By 11 P.M., the knitting needles would be put down and the secretary would be saying: "Tonight's meeting is adjourned. Tomorrow morning we will all wake up to a new week of work. Good night." With these words, the traditional Saturday night meeting at the kibbutz on which I grew up would conclude.

It would end at that hour so the adherents of the religion of labor could wake up in time to perform their morning rituals. Some woke up for the first milking at 2 A.M., but most rose at 5. Last in line, of course, were the kitchen and childcare workers, who arrived at work by 6 - but that's only if you leave out of the equation the teachers, who only came in to work at around 7.

The answer to the question "Where do you work?" ranked the individual in the kibbutz hierarchy more accurately than practically any other index. "For Zionism, socialism, brotherhood of nations" read the subtitle of Al Hamishmar, the movement's newspaper, and as the years passed, one could only wonder why not a single word in the masthead was devoted to labor. Zionism, socialism and brotherhood of nations may have stood at the top of the world, but the "religion of labor," a term attributed to Aharon David (A.D. ) Gordon, was the official religion of the left-wing kibbutzim of Hakibbutz Ha'artzi, the settlement arm of the Hashomer Hatzair movement.

It had its worshipers, priests and faithful, some from within and some from without. It had its ideologues and its rank-and-file. It imparted to its believers a great deal of suffering as well as a little pleasure. Mainly, there was something to be proud of, even among those who worked less than others, and that provided subject matter for sermon izing about principles and morality. The work coordinator had one of the most important jobs on a kibbutz, because there was a need to fit those without permanent workplaces into a schedule, ensuring that every job on the kibbutz would be covered each day.

Nevertheless, in contrast to the atmosphere that reigned on the kibbutzim, the ideologues of the movement - and presumably those who represented it or who were sent as emissaries to Israeli cities or even abroad - had much more liberal outlooks than one might imagine, not only in the practical world but in the theoretical world as well. Over the years, Me'ir Ya'ari - the man who founded the Mapam movement and served as its secretary general for many years, who immigrated to Israel from Galicia in 1920 and was a founder of the Hashomer Hatzair commune at Bitanya Ilit, the movement's first commune - radically changed his mind about labor.

"The Night of the Twentieth" is a play based on this group and what happened to it, and the playwright, Joshua Sobol, says that only 24 people, 20 boys and 4 girls, actually went to live in Bitanya Ilit.

"The group was chosen by its members in a vicious internal selection process, out of the 40 members who originally belonged to it. Of course, the 24 who were selected considered themselves an elite group. They were employed paving roads from Yavniel to Kinneret, and in the 1970s, when I conducted my research before writing the play, some of them were still alive. Yedidya Shoham, who was a member of Beit Alpha, told me that the work included crumbling rocks, and that the girls were required to pull their weight equally with the boys," Sobol says.

There at Bitanya, Ya'ari was introduced to the ideas of A.D. Gordon, which would influence his attitude to labor throughout his life, and consequently the attitude of others, as well. Ya'ari became enchanted with Gordon, but subsequently alienated himself from him for many years, essentially disregarding him. Only in the 1960s did Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz ideology return to the fold of Gordon's doctrine.

In 1923, two years after A.D. Gordon's visit to Bitanya, Meir Ya'ari published an article titled "Detached Symbols" in which he wrote: "Just one thing is clear to me: that an entire people will not be able to continue its existence for very long without a metaphysical dogma and a religious symbol. Otherwise it will decline, and at that point no economic or social conception will help. This, too, is clear to me: that any religious symbol that is to be in the possession of the entire public can be born only from within us, from the working masses that oppose the life of luxury and willingly satisfy themselves with less, not more." (Quoted in an article by Prof. Aviva Halamish, "The Dialectic Influence of A.D. Gordon on Hashomer Hatzair," which appeared in the periodical Cathedra. )

Different sentiments

Nevertheless, the years passed, and A.D. Gordon was long dead when, in 1940, Ya'ari voiced completely different sentiments at a movement seminar in which he took part. Now his tone was more conciliatory, almost hedonistic: "There is no religion of labor; labor is not an idea that embodies everything. There is worldview, a perspective of life, there is creativity and pleasure. In the meeting between the individual and reality, labor does not merge into the cosmos. Labor is a condition for our existence, an ethical condition for our existence." And Ya'ari also reiterated these words, underscoring them in a letter he wrote to Muki Tsur, a former secretary of the United Kibbutz Movement (Takam), late in his own life, in 1983.

One would think that the upheaval that took place in the beliefs of the man who headed the movement would not necessarily affect its members, and that all of these statements put together could not undermine the popular and highly ingrained convention that viewed labor as a supreme value on Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim. But if the leaders of Hakibbutz Ha'artzi were busy night and day formulating lofty doctrines of labor in the streets of Tel Aviv and in the rented apartments the movement put at their disposal (while they themselves were given a reprieve from the trials and tribulations of kibbutz labor ) - then those who remained behind on the kibbutzim in those years, the ordinary members and the young people, and those who followed them, think of labor in a completely different way.

It was not merely religion. It was the focal point of a ritual for which you woke up in the morning. The earlier your workday began, the more serious you were considered to be. And so it was that in the days when they still weeded the cotton fields, teenagers of 13, 14 and 15 would head out to the fields by 4 in the morning. At sunrise, the irrigation supervisors, whose duty it was to identify the pests - a position reserved only for the best-looking girls - would remove their shirts and wear only shorts and skimpy tops in order to get a tan, with a defiance that could not be ignored. This helped to alleviate the sweat-drenched and bug-bitten existence of the workers. Those who weeded the cotton fields in the '70s were relatively lucky, because workers of the '50s had to pick the cotton by hand, since there was no mechanical picker, yet, and they would also gather potatoes and uproot the peanut bushes.

In general, the torments of labor are one of the two subjects (the other being the poor quality of the food ) about which kibbutz members would boast, and over which they actually competed among themselves. Since each torment was a sort of ideal, whoever's place of work was harder, or who got up earlier, or who milked more cows or spent more hours in the sun, was declared the winner.

Perhaps they were referring to this atmosphere, and not necessarily to Ya'ari's doctrine, when the Tel Aviv University senate awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1978 and attributed their decision to his "specific role in deepening the philosophy of labor Zionism, while combining the creative and the practical, and teaching - orally and in writing - integration of the fundamentals of the doctrine of volunteerism and the idealism of A.D. Gordon with the doctrine of D.B. Borochov." And on Ya'ari's tombstone is written: "In the struggle for a liberated worker."

Prof. Zeev Tzahor, who wrote a biography of Mapam cofounder and MK Yaakov Hazan, who was Ya'ari's collaborator in the leadership of Hashomer Hatzair, says there was a disparity between the different streams of the labor movement, both in terms of the labor itself and in terms of what was considered suitable education for a kibbutz member: "The young members of Hashomer Hatzair from Poland and from Galicia [among whom were Ya'ari and Hazan], brought with them to Israel and to the kibbutzim of Hashomer Hatzair a culture of insightful discussion of fine literature. And from there, the path to a positive attitude toward the humanities was a short one, primarily to philosophy and to a certain degree also to history and other areas of culture. On the other hand, in Trumpeldor's Hehalutz movement, which would eventually develop into the Labor Battalion and the Kibbutz Hameuchad, they employed the formula devised by Beni Marshak, according to which the pioneer should be exalted.

"As a result of the differences between these two approaches, members of the Hameuchad kibbutzim were wary and suspicious when it came to college studies, and if someone was going to be sent to study, it would be in a practical field, such as economics, agriculture and industry. At the kibbutzim of Hashomer Hatzair, on the other hand, even if they did not rush to send the members to study at university, those who were sent could elect to study the humanities or mathematics." In any event, the adherents of the religion of labor did not sanctify formal education, and until the mid-1980s the children of Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim could not take the high school matriculation exams - partly because the level of teaching at Hashomer Hatzair educational institutions was often substandard. Many of these young people, the last members of a generation that did not take the matriculation exams, are now in their early fifties. They were unable to overcome this obstacle, and were left without a high school diploma or higher education. Most of them lack formal education and a profession, and work in nonprofessional jobs, earning fairly low salaries. The religion of labor thus exacted a high personal price from them, although even then it was obvious that many of them would not stay on the kibbutz, that the dream of the founders had faded long beforehand.

The ban on taking matriculation exams derived from an educational and pedagogical incapacity and from the fact that the institutions were not equipped to prepare the pupils for these exams. It had little to do with any seemingly ideological pretension, although the kibbutzim continued to couch the decision in those terms.

As for the different kibbutz jobs in the early days, Tzahor adds, "In both movements, there was a hierarchy of professional prestige. At the top of the ladder were the dairy farmers and the field crop farmers, and at the bottom were the service people. In the middle were, for example, the orchard people, who although they worked in agriculture, would nevertheless already be home for the 4 P.M. afternoon snack, and whose work did not usually involve any emergency calls, as did the other farming jobs."

Perhaps due to the ambivalence felt toward formal education, as opposed to labor, there were two professions that did not rank in the traditional hierarchy. "The first was that of the teachers, who held an important position. They had to preserve the radical spirit of the founders and ensure that the younger generation would not stray from it. The second is that of the emissaries, toward who there was a dialectic attitude. They were considered slackers, partly because the rotation of emissary jobs was mainly restricted to the emissaries, and partly because they were usually known for an ability to lead and at times also for their intellectualism. So at the end of the day they were also left out of the accepted hierarchy," Tzahor explains.

