All the past we leave behind;

We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!

Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”

What must it have been like to be one of the founders of the kibbutz—to be a pioneer? That word carries such precious meaning in the history of Israel, of many nations. It invokes a sepia-tinted vision of the young people who uprooted from Europe to break the rough soil of Palestine, who dreamed not just of forging a new nation but a new way of living.

I’ve tried to imagine my way under their skins, into their minds, but the high walls of history, of language, of culture, of my own tidy 21st-century Canadian life, block the view. I suppose I’m a descendant of pioneers, too, a generation off the farm. Every summer, we made the pilgrimage—four days of relentless driving westward on the Trans-Canada—to my mother’s birthplace and her family’s wheat and canola fields near the Turtle Mountains of Manitoba. But the English and Belgian farmers who settled around Deloraine were hardly the same kind of dreamy ideologues that broke soil 100 years ago along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

I’ve been reading excerpts from these pioneers’ early writings. The most famous book is a collection, translated as Our Community, taken from the communal journal of the 27 members of a youth group who lived for nine months at Beitania Eilit, atop a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee. They slept together, in tents, while working agricultural jobs until they could be assigned a community of their own. Their nights were filled with intense conversations about the destiny of their project, their fears and doubts, the sublimation of their desires for the larger goals of the group.

The words recorded in their communal journal are as angst-ridden as the secret diary of any hormonally flustered teenager sent away to summer camp. The emotional ups and downs are raw and manic, a gushing forth of innermost thoughts—what historian Henry Near describes as a “special, somewhat eccentric style of speech and thought.” (I can’t imagine the laconic farmers I knew from my summers in Manitoba ever subjecting each other to such Freudian analysis.)

I try to picture this group—23 men and four women—huddled around a campfire on a Galileean hill. To feel the exhaustion in their bodies after a long day’s work, plowing fields or building the road to Tiberias. To eavesdrop on their anguished group confessions, voices emerging from the shadows, competing visions of a new nation. In the words of one of the authors:

From the beginning our life was hard and bitter… [D]aily matters joined us together; however, each person in his own corner lived through the awful transition from idea to practice. … Erotic relationships were limited by the hardness of reality. Pointless matters filled the empty spaces between one person and another and silenced the soul’s cry with no hope of escape. The word “substance” became a fetish for everyone.

While these pioneers were secular socialists, fleeing in many cases from the religion of their parents and grandparents in the Old World, there was a quasi-spiritual dimension to many of their lengthy debates and discussions and philosophizing. Beitania, as another participant recalled, “was more like the solitary monastery of some religious sect, or an order with a charismatic leader and its own special symbols. Our ritual was that of public confession. … This was a rich mental feast, but also involved self-torture which served no purpose. … The individual was under the continuous scrutiny of the group, which was not afraid to show mental cruelty at times.”

And then one long night, as two Beitania members confronted each other before the group, these pioneers had a “breakthrough”—at least according to the record of “Our Community”—on what became known as the “Night of Atonement”. Hidden jealousies were confessed to. Secret desires revealed. The inequalities between the men and women acknowledged. “And from that night on,” the Beitania journal records, “the life of the group began.”

While I was at Shamir, there was a camaraderie amongst the volunteers, perhaps even a late-night confession or two. But there was nothing like the deeply felt emotional enterprise of these first pioneers, who had left their home countries and parents behind, likely never to be seen again, to journey to a rough new land amid an already existing population of Arab tenants who were at best skeptical of the young Jewish immigrants. The physical intensity of the work, the psychic intensity of the group—what one Beitanianite called its “social eroticism”—proved too much for many of these pioneers. Some abandoned the first attempts at settlement. Others committed suicide in despair. But out of their tears and frustrations grew the first shoots of the kibbutz movement—and the hardier myth of its pioneers.