Kibbutz Observations: Two Rituals

I was lucky enough to witness two rituals in the 36 hour period between Friday morning and Saturday afternoon that helped deepen my understanding of the kibbutz: a party, and a memorial.

Lila Lavan

The first was a party, called “Lila Lavan” (White Night), the Israeli equivalent of Valentine’s Day. It was an elaborate affair, with white tablecloths and roses on the tables in the “cheder ochel” (dining hall) throughout the day, with notes describing the evening’s events. Most things (the coffee shop, the swimming pool, various recreation spaces) would be open much later than normal and serving free or very cheap food and drinks.

The event started picking up steam around 8pm, after dinner had wound down. The vibe in the outdoor spaces of the event was very much that of a town fair, with costumed actors entertaining the children as parents sat on tables nearby and watched bemusedly. One notable performer was dressed as a baboon and was making what were ostensibly baboon calls from the top of one of the trees in the courtyard in front of the dining room.  Swarms of children were surrounding him, some even plucking up the courage to climb the tree to get him down. At one point, he climbed down from the tree, mounted a unicycle, and rode away, prompting the children to give chase. The ensuing spectacle–a man in a baboon costume on a unicycle, being chased by two-dozen children ages 4-12, while their parents stood around watching–was one of the most heart warming scenes I’ve seen in a long while.

The indoor spaces of the event were aimed at the older crowd, with the stage in the kibbutz’s auditorium being set up for live music. Round tables surrounded by chairs filled the floor of the auditorium, with free wine available in the back. The crowd was mostly parents and young grandparents, with a few older folks scattered around. The entertainment consisted of various jazz performances, cover bands (with amusingly-dressed cover-frontmen), and hebrew poetry readings. An elegant Israeli woman acted as master of ceremonies, introducing the various groups. I got the sense that the whole thing was a talent show, with various home-grown bands and amateur poets from the kibbutz getting on stage to perform for each other. For those you familiar with Music & Story (or Song & Story) nights, this seemed similar, just with higher production value.

After an hour or so of these various performances, a DJ near the back starting playing dance music at low volume and the crowd began to ripple and disperse. One forward-thinking woman recruited me and my fellow Ulpanists to stack the chairs and move the tables, clearing the floor for dancing. At some point, I look back to where the wine was served and see a woman staffing a bar, pouring beers and mixed drinks (these weren’t free, but were incredibly cheap, about $1.25 USD each. Drink tickets were available outside, and you could pay with credit card. A well-organized affair to say the least). Within 20 or so minutes, the auditorium had become a dance club.

There was something remarkable about this particular “dance club.” That remarkable thing was that instead of being filled entirely by the 18-30 year old demographic, this dance club was about 40% Ulpanist (me and my fellow transient 18-25ish year old classmates), 20% parent and, most remarkably, 40% 8-12 year old kid, who seemingly all wandered in to see what the fuss was about. What proceeded over the following two hours was the most incredible dance party I’ve ever witnessed, with the 8 year olds showing up my entire generation with their energy, flexibility, and overall dancing acumen. The little kids loved showing off to us big kids, and we big kids loved indulging the little ones. We were constantly forming dance circles with big kids and little kids alternating in the center, and this one trio of girls–for all evidence professionally trained backup dancers–led the entire group for extended periods of time. At one point me and Mike, another Ulpanist, picked two kids up on our shoulders and ran around the room shouting our heads off. It was a remarkable alchemy: the presence of the little kids both increased the energy of the dancing, while simultaneously (and perhaps more importantly), desexualized the environment significantly. Most regular dance clubs are very sexualized environments; having the kids around meant that the young adults weren’t exclusively preoccupied with each other. Overall it seemed to me that the combination gave the young adults “permission” to be more excessive, more exuberant, and less self-conscious than they would have been otherwise. Perhaps I’m over-analyzing here, however.

Reflections on Lila Lavan

The anthropologist William Irons has written on the expensive and lavish nature of religious rituals, concluding that the excessive costs of these rituals–far from being pointless excess–serve a very important purpose of communicating to the participants the seriousness and commitment of the ritual organizers to the well being of the group. The argument goes as follows: since putting on expensive and well-organized rituals requires great investment of energy and resources, only those truly committed to the group would go to that length for a ritual. This gives the participants more reason to themselves stay committed to the group, increasing cohesiveness overall.

