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December 21, 2014 | 29th Kislev 5775

Country Mouse IV

Galilee Diary #285
May 14, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

In the case of a virgin who is engaged to a man - if a man comes upon her in town and lies with her, you shall take the two of them out to the gate... and stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help in the town;and the man because he violated another man's wife.... but if the man comes upon the engaged girl in the open country.. .only the man who lay with her shall die... the girl did not incur the death penalty... though [she] cried for help, there was no one to save her.

-Deuteronomy 22:23-27

The Bible recognizes a difference between city and country: in the dense, urban environment, we assume that there are always people around to render assistance, to get involved in helping someone in trouble. Out in the country, on the other hand, one can cry for help in vain, as there is no one to hear. Over the years, it seems, the social images of city and country have gotten reversed. Today, the big city is a place of crowded isolation, of anonymity. We carefully avoid eye contact on the subway; the uninvolved bystander has become the emblem of city life (remember Kitty Genovese?). It’s out in the country that you expect a different kind of human fabric. It is the rural folk who live in a rich network of mutual assistance, who look out for each other and even sacrifice for each other in a way that city dwellers can only read about in novels and in Reader's Digest. Community seems to be a characteristic of the periphery, as individualism and alienation are the hallmarks of urban life.

Part of the Zionist revolution against urban Jewish life was an idealization of the rural peasant community - whether the villages of the muzhik in Russia or of the felach in Palestine. We longed for the healthy, organic community, where we would help each other battle the elements and make the land - and ourselves - productive and strong, tranquil and happy. And so we founded a number of different models of rural communities, ranging from the small, intensely communal kevutza to the kibbutz, the moshav shitufi, and the moshav ovdim (and today, the free-market-based yishuv kehilati). Each form represented a different level of communal obligation and sharing; each was and is an attempt to create a viable community, with just the right mix of intimacy and individualism, mutual support and independence.

For a hundred years now, there have been two opposing streams of traffic in Israel - from the city to the village, from urban alienation toward the idyllic rural community - and from the suffocation and conformity perceived by many in the small rural community toward the urban centers with their promise of unlimited opportunity for self-actualization. The grass is always greener...

Strolling through a veteran kibbutz - or an Arab village - at dusk on a summer evening, the atmosphere is seductive. There is a Norman Rockwell romanticism of the small community, of the families relaxing on the lawn or drinking coffee on the porch; of tranquility and completeness, of everyone comfortably knowing just who s/he is and where s/he belongs. You want to walk into the painting. But you know the price. You know the social pressures for conformity, the power struggles, the feeling of having no privacy, no secrets, and no freedom to be who you want to be and to belong where you want to belong.

And so, our cities are full of refugees from the country - and our rural communities full of refugees from the city - as we seek the elusive balance between being whole unto ourselves and being part of the whole. In this tension, the development of Israeli society can be seen as a microcosm reflecting the global struggles of the past century, among pre-modern, modern, post-modern, and anti-modern forces.

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