This short was written in 2010 and 2011. It is a reflection on the tension between the individual and the collective in communal life. It is also a celebration of the balance that we struck in my commune. We learned from our movement's past and succeeded in applying those lessons in our life together. We achieved a delicate balance, which deserves much celebration and recognition.
When I was growing up in Brno, my father used to tell me a story about a young witch.
“Orev, come sit by me,” he’d say. “Do you remember the story I used to tell you?”
“Yes, Aba. I remember.”
“Of course you do. But it is important to keep it in mind as you grow up.”
He loved to tell that story. I only understood why some years later.
“There was a young witch, once upon a time. She grew up in a witch house, with witch parents, and a witch cat. They were a very happy family. They had purpose. Of course, their purpose was to make the townspeople very unhappy, but it was some sort of purpose, am I right? Anyhow, this young witch… I can never remember her name… She was so excited to reach her thirteenth birthday, for on that day she would become an adult witch, ready to take on the responsibility that she was destined for. She was ready to be a mature witch and join in the witch purpose. Everyday after witch school she would practice her spells, chanting until it was bedtime. She would lift quills and books with her spells. Once she even tore the skin off of a rabbit. It was her tongue that let her do this. Everyone knows that a witch’s power comes from her words. Without the words, which come from the tongue, there is no power in the magics that they use.
“Well, one day on her way home from school, I think it was the day before her thirteenth birthday, she was caught in the forest by some townspeople. Some weeks earlier the young witch’s father had cast a spell on the town, which made them all talk in backwards sentences. They could not understand one another. The town was a mess. The townspeople had turned on one another until they realized that it might have been a witch. They were right, but their vengeance was cast upon the wrong witch. When they caught the young witch they held her down and, knowing as we do that their power is in their tongues, they cut it out and nailed it to the nearest tree as a warning.
“Needless to say, the witch family was devastated. They cried and went to the town for revenge, but the townspeople had learned enough to cast their own protective spell on their town. The only catch was that they could never leave the town with any guarantee of safety. At a town meeting they decided that it was worth it. The witch family eventually got over it, but the young witch never did. Her parents went on with their witch ways, but the young one lived each day with a desire to die. Never was she able to take her place among the witch people. She was, after the incident, useless to the other witch people. The young witch lived all of her natural years, never knowing the joy of finding her place in the world. A witch without a tongue is a like a Jew without God. And for us, Orev, God is in the Jewish people, not somewhere in the stars.”
My father and everyone else I knew were murdered by the Nazis over the last six years. One might ask how I survived. One might ask if the murder is truly over.
To the second question, I say I do not know. This war only ended six months ago, and I am in Palestine now with my God.
To the first question: My name, Orev, means blackbird. I was born with black hair, and so my parent’s, being ardent Zionists and fluent Hebrew speakers due to years of practice for the great move, found the Hebrew word that would be fitting for such a dark boy. Orev is not a normal name for a Jew. It is the name of the first bird that Noah sent out after the rains had stopped in order to find dry land. The Orev did not find the land, but it survived. People usually give credit to the dove for finding the land, but without the first attempt the second could not have been successful. Without pioneers to take the risks and survive through the harshest of climates, there can be no doves to save us.
It is true that there was a first generation of pioneers here in Palestine: Young Jews who had learned of Socialism and the Zionist spirit; young people in movements who set out to be pioneers and rebuild the Jewish people in the place of our birth. They had foresight into what was going to happen in Europe and knew our only hope was to attempt to rebuild our home in the place that we had come from. These young people had dreams that together with the Arabs of this land we would build an agricultural paradise for all the people to share in the communal society and the riches that come through intimate trust and honesty.
In many cases they succeeded despite the disease and the animosity of their neighbors, both Arab and Jew. In many cases they failed.
I came here after growing up in the arms of the Socialist-Zionist movement. I took a trip to Vienna once to learn with a philosopher who spoke of the wonders that would be built by the working Jewish spirit. He spoke of God as the sum of the universe, and the entity that exists when the collective finds true intimacy. His description was vivid. Intimacy was to be found between people when ego was shed, and trust and honesty poured out like milk and honey. It was to be found when people found partnership more appealing than ownership. The Jewish soul had been alienated from the land, put in ghettos and kept from nature. The connection he spoke about was necessary for us to develop between ourselves and the natural world as well. Our alienation from nature because of our forced lives in the urban ghettos of Europe was as deep as the alienation that capitalism had visited upon the entire human race. We Jews were weak because we did not know how to farm or survive, and because we did not know one another. Our mission was to destroy alienation and emancipate our souls.
I believed in those words, truly I did. So I came here with a group from Europe in 1937, and I have been here, on this collective farm, looking for God in the collective ever since. We learned together in Europe, so the next step was to build together. We have built only what we need. We live off the food we grow, but it is rarely enough these days. I have been here for eight years, and some have been here longer.
Most of them haven’t paid attention to the news from Europe.
“We are building something new, Orev. We must look forward to the future of the Jewish people, not the past.” Mordecai would say.
