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.

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.

Kibbutzing Your ‘Hood

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.