Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Living in Glass Houses

If it walks like a kibbutz and talks like a kibbutz—or rather, looks like a kibbutz and works like a kibbutz—then surely it must be one, no? That was the question I puzzled over, on my recent trip to Israel, when I stayed for four days and nights on the fascinating community of Nes Ammim.

First a correction: In a blog post from the road, I hastily described Nes Ammim as a “German-run kibbutz”. People there, who had googled my blog, quickly corrected me. Yes, there are Germans among the leaders and volunteers. But Nes Ammim was founded, in the early 1960s, by Dutch and Swiss citizens, led by Dr. Johan Pilon from Holland and Dr. Hans Bernath from Switzerland, both physicians working in the Galilee. Americans volunteers arrived later, as well as a steady contingent of Germans—but only after German nationals were finally permitted to visit Israel. (A basic history can be found here.) But German-run? Hardly! 

A rose by any other name: erecting the "glass houses"
 My confusion, perhaps, is understandable. Nes Ammim confuses the basic definition of a kibbutz. When most people picture a kibbutz, they imagine a rural settlement of secular Jews, founded by blue-shirted pioneers inspired by the ideals of utopian socialism. Marxist farmers with bronzed arms and short-shorts. (Yes, there are a handful of religious kibbutzes, but they never played as large a role—except for Kfar Etzion—in the mystique of the kibbutz movement.) People never imagine a village of blonde Christians growing roses.  

Nes Ammim isn’t even on the radar among kibbutzniks within Israel. When I told Israeli friends and acquaintances that I was visiting a kibbutz of European Christians, they gave me incredulous looks, as though I’d said I was staying with the Tooth Fairy: they had never heard of Nes Ammim. In fact, after four years of intense research into utopian communities throughout the region, I only stumbled across the website for this community by accident, a couple of months before visiting.

On my first afternoon in Israel, in late November, as I entered the grounds of Nes Ammim, it certainly felt like I had arrived at a kibbutz. There were the surrounding fields, the gate (open) and guardhouse (empty), a swimming pool and a carpentry shop, a dusty ring road and winding pedestrian paths, the rudimentary tin-roofed volunteer cabins, with everything focused on the the dining hall and office complex at the centre of the property. The kitchen has a bit of a split personality on Nes Ammim. Most of the kibbutz’s revenue now comes from its guest house, popular with Israelis escaping the summer heat and Europeans escaping their own winter, so the kitchen prepares food for tourists in the restaurant as well as residents and volunteers in a more barebones, buffet-style communal dining hall. 

The original kibbutz movement had two goals: establish the borders of a future state in Palestine for the Jewish people (ie, Zionism) and create a new model for living in equality (ie, utopian socialism). 

So what was the founding vision of Nes Ammim? Obviously not the first: Israel existed by the time the idea for Nes Ammim arose. And the second? Perhaps only tangentially—certainly the spirit of radical sharing was in the air at the time. But the founders of this unique community had a more specific goal in mind: to create a community within the young state of Israel that would help Europeans and Christians, and especially European Christians, emerge from the dark shadow of the Holocaust, from millennia of pogroms and anti-Semitism, and heal the deep chasm of suspicion with the Jewish people. It would be a new community, modeled on the successful Jewish invention of the kibbutz, where dialogue groups and encounter sessions between leaders of the two religions could take place. The name of the kibbutz—Nes Ammim—means “a banner for the nations” and comes from the Book of Isaiah.  It refers to God’s promise of everlasting peace in paradise for all the people on earth, which will be announced by such a sign. 

The idea for Nes Ammim earned the support from kibbutz leaders (it would become an associate member of the movement) and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. However, influential rabbis worried that Nes Ammim would be a front for evangelizing Christians trying to convert Israeli Jews. They opposed the plan—and the community—for many years. Once rumours circulated, thousands of people in nearby Nahariya marched in protest, too. The founders only got government permission to settle the property, purchased from a Druze sheikh, after they signed an agreement that promised never to proselytize. Every new volunteer must sign a similar “no-preaching” contract.

Swiss Family Kibbutznik: the famous bus at Nes Ammim

In 1963, a Swiss family drove a rickety old school bus with faulty brakes—a “gift” from Israeli friends—off the heights of Nazareth and across the untilled fields of the property. They parked on a hill: the bus would become the first building of Nes Ammim. It remains today as a museum and a reminder of its ad-hoc origins. Slowly, residents and volunteers who moved to and lived on Nes Ammim earned the trust of their Jewish neighbours, in part by never abandoning the settlement during the six wars that threatened the nation. Eventually, Germans—who weren’t even permitted to visit Israel during its early years—were permitted to stay as volunteers in the 1970s. 

Nes Ammim developed a communal economy around avocado orchards, olive groves and its famous “glass houses”: greenhouses that deployed the horticultural expertise of Dutch residents to grow and sell roses. Bouquets of Nes Ammim roses became a sought-after decorative element at receptions for visiting foreign dignitaries. While the settlement was always intended to be permanent, residence there wasn’t. Leaders stayed on Nes Ammim for perhaps five or six years at most and then returned home. Volunteers usually lived there for a year or less. The kibbutz followed this pattern for years, slowly growing, adding buildings and residences, while new people cycled through and gave it energy and life.

Like the rest of the kibbutz movement, though, the turn of the millennium saw Nes Ammim suffer an identity crisis. The community could no longer compete with cheap flowers imported from Africa and had to shut down the glass houses—for decades, the signature feature of its economy. The violence of the Second Intifada and the Second Lebanon War cut into bookings at the guest house.The population of European families moving there had declined and many of the houses were being rented out to Israeli tenants.

And there were existential questions, too: What was the purpose and value of this place, 40 years after its founding? The European attitude toward the state of Israel—once wracked with guilt, now more aligned with the plight of the Palestinian people—was also shifting. How should Nes Ammim react to these changes? Could it evolve with the times?

I had walked unknowingly into the midst of this debate. For the last few years, Nes Ammim has focused not only on dialogue work between Christians and Jews, but also between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. The site of the kibbutz, leaders realized, could be used as neutral ground (or as neutral as any ground gets in Israel) for different groups within the country to meet and talk and build trust. 

Nes Ammim had just broken ground on an even more ambitious project. Like almost every other kibbutz in the country, they are building a rural subdivision to be marketed to outsiders. Unlike almost every other kibbutz, Nes Ammim plans to use a new law that allows community settlements, in the country’s north and south, to interview and select residents—to screen newcomers, in other words—as a way to populate a mixed neighbourhood of Arabs and Jews, much like Neve Shalom/Wahat-al-Salaam. (This law has proven controversial, and come under legal challenge, because it has been used to exclude Arab residents interested in moving into Jewish settlements. Of course, membership by vote has been the kibbutz model from the very beginning.)

Not everyone I spoke with at, or associated with, Nes Ammim was keen on these changes. Some doubted that the community would attract enough Jewish residents to balance the population of this new neighbourhood. Others worried that Nes Ammim would lose the European character that had made the place unique, and with it, the focus on healing the division between Christianity and Judaism, between modern Europe and modern Israel, which has only grown in recent years. 

The young Dutch and German volunteers I met on Nes Ammim, however, seemed excited by the prospect of change. Their experiences on the kibbutz had been enriched, they told me, by the opportunities to see and hear about the complex nature of Israel from multiple perspectives: to learn Hebrew from native speakers, to tour the Holocaust Museum at the nearby Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz, to teach English to kids at the next-door Arab village, to meet school groups from both sides of the conflict, to visit the West Bank, to realize how many shades of grey exist behind the black-and-white stories of the region they were fed by the media back home. (I was envious of the rich experience these volunteers were getting on Nes Ammim, a far more intimate and honest look at life in Israel—especially the mixed Arab-Jewish region of Western Galilee—than 99.9% of foreign visitors will ever encounter.)