That insight applies well here, I think, despite this not being a “religious” ritual per se. The level of organization was quite impressive: the tables were covered with two complementary tablecloths each, events and entertainment was organized across multiple venues (with a professional DJ system set up for the interior venue, and professional lighting set up for both interior and exterior venues), and vendors were set up to accept electronic payments in exchange for coupons to be exchanged for products elsewhere. Additionally, the event was introduced in advance, with a display case in the dining room being set up weeks in advance with Lila Lavan-type decorations  (such as pearls and a white wedding dress) and white tablecloths and roses being set up the morning of. The event must have taken significant planning, to coordinate the setup, the performers, the sales, and the supplies. This might not seem like all that much–there people who throw professional parties constantly, after all–until you realize that this party was not meant for an external audience. It was a party for the kibbutz, for people who already know each other. The show was not being put on for an audience: it was the kibbutz throwing a party for itself. In light of that knowledge, the lavish nature of the party can really be seen as a ritual in the sense that Irons describes: an event used to strengthen group solidarity through a showing of commitment on the part of group leaders.

If you agree with my analysis so far, there are a number of secondary conclusions we can draw. First, that the kibbutz has the resources and the logistical intelligence to organize an event like this. The second, that it would choose to invest them in this way, on this particular event. From that, we can infer that the leadership of the kibbutz (however it is organized, as I’ve yet to delve into that) feels that events like this are a wise investment of resources to keep the kibbutz thriving. We can continue and infer further that the kibbutz leadership feels that in absence of such rituals, the kibbutz’s identity and cohesiveness would be compromised, leading to the final inference that the natural social processes of a kibbutz of this size are insufficient to keep the group cohesive. I would propose a working theory that the size of the group is directly correlated to the size of the rituals necessary to maintain it over time. Just as a couple might need a special anniversary once a year complemented by special nights scattered more frequently while a house of fifteen might go on biannual house retreats and throw parties once a month, different sized groups at different points in their life cycles need different levels of this type of social reinforcement. Parallel to the beliefs of the leadership, the turnout and energy of the event speaks to the desires of all the members of the kibbutz: their participation is a testament to their desire to be a part of an event like this, to enjoy an atmosphere of well-organized, lavish festivity. We can infer that the event both provided something that is regularly unavailable to the kibbutz community, and that they sincerely enjoy. This event provides a window into the state of Ma’agan Michael’s society: their beliefs, needs, desires, and values.

The Memorial

The other was a memorial that took place in the coffee shop on Saturday afternoon, from around 1-4pm. The gathering was fairly large, about thirty to forty people of all ages, with a noticeable bias towards the middle-aged and elderly. Not knowing the deceased, I kept myself a removed from the proceedings and sat on a patio outside. I heard periodic applause, which I assume was in response to various eulogies to the deceased. It seemed to be a fairly happy affair, with laughing and joking outside once the event ended.

The only real significant thing I can conclude from the memorial given my limited interaction is that, despite the collective nature of the kibbutz and the close-quarters of daily life, the size of an individual’s “close relations” (in this case referring to the number of people who came to the memorial service) is about 35, or 1/30 of the kibbutz population. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar once proposed a limit to the amount of real relationships that a human being can keep track of at any given time: about 150. This number is known as “Dunbar’s Number,” alternatively as the “Monkeysphere.” Here, we can see this phenomenon at work in the kibbutz context. Of the approximately 150 relationships that the deceased was able to maintain, around 25% were intimate relationships to the extent that the relationships came to the memorial (It’s my personal inference that the 150 relationships are not of uniform closeness, and that there will be a gradient where some relationships are closer than others). The collective nature of kibbutz life did not seem to affect this phenomenon.

This is only casual speculation, of course, as there are many confounding factors at play that could affect who comes to a memorial (the proportion of the deceased relationships that live on the kibbutz vs. off, for one), and the deceased’s standing in the community. It is also possible that due to the collective nature of the kibbutz, the memorial itself functions as a sort of social gathering (as opposed to memorials where disparate individuals come together, being connected only by their relationship to the deceased), which would create a secondary incentive to attend beyond paying tribute to the deceased.

When interpreting these rituals, it’s important to note that Ma’agen Michael is a very secular kibbutz. The kitchens are not kosher, and aside from most (but not all!) things being closed on Shabbat, there being very little religious presence as far as service and worship.

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