Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Laboratory for Living

I'm generally skeptical of a "news" article on a government website, but the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has posted an excellent overview of the 100-year history of the kibbutz movement here. The story nails down all the important facts, doesn't shy away from some of the ups and downs of the kibbutz movement, or how it has changed over the years.

The article establishes its authority by relying on the three most knowledgeable experts on the kibbutz you could talk to: Michal Palgi, Muki Tsur, and Shlomo Getz. (You could add Uriel Leviatan and historian Henry Near for a full-house of kibbutz expertise.) I interviewed Michal and Shlomo in 2009 and met them again last summer. And I've read many of Muki's articles and listened to his inspiring keynote address at the International Communal Studies Association conference last year.

A few excerpts:
Each early kibbutz was an independent community whose members had to start from scratch in finding approaches to culture, politics, economy, immigration and language. "Each was a laboratory where all these questions had to be asked," says Tsur. "Not necessarily to be resolved, but to be asked. The kibbutz had to be a laboratory on one hand and a place to live on the other."
and finally:
Tsur envisions revitalized kibbutzim as taking an even bigger role in building up Israel's underpopulated peripheral regions - but not necessarily in their present form. "If it's a free society, then every generation has to reinvent the kibbutz; we don't have a central authority to mandate what is best. Maybe there will be kibbutzim of educators, for example? Certainly it won't be only about raising chickens."
Either way, there is one ingredient essential to any kibbutz, he adds. "As [the philosopher Martin] Buber said, the French Revolution was based on three ideas: freedom, equality and fraternity. Freedom went west and forgot equality; equality went east and forgot freedom. I believe that through the fraternity of the kibbutz, we can arrive at freedom and equality. Without fraternity, we cannot do it."

The City and the Kibbutz

The kibbutz movement and the city of Tel Aviv both played vital roles in founding the state of Israel. They also share a curiously complementary relationship, a marriage of opposites held together by the tension of their different personalities, like one of those  old-time comedy duos: Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy.

Both institutions were founded almost at the same time: Tel Aviv in the spring of 1909, Kibbutz Degania in the fall of 1910. Both put a secular face on a land better known for its deeply etched religious history. Both have carried the country’s economy on their shoulders, by lifting more than their own relative weight.

And yet, like rival siblings, they haven’t always gotten along. For the traditional kibbutznik, Tel Aviv represented the bright lights that might lure away (and often does) the “children of the dream” from their collective homes. For the modern Tel Avivnik, the kibbutz is a quaint and out-of-date museum for rural bumpkins and put-to-pasture communists.

When I lived in Israel in the late 80s, I didn’t spend much time in Tel Aviv, except when I arrived (to get assigned to a kibbutz) and when I left (to lie on the beach for a few days with a bad case of post-Egypt “Mummy Tummy”—another volunteer rite of passage). I was always more interested in visiting the endlessly fascinating city of Jerusalem. Who needed Tel Aviv, when you could do plenty of carousing on the kibbutz?
Bauhaus apartment in Tel Aviv

The past two summers, I’ve stayed in Tel Aviv, wandered its busy streets and marvelled at its transformation from a dusty oversized village into a fast-paced global metropolis—with a lively cultural scene, bustling cafes and clubs, and a multicultural mix of citizens and visitors. Along its hip Port District, it even has a club called Kibbutz, where you can get cheap drinks and food (relative to its upscale neighbours) and be served by wait-staff dressed up as kibbutzniks. There's apparently even a tractor in the bar!

