By Dita Gary | 20/08/2009
Tel Aviv's District 8 is not on the geographical fringe of the city; it is on the fringe socially. Forty-seven percent of its residents earn minimum wage, only 24% complete their matriculation exams for university entrance and just 4.1% go on to academic study, 25% of the residents are under the care of the Ministry of Social Affairs, 45% are in the two lowest income deciles. Approximately one third of the neighborhood residents are new immigrants who have lived in Israel for less than three years. There is a strong migrant worker presence in the Shapira neighborhood
Dita Gary talked with a small group of students, members of a commune living and working in Tel-Aviv's Eighth District. "Two months ago, we got together for a weekend. You could feel that something was different. For me, that seminar was the curtain-raiser for the year when we would create communities in the Shapira, Kiryat Shalom and Neveh Ofer neighborhoods. During the concluding discussion, I wanted to remind everyone that although the consortium of groups was not yet up and running, during this current year we still managed to hold a memorial evening, attended by 40 people, to mark Yitzhak Rabin's assassination; and the Tuesday house meetings are attended not by three people, but by 30. We all have work and tasks, teaching and studies, personal life and group life... my feeling is that we have this opportunity now and must not let it slip away, because if we do, we will not get another chance."
Itamar Gil (of the "Small Orchard"), from the District 8 Newsletter
Armed for battle
Ayelet Kestler, Itamar Gil, Yoni Mishal, Lavi Hitzig and Noam Wenkert. Their average age is 26 and they are the clan elders. They are all Ashkenazi and were all born in Israel, except for Yoni, who moved from New York to Israel when he was a small child. They study education, art, philosophy, linguistics, visual arts, dance and photography. They are creative, they document their activities, and they are all actively involved in education in many different ways. They teach in schools, provide personal coaching, and are counselors in local youth groups (until last year, Yoni headed the Scouts chapter in the Shapira neighborhood). They organized a local leadership group for students living in the neighborhood, and a women's group. They guide small army groups from the Nahal, an Israeli army program that combines three year service with civilian volunteering, and education students from the Kibbutzim College of Education, all of whom come to work in the neighborhood. In addition to their community work, each member of the group must also earn a living. This money goes into a communal kitty. It is important to them to emphasize that their studies are their first priority. They view themselves as a community that learns and teaches, not only for their own personal growth as individuals and as a group, but also because they recognize that these are the best "weapons" to fight the battle that is occurring all around them in Israel today. The Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, an offshoot of the United Kibbutz Movement, is the initiating organization under the auspices of which all these activities occur.
This year Inbal and Avigail joined the group. Jerusalem-born Avigail Dagan is 22 years old and grew up in a home that was secular but where many religious traditions were observed. She is a graduate of the Scouts movement and did a year of community service in Beit Shemesh. She recently completed walking the Israel National Trail from north to south, and has now come to live in the neighborhood. Avigail coordinates an inter-group association, known as the "Seventy Association," seventy young adults aged 18-26 from the three neighborhood communes and Nahal groups who are committed to being involved in the neighborhood and living there for at least one year, and maybe even forever. Avigail also teaches a class in Jewish identity and works in the ticket office at "Tzavta," a center for public events and the performing arts in the city.
Inbal Shemesh, originally from Kadima, is also 22 years old. She, too, is a graduate of the Scouts. She did a year of community service in neighboring Or Yehuda through the Scouts and went on to the Nahal. She is a counselor for a small Nahal group, conducts seminars at Bina, and coordinates the youth club in Kiryat-Shalom. Both girls originally came from "The Emek" commune and are currently waiting for their Nahal friends, who are serving as combat soldiers in the Nahal's 50th Battalion, to be released from the army.
The dictionary defines a commune as "a cooperative community of people who share common interests and ideas; a group of persons who live together and share their possessions, work and income." The kibbutz is defined as a type of commune. One web site notes that communes based on social justice were established in the 19th century, specifically pointing out the famous Parisian commune of 1871. A teenager looking for "commune" in today's encyclopedia is liable to think that it is passé. However, if you look around, you will see a different picture. It is enough to glance into people's eyes to be sure that for some, the idea of a commune still strikes a strong chord. Those who are familiar with the troubled neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beit Shemesh and Migdal HaEmek will be convinced that from the center and from the outskirts, the words of poet Saul Tchernikowsky still ring out: "For still I do believe in humanity, in its spirit strong and bold." Yoni claims that in Israel, more than 5,000 people currently live in communes of one sort or another. If so, for the sake of good order, a new entry - "21st Century Communes" - should be added to on-line encyclopedias. And if we are already correcting that error, I recommend including a link in the entry for "synagogue" that will take us to the "Communist Synagogue in the Shapira Neighborhood," but let us not cross that bridge before we come to it.
