The Dining Room as Parable

To a visitor who has never eaten regularly at one, a kibbutz dining room might look like a glorified (or even unglorified) cafeteria: the stainless-steel smorgasbord of salads and meats and breads, the long table-clothed tables and conversation-filled open room, the noisy conveyor-belt dish-washing machine. Echoes of high school perhaps, with more gossip and fewer food fights.
But for a longtime kibbutznik (and even a nostalgia-drunk volunteer like myself), the dining room is so much more. It’s the heart and soul of the kibbutz. It’s the centre of activity. It’s the thrice a day (sometimes more) gathering place. It’s as much a symbol as a setting. It is, as the title of a recent exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv suggests, a parable. So it’s little wonder that the dining room has proved the fascinated focus for many artists, like the photographers in the Eretz Israel show, or Avraham Eilat (who uploaded a time-lapse film sequence of the dining room at Kibbutz Shamir, with the members gathering around the TV for news of a terrorist attack by the Red Brigade), and others. 
Over the past two years, I also “read” the dining rooms at the different kibbutzim I visited as parables. I tried to discern the state of their social and community life from the state of their dining room. At Kibbutz Hanita, my host took me to the dining room explicitly to show me how life there had declined since privatization: there was a cash register, half the room was closed off, the remaining side was half-empty and occupied mostly with retirement-age kibbutzniks, and he admitted that since most of his friends had left the kibbtuz, he rarely ate there himself.
Kibbutz Lotan, by contrast, had a small but lively dining room, still communal, still free, and packed shoulder to shoulder, with challa and wine on the table, for Shabbat dinner. I watched two male friends hug warmly as they met near the kitchen. The heart of this dining room was still beating strongly. It felt the same at Kibbutz Samar, although the dress-code was more hippie-chic, and its kitchen is probably unique in the entire country for being open and unlocked at all hours of the day or the night: anyone can drop by for a snack at the anarchist dining room. 
Kibbutz Ketura was a bit more complex. It had a more spacious dining room, but the social geography of the space was carefully sub-divided, likely unconsciously, perhaps because of the many different groups who coalesce at the kibbutz: international volunteers sat at one table, students at the Arava Institute at another (and Mulsim students tended to cluster together amongst themselves), several tables were reserved for one of the many tour groups (in this case, young Swedes) who come through, and there was food station reserved for guests of the hotel—we got a slightly choice of food fixings, because we were paying for our meals.
Kibbutz Urim’s dining room was lightly attended for breakfast, but during our meal, our host ran into his university-aged son, who is living in a student apartment on the kibbutz, and they had coffee together—a nice moment. Urim is struggling to stay communal and considering different statuses for different members, to give some flexibility and freedom without fully embracing privatization: the dining room seemed to mirror that trend.
Kibbutz Revadim was the most depressing. Jerry and I were the only people eating in its huge dining room, because we were staying at the guest house. The dining room’s kitchen were privatized, and only used for catering functions and guest-house breakfasts. A panorama of photographs outside the entrance showed the kibbutz’s expansion, from an aerial view, over 60 years, with the dining room at its hub. But now that hub is empty of its original purpose.
Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek has a huge L-shaped dining room, usually busy, with stacks of high-chairs and newspapers to be picked up outside. It remains the proud centre of this bastion of the kibbutz movement. Kibbutz 
Kibbutz Shamir’s dining hall was much like I remembered it, with its sun-filled vertical windows and huge tapestry, although the kitchen itself has been renovated and cash registers added to pay for the (heavily subsidized) meals. It was open for breakfast and lunch and two dinners per week. Workers from the factory, in their blue overalls, still used it, although because agriculture plays a smaller role, with far fewer workers, in the kibbutz economy, I didn’t see the lines of muddy field-hands in their sun-hats and work-shirts, a cigarette tucked behind their ears, trundle in for a meal like I used to do. We were only there four days, but it wasn’t long before we were chatting to and nodding at friends and acquaintances that we had met—the social glue of eating in the same place was starting to set.

A 100 Years of Kibbutz: Jewish Quarterly

The centenary of Degania has already started a outpouring of articles about 100 years of kibbutz life and philosophy. Some of the writing has been detailed and well-informed; some of it, less so. (I’m hoping mine falls in the former category!)
A worthy addition to the historical discussion about the importance of the kibbutz is a recent posting, by Lawrence Joffe, on the website of the Jewish Quarterly (with an unfortunately dodgy weblink to it). In a short space, Joffe gives a thorough history of the kibbutz movement, but he also evaluates its legacy from many critical angles, asking when it has—and when it hasn’t—lived up to its high ideals, including the movement’s often ambivalent relations with  the original Arab residents and the waves of new Jewish immigrants in Israel/Palestine. 
His post is peppered with specific details and historical facts and figures that bring the story to life. I only found one error with which to quibble: “In 2007 Degania A again led the way,” he writes, “this time by becoming the first kibbutz to be privatised.” Not  true: by 2007, according to stats compiled by Dr. Shlomo Getz, at the University of Haifa, and his American research colleagues, 65% of the 264 kibbutzim had voted in differential salaries—the Rubicon of privatization. Degania was a latecomer to the capitalist love-in, not a pioneer.
Joffe is much better at analyzing the kibbutz movement’s evolving political philosophy and its tricky relationships with Israel’s ever-changing parliamentary parties. He makes the important point that attitudes to the current “situation” vary from kibbutz to kibbutz, and likely kibbutznik to kibbutznik, now more than ever—that it’s a stretch to say there is anything that resembles a unified “movement” anymore. 
I like that he mentions the ecological innovations underway at Kibbutz Lotan, and how he concludes his essay on a note of hope, by citing two communities that similarly impressed me with their commitment to Arab-Israeli relations in good times and bad: the Givat Haviva Institute (founded by the the Kibbutz Artzi federation) and Kibbutz Eshbal, the “youngest” official kibbutz, which runs the Galil Arab-Israeli School. I’ll write more about both places in upcoming posts from my own trip.

Day Nine: Ketura and Lotan

Alas, our last day in the intellectually fertile mindscape of the Arava Valley. We wrapped up interviews on Kibbutz Lotan with Mark Naveh, the mazkir (ie, kibbutz secretary), about the challenges of his evolving community, and Mike Kaplin, one of the brains behind the creative ecology centre. Afterwards, we walked down the stairs of a bomb shelter—and into a student seminar about peace and social justice.
We returned to Ketura, where I had one of those only-in-Israel conversations with a Palestinian student in the swimming pool of the kibbutz. He described his intellectual aspirations and the frustrations of growing up and trying to do business as a Palestinian in East Jerusalem.
Finally, we sat in on several student presentations  about their research at the Institute before we had to hop into the car and drive across the Negev Desert, past tank-training facilities and down into the Ramon Crater (where we nearly ran out of gas) before finally pulling into Kibbutz Urim. We were both intellectually and physically drained. We had seen visions of different ways of living together in the desert and it will take days, probably longer, to make sense of all that we learned there.

Day Six: Kibbutz Lotan

After our meeting with the minister, we suffered rush-hour traffic one more time, fought our way out of Tel Aviv and headed south, past Beer-Sheva (where years ago I visited the market, bought a keffiyeh like the typical young tourist, and later saw several Bedouin men running beside my bus, laughing and shouting, “Arafat! Arafat!”) and, as night fell, descended off the plateau of Negev Desert and down into the Arava Valley. We dropped our bags in a guest room at Kibbutz Lotan and then woke the next morning for breakfast and a tour of the kibbutz’s innovative eco-education facilities.

Netta, a resident (but not a member), gave us a brief history of Lotan, and then led us to the Bustan, the student quarters where she also lives—a series of energy-efficient mud-covered straw-bale huts, like earthen igloos or Luke Skywalker’s home on Tatooine. We tried out some of the solar ovens and then walked to the Ecokef, a demonstration park and teaching area, with a cool playground made up of clayed-over garbage, composting toilets and an organic garden, where we plundered tea leaves and the last of their tomatoes. “Permaculture is my religion,” Netta told us. And it’s here on Lotan (where members also practise Reform Judaism) that newcomers get initiated into this philosophy of living lightly on the land.

After lunch, we hooked up with Alex Cicelsky, the director of research and development at Lotan’s Center for Creative Ecology, and had a long, wide-ranging and engaging conversation about the history of this unique kibbutz, its mix of spiritual and ecological philosophies (an environmental spin on tikkun olan), the challenges of building eco-friendly buildings, and other topics related to how ecological literacy has sprouted out of the communal life of Lotan. He invited us to the kabalat shabat ceremony later that evening and for Friday night dinner, where we met some of the students and volunteers. The song and prayer and shared meal helped us appreciate the melding of spiritual and communal life in this fascinating desert community.

The only disappointment of the day? The sign on the gate to the swimming pool: “Closed due to sandstorm.”

Reform Judaism Magazine

Reform Judaism Magazine

I often describe myself to my writing students as a “magaholic“: as a former editor, frequent contributor and devoted subscriber (I’m pushing 20 subscriptions), I love the combination of information, opinion, imagery and personal storytelling that a good magazine can provide. (My wife calls my various piles of half-read publications strewn around our house as “Camp Davids”.) That’s why I was delighted when a contact at Kibbutz Lotan emailed me a link to a story from the Winter 2009 issue of  Reform Judaism, taglined as the “world’s largest circulated Jewish magazine”. 

I love the earth tones of this cover and the desert spin on the iconic “American Gothic” rural couple. The cover makes me want to pick up and read the magazine. Instead, I had to satisfy myself electronically—as you can, with a link to a good story and Q&A about the ecological initiatives at Kibbutz Lotan or a downloadable PDF of the cover and full article.