History of a Passé Future
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: