The Kibbutz: Dinner With My Host Family

I had dinner with my host family for the first time tonight. For context, most Ulpanists, if they so desire, can ask to be “adopted” by a host family, a kibbutz family who will take you under their wing, invite you to dinner, and help you find your way. I had been adopted by my family two weeks or so ago, but apart from running into the father and daughter around the kibbutz and speaking to the mother on the phone, we hadn’t had any real contact thus far.

They’re a lovely family. The father, Itai, moved to the kibbutz when he was very young, and grew up there. The mother, Fenya, is an American who met Itai when she came on her own Ulpan. They have three children, two older boys in the army, and a younger daughter, Li, who is going into the equivalent of 11th grade. The sons were away in the military and Li was away for a week-long pre-military training program–so it was just me and the parents, an intimate engagement.

Bicycle on a kibbutz road

At 7pm, I met Fenya in front of the Ulpan office, and she walked me down to their house, about 10 minutes away, a lamplit little place with a beautiful view of the hills, one house of many lining the grassiest, knolliest cul-de-sac I’ve ever seen.

The dinner itself was lovely. The meal revolved around israeli salad and a nice selection of cheeses, sauces, and breads. Fenya had make some small cheese pastries, which I quite enjoyed. I had gone extra formal for the occasion, going full polo mode. I really banked hard into the well-raised jewish boy persona, which is usually the most appropriate for these types of occasions. After a while though I realized that the kibbutz might not call for that level of personal presentation, and tried to gauge what the appropriate level of relaxation would be. We eventually found a comfortable rapport, and I started asking some more questions along the lines I’ve been asking.

When I my usual opener about the governance structure, I didn’t get much further here than I had with other kibbutzniks. I got similar answers: lots of committees, regular general meetings, electronic voting. I did find out that in eras past, the entire kibbutz would gather in the cheder ochel (dining hall) and discuss and debate, but the advance of technology means that meetings are now webcast live and people submit their opinions to the weekly kibbutz newspaper–apparently there’s a weekly kibbutz newspaper. They also mentioned that the kibbutz is very policy and regulation heavy, down to very minor details. I asked passingly about a judicial system, and they responded with the affect that there wasn’t one. I found that very strange.

I was hoping for some more detail on the specific governance structure, but the answers I got were still very cursory. I’m starting to think that I’m getting the kinds of answers I’m getting not because of any intention on the part of the people I’m talking to, but rather that I have a relatively nuanced grasp of organizational “physiology” and I look for levels of detail in organizational design and processes that other people just don’t bother about. Eventually I’ll need to track down an elected official and have a chat with them.

A fun fact I learned, which really flies in the face of something I’ve written about previously, is that the kibbutz actually makes no money on the Ulpan (in fact, it might even be losing money). I find this really hard to believe, but my host parents asserted that it was true. I’ll leave it as an open question for the moment.

Also really noteworthy: the reverence in Fenya’s voice when she mentioned Plasson, the plastics factory and foundation of the kibbutz’s wealth. When I asked her about finances, she said:

“We have Plasson, knock on wood.”

The motif recurred in the conversation. I found this really, really striking.

The real gem of this conversation though was getting Itai’s and Fenya’s opinions on the drawbacks of the collectivized nature of work and income on the kibbutz. He expressed real reservations about the pooling of income that goes on, and the equal distribution of resources regardless of position. (For those of you just tuning in, everyone sends their wages to the kibbutz administration, which then takes the money to run the kibbutz and disburses money, supplies, food, housing as needed to people, based on their seniority and family size) Itai felt that this removed the incentive to push yourself to excel, since you would enjoy no material rewards for it.

“Some people have an inner drive to excel,” he said (I’m paraphrasing), “but others need an outside incentive to push them to work hard, or else they just settle. Life is very easy on the kibbutz. People can get very comfortable and never need to try too much.” He expressed annoyance that people could get “away” with the bare minimum, put in six (as opposed to the required eight) hours days, take long leisurely breaks, all while enjoying the same lifestyle as–an extreme example, I know–the CEO of the plastics factory. “In the city, there’s a real drive: when you work, you know you’re working so you can live. And if you have a good job, how can you help but think about how rich you would be if you were doing this job out in a city.”

I suggested that social status and prestige might provide the incentive, in lieu of money. That seems to be one of the popular ideas among utopian idealistic types, that we can use social prestige and reputation instead of money to get people to do good things (Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom explores this concept). Fenya and Itai responded that this works, up to a point. They seemed to think that the size and heterogeneity of the kibbutz limited the effect of social status in incentivizing work.

Naturally then, I asked them about the strength of the community on the kibbutz. They told me that they knew everyone above the age of 30 or so, but they really didn’t know that many of the younger people. They seemed content with the variety and quantity of social opportunities available, however, feeling that they had ample opportunities to interact with other kibbutzniks. Itai also expressed some dissatisfaction with the heterogeneity of the kibbutziks, saying that “before” the community was more homogeneous, with more alignment of culture and values. Now, he says, he finds he just has nothing in common with some people. I’m curious as to the reason for this change, as to my knowledge members could only feasibly join the kibbutz through birth or marriage. I’ll ask next time I’m over there. Meanwhile, Itai wound down with this (again, paraphrasing):

“Times are changing on this kibbutz. There’s a question growing in the heads of all the members: ‘where is this kibbutz going?’ We’re ready for a change in direction, a new way of doing things. We need to look around and see how our ideals match up to the world around us, and decide what to keep and what to get rid of. In ten years or so I think we’ll have gone privatized.”

Fascinating, the currents that swirl. I have no idea how to situate Itai’s opinion in relation to the majority and minority views. It’s possible he’s one of a quiet minority, silently frustrated but accepting. It’s possible he’s part of a reawakened majority, ready to cast off some of the old ideals. I can’t help but flag the cultural dissipation as my main candidate as catalyst of this change. It would have been a combination of cultural heterogeneity and a diluted ideology causing people to resent the collective nature of their wealth, rather than see it as a monument to their high civilization. Income pooling is a testament to the concept of human rights, but, after all, once people you don’t know, don’t talk to, and have little in common with start benefitting from the wealth that–in another economic arrangement–would have been yours, it would be natural to lean away from the status quo.

This interacts interestingly with my other “so-far” thesis, that it was the kibbutz’s wealth that enabled it to maintain its idealistic system for as long as it did. It seems that even with abundance, a collectivized community can still let go of its collective nature and revert to smaller social units if the social bonds are not strong. In other words, if you don’t have wealth, you can’t share it; but even if you do have wealth, why would you share it with people you don’t even like?


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