So, it’s interesting to be reminded (in a recent article) that the mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, is himself a former kibbutznik, from Kibbutz Hulda, the same community as novelist Amos Oz. If the mayor (and a bar) can bridge the divide between the city and the kibbutz, I ought to try to as well, with a playful game of compare and contrast:

Category Kibbutz Tel Aviv
Founded 1910 1909
Population 106,000 404,000
Slogan From Each According to His Ability, To Each According to His Need The Non-Stop City

Economics (past)
Hyper-socialism (the purest form of communism in the Western world) Mild socialism (thanks to labour unions and co-operatives)
Economics (present) Mild capitalism (“privatization” process has maintained a social safety net) Hyper-capitalism (the pulsing heart of Start-Up Nation)
Religion Mostly secular (except for religious kibbutzim in the Dati movement) Mostly secular (except for ultra-Orthodox suburbs like Bnei Brak)
Work-Life Balance Work hard (kibbutzniks), play hard (volunteers) Work hard, play hard (everyone)
Architecture Rural modernism. (Many dining halls and sports halls share a Bauhaus look) Urban modernism. (The White City’s Bauhaus buildings are world-famous)
Transportation Bikes, electric golf carts, car sharing Rush-hour gridlock, 24/7 honking. Take a sherut instead.
Aquatic facilities Menachem Begin called kibbutzniks “millionaires with swimming pools” The best urban beaches this side of the Gold Coast

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Trouble in the Fields

[Writing-in-progress about working at Kibbutz Shamir.]

After my stint behind the dishwashing machine, I graduated to the avocado fields. The harvest of Kibbutz Shamir’s orchards had been nearly completed by the time I got assigned to this detail, so there was only another week or two of work left. Our job was simple enough: ascend the broad-branching trees, pluck the last of the ripe fruit, and deposit the avocados into plastic buckets to be carted away to waiting tractors. ...

To be scaling these trees, clambering from the top rungs of the ladder ever deeper into the nest of branches and leaves, was a new experience. I’d always been a clumsy, nervous, fearful climber as a child—not one of those kids who shimmies up flag poles and garage sidings and the tallest trees on the block, just for kicks. Gravity was not to be trusted, so I tended to keep my running shoes on firm ground. But here, in this new land, I took to the novelty of avocado picking, like I’d be born to the job. The kibbutznik in charge of the harvest nicknamed me “Monkey Man”, for my willingness (I hope—perhaps he had other reasons) to pull myself to the topmost reaches of the trunk, for my new arrival’s urge to impress, to leave no fruit unplucked, no collective profits squandered and left to rot on a distant branch.

Working the orchards, circa 1988
There was a satisfaction in seeing, the next morning, sliced fresh avocados in the buffet trays of the dining hall for breakfast or lunch. This was 20 years before the “locavore” movement, before eating lightly on the earth—consuming organically grown, untravelled food, cultivated by the farmers in the neighbouring area code—became the mantra of the middle-class mainstream, even fashionably urbane, not simply hippy-headed back-to-the-landism. Here, on the kibbutz, the community had developed economies of scale to do much of that on its own. It raised cash crops for export: cotton and kiwis and apples and avocados. But like any farm, it could skim the excess for its own kitchen, and add to that bounty vegetables grown in the kibbutz gardens, meat from the cattle operations, honey from its apiaries, eggs from the chicken sheds. Even the table cloths and dish rags came from the kibbutz’s “Shalag” factory, which spat out reams of the non-woven fabric for a variety of uses. Our meals shrunk the radius of the 100-Mile Diet down to 10 miles, often closer. We pulled our own food from the orchards beyond the barbed wire perimeter and the tilled acreage in the valley below. I felt like a farmer at last.

The fieldwork, no matter how sweaty and arduous, held a romantic appeal to international volunteers, who were largely city kids like myself. It fit the vague, sepia-tinted image we had of kibbutz life. It allowed us to PhotoShop our faces into the collective portrait of pioneer life, to assume the role of hardy turf-breaker, even if our “pioneering” consisted of boozy three-month stopovers on the Mediterranean backpacking circuit. It was harder to sustain that image when you were scrubbing pots or cleaning toilets or a cog in a noisy factory. Manual labour, on the other hand, as long as we had a return ticket—that we could romanticize.

