Toby Perl Freilich’s thought-provoking docu “Inventing Our Life” sketches the history of the radically socialist, more-than-100-year-old kibbutz movement, and outlines its relationship to Zionism, the establishment of the state of Israel and changes in Israeli society. Using fine archival footage and photos, interviews with current and former kibbutzniks, and voiceover narration, Freilich chronicles the rise, decline and current metamorphosis of this utopian experiment in communal living. Scattered theatrical dates should build demand for ancillary.
Although Ran Tal’s 2007 Israeli docu “Children of the Sun” did a better job of explaining and illustrating the unique aspects of kibbutz life, Freilich’s broad-strokes chronicle rises above standard histories because of the sociological context she provides, as well as the inclusion of different types of kibbutzim and multiple points of view among her interviewees.
Among the kibbutzim whose health Freilich assays is the very first, Degania, established in 1910 by young Jewish pioneers from Czarist Russia on land purchased from Arabs by Zionist organizations. She also checks in on venerable kibbutzim Hulda and Ein Shemer, both founded by Polish youth groups.
Of course, Europeans weren’t the only ones to found kibbutzim. After the 1948 War of Independence brought new land under Israeli rule, a group of young Americans, horrified by the losses of the Holocaust, established Kibbutz Sasa. It’s interesting to hear some of the Sasa founders express their mixed feelings about taking over abandoned Arab property.
In discussing the first decades of the kibbutz movement, Freilich highlights its strategic importance to the establishment of Israel. The early kibbutzim not only made arid land fertile, providing essential homegrown agricultural products, but their very locations helped define the country’s eventual borders. Moreover, their infrastructure could easily incorporate new arrivals fleeing European anti-Semitism and provide them with jobs. And not least, they supplied numerous elite unit soldiers and held crucial lines of defense during the War of Independence.
Although the kibbutzim flourished during the 1950s and 1960s, this is also when they planted the seeds of their own decline by failing to incorporate the Sephardic Jews who were then arriving in Israel in vast numbers, but had a different worldview than the Ashkenazi pioneers. By the time the Likud party ended Labor’s 30-year dominance in the mid-1970s, the kibbutzim were politically marginalized. During this period of cultural upheaval, many second- and third-generation kibbutzniks moved away, leaving the kibbutzim drained of youthful energy.
As Freilich shows how some massively indebted kibbutzim struggle to find ways to survive today, she also examines new developments such as the urban Kibbutz Tamuz. There, families live in their own homes within a like-minded community that shares the Sabbath and other holidays, as well as education and health costs, all funded by the salaries of adult members.
Among the interviewees, leading Israeli academics, including Avishai Margalit, Menachem Brinker and Moshe Brinker, help place the story of the kibbutzim within a wider historical and intellectual framework. Yet it is the voices of the founders and first-generation kibbutzniks who persevered through difficult times and felt amply rewarded to live their values that resound most poignantly.
Tech package is modest but effective.