We Were the Future: A Memoir of the Kibbutz

  • By Yael Neeman; translated by Sondra Silverston
  • The Overlook Press
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jen Maidenberg
  • December 23, 2016

A powerful reminiscence about the fall of Israel’s most idealistic experiment.

About six months after we moved to Kibbutz Hannaton, my then 8-year-old son and I agreed to be guest speakers for his former Sunday school class back in New Jersey.

On the scheduled day, we addressed the students via Skype, and my son told his American peers about his transition to life in Israel. After a few minutes of talking about school and soccer, the teacher asked him, “But what does your mom do during the day? Milk the cows? Work in the fields? Take care of the children in the gan [nursery school]?”

My son looked confused, and understandably so. None of his friends’ parents worked in the dairy that overlooks our neighborhood, and the women in charge of his brother and sister’s preschool on the kibbutz were mostly outsiders, people who lived “off Hannaton.” I responded on his behalf: “Kibbutz Hannaton is not a traditional kibbutz. It’s been privatized, and so we all have our own jobs, our own income. Most kibbutzim in Israel are like that now.”

Readers who come to Yael Neeman’s We Were the Future with the idea that the socialized kibbutz is alive and well in Israel would be better set straight before turning the first page. As I’ve discovered in the five years we’ve lived here, many non-Israelis believe the collective, Zionist/socialist community (traditionally based on agriculture) still stands, still thrives.

It doesn’t.

Of the 273 kibbutzim in Israel, less than a quarter operate under traditional, communal ideals. Neeman’s memoir explores the reasons for this, how the experiment of the kibbutz came to be, and the reasons for its failure.

Both beautifully lyrical and devastatingly illuminating, We Were the Future is a portrait of the seemingly picturesque existence of a child born in a kibbutz during the end of the movement’s brief heyday. We meet little Yael as one of 16 in the Narcissus group: “We spoke in the plural. That’s how we were born, that’s how we grew up, forever.”

It’s 1960, the year in which they were all born on Kibbutz Yehiam, in Israel’s Western Galilee. Each group, we learn, decided upon their own “flowery” name, and the children remained each other’s companions from their earliest days until 12th grade, when they were either sent directly to compulsory military service or to a year of volunteer work in advance of their enlistment.

As if to transition us “city people” into the atmosphere of kibbutz life, Neeman begins her story in the first-person, singular “I.” But she swiftly shifts the narrative, by the middle of chapter one, into the collective “we.” From there, every reminiscence, every reflection — from her early years raised by the female metaplot (caretakers) in the children’s house to her adolescent years in the “Educational Institution” — is recalled in first-person plural, a skillful contextualization of the shared experience between kibbutz children of that era.

For the most part, we the readers trust the narrator’s “we,” despite our knowledge of a singular author, and despite the individual sense of self those of us raised in a family unit presumably possess. We accept the notion that the narrator’s peers felt the way she did about the system and its “workers”; that they all loathed cleaning the communal sleeping room and all of them respected Feivel, the Polish kibbutz metalworker. We even believe the more significant assertions, such as, “We didn’t remember the beginning, the way things happened or the reasons for them.” We trust, even, the contradictions.

While she appears to challenge her own recall at times, Neeman employs this deliberation as a device to illuminate how one’s perception of life’s events shifts over time, as one grows older and presumably, wiser. In this way, she is able to be both loving and critical of the system in which she was raised, especially so as the narrator and her group move, at age 13, from the overseen children’s house on Yehiam to the mostly self-governing “Educational Institution” (a boarding-school-type setting in a neighboring village).

“The beauty of the kibbutz was incredible. We could never get used to it. We all felt unworthy of it and the system. Who could say no to an attempt to create a better, egalitarian, just world?” And yet, by the end, we come to understand — if not entirely — how the system failed to achieve this purpose, and why many of the grown kibbutz children chose to leave.

A revealing, inside look at an often-romanticized social experiment, We Were the Future is as much an elegy as it is an exposé, which suits the movement that many outside of Israel identify as one of the country’s most curious creations.  

A New Jersey native, Jen Maidenberg lives in Hannaton, a community situated in Israel’s Lower Galilee, with her husband and three children. She is a freelance writer and editor whose creative nonfiction has appeared in District Lit, Split Lip Magazine, and Silver Birch Press.

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