To build & be built


The Tools Are in Your Hands (Elisheva Biernoff, 2013)

I have written before about the central role Utopian writers have played in the development of the American West. This last weekend I had an opportunity to tour the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and view two exhibitions on that uniquely Jewish Utopian manifestation, the Israeli kibbutz. This experience got me thinking about how real-world Utopian efforts change their participants.

The utopian ideal has exerted a strong pull on humankind’s imagination for centuries and there have been countless attempts to create intentional communities that promote cooperation, harmony, and happiness… The kibbutz movement is a powerful recent example and one that offers a fascinating opportunity to explore how we think about ideal societies, both in the context of Judaism and on a universal level. Lori Starr (CJM Executive Director)

In The Kibbutz - The Jewish National Fund - 1960

In The Kibbutz (The Jewish National Fund, 1960)

A Kibbutz, Hebrew for “gathering” or “clustering”, is a type of co-operative community found primarily in Israel. Historically, such intentional communities focused on agricultural production — where the land, buildings and equipment were owned by the kibbutz, and where the kibbutz is “owned” and collectively managed by its resident/workers. As the Kibbutzim movement has grown over the decades it has dealt with setbacks, market-force challenges, and a gradual shift away from purely agricultural pursuits. Today, of the nearly 106,000 people living in kibbutzim in Israel less than 9% are employed as farmers — compared to over 25% of all members working in professional, technical, academic, and scientific fields — and with over 30% working in sales and marketing, or as skilled manufacturers. As the movement has progressed the rural kibbutz (with its emphasis on farming) has been joined by the urban kibbutz (with its emphasis on education, community involvement and social action).

Much like the State of Israel itself, the kibbutz has undergone massive changes in just a few decades. As the country has become more urban and populous and the political culture has shifted from the left to the center, the rural, agricultural, and socialist emphasis of the kibbutz has rendered it less practically relevant. At the same time, the kibbutz’s spirit of innovation has allowed the movement to transform itself. The Jewish Contemporary Museum

The first exhibition at the museum is an historical overview of the Kibbutzim Movement; To Build & Be Built: Kibbutz History. The exhibition provides an excellent overview of the history and evolution of the Kibbutzim Movement in Israel.

Schoolchildren at kibbutz - Kibbutz Yagur Archive - 1952

Schoolchildren at kibbutz (Kibbutz Yagur Archive, 1952)

“The kibbutzniks’ (members of a kibbutz) rugged lifestyle was the embodiment of the dream of Zionist thinkers such as Max Nordau and A. D. Gordon, who advocated for a “muscular Judaism” as an antidote to what many Jewish leaders saw as an urban, overly intellectual Jewish culture. A well-known folk song from the era promised that those who worked the land would “build and be built,” simultaneously building the land and recreating themselves and Jewish culture.” Jewish Contemporary Museum (exhibition literature, 2013)

The second exhibition at the museum, Work in Progress: Considering Utopia, presents the work of three kibbutz artists: the photographer and videographer Oded Hirsch (b. 1975), the sculptor Ohad Meromi (b. 1967), and the painter & collage artist Elisheva Biernoff (b. 1980). The artists’ works are presented in the same space within the museum and are intended to be read together as a critique of both the successes and failures of the kibbutz. Unlike Hirsch’s videos and photographs, both Meromi’s sculptures and Biernoff’s collage invite the viewers to participate in the compositions. All the works embrace a certain ambiguity regarding both the value of group participation and the end-result of such work. Perhaps, through my distorted American lens (which I admit may exaggerate the value of individual creativity), this lack of clarity is the strongest condemnation of the kibbutzim movement. The artists’ work appeared to me to amplify a feeling of disjointedness, where an individual’s efforts within the work of the collective-whole is neither wholly recognized nor an integral part of the narrative structure. Each piece, or body of work, is presented as a puzzle that begs to be solved — yet the viewer is left without a cipher key and a distinct feeling that, if the puzzle could be completed, the message might just be gibberish.

1967 - Ohad Meromi - 2013

1967 (Ohad Meromi, 2013) The artist created the piece with the intention that it would be brought to life by museum visitors interpreting one of the tiles around the perimeter of the stage he has created.

Yet, this is not the only valid interpretation. Equally compelling is the idea that no individual can predict how she herself may be changed through the act of communal participation. And, this is perhaps the greater lesson to take away from the entire experience. We are all subject to being re-built when we engage in the act of building.

How often have we seen in our own history of the American West examples of new settlers, intent on building their own perfect community, being changed through their interactions with both the vast landscape of the arid West and other community members. And, in turn, how have their visions of their Utopias changed in response to this metamorphosis?