|Children from Kibbutz Hulda, 1948, as seen in “Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experience.”|
Was the Israeli kibbutz movement an idealistic social experiment that aimed to create a stronger, healthier, fairer Jewish world? Or was it a wasteful lefty fantasy that resulted in an oppressively conformist society in which everyone spied on his neighbor? According to “Inventing Our Life,” a documentary by Toby Perl Freilich, it depends on whom you ask, which may be another way of saying all of the above. Screening at the Quad Cinema on West 13th Street for the Yom Ha’atzmaut season, “Inventing Our Life” shares a lot of fascinating information about kibbutz life and the history of kibbutzim, but leaves a lot out, as well.
The kibbutz movement was an answer to a pressing economic problem in turn-of-the-20th-century Palestine: There were no jobs for young Jewish immigrants, so many of them turned around and went back home, or decided to try America. To provide these pioneers with work and places to live, the Zionist movement came up with the idea of communal farms. Of course, a significant number of Eastern European Jews followed the ideas of A.D. Gordon, who believed that the salvation of the Jews would come from working the soil, and they were eager to live and work in such settings.
The film makes clear how radical the idea of the kibbutz movement really was. People gave up the idea of ownership and personal property, pooling any earnings they made. No one was richer than anyone else. Kibbutz members handed their children over to the communal nursery, where the kids lived except for an hour or two a day. Everyone ate together in a communal dining room. At the beginning, almost everyone was young, so it must have been like sleepaway camp all year long. “It was run by kids,” one woman in the film recalls fondly.
The kids grew up, of course, and had children of their own. The filmmaker has perhaps too many shots of adorable, suntanned toddlers running around the kibbutz playground, or being led in large groups from one building to another. She spends a lot of time on the pros and cons of communal childrearing, but we do not learn anything about what happened when the toddlers became teens. Did they still live in the dorm together? What were the sexual mores on the kibbutz? Who disciplined unruly teens? Two of the talking heads who do not remember their kibbutz childhood with affection turn out to be a poet and a philosopher – one describes his childhood as something out of “The Lord of the Flies” – so we understand that the system favored aggressive, confident extroverts, and was not as kind to shy, awkward types. Nothing surprising there, but a reminder that a society needs to accommodate different sorts of personalities if it is to succeed.
Freilich traces the development of the early kibbutzim with many photos of good-looking young people driving tractors and tending vineyards, devoting a lot of time to their efforts in the 1948 War of Independence and the June 1967 Six-Day War. Kibbutzim contributed a large share of the officer class in the Israeli armed forces for decades, even though they were always a small percentage of the population.
The problems began for the kibbutz movement with the immigration of Jews from Arab lands in the 1950s. By then, many of the kibbutzim were financially stable and well established. When the government pleaded with them to take Mizrachi children into their schools, Freilich reports, the kibbutzniks refused. They offered to build special schools at the edge of the kibbutz, but would not allow the new immigrants to go to school with their children. Unfortunately, the filmmaker does not investigate this astonishing fact any further, but it might explain why the victory of the Likud party in the 1970s, with overwhelming support of Jews from Arab lands, spelled the beginning of the end for the kibbutz movement.
“The wolves want to destroy our way of life,” one old kibbutznik complains, and Freilich sympathetically listens to people who have spent their lives living on a kibbutz as they mourn that their children and grandchildren have abandoned their experiment. The communities faced economic problems, the young wanted to go their own way, and gradually, many kibbutzim disappeared. All is not lost, though, and the film covers the rise of new, inner-city kibbutzim, which have taken root in rundown sections of Tel Aviv or in poor settlement towns.
One aspect of life on a kibbutz that is markedly missing from “Inventing Our Life” is religion. There were and are religious kibbutzim, but Freilich does not mention them, and she pays no attention to how or whether Judaism informed life on a kibbutz. Did kibbutzniks celebrate Jewish holidays? If yes, how did they celebrate them? Was Jewish education considered important? The film is silent on such matters.
Regardless of the sometimes overly admiring tone and the heavy use of photos that are clearly promotional, “Inventing Our Life” is enjoyable viewing. It is reminiscent of the approving films that used to be made about Israel by both Americans and Israelis. Freilich has made two other documentaries with Jewish themes – “Secret Lives” and “Resistance” – about hidden children during the Shoah and the Jewish partisans. This one is not as successful, but still worth seeing.