The kibbutz might have remained just a footnote in the history of Israel or 20th-century socialism if it weren’t for one major twist: the decision to raise the “children of the dream” communally, separated from their parents except for evening visits, eating and sleeping and learning together, amongst peers of the same age, in “children’s societies” that were designed as a microcosm of the larger kibbutz.
Communal child-raising was something of an accident in the early kibbutz, an ideological improvisation borne out of necessity—the need to free mothers to keep working—rather than ingrained philosophy. It quickly became part of the entrenched belief of the kibbutz leaders’ socialist vision, however: an opportunity to deal with the “problem of the family”; to make women equal to men in the field of work; and to cultivate in the minds of the young a belief that the collective, rather than the individual or the family unit, always came first.
The disappearance of this communal child-rearing began in the late 60s and accelerated through the 70s and 80s, until the last kibbutz (Bar’am) allowed its children to sleep in their parents’ apartments during the First Gulf War (in part, because of the threat from Saddam Hussein’s Scuds). For traditionalists, the decision to turn the children’s societies into mere daycares (highly respected ones, even today) was the beginning of the end of the kibbutz movement—a succumbing to the temptations of individualism and “familism”. For critics of the system, the return to the family (democratically decided by each kibbutz) only proved that socialist ideology can’t trump human nature, that it might take a village to raise a child, but that doesn’t mean the child should be removed from his or her parents’ care.
Of course, in its first flourishing, this experiment in communal child development drew, like moths to the flame, curious sociologists and psychologists from around the world to study different kibbutz communities and the generations being raised in this manner. Most famous amongst them was Bruno Bettelheim, author of the 1969 study Children of the Dream (based on his observations at Kibbutz Yohanam). “I found their system not entirely successful,” he concluded, “but certainly not a failure.” Other observers weren’t so kind, and claimed that communal living creating a generation with a “Metapelet Complex”—named after the all-powerful “nanny” or care provider who took on the role of the parents—in which kibbutz-raised adults came to expect that the kibbutz, or the movement, or society in general would look after them. Skeptics of this theory pointed out that, per capita, the kibbutz system produced an inordinate number of independent-minded high-achievers: politicians and artists, military commanders and academics.
From an anecdotal perspective, perhaps the most damning indictment of communal childhood on the kibbutz comes from Avraham Balaban’s memoir, first published in 2000 (curiously, by the leading kibbutz movement) and then translated into English in 2004, titled Mourning a Father Lost: A Kibbutz Childhood Remembered. Its original Hebrew title was simply Shivah, after the week-long Jewish rite of mourning, and the series of remembrances is ingeniously structured around the seven days that Balaban (now a poet and professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Florida) spends on his former kibbutz (Hulda, where author Amos Oz also once lived), with his mother, his siblings and various visitors after the death of his father. The shivah becomes a metaphor through which he mourns not just his father (with whom he had a distant relationship), but his own childhood (and especially the gap put between him and his mother) lost to the collective ideology imposed on him and his peers by the founding generation. It’s a shivah, as well, for the kibbutz movement, which he can see is in decline—although he feels little sorrow at its fading.
The book is also an engrossing work of literature, creative nonfiction in the finest sense, and a reflection on the nature of memory and the collective narratives that shape our lives. “What does memory remember?” he writes. “The friction of body against body, of flesh against the door, a crushed entry into words.” His return to his abandoned home triggers mental journeys back into the past, moments and episodes from his childhood (the teasing of one of his peers, the loneliness of his own teen years), long-suppressed fears (the jackals howling outside the fence, a recurring nightmare of the kibbutz overrun by Arab attackers), and percolating anger and resentment at being subjected to this grand experiment in re-education, of being a ”child of a dream, child of a laboratory”.
His old kindergarten teacher visits, to extend her condolences, as do friends from his kibbutz days. Their conversations, often without quotation marks, bleed into Balaban’s own narrative voice (much as Amos Os does in his own memoir of growing up), identities blur in the poetry of his prose, as if he were channelling the spirit of these other characters, rather than transcribing their words. Batsheva, a classmate, says at one point—in a damning echo of the author’s own opinions about kibbutz life: “What amazes me, when I think about our childhood, is the members’ conviction that we were a clean slate on which they could write whatever they saw fit. So they wrote on us: be brave and not afraid of the dark and the jackals, and be the very opposite of everything we hated about our parents and ourselves. We won’t actually be your parents, but please love us as a child loves his parents. And above all, be loyal to the kibbutz and the movement. And they were naive enough, or stupid enough, to believe that this is what would happen.”
