When Yael Neeman’s book We Were the Future: A Memoir of the Kibbutz came out in Israel three years ago, it earned accolades for its vivid depiction of the communal yet oftentimes claustrophobic life on a kibbutz. This week, the book came out in English, Neeman’s first book published in the United States.
Neeman was born on Kibbutz Yehiam in the northern Galilee in July 1960 and grew up in the kibbutz’s children’s house, where children were separated from their parents at birth and lived dormitory-style with other kids. In Neeman’s memoir, the house—which feels like a cross between an orphanage and Never-Never Land—stands out as its own character.
In the spirit of the children’s house, Neeman restricts herself to writing in the collective “we.” “We spoke in the plural,” she writes. “That’s how we were born, that’s how we grew up.” “We” means the children she was grouped with until she was 18—as opposed to “they,” the adults who remain in the background throughout her narrative. From the moment she came into the world, she writes, “they never tried to separate us. On the contrary, they joined us, glued us, welded us together.”
Even in conversation Neeman slips into the plural. “We barely knew the grownups,” she told me in a recent Skype interview. “We grew up among ourselves. We only spent less than two hours a day in our parents’ houses, and when we were there, we felt like guests.”
Nevertheless, her childhood memories are happy ones. Contrary to popular characterizations, she said, separating children from families was not an inhumane policy: “It was created from a belief that it would make a better human being and a better family, After all, families are not so ideal all the time. When we ex-kibbutzniks speak among ourselves about this issue, we call it a paradox because most of us were really happy in this strange arrangement. Yet none of us want our children or grandchildren growing up like that.”
Neeman, the author of a collection of short stories and two novels before this memoir, left the kibbutz long ago; she has lived in Tel Aviv for more than three decades. We Were the Future is ultimately a compassionate memoir about a bygone life—for Neeman and for many others. A lot has been written about kibbutz life and how the dreams it evoked eventually disappeared with it. In this wonderful hodgepodge of a book, held together by memory, archival material, and a smattering of statistics, Neeman tells her reader early on that in 1960, “we were born to a star whose light had long since died and it was now on its way to the sea.” To underscore her point, she cites statistics that indicate kibbutz life dwindling in Israel. At the height of its popularity—in 1947—7 percent of the entire Jewish population in Israel lived on a kibbutz; by the mid-1970s, the numbers bottomed out at 3 percent.
Neeman likens the fate of kibbutz life to an unsustainable Utopian ideal. Neither, she observes, could survive. “I never use the word Utopia in the book. I wanted to show the sense of effort, the tension that we lived with in trying to make it a Utopia. The moment you say the word Utopia, you know it can’t be. It’s a spoiler.”
Established in the shadow of the ruins of a Crusader fortress, Kibbutz Yehiam was a fount of stories. “Stories were everywhere,” Neeman writes, “they rose from the lawn sprinklers that surrounded the dining room, from the scorched remains of our Crusader fortress, from the cracks of the beautiful narrow stone sidewalks.”
By virtue of its stark topography, Kibbutz Yehiam was also an anomaly among its counterparts. “The landscape was like another character in the book,” Neeman told me. “I really felt it was part of our home. It’s a big part of living on a kibbutz. Children are very free to hang around and be part of nature. The children are their own society.”
Having the Crusader fortress offered Yehiam members a historical perspective that many other kibbutzniks didn’t have. “It’s very unique,” said Neeman, “because on most kibbutzim everything is built like an installation. Most of the things on kibbutzim are new, with small houses and a silo. We got this fortress that was so different and so old.” But that was where history ended. The kibbutz was fiercely secular, discarding thousands of years of Jewish tradition: No rabbi set foot to perform weddings or preside over a funeral. Members “proudly” worked on Yom Kippur and roasted wild boar on campfires.
