from a secular youth movement—but then voted against letting them become full members. The divide became ideological: The new youth-group members wanted the kibbutz to remain collective and become a centre for socially progressive education. The older members wanted the kibbutz to privatize—i.e., to become a "renewed kibbutz"—and maintain its character and vision as a bridge between secular and religious Judaism. (Interestingly, the situation at Hanaton goes against the trend that religious kibbutzim have tended to stay more communal than the secular kibbutzim.)

Now, the two sides apparently barely speak, and the older Conservative members are trying to expel the younger secular idealists. In the end, nobody's vision of equality and cooperation has succeeded, not once they were pitted again each other. As the kibbutz rabbi lamented in the article:

"Kibbutz Hanaton was founded with the aim of becoming an influential voice, of instilling more connectedness in Israeli society. ... They founded a school here that was supposed to be the place where the dichotomy in Israeli society between the religious person and the secular person was broken. But what's happened is that this place that was supposed to be a meeting point became a scene of total lack of understanding, of anger and hot tempers."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Dancing the Dream

A month or two ago, I stumbled across this intriguing YouTube clip of a dance designed by an Israeli choreographer, inspired by her memories of growing up on a kibbutz. It's called "Five Beds / Children of the Dream"—an allusion to Bruno Bettelheim's famous (some might say "infamous") book about communal child-raising in the kibbutz system.

The dissonant music and frenetic motions of the dancers suggest that these aren't exactly happy memories, however. And in a Jewish context, the baggy grey-and-white striped pyjamas carry far more ominous overtones. But that's modern dance for you...

Varied Paths of Communal Life

A detailed program is now online for the 10th conference of the International Communal Studies Association in Israel this June. It looks like a great line-up, although I noticed that the panel on which I'll be sitting (and discussing the kibbutz in documentary film and "privatization cinema") starts at 8:30 in the morning. Ouch.

The roster includes a number of Israeli kibbutz experts I interviewed last year (Shlomo Getz, Michal Palgi, Yuval Achouch, Uri Leviatan, David Amitai, Eliezer Ben-Rafael, Yakov Oved, Menachem Topel, Eli Tzur) as well as other scholars that I am keen to meet on this trip, including Jan Bang (eco-village expert), Henry Near (author of the definitive history of the kibbutz movement), Yuval Dror (education scholar of the new urban kibbutzim), Michael Livni (of Kibbutz Lotan, an authority on Reform Judaism and the eco-kibbutz), and Yehuda Paz (from the Negev Institute for Peace). 

These are just the names I recognize; I'm sure many of the other speakers will be able to provide invaluable perspectives on the kibbutz and the international communal movement. In fact, I feel like a kid in a candy shop — eager to gobble up everything in sight, and  disappointed I'll have to make some tough choices: there are always two different sessions to choose from at each time slot, and I can't (yet!) be two places at once. It should be a great conference.

The Cooperative Life

The final article in the excellent series on the "sharing economy", in B.C.'s must-read online newsmagazine The Tyee, focuses on the social, economic and environmental promise of co-housing. The conclusion: living together is not just for hippies anymore. 

As kibbutzniks know, sharing accommodation and other resources in a so-called "intentional community" (an odd phrase, as it implies the rest of us live in an "un-intentional community", which I suppose is often true) makes a lot of sense, both for personal savings and ecological impact. North Americans' hunger for bigger houses in car-centric suburban locales has turned us into environmental dinosaurs, gobbling up the planet's resources even as we stumble blindly toward the extinction of this lifestyle in the coming age of peak oil. (To say nothing of the oil on our collective hands from the current eco-catastrophe along the coast of Louisiana thanks to our "drill, baby drill!" appetite for a high-carbon diet.)

Learning to live together might mean learning to live more lightly on the earth. Much of the current recession, set in motion by bankers' greedy schemes of subprime mortgages, can be linked to the collective "house lust" of North Americans, in which realty began to bear little resemblance to reality, as the Tyee article makes clear:
When the U.S. housing bubble burst in 2006, entire planned neighborhoods went bankrupt, rows of McMansions were unoccupied, sidewalks ended in the middle of fields, blue-collar investors left owing millions to banks that had no business loaning them the money in the first place.
What these investors, developers, and banks lacked was a sense of community, a view of the home's primacy as a social space rather than a commodity. It's a bit obvious to say that the real estate bust was fostered by those who cared only for the value of a house rather than the value of a home, but it wasn't obvious enough to the hordes who bought into the pyramid and then were surprised to find themselves crushed by the weight of the bricks.
Living in a co-housing situation, like living in a kibbutz, takes some adjustment and isn't for every personality. But the potential good of this "sharing economy" (a hopeful phrase I've come to like) is powerful:
Accountability lies at the heart of shared living systems, just as it lies at the heart of our environmental issues, the need for each of us to recognize we are citizens of a larger community. Intentional communities stress the responsibilities and benefits of shared living in the same breath, a seemingly instinctual (and often seemingly forgotten) recognition that working for the community pays off double for the individual, both in short-term gains (such as being able to leave your sick child in trusted hands when you go to work) and long-term solutions (such as the dramatic environmental benefits of shared living).
For some, though, the opportunity to connect with others may be reason enough. As [one resident] admits, "I just like having people to say hi to when I come home."