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Cats in the kibbutz cradle

Julie Szego
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Published: 20 December 2018

Last updated: 4 March 2024

AS A STUDENT at a kibbutz in Israel’s Negev desert, my ideological reckoning comes in a surprising encounter - with cats, and one in particular. A grey-and-white tabby, distinct for the thick, tawny smudge down her back and row of stitches at her belly, the wound beneath still weeping. My kids consult a website called “Random Cat Name Generator,” and christen her “Nala,” which I concede has an appropriately Middle-Eastern ring.

Nala is one of roughly 15 ownerless or, more accurately, “collectively owned” cats that spend their days frolicking, bickering, and slinking about the lodgers’ quarters on the tidy grounds of Kibbutz Mashabei Sade, about a half hour’s drive from the town of Beersheba.

The kibbutz’s name is a play on words, a tribute to Yitzhak Sade, commander of the Palmach, the elite fighting force in the Jewish military underground during the British Mandate in Palestine. It also means “resources of the desert”.

“Please can we feed her, Mum.” My 14-year-old stands at the door of the spartan second-storey flat, our home for the week during last year’s mild Israeli winter, the equally plaintive nine-year-old at her side. Nala squirms in her arms, red wound flashing in unseemly display.

“No.”

The kids look crestfallen. I remind them of the sign near the weatherboard headquarters of the kibbutz’s field and language programs imploring guests not to feed the cats. The creatures have a “communal feeding area” where a cheerful Romanian in a peasant headscarf distributes rations. Feed the cats, the kibbutz members warn, and they’ll keep pestering you.

“If we feed her,” I explain, “she’ll think she’s ours.”

The adults’ communal feeding area is the members’ dining room, one of a cluster of buildings that frame a space resembling a civic square. One morning, a vital-looking man in his 80s watches our family of four logging our own breakfast rations, the cashier tallying every boiled egg and slice of yellow cheese on our trays. This tallying, I would learn, is one of the kibbutz’s few concessions to the notion that individuals might exploit communal generosity for selfish gain.

Later, as I head towards the communal dishwasher with my dirty plates, the man, one of the kibbutz’s old guard, asks me if the whole family is enrolled in the kibbutz’s ulpan, an intensive Hebrew-language course. I nod.

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“Such an honour this is for us,” he says.

I feel myself blush. This humble and kindly man, a pioneer who helped settle the kibbutz in 1947 and defended it from Egyptian attack the following year during Israel’s War of Independence, devoted his life to actualising the vision of Israel’s founding leader, David Ben Gurion, in making the desert bloom. This man from the generation that will not, cannot, stop labouring every day for the common good, says he’s honoured by my presence.

It makes no difference that we’re paying for the ulpan. I simply cannot betray such socialist heroes by surrendering to a few calculating meows.

I’ve brought my family here not only to brush up on Hebrew - as the daughter of Holocaust survivors I feel a moral responsibility to ensure my children speak the language of Jewish statehood and political sovereignty - but also to experience something of a community governed by Karl Marx’s ethos, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

No individual property rights. No ownership. Services basically free, communal life shared, collective decision-making. Mashabei Sade’s 166 members include poultry workers, dairy workers, laundry staff, kitchen hands. Factory workers in the profitable kibbutz factory, Sagiv, which exports brass ball-valves and fittings. Teachers, doctors, writers, engineers. About 30 members hold jobs in towns or villages outside the kibbutz; their earnings go straight into Mashabei’s coffers.

The doctor’s earnings only exceed the kitchen hand’s earnings if, say, the doctor has a bigger family - that’s the “to each according to his needs,” part of the Marxist equation. Regardless of their job, everyone gets the same monthly wage. “From each according to his ability …”

Precisely why I wish my daughters to glimpse socialism, as opposed to simply Israel, where we visit regularly, is hard to say. Like most parents, I’m wary of my kids taking our relative affluence for granted or confusing rampant consumerism with meaningful existence. I don’t consider myself a socialist in any doctrinaire sense, or at all.

But my own family’s ideological journey after World War II left me with a lingering fascination and rough sentimentality about the class struggle and those who committed their lives to it. When my parents returned from the camps to their native Hungary my mother, especially, embraced communism, as did many Jews, hoping that a society in which the bosses no longer exploited the workers would also end anti-Semitic scapegoating.

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Even as the Stalinist purges got underway in 1949 - purges that saw the secret police banish thousands of “undesirables” from Budapest to the countryside, and these “undesirables” were arguably the luckier ones - mum’s diligence and dedication to the cause landed her a job in the Ministry of Light Industry. Even when heavily pregnant with my older sister, she marched, beaming dutifully, on May Day.

It didn’t work out: generally, for the Jews who fell victim to a resurgent anti-Semitism under Stalinism; and for my parents, who escaped to Vienna from Hungary after the failed 1956 revolution against Soviet rule, spent two years in Israel and finally migrated to Australia where I was born.

Yet two hundred years after Marx’s birth, a century after the Bolshevik Revolution and a decade after the global financial crisis saw Main Street paying the price for unrestrained greed on Wall Street, socialism is enjoying a revival of interest in the Anglosphere, from Bernie Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn.

In the late afternoons, I walk the kibbutz’s perimeter, barbed only to keep terrorist infiltrators out, and not the 400-odd residents in. I pass the cows in their generous living quarters, the indoor swimming pool, the tourist lodge, the orderly “streets” with functional but welcoming cottages of pale concrete and slanting rust-coloured roofs, the children’s playgrounds.

A utopian experiment started in the early 1900s by eastern European refugees to then Ottoman Palestine, the kibbutz remains the purest expression of communitarianism. Not least because unlike the subjects of Marxist rule almost everywhere else during the past 100 years and still now, kibbutz residents make a genuinely free choice to live under the system.

It’s true that fewer and fewer Israelis are making that choice. In 1950, when the new state’s centre-left Mapai party dominated Israeli politics, kibbutzniks numbered about 7.5 per cent of the population. As the nation grew richer and dabbled in free market economics in the 1980s, the kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz), while still contributing disproportionately to Israel’s agriculture and industry, found themselves economically embattled and increasingly bereft of purpose.

Today the kibbutz population hovers at around two per cent— and more significantly, they are mostly kibbutzim in name only. Since the 1990s, most of Israel’s 270-odd kibbutzim have abandoned or watered-down collectivism. In many, members pay for their own needs out of their own earnings, which make these places little more than villages with a stronger-than-usual community spirit.

But not this kibbutz. I would come to learn that Mashabei Sade clings fiercely to its ideals. On my walk I pass a gentle rise with a sculpture of a seated, jagged figure gazing at the rocky expanse beyond, where nearly three thousand years ago the Nabateans traded incense and spices. I imagine this scrawny copper man, who looks so marvellously, neurotically Jewish, catching the fading bars of a folk song on the wind.

Nala, the cat, follows us into Hebrew class. She leaps soundlessly from lap to lap, from my diligent partner, to my enthusiastic 14-year-old, to my cheeky nine-year-old, to our Mexican-born classmate Jennifer, a long-term volunteer on the kibbutz. Nala makes our teacher, Inbar, jumpy. And I get the impression Inbar, a young mother who lives outside the kibbutz, is rarely jumpy.

“I like cats but only at a distance,” she shudders.

In our first lesson, in a bid to reassure us, Inbar explains that our classroom doubles as a bomb shelter.

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“Now this is a very quiet part of the country,” she begins. “Almost nothing happens here.  All I’m saying is that if something happens, this room is the safest place you could be.”

What does happen is routine exercises by air force fighter jets. The first time the kids hear the sonic boom they bolt, shrieking, to the classroom-cum-bomb-shelter.

Inbar’s smile floods the room. She’s pure radiance, intuitive and nurturing like the kindergarten teacher she once was. When we cobble together the right verbs in the right tenses she sings, Me-tzu-yan! Excellent!

Growing exasperated with Nala’s stealthy manoeuvres, Inbar kindly asks Jennifer to deposit her outside.

After lunch one day Inbar teaches us a song, The Desert Speaks: It reminds you that everything is blooming, right there in your heart.

Despite the mild winter, the desert air turns frosty after sundown. In our concrete bathroom, the cold slices the air through a window that’s been fastened open. We steel ourselves for a piss in the middle of the night. But in the front sitting room, which doubles as the girls’ bedroom, a forceful heater keeps us toasty. It is where we’re gathered in early evening when Nala crouches on a rickety table outside the flat and presses her nose against the window, letting out a high-pitched simper.

We draw the curtains.

“Some bad people just leave their cats here, thinking they’ll have a good life,” Nava Eshel, one of the kibbutz members, tells me. “Can you believe people do things like that?” Even when she’s sneering, Nava’s eyes twinkle and her lips twitch from the effort of containing laughter.

Nava tends to the cats’ welfare; it’s one of her jobs. She stoops to inspect Nala’s stitches as we follow the path to her cottage.

Inside, Nava’s own feline, a tortoiseshell called Kathy, daintily picks her way along the sofa ridge and pounces onto the lemon bean bag. On this tranquil morning her purr is a soft rumbling of content.

NEXT WEEK: The ups and downs of communal living

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Julie Szego

Julie Szego is a freelance writer and columnist for The Age/SMH. Her non-fiction book, The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, was shortlisted for the Victorian and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for 2015.

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