Four days in southern Israel’s Negev Desert, the Arava Valley to be exact, in the kibbutz, nay community, of Neot Semadar. An incredibly rewarding experience due to the intimate group seminar I was involved in and the silent humming of the desert mountains. The seminar turned out to be, as the kibbutznikim living in the ‘desert oasis’ coined it – a place for meeting – but for me, it was an experience of meeting, actually. Semantics, as usual.
Having spent a few lazy and luxurious weeks in Kibbutz Samar last year, I kept comparing the two places. They both are located in the same geographic sphere of Israel – the Arava Valley. Meaning that both have similar obstacles of surviving in the harsh, desert landscape and economic, capitalist times of Israeli progress. Kibbutz Samar, established in 1976 and slightly further south than Neot Semadar, is primarily engaged in growing and exporting organic dates. Also, an impressive and environmental feat, is that most of the electricity and heating needs at Samar is provided by a solar powered tower and 30 mirrors that sit on 2 dunams (acres, more or less) of land.
Samar is one of the few kibbutzim that continues to maintain a lifestyle consistent with the original socialist ideals of the kibbutz movement, but my observation was that it was much more laid back than Neot Semadar and this might be to their detriment. The output of dates sustains them and I’m not sure of the economics, but the solar energy option in the desert is probably a necessity, considering the needs of a human community in desert heat.
The meals at Samar were a joyous time, for me at least. The food is good and you can go up and take as many refills as you like. There is a table of fruits and dates you can take back to your little hut for a midnight snake, or if you feel so inclined, you can go into the kitchen at any hour and take whatever food you need/want at any given moment. It’s open, there are no communist lines of waiting for bread, and people socialize and eat during their breaks from date picking, working at the cow shed, creating tree branches that morph into art, and other tasks that merge work with life and survival. It’s a liberating community, it’s peaceful, it’s beautiful and although I probably have a misty, water-colored memory of it because I wasn’t volunteering but just exploring, I have to admit it seemed an ideal lifestyle for one half of me, which is everyday thinking about setting fire to urban life (this half is continuously stirring and quite possibly growing).
Neot Semadar, from am outsider’s point of view is much more militant, although the landscape and ideals are possibly similar to that of Samar. First of all, the community started in 1989, by a “guru” and his followers, who met in Jerusalem for a year before deciding to all together move to the grounds of another abandoned kibbutz which probably failed to establish a living, breathing, growing community in relation with the land and outside of the individual (I’m assuming this is the way to measure success in Israel’s kibbutz movement). This was one of the last kibbutzim established in the state of Israel, with government funding and support. The economy is based on agriculture with 500 dunams for organically cultivated vineyards, deciduous trees, olives, dates plantations and a very impressive organic herb and vegetable garden. The winery and oil press are legendary, the apricot, prune and date jams are exquisite (no sugar added) and did I mention that the community is vegetarian, pretty much vegan (except goat milk is used as well as options for fish and eggs) – an ideal diet to both halves of me. They produce a variety of cheeses and other dairy products but only from goat milk and have a roadside restaurant, Pundak Neot Semadar, which offers vegetarian food and sells the kibbutz’s organic products (including soaps, lotions, and art). To top it off, there is an amazing Art Center, open to visitors that looks like Aladdin meets Alice in Wonderland, meets Renaissance Italy meets some crazy cult-like Scientology center that has way too much rich Hollywood patronage. But it’s beautiful, magical, and impressive for its sheer size (it was built by amateur hands, which never before built dwellings made for intense desert heat let alone a whole village, but all 40 of the initial members had a vision, or they were following someone else’s ideal plan and were satisfied with the intersection of ideas). The Art Center houses 14 workshops for stained glass, ceramics, textile, wood and metals. The building is insulated with mud bricks and has an “air conditioning” unit, which is a phallic desert cooling tower that can be seem from miles away – a symbol of Neot Semadar.
The entire history of the kibbutz movement is fascinating to me, especially since it is a unique phenomenon only really occurring in Israel and because it’s barely surviving this day in age. That is not to say there are no communities outside of Israel that run on their own rules, creating a gate between them and a reality imposed on them. But it’s different here, because this movement cultivated Israel, not just the desert, and created a booming civilization, in both northern and southern parts of the country. It was Zionist, it was Socialist, it was based on the bigger idea of a Jewish State in a land far from home, and now this movement is mostly privatized – only a few remain and out of those few, most are gasping for breath (not Neot Semadar, it seems). Tourists come and stay for a night or two, volunteers stay for a few weeks, sometimes years, to see what it’s all about, but what was the real foundation of these communities? I’m not going into the topic of “stealing” land from Bedouins or Arabs because that’s just not the point right now because I’m trying to understand the Israeli narrative of development, of statehood, of a lifestyle that was once considered mainstream in the early years of statehood, which is now thought to be radically alternative all over the world, especially Neot Semadar in Israel and among other kibbutzim.
They eat their meals in silence and it’s not socially accepted to smile when passing the salt. You can smile, no one will skin you, but generally, it’s not something they do. Every morning at sunrise or around that time (5:45AM) the entire community is encouraged (maybe forced) to come to the heder ohel (dining room) to have coffee, tea, and sit in silence for twenty minutes. I’m not sure if this was for meditation purposes or just a good way to start they day – being alone within you community – but this is how they do. The gong rings, you go work until breakfast, which is at 8:30AM. If you run out of vegetables at the dinner table, you raise your hand and someone will come by and refill the empty shared plate in the middle of your 8 person table. You clean up after yourself, you consolidate all the leftovers in buckets, the kitchen staff, which alternates every day does the dishes. You eat in silence, but you’re apart of a community, for sure.
I’m not sure of the ideology behind it, no one really explained it despite my incessant questioning. It’s a place of meeting, they said, people come here to meet others, meet their community, meet themselves. It started with one guy, a guru, but a guru is nothing without his followers; and really, the development of a movement, a community, a revolution, if you will, does not happen with the ideas of 1 guy – it happens with the forward motion of his followers, who take his ideas and put them into action. Why do they eat in silence? My interpretation, is to be with yourself while being a part of a community – this was truly something incredibly special for me, someone who prides themselves in being a loner but wants to share with people. Also, all of a sudden, a unique relationship with your food is established, between you and your body. Eating is such a social activity and it’s great to come together for dinner or have an early morning coffee with your loved ones, but to create a silence before the busy day ahead comes to a start, while the sun is coming up and to look into the eyes of your very large, extended family, well… that was a place of meeting on many different levels for me.
I spent a morning with the Goat Team at Neot Semadar and had the most amazing time hanging out in the pasture with about 300 goats and Adar, a volunteer who has been living in Neot Semadar for about 6 months and wishes to continue her lifestyle for the long haul. She told me about her recent two-week old split from her partner, who didn’t share her vision of the end goal – she saw a life, with him in a community where both can continue to evolve and “work on themselves”; he is older, had already lived in Neot Semadar prior to her arrival for years and did not have the desires. I can relate to her vision, and her frustration with a partner’s stark contrasting view on where it’s all going. She further explained that this place is not really a kibbutz, but more like a school. When we got back to the shed for a coffee-tea-pomelo-date break, I talked with some more members of the Goat Team to understand people’s motivation for coming here and staying here. Maya said she came to Neot Semadar not because she was looking for a community, but on the contrary, to be on her own, living and working with herself. Adar also told me not to be fooled, the place is a cult, with a guru and everything, but he died over 10 years ago, and everything gets watered down in life as time marches forward.
Some mysterious force in the universe posed a question to me during these past few days “Do you want something else now?” This was interesting because it implies that I wanted something before and that I knew what this something was. For someone who blanks when the subject of the future pops up, the question was hard to answer in a place where an individual is a community and the community provides space to grow as an individual while working your ass off to sustain the lifestyle, produce goat milk yogurt and cheese and sell, sell, sell. The products are good, I appreciate the lifestyle, the landscape was phenomenal, but do I want to live in a pseudo-communist community that works together in order to cultivate the individual but is based on one man’s vision, which is watered down to a point of confusion for the community members?
A mutual friend of a mutual friend, who belonged to a community I once thought I belonged to, back in a different lifetime only five years ago in the center of the universe (also known as New York fuckin’ City), now lives in Neot Semadar. It’s a small world, indeed. I never met him before but I looked for him by asking everyone else that I spoke to, where I can find this guy “Sam”. When you find yourself on the other side of the planet and hear that a member of your previous life also has the same coordinates, well… that’s a meeting you become curious to have.
At breakfast someone tapped my shoulder and gave me a carrot stick – it was my mutual friend of a friend. He didn’t smile and it took me a few minutes to shake off the social tendencies of meeting and friendliness I grew up with and register who he was and why he was giving me a carrot stick. I smiled, because that’s what I do, and took a bite of the carrot stick. That was an encounter because that’s all the communicating we were permitted to do at breakfast. I later spoke with him about why he chose Neot Semadar. He answered my question with the same question “why are you here?” and then said: “Listen, I came here for 2 weeks 3 years ago.” Silence. He wanted to check it out, volunteer, and now his vision of a community has become the community he has inexplicably chosen to belong to. He said Neot Semadar is his vision, and even though he didn’t start it, he is most definitely a member. Three years is nothing to sneeze at.
To create every moving, conscious, forward step with purpose is the intention, as slow as it may go. To be an individual and cultivate the person as an organic calendula flower plant is another prospect, to do it with people that you love, is ideal, somewhat, if you still love them after years of growth together or apart. I think the only rational conclusion I can come up with right now, in a pre-Spring heat wave, sitting at home listening to cars honking over the not-so-distant ocean waves which seem a world away, is more research needs to be done… where I don’t know but I am hoping to cultivate a picture, a vision one of these days which will make every moment a deciding factor.
“Nothing determines me from outside, not because nothing acts upon me, but, on the contrary, because I am from the start outside myself and open to the world.”
― Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception