During my first few weeks at Kibbutz Gezer — in fact, my first few weeks in Israel ever — I fell into a routine. The other volunteers and I would wake before dawn, force down a quick breakfast of dry brown bread and coffee, and scramble onto the back of the agala, a flatbed wagon hitched to a tractor. The driver would deposit us each at the end of a long row of grapevines, and we’d spend the next few hours weeding, pruning, and, like the suburban tourists we were, generally making a mess of things.
The routine was altered one morning when we were told to assemble at a bare field in the shadow of Tel Gezer, the volcano-shaped archaeological site that loomed over the kibbutz. A kibbutznik told us to hold our arms out in a T while he draped squares of sod over each arm. We then marched out to the field and began laying out a gigantic quilt of green grass. By the time we were done, we had created what might have been the first, but what was certainly the best, softball field in the Land of Israel. It’s still there, almost 30 years later, and is known as, what else, the Field of Dreams.
As you can tell, I came late to the kibbutz movement, which by then was already losing much of its collectivist spirit and, worse, a lot of its money. Younger kibbutzniks were being drawn to the big cities, while many kibbutzim found it more profitable to develop light industries than to grow crops and milk cows. Members were demanding private cars and — horrors! — their own television sets. That decade would also see a crushing debt crisis, forcing some of the kibbutzim to sell off parcels of land to private developers.
I was also about a decade younger than most of the American immigrants who had arrived at Gezer as members of the Habonim Dror youth group and reinvigorated what had been a moribund community halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Again, by 1983, members of some of those famed garinim — seed groups — had left kibbutz or Israel altogether, worn down by the manual labor or just ready to trade in adolescent idealism for a good job or graduate school.
And yet enough of the old kibbutz spirit lived on to fire the imagination of a newcomer like me. I spent just four weeks at Gezer, but they remain some of the most memorable of my life. There was little drama of the conventional kind — no hayloft romances or late-night debauchery. Just a lot of sunshine, a lot of hard work, and the kinds of smells you come across only on a farm. Honestly. My most vivid memories of Gezer are olfactory. If you’ve ever worked in a football field-sized chicken coop in the middle of summer, you know what I mean.
But like those smells, the kibbutz idea got under my skin. Its members had a sense of common purpose I hadn’t come across before. They connected to the history and narrative of the Jewish reclamation of Israel — something I had only read about in books — in a living, breathing way. The kibbutzniks also had a bracing sense of cynicism — a good corrective to the romantic vision of Israel we’d been fed back in Hebrew school. I only regretted that I had arrived just as the party seemed to be ending. Like the kibbutzim, Israel itself was on the cusp of something new and different. In the next 10 years it would leap from the edge of the Third World into the lap of the First.
The kibbutz movement turned 100 last month, as Israelis marked the centennial of Kibbutz Degania Alef near Tiberias. A good number of kibbutzim are still going strong, but coverage of the anniversary seemed mostly nostalgic. Writing for the Huffington Post, kibbutznik Yermi Brenner suggests the way radical communal living giveth and taketh away. “I think people need to be financially motivated and should be financially rewarded according to their action and abilities,” he writes, “but also believe and feel that living in a community in which there is mutual responsibility by and for all members creates a healthier, less alienated society.”
A Ha’aretz editorial suggested that the city had won out over the farm, but also listed the movement’s accomplishments: providing security on the frontiers, developing a potent work force, and nurturing four future prime ministers, for starters. The kibbutz, never a majority movement, nevertheless contributed a disproportionate number of commanders and pilots, as well as composers and poets.
The kibbutz also served a key function for Diaspora Jews: It goaded our imaginations. The story of Israel’s founding was untidy and complex — so many immigrants, so much politics, too many challenges. The kibbutz provided a handy symbol of all things Israeli in one neat, albeit abstract package — the idealism, the strength, the landedness, the repudiation of whatever it meant to be a homeless Jew.
Sometimes, I can’t help it, I want to wash my hands of the Israel enterprise — the same arguments, the same conflicts, the same old story. But then I get a whiff of fresh green grass and I remember: Oh yes, the Field of Dreams.