Torments for all

As in any religion, there were torments reserved for believers, and torments reserved for apostates. "Slacker" was practically the most derogatory label that could be assigned to someone. There was only one worse: "He is a slacker like his father," a sentence that declared the formation of an entire dynasty of slackers. Who else was on the list? Those who switch jobs with great frequency, those who suddenly take a Shabbat (meaning a vacation day ) in the middle of the week, those wearing their Shabbat clothes in the morning hours, those occupied in free professions or those who accepted the request from the movement and, left with no other choice, went to serve as movement emissaries in the city or abroad.

Regarding Hazan, Tzahor relates: "Yaakov Hazan tried very hard to take part in labor activities, whenever he had time. He did not do Shabbat rotations, because aside from him being busy hosting statesmen and public figures, he was dealing with sensitive issues affecting certain members of [his kibbutz] Mishmar Ha'emek. He usually succeeded in resolving the issues that were left at his doorstep.

"In the early years, he built fancy armchairs for the members. It was bourgeois, but there was some justification for it, as it was a means of relaxing after work. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Hazan was 'the prophet in his own country' who was well liked. Unlike Meir Ya'ari, he was accepted by the members of Mishmar Ha'emek."

In fact, in a true reflection of the diverse leadership styles of the two men, the following words are inscribed on the grave of Hazan: "Leader of Hakibbutz Ha'artzi and of Mapam, he loved and he was loved." Not a single word about labor.

And as in every religion, in the religion of labor there were also potential reformers, opponents from within and those for whom the reality caused them to think heretical thoughts. Their words tormented the priests and the ritual practitioners. In an article that appeared in March 1956 in "This Week in Hakibbutz Ha'artzi," Israel Pinhasi, a member of Kibbutz Eilon, registers his displeasure at the admonishment that Ya'ari had hurled at members of the kibbutzim. His remarks also reveal criticism for the leaders of the flock and their emissaries: "The kibbutz was a society that worked and worked hard; a society that still does not permit its members to be allotted more than 6-8 days of vacation, after a year of hard work; a society that places at the personal disposal of the member only 30 lira a year; a society in which the member-woman maintains a difficult and tense work day, even at age 45 or 50. How can this public of 6,000 to 7,000 families sustain a party, a world movement and an extensive network of institutions and offices?" (From "Me'ir Ya'ari: Collective Biography," by Aviva Halamish, soon to be published by Am Oved. )

Maybe it was the seed of doubt planted then, that sprouted, grew and ate away at every good aspect of the kibbutz, and the same seed that also ground down the status of labor until it was pulled down from its high perch. In privatized kibbutzim, each person works today as he sees fit. Work is solely an economic matter and there is no inherent ideology at all. At Kibbutz Hama'apil, for example, Thai workers milk the cows in joint teams with the kibbutz members, and also pick the avocados; they constitute half the working staff in these sectors. "But only kibbutz members work in the irrigated fields and the fish ponds," community coordinator Eitan Tene hastens to add.

By contrast, at Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, although there are no foreign workers at the dairy farm or in the irrigated fields, the avocado and citrus orchards are worked by a conglomerate of the regional kibbutzim, which employs workers from Thailand.

Things have gotten so out of hand that now there is no need, no ideal and no ideology prompting them to rise early in the morning. The glory of labor is now preserved, not only on the grave marker of Meir Ya'ari, but also in the inscriptions inscribed on the tombstones of the rank and file. When I try to set up a meeting with Ami Be'eri, a retired member of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, and the local eulogizer there, as he describes himself, he says: "If you want to talk with me, let's do it early in the morning, at 8 or 9."

"Eight or nine is early there?" I say, half-scolding him. "There was a time when your early was 5 or 6." That's how it is. The days of Hebrew labor, of early risers on Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim who would head out to their agricultural labors, have passed, or at least their numbers have been sharply reduced. The glory of their hard work remains forever inscribed only on the tombstones.

From a visit to the Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh cemetery, one can learn about the mythic status of labor from the large number of inscriptions that praise the diligence and labors of those who lie below, as well as symbols related to their specific work. Be'eri relates that there was a time when every member of kibbutz had a card. "On the card appeared the date of birth, date of immigration, places of work and positions that he or she filled. When I have to write a eulogy, I look at this card, and of course, in the eulogies for the veterans, the founders of the kibbutz, a greater part is devoted to the person's place of work, for these people built up these sectors and were wholly identified with them. On my father's grave, for example, we wrote, 'A man of work and of the book,' because all his life he worked by day and read by night. On the grave of Kuba Artzi, who set up the water system here, the water workers put a big tap and next to it a pipe wrench, and on the grave of Rafi Komerchero, who was one of the people that started the cotton branch, the field workers used to bring a few cotton buds from the first harvest. On the grave of Hagai Shaham, it says: 'A man of knowledge, vision and work'; on the grave of Bella and Avraham Albert, it says: 'Founders of the kibbutz, people of labor and vision;' and the grave of Moshe Bader once again features the winning combination: 'A man of work and of the book.'"

It seems that many of those lying in the kibbutz cemeteries are people of labor and of hard work. No doubt they are not resting, but are continuing to work.