What is it like to grow up on a kibbutz?


My uncle Uri on way to work in the avocado plantation, 1968

I can’t claim to have grown up on a kibbutz, but I do have the benefit of experiencing life as a child on a kibbutz and elsewhere (several other elsewheres, as it happens), so I can gauge how it was by comparison.

When my mother returned to her native Israel with my sister (aged nearly four) and myself (10) in tow, we spent our first year there at her cousin’s kibbutz in the wooded Sharon foothills not far from Tel-Aviv.

Like all kibbutz children at that time, we spent nights and most of the day in a ‘children house’ with other kids of our age group: at 4pm or so we would be ‘released’ to go to our parents’ home and spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening with them, then taken back to our children’s house after supper at the communal dining hall.

In the case of our age group, we slept two or three in a room, and would be woken up at 6am by our metapelet (caregiver)—an imposing bear of a woman incongruously called Dvorah (which means ‘bee’ in Hebrew). After dressing, combing our hair and brushing teeth (which puzzled me, as I was taught to brush teeth after meals), we spent an hour or so feeding the chickens, ducks, peacocks, and goats and cleaning their quarters in our pinat-ḥai (animal enclosure), then wash our hands and have breakfast round a single long table. This would invariably consist of freshly made salad, freshly baked sliced bread, margarine, cottage cheese, sliced “yellow cheese” (akin to Havarti), and strawberry jam. (The metapelet would scold me for eating my salad with a slice of bread and jam, and complained about it to my mother.)

After clearing the table (and me secretly brushing my teeth again), it was schooltime in the classroom, which was part of the children’s house. Our teacher arrived at 9am and taught us all subjects until 2pm, with a break for lunch.

At 2pm, it was afternoon siesta time in our respective bedrooms.

At 4pm, we dispersed to our parents’ homes, returning around 8pm for showers (communal—but just before I had arrived, the girls decided they wanted to shower separately from us boys—just my luck…) and bedtime. (There was no television: it was either book reading, or hanging out together until lights out at 9:30pm.)

In the summer, we divided our time between the kibbutz pool, exploring the neighbouring woods and fields, training for the annual national 2km countryside running competitions, or learning fieldcraft in outings of the Hashomer Hatza’ir (‘The Young Guard’—a kind of kibbutz/Labour movement equivalent of the Scouts).

Coming as I did from five years in the gritty, urban, nature-starved working-class neighbourhoods of Manhattan and then Brooklyn, I loved every minute of it (and so, incidentally, did my little sister). Alas, my mother decided that life on a small kibbutz was not for her, so we moved to Jerusalem at the end of that schoolyear, where I spent the rest of my teens.

The enforced communal boarding of children from the age of mere weeks after birth or so was quite rightly controversial, as it is unnatural for babies and small infants, and has since then been abolished in virtually all kibbutzim. However, abolishing it for kids of all age groups (as has happened in most kibbutzim) was, I think, an over-reaction, and unnecessary: for kids aged six and up, boarding together is like one long summer camp.

Children benefit hugely—socially, linguistically, intellectually, and physically—from spending the day together in groups from the age of two onwards, particularly when there is a strong educational component to it (as it is in Israel, throughout the country). It is how humanity lived evolved and throughout its entire history until the twentieth century in the West.

It’s true what they say: it takes a village to raise a child, and if you are a parent of small children, you should seek one out for your kids.


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