Israeli kibbutz is the scene of old ideals and change

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Review

Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope. Bedford, N.Y.: Fig Tree Books,
2015, 377 pages, $15.95.


Few social institutions have undergone more radical change than have Israeli kibbutzim during the past 100 years.

From utopian socialist enterprises where people came to reclaim the land and “livnot v’l’hibanot” — build and be rebuilt themselves — many kibbutzim, now deprived of government subsidies, have become privatized and evolved into rural or suburban communities.

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A novel may not be the best vehicle to chronicle such a metamorphosis, but this one does so, as well as is possible.
Ziva, a veteran of Kibbutz Sadot Hadar (Fields of Splendor), where the action takes place in 1994, tells a volunteer, who is sorting members’ clothes in the communal laundry, about clothing on kibbutzim in an earlier time.

“‘Not long ago … [w]e didn’t have our own clothes. When the pants you were wearing were dirty, you traded them in for a clean pair. If you were a size 6, you got any size 6 that was available. We had no private property. …’ ”


In a society where work and self-sufficiency were two of the highest ideals, hiring outside laborers was forbidden. But by the 1990s, the fictional Sadot Hadar, like real kibbutzim, is forced to do just that.

Old-timers like Ziva are not happy:

“Cheap labor, that’s what it is. Even in the worst times, when a few extra hands would have stopped us from going to bed hungry, we didn’t hire help. … Next thing, you will find Arabs too expensive and start importing workers from Africa.”

Eyal, the kibbutz secretary, leads the members’ meeting in which he tells the people that one of the bedrock ideals of kibbutz life — equality of income — is going to be changed. The kibbutz is losing money, the government no longer subsidizes kibbutzim and if changes aren’t made, the kibbutz will go bankrupt by the end of the year.

When the people protest that their standards of living may fall, Eyal changes the subject, for he knows that the kibbutz in the past had forbidden members from acquiring certain consumer products:

“Is freedom not an ideal? Is personal expression not an ideal? Of course they are! You should be able to spend your earnings on what is important to you, not what a committee has decided it was your turn to have.”

The author describes the reaction this way:

“The room erupted with applause. Everyone had a stereo or airplane ticket they had applied for and been denied.”

I was a member of a kibbutz in the mid-1970s, and that community had more than its fair share of unusual, even zany, characters. If this book is to be believed, not much had changed 20 years later.

The aforementioned Ziva, for example, is a kibbutznik’s kibbutznik, whose devotion to its ideals is unbreakable. She gave up the man she loved to stay at Sadot Hadar; she leads the fight against reforms that are being pushed by the kibbutz secretary (leader) who is her son; and she chooses to die working in the fields harvesting peanuts.

Adam is a New York Jew who is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. A kibbutz volunteer, he is on a mission to assuage his conscience. He believes his theft of a family heirloom caused his grandfather’s death.

Ulya is an immigrant from the Soviet Union sent to the kibbutz to learn Hebrew. She hates kibbutz life. Her one ambition is to live in Manhattan, which she learned about from a magazine she had read in her native land. She’s not even Jewish, having “borrowed” a Jewish grandmother, whose name she had found on a gravestone in a Jewish cemetery. Armed with her new, bogus status as a one-eighth Jewess, she was able to leave the Soviet Union for the Jewish state. She sees Adam and his heirloom as a possible way to get to America, but in the meantime is secretly having an affair with an Arab who works on the kibbutz.

So, does the book help readers understand the revolution that has rocked kibbutzim? Yes. Are the characters worthy of remembrance? Absolutely.

The plot, however, at first seems inconsequential: A young American Jew trying to find a woman with whom his grandfather was in love 50 years earlier to give her a broach that belonged to the old man who had died recently.

But, in the middle of the book, a small section, titled “Holy Roman Empire, 1347,” appears. This seven-page literary sledgehammer changes everything, brilliantly providing texture and substance to the storyline and transforming it into a meaningful historical novel. From that moment on, the book mattered very much to me.

Jessamyn Hope understands well the art of doling out the plot in small doses, reeling in the reader hoping for more revelations.

She may be a first-time author, but she’s already a master storyteller.

And, as she clearly intended, the ending leaves the reader with many more questions than answers.

Aaron Leibel is a former editor at the Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.

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