An experiment that failed and succeeded
By Be'eri Zimmerman | 17/06/2010
The kibbutz movement is dying. Assaf Inbari, who grew up on Kibbutz Afikim, has created a monument to the kibbutz movement in his book Habayita (Home) and Be'eri Zimmerman, who grew up on Kibbutz Givat Haim Meuhad, is full of admiration: “The single, private voice, the book's narrative voice, acts as a solitary agent trying to encourage the entire kibbutz community to speak out. A book like this could never have been written by a kibbutz community. The solitariness of that voice is a heroic revolt against the choir as it memorializes the choir in a literary work”
Habayita (Home), by Assaf Inbari, published by Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 2009
Because of its documentary character, we can look at Habayita as a sort of photograph. Photographers “only” frame a photograph and “only” declare what is inside the frame to be a story or an artistic work. In a literary work, the camera's movement, its angles and its light filter all become the voice of the narrator, who chooses what details to include, affirms their positions, holds them together with threads of reasons and circumstances, and then frames them, turning them into witnesses. The pianist is chained to the predetermined note of each key on the keyboard; it is the particular way in which the pianist presses the keys that gives the notes their unique sound. Assaf Inbari is a pianist and has performed in the past in the concert hall. But he is also a pianist in the way he presses, from a literary standpoint, the historical keys of Kibbutz Afikim, the collective chief protagonist of this exquisite book.
The names of the book's protagonists are not symbolic – Clara was called Clara and Leo was called Leo – just as their actions are not symbolic. However, the moment they enter the book, the narrator's voice frames them and, within that frame, Clara becomes the mother of all the Claras in the world, while Leo Roth becomes the father of all painters. Mitya Krichman, the legendary manager of the Kelet Afikim plywood plant left the kibbutz together with his wife in order to represent Israel in an African state, where he established and managed a similar kind of plant and where he was killed in a work accident. A machine shattered his body. Since this is what actually happened, the responsibility for reifying the symbolic dimension with a phrase such as “the machine that you set up and created is turning against you and is destroying you” passes from the narrator to the readers who, even if they refuse, as I do, to reify it, are nonetheless unable to shirk that responsibility.
The narrator's voice reminded me, from the very first page, how wearying is the noise emanating from Hebrew literature's old radio receiver. Your hand turns the dial looking for a station; your ear is so tired of the loud noises, the gentler sounds like the rustling of leaves, and the screams. Then, suddenly the sound you have been searching for floats upward, without any background noises, without any element of hoarseness; it is a clean, pure sound and is simply majestic. What a pleasure! Now, I tell myself, let us get to the point. Let us hear what this clear voice is saying. After several, pleasurable pages, I understand that this noble voice is, to a large extent, an integral and substantive part of the content. This is how a prince would write about his ancestors: Even if they have lost all their wealth, their noble character remains, and the right descendant, at the right time and in the right place, is able to use the right voice. You will not find complaints here; you will not hear phrases such as those uttered by the Israelites who journeyed through the wilderness to the Promised Land and who “said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt” (Numbers 14:4). Nor will you hear anyone saying “Why have you done this to us?”
Here we have a grandchild of those who participated in Zionism's exodus from Egypt taking a close look at the way his ancestors lived, as he steps on the shoulders of giants without denying the pygmy qualities they had and without either being willing or able to conceal the fact that their blood also flows in his veins.
“When emotion subsides,” Natan Zach taught us when he was a young poet, “the right poem can speak.” Had Home's right voice tried to comply too much with conventional definitions, perhaps it would not have been so right. It has a musical quality with its unique rhythm and tone (“At age 14, Lunya spent most of his free time, when classes were over in the gymnasia [high school], in his father's factory” [p. 7]), but it would not have captivated us were it not for the inclusion of other qualities as well. Since we all know, as gossip has informed us, that what is told here “really” happened, we tend to believe that the narrator is also real, is a real person, that he knows what he is talking about, that he is documenting, or has witnessed, or has learned at second-hand about, things that actually happened. After the first few pages, the narrator's rhetorical credibility is so great that readers can enjoy a unique literary pleasure: They can close their eyes, grasp the hand of the charismatic narrator and let him lead them along the way.
The documentary nature of this creation is one of the sources of the narrator's power. Although there is a uniform style from beginning to end, the identities of those who speak to us through the narrator's voice keep on changing. The single, private voice, the book's narrative voice, acts as a solitary agent trying to encourage the entire kibbutz community to speak out and does so in accordance with a cautious musical score; nonetheless, the narrator remains, of course, a brilliant soloist to the very end. A book like this could never have been written by a kibbutz community. The solitariness of that voice is a heroic revolt against the choir as it memorializes the choir in a literary work.
