The kibbutz movement has always been well documented in literature, from the poet Ra’hel to the memoir of Degania pioneer Josef Baratz to internationally acclaimed novelist Amos Oz. I recently finished an anthology, selected by Oz in 1984 and translated into English, called Until Daybreak, which brings together a dozen stories by kibbutz-based, kibbutz-born or kibbutz-curious Israeli writers, all set in and around these unique communities.
It might be dangerous to draw generalizations from such a small sample, but a few similarities emerge. While these themes may be common to world literature, they stand out in greater relief due to the communal setting of the kibbutz stories.
Not surprisingly, there is a fondness among authors for narrating in the first-person plural—the communal rather than the royal “we”—as in the comic tale of quarrelsome kibbutzniks, by Yitzhar Smilansky (a former parliamentarian born in 1916), struggling to erect a water tower. In “The Last Concert” by David Maletz (from Ein Harod), a disgruntled singer, laid off from the National Opera, reluctantly travels with his laconic pianist to give a concert at a distant kibbutz—and is surprised, as the power of his voice releases the tamped-down emotions of the kibbutzniks in a fervour of dance, which he witness in their dining room, and the story spreads out to envelop their shared consciousness and awakening.
One of my favourite stories, “Bells” by Amnon Shamosh (a founder of Kibbutz Maayan Baruch), also alternates between the first-person plural and singular, as the narrator describes how a young shepherd boy from a refugee camp becomes a stand-in for a kibbutz friend killed in war, while offering a perplexed yet admiring outsider’s perspective on the austerer, topsy-turvy way of life in the kibbutz.
Another recurring motif is the tension between the generations on the kibbutz, between the founders and the members that follow in their shadows, as in “The Choice” by Nathan Shaham (of Kibbutz Beit-Alfa), in which a young kibbutznik is stranded with an older member, at night, in dangerous territory with a broken-down truck. Another clash of personalities ensues in “Bella, Bella…” by Aharon Megged (from Kibbutz Sdoth-Yam) between a lively young arrival from France and Bella, the stern moral conscience of the kibbutz (again, observed by the narrating “we”).
As a semi-closed society, the kibbutz is the perfect setting through which to explore such eruptions of passion and jealousy sparked by outsiders and newcomers, such as the vain theatre director from the city who has an affair with a kibbutz wife in “Polka” by Yigal Mossinson, or the mysterious beauty who comes to visit an eccentric neighbour and causes the narrator of “On the Last Bus” by Dan Shavit (Of Kfar Szold) to indulge in foolish fantasies.
“All happy families are alike,” Tolstoy famously wrote, “but an unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same might be said of a kibbutz, doubly so perhaps, as the traditional nuclear family is put under pressure by the extended family of the collective. This theme is most memorably expressed in “Until Daybreak”, by Moshe Shamir (a former member of Mishmar Ha-Emek and M.K.), in which the “work-rosterer” of a kibbutz (the unlucky fellow who must assign everyone else their work duties) struggles with his commitments to his community, his co-workers and his wife—who has left the kibbutz after members voted to disband the music program she was leading.
There is also the percolating gossip and jealousies peculiar to collective life, as in “Dubin and his Brother,” by Yossl Birstein, in which kibbutzniks suspect (wrongly) that the title character has secretly kept a large inheritance, left by his brother in Australia (who was in fact a fraudster) rather than share it with the community.
The anthology features a short introduction by Amos Oz and ends with “The Way of the Wind,” his odd and tragic parable about a misguided parachute jump above a kibbutz, from Where the Jackals Howl. As a collection, it makes for a rich and varied portrait of kibbutz life during the seven decades between the founding of the movement and the economic crisis, just beginning at the time of publication, that would profoundly shatter the kibbutz’s communal values.
Until Daybreak: Stories from the Kibbutz. Selected and with an introduction by Amos Oz. Edited by Richard Flantz. Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House and the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, Tel Aviv, 1984.