Last week I was invited to give an enrichment class to a kibbutz ulpan; when I first came on aliya I used to give a lot of lectures like this, but this was the first in several years for some reason. Of course, one reason is that in the past few years the number of kids coming from the Diaspora to study in kibbutz ulpanim has plummeted just like every other tourist enterprise. Another reason is that as kibbutzim move toward capitalist economic structures, they are more stringent in weighing each activity as a profit center, and tend to cut away those projects, no matter how "traditional," that are not in fact sources of profit. Hence, the ulpan, which was always borderline economically and was maintained as much for ideology and idealism as for economic benefit, has often been a victim of the rationalization and privatization processes.
But there are some left; the one I visited is at a large old kibbutz on the edge of the Jezreel Valley. There were about 20 students at my lecture, all twenty-somethings; ranging from college dropouts looking for what to do, to partners of Israelis preparing for conversion, to seekers and roots-diggers and time-fillers of all kinds; most were North Americans, but the group included volunteers from Turkey, Japan, Sweden, Austria, and Russia as well. They study Hebrew half the day and volunteer in the kibbutz half the day, and are provided with occasional lectures and excursions for general education and cultural enrichment. So there I was, assigned to give an "introduction to Judaism" in 75 minutes. I focused on the development of the tradition, from Mt. Sinai to the present, discussed the various variations in the "mainstream" of Jewish belief, and explained the beliefs and origins of the various "streams" of Judaism today. They were, in fact, attentive and enthusiastic and full of thoughtful questions, and a good time was had by all, including me. It always feels good to teach people stuff they really want to know...
As I was leaving, the kibbutz families were all gathering in the communal sukkah for some kind of party. The lawn was crowded with parents and young children, the sidewalks a jam of bikes and trikes and electric carts. It was dusk outside, but the sukkah (not kosher, of course, a sort of symbolic compound made by enclosing the open patio located under the dining hall with walls of palm fronds) was brightly lit and colorfully decorated, music was playing, and the scene was very inviting.
Anyone who talks to kibbutzniks or reads the paper knows that the kibbutzim are a mess. Young people leave, privatization is advancing, agriculture is declining. Ten years ago the last kibbutz to retain separate sleeping quarters for children gave in and went over to family accommodations. The next struggle is over the dining hall; many now have meal tickets, others are only open for certain meals, others have closed altogether. Everyone knows about the quarrels and backbiting, the lack of privacy and the discouragement of initiative... Everyone knows that the kibbutz is not what it used to be -- and probably never was. But it was a useful myth and a beautiful one, and it is hard to let go of it.
When I visit a veteran kibbutz, which I do fairly often, it is usually brief, for a few hours or days, to teach or stay in the guest house. My experience is not of collapse, but of lush public gardens and broad lawns and public art, of richly equipped playgrounds, of people whose community, family, workplace, and home are all so intertwined that they can spend the whole day in their bedroom slippers. To the outsider it feels warm and comfortable, green and safe. Somehow, the feel of the kibbutz plucks a string of nostalgia, a memory of what Israel was supposed to be, even if the good old days are in fact merely a construct of nostalgia. Saul Bellow wrote, after visiting an old kibbutz: "Relaxing, breathing freely, you feel what a wonderful place has been created here, a homeplace for body and soul." Indeed, that is what we are supposed to be doing in this land -- creating a homeplace for body and soul.
Most people don't feel this way about the kibbutz. That was then, this is now. Cynicism is in. Entrepreneurs are our heroes, and equality is not fair. That's why I found it so refreshing to encounter the ulpan volunteers, coming to find themselves, Judaism, and Israel -- on kibbutz.