Balaban doesn’t pull any punches in his memoir—about his disappointments with his father, or his upbringing, or even with himself. “The children are sheltered by the finest theories, surrounded by nurses and educators, but the nurses soon discover that a mother’s love no more resembles her feeling for her friend’s children than blood resembles sweat. The children develop survival strategies, like street kids, toughening their skin to the best of their abilities. When they grow up they will evince the selfishness of people who never got enough protection and security. The motto of the kibbutz movement—’What’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine’—likewise contributed to this: in time, all that remains of it is the habit, and later the wish, that what is yours is mine. Like children who grow up too soon, they would age in time but never reach maturity” (8-9).
He aims his sharpest barbs at the leaders of the movement that tried to transform the first generation of kibbutz-born children through their collective theories: “The movement’s gurus also did the damage. The old family is obsolete, the educationalists proclaimed. We shall create a new family, the education committee told her [my mother]. Away from mother’s apron strings we shall bring up natural, healthy children, echoed the general meeting. And she believed everything she was told, as a Hassid believes his rabbi” (11). A later discovery of a memo, in which the lead educator on Kibbutz Hulda makes the case for reducing the time allotted for kids to visit parents down to one hour (it’s for both their good!), sends Balaban into a froth of disgust. “‘A child cannot long for what it never had, it cannot miss what it has never known,’ the lecturers at the ideological seminars and the training courses for children’s nurses persuaded one another” (13).
His rebuke of his dead father is especially blunt: “That enthusiasm had led him to believe that he was in the social vanguard, when in fact he was a small component in a doomed experiment. He imagined that he was in the storm, when in fact he was a leaf that it blew away. Rest in peace, you hard, selfish, and naive man.” And yet, at the book’s end, the author breaks down emotionally because he has missed the chance to reconcile himself with, and properly mourn, this absent parent.
A visit to the kibbutz, 10 years before the shivah, to give a lecture to its aging members, prompts more general reflections about the institution’s failure to create the New Man, the homo kibbutznik, the socialist subspecies of natural altruism: “They were humanity’s finest dream in this century, the most consistent attempt to forget humanity’s inglorious origins. Every morning for decades they rose early to adapt themselves to the dream that had brought them here. And again I saw that forty, fifty years in one house did not create a wonderful comradeship, but hostile silent elbows. This way of life, designed for saints and angels, detracted from their humanity … I sat with them with an aching heart: how they were misled, misguided from the outset.” Tough words.
As a parent, there have been times of sleepless and harried frustration when I might have seen the wisdom of the collective project—how a “children’s society” of nightly babysitting might free a young couple to fulfill more fully their work lives and social lives and community lives and creative lives. (And, yes, even their sex lives.) But I also read several chapters of this tough yet sensitive book, this hauntingly candid memoir, while holding my sleeping three-year-old daughter in the crook of my arm. I couldn’t imagine giving up those precious moments of intimacy with my two children, waking up in the middle of the night to find that they had climbed into our bed, being greeted by their warm bodies and laughter (and even tears) every morning—and certainly not giving up those moments for some abstract ideology imposed by my peers. I can understand how Balaban must feel like something vital had been stolen from him by the kibbutz.
“Between us and the kibbutz, they chose the kibbutz,”he writes of his parents’ generation. “I cried for my nurse, and other children cried for my mother, who was their nurse.” In his loneliness, the teenaged Balaban finds himself drawn to literature—to the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, to the philosophies of Freud and Schopenhauer, to the latter’s belief that “to be happy one must be entirely free, self-sufficient.”
During the shivah, he tells his sister: “No one got enough love in the children’s house.” For that reason alone, Balaban refuses to forget, or forgive, the theft of his family life as a boy, stolen and replaced by the dream of brave new children’s society that, its leaders hoped, would one day transform the world. But never did.
Mourning a Father Lost: A Kibbutz Childhood Remembered, by Avraham Balaban. Translated by Yael Lotan. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 2004.