'It exists for me in that tense you have in English, the present progressive'

In the kibbutz children’s house, we grew up speaking in plural, writes memoirist

Newly released in English, Israeli Yael Neeman’s portrait of her 1960s Socialist childhood is ripe to resonate with US Millennials exploring communal living

Yael Neeman grew up as part of an extreme communal 'experiment' on Kibbutz Yehiam. (Courtesy)
Yael Neeman grew up as part of an extreme communal 'experiment' on Kibbutz Yehiam. (Courtesy)

It has already been 12 years since award-winning Israeli novelist Yael Neeman began writing her memoir, “We Were the Future,” in which she recalls growing up in a socialist, Zionist kibbutz in the 1960s and 70s.

It’s been five years since the book was first published to wide acclaim in Israel. And still, the author receives emails at least once a week from individuals who profess a deep connection to her personal recollections. Now an English edition translated by Sondra Silverston is set for release in the US, with an updated cover and subtitle added, “A Memoir of the Kibbutz.”

A No. 1 bestseller in Israel, the memoir tells of Neeman’s experience growing up on Kibbutz Yehiam in the Western Galilee. It was, writes Neeman, “the most beautiful kibbutz in the world — green with pines, purple with Judas trees.”

Born in 1960 to European refugees, Neeman was one of 16 children in the Narcissus group, all raised communally in the Children’s Society, each spending less than two hours a day in the company of their biological parents.

Both beautifully lyric and devastatingly illuminating, “We Were the Future” is one of a cluster of eye-opening projects in recent years examining the unique, yet controversial experience of growing up in an ideologically-driven, agricultural collective in Israel in the 20th century.

But as distinct as her childhood was, what draws so many to Neeman’s personal reminiscences, she said, is how much hers mirror their own.

“People who read the book tell me how much my life reflects their lives,” Neeman said in a recent phone interview. “Since it was released in Israel, I haven’t stopped talking about it, or stopped thinking about. It exists for me in that tense you have in English, the present progressive.”

The updated cover jacket of Yael Neeman's newly translated memoir, 'We Were the Future.' (Courtesy of The Overlook Press)
The updated cover jacket of Yael Neeman’s newly translated memoir, ‘We Were the Future.’ (Courtesy of The Overlook Press)

The collective memory of the now-grown children of the kibbutz is due in large part to the intentional synchronization of life in the communities that operated under the umbrella of Hashomer Hatzair, the youth movement founded in Eastern Europe based on socialist ideology. However, the author also skillfully contextualizes that joint experience — or “experiment,” as she refers to it.

“We spoke in the plural,” she writes in the first chapter. “That’s how we were born, that’s how we grew up, forever… From the moment we were released from the hospital, they never tried to separate us. On the contrary, they joined us, glued us, welded us together.”

Appropriately, it is in the first-person plural that Neeman weaves her tale of the kibbutz. She claims this was indeed how they used language then; how they really spoke, and still do.

“When our parents talked about the past, they always used ‘we,’” she said. “It functioned for me as a ‘dimuy,’ an inner visualization, during the writing process. Using ‘we’ helped me to describe the claustrophobic, yet intimate crowded life of being together all the time.”

Though crowded, it was a life she still feels fortunate to have been born into, Neeman said, even though she eventually left the kibbutz, as did many of her peers when they came of age in the 1980s.

‘We spoke in the plural. That’s how we were born, that’s how we grew up, forever…’

“People from the city often ask me, ‘Was it good? Was it bad?’ I feel very lucky I was born like that,” she said. “Most of us feel that way. None of us wanted his children to be born like that — without their parents. But, it was something so special. Like a work of art.”

“In Israel, just the word ‘kibbutz’ evokes so many feelings,” Neeman said. “What I wanted to do was show what life was really like on the kibbutz for us, in those times.”

Neeman’s continued affection for the kibbutz is apparent, both in the book and in conversation. She still considers Yehiam her home, despite making her residence in Tel Aviv for the past 36 years, and was relieved when her family and her friends finally read the book, and approved.

“I always envy the English word, ‘hometown,’” Neeman said. “This is the kibbutz. When you say ‘hometown,’ you have everything inside it. Even if you are outside of it, it’s still your hometown.”

Children and their nurse in the children's house on Kibbutz Afikim in the mid-1960s. (Kibbutz Afikim Archive via wikipedia)
Children and their nurse in the children’s house on Kibbutz Afikim in the mid-1960s. (Kibbutz Afikim Archive via wikipedia)

Nonetheless, in her memoir, Neeman reflects with candor and a critical eye on many of the controversial elements and policies of kibbutz life of that era, including the segregation and gender biases that left women with limited choice when it came to work.

“The m’taplot [caretakers] were imprisoned in the system together with us, partly prisoners, partly guards… The women members always found themselves assigned, and assigned themselves, to work in the kitchen, the laundry, and the children’s houses,” she writes. “To streamline the work on the entire kibbutz and not to disrupt the men from doing their productive work in the fields.”

Neeman’s thorough research, which included making use of the kibbutz archives, is evident in her vivid descriptions of the historical founding of the kibbutz, its landscape, and its colorful members, such as Pirosh, the bald Hungarian shoemaker who knew the names of all the Hollywood actors and actresses, and was responsible for screening the films shown on the kibbutz.

A commitment to accuracy, Neeman said, was one reason why it took her six years to write the book.

‘The women always found themselves assigned, and assigned themselves, to work in the kitchen, the laundry, and the children’s houses’

“I felt some shame about that. They built the kibbutz in two years!” she said, “despite the very tough conditions of the time.”

Hopeful that the American release of the book will be received with as much enthusiasm as it has been in Israel, Neeman said she understands that there will likely be a different type of response abroad. She expects less of a familiarity, and more of a curiosity. However, she believes there is a certain timeliness of the book, particularly as it offers a perspective on a growing trend among millennials — communal living.

“I hope they will find the book relevant, if nothing else than as a thought experiment for communal living,” she said.

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