My keenest work memories are pulled from morning shifts in the lower fields. My autumn arrival meant that I’d missed most of the harvest season: the apple picking, the cotton plucking, the kiwi selection. Instead, as the number of volunteers dwindled, I was assigned to the post-season trimming and upkeep of the orchards. I hacked out shallow irrigation trenches between the rows of apple trees to channel the coming rains. After a brief lesson in horticulture, I trimmed the low canopy of kiwi branches and fixed their ends, with plastic ties, to parallel lines of steel wire, to shape their growth for next season. I often worked in tandem with Grant, a former volunteer from Scotland and the boyfriend of Zeva, a kibbutznik who also taught us Hebrew every week. Grant had a sly, deadpan wit, and fed me insider gossip of how the kibbutz really worked behind the scenes. In exchange, I detailed for him the sexual escapades and soap-operatic dramas of the Volunteer Ghetto, freely embellishing and turning casual speculation into hard truth for his vicarious enjoyment....

Rarely did I worry about how long my shift had run or watch the clock for its end, like I did in the kitchen or the factory. Instead, the 24 daily slices of clock time were replaced with the more subtle, four-beat rhythm of the seasonal round, a kind of slowed-down square dance or hora, in which spring planting led into summer growth and fall harvest and the “dead time” of winter in the valley, when all was prepared for the renewal to come. My stints in the field were the closest I had ever been, and ever would be, to the seasonal cycles of farm work. Even my own circadian rhythms had to adjust to waking before dawn, to the sun coming up over the valley, to the chores that seemed repetitive and without end and that would not produce results until another nine months from now, when I would likely be long departed from the fields. 

Kibbutzniks from Shamir in the cotton fields, circa 1958
It is harder, perhaps, to feel nostalgic about my shifts in the cotton fields. The cotton itself had been fully harvested before I arrived, so I still have little sense, other than from photos, of what a field of ripe cotton looks or smells or feels like. I can’t really brag that I “picked cotton”. All I remember are the decimated stalks of the plant, like bony claws erupting from the broken soil. And the need to burn away this stubble for fallow. And the tang of gasoline from a trailer-borne tank attached to a tractor, and its hose and nozzle, and how the petroleum reek itched the nostrils and sheened the skin. And the waves of heat as the doused stalks of the depleted plants erupted into flames, a burning bush along the Jordan River, and how we sprinted from this wall of fire to spray and ignite the next row of cotton plants. And how, on the ride back home, sitting in the trailer, we watched a dribble of fuel trace a line from the still-smoking fields and leave a trail all the way home to the kibbutz.

On other days, we were assigned to “harvest” rocks from the cotton fields. In the early years, when kibbutzniks first settled the valley, this was the land’s most fertile crop—a perpetual growth of rocks out of land that had once been swamp and marsh, as though the earth’s mantle were sending its own hard seeds to the surface. More than 40 years later, the Huleh Valley still produced a bounty of stones that needed to be removed before spring planting. Stripped to our shorts, we would trudge behind an idling tractor and hurl skull-sized builders onto the trailer it pulled. Occasionally, we would stop and try to lever a heavier, more deeply embedded rock out of the soil and carry it away. It was dirty, ankle-twisting, mind-fogging work. Rarely did a kibbutznik join us to do anything other than drive the tractor—and even then it wasn’t worth his time, as our slow progress down the length of the fields meant the vehicle only needed to turn around every hour or two. Even a volunteer could do that. It felt like prison work, like we should have been joined at the ankles by iron shackles and crooning soulful spirituals as the sun beat against our bare shoulders. We would curse when we couldn’t dislodge a boulder and curse again when we missed the trailer with a pitched rock and curse once more when someone else’s errant toss struck the toe of our boot.

Yet, for all our complaining, we relished those moments together, taking a break at the end of each row, smoking and laughing and mopping gritty sweat from our brows and necks. We knew that these labours were not as endless as they seemed, that because we were the first to rise and beat the sun to the valley bottom, we would also be the first to quit our shift, the first to raise raw red faces into the stream of the shower, the first to lounge in the shade of the Ghetto porches with cold bottles of Goldstar in our half-rigid hands. 