Nes Ammim was a place, sleepy as it might seem, that will always attract a whiff of controversy. How can you bring different religions together and not expect some friction? Perhaps that tension between its harmonious aspirations and its contentious reality is best symbolized in the sculpture that rests in the foyer of the kibbutz’s “church”. The building itself has been largely stripped of evidence of any faith or denomination. No cross, no icons, nothing but chairs facing a bare altar. The entrance, with a koi pond and rock garden in its centre, has the aura of a Zen Buddhist sanctuary more than anything else.

Then your eye is drawn to the sculpture in the pond, like a nativity scene floating on a disc. Three sets of ten figurines face a central pillar with three doors. The terracotta-coloured figures are arranged in a V-shaped 1-2-3-4 pattern, like bowling pins, aimed toward the three-doored hub. A closer inspection reveals the particulars of each faith in the figurines’ genuflections: Muslims prostrate on the ground, Christians kneeling, Jews—a minyan of them—standing, heads bent, holy books in hand.  
A pool for prayer: the many-layered sculpture at Nes Ammim

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Peace Dividend

Few communities illustrate the contradictions of the contemporary kibbutz more than Sasa. This community
(often called the "first all-American kibbutz") was founded by North American immigrants and members of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement  in the aftermath of the 1948 war on the high country near the border with southern Lebanon. It remains among the dwindling number of kibbutz shitufi—fully communal in its economy. It has also been, over the last decade, the most financially successful of the 270 kibbutzim scattered across Israel.

Evidence, it would seem, that you can maintain a kibbutz’s traditional philosophy of peace and equality and still thrive as a community. That capitalism doesn’t trump all. 

Well, not so fast.

The ideals of Sasa, while strong, are still compromised in revealing ways. The kibbutz was founded on the ruins of an Arab village, destroyed and depopulated during the War of Independence. An interview with one of the founders, in Toby Perl’s excellent documentary about the kibbutz movement, reveals an ambivalence about settling the site after the new arrivals realized its recent and troubling history—the ghosts that dwelled there, the original occupants now refugees across the border with Lebanon. (They stayed nonetheless.)

A similar asterisk must be added to Sasa’s economic success, which has allowed it to maintain its communal ideals. The members didn’t get rich growing grapefruits or (as at other kibbutzim) making plastics or irrigation devices or bifocal lenses. They made millions and employed thousands over the last 10 years by selling armored plating to the American military via the Plasan factory. In other words, the kibbutz was one of the main beneficiaries (along with shady military suppliers like Halliburton) of the the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The wheel thing: A Plasan-made "Sandcat" combat vehicle

The recent American withdrawal from the former and scaling down of operations in the latter have affected the economy of Sasa. News recently circulated about lay-offs at the kibbutz factory, and the Kibbutz Industries Association cited a drop of 13% from the nation's kibbutz-based industries, largely as a result of the decline in profits at Sasa.

Peace dividend? 

Not at Sasa. In this unusual utopia in the mountains, communal life has been preserved, and difficult decisions deferred, in part, thanks to the exorbitant American expenditures on foreign wars. Of course, one could always argue that Sasa didn’t manufacture weapons per se, and instead made its money keeping soldiers safe against improvised explosive devices and land mines. But that seems like splitting hairs. This kibbutz remains intermeshed, more than any other perhaps, in the global military industrial complex. What will it do now that the U.S. Armed Forces' money machine has been turned off? Can the community's values survive in times of peace as well as war?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Great Not-so-white North

After a more or less smooth trip (as smooth as getting up at 3 am for a taxi, two planes, a train and a rental car can be), I made it to Israel and have slept off most of my jet lag. I paused briefly, to rest  and get my bearings at Nes Ammim—a "kibbutz" of German Christians in between Nahariya and Akko. I return there tomorrow for three more days to learn  about their history, their evolution, and the interfaith dialogue workshops they run, as part of their dream of healing the rifts between Germans and Israelis, Christians and Jews.

On Friday afternoon, I drove north to the Hula Valley and my old kibbutz at Shamir. I'm staying with friends and visiting old acquaintances and, later this morning, interview Uzi Tzur, the first-born ben kibbutz (i.e., child of the kibbutz), who has played a huge role in both the defense of Shamir (he shot the terrorists who tried to infiltrate the kibbutz in 1974) and the success of Shamir Optical as a multinational enterprise.

I made it in time foe one more shabbat dinner on Shamir, always one of my favourite nights (the weekend, at last!) when I was a volunteer. The dining hall is privatized (open for lunch and Tuesday and Friday dinners now), and was maybe two-thirds full—not quite the clamouring packed hall from years past, but still alive with conversations between old friends and family members. You pay for your meal now, at the cash register till, and there is no longer free (albeit cheap and watery) white wine to be poured into jugs by the litre from industrial beverage dispensers. 

I'd seen evidence of religious leanings on other kibbutzim, but Shamir seems still to be resolutely secular: no prayers, no candles, no shabbat songs, none of the Jewish rituals I'd witnessed at erev shabbat on Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava or the Ravenna Kibbutz in Seattle. If anything was sacred here, it was the family—Shamir seems in the midst of a baby boom—and Friday night, the communal dinner was honouring the extended family, related by blood or proximity, so central to kibbutz life.

Yesterday, after a restful sleep-in, my friends Kari and Danny took me for a shabbat day trip. We tried to go to the Agamon-Hula Park, but the parking lot was crammed with bird-watchers and other tourists for the annual Hula Bird Festival—the valley's blue sky is alive with migrating cranes and hawks and other Rift Valley migrants—so we headed up north, nearly to the Lebanese border, and walked the forest trails (much quieter) of Tel Dan instead. We had lunch beside one of the streams that feeds the Jordan River. 

The Hula remains as beautiful as I remember, this crook of farm fields and marsh land, peppered with kibbutzes and moshavs, in between the Golan Heights and the Napthali Mountains. It has been a pleasant reminder of my time here 22 years ago, during the same autumn season when I first arrived as a volunteer, the days still sunny and yet the nights cooling quickly, the rainy season and the cold winds off the snowy top of Mt. Hermon on the horizon. Harvest over, a new year marking off its days. 

Nobody seems optimistic about the immediate future of Israel, with the looming showdown with Iran and the uncertain changes in neighbouring countries, with a right-wing government firmly entrenched in power and completely at odds with the traditional values of the kibbutz. But it's hard not to find a certain peace, here in the hills of northern Galilee, amid the tree-shaded lanes and bird-song and cries of children in the playground, here on Kibbutz Shamir.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On the Road Again

I'm excited (and nervous) to be in transit again, for a two-week research trip in Israel. I'm hoping that my interviews there will cap off all the material I need to complete my book. (Actually, what I need is the discipline—and perhaps a manacle around my ankle—to simply buckle down and finish a first draft.)

The next 14 days promise to be a flurry of travel and meetings and interviews and observations. Some highlights from my itinerary:

  • Nes Ammim: A German-run interfaith "kibbutz" that coordinates dialogue workshops and peace-building initiatives. I'm hoping to drop in on a session with Arab and Jewish theatre students from Haifa.
  • Kishorit: a former kibbutz that has been transformed into a rehabilitation centre and home for adults with physical and mental disabilities, where they can find meaningful work (including producing a TV show) and community.
  • Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company: I had brief visit to the studios and rehearsal spaces on Kibbutz Ga'aton 2.5 years ago, but on this visit I will spend time talking to artistic director Rami Be'er and then seeing this internationally renowned troupe perform in Tel Aviv.
  • Ran Tal, the director of the "collage" documentary" Children of the Sun, which weds archival footage of kibbutz children, from the 1930s onwards, with interviews with early kibbutzniks (including Tal's mother) about the positives and negatives of growing up (and raising their own children) in these isolated and idealistic communal outposts.
  • System Ali, a hip-hop collective, with members who are Arab and Jewish, native-born Israelis and Russian immigrants, that sprung from the Sadaka Reut commune that I visited in the summer of 2010.
  • Eliaz Cohen, a poet from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, one of the most historic settlements, who writes verse informed by his deep spiritual roots and his communal home.
  • And more...
First, though, I've got a 10.5-hour flight to Tel Aviv (with an exit-row seat!), negotiate the 20 Questions of Israeli Customs, grab an hour-and-a-half train ride to Nahariya, rent a car there, and make the short drive (thankfully) to Nes Ammim. The next morning I hit the ground running with interviews and then a drive up north to Kibbutz Shamir. No time for jet lag.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Kibbutzing Your 'Hood

I've been a lazy blogger of late, but not because I've been ignoring my kibbutz project. Anything but. The last month or so has been a hectic swirl of activity. I've been pounding my keyboard to finish a draft of the book by the end of the year. (Increasingly unlikely, although I'm pushing 140,000 words now.) I've been preparing for another research trip to Israel, which I'm very excited about. (I leave in less than a week; details to come.) And I've been writing and rewriting and practising a talk, linked to my research, for the upcoming TEDxVictoria conference this Saturday, November 19.

The 15-minute talk is called "Kibbutzing Your 'Hood". Without giving too much away, I will try to distill the wisdom of kibbutz design—the "architecture of hope" upon which these communities were built—and apply it to our own cities and neighbourhoods in North America. Some of the ideas I hope to bring together and share: the link between kibitzing and kibbutzing; the secret family history that joins Israel's famous socialist communes and the suburbs of North America; the unexpected social effects of unfenced open spaces; the importance of "third places"; how to calculate your neighbourhood's "K.Q."; and how the tools of micro-media can help communities turn positive gossip into enduring myths that will sustain them into the future. 

Or something like that.

That's the teaser. Come on down (I think tickets are still available), if you live in Victoria, to what should be a fascinating roster of speakers and performers and discussions. I'm thrilled to be part of this event—and to sneak a little kibbutz philosophy into the audience's imagination.

As part of the TEDx mandate, online videos of each talk will be posted. I'll add a link to my session as soon as it's up.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Great Good Place... Seattle version

Okay, if someone let me design my perfect bookstore, what would it look like?

First, I’d want to pedal to it, so I’d put a decent stand for locking bikes, covered from rain of course, right by the front door. Maybe keep a stand pump handy in case anyone gets a flat. I love reading outside, so let’s include a patio section for a coffee and a book en plein air.

Inside the entrance, I’d expect to find a good selection of magazines—local, national and international—literary journals, maybe a few zines. Some tables with new releases: hardback and soft, fiction and nonfiction. A big corner devoted to kids’ books.

I’ve always been a used book-buyer, so a good chunk of the store ought to be devoted to recycling other people’s past purchases, with a big desk at the back to make it easier for sellers to unload their offerings. In our era of infinite opinions and online retailers, a bookstore only matters if it’s got a personal touch, so I’ll let employees hand-write recommendations for their favourite books and leave their comments tucked as teasers between the shelves. Teachers, of course, are the most noble profession, so we’ll give them a 20% discount.

All that designing has made me hungry, so I’ll want a place to eat. Make it a cafe, with hot lunches and a dinner menu, great coffee, fresh muffins and other treats. Offer traditional cafe seating, but add a kids play area and then another section, next to the windows and also looking out across the bookstore, where people are encouraged to hang out, chat, read, work on their laptops. (Free wireless, of course.) Encourage them to stay. Make them feel so at home that they wheel in their double-stroller and  dog.

Anything else? Well, throw a whole series of readings and talks and musical events. And there’s the downstairs… let’s turn it into a bar with 15 beers on tap, because, hey, I already belong to a “Beer & Books” group, so the guys might as well have a special place to hang out.

Oh wait, what’s that? Somebody already built my literary utopia?

So they did. And in Seattle, no less.

I flew across the Strait last Friday to have shabbat dinner at the Ravenna Kibbutz (more on that later). Because of my arrival time, I had about six hours to kill before dinner began. I tried to scope out the closest library, but it was closed—on a Friday! (Budget cutbacks.) And that’s when I discovered the Ravenna Third Place bookstore (and cafe and pub), just blocks from the kibbutz, and a perfect complement to my research into community values and communal spaces.

This unique twist on the bookstore/cafe combo has been explicitly designed around the idea, by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, of the “third place”—the communal space that is neither work nor home, that is free or inexpensive, accessible and inclusive. A place to kibitz. In his book The Great Good Place, Oldenburg describes these civic sites and establishments as centres of “informal public life”, where networks of affiliation can develop and creativity can spark.

Inspired by this vision, The Ravenna Third Place’s website and bookmarks welcome newcomers to a “deliberate and intentional creation of a community of booklovers. A fun and comfortable place to browse, linger, lounge, relax, read, eat, laugh, play, talk, listen and just watch the world go by.”

I did most of the above. I nursed a latte for close to four hours, wrote in my journal, chatted to a couple of the servers (I’d wanted to interview the owner, but he wasn’t in), daydreamed, people-watched and eavesdropped on everyone around me. One young guy was doing animation on his laptop. Another middle-aged man was studying Chinese on his computer. Behind me, a young university student (from Arkansas via Alaska) was meeting for the first time a pastor who organized a fellowship group she was curious about. (Yes, we were in Richard Florida’s “creative class” Seattle, but also George W. Bush’s evangelical America.)

Finally, I browsed the bookshelves and went home (after my “educator’s discount”) with a used copy of Amos Oz’s Elsewhere, Perhaps and the new paperback edition of Sarah Bakewell’s inventive How to Live.

I returned to Victoria wishing I had my own Third Place so close by. (There are a few cafe/bookstores around town, but none as ambitious as this.) If you build it, I will come. And stay for hours apparently.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pocket ‘Hoods

I had a “kibbutz moment” this past Saturday.

It was the last weekend of September, and fall was definitely looming. One of the neighbours on our cul de sac had the brilliant idea to suggest a street party for that evening. We’d had one party, usually an impromptu annual event, earlier in the season. However, new owners had moved into houses sold over the summer and pair of younger longtime residents were moving out of their parents’ homes at the end of the month. It would be a good chance to say hello and goodbye at the the same time.

It turned out to be a perfect night: likely the last warm, breezeless evening of the year. We pulled out a barbecue and tables and chairs and spread out a huge potluck (heavy on desserts). Our kids chased each other (and huge bubbles) around the cul de sac and drew chalk drawings across the pavement. Names were put to new faces. Recently departed neighbours, already much-missed, were invited for a noisy reunion. In the distance, a soundtrack from the Rifflandia Festival drifted from Royal Athletic Park. It reminded me why we had moved here in the first place and then undergone the trauma of renovating our house, when it seemed too small for two kids, rather than moving elsewhere.

The street party evoked memories of the barbecues and bonfires we had on the kibbutz, in the scrubby commons in between the volunteers’ quarters, drinking beer and swapping stories. It also echoed many of the themes and ideas and values I’d been reading about in a wonderful new book by Ross Chapin, an architect from Whidbey Island, Washington, called Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World. In this compellingly written and beautifully designed volume—an eye-pleasing coffee-table book with the intellectual urgency of a political manifesto—he lays out the historical precedents of and design principles for human-scale developments, built to promote communal interaction rather than enforce privacy and facilitate car travel, what he calls the “pocket neighourhood”.

A "pocket" get-together in Umatilla Hill, Port Townsend, Washington, designed by Ross Chapin
Chapin and his firm have purpose-built a number of these “pocket neighbourhoods” in the Pacific Northwest. At the most basic level, the ideal pocket neighbourhood consists of a number of key features:
  1. first and foremost, a central grassy common area or open courtyard, into which all of the houses (and their covered porches) face, connected by shared pathways and gardens;
  2. a central commons building, including a kitchen and dining area, in which indoor group activities (during rainy weather, say) can take place and shared equipment can be stored;
  3. smaller homes—one or 1.5-storey cottages, rather than mammoth monster houses that dominate the sight-lines;
  4. low or no fences, rather than high barriers between neighbours;
  5. and—very important—cars and other vehicles shunted to the margins, kept to adjacent lots or back alleys, so that houses aren’t dominated by garages and common spaces intimidated and interrupted by traffic.
In other words: Build a ‘hood that encourages what Chapin calls a “web of walkability” and the serendipitous encounters that occur once you free your ass from your car seat.

The book provides a wide array of sketches and photos from the developments that Chapin has pioneered, complemented by historical antecedents (Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard; Hofje almshouses in Holland; Forest Hills and Sunnyside Gardens, both in Queens, and other neighbourrhoods inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s “garden city” vision; Village Homes in Davis, California; SoCal's bungalow courts; floathome communities); contemporary examples of and ideas for creating pocket-like features in existing neighbourhoods (traffic-slowing lanes and woonerfs; backyard cottages; “defencing” backyards; “sagine communities” for retirees; cohousing projects; Earthsong in New Zealand and Christie Walk—an “urban eco-community” in Australia; Swan’s Market in Oakland; community gardens, cul de sac commons—and potlucks!—alley greening; intersection painting in Portland… on and on!); and short profiles of visionary architects, planners and neighbourhood activists (Mark Lakeman of Portland; Karl Linn, a kibbutz founder who went on to teach landscape architecture at UPenn; Jim Leach—no relation—the largest cohousing developer in the U.S.; Paul Downton of Ecopolis Architects; Jan Gudmand-Høyer, who studied the kibbutz movement and then pioneered Danish cohousing models; investment advisor Catherine Fitts, who invented the “popsicle index” of community health; Judy Corbett of the Local Government Commission; Hans Moderman, the counter-intuitive traffic engineer and woonerf pioneer who realized that to calm traffic you had to confuse drivers).

So many of the key concepts outlined in Chapin’s “pocket neighbourhood” vision have been part of the philosophy of kibbutz design for 70+ years. In fact, using some of his tips to turn any street into a “pocket neighbourhood” would be a good example of what I’ve been calling “kibbutzing your ‘hood”: that is, integrating the connections essential to community life right into the built space. Best of all, you don’t have to be a radical socialist to live in a pocket neighbourhood; they are designed, in Chapin’s perspective, to balance our desire for personal privacy with our innate human sociability. These more closely interconnected streets and neighbourhoods also create what he calls (on his website but not in the book) a network of “shirt-tail aunts and uncles”—neighbours who watch out for each other, who have a stake in the safety and healthy development of the children (and adults) around them. (We're lucky enough to know several.) It takes a village. Or at least a pocket neighbourhood.

I’m hoping to talk to the author in person at some point to learn more about the theory and practice of pocket neighbourhoods, and perhaps compare notes with my own research into the principles of kibbutz design. In the meantime, I’ve been inspired by his optimism that we can create a more rich and sociable community on our own—and also a little envious of those developments he has already created, in which neighbours have been given a central traffic-free commons in which to come together, every day, and build a community one conversation at a time.

Ross Chapin. Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World. Taunton Press, 2011

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book review: Amos Oz and the gossip economy

Amos Oz has claimed that there is no such thing as a “kibbutz literature”. Yes, there are books written by kibbutzniks and books written about kibbutzniks. However, even after 100 years of kibbutz life (and nearly as long writing about it), no motif or technique unifies all these spilled words other than a setting. "The kibbutz," Oz has argued, "has not inspired any 'mutation' in Hebrew literature."

I won’t disagree with Oz: He is Israel’s most-famous author, a (former member of Kibbutz Hulda for 30+ years, and a widely quoted authority on matters literary, communal and political. (Would someone give the man a Nobel Prize already?)

That said, if there were a kibbutz literature, Oz’s first novel (and second book, after his debut collection of stories, Where the Jackals Howl) Elsewhere, Perhaps deserves a place of honour as the classic text in the transitional period from the “heroic age” of the kibbutz to its modern depiction as a complex, troubled microcosm of the greater world around it. 

Oz’s dedication (to the memory of his mother) tries to throw off the reader by demurring: “Do not imagine that Metsudat Ram”—the book’s fictional kibbutz, near the Syrian border and the Sea of Galilee—”is a reflection in miniature. It merely tries to reflect a faraway kingdom by a sea, perhaps elsewhere.” Oz has said, several times, that he had been inspired as a writer by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, to realize that literature could find universal resonance even within the confines of a small, otherwise nondescript community. That stories didn’t need to happen in New York or Paris or Moscow to matter. Kibbutz Metsudat Ram becomes Oz’s Wineeburg.

As it tells the story of this settlement, from the multiple perspectives of different kibbutzniks, the novel draws tension from a trio of love triangles: one that has happened and left a bitter fallout; another—in part a consequence of the first betrayal—has become the recent focus of kibbutz gossip; and the third melodrama develops and concludes over the course of the novel. Socialism and Zionism may be the ostensible philosophies of the kibbutz, but the urgings of the heart (and lower regions of the body) drive many of its members’ actions. The howls of the jackals and the unseen, unnamed “enemy” in the jagged hills beyond the wire fence of the well-ordered kibbutz suggest external forces of chaos that threaten the community, and yet human impulses within its gates—the casual adultery, the malicious whispering, the vandalism of bored youths—prove more corrosive.

The timing of the novel’s publication is significant. It was published, in Hebrew, in 1966, the year before victory in the Six Day War (in which Oz fought in the Sinai campaign) transformed the young nation of Israel in ways that it is still reckoning with. Before 1948, the kibbutz was the pre-eminent form of settlement in pre-state Israel, the pioneers who helped lay down the borders for the future nation; after 1967, their reputation as nation builders diminished and was overshadowed, controversially, as religious and right-wing settlers began to move into the occupied West Bank and Gaza. (A few secular kibbutzim were built beyond the “Green Line”, but the movement otherwise remained focused on growing its existing communities and building new ones within the 1948 borders.)

Beyond this historical context, though, Elsewhere, Perhaps suggests a distinct technique of “kibbutz literature” through its narrative voice. While Oz drifts into the consciousnesses of various characters, the book begins and ends and speaks throughout in the collective “we” of the kibbutz as a whole. It is a subtly ironic “we”, a slightly naive “we”, though, a voice that, while trying to justify the ways of the kibbutz to readers and other outsiders, doesn’t always recognize the flaws in the community or its residents that are there to be read between the lines. The “we” sounds a bit like first-person plural narrator of Jeffrey Euginedes’ The Virgin Suicides (told in the collective voice of the boys who observe the mysterious lives and deaths of the Lisbon sisters on their suburban street) or the “downstage narrator” of a Tom Wolfe essay or nonfiction novel, which takes on the verbal tics and biases of a group rather than an individual character. 

“Our village is built in a spirit of optimism,” this narrator tells us, and yet optimism seems hard to come by in the settlement of Metsudat Ram. Perhaps, notes the narrator, readers have an overly nostalgic, romantic image of village life: “The object of the kibbutz is not to satisfy the sentimental expectation of town dwellers. Our village is not lacking in charm and beauty, but its beauty is vigorous and virile and its charm conveys a message. Yes, it does.” One of the most telling passages (and most relevant to my own interest in the history of the kibbutz) talks about the vital power of gossip on the kibbutz. The narrating “we”, in many ways, is gossip personified—is a reminder that perhaps all storytelling, all literature, begins as gossip, as tales traded between neighbours: 

“Gossip plays an important and respected role here and contributes in its way to reforming our society. … Gossip is simply the other name for judging. By means of gossip we overcome our natural instincts and gradually become better men. Gossip plays a powerful part in our lives, because our lives are exposed like a sun-drenched courtyard. … Gossip is normally thought of as an undesirable activity but with us even gossip is made to play a part in the reform of the world.”

As a money-less, anti-authoritarian, utopian settlement, the kibbutz is based instead on a “reputation economy”. As the narrator reminds us toward the end of the book: “The community can neither exercise brute force nor hold out promises of material gain. Our system compels us to rely entirely on moral sanctions.” Those “moral sanctions” consist of the raised eyebrow, the cold shoulder, the awkward question, the whispers that circulate around the dining hall—a complex semaphore that signals a community member's rising or falling social standing. Gossip holds the kibbutz together, as the narrator makes clear. But the novel also asks: At what cost?

Amos Oz, Elsewhere, Perhaps. Translated from the Hebrew [Makom aher] by Nicholas de Lange, in collaboration with the author. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966, English Translation 1973.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Famous Kibbutz Volunteers

Over the past century, more than 400,000 volunteers from around the world have worked on a kibbutz for at least a couple months. Some found love (or other good reasons) to stay for good. Most returned home, changed in ways small or large. Inevitably, given their numbers, a few of these gangly teenaged volunteers and globe-trotting twenty-somethings went on to greater renown as authors, actors, academics, as politicians and pundits.

Novelist Arthur Koestler (best known for his anti-Stalinist parable Darkness at Noon) was one of the first volunteers to put his memories to paper. He had abandoned his university studies in Germany in 1926, acquired a visa to Palestine and arrived in Haifa with plans to work on a kibbutz, to be a true settler—even though he was an aspiring writer from the city with little taste for physical labour.

He was shocked by the primitive conditions on Kibbutz Hephizibah, which he described as a “rather dismal and slumlike oasis in the wilderness”. He had expected hardy log cabins, like those of the American pioneers. Instead he got ushered into “ramshackle dwellings” that reminded him of the poorest slums of Europe. Kibbutzniks the same age as Koestler looked decades older, their cheeks jaundiced from malaria and sunken with hunger. Their austere teetotalling routine of  near-endless labour made the bon-vivant-ish Koestler feel like he had accidentally barged into a monastery on a pub crawl. He proved hopeless at fieldwork or farming, failed at stone removal and fruit picking, and his fellow communards struggled to find chores suited to the German bookworm in their midst. In the end, he was voted down for membership—which proved an immediate disappointment but ultimately a relief to Koestler. He would claim to have stayed several weeks on the kibbutz; another letter suggests that only managed to tough it out for 10 days.

Twenty years later, a much-admired journalist and novelist, Koestler returned to the kibbutz and admitted to its members, at a party hosted in his honour, that, yes, he had been a total failure as a settler and deserved to be shown the door. Still, while his restless curiosity had taken him elsewhere, he experienced a pang of nostalgia for the commune that had evicted him. “When I neared the kibbutz,” he wrote, “I felt that, despite the darkness, I had returned to the specific location in the homeland that I could refer to as home.” On that same trip, he visited a number of other kibbutzes to as research for a novel. Joseph, the hero of Thieves in the Night, would share the ironic distance of the author but prove to be a hardier kibbutznik. Through his character, Koestler would get to both relive and rewrite his stillborn experiences as a bumbling volunteer.

Linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky—later a vocal opponent of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza—stayed for six weeks on Kibbutz Hazorea, near Haifa, in 1953 with his wife, where he found a “functioning and very successful libertarian community”. In the years before Israel’s independence, as a young man, he had been deeply interested in anarchist, left-wing politics, and in the socialist vision, shared by many kibbutzniks, of Palestine as a binational state for both Arabs and Jews. He harboured vague aspirations of moving to Israel, joining a kibbutz, and working at Arab-Jewish cooperative efforts. He had no plans, at the time, for an academic career, and his brief stay on Hazorea was a test run for possible immigration to a kibbutz. He worked the fields and found much to admire in the simple life of the commune, as well as the intellectual discussions with the German founders of the community. 

But some of the members’ ideology didn’t sit well with the free-thinking young Chomsky, especially how the hardcore Marxists in Hazorea defended the anti-Semitic show trials then going on in the Communist Eastern bloc. Still, Chomsky figured, after returning to the States, that he would return to the kibbutz—his wife did, for a longer stay. But then a research opportunity at MIT and the chance to explore his linguistic interests kept him in the States. The kibbutz lost a bookish fieldworker; the world gained a scientist who would transform our understanding of the human acquisition of language.

Years later, in an interview, the hyper-rational Chomsky sounded ambivalent, even wistful—or as wistful as he must get—about the lost promise of the kibbutz and his brief, youthful experience as a volunteer. “In some respects, the kibbutzim came closer to the anarchist ideal than any other attempt that lasted for more than a very brief moment before destruction, or that was on anything like a similar scale. In these respects, I think they were extremely attractive and successful; apart from personal accident, I probably would have lived there myself—for how long, it's hard to guess. But they were embedded in a more general context that was highly corrosive.” Even anarchist utopias couldn’t protect their ideals from the outside world.
Borat models 80s-era kibbutz couture

The nation of Israel changed, irrevocably it now seems, in 1967 in the aftermath of its lightning victory over the massed Arab armies in the Six Day War—and the persistent dilemma of what to do with the Palestinian territories it then occupied. That year also changed the kibbutz movement, by swinging open the gates of these communities—which had always sworn to rely only on the labour of its own members—to volunteers from around the world. Army-aged members had been called up into reserve service during the tense prelude to the war; their positions in the fields and the factories needed to be filled, or the kibbutz economy—and much of Israel’s—would slow to a crawl. The first wave of patriotic Jews from the Diaspora were later followed by hordes of adventure-seeking non-Jews, hippies who had heard rumours of communes in the hills and the deserts of Israel, young Germans burdened by the collective guilt of the Holocaust, and then other backpackers over the next two or three decades.

Actress Sigourney Weaver joined the wave of young volunteers who came to Israel’s aid from America, Britain and other countries in 1967—although her experience on a kibbutz didn’t quite match her imaginings. “I dreamt we’d all be working out in the fields like pioneers, singing away,” she remembered. “We were stuck in the kitchen. I operated a potato-peeling machine.” That assignment nearly ended her acting career before it began; one morning, the peeling machine started coughing and then erupted, showering her with potato shrapnel, as cockroaches swarmed the sudden windfall. “It was one explosion after another,” the star of Ghostbusters and the Alien movies later recalled. “It should have put me off science fiction forever.” Fortunately, it didn’t.

British actor Bob Hoskins, then 25, also volunteered in 1967, and fell in love with the physical work, the sound of  the bird calls at sunrise, the romance of rural life. He wanted to remain as a member—except for one hitch. “I was happy being a kibbutznik but they said to me, ‘You gotta join the army’ and I said, ‘But I’m not Jewish’, and they said, ‘It don’t matter’, so I left.”

In 1971, a reedy-limbed, bespectacled, 17-year-old Jerry Seinfield did two months on a kibbutz near the northern Mediterranean coast on a get-to-know-Israel summer program. He hated it. “Nice Jewish boys from Long Island don’t like to get up at six in the morning to pick bananas,” he later recealled. “ All summer long I found ways to get out of work.”  

A year later, Sandra Bernhard had a more positive experience as a young volunteer. She spent eight months on Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, which she claimed helped to toughen her up for the shark pit of auditioning in L.A. (Nearly 30 years later, she performed a cabaret show of songs, comedy and conversation called “Songs I Sang on the Kibbutz”.)

Simon Le Bon, later the lead singer of Duran Duran, kipped for three months in Kibbutz Gvulot in 1979 (and later penned a song called “Tel Aviv”), and his dorm bed was later preserved as a shrine for fans of the dreamy-eyed, swooping-haired, new-wave icon. 

Sacha Baron Cohen had been raised in an Orthodox family in London and came, with fellow members of a Zionist youth group, to volunteer on Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra, where Israel’s Mediterranean coastline meets the border with Lebanon. I like to imagine what the kibbutz’s Purim Festival was like when the prankster who became Ali G, Borat and Brüno lived there. Alas, he has never dropped his many personae to talk about his kibbutz experiences, nor has any video evidence surfaced of his stay as a volunteer there.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

SuperCooperators & the Kibbutz

One of the knocks against the kibbutz philosophy, from critics, was that its communal economy was “unnatural”. Evolution, they argued, didn’t breed self-interested Homo sapiens to be self-sacrificing Homo kibbutzniks. Natural selection would never favour a genetic predisposition to help others first. That, at least, was the position of “social Darwinism”—the (often crude) application of evolutionary biology (and what Herbert Spencer called “survival of the fittest”) to understanding human society. Competition—at the level of the individual, the species or the “selfish gene”—must underpin the process of evolution.

