In my youthful travels in the 1970s and 1980s, I encountered three institutions that deeply impressed me as visions of a good and just way of life: the kibbutz, the British National Health Service, and the BBC. All of these have fallen on difficult times in recent decades, but it is the kibbutz that is the subject of an interesting documentary by Toby Perl Frelich, "Inventing our Lives," now playing at the Quad in Greenwich Village. "Inventing Our Lives" explores the history and current crisis of the kibbutz movement, which has fallen victim to a turn away from socialist ideals in Israel, the movement's own internal fights, the rightward turn in Israeli politics, and the passing of the generation that led kibbutzim from their founding into the 1960s.
The film is a friendly look at the kibbutz, but it doesn't ignore the kibbutz movement's contradictions. Communal child-rearing practices sometimes stifled "normal" family life but left women with the jobs of running childcare for everyone. One kibbutz that she looks at was built, to the distress of its American-born kibbutzniks, on abandoned Palestinian homes. And for all the movement's professed egalitarianism, it could be quite elitist in its own way. In the old Israel, kibbutzniks considered themselves part of the vanguard of Israeli society. One consequence of this was that they never embraced the Middle Eastern Jews who immigrated after 1948, thereby cutting themselves off from what would become a large and growing sector in of Israel's population. This failure, "Inventing Our Lives" notes, was one of many factors that undermined the kibbutzim in the long run.
For all the problems that have befallen the movement, and for all the agonizing that accompanies efforts to either revive or privatize the kibbutzim, Frelich's interviews with founders, their children and their grandchildren convey what was best and most compelling about kibbutz life: the freedom that children enjoyed on the kibbutz grounds, the strong sense of solidarity that could turn a campfire singalong into a a swelling chorus that strengthened the voice of the weakest singer, and the beauty of a life that was lived close to nature and close to the artistic and intellectual heritage that kibbutzniks drew from European humanism.
I encountered all of these at Kibbutz Gvat in the Jezreel Valley in the 1980s, where I was a guest and worked briefly in a small workshop making parts for irrigation systems. I remember how a print of a classical painting hung outside one workroom. The painting, along with the shaded walkways between houses, the cultivated fields around, and the lives my friends there enjoyed as singers and musicians, seemed to me like the perfect blend of the outdoors life, hard work, culture and learning.
Since the 1980s, Gvat--like the kibbutzim portrayed in "Inventing Our Lives"--has gone through changes that I'm not in a good position to explain or understand. Whether the kibbutzim disappear or reinvent themselves is an open question left hanging at the end of "Inventing Our Lives." Something similar could be said for the BBC and the National Health Service in Britain. The social democratic ideals that animated all of these, and brought out some of the best in the 20th century, are beleaguered but still relevant. Here's hoping that the kibbutz movement reinvents itself in a way that creates a more just and democratic Israel.