When, in 1910, a dozen Romanian Jews set out to cultivate a plot of land next to a marooned Arab village in Palestine, their mission seemed suicidal. But that bewildering act laid the foundation for the socialist utopia of the kibbutz, or collective farming community, examples of which would soon sprout all across Israel. Within a century, the country boasted over two hundred and fifty kibbutzim. Though their members only ever accounted for about five percent of the Israeli population, the kibbutzim's cultural influence was outsized—they were hailed as the "army of Zionist fulfillment," their trademark sandals and khakis were envied and copied by pale urban youths around the world, and, in their emphasis on self-sufficient land labor, they created the model for the Israeli halutz, or pioneer. Yet in recent years their presence has waned. Unable to recover from a series of economic blows, and faced with waves of desertion, the kibbutzim have literally been selling out—privatizing their land and auctioning away plots to the highest bidder. A slew of new Israeli writers, including Assaf Inbari, Yoram Goren, Yariv Dumani, and Iris Kassel-Belinda, have decided to document the kibbutz of yore. Through autobiography or fiction, their books seem to grapple with the same question: How did a once-vibrant community wither away?
Amos Oz, the celebrated Israeli author, is the latest to enter the disillusioned kibbutznik canon, but he was also one of the very first to do so. In 1965 he published Where the Jackals Howl, a dark, piercing book that contained one of the first descriptions of kibbutz society. Now, almost five decades later, Oz is back to the landscapes of his youth—the shade of the cypress trees, the damp earth, "the faint smell of fermenting orange peel and cow dung"—with Between Friends, an expansive collection of connected short stories set on a kibbutz in the 1950s.
Although the setting is imaginary, readers may recognize it as Hulda, a sprawling, forested kibbutz in central Israel where Oz lived for more than thirty years. (He once described the place to a reporter as "a teen-age Lord of the Flies, with better weather and a sensual permissiveness.") The form Oz employs in Between Friends, connected stories, is particularly well suited to depicting life on a kibbutz . After all, on a kibbutz, like in an intertwined story collection, characters rarely disappear; they are forever linked, acting as secondary figures in each other's narratives. So, for example, a doting father who, in a fit of rage, attacks his young son's bully in a story titled "Little Boy," resurfaces in other stories as an innocuous busybody, a loudmouth who the other kibbutzniks simply shrug off. Another character, a lonesome gardener who shies from human contact, is described in other stories as a perpetual deliverer of bad news ("There are floods in Bangladesh," he announces to anyone who would listen, "and Rabbi Coopermintz died suddenly an hour or two ago in Jerusalem. They announced it on the radio"). In these stories Oz depicts life on the kibbutz as an exercise in humility, for individuals are always seen through the disapproving eyes of the collective.
The storylines in Between Friends are simple—hardly more than a sketched-out scene or two—and often have more backstory than plot. In the eponymous story, a father confronts his daughter's lover. The daughter, Edna, is seventeen; her lover, David Dagan (a strong-headed Marxist who seems to warrant a last name), is fifty. But though the story gradually builds towards a climax, most of it moves backward in time, as the father, on his way to see the couple, remembers Edna as a child. "What a shame she had cut off her braids for a short bob," he thinks, "she had looked just like one of the pioneer girls of an earlier generation." The premise is perhaps bombastic—star-crossed lovers, a vengeful father—but Oz's take is nuanced. Despite the kibbutz's collective rebuke of Dagan ("It will end in tears," everyone warns), Edna's father can't quite bring himself to feel the requisite anger towards his daughter's lover. Their confrontation, when it does take place, is subdued, motivated by duty more than indignation.
The sense of duty recurs as a trademark of life on the kibbutz. In the powerful "Father," a young Sephardi boy who was brought to the kibbutz after his mother died visits his father at a hospital. "The main thing is that you show them you are a total kibbutznik now," he is told before setting out. In "At night," a kibbutz secretary finds himself facing a woman he once loved. She tells him that she left her husband, and asks for help in finding boarding. "I'm not the one who allocates rooms here," he says, swallowing every bit of emotion. "The committee will have to discuss it."
As you read these stories, it becomes clear why the kibbutz has lost its hold on Israeli life. Any sense of personal ambition in Between Friends is stifled, every hint of rebellion suppressed. And yet, for all forced conformity, Oz's love for the kibbutz and his nostalgia for what it once was seep into every page. "If you see the directness of Israelis, the almost latent anarchism, the skepticism, the lack of an in-built class hierarchy between the taxi-driver and the passenger—all of those are very much the kibbutz legacy, and it's a good legacy," Oz once said. "So, in a strange way, the kibbutz, like some bygone stars, still provides us with light long after it's been extinguished." That light, in Between Friends, continues to dazzle.
Ruth Margalit is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.