There’s one catch. Human societies are based, to greater and lesser degrees, on cooperation—on what Peter Kropotkin, the biologist-cum-anarchist, called “mutual aid”. So, too, are many non-human species, from apes to ants. In fact, every multicellular organism is the result, at a basic level, of cooperation among specialized cellular mechanisms working together to create a more powerful whole. So how do scientists make these real-world acts of cooperation gibe with the Darwinian theory of natural selection?

A recent book called SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed offers a thorough and engaging overview of the subject, as well as a strong case for how cooperation is a key component of the evolutionary process. It’s written by Austrian-born mathematical biologist Martin A. Nowak (in cooperation with science journalist Roger Highfield), an intimidating super-brain who has been on the faculty of Oxford, Harvard and Princeton, and has collaborated with a wide range of leading academics and bright up-and-comers to apply the tools of “game theory” to understand how different cooperative strategies might evolve. (Check out a YouTube video of him here.)

He begins with a look at the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”—a game-theory exercise that poses an obstacle to cooperation. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma (much like the Tragedy of the Commons), “rational” self-interested players will choose to forgo cooperation, even when it would ultimately benefit them more. To encourage the “irrational” choice to cooperate, notes Nowak, “natural selection needs help”. He identifies the five mechanisms that can, under certain conditions, encourage cooperation—and notes that only human beings can access all five.

For a long time, the mechanism of “kin selection” (or “inclusive fitness”) was thought to explain away altruism: organisms cooperate so that their “selfish genes” can replicate either through themselves or close relations that carry the same genes, too. Altruism, in this view, is just selfishness at the genetic level. Nowak argues that kin selection, though, only applies to a select number of situations.

A second mechanism is—most obviously—”direct reciprocity” or “repetition” (known in game theory as “tit for tat”), wherein individuals might cooperate if it’s likely that they will meet again and reap the benefit of a favour in return. A third mechanism involves the extension of reciprocity from direct to indirect via a reputation economy. Here, individuals are willing to act altruistically and promote cooperation based on the reputation for similar behaviour in another individual. This complex form of cooperation requires (or rather, co-evolves with) language and a sense of a public identity—what we know as ”society”. Here, we begin to see the logic of kibbutz communalism—the role of gossip and reputation in a small community to promote and enforce cooperation and keep so-called “free-riding” (ie, the tragedy of the commons) to a minimum.

The last two mechanisms are similarly complex. One is “spatial selection”—the fact that cooperation can evolve and expand, even without indirect reciprocity, as individuals coalesce into clusters and networks of cooperative behaviour. Finally, “group selection”—long dismissed by most biologists—now stands on firmer ground as a theory. Nowak also calls it “multilevel selection” to underline that direct and indirect reciprocity can encourage natural selection to operate not simply at the level of the individual but also at the level of the community or the tribe. But he notes: “This cooperative mechanism works well if there are many small groups and not well if there are a few large groups.” That caveat offers food for thought when considering the issue of sustainable size for livable cities, communal societies and cooperative organizations.

Nowak brings a sense of urgency to his final chapter, where he notes that looming environmental crises—the Tragedy of the Commons on a global scale—make the need for human cooperation imperative. We have the tools. We are genetically programmed, in the right circumstances, to benefit from cooperation. There is nothing stopping us...except the paradox of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the short-sightedness of immediate gratification over the long-term benefits of cooperation.

“Humans are SuperCooperators,” Nowak concludes. “We are able to draw on all five mechanisms of cooperation. In particular, we are the only species that can summon the full power of indirect reciprocity, thanks to our rich and flexible language. We have names and with them come reputations that can be used to help us all to work more closely together. We can design our surroundings… to achieve more enduring cooperation.”

We just need to find the collective will to do so.

SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Martin A. Nowak, with Roger Highfield. Free Press, New York, 2011.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Film: Fog

It’s been several weeks since I watched Fog, an hour-long documentary film from 2008 by director Rafik Halabi, and yet I remain haunted by its story, as though I’d been immersed in an epic novel or dramatic film. What I mean is that Fog, a fact-based foreign video project made on what was likely a tiny budget, has all the elements of great literature and art: War! Death! Family! Spirituality! Mystery! And a relentless quest for the truth. It is also one of those true stories that seems, on its surface, so preposterous that it has to be the work of fiction and fantasy.

The fog of the film’s title is the mist that wraps the slopes of Mt. Hermon, on the disputed border between Israel and Syria, into which Sergeant Mu’in Halabi, a Druze Arab soldier in the Israeli Defence Forces from Western Galilee, disappears during the early days of the October War of 1973. It’s the last that his three army companions see of Halabi during an abortive assault on the Syrian-held summit. Weeks later, army officials report to his family that his body has been found, with its eyes gouged out, but it is in an advanced state of decomposition and rapidly buried.

Later, a girl from his village claims to have heard his voice in a radio broadcast from Syria. Might he have been captured and still
be alive instead? The story grows more complicated when a four-year-old Druze boy, who had been born just a month after Halabi’s disappearance in a nearby village, reveals striking knowledge of the details of the soldier’s disappearance, as though he had been there, and claims to be the reincarnation of Mu’in Halabi. The Druze religion, a highly secretive outgrowth of Ismaili Islam, includes reincarnation as one of its beliefs. Even largely secular members of the Druze people don’t discount the possibility of being reborn in another body.

At age 22, Roni Ganam, the boy who claimed to be the reincarnated Halabi, has grown up to be a local soccer star, but is killed during his own army service, when his bus is destroyed by a suicide bomber. Again, not long after this tragedy, a new child is born, who reveals, a few years later, intimate knowledge about Roni’s life and sudden death. Has the spirit of Mu’in Halabi found a new incarnation? What seems undeniable is the consolation that the family members of both deceased soldiers take in their faith that their lost boys live on in another embodiment—that death is but a transition into a new life.

Enter Rafik Halabi, a veteran Druze TV news reporter (and author of The West Bank Story), who sets out as the director of this investigative documentary to pick through the evidence, disentangle the varying accounts of Halabi’s last hours and try to reach the truth—but who only finds himself drawn deeper into the mystery. By the end, the documentary sheds new light on what likely happened in the mists of Mt. Hermon, and yet still leaves the viewer looking through shades of ambiguity, too.

I’d ordered Fog mostly because I’d worked with several young Druze on Kibbutz Shamir and finally visited Majdal Shams last summer. The Druze seem to symbolize the immense complexity of life in Israel, which often gets lost in black-and-white accounts we receive in the North American media, let alone the one-sided pro-Israel or pro-Palestine rhetoric that divides the blogosphere and Internet comment boards.

Mu’in Halabi, from Western Galilee, was a Druze Arab and an Israeli citizen and a soldier in the IDF. In the October War, he was fighting against Syrian army units that would have also included Druze soldiers, loyal to Syria. They were fighting over the captured territory of the Golan Heights, where the Druze residents—after centuries of being a minority caught between major powers—are careful to hedge their allegiances. They now live in land that was formerly Syrian, but has been annexed by Israel, but could one day (however unlikely) be returned to Syria. Confused yet? There is little wonder that the Druze religion, and even society, has clung to secrecy (and a belief in the eternal cycle of reincarnation) as a survival mechanism. Fog is both a metaphor and a way of life.

So what’s the kibbutz connection to this fascinating documentary? Okay, beyond my rubbing shoulders with Druze guest workers on Shamir, it’s pretty minor. But there is one: the sumptuous, moving and note-perfect score was written and performed by Yair Dalal, a well-known Israeli musician of Iraqi background (known especially for his oud playing) and peace activist who lived during his thirties on Kibbutz Samar (where encounters with Bedouin musicians sent him off on new artistic directions).

In short, Fog is one real-life tale of death, life and mystery that is worth getting lost in.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Revenge of the Kibbutz?