In its lucid, measured, self-confident, calm tones and in its frugal use of adjectives coupled with its lavish showering of verbs, the fluent narrative voice thus reflects the proud self-awareness of both the founders of the kibbutz and those whom they refer to as the “members of the second generation,” in other words, their sons and daughters. Despite the many differences that existed between them, the members of both the founding and “second” generations perceived the point (tochka in Russian and nekuda in Hebrew), or the kibbutz' economy or simply the kibbutz as the center of the universe, as the very heart of Israeli society. Many people in other segments of Israeli society shared this perception and even reinforced it. Thus, although Israel's social reality has changed and although the kibbutz has lost its central position in Israeli society and has become part of the periphery, the balanced voice of Home's narrative continues to express a congenital elitism. The result is that this book on a periphery in Israeli society is an impressive literary achievement. Although some readers might mistakenly think otherwise, the narrator's voice is not indifferent to the characters who pass before him. His economical, but precise depictions do not dare to reveal to us the thoughts of the book's protagonists; nonetheless, the depictions allow the protagonists to express themselves through even tiny gestures or through certain repeated actions. From time to time, the quasi-documentary descriptions are interspersed with incidental details. For instance, there is Minka Ullman, who works in the communal kitchen and “who added pieces of chicken to the soup that was prepared for the vegetarians because she was concerned for their health” (p. 189). We know very little about her, and yet we know a great deal. Her culinary initiative emerges in the depths of the kitchen, far from the eyes of the duped vegetarians, and it reflects a vulgar intrusion into the private world of the individual; nonetheless, it also reflects a tight sense of family intimacy. Ultimately, as the reader, groaning with laughter, knows, the mechanism allowing this vulgar intrusion will come to an end when the vegetarians will demand to have their wishes met. But that will also be the end of the gentle sense of one large communal family.
An end to wandering
In a kibbutz, its residents are considered full-fledged members. In a moshav, which is more privatized, the residents are defined by their family affiliation. In the city, as it was widely thought once upon a time in Israel, nobody even thinks about the identity of its residents. The family unit, which is so characteristic of the moshav, is given a lower status in the revolutionary structure of the kibbutz and that reduced status is part of the effort to build a new society. Nonetheless, the family is not eliminated altogether but merely waits in the shadows for an opportune time. Even in the kibbutz, the family unit will eventually emerge and that development is described in minute detail toward the end of the book in which we read of the accelerated disintegration of the kibbutz collective.
In that section, family affiliation, which had never completely vanished, reemerges and takes its position at the center of the stage. The founders leave Soviet society, where “everyone is considered a thief” (p. 11), and come to the shores of Palestine, where they establish a kibbutz society that consists of Jewish immigrants (primarily from Russia) and whose members believe, or at least want to believe, that no one is a thief. Many years later, we see a different kind of kibbutz emerging when many kibbutzim become privatized in the early part of the present century and when the ancient suspicions reemerge that everyone can be considered a thief.
The movement of “going home again” thus is a return to the old family unit after a long period (80 years) during which the ideological home became the idea that “Kibbutz Afikim is your true home.” In the book and in the eyes of a well-educated reader, that 80-year period is actually the 80 years of the Russian Revolution, although, even in its most fanatical moments, its proponents never really believed that Russian citizens would ever internalize the commandment “Thou shalt not steal.”
The motion of the social pendulum described in this book does not deny the existence of the motion of the arrow of the nationalist movement that is aimed in one direction. The book ends with a painful sentence that sums up Home in a single scene: “The birds of the kibbutz twittered in the trees, the tin stork stood atop the water tower and the arrow-like flocks of storks passed overhead – in a southerly direction in autumn and in a northerly direction in spring.” I understand this scene: The huge bow of the year's seasons sends forth the arrow-like flocks of storks in constantly alternating directions, in a yearly cycle of longing. Nonetheless, the narrator, whose magnificent voice has accompanied us from the beginning of the book to the very end and who watches this breathtaking flight of birds, remains standing firmly on the ground. This is his land. His wandering is over. The collective no longer exists, yet the water tower (which long ago ceased to have any connection with water) is still standing where it has always stood. The Jewish people has so far managed to return to its ancestral home, and a bird – even if it is made only of tin – on a water tower is better than a thousand longing for home and wandering through the sky.
Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro