May 10, 2006

Last week I spent six fantastic days in Israel, my first visit to the Middle East ever and my first international travel since visiting Japan nearly four years ago. I have put nearly 100 pictures on-line (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, and Day 5) and i've put seven video clips of a trip through the kibbutz on a tractor-pulled flatbed truck on Google Video.

I planned my trip to Israel to visit my family (distant relatives, who I'll all call "cousins" to save time) on Kibbutz Givat Brenner, a kibbutz of 2,000 acres located about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. My parents visited these same relatives last October and were just blown away by all that they saw. I too had a great time traveling around and seeing some amazing historical sites.

The Kibbutz That's Not a Real Kibbutz

I stayed on Kibbutz Givat Brenner, a farming and industrial kibbutz which was founded in 1928 when Israel was still a part of the British Mandate of Palestine. One of the earliest kibbutzim, I've been told that it was once the largest kibbutz in all of Israel.

It really is remarkable that one can find such a bucolic scene less than an hour's drive from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The kibbutz features acres of farmland where cauliflower, cabbage, pomelit (a hybrid of pomelo with grapefruit, the latter being a hybrid of pomelo with orange), and ready-to-plant trees all grow for consumption. There's a petting zoo for the kids and an unmistakable smell suggests the presence of horses and cattle on one end of the kibbutz.

Traditionally kibbutzim were self-sufficient by nature, but modern thinking dictates that farmland instead be devoted to products that are more profitable so that less-profitable crops can be bought from other farms at market prices. Kibbutz Givat Brenner also once had a juice factory and a carpentry concern; both are now defunct but the spaces are up for rent to outside firms. Likewise, housing on the kibbutz is largely occupied by members (who go by the term "kibbutzniks") but outsiders also may rent certain flats or houses. The change in socioeconomic structure over the years has led many long-time kibbutzniks to opine that Kibbutz Givat Brenner "is not a kibbutz" -- I heard a lot of stories during the week about the time when Givat Brenner "was a real kibbutz."

Cynicism aside, I was still impressed by the solidarity and community that are highlighted by Yom HaZikaron (Remembrance Day) and Yom HaAtzma'ut (Independence Day). The two holidays are arguably the most important secular days in Israel and I was on the kibbutz for both of them. Yom HaZikaron is defined by remembrance ceremonies all through the nation: kibbutzniks at Givat Brenner gather to remember their fallen neighbors and hold a memorial service at the kibbutz's cemetery. After a somber, quiet night-and-day (even secular holidays run from sunset to sunset) during which domestic entertainment TV channels go off the air, the mood suddenly changes from reverence to joy as Yom HaAtzma'ut begins. A boisterous celebration in the kibbutz high school's gymnasium attracts well over 1,000 attendees, many of whom left the kibbutz to live elsewhere years ago. This event is all about the kibbutz members; those who merely rent space don't attend. The entertainment is all local and the musical accompaniment is provided by students from the kibbutz's music school. Every year the program features skits and musical numbers celebrating Israel's history along with a few unique twists. This year's highlight: a tribute to the British Isles including a visiting bagpiper, a singing of Amazing Grace with Hebrew lyrics, and traditional Irish dancing.

A Simpler Life

My cousins Hezi and Mimi have lived in a flat on Givat Brenner for 27 years and have raised three kids there. The youngest, Hagai, is now 20 and in the Israeli Defense Forces as part of his mandatory military service. The oldest, Shelley, is married and lives in a modest flat with her husband Arik; her children would be my fourth cousins as we would share a common great-great-great-grandfather. I stayed in the flat normally occupied by Yael (yah-EL), the middle child, who is touring rural Asia with her boyfriend now that her military service is done. Although everyone's been living on the kibbutz for so long, what really impressed me was the paucity of "stuff" everyone had accumulated. The small size of flats coupled with the traditional values of kibbutzniks suggests that materialism isn't quite as strong there as it is in the U.S. That's not to say people keep empty homes: every flat I saw had cable or satellite TV, a phone, a computer or two (the kibbutz has its own broadband ISP), and a modern kitchen. However, the living spaces I saw were just large enough to accommodate one's clothing, a reasonable collection of books (likely lent among kibbutzniks), a pantry, and enough space to seat four for dinner comfortably. On Friday night, weekly dinner at Hezi and Mimi's attracted a crowd of 11 people and two dogs; the expanded seating completely filled the living/dining area and made me feel just a bit claustrophobic. Outdoor verandas are common and common areas abound throughout the kibbutz, so I never felt too restricted even though Yael's flat was roughly the size of my last dorm room.

Security is not as pronounced on the kibbutz as it is in the larger cities. The largest crime seems to be theft: a group of thieves made off with 15 calves recently, for example. On Sunday night Shelley decided to go home partway through the basketball game we were watching; my first thought was "she's walking home alone this late?" Day or night, people are out and safety concerns are limited to avoiding moped collisions. Hezi and Mimi have come to know so many kibbutz members in their time at Givat Brenner, and friendly conversations came quickly while I was out walking with them. By contrast, I as an outsider received friendly smiles or perplexed looks when I greeted passersby with a friendly "Hi," a common greeting even among Hebrew speakers.

What I've Searched For

As I prepare to move 2,500 miles west in just two weeks' time, I'm reminded of the search I made just a year ago for a great place to live. I searched for what seemed like a hopeless goal: walking distance to friends, places to congregate or grab a cup of coffee, and a quiet and safe enough environment to truly relax. In Pittsburgh I feel like I found those things in Highland Park, but the kibbutz puts all those things in a single environment that, at least in principle, can be self-contained. I don't know if I'd want to live on a kibbutz full-time, though -- once you expect to live there, you actually have to contribute somehow to the group effort.

Later in the week: posts about my experiences in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.