How sad. As the dust settles over there, and I begin to see that our entire civilization was lost, Mordecai contends that it doesn’t matter. His entire family was probably wiped out with mine. He says it doesn’t matter, but I know that he cries inside. We all must cry inside.
Each of us is one. Each of us are many. This is the balance that we try to live; that I tried to live. The Torah describes creation as a process of division. I do not take this literally; nevertheless it is rich with meaning. The universe was one at the beginning. Then light and dark were divided, as were the heavens and the earth, the sea and the land, the creatures that took up their separate places in those first days. In the beginning man and woman were one as well. And as time moved forward, space was filled through this process of division. But when God saw that the division was too great, God brought everything back to oneness. The flood put everything underwater. The earth and the sky were as one. All life was brought to its knees and everything that lived on floated aimlessly on one ark. After the great process of division, God had gone ahead and made everything one again.
This is where we get this crazy idea that each of us is one. We stand alone, but we stand alone as part of a greater whole. This is the root of our belief that to change our world, each of us must change. Each soul must shift in unison with the world around us, and if we can use intention to make ourselves better, we can use this same intention to make our world better. It is believed here that this shift comes through a personal shift through communal life, and that this radical communal life will better the world.
Easier said than done.
How can one person act if one person is only one piece of a greater whole? Now I see that it is not God that made many pieces from a vast oneness. It is the division of the oneness, which became beautiful and terrible pieces alike, that makes up God. God was both the one and the many pieces of the division. If we are truly to find God in ourselves and our actions, then we must understand this great balance between the one and the many. I must matter if the collective is to mean anything. But I am not certain that God is here at all. Every day that we spend here, becoming one from many, we lose any sense of what is happening outside of this place, in the cities and the world.
“We must push forward through the desert, like Moses did,” Rachel said to me the other day. She knew the news, but remained strong.
“I don’t know if we should,” I said. “We are hundreds of thousands of Jews here in Palestine and we did nothing to help. We kept on building.”
Rachel said, “I know Orev, but don’t you see. We, this collective, are one of many that are building a new civilization for those that survived. There was no future there. And now we know it is true. We need to be here. We need to keep building our new home.”
Oh, Rachel. If only I could find God in you. If only your brown hair and brown eyes would bend into my black and green, we could be together. But it is one of the rules. If the collective is to survive we cannot couple off. We must share each other and find God in those spaces.
We have a barn with hay. We used to share it with the cows, before we had a cabin to sleep in. We have a small room where we cook and dine. We have a field that should feed all thirty of us, but as I said, it has been a dry year. The ground is dirt inside the cabin and outside.
Our entire camp circles around the meeting rock. The rock is the living center of our community. It is the center that brings us together. It is large, though no taller than the shoulders of an average sized man, and it is flat on top. It is a dull black and has streaks of green like my eyes. This rock is supposed to be the place where we meet. If anyone has a problem, or an announcement, they sit on the rock in plain sight and wait as people begin to sit around them. Mordecai says that when the collective gathers around the rock, God can be found in the spaces between us. He’s a fool. I have been here for years and all I feel is the anger that I cannot be close to a woman, or anyone. I can’t clean my fingernails, because we have no running water. I can’t find peace and quiet in a space of my own, because there is no space for me. There is only space for us.
We are repeating many of the mistakes that the first pioneers made. We cannot find the balance between mine and ours. We are pioneers too. They used to write of themselves as the Orev who survived the worst that nature could offer. We are the Orev too.
I have been sitting on this rock for nearly an hour and still no one has come to sit with me to hear my words. I want to tell them that this is all wrong. I am on the edge, and there must be others on the edge too. I cannot work these days. My pale skin has kept me out of the sun, and the cows refuse to give me milk. I cannot find the words to tell them, but I am sitting here on the rock and no one even cares enough to allow me to try.
Last week, Mordecai and Rachel shared the rock and we all sat in the dirt around them. I sat next to Chaya. She is sweet and quiet. She is blond and has green eyes like mine. She cries at night. I can hear her, but sometimes I think it is actually me crying. Chaya has been here for two years. She still smiles when we can see her, but I know that her smile fades when she thinks no one is watching. Some of them, like Reuven, still smile and they have been here for ten years. He loves to talk. His eyes light up every time we have a meeting to plan the next crop, or to talk about the upcoming holiday. Once he kept us in a meeting for what seemed like a full day. We were talking about the Passover feast and he wanted us to relearn what we had all learned in the movement as kids. He wanted us to begin to create a new tradition for our new Jewish lives. We sat and talked for six hours. All of them loved every minute of it. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t talk anymore. I have not met God here in the collective. I have only met myself out on the periphery. I am sitting alone on this rock.
When Chaya arrived I was still blind. I was still happy. She brought a much needed freshness to us. She was so excited, and I was there to guide her through her first weeks. Not long after that I began to see something different in her. She paid less attention to me. She had learned how to survive in our collective. I was nothing to her. The collective was everything.
I cannot lie. I felt betrayed when Chaya no longer needed me. I felt as if someone had stolen something, but I did not know what.