We didn’t know it at the time, but
years later we would run this rock-picking duty through the blender of our nostalgia, too, when these hands of ours had grown soft from massaging computer keyboards instead, and our long days in those burning fields of stone would acquire a patina of pseudo-heroism, like we had been wrestling with the land itself, pitting all that simple strength of youth to tame the earth, rolling one boulder at a time. True pioneers, every last one of us.

Nor could we guess that even this lowly volunteer assignment, like so much of the kibbutz’s fieldwork, would end, too. Soon enough, as the 80s gave way to the 90s and the new millennium, kibbutz farms from Dan to Be’er Sheva hired low-paid guest workers from Thailand to replace the largely free labour of international volunteers or even hired Arab hands. The Thai workers worked harder, complained less, didn’t get drunk and rowdy every other night, and didn’t require the same constant cycle of retraining as our clan of itinerant and often unreliable backpackers. Even as rock pickers, we were about to become obsolete.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Will to Utopia

Every child, it seems, is a born utopian. That native urge to create new realms lies dormant for the first few years of life, not needed yet, held in check for more fundamental urges: learning to eat and crawl and babble and poop in a socially acceptable fashion; discerning sense from the 4D sound-and-light-and-smell-and-taste-and-touch show emanating 24/7 from the theatre we’ve been abruptly chuted into. 

But as soon as we can hold a block or wield a crayon, as soon as the imagination takes a firmer grip upon the steering levers of consciousness, we begin to build. We build towers, as ambitious and as precarious as any Babel. We build cities, circumscribed by laws laid out by the gods Lego and Mattel. We build societies, with leaders and followers, heroes and villains, with histories and intrigues. Locked in a wider world we can’t quite understand, let alone control, we build our own worlds—private microcosms—over which we can lord. 

Like any kid, I had my own peculiar world-building fixations. I laid out streets and engineered neighbourhoods for my stumpy, legless, bullet-domed Fisher Price volk. I played pint-sized Jane Jacobs in the shadows of my parents’ basement. There is an old Kodachrome photo of me as a boy, ever the good Catholic, arranging Star Wars action figures between pews of building blocks so they could attend Sunday Mass at a cathedral; in my world, Boba Fett couldn’t be an intergalactic bounty-hunter without first receiving Communion. 

Perhaps my oddest obsession was renovating the Maginot Line. I had read about the French fortifications in an illustrated history book and was particularly struck by the cross-section diagrams of the underground chambers, tunnels and military installations, a vast network of subterranean routes and rooms for a strategically inept nation of mole people. Built in the 1930s to withstand a German assault, at the cost of three billion francs, the Maginot Line became a World War 2 footnote and punch line when the Nazis simply did an end-run around the 200-mile barrier, through Belgium, on their blitzkrieg to Paris. 

Room with no view: an artist's rendition of the Maginot Line

I didn’t care. It was still a marvel of futuristic construction to my suburban imagination. I filled countless notebooks with improvised sketches for my own Maginot Lines. I drew whole cities tunnelled into the earth, filled with ant-bodied stick-men, bustling about, as I imagined adults must do, an underground utopia of perpetual motion. 

Perhaps my Maginot mapping prepared me for my first year of university. I attended a school infamous for its own labyrinth of tunnels, which linked parking lots and classroom buildings and maintenance lairs, a heated escape from a never-ending winter above ground that often dipped to -30°C. It was rumoured that some grad students, as they shuttled vampirically from library to office to student residence, hadn’t seen the sun in months, even years. Perhaps, too, the distance between the orderly city of tunnels I’d crayoned onto my childhood drawing pads and the imperfect, often frustrating maze of this suburban low-grade university hinted at the gap that persists between the worlds that we manage to build and the ones we like to imagine.

Lewis Mumford, the renowned urban historian and social critic, called our city-making instinct the “will-to-utopia”. “It is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us,” he wrote, in his book The Story of Utopias, (published in 1922, just over a decade after the first kibbutz). “The cities and mansions that people dream of are those in which they finally live.” In his historical overview of the phenomenon, Mumford distinguished several different species of utopia. Our childhood visions of alternate realities perhaps best fit what he called the “utopia of escape”: fantasy worlds into which the human imagination could insinuate and find temporary respite from the drudgery or even pain of daily life. A picture of a Caribbean beach tacked to a cubicle wall. A Disneyland of the mind. Or Disneyland itself—utopia as a pret-a-porter escape from reality, a return to innocence (and over-priced amusements).

As one of the first true urbanists, a scholar of the city and the rich cultures it spawned, Mumford was less interested in escapist fantasies (like my Maginot dreams) and more curious about what he called the “utopias of reconstruction”. Utopia as a blueprint for a better way of life. Utopia as the most ambitious social-engineering project possible. Utopia as a cure for the messiness of modern life—or ancient life, for that matter. He described the Utopia of Reconstruction as “a vision of a reconstituted environment which is better adapted to the nature and aims of the human beings who dwell within it than the actual one.”

To me, that sounds a lot like the first kibbutz.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Growing Up Canuck: or Bibi and the Bieb

“How many Canadians does it take to change a light-bulb?” I was once asked by a German volunteer, while living on the kibbutz.

I shrugged my ignorance.

“Two,” he explained. “One to screw in the light-bulb, and the other to point and say, ‘Hey, did you know he’s a Canadian?’”

Even today, 22 years later, I cringe at the memory. The German jokester had hit the mark: Canadians pride ourselves on a lack of pride, a sense of humility in contrast to the chest-beating patriotism of our noisy neighbours to the south. But it’s a thin facade, a defense mechanism that hides a more general anxiety about who we really are as a people, as a country. As the recent Winter Olympics proved, or the maple-leaf stitched into backpack of nearly every young Canuck abroad, we still cling to the fragments of a evanescent national identity.

And as my German friend knew, that nervous tic often manifests itself, when amongst foreign travellers, in the odd parlour game known as “Did You Know They’re Canadian?” On the kibbutz, my next-door neighbour—one of several other token Canucks—played it often. When the subject of our country came up, he would cite the North of 49 heritage of various B-list North American celebrities and pop stars (this was the pre-Celine-Dion era) that his European interlocutors only had a vague recollection of: “Did you know that William Shatner is Canadian? And Michael J. Fox, too. And Bryan Adams and Wayne Gretzky.”

Such trivia rarely impressed the citizens of more established nations, cultures that had bestowed upon the world the likes of Shakespeare and Van Gogh, Beethoven and Chopin, Flaubert and Michaelangelo. When I first met Kurt, a longtime volunteer and a social worker from Vienna, I promptly exposed my superficial knowledge of his country: “Austria—just like Arnold Schwartzenegger!” His smile dropped. “He’s not Austrian,” came the reply. “He’s American.” He clearly didn’t indulge in the “Did You Know They’re Austrian” version of the game.

That joke came back to me again this week in the wake of Israel’s “Bieber-Gate”. The news: Justin Bieber, now the world’s most-famous Canadian (whether anyone over the age of 16 is willing to admit it), has been visiting Israel for a concert. The event, in itself, is a point of controversy. Every major artist booked to perform in Israel gets targeted by the Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which encourages performers not to play, as a protest of the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some like Elvis Costello back out; some, like his Canadian wife Diana Krall, still come. And others, like Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, are forced into a compromise—in his case, playing on the “neutral grounds” of Neve-Shalom and later touring (and condemning) the “separation fence” constructed between Israel proper and the West Bank.

Needless to say, bubble-gum pop Christian teeny-bop crooner (and recent memoirist) J-Bieb isn’t the most political musician out there. But he still got drawn into the quagmire of Mid-East debate when he was invited to meet with Israeli P.M. Benyamin Netanyahu (known in Israel as "Bibi"), and then (according to some reports) balked when the P.M.’s office arranged for young Justin to meet with Israeli kids who lived in towns under assault by rockets and mortars  from Gaza. Amid the P.R. fallout, various versions of events emerged: Bieber (or more likely his many handlers) didn’t want his tour politicized; the meeting was never a done deal; he was just over-extended from paparazzi harassment; he had already invited kids from rocket-targeted Sderot to his show; etc..

