Hebrew Fiction / Her Memories Are Mine

The personal and the factual, the pain and the joy – in her autobiographical novel of a 1960s-70s kibbutz childhood, Yael Ne’eman captures an entire experience that was once common to hundreds of thousands, and that is no longer

Hayinu He’atid (We Were the Future) by Yael Ne’eman.
Ahuzat Bayit Publishers (Hebrew), 216 pages, NIS 88

How many people are capable of opening up the old photo album of a complete stranger, and find themselves depicted therein with mesmerizing accuracy? Yael Ne’eman’s book “We Were the Future” sketches, via reminiscences and archival material, a picture of her life and of Kibbutz Yehiam, where she was born in the early 1960s. There is something addictive about other people’s memories, and this addiction became either more interesting or more disturbing when it turned out that what is portrayed so exactly in the book are, in effect, my own memories. And not only mine. For hundreds of thousands of Israelis who grew up on a kibbutz during those years, these shared memories comprise the defining element of their childhood.

In my travels around the country three years ago with the documentary film “Children of the Sun,” I was amazed over and over again by the precision of collective memory: the children’s houses and the parents’ quarters; daily rituals; being put to bed at night and waking up in the morning; celebrations; the new sandals distributed during the Passover holiday; up to the day and minute when the weekly movie was screened. Viewers of my film would sit glued to the screen and with obvious delight find themselves in photos in which they did not actually appear.

Children’s house at Kibbutz Yehiam, 1954.
Government Press Office

Ne’eman has written a marvelous, precise and wise book about Kibbutz Yehiam, in which she skillfully captures her Holocaust refugee parents and her friends. And of course, above all, through all this, this book is about her.

It is difficult to classify this elusive work. Just where does documentation begin and memory intrude? Which voice belongs to Ne’eman, the researcher and recollector of memories, and where has she reconstructed the view of a kid running between the children’s house and the oak trees on this Galilee kibbutz? The multiple voices and points of view present throughout the book allow Ne’eman to avoid the usual cliches that accompany those seeking to connect to the indefinable and misleading experience called the kibbutz: “Sometimes, after we’d left, we tried to tell our stories to urbanites. We could not transmit them, neither plot nor tone. Our voices grated like the off-key recorders of our childhoods, too high or too low. We gave up in the middle. The words fell hollowly between us and the city people, like the stitches knitted by our mothers during the weekly kibbutz assembly, silent next to the talking men.”

And like the sweaters knitted during endless meetings and gatherings, Ne’eman spins her story out of endless small details that create a sense of exactitude. It is hard not to submit to the feeling of urgency that arises from her text, the need to tell the story, to document each detail obsessively, each bit of memory, large or small, as if mountains of words had not already been written about the kibbutz, about childhood and the great dreams that have vanished: “We sang and danced, played the recorder, mandolins and cymbals, and when the artistic program was over, each one returned to his place. The lawn emptied, the door to the dining room closed behind us, and we returned to our small world in the classroom called Narcissus with its tiny bathrooms, tiny beds and tiny desks, surrounded by a gang of friends the Anemones, who were a year younger than us, and the Oaks, who were a grade above. We were happy.”

What is this happiness? The book does not explain, which is just as well. The readers are given the possibility of finding out for themselves whether Ne’eman’s happiness is presented in quotation marks or not. She presents us with the individual emotional context as well as the political circumstances within which the collective idea functioned: She allows us to identify with the children her age in the Narcissus group, and also understand them from the distance of years: “Our story seems to be just a plot. Plot is a mode that does not suit children or adults. Our parents lived on its sidelines and we lived underneath. No one lived within; it was not meant to house people, only their aspirations and dreams.”

Rosebud of the kibbutz

Here is another lovely, enigmatic and precise attempt to define the significance of the thing itself, the Rosebud, if you will, of the kibbutz: “The collective community (the kibbutz) was an abstraction and a presence at one and the same time. It was the sum of things that comprised an experiment of vast proportions, to truly live out a literary or philosophical text.”

Like Assaf Inbari in his excellent book “Habayta” (“Going Home”), from 2009, Ne’eman makes an effort to create the feeling of a report, of distant testimony. In an interview with Yoni Livneh in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Ne’eman spoke about the wide-ranging research she conducted using kibbutz archives, especially that of Yehiam. The endless sifting through the material that comprises the book gives it intellectual and emotional validity; its pages are flooded by her penetrating glance and great love for the figures from her childhood. When Ne’eman describes the way Hungarian kibbutz members smoked, it seems as though she has in her hand an old photo of the Sandor couple, smoking cigarette after cigarette. The interaction between archival reports and sharp observations gives the book its special tone: a combination of irony and nostalgia, sometimes in the very same sentence.

Beyond abstraction, life on the kibbutz was a political act in itself. Members were asked to worship the vision. Ne’eman’s sentences create the sense of continuous movement involved in this life, movement in time and space. The religion of work and activity, in which everything turns in endless cycles of busy-ness, is embedded in her sentences everyone is walking all the time. From story to story: “We would wander from place to place, searching for quiet, searching for noise. Everyone asked, ‘Where is everyone?’”

Fear of doing nothing

The great fear was of doing nothing. It was forbidden to ever stop and get bored. The biblical injunction “We will do and obey” [Exodus 24:7] took on an old-new meaning. What needs to be done, when it should be done and of course how. And so one day after another was apportioned from waking to sleep and back again. There were nights of laughter and games, and also of fear. The fears of that period: terrorists, jackals or just the children from the Oak grade. And there were also the fears of the refugee children.

Their nightmares in which gangs of Nazis roamed, and for some unknown reason decided to attack the parents. To be more precise, the “biological” parents, as Ne’eman calls them: “In the morning the dream was always cut off by the song of the shutters suddenly opened by the caregivers, and the sharp ‘Good morning’ greeting filled with the yellow light. There were the caregivers who said, ‘Good morning, time to get up,’ and those who updated us saying, ‘Good morning children, three soldiers were killed in the Suez Canal overnight. Let’s go, get up.’”

In high school, there was suddenly an opportunity to stop and become bored. Without the beloved teacher Rachel, and in the total absence of adults, a crack appeared in the endless cycle of kibbutz activity. The black hole of meaninglessness from which everyone was trying to escape emerged.

After she discontinued her studies, Ne’eman immersed herself in books, circled endlessly around the high school fence, fell in love, suffered disappointment. She would go to Nahariya and come back. When she was 16 or 17 she found time for the greatest sin of all doing nothing, just lying on the grass and looking at the sky. “During recess we lay down on the grass,” Ne’eman says, “looking at the tree tops. The grass was soft, high and very green it sparkled. We thought about things. We were happy or desperate without any connection to what was going on. One minute this way, one minute that way. We were flung from sweetness to bitterness as if from hilltop to hilltop, and in between was the gaping abyss of grass upon which we lay.”

At the end of the book, when the author was already living in a different country, she traveled from London to Glasgow and recalled a beloved poem from her childhood on the kibbutz. A poem by Kadya Molodowsky, written originally in Yiddish in gray and distant Warsaw: “Then Ayelet hitches all the wheels into a twisting train. And the train whistles loudly and Ayelet travels far and wide, toward the unknown land.”

Much has been written about the kibbutz. It is one of Zionism’s greatest stories. There were propagandistic works at the beginning of the way, and presentations of victimization in more recent years. For me, reading a book like “We Were the Future” is like jumping into the kibbutz reservoir on an especially hot summer day.

Ran Tal, director of the documentary film “Children of the Sun,” grew up on Kibbutz Beit Hashita.