Mordecai and Rachel are true believers if I ever did see true believers. Everyone listens to them. We are supposed to share the power of the collective. All decisions are made by consensus. What a joke! Consensus. It takes hours, sometimes weeks, to come to a decision. We work all day in the field, and talk all night about who is going to make the job list for the month.
When Rachel and Mordecai sat on the rock everyone crowded around. It was a hot mid afternoon. Rachel wanted to have people talk about the fact that she thought she was falling in love with Mordecai. I felt a pain in my chest that day. Rachel, we should leave this place.
Mordecai smiled and remained silent as she spoke. She had been sleeping with him, and only him. This was weighing on her since she knew that we were not only rebuilding the Jewish soul through experiencing a deep closeness with the nature around us, but through the cultivation of intimate relationships with the collective. The potential of God was within us.
We sat in the dirt and listened. They talked for hours. I stayed silent. Chaya smiled. Reuven spoke at length about what we already knew. I got restless and stood up. I could not listen to Rachel anymore. There was silence.
Reuven said, “Orev, you know you cannot leave while we are sitting at the meeting rock. This is more important than anything.”
“Reuven, everyone, I cannot sit here any longer. We must move on. I am baking in this Palestinian sun.”
“We are trying to find a way for Rachel and Mordecai to share their intimacy with the collective,” Reuven replied. “If you leave now, all of this will have been for nothing. The meeting rock brings forth the spring of dialogue. It flows like the waters of the desert springs. If you leave now, I say that you will not be allowed to work with us in the field. You will sit and think about your place here; your purpose in life.”
I felt a rage build in my chest. It was something I was not accustomed to in my time here. At first I did not recognize the blinding emotion. I felt my blood racing through my arms and my legs and into my chest. My face grew hot and finally I could not fight the deepening urge to lash out. I picked up a walking stick that Reuven had left on the ground. It was as if it was left there for me; for this moment. I smashed the stick on the meeting rock in anger. There was a gasp, from who I do not know, and Rachel shifted away from where I had hit the enormous rock. She was stunned. I felt a wonderful rush. The stick fell to the ground in two pieces, and I felt a momentary calm, which allowed me to turn around and walk away in silence.
I heard them talking behind me as I crept behind the barn. They said that they would not let me work in the field. They said they would have a Sycha to decide what to do with me. So what?! I was too red to work in the field anyways. It was a blessing. Everything is labor and the land and intimacy to them. Everything is nothing here. What about me? I need to leave.
I am one. I am one part of the greater whole. The greater whole is this hole that we live in. Mordecai, Rachel and I are pieces of this mess. This mess is meant to be integral to the building of our nation here, but I do not see it. We have not seen a visitor in quite some time. I do not even know if they know us in Tel Aviv. I am a part of this mess. I am a comrade in this so called commune. This commune is a part of the steering mechanism for our nation. This is pure silliness. Mr. Ben Gurion makes his own decisions. We are silent here in the wilderness. He sits in his own house making judgments without knowledge of us here. He knows nothing of me. How is this a whole? Perhaps God can see it, but I cannot. If God is not looking down from above, if God is in fact the composite of each of us, then how can God see anything? How can God see anything if I cannot?
I am sitting and waiting. It is close to dark, a flame burns in the dining room. Chaya comes silently and smiles as she sits in the dirt. Soon the others return from the field. They sit. I can see their scowls in the candle’s beam of light. I can feel them hating me.
“Chaverim, you don’t know what it feels like. My name is Orev. This much you know, but you do not know my heart any longer. I do not know yours. I want to save you all the time of having a Sycha about me. It is no secret that I have been on the brink for sometime now, but I do not want you to mistake this as a breakdown on my part. No. It is not that at all. I believe that this is a breakdown on the part of the collective. We speak about God here. God is in us and between us. I have never seen that for myself. We speak about the soul that is repaired through profound experiences with the natural world, but I have never felt it. We speak of each other, but I do not see you anymore. Chaya, can you see me? Rachel, can you feel my God in you? We are alone here. We are dreamers with no God, no nation, and no self.”
I hear Chaya shift in the dirt. I feel Mordecai’s eyes.
I continue, “We are losing this revolution to the comfort we take in the mundane of everyday life. We have lost our purpose. We came here to rebuild the Jewish soul, to make a new home. And we spend our days in the sun farming. It must feel good to some, but I contend that we are alone in this revolution. We are alone here. Where are the masses? They are in the cities. Where is the tide changing? It is changing where the people are. We sit here on our rock and lose ourselves because we have no idea what happens outside of this farm. Everyday that we stay here alone is another day spent losing our ability to speak, and another day spent losing our ability to build the world that I used to believe in.”
Rachel whispers something to Reuven. The others begin to whisper.
“We are nothing if there is no I. Reuven, you are one man. I can feel your faith in this place, in this project, and in each of us, but it is yours and yours alone. How can we be a collective with no individuals to make the whole? Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps there is no balance to be found. Perhaps you all have something to say about this.”
As I continue to speak, I look down from the meeting rock. I am full of rage and embarrassment. I am empty of fear, but I am full of fear too.
One by one the collective disappears. Some stand up and walk away; others simply fade into the darkness of the night.