We Were the Future: A Mem­oir of the Kibbutz

Yael Nee­man; Son­dra Sil­ver­ston, trans.

  • Review
By – September 8, 2016

In her engag­ing mem­oir, Yael Nee­man tells not only her own sto­ry of grow­ing up as a mem­ber of the Nar­cis­sus Group of Kib­butz Yehi­am in the Galilee, but also the sto­ry of a gen­er­a­tion of Israelis born into the Hashomer Hatzair move­ment and raised to live the labor Zion­ist dream.

The mem­oir opens with an overview of the lifestyle of the kib­butz­im of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, which was enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly per­pe­trat­ed by refugees from Europe who arrived after World War II. Yehi­am was one of many such kib­butz­im, and it was there that Yael Nee­man was born in 1960 to immi­grants from Hungary.

Like in many oth­er kib­butz­im, in Yehi­am chil­dren were not raised by their birth par­ents but instead placed into a children’s house, where they lived and were tak­en care of by spe­cial­ly select­ed mem­bers of the kib­butz. Youth spent time with their par­ents only a few hours a day, some­times a lit­tle longer on Shab­bat and fes­ti­vals. Con­se­quent­ly, Nee­man iden­ti­fied not as the child of her father and moth­er, but rather as a mem­ber of a spe­cif­ic group iden­ti­fied with one of Israel’s lead­ing polit­i­cal move­ments of the time.

In keep­ing with Hashomer Hatzair’s Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy, all issues — whether pub­lic or pri­vate — were decid­ed by elect­ed com­mit­tees of the kib­butz. If one of the chil­dren wished to pur­sue a spe­cial edu­ca­tion­al course or career, a com­mit­tee would have to give its approval, invari­ably based on whether it would ben­e­fit the com­mu­ni­ty as a whole. Hard as it may be for today’s read­er to under­stand, Nee­man reports that despite the dif­fi­cul­ties, or maybe because of them, we were very hap­py and enjoyed the most intense expe­ri­ence of togetherness.”

As was true of most kib­butz­im at the time, no mem­bers received salaries or mate­r­i­al ben­e­fits. It was believed that the more devot­ed the indi­vid­ual was to their com­mu­ni­ty, the bet­ter they would devel­op. While Israeli nation­al­ism was para­mount, Jew­ish reli­gion played no part in the lives of the kib­butzniks — oth­er than the Hebrew cal­en­dar, by which the com­mu­ni­ty oper­at­ed. There were no syn­a­gogues, no rab­bis, no cir­cum­ci­sions, no kashruth, no mourn­ers’ kad­dish, and no men­tion of the Bible. Kib­butz Yehi­am even worked on Yom Kippur

Nee­man describes life on the kib­butz as she and her class­mates moved togeth­er from grade to grade. Year by year they grew ever more alien­at­ed from their birth par­ents, and their par­ents more estranged from them in turn, until we sud­den­ly didn’t know each oth­er any­more.” In their senior year of high school, Neeman’s class was were intro­duced to city life through Broad­en­ing Hori­zon Weeks” in Tel Aviv, stud­ies in a spe­cial Edu­ca­tion­al Insti­tu­tion, and addi­tion­al course­work at Givat Havi­va, a Zion­ist camp where they trained to become youth lead­ers. It was, how­ev­er, on those very excur­sions that Neeman’s class­mates devel­oped as indi­vid­u­als and first col­lid­ed with the world,” giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make their own deci­sions about their inde­pen­dent futures.

In spite of their life­long train­ing and indoc­tri­na­tion, Nee­man and many of her fel­low chil­dren of the Nar­cis­sus group chose to defect from the kib­butz move­ment. They con­tin­ued to feel indebt­ed to their kib­butz fam­i­ly for the life that they had been giv­en but they felt the need to go abroad where, as Yael Nee­man says, for the first time in my life I was free.”

Relat­ed Content:

Peter L. Roth­holz head­ed his own Man­hat­tan-based pub­lic rela­tions agency and taught at the Busi­ness and Lib­er­al Arts (BALA) pro­gram at Queens Col­lege. He lives in East Hamp­ton, NY and San­ta Mon­i­ca, CA and is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to Jew­ish publications.

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