Book Review: We Were the Future: A Memoir of the Kibbutz

The word “kibbutz” may suggest a healthy, outdoorsy lifestyle on a self-sustaining farm, a cooperative of hardy, dedicated men and women, living and working together, sharing their lives. Yael Neeman’s memoir, We Were the Future details a surprisingly different scenario.

Founded in 1946 by the Socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard), Kibbutz Yehiam comprised Hungarian Holocaust survivors and people living in Palestine. The founders named the kibbutz HaSela (The Rock), and changed the name in 1947 to honor Yehiam Weitz, who had been killed in a Palmach operation.

Yael Neeman was born on Kibbutz Yehiam in 1960.

…the most beautiful kibbutz in the world – green with pines, purple with Judas trees, yellow with broom plants...  We were born to the Narcissus Group. We were sixteen children in Narcissus, eight boys and eight girls.  We were a gentle group, most of us born to older parents, the Hungarian founders of the kibbutz who built it together with an Israeli group of Hashomer Hatzair.

At that time, communal sleeping arrangements were the norm in all kibbutzim in Palestine, except for some of the older, established ones, which opposed it. “It was merely a byproduct of the experiment with socialism,” writes Neeman. The philosophy of communal sleeping was to separate children “from the oppressive weight of their parents, who would pamper them and impose their wills on them with mother’s milk and father’s ambitions.”

Early in the book, Yael revealed that after birth, she and her brothers (like all other kibbutz infants) were taken immediately to the communal nursery, where all babies were housed. Her mother, along with other new moms, synchronized their visits, nursing their infants side-by-side, on the same schedule to ensure that no baby got more milk – or attention – than any another.

Our story appeared to be only a plot, a plot that was the system, which suited neither children nor adults. Our parents lived alongside it and we lived under it. No one actually lived inside it because it was not meant to house people, only their ambitions and dreams. But we and our parents tried with all our hearts to live inside it; that was the experiment.

Neeman’s memoir describes the “we-mentality” of living 24/7 through adolescence with her assigned roommates. She recites the children’s daily activities and their interactions with the characters on the kibbutz, which, as the roots of her story, are imprinted on her being. “We spoke in the plural. That's how we were born, that’s how we grew up, forever. Our horizons were strange, bent.” In fact, this type of communal living inspired studies by child psychologists, including Bruno Bettelheim, and attachment researchers on the long-term effects of kibbutz living on children raised apart from their parents.

Neeman describes having kind metapelet (caregivers), who stood in contrast with Fishel, the barber, and Pirosh, the shoemaker, two questionable characters who regularly interacted with the children. The kids hated getting haircuts, and Neeman describes how Fishel didn’t ever bring candy he repeatedly promised, causing disappointment among the children, who cried after each haircut. As for Pirosh, he cursed, and “gave our thighs a hard, painful slap whenever he wanted, and chose his helpers…from among the girls in the seventh grade or higher, based on the size of their breasts.”

Until the seventh grade, the kibbutz kids visited their parents in their homes every day for exactly one hour and 50 minutes. Neeman was uncomfortable visiting her mother and father, and described a visit to her parents’ home when she was young.

I was in the second grade when I saw an adult wearing pajamas for the first time. It was my father, who had fallen asleep during the afternoon shift…At 5:30 that day I went into their room…and he was asleep in bed…I ran outside, my pulse racing, and yelled that my father was dead. He’s dead. Someone saw me on the sidewalk and, concerned, went inside to check. Zvi N. is not dead, Zvi is sleeping. That’s how grown-ups look when they’re sleeping…

Although readers don’t hear her parents’ perspectives, Neeman notes that they “viewed with suspicion and an obvious lack of affection” the homemade gifts – menorahs, bookmarks, and vases – the children crafted from acorns, leaves, and clay and presented to them. Her parents, however, did save the children’s writings, including letters and poems.

Discharged from the army, Neeman must make a choice: return to the familiarity of the kibbutz or cut ties and go out into the world. To the North American reader, Neeman’s memoir offers a fascinating look into life on the kibbutz during the 1960s and 70s, leaving one to ponder Kibbutz Yehiam’s early Socialist experiment, and how it shaped its children.

Deborah Rood Goldman is a member and the volunteer librarian of the Garden City Jewish Center in Garden City, NY. She also is the Union for Reform Judaism's digital communications producer and a member of its marketing and communications team.

View all posts by Deborah Rood Goldman