My documentary film, Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment, has its roots in my own biography. In 1968, my sister, then 18, moved to Israel and settled on a kibbutz. My parents were horrified. Polish-born Holocaust survivors who’d immigrated to America after the war, they saw kibbutz as nothing more than a glorified kolkhoz, one of Stalin’s failed collective farms, a prison camp in the guise of a commune. They couldn’t understand why my sister would chuck the American dream in favor of something that smacked so much of Soviet oppression and limited opportunity.
I was surprised, then, when visiting my sister as a kid in the 1970s, to discover that her kibbutz more closely resembled a lush Israeli suburb than the impoverished collective I had been led to imagine. Food, electricity, health care, education—everything was free and liberally doled out. Communal life could be maddeningly close, but it was vibrant and thrummed with the energy of a shared enterprise.
As the years passed, the waste and inefficiency of a moneyless society gradually began to take their toll on Israel’s roughly 270 kibbutzim. Financial and social hurdles arose to challenge each one of the kibbutzim’s emblems, from communal child rearing to the joint dining hall.
Hit hard by a severe economic crisis in the 1980s and threatened by the arrant defection of its third generation, strict egalitarianism and doctrinaire socialism became luxuries few kibbutzim could continue to afford. For the past 20 years, many kibbutzim have teetered on the brink of collapse, and the movement itself battles obsolescence. But spending time on several kibbutzim, and interviewing scores of current and former members, I found a movement in flux, questioning its old pieties and testing out new ones. Though still passionately committed to social justice, the next generation is transforming the kibbutz movement, making it is relevant to Israel’s capitalistic society while struggling with a wide range of problems, new and old.
Over the next five weeks, and commemorating the 100th anniversary of the kibbutz movement’s birth, Tablet Magazine will preview segments of my documentary film, still a work in progress, that deal with everything from the kibbutz’s proud history to its inspired reinvention.