History of a Passé Future

We Were the Future: A Memoir of the Kibbutz

by Yael Neeman, translated by Sondra Silverston 

Overlook Duckworth, 256 pp., $26.95 

In 1945, Martin Buber famously called it the one utopian experiment that had not failed. And for decades, the kibbutz took pride of place among Israel’s most innovative accomplishments. But with a post-1967 capitalist juggernaut bulldozing the old socialist experiments, the kibbutz ideal has undergone, by now, five decades of disillusion and disintegration, followed by a refashioning to save community at the expense of its original (and naïve) idealism. Most kibbutzim have either partially or fully privatized, once bustling dining rooms are now largely empty, and agricultural labor is more likely to be performed by Thai migrant laborers than by the “New Hebrew Man” envisioned by their founders.

Kibbutz education spearheaded these changes. At their inception, the children’s house and collective education were to shape a new kind of emotionally healthy person unfettered by the crippling bonds of the traditional or bourgeois Jewish family. Over the last two decades or so, a cultural backlash has set in among some of those raised in children’s houses. In a small avalanche of art and writing, both memoir and fiction, graduates of the utopian educational system opened up a public reckoning with an upbringing they often depicted as traumatic. Yael Neeman’s We Were the Future is one of the very few of these testimonies to appear in English. As such, it offers a window into a vigorous debate taking place in Israel over an important chapter in Zionist history. Indeed, in 2005, more than 300,000 Israelis flocked to a Tel Aviv Museum exhibit on kibbutz education. The most powerful piece for many viewers was by Efrat Natan: a pure-white, empty bassinet suspended in a black void. It left the message open to the viewer’s interpretation: horrifying or serene? 

Neeman’s book chronicles, in meandering, yet at times beautifully evocative prose, her life from kibbutz childhood to young adulthood. After her army service and another year of work on the kibbutz, she left, disillusioned with the collective’s promise and disappointed in herself. Toward the end of the book, Neeman writes:

This article is locked

Subscribe now for immediate and unlimited access to Web + Print + App + Archive
  • Already a subscriber? Log in to continue reading.
  • Not quite ready to subscribe? Register now for your choice of 3 FREE articles per quarter.
  • Already a registered user? Log in here.

About the Author

Rachel Biale grew up on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin, in the Beit She’an Valley. She is the author of Women and Jewish Law (Schocken) and several children’s books. She is currently at work on a historical novel, as well as a collection of stories about her kibbutz childhood.


gailtaback on January 9, 2018 at 11:24 pm
Rachel Biale's review of Yael Neeman's book, "We Were the Future..." really helps those of us who never lived on a kibbutz nor grew up in the children's house of a kibbutz, a balanced view of the experience. The review is not only well-written, but it is more meaningful coming from Rachel Biale as she, herself, was a child educated and raised in a kibbutz, not unlike Yael Neeman's. She conveys the author's "melancholy trajectory" for a dream that no longer can be. Biale shows sympathy and an understanding of the idealism of the early kibbutz movement and she also acknowledges the author's feelings of abandonment as well as of security of community. Since the social experiment of the kibbutz utopean dream has undergone so many changes and for all purposes no longer exists as it did in Israel's earliest years, it is especially interesting to read a first-hand account of the experience of those who grew up in this life. I look forward to reading Neeman's book.

Want to post a comment? Please register or log in.
Copyright © 2018 Jewish Review of Books. All Rights Reserved. | Site by W&B