Utopia is something we dream but never possess. I came to this conclusion after tasting several utopic contenders - living in harmony with nature, farming, vagabonding, and living on various Marxist kibbutzim.
One of them was Kibbutz Yehiam in the western Galilee, where our daughter was raised communally for the first five months of her tender life.
She made a hit with the attendants. She smiled at each as if they were treasured friends. We would come for her each evening for two hours after our work was done.
I was therefore thrilled to find Yael Neeman's account of her early life in Yehiam. In "We were the Future: A Memoir of the Kibbutz," she illuminated the kibbutz life that I had never perceived as an outsider.
The preface provides an overview:
· The kibbutz movement is one of the most fascinating phenomena of modern history and one of Zionism’s greatest stories. Several hundred communities attempted to live the ideas of equality, freedom, and social justice by giving up private property, individualism, and the “bourgeois” family unit to create an Israeli utopia following the Holocaust—the only example in world history of entire communities voluntarily attempting to live in total equality. However, for the children raised in these communities, the kibbutz was an institution collapsing under the weight of an ideology that marginalized its offspring to make a political statement.
The Marxist kibbutz movement, Hashomer Hatziar, represented the most radical social experiment where all forms of "ownership" had been rejected. Instead, everything was to be "owned" by the collective - children, clothing, and even decision-making. Neeman explains:
· Public and private issues were decided upon at the kibbutz meetings, and committees were elected there. If someone wanted to leave the kibbutz for higher education, the secretariat, the Education Committee and finally, the kibbutz meeting decided whether he would go or wait, and also, what he would study: Did the course of study he wished to pursue correspond to what the kibbutz needed? If it didn’t, he had to adjust himself to the needs of the community.
Even coupling with one specific sexual partner had originally been disdained.
However, this perspective had been disbanded long before my arrival in Israel. Eventually, human nature overtook this severe ideal, and eventually, everyone settled down with their chosen spouse and were visited by their biological children for between one and two hours every evening.
At the time, I had thought that this had been an ideal arrangement, which allowed the parents to spend quality time with their children. However, according to Neeman, the youth did not connect with their parents. Instead, the parent-child relationship felt artificial and uncomfortable.
This discomfort became magnified when the youth from a neighboring kibbutz visited, necessitating the Yehiam youth to stay with their parents for three days. About this Neeman writes:
· Our parents’ close proximity seemed sick and crazy, as if we were locked in an embrace with death...We could hardly wait for morning to come.
In this Marxist utopia, there was no room for God or for anything that might undermine Marxist purity. Neeman writes:
· And not only did God not exist in Hashomer Hatzair, but he was forbidden; he was an irrational, pagan obstacle to the remarkable abilities and productivity of the sublime human being. God was a vestige of the dark Middle Ages.
Anything that smacked of the bourgeoisie was disdained:
· The [kitchen] workers called us [children] over for a minute, quickly, so no one would see or hear them pampering us, and let us taste the food. And they also asked us if it was good, fishing for compliments because there were no compliments on our kibbutz. Applause at the end of a performance was frowned upon too; that was a bourgeois custom.
Meanwhile, the children would sing:
· We were born to the sun. We were born to the light.
The vacuum created by the banishment of God had to be filled, and the children "born to the light" had to fill it.
I hadn't been aware of this burden that the youth carried, the weighty expectations placed upon them to fulfill their commune's Marxist ideals. Nor had Neeman in her early years:
· We were proud that we worked on Yom Kippur and ate wild boar that we roasted on campfires. No circumcision ceremonies were held on our kibbutz. No rabbi set foot on it to perform weddings. The dead were buried in coffins, the Kaddish prayer was not said over them, and any mention of the Bible was forbidden.
Later the vacuum would become oppressive. Meanwhile, the ideal was accepted as the unexamined norm in the automatic way that lunch would follow breakfast. Neeman reflects:
· The boys and girls who graduated from the educational institution [where they would go at age 12 on a neighboring kibbutz] had been born on the kibbutz, had absorbed its values from the very beginning, and had not been damaged by the bourgeois institutions of family and education. They would lead the kibbutzim and the city dwellers, who came from the various city branches of Hashomer Hatzair to fulfill their ideological dreams in the kibbutzim, to a better world. During his years in the institution, the new child would mature into a new man living on a kibbutz, fully connected to and involved in the life of the country.
However, the ideal was never able to fill the vacuum. Neeman reports that, once into their teen years, they began to be plagued by questions of the meaning of life, which would not be satisfied by the standard kibbutz answers. While they felt a debt to the kibbutz, it had a stomach that could never be filled:
· We worked out of a guilty conscience for a system that would never be satisfied. We felt as if our conscience was a biological, organic part of our body, like an invisible inner hump.
It was an ideal Neeman knew she could never meet. In this regard, I found a recent interview quite revealing:
· Nevertheless, her childhood memories are happy ones. Contrary to popular characterizations, she said, separating children from families was not an inhumane policy: “It was created from a belief that it would make a better human being and a better family, After all, families are not so ideal all the time. When we ex-kibbutzniks speak among ourselves about this issue, we call it a paradox because most of us were really happy in this strange arrangement. Yet none of us want our children or grandchildren growing up like that.”
As a result, most of the kibbutz youth have voted with their feet and have fled their utopia for the world of the bourgeoisie.
Time has passed its verdict on what seems to have been the world's most successful communist/socialist experiment and has found it wanting.
Time has also been ruthless with other communal experiments. The 70s had been the heyday for communal living in the States. My wife and I visited several, none of which can be found today. Nevertheless, in each instance, it members had been convinced that they had found their permanent home.
We had also spent time in the Longhouse in Borneo, where the tribesmen live communally under their chief. They share games, singing, and the communal connectedness of a large extended family. But once again, the youth gladly give it all up for their own dream of an education, a city job, and enough money to buy a pickup.
Why can we not find utopia? Why is it only vapor that we cannot grasp and keep? Perhaps we can understand this with the help of a couple of analogies:
A man saw a butterfly struggling mightily to emerge from its cocoon, and so he helped free it. However, it died. Why? The butterfly needs the benefit of the struggle to pump its liquids into its wings.
Similarly, baboons build stable communities through the practice of grooming. However, grooming loses all its relevance without the troublesome pests – ticks and lice. Without these predators and other threats, the baboon community cannot survive.
Is it possible that we too require an assortment of threats in order to prosper? To use an extreme example, perhaps we also need death. I remember seeing a video of a woman recovered from the rubble of an earthquake, after five days. The hugging and the tears of joy shed by the husband were touching, to say the least. I wondered, “Had he been complaining about her the week before?” If so, what had changed his disdain into joy? The prospect of losing what he had had!
What would we be like if we lived in a perfect utopia where there was no death and no loss? Wouldn’t we become callous and take every relationship for granted or even as a burden? Would we have any room for gratefulness and love?
Instead, it seems that there are many blessings that we cannot yet handle, blessings that might destroy us. Perhaps all we can do is just dream about a more perfect world. Perhaps we would again just spoil Eden if we were there. Perhaps the door to this enchanted Garden will swing open to us once we have been readied for it.