Back in the 1930s and ’40s, when Diaspora Jews desperately needed a symbol of Jewish strength and pride, the brawny, sunburned kibbutznik became the poster image for the new Jew emerging in Palestine.
Two generations further on, the straightforward picture has become blurred. The kibbutznik astride a tractor has been largely replaced by the high-tech entrepreneur as the face of modern Israel, and most kibbutzim have had to drastically change their outlook and functions in order to survive.
The history and contradictions of this social, ideological and economic movement are explored in the 79-minute documentary “Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment.”
The film, richly studded with black-and-white footage of early kibbutz labor and celebrations, provides a useful, unsentimental look at kibbutz life, from the founding in 1910 of Degania Alef, the flagship commune, to a more recent phenomenon, the urban kibbutz.
Toby Perl Freilich, the film’s director, producer and writer, discovered kibbutz life in the 1970s, while visiting her younger sister, who, to the horror of her immigrant parents, had decided to chuck the American dream and live in a kibbutz.
For her documentary, Freilich visited some 25 of the existing 270 kibbutzim and selected five for closer examination.
The first is Kibbutz Ein Shemer, between Haifa and Netanya, founded in 1927 along the pure ideological lines of a communist commune, a realization of a vision that the Soviets never accomplished.
All property and assets belonged to the kibbutz; children were, for the most part, raised in a group away from their parents; and committees regulated lifestyles and settled disputes. In return, members received all of life’s necessities, from food and clothing to education and health care.
Among the original settlers was Aliza Amir, who proudly declares, “Without the kibbutz there would be no Israel.”
This is no exaggeration. Although in 1948, the year of Israel’s independence, kibbutz members made up only 5 percent of the then-600,000 Jewish population, their ranks were the source of the new nation’s political leaders, ideological shapers, the shock troops of the Palmach and the officers of the defense forces.
Yet another veteran pioneer, David Ben Avraham, is less upbeat. None of his five children has stayed in Ein Shemer, and, voicing the fears of fellow old-timers, he asks plaintively, “How will we survive if our children and grandchildren leave us?”
Ben Avraham has put his finger on the kibbutz’s sorest spot. As Israel has turned from a socialist to an entrepreneurial capitalist society, most of the second and particularly the third generation are abandoning the egalitarian dream for the challenges and rewards of a freer, more competitive and individualistic outside world.
In this sense, the kibbutz history parallels the fate of the utopian communities in America built before and during the 19th century. Few such enclaves could retain the fervor and idealism of their founders beyond one or two generations.
In the late 1960s, the stability and image of the kibbutz movement started to disintegrate. There were bitter internal political splits and growing dissatisfaction with the collectivized lifestyle.
Kibbutzim built large swimming pools, much envied by city dwellers, and many assumed large debts, which they could not repay when the economy soured in the 1980s.
The kibbutzim that have best met the challenges of survival are those that adapted to the new social and economic realities of Israel. These days, almost all kibbutzim have added an industrial and manufacturing component (frequently high-tech), reward managers with higher salaries and have returned responsibility for child rearing to the parents.
There are some cautiously encouraging signs for the movement’s survival. Recent statistics puts kibbutz membership at an all-time high of 140,000, though the figure is somewhat deceptive — considering the tenfold increase in the country’s Jewish population since 1948, the percentage of kibbutz members has actually dropped from 5 to 2.3 percent.
Over time, many kibbutzim have transformed themselves from purely collective to semi-privatized communities. This change, for instance, allows many young couples who work in outside jobs to live and raise their children in the open kibbutz spaces.
Another interesting development is the formation of a few urban kibbutzim, such as Kibbutz Tamuz in the city of Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Its members hold a range of city jobs but pool their resources and strive for the equality and social cohesion of the old rural kibbutz model.
As the film’s subtitle indicates, Freilich considers the kibbutz an ongoing “experiment,” the outcome of which is yet to be determined. “My film ends with a question mark,” she said. “The jury is still out on the final verdict.”
Freilich’s resume includes numerous awards for the documentaries “Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII” and “Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.” Her largest financial support for the kibbutz film came from the Foundation for Jewish Culture.
“Inventing Our Life” opens June 8 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino.