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Guarding the past with an eye to the future

Generation game . . . kibbutz-born Yoav Galili and youngest son Dylan point to Yoav’s founder member parents, Gidon and Ora Galili, on a photo in the communal dining room. Photos & Text: Lydia Aisenberg

At the entrance to Kibbutz Geva stands a gigantic black and white photograph of the 1920s pioneers who founded the Jezreel Valley community on a hill in the shadow of the Gilboa Mountains, half way between the towns of Afula and Beit Shean.

The eleven men and women in the photograph are stern faced and look none too comfortable posing for the historic photograph, a smaller version of which hangs in the dining-room of the kibbutz founded in 1921. The six men and five trailblazers of yore keep a keen eye over their extended family members as they nowadays partake in meals, attend cultural events and kibbutz general meetings in the dining room cum community center.

They would probably look even sterner if they could also hear some of the present day scuttlebutt and round-the-table talk of their children and offspring discussing community and national issues, particularly those dealing with education, values, economics, politics and individual aspirations – the latter much frowned upon in their time when emphasis was firmly on the group and not on the needs of the individual. 

Brenda Lande (right) with former volunteer Natasha Kaye, originally from Leeds, UK. A photograph of the kibbutz as it was in 1936 can be seen on the wall behind.

No doubt complaints expressed by the present day diners regarding the quality and amount of food served in the communal dining room overheard by the pioneers on the wall would annoy the latter intensely, as there were times when they returned from a hard day of labor and night guard duty to find little food available - and what was, not even particularly fulfilling. There were times when food was so scarce that they were greeted with a plate of mallow, an edible plant cooked and served in their tin plates in the form of a none too attractive paste.

Uninviting, lopsided, rickety metal beds, straw filled mattresses covered with rough on the skin blankets is where exhausted pioneers would have been resting their weary bones after an arduous day of hard labor, not only in Geva but in all the kibbutzim of the Jezreel Valley circa 1920s and 1930s.

From the crack of dawn to late in the evening, pioneers dug ditches to drain off the excess water in the swampy valley, cleared the slopes of the surrounding hills in order to plant trees, tended livestock, and constructed wooden huts* after a long period of dwelling in tents. In the first decade or so it is just as likely that they, men and women together, could be found wielding a sledgehammer atop a pile of rocks to be used to construct roads in the valley and in their own community.

The physical and mental hardships faced by the veteran 'valley kibbutzim' – the communities founded in the 1920s by Eastern European Zionists in the Jezreel Valley – were identical. Founders were mostly Polish and Russian, all battled with malaria and other debilitating diseases, struggled with the demanding and often boring work, attended long drawn out meetings deciding ideological approaches to many a problem not originally thought of and having to learn to be more flexible as these problems arose in order to survive as a community. All this and much more while at the same time having to diligently guard the little they had against Arab attackers.

Almost 100 years down the line, although the kibbutzim of the Jezreel Valley still work huge tracts of agricultural lands and run extensive dairy and chicken farms, industry has become the main source of livelihood . The majority have privatized or are in the process of privatization, and those that are still running on the cooperative ideology of the past are struggling with internal pressure from members seeking more control over every aspect of their lives.

Kibbutz Geva in the eastern portion of the valley is one of the latter group of kibbutzim. British born member Brenda Landes feels strongly about the lobby for privatization and so does the majority of her fellow members, although the gap between those who want to remain a kibbutz of the old stock in modern times is narrowing.

"The recent privatization of the Geva dining-room has created a different atmosphere in what is not only the dining-room where people come to eat but equally as important for the community, a place to also meet. To stand in front of another member who inspects every item on my tray and quibbles over if to charge double because I took a little bit more of this, with no consideration if I took a little less of that, causes some friction," said the Cardiff born drama teacher and theater director standing in line by the cashier's point. Cash does not exchange hands, the charge of the meal is deducted from the members budget – the same system is working in the kibbutz supermarket and other in-house services.

In Britain, Brenda was a member of Habonim, as was her late husband Mike Landes from Manchester. After making aliyah in the 1960s the couple settled on Kibbutz Beth HaEmek in the Western Galilee where their children were born. Some time after Mike's tragic death, Brenda moved to Kibbutz Geva, continued to teach drama and direct plays in theaters but also took over caring for the overseas volunteers who were living and working on the kibbutz for periods of up to six months.

Many of the kibbutzim in the Jezreel Valley have created their own in-house museums in order to educate the kibbutz kinder to have a deeper understanding of the 'old days' when their grandparents – and nowadays sometimes great-grandparents - came, in the words of the Habonim motto, "to build and be built". New volunteers arriving for a kibbutz experience at Geva are introduced to the 'old days' by Brenda with the graphic assistance of their packed with the past rooms of yesteryear situated close to the center of the kibbutz.

While some of the Jezreel Valley kibbutz museums are extensive in size and content, open to the general public for a small fee, that of Kibbutz Geva is purely for the pleasure and nostalgia of the members and their guests. Everybody knows where the keys are! 

Very basic . . . the dining room with tin utensils, part of the Kibbutz Geva ‘back to the past’ museum

 The museum is housed in an old, elongated wooden hut with five very small adjoining rooms and a large communal veranda. Geva museum brings home the hardships and austerity experienced by the stern face pioneers on the billboard at the entrance but also oozes with the pride, determination and eventual success of those who participated in building a different kind of society whilst also physically building a country, the State of Israel.

On the wall above a white cupboard and table, wooden stools and white enamel dishes, is a photograph of a long serving nurse and member of the kibbutz, Fania Ram who was born in 1902 and died aged 97. An inscription alongside the photograph states that the cupboard and table were used by Fania for over 25 years. The way her instruments have been laid out, in another photograph of Fania propped up among them, small glass jars, phials and handwritten notes carefully placed nearby, seem a fitting memorial to a lady who nursed her fellow pioneers and the children born unto them at Geva.

*Those wooden huts with the wonky beds and little else in the room were still around in the 1960s when Brenda and the writer first came to the kibbutz – the straw mattresses had been replaced with thin foam versions resting on a wooden platter, the showers and toilets however still communal and a tidy walk away. The mosquitos were also equally as vicious but, thank goodness for innoculations, those they bit – frequently – were no longer in danger of contracting malaria.



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Saturday, 02 December 2023

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