Amid the recent violence and unrest in Israel, Bieber-Gate was a relatively brief and harmless media tempest. Nobody has been injured, not even by the ravenous hordes of young Bieb groupies trailing his tour as though he were the Messiah. But it was a reminder that, in Israel, everything is political. 

And as several online commenters pointed out, amid the typical tit-for-tat flame wars about the political stalemate in Israel/Palestine: “Did you know Justin Bieber is Canadian?”

That’s a light-bulb I’d prefer we’d keep dimmed.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Sylvia Plath of the Kibbutz Movement

It's hard to do any reading about the kibbutz movement without coming across mentions of Rachel Bluwstein Sela. Rachel (known now simply as Rachel the Poetess or just Ra’hel) was the tragic-romantic heroine of socialist Zionism, a sort of Sylvia Plath of pre-State Israel, what one biographer called the “femme fatale” of the early kibbutz movement. 

Like many of the socialist pioneers, she was born in Russia—the 11th daughter of well-to-do parents—and only visited Palestine, in 1909, on what was meant to be a tourist stopover with her sister on their way to study art and philosophy in Italy. The spirit of Zionism swept both young women up, however, and they stayed to work the orchards in Rehovot, south of the newly founded settlement of Tel Aviv. She was likewise enchanted by the old Arab town of Jaffa, and travelled to the various Jewish settlements carved out by the recent wave of young socialists, such as Chana Meisel, a new friend who encouraged Rachel to join one of these nascent communities.

Rachel headed north, to the Sea of Galilee, to live and study at the small women’s agriculture school at Kvutsat Kinneret. There, she fell under the influence of A.D. Gordon, the middle-aged philosopher-savant who captivated young proteg├ęs with sermons about the “religion of labour” and by the example of his own tireless work ethic. Rachel, who had penned verse since the age of 15, began writing in Hebrew, with a dictionary at her side, and dedicated her first Hebrew poem to her mentor. She tried to sublimate her artistic temperament and upper-middle-class upbringing through the arduous chores of her new community and becoming one of the kibbutz’s hardest workers. She would forgo art and music to instead “paint with the soil and play with the hoe”. These long days would become ever-more tinted in nostalgia when she looked back to Galilee toward the end of her too-short life.

With A.D. Gordon’s blessing, she left Israel in 1913 to study agriculture in Toulouse, France. However, the outbreak of the Great War separated her from her one true love—the land of Palestine—and instead she returned to Russia, where she tutored Jewish refugees and likely caught the tuberculosis that would shorten her life. In 1919, after the armistice, she joined other Jewish immigrants aboard the Ruslan and arrived back in Palestine. She settled in Degania Aleph, the first kibbutz, not far from the Kinneret agricultural school. But she never recaptured the joys of her first years of pioneering. Her disease soon manifested itself. Her TB-ravaged body was no longer suited for outdoor toil. And she couldn’t safely oversee the community’s children. She was compelled to leave—like Eve cast out of Eden, alone, unwanted.

Rachel the Poetess (second from right)
She despised cities but lived, for the rest of her days, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, pouring her dwindling energies into her writing—deeply-felt poetry layered with a longing for the past, for a lost connection with the land of the Galilee, and at times at an Emily Dickinson-like vision and acceptance of her last days. She had relationships with different men, including one future president of Israel, but never married. She died in a sanatorium, alone, at the age of 40, in 1931. Ever since her body was buried at Kvutzat Kinneret, her reputation has only grown as a tragic icon and as a poet, whose simple Hebrew lyrics have been put endlessly to music. (Next year, she will be further immortalized, ironically perhaps, on the 50-shekel bank note.) Her short poem “My Land” best exemplifies her romantic spirit—one that defined the early pioneer movement, and a lens of nostalgia that’s hard not gaze through when one looks back upon the early history of the kibbutz movement.

Land of mine,
I have never sung to you
Nor glorified your name
with heroic deeds
or the spoils of battle.
All I have done
Is plant a tree
On the silent shores
Of Jordan,
And my feet
have trodden a path
Across the fields.