The kibbutz movement began, over 100 years ago, when a handful of young Zionist pioneers grew fed up with the manager of the Kinnereth training farm where they were working and decided, rather than continue to be exploited, that they would start their own community based on an economy of mutual aid.

This past weekend, more than 120,000 Israelis took to the streets, in cities throughout the country, to protest from a similar sense of injustice. What began as a student-led pushback and tent encampment against high rents and food prices has swollen into a nation-wide uprising and demand for “social justice”. This time around, kibbutzniks have little to do with the mass protest. Privatization in the kibbutz movement has dimmed its political influence, and their rural enclaves on the nation’s periphery have been largely untouched by the spiralling house and rental prices in Israeli’s urban centres. (In fact, many kibbutzes have built subdivisions to cash in on outsiders looking for affordable homes.)

But, as this short report from the movement’s Givat Haviva Institute makes clear, the growing protest movement springs from the same desire to create a just society rather than simply compete within a dog-eat-dog free market. The signs of the protesters (as reported by the blogging and tweeting journalists of the essential +972 Magazine) make this sentiment clear: “The answer to privatization. Re-vo-lu-tion,” “The market is free and we are slaves,” “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask why it’s robbing you,” and “The people want social justice.”

Now, if only the popular uprisings of the Middle East's so-called “Arab Spring” would blow their way across the Atlantic and shake up the me-first-and-me-last neo-conservativism of the U.S. Tea Party and the fire-sale dogmas of Harperland…. 

The kibbutz is dead, long live kibbutzism.

UPDATE: This excellent editorial from author and activist (and, if there's any justice in the world, future Nobel Prize for Literature winner) Amos Oz makes a very similar (though more eloquent) point.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book: Mourning a Father Lost, by Avraham Balaban

The kibbutz might have remained just a footnote in the history of Israel or 20th-century socialism if it weren’t for one major twist: the decision to raise the “children of the dream” communally, separated from their parents except for evening visits, eating and sleeping and learning together, amongst peers of the same age, in “children’s societies” that were designed as a microcosm of the larger kibbutz.

Communal child-raising was something of an accident in the early kibbutz, an ideological improvisation borne out of necessity—the need to free mothers to keep working—rather than ingrained philosophy. It quickly became part of the entrenched belief of the kibbutz leaders’ socialist vision, however: an opportunity to deal with the “problem of the family”; to make women equal to men in the field of work; and to cultivate in the minds of the young a belief that the collective, rather than the individual or the family unit, always came first.

The disappearance of this communal child-rearing began in the late 60s and accelerated through the 70s and 80s, until the last kibbutz (Bar’am) allowed its children to sleep in their parents’ apartments during the First Gulf War (in part, because of the threat from Saddam Hussein’s Scuds). For traditionalists, the decision to turn the children’s societies into mere daycares (highly respected ones, even today) was the beginning of the end of the kibbutz movement—a succumbing to the temptations of individualism and “familism”. For critics of the system, the return to the family (democratically decided by each kibbutz) only proved that socialist ideology can’t trump human nature, that it might take a village to raise a child, but that doesn’t mean the child should be removed from his or her parents’ care.

Of course, in its first flourishing, this experiment in communal child development drew, like moths to the flame, curious sociologists and psychologists from around the world to study different kibbutz communities and the generations being raised in this manner. Most famous amongst them was Bruno Bettelheim, author of the 1969 study Children of the Dream (based on his observations at Kibbutz Yohanam). “I found their system not entirely successful,” he concluded, “but certainly not a failure.” Other observers weren’t so kind, and claimed that communal living creating a generation with a “Metapelet Complex”—named after the all-powerful “nanny” or care provider who took on the role of the parents—in which kibbutz-raised adults came to expect that the kibbutz, or the movement, or society in general would look after them. Skeptics of this theory pointed out that, per capita, the kibbutz system produced an inordinate number of independent-minded high-achievers: politicians and artists, military commanders and academics. 

From an anecdotal perspective, perhaps the most damning indictment of communal childhood on the kibbutz comes from Avraham Balaban’s memoir, first published in 2000 (curiously, by the leading kibbutz movement) and then translated into English in 2004, titled Mourning a Father Lost: A Kibbutz Childhood Remembered. Its original Hebrew title was simply Shivah, after the week-long Jewish rite of mourning, and the series of remembrances is ingeniously structured around the seven days that Balaban (now a poet and professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Florida) spends on his former kibbutz (Hulda, where author Amos Oz also once lived), with his mother, his siblings and various visitors after the death of his father. The shivah becomes a metaphor through which he mourns not just his father (with whom he had a distant relationship), but his own childhood (and especially the gap put between him and his mother) lost to the collective ideology imposed on him and his peers by the founding generation. It’s a shivah, as well, for the kibbutz movement, which he can see is in decline—although he feels little sorrow at its fading.

The book is also an engrossing work of literature, creative nonfiction in the finest sense, and a reflection on the nature of memory and the collective narratives that shape our lives. “What does memory remember?” he writes. “The friction of body against body, of flesh against the door, a crushed entry into words.” His return to his abandoned home triggers mental journeys back into the past, moments and episodes from his childhood (the teasing of one of his peers, the loneliness of his own teen years), long-suppressed fears (the jackals howling outside the fence, a recurring nightmare of the kibbutz overrun by Arab attackers), and percolating anger and resentment at being subjected to this grand experiment in re-education, of being a ”child of a dream, child of a laboratory”.

His old kindergarten teacher visits, to extend her condolences, as do friends from his kibbutz days. Their conversations, often without quotation marks, bleed into Balaban’s own narrative voice (much as Amos Os does in his own memoir of growing up), identities blur in the poetry of his prose, as if he were channelling the spirit of these other characters, rather than transcribing their words. Batsheva, a classmate, says at one point—in a damning echo of the author’s own opinions about kibbutz life:  “What amazes me, when I think about our childhood, is the members’ conviction that we were a clean slate on which they could write whatever they saw fit. So they wrote on us: be brave and not afraid of the dark and the jackals, and be the very opposite of everything we hated about our parents and ourselves. We won’t actually be your parents, but please love us as a child loves his parents. And above all, be loyal to the kibbutz and the movement. And they were naive enough, or stupid enough, to believe that this is what would happen.”

Balaban doesn’t pull any punches in his memoir—about his disappointments with his father, or his upbringing, or even with himself. “The children are sheltered by the finest theories, surrounded by nurses and educators, but the nurses soon discover that a mother’s love no more resembles her feeling for her friend’s children than blood resembles sweat. The children develop survival strategies, like street kids, toughening their skin to the best of their abilities. When they grow up they will evince the selfishness of people who never got enough protection and security. The motto of the kibbutz movement—’What’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine’—likewise contributed to this: in time, all that remains of it is the habit, and later the wish, that what is yours is mine. Like children who grow up too soon, they would age in time but never reach maturity” (8-9).

He aims his sharpest barbs at the leaders of the movement that tried to transform the first generation of kibbutz-born children through their collective theories: “The movement’s gurus also did the damage. The old family is obsolete, the educationalists proclaimed. We shall create a new family, the education committee told her [my mother]. Away from mother’s apron strings we shall bring up natural, healthy children, echoed the general meeting. And she believed everything she was told, as a Hassid believes his rabbi” (11). A later discovery of a memo, in which the lead educator on Kibbutz Hulda makes the case for reducing the time allotted for kids to visit parents down to one hour (it’s for both their good!), sends Balaban into a froth of disgust. “‘A child cannot long for what it never had, it cannot miss what it has never known,’ the lecturers at the ideological seminars and the training courses for children’s nurses persuaded one another” (13).

His rebuke of his dead father is especially blunt: “That enthusiasm had led him to believe that he was in the social vanguard, when in fact he was a small component in a doomed experiment. He imagined that he was in the storm, when in fact he was a leaf that it blew away. Rest in peace, you hard, selfish, and naive man.” And yet, at the book’s end, the author breaks down emotionally because he has missed the chance to reconcile himself with, and properly mourn, this absent parent.

