Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ideally Speaking

Vivian Rakoff, in “Ideally Speaking” says: “Idealism in a way is a manifestation of a generalized human desire to have a sense-making model or paradigm of the world. There are those who just accept what is given to them implicitly without it being explicit and there are those who try to make it explicit and if they haven’t got a model, go looking for it. We seem to need a sense-making system that takes away the sense of frivolity in our existence because we have a real terror of meaninglessness.”

The major difference between myself, and the South African Jews interviewed in the book who decided to emigrate to Israel in the end, is that they came here for reasons of ideology. I came first and discovered the ideology afterwards.

In a way, I am somewhat envious of those who grew up in Jewish youth movements, with a clear sense of their own identity, engaging in intellectual discussions of burning issues. Jonathan Broomberg, in “Ideally Speaking”, says: “My sense is that each person who was in the movement in each generation has a different and quite unique relation to that ideology. At one end of the spectrum were people whose involvement was entirely a function of the group while at the other end you had people for whom it ran very deep personally.”

The reason for my lack of ideology, then, as a youth, might have been because there was no group for me to be a part of. I grew up in a rather sterile WASPish suburb of Toronto. My family didn’t have any marked ethnic distinction. And although I read extensively - devouring the theories of Freud, the teachings of different world religions, the background to revolution and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks... there was no one to intellectually share these ideas with. At a time when the hippies were beginning to assemble in the streets of downtown Toronto, preaching new world order from their makeshift community in Yorkville, my peers in Scarborough were only concerned with the trivial affairs of the day.

And by the time that I was old enough to join the hippie movement, it was already petering out. But two things stayed with me from all of their proclamations for social renewal and a better world: one was the idea of communal living and the other was the return to the land.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the Jewish youth there were also talking about creating a better world, although their approach was quite different from that of the “flower generation.  In most Jewish youth movements, the concept of Israel and the kibbutz were almost inseparable. Israel was seen to hold the promise of “a light unto the nations”, and most saw this to be best realized through the socialistic and utopian nature of the kibbutz life style.

By the time I heard about the kibbutz in my sheltered existence, the “real terror of meaninglessness” had already led me to  consider leaving Canada in the search of something more. I heard about the kibbutz for the first time from a friend of my sister’s, who was planning to go to a six month ulpan on a kibbutz where you learn Hebrew half the day and work the other half. Something seemed to click when she told me about this and I felt that this was something I had to do. The irony was that she never did go to Israel in the end, but rather went to work with the native Indian community somewhere in Alberta, trying to right the wrongs of discrimination in her own backyard. Which is somewhat similar to the decision of many South African Jews not to emigrate to Israel but stay in South Africa and fight against Apartheid.

So, somehow I and many South Africans ended up in the same place. I had never planned, though, to stay here. I came to see socialism in action, and also learn Hebrew on the side. The ideology only really came afterwards. There was a time when I believed I would spend the rest of my life on the kibbutz. But that is when reality set in, both for me and for many of the South Africans who had decided to settle on a kibbutz. We gradually discovered the discrepancies between vision and reality; between the idealization of human nature and human primal instinct. If “Ideally Speaking” is any indication, most of the South African Jews who came to live on a kibbutz have since left. Many have left Israel, also - some going back to South Africa and others settling in other countries around the globe. We came very close to leaving Israel when we left the kibbutz, also. But in the end, we stayed, settling for isolation in the desert. The main difference here between me and South Africans, was that I only felt overly disillusioned with the kibbutz, feeling that it didn’t live up to its ideals. Many South Africans had become disillusioned with the country as a whole, feeling that they had been misled during their years in the youth movements about what really to expect. But my advantage, perhaps, was that I had first landed in Israel without any expectations. No one had tried to plant a pretty picture in my mind about Israel. Rather, at the kibbutz desk, when applying to come to a kibbutz ulpan, they appeared more interested in dissuading me from going.

You might wonder why I have concentrated on comparing my own experience to that of South African Jews. Why I would want to make such a comparison at all. Or why I didn’t choose youth closer to home, such as North American Jewish youth.

This was inspired by a book I recently read and have quoted here: “Ideally Speaking”. Although the  book is based on a series of interviews with a wide cross-section of South African Jews - now living in South Africa, Israel and abroad - I feel that much of what is expressed in the book is relevant to all of us, and warmly recommend the book to all of you.  I first heard of the book from one of its two editors: Steve Hellman (Lindsay Talmud is the other editor). I had never met a South African before coming to Israel and Steve was one of the first South Africans that I did meet. Not only that, but Steve played a significant part in my life in the early eighties when I was just starting out as a new teacher. In his role as coordinator of the English department at Kibbutz Brenner Regional High School, where I began my teaching career, Steve both welcomed me to the world of teaching and served as my mentor. And I owe it to him for not only getting through those first few months as a new teacher, but for also instilling in me the inspiration for thinking outside of the box in my teaching and in creating authentic teaching environments. Thirty years have passed since then and only now have I really discovered the world that Steve came from. And I thank him for what he gave me then, and what he has shared with me now.


  1. Thanks for your perceptive and thoughtful blog, David. I am glad Ideally Speaking aroused the interest of a (still) Canadian. In embarking on this project, Steve and I were hoping that it would also speak to people who are not (ex) South Africans. As you rightly infer, some of the material is relevant largely to South Africans but many of the conversations in the book touch on issues that could concern a much wider audience. And you have explored them.

  2. A very, very interesting blog, David. You give a fascinating perspective of someone who came to Israel and found the ideology afterwards. For me, your comments were interesting, because I did what was more usual: I followed the ideology to the land.

    Unlike some others, I never became disillusioned. Rather, I saw the country and the ideology for what they were. Did I lose the ideology? No, I didn't. An ideology without blinkers is stronger than an ideolgy wrapped in cellophane.

    Carry on blogging, David. Always a pleasure.