Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Founders and Firsts (Chalutzim and Sabras)

We believe that salvation is to be found in wholesome work in a beloved land.  -- Theodor Herzl

Where to start? In 1948 when Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel in Independence Hall? In 1909 when the first 66 families had a lottery for plots of land which would become the enormous thriving city of Tel Aviv? In 1896 when Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State? To the First Aliyah of the 1880s? Or do we go back to 1200 B.C.E. and the lands allotted to the descendants of Jacob who made up the Twelve Tribes of Israel? Where do we begin to talk of loving and owning the land of Israel?  We, jetlagged Americans from Indiana, started at Independence Hall at 8 p.m. the evening of our arrival.  I can look back now and see a narrative arc that ended with a visit to Yad Vashem on our penultimate day there, one that interweaves love for the natural beauty of the land of Israel, and determination for the political necessity of a nation-state for Jews. Herzl saw this after the rancid Anti-Semitism voiced in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair and the Holocaust sickeningly, permanently proved him right.  Reading the students' journals these past few days and realizing to my as-yet helpless dismay that no, they don't really understand the proportions of the Holocaust, and no, the necessity of a Jewish state still "doesn't make sense" to many of them, I wonder about how one prepares to understand the necessity for everyone to have a nation-state in the modern world. And yes, that includes Palestinians. And yes, there are human rights abuses against Palestinians in modern Israel. But no, dear students, that does not throw any doubt on the necessity of Israel as a nation. You want to question a political decision, question the British Mandate already. We'll see if I can keep this post pre-1948 - that's the goal, as those years, let's say 1896-1948, saw incredible bravery and vision that I want to celebrate.

Independence Hall itself is an pioneering architecture.  Before it became a museum commemorating the declaration of the State of Israel in 1978, it was an art museum (an art museum! that explains the paintings you see all around the podium).  Before that, it was the home of Meir and Zina Dizengoff.  And before that, it was lot #43 in the 1909 lottery.  Throughout Tel Aviv there are thousands (over 3,000, the most anywhere in the world) of Bauhaus buildings, built in the 1930s mostly by émigrés from Europe, bringing with them this avnat-garde architectural style - and visions of a new world - and plans for living.

"It's a nice socialist way of living."  This is what our guide said after our 7:30 a.m. tour of Kibbutz Lavi.  This is the view from our room in the fancy hotel that is one of the kibbutz's two industries; the other is a furniture factory that's become incredibly successful - a few years ago they started making pews for American churches so if you go to church, you may be sitting on Kibbutz Lavi pews!  The first kibbutzniks came from Russia in the shock-waves of late 19th-century pogroms (yes, a medieval "tradition" that carried into the modern age), and came to the land of Palestine to farm it.  I am naïvely and continually amazed by kibbutzim - that they exist, function, thrive (well, there are fewer and fewer of them now, but Lavi has figured something out). The communal living, the property in common, the children living communally too (ok, that pretty much stopped in the 1970s).  A key nuance for me is that the early kibbutzniks, in being Communists, shared Marx's disdain for specific nation-states.  As necessary as the State of Israel it, it wasn't always obvious.

So here is one of the houses at Kibbutz Lavi - echoes of Bauhaus maybe.  It's an easy winding walk through all of the parts of the kibbutz - the school, the wedding park, the rose garden, the factory, the dairy (oh man, the cheeses at breakfast!), the library. There is a sense of respite from struggle in the toil of work.  Memories, wounded and haunting, have their place, too.  Many of the early members of this kibbutz were part of the Kindertransport, the 10,000 children rescued from the Holocaust by asylum in England.  Many of them never stopped missing their parents who died in concentration camps - no matter how beautiful and simple kibbutz life could be.

I can't remember the date of this mosaic showing emblems of the 12 Tribes of Israel, but I think that it's from the 1970s. The iconography is much much older, though. Save for everything east of the Jordan River now belonging to Jordan, you can make out the vague outline of modern-day Israel from this long-ago division of land.  The myths, the legends, the conspiracies of missing tribes and wanderings fill dozens of wacky web pages - no need to go there (there are medieval traditions here, too).

Instead, let's go to Jerusalem and sit with Oliver in the recreation of the First Zionist Congress in Basel (Switzerland!) in the Herzl Museum.  It's four interactive rooms (The Dreyfus Affair, the First Zionist Congress, Herzl's study, and film intersecting quotes from Altneuland with images of modern-day Israel).  This is where we heard Herzl's vision for the Chalutzim (the pioneers who first worked the land of Israel, men and women like the kibbutzniks).  This is where Oliver and I spoke of the Sabra - the native-born Israeli: the dream, the reality of Jews being born in Israel in the modern world: valiant, adventurous, bold and amazing, and named allegorically for the prickly pear cactus: tough on the outside, sweet on the inside.  You can find the ethos now through the post-colonial, post-modern wonder of globalized hummus production.  We have it at the Kroger in Greencastle - hoorah!

There is so much more to write, but the Great Ice Storm of 2011 is about to unleash and we're sure to lose power, so I have to prepare some things. I'll be doing it to Israeli folk music - still seeking ways and means of understanding and listening to those 1930s pioneer songs.  Music-much to consider there-interwoven as it is in memory and festival. Oliver and I stayed to listen to this klezmer band playing on Ben Yehuda street during Tu Bishvat on our way back from the Herzl Museum. To think of melodies heard many thens ago and now.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your journey with us! I am amazed that you and Oliver were there. Have I ever told you that my favorite book is Exodus by Leon Uris? Have you read it? If not, you should - especially after your trip. Can't wait to hear more. Hope you're staying in and warm or if you have to be outside it's on wonderful sleigh riding hills :-) We're iced in and hunkered down for the day... Love to all! Mere