Kibbutz exhibit traces movement’s journey, history

The Government Press Office, Israel/Courtesy

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In “To Build & Be Built: Kibbutz History,” the Contemporary Jewish Museum investigates the social movement that redefined Jewish life in the modern era. The exhibit, a simple display on one wall of the CJM, traces the history of the kibbutz movement with photos of kibbutz life and descriptions of the early settlements, communal culture and the kibbutz today. The timeline begins at the very beginning: “Since their exile from the land of Israel almost two thousand years ago, the Jewish people have prayed and worked for a return to the Promised Land.” It goes on to tell the story of the pioneers who came to the land of Israel to realize their utopian dream.

“Kibbutz” literally means “gathering” in Hebrew. In fact, gathering is the central tenet of the movement, which emphasizes “cooperation, determination, and innovation,” as explained in the museum introduction. However, the explanation continues: While those tenets determine the function of kibbutzim, they were not the fundamental reasons for the movement’s existence. Rather, the concept of the kibbutz was founded upon the utopian musings of modern socialist Jews who saw their tradition and people as having been removed from their foundation — the Land of Israel — for too long. These thinkers envisioned a “new” kind of Jewish society that returned to the fundamentals of Jewish existence. The kibbutznik dream was of Jews who were strong and tied to their land not just through their heritage but also through the physical labor they devoted to it.

In fact, these kibbutz ideals find their origins in another movement that existed long before the concept of the kibbutz: Zionism. The very concept of a place where Jews could be festive, productive, proud and free was originally a Zionist thought, and the reality of holidays such as Passover and Shavuot — which had traditionally meant heightened violence against Jews in the Diaspora — coming to be the most celebrated holidays at kibbutzim was the dream of Zionists who sought self-determination and a proud existence for Jewish people. However, because the majority of the first kibbutzim were doctrinally antireligious, the celebrations of these holidays were nationalistic and ideological, with religious aspects of the holidays often replaced with “references to the power of the community, the land, and labor,” as the exhibit points out.

These priorities are clearly expressed in the cultural production that has emerged from kibbutzim. “New” Hebrew folk tunes for community singing events, the hora — a traditional Jewish circle dance — and modest artistic performances in the dining hall were fit for all to enjoy and take part in. These artistic expressions relate directly to the intention of returning to the simple “folk” culture that kibbutzniks felt was lost in the hyperintellectual urban communities from which they came. (You can hear some of the classic songs in headphones as you look at the pictures in the exhibit.)

All in all, this simple experience of photos, historical outline and music gives a surprisingly deep picture of the kibbutz as an entity, social movement, national feature and concept. Seeing a photo of people sorting oranges from 1934 takes on tremendously more meaning when one is listening to the simple tunes of the kibbutz songs and connecting that image of working people to the concepts of Zionism, utopia, self-determination and the return of people to their land and to the fundamentals of their heritage. Moreover, “To Build & Be Built” makes for a fantastic starting point for seeing the rest of the museum, which is also showing “Work in Progress: Considering Utopia.” This exhibition mainly features the work of kibbutz artists who investigate the Jewish concept of utopia and what it means, particularly regarding the kibbutz and the foundation of Jewish utopian thought from which the movement gains its values.

Contact AJ Kantor at [email protected]