A visit to the kibbutz, 10 years before the shivah, to give a lecture to its aging members, prompts more general reflections about the institution’s failure to create the New Man, the homo kibbutznik, the socialist subspecies of natural altruism: “They were humanity’s finest dream in this century, the most consistent attempt to forget humanity’s inglorious origins. Every morning for decades they rose early to adapt themselves to the dream that had brought them here. And again I saw that forty, fifty years in one house did not create a wonderful comradeship, but hostile silent elbows. This way of life, designed for saints and angels, detracted from their humanity … I sat with them with an aching heart: how they were misled, misguided from the outset.” Tough words.

As a parent, there have been times of sleepless and harried frustration when I might have seen the wisdom of the collective project—how a “children’s society” of nightly babysitting might free a young couple to fulfill more fully their work lives and social lives and community lives and creative lives. (And, yes, even their sex lives.) But I also read several chapters of this tough yet sensitive book, this hauntingly candid memoir, while holding my sleeping three-year-old daughter in the crook of my arm. I couldn’t imagine giving up those precious moments of intimacy with my two children, waking up in the middle of the night to find that they had climbed into our bed, being greeted by their warm bodies and laughter (and even tears) every morning—and certainly not giving up those moments for some abstract ideology imposed by my peers. I can understand how Balaban must feel like something vital had been stolen from him by the kibbutz.

“Between us and the kibbutz, they chose the kibbutz,”he writes of his parents’ generation. “I cried for my nurse, and other children cried for my mother, who was their nurse.” In his loneliness, the teenaged Balaban finds himself drawn to literature—to the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, to the philosophies of Freud and Schopenhauer, to the latter’s belief that “to be happy one must be entirely free, self-sufficient.”

During the shivah, he tells his sister: “No one got enough love in the children’s house.” For that reason alone, Balaban refuses to forget, or forgive, the theft of his family life as a boy, stolen and replaced by the dream of brave new children’s society that, its leaders hoped, would one day transform the world. But never did.

Mourning a Father Lost: A Kibbutz Childhood Remembered, by Avraham Balaban. Translated by Yael Lotan. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 2004.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Film: Not Quite Paradise

The film Rex Reed called, uh, "Charming!"

If you were a volunteer on an Israeli kibbutz in the 1980s (like me), then Not Quite Paradise is your Breakfast Club, your Quadrophenia, your Hair. It’s the film that captures the cultural moment of your rebellious youth and repackages it for the masses in all its cheesy glory. It’s your Zeitgeist redone as a 106-minute light-as-fluff romantic-comedy. It’s a “timeless” cinematic achievement that will look quaint and dated and over-rated to anyone from another generation, anyone who wasn’t there. (They wouldn’t get it, right?) And I can’t believe I never watched it till now. In fact, I’d never even heard of this British production until last year. 

Check out the original trailer here...

The screenwriter, Paul Kember, rewrote the script for this 1985 film (directed by Lewis Gilbert, who had been responsible for three of the hammier James Bond outings, as well as Alfie and Educating Rita) from his 1982 play (titled Not Quite Jerusalem—also the film's title in Britain, I believe). I’d accuse Kember of ripping off my life story for the main plotline—a young, blonde North American takes a year off his studies to seek romance and adventure on a remote communal farm in Israel—except for a few key facts in his defense:

1) The swoop of blonde locks atop lead actor Sam Robards (later of American Beauty and Gossip Girl fame) deserves the Best Supporting '80s Coif more than my raggedy, Swiss Army knife-trimmed, Miss Clairoled mullet.
Joanna Pacula as the fiery kibbutznik Gila

2) I never had a tumultuous affair with a kibbutznik that left me with a should-I-stay-or-go-to-med-school dilemma, let alone with one as tempestuously sexy as Gila, played (with distinctly choppy English) by Polish-born starlet Joanna Pacula.

3) While I did visit Masada with my volunteer group, we weren’t kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists along the way and rescued by hordes of IDF soldiers in a climactic shoot-out. (The film gives a thanks to the Ministry of Defense in its credits.) Or at least I don’t remember that. I might have been hungover.

4) Oh, and I didn’t go to Israel until three years after the movie came out. So I think Kember is covered.

Nor will I make the case that Not Quite Paradise doesn’t deserve its mediocre 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (Besides, that only means half its viewers liked it, and the other half didn’t; it did, however, get savagely reviewed in the L.A. Times at the time.) Yes, it has an overwrought soundtrack of swooning violins during the corny romantic episodes. (And a gratuitous nipple shot, mandatory in '80s flicks, for a bedroom scene with the Dome of Rock—or at least a cardboard cut-out of the Jerusalem icon—rising suggestively in the background.)
Didn't every poster for an 80s comedy look like this?

Yes, some of the comic stereotypes are egregiously broad, like the icy Finnish twins; or the swarthy, malevolent Palestinian terrorists (the leader played by the recently murdered Jewish-Arab actor Juliano Mer); or Rothwell T. Schwartz, a geeky more-Jewish-than-thou volunteer from the States who annoys the kibbutzniks of apocryphal Kibbutz Azra, amid the bleak yet gorgeous desert surroundings of the Arava Valley (filmed on location in and around Kibbutz Eilot and Grofit), with rhapsodies about his cultural pilgrimage to the Promised Land of his people. (Their eyes shoot daggers when he announces, “My father’s money helped build this country.”)

Many of the broad caricatures of life as a kibbutz volunteer, though, are rooted in truth. Kember must have been a volunteer before he wrote his play and script. Yes, our shorts were that short (Adidas gets thanked in the credits, too), our jeans were that tight and that high-cut above our ankles, and the free cigarettes handed out were that toxic. (“No wonder they’re free," complains a character. “You get cancer just looking at them.”)

Kevin McNally (who went on to many other roles, including a recurring part in the Pirates of the Caribbean series) plays Pete, a whingeing yet funny British volunteer (there were plenty in my time)  who nearly gets booted off the kibbutz when he and another buddy moon an audience of kibbutzniks at a volunteer talent show. (I heard a similar tale about a crew of Brits who offended kibbutz members by dressing as Jews and Arabs and then performing a Full Monty “Dance of the Balloons”; they only survived the calls to expel them because it was the festival of Purim.) His British friend—a
Liam Gallagher lookalike called Dave—suffers “volunteer’s asshole” after the dietary switch from English “cuisine” and proves even more annoying than Pete. Both end up becoming kibbutz heroes after one of the film's few plot twists.

Action! Romance!
Gila and Michael, the young American played by Robards, try to keep their affair under wraps, even though Gila knows that secrets are impossible to keep in her small, gossip-filled community: “A kibbutz is 200 people,” she warns, “and 2,000 mouths.”

And the reasons for the volunteers coming to Israel are realistically varied: some come to escape the bleak climate, both meteorological and economic, of grotty old England; some come to connect to their ancient heritage; others come for a good time and a break from their studies. And two of the volunteers in the film are running from troubled pasts and psychic traumas—which was often the case, at least in my experience. Psychological breakdowns amongst kibbutz volunteers weren’t just Hollywood plot devices to add drama to a romantic-comedy. They were semi-regular occurrences. It was a place where a lot of buried secrets emerged.

“Volunteers!” scoffs Dave the Brit at one point. “The world’s rejects!”

A bit harsh perhaps. But as the movie suggests in its closing scenes, the kibbutz of the 80s was also a place where bumblers and dreamers, geeks and wanderers from around the world could, for a brief time together, find common cause and create their own eccentric little home away from home.

While I’d never heard of Not Quite Paradise before I went to Israel, apparently the movie did inspire at least some viewers (likely Brits) to make the leap and volunteer on a kibbutz—as one website by a former volunteer and fan of the movie makes clear. And watching the movie is like eating a Proustian madeleine (with a higher cheese quotient) for those of us who lived on one: an almost instant evocation of buried memories and emotions. And bad fashion choices.