In some ways, the kibbutz religion was an idiosyncratic pantheism. In the book, Neeman observes that “the natural setting of Yehiam was wild and colorful, as if the buildings had been dropped into a nature reserve below the fortress. The kibbutz was rampant with flowers, bushes, trees, grass, rock gardens, soil enriched by pine needles and there were brown, green, yellow, pink and white corners everywhere.”
For all of its rugged beauty, the kibbutz was first and foremost a memorial to a dead son, a fallen soldier: Yosef Weitz founded the kibbutz in memory of his son Yehiam, who was killed in an army operation in 1946. The elder Weitz was impressed with the remnants of the Crusader fortress, which included an imposing stone tower. He saw it as “a place for defense forestation and for agriculture.” But farming on Kibbutz Yehiam was a logistical challenge. The fields were two kilometers away from the kibbutz, and workers had to be bused to them.
As it turns out, the kibbutz—operated under the umbrella of a larger Zionist entity called Hashomer Hatzair—was cleaved both geographically and culturally. Founding members were a mix of Hungarian Holocaust survivors and Sabras. Both groups included veterans of the intense fighting and long siege during Israel’s War of Independence. Neeman’s mother had been in a Zionist group in Hungary called the First of May; her father emigrated from Vienna in 1939. They gravitated to kibbutz life; her mother served as the nurse.
While childhood was happily unstructured on the kibbutz, adolescence was another story. Neeman does a masterful job of capturing the ennui that set in between childhood and adulthood. “It was the first time that we discovered boredom,” she said. “We didn’t learn to study, we didn’t have examinations. Many of just didn’t do anything at this time.” Teenagers seemed to be exempt from the heavy workload the adults carried. This arrangement enabled Neeman to find literature and romantic love as well as time to stare at the treetops and the sky. But idle behavior was not without its emotional complications. “Fear and anxiety” crept into the children’s house, she writes: “We were suddenly afraid that life had no meaning. … Our thoughts had no substantive form; they were only pieces of something that had no name and no contours, fragments of the same mute-but-present partner that lived in our rooms, the same anxiety that climbed up our legs, under the causality that explained everything in Hashomer Hatzair.”
When Neeman and her peers turned 18, they collided emotionally and physically with the new society that Tel Aviv presented to them. Under the auspices of the kibbutz, many teens postponed army duty for a year to live in the city. “In Tel Aviv, we felt like tourists in our world,” she writes, “in a no man’s land between city and kibbutz which had been ‘lent’ to us for a year.”
Neeman’s disorientation in the city occasionally resurfaces in her life. “Even now some things are still strange for me,” she said, “like when I meet a new person or buy something from a stranger. I knew everyone on the kibbutz. When I came to Tel Aviv I had to stand in front of a mirror to practice going from ‘we’ to ‘I.’ You have to learn these words to be part of city life.”
Leaving the kibbutz was seen as a “defection.” Before Neeman permanently took her leave of Kibbutz Yehiam, she suffered a kind of ideological breakdown in the army. “To talk about the army in Israel is very important,” she said. “I was much more to the left than the average kibbutznik and I was serving in the territories. Kibbutzim are at the forefront of Zionism. I had a hard time in the army; I didn’t know why it was so important. Sometimes I feel closer to American Jews who don’t always feel Zionism is the main way to be Jewish.”
By the end of the book, Neeman has taken her first trip abroad, to England and then to Scotland. But before her final departure from the kibbutz, she returns for a stay that she calls “a conscience year.” “I felt I had to give back one year to the kibbutz before I went to live in the city,” she said. “It was a year that was between childhood and adulthood. As a child on the kibbutz you’re very free, and as an adult you work very hard and do what the kibbutz tells you to do. It was a feeling of obligation and conscience.”
We Were the Future ends when Neeman was 20, which also coincides with the end of kibbutz life as she knew it. “I wanted to describe the old kibbutz, which also ended in the ’80s,” she said. “I was never interested in its history, just in the dream our parents tried to live.”
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Judy Bolton-Fasman’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and other venues. She is the author of Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets.