From a kibbutz to a Jewish island that never happened

I’d like to share three enormously different Israel-related books that have just been released.

The kibbutz movement remains one of the most extraordinary phenomena of the 20th-century Jewish experience. Yael Neeman’s “We Were the Future” is an unflinching presentation of the experience of growing up on Yehiam, a left-wing kibbutz in the northern Galilee whose character emerged both from its identification with the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement and from the Hungarian origins of many of its inhabitants, a large percentage of whom had escaped or survived the Holocaust.

Neeman begins with a history of the kibbutz, established in the 1940s on an unlikely spot — a rocky hill with little arable land. When the initial boundaries of the Jewish state were drawn by the United Nations, Yehiam fell just outside the border on Arab territory and the kibbutz was under siege during the entire 1948 war.

Kibbutzim are recalled primarily as innovative social and economic constructs, but their most radical break with convention was the institution of the children’s home. At most kibbutzim, children didn’t see their parents for more than a few hours a day — instead, they lived and interacted with their peers in a sort of alternate constellation with its own identity. This is the focus of Neeman’s book, ably translated by Sondra Silverston — the specific experience of being part of the Narcissus Group, her tribe of agemates.

There are many positive memories throughout, but it often is painful to read of the emotional needs of children and their parents being subjugated to the demands of ideology. Understanding the way that history turned out — the experiment turned out to be an impermanent one, albeit one with a significant impact — can make it harder to accept the sorts of sacrifices required.

Neeman’s book has had an enormous impact in Israel in part because, as focused as it is on one person’s experience, it captures dimensions of the lives of thousands of Israelis brought up in a manner that is but a memory to today’s younger Israelis. It also conveys the sense of difference that children of the kibbutz had when they approached the outside world, or, often, came to live in it.

Israeli author and journalist Nava Semel’s “Isra Isle” draws from a little-known episode in history, in 1825, when American Jew Mordecai Manuel Noah purchased land in Grand Island, New York, near Niagara Falls, intending that the land serve as a place of Jewish refuge — a temporary homeland.

Semel’s novel is anything but a linear narrative. The book is divided into three parts: in the first, set in September 2001, a New York City detective of Native American descent is assigned the task of tracking down a missing Israeli, who, it turns out, is a descendant of Mordecai Noah and is headed for Grand Island. The second segment goes back in time to imagine Noah’s efforts to secure the land, as related by Little Dove, the Native American girl who introduces Noah to the island.

The final section presents an alternative historical scenario, imagining that Noah’s proto-Zionist plan came to fruition: Isra Isle is a long-standing Jewish state on North American soil, with an evolved culture that has come to incorporate elements of both Judaism and Native American spirituality and symbolism. This section, like the others, brings an outsider’s perspective to present Jewish lives.

The reading experience can be strange, with Semel having rendered American colloquial language into Hebrew and translator Jessica Cohen bringing it back into English. But it’s a daring piece of literature, both in its form and in the questions it asks about home and identity.

Leah Kaminsky’s “The Waiting Room” announces early on that it will be a harrowing experience, beginning with the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in Haifa in 2001 and working backwards over the course of a 24-hour period.

Dina Ronen is a physician who grew up among Holocaust survivors in Melbourne, but lived in Israel for a decade for the sake of her marriage to a former kibbutznik. Her life is tense and unsettled, as she expects her second child and the Second Intifada rages.

The omniscient narration allows us into her mind, which is consumed not only by memories of her deceased mother, a Holocaust survivor, but long and frequent conversations with her.  Indeed, there is no relationship in Dina’s life that feels nearly as intense as her ongoing relationship with her mother.

The book offers enormous insights into being the child of survivors, but it is also a novel of Israel — of the experience of being a galutnik, who still feels like a stranger after a decade of living in the homeland, and of the disappointment of having settled in Haifa, mythologized as the city where Jews and Arabs can get along, as it joins the rest of the country in fearing terror.

Kaminsky has written a number of books, but this is her first novel. Not autobiographical, it is nevertheless informed by insight and observation from the author’s background living in Israel for a decade, being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and being trained as a physician.

Howard Freedman is director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

“We Were the Future: A Memoir of the Kibbutz” by Yael Neeman (256 pages, The Overlook Press)

“Isra Isle” by Nava Semel (240 pages, Mandel Vilar Press)

“The Waiting Room” by Leah Kaminsky (320 pages, Harper Perennial)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.