Mourning a Father Lost; a Kibbutz Childhood Remembered

By Avraham Balaban
216pp | Rowman and Littlefield | ISBN 0742529223 | £16. 99 | 2003

Boy on an early kibbutz Throughout history children have been subject to a wide variety in modes of upbringing. To give a few examples: in Tudor times boys such as Saint Thomas More were sent away at a young age to noble households to receive their upbringing and education. To fuel the industrial revolution in Victorian times, working-class children spent long hours up chimneys or down mines. In the 19th century the great public schools of England shaped the sons of empire to serve the empire in their turn by removing them from home at an early age. One of them later remarked that boarding at Eton had well prepared him for the trenches of the Great War. In the 20th century, the Russian Revolution tried to destroy the “bourgeois family” and replace it with the notion of children being raised by the state. The larger, extended families of the pre-war period in their turn gave way to the modern, post-war, smaller, nuclear family. This model has now been superseded by the “post-modern” family, which includes step-parents, step-siblings and half-siblings and families created entirely by biotechnology.

For Christians, the model for family life will always be Christ’s family in Nazareth, however far social pressures or fashions slip from the ideal of two loving married parents exerting a good and stable influence on their offspring’s childhood and youth. In the Jewish tradition, from which the Christian model to some extent derives, very great store has always been set on the close bonds of domestic ties and the honouring of familial obligations. Thus it is ironic that in the early days of Jewish settlement in their ancient homeland, Palestine, kibbutzim – agricultural communes – were organised precisely to deny natural child-parent bonding and largely to replace it with community-bonding instead. This was different from the Soviet belief that parents exerted a decadent (ie, non-Communist) influence on their children; it arose out of harsh living conditions and the need for both parents to work full-time; and the erroneous idea that a kindly, detached community could just as easily replace particular parental affection.

Avraham Balaban, professor of Modern Hebrew literature at the University of Florida and the author of this memoir, was a product of this unusual experiment in community living. His Jewish parents left Eastern Europe in the late 1930s in search of a better — and rural — life far from the highly restrictive employment open to them in the ghettos. He was born at the end of the Second World War and grew up in kibbutz Hulda, not far from Tel Aviv. His parents and other families had wrested these acres from the scrub and wilderness of the then Palestine and transformed them into a flourishing and self-sufficient community farm, with its communal dining room, rooms where married couples lived, school, nursery, kindergarten and children’s house. It is the children’s house, where Balaban and the other kibbutz children grew up, only seeing their parents during the short period after tea and before bed that is the locus for his painful memories. Surrounded by “nurses and educators” who “did all they could to keep our parents away from us” and where he has acute memories of being frightened at night (it was a rule that parents did not intervene, even if they heard their children crying) the author reflects with some acerbity that “no one got enough love in the children’s house”.

The immediate occasion for his book was attending his father’s death, funeral and shivah (the prescribed period of mourning) in 1996, forty years later. He recalls his father, who was head of the kibbutz orchards, apologising to his son in later life for allowing his children – Balaban has a brother and sister – to be “guinea pigs” in the kibbutz experiment. “We believed we were building a new society,” he simply said. His son comments bitterly, “How they were misguided; how they were misled.” Having made his elderly father feel guilty, Balaban does not spare his widowed mother his reproaches: “Why, Mom?” he challenges her. Helplessly this sad old lady, who had worked all day in the nursery, admits “how little we were together”. The son’s futility and resentment focus on “the family we might have been”; his brutal epitaph for his father is “Rest in peace, you hard, selfish and naïve man”.

The famed Golda Meir with kibutz children. I found it difficult to feel sympathy for Balaban’s attitude. Yes, it is unsatisfactory to see one’s parents only briefly at the end of the day; yes, the kibbutz vision was flawed in its understanding of child psychology; yes, the author got short-changed on “quantity time” and family life. But as a full time mother myself, now with grown-up children (ready to remind me of the time I made them go to school when they had a tummy-ache and when I fell asleep over a bedtime story) my allegiance does not go to the author, who is my exact contemporary, but to his parents. His sense of victimhood seems both self-indulgent and selfish to me, honouring Freud rather than the fourth commandment. Does he not realise that if his parents had married and chosen to remain in Bessarabia, he and they would probably have died in the concentration camps or in the gulags? Does he not understand what an unselfish life they led on the kibbutz, both of them labouring long hours in unfamiliar work in order to give their children a new start in a new world? Does he not remember with any affection their loving, if short, daily periods with him and his siblings?

I worked on a kibbutz in Israel for several months in the 1960s before university. The way of life was in transition even then. Members often discussed the problems and difficulties of the radical life they had chosen; all of them wanted to spend more time with their children and worried about them as parents do. These people, like Balaban’s parents, were not selfish careerists, intent on embracing the capitalist dream; they worked all day in jobs they did not always relish (washing and ironing everyone’s blue work clothes, for instance); they went without many things that most of us take for granted, such as enjoying the privacy of one’s own home. In fact, they made many sacrifices for an ideal: that living in community and sharing their skills for the common good, was better for them and their children than living in individual, atomised units. Benedictine communities where celibates seek God through prayer and work have survived for 1,600 years. Kibbutzim, on the other hand, are struggling to survive after a few decades. Why? Because it seems to be the nature of family life to flourish better in private households, surrounded and supported by the wider neighbourhood of other similar households, than to share meals in a refectory and to live by a common work rota.

Yet it was a brave and idealistic experiment. Modern children, with expensive electronic gadgets in their bedrooms, often see as little of their parents (if they haven’t suffered the tragedy of family breakdown) as the author of this autobiography. Perhaps it is true that Balaban “never got enough protection and security”, as he avers. But it is often in the nature of childhood to think one did not get “enough” love. Only God can fulfil all our emotional needs, after all. Parents are human, too. How much love should they give? How long is a piece of string?

Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.