The little man is really a big man
Every nation in the world has a collective memory. This memory consists of territory, language, verbal and visual icons, written literature, oral laws, beliefs, superstitions, and much more. Elias Canetti, Bulgarian-born Jewish intellectual, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature says (Lavi quotes from memory), "The moment we state that we are part of a people, something greater than the individual wells up and a dialogue is formed; this creates culture." Noam continues, "Culture, like Judaism, is a living entity and is therefore changing, and as with an organic body, there are struggles between the different streams of culture." "And you," I ask, "are you a cultural stream". Do you think that you can influence, mark, offset, change mold or the dominant stream?" Lavi remembers something that Muki Tsur, one of their mentors and a man close to their hearts, once said to them. Muki Tsur, historian, author, teacher and storyteller, specializes in the Second Aliyah and teaches history almost as if it were gossip. He was right on the mark when he told them, "The little man is the one who makes history happen; the little man is really a big man." It is clear to them that communes throughout history, and those in Israel, have never been the dominant cultural stream, but there was a time when the avant-garde spearheaded a historical trend.
|"It is clear that the commune that an individual or a society that has no heritage also has no future. they are convinced that if they asked their parents "Jewish or Israeli?"' they would reply "Israeli". "And you?" Noam and Yoni feel that "five years ago, they would never have considered stating 'I am Jewish,' but now it's different" |
When you drive east to west down Kibbutz Hagaluyot Street in Tel Aviv, Kiryat Shalom is on your right and Shapira is on your left. City maps that are divided into districts show the two neighborhoods as one, united under the name "District 8." District 8 is not on the geographical fringe of the city; it is on the fringe socially. Forty-seven percent of its residents earn minimum wage, only 24% complete their matriculation exams for university entrance and just 4.1% go on to academic study, 25% of the residents are under the care of the Ministry of Social Affairs, 45% are in the two lowest income deciles. Approximately one third of the neighborhood residents are new immigrants, mainly from Georgia and the Caucasus in the former Soviet Union, and have lived in Israel for less than three years. There is a strong migrant worker presence in the Shapira neighborhood. It is not necessary to ask the commune members why they settled here; it is clear that statistics helped them choose these neighborhoods over a wilderness landscape in the Negev, a hill somewhere in the Galilee or a mountain in the south of India. They, more than anyone, know that when you see neglect from close quarters, statistics become meaningless. They have set themselves a goal: to make the statistics obsolete.
In their eyes, this is a lively neighborhood with a special Zionist history just waiting to be written. They are not the only ones who think this. Walking the same route are publishers Amit and Sharon Rotbard of Babel Ltd. who also live in the neighborhood. There is also a small but growing group of creative people and intellectuals, who look to them with admiration and, knowing that this is war, answer the call to battle when it is sounded. Singer-songwriter Ehud Banai visited the neighborhood community center during last year's Hebrew Book Week to read excerpts from his recent book, which was set in the southern neighborhoods that he calls "Heavenly Jerusalem." Quoting one of the Kabbalists, "To become wise, go south," Ehud Banai explained. "The Divine Spirit is everywhere, and we need no more than a little olive oil to give us light."
The commune members live a simple life without material excess. Although each member contributes his or her earnings to a community chest, it is usually empty or in deficit. They try not to ask their parents for help and in any case, some parents are unable to give. While this situation is definitely troublesome, it is not enough to dislodge their commitment to the fundamental decision to allow each and every one of them opportunities for personal development. Consequently, each member is enrolled in formal studies and participates at least once a week in independent study.
A Commune called "Kumu-na" (lit. "Arise, Please!")
In order to organize the innumerable processes occurring in the neighborhood, they formed two groups - Noam, Ayelet, Avigail and Inbal became the Small Orchard, while the Big Orchard consists of the Emek commune and several local neighborhood activists.
"Small Orchard and Big Orchard were the unofficial names used by Shapira and Kiryat Shalom residents during the early 1920s to define the two main orchard areas. In Judaism, the pardes - the orchard - is a loaded issue," says Itamar, referring to the famous Talmudic passage describing how four Sages enter the proverbial, mystical orchard, and each meets a different fate. "However," he continues, "for secular people like us, the first association that comes to mind is that of change. In the midrash, four people entered the orchard and were later found dead, injured or unharmed, respectively, but those who survived had changed. As a group, we are trying to live a meaningful life of growth and development. We talk about 'orchards' in the plural. It is not just the Talmudic "orchard" the proverbial, mystical orchard described in the midrash, but also the Zionist orchard. Perhaps it is simply an apt expression for the combined areas of our lives, the intertwining of humanism, activism, education, change, Tel Aviv-ism, art, Judaism, solidarity and Zionism. Also included in this list are the cultural differences between us and residents of the older South Tel Aviv neighborhoods, although we did discover that there was once an active anarchist group, and there is a communist synagogue in the neighborhood, too. We used to ask ourselves questions such as 'How do we communicate with the 'other' if he is different from us?' but then we discovered that we ourselves are different, and this understanding created the place for dialogue between equals."
The Shapira and Kiryat Shalom commune members are continuing the tradition of drash or interpretation and are finding their kumu-na - their imperative to arise - in the commune. Lavi believes this ties them to the leaders of the Zionist revolution - Yosef Haim Brenner, Berl Katzenelson, Haim Nahman Bialik and others. I asked, "Is your commune's name of 'kumu-na' intended in the sense of 'self-sufficiency' - kommemiyut (which in Hebrew derives from the same word) because we have had enough of being dependent on others? They glance at each other, think, hesitate, and smile. This type of response occurs repeatedly. "We're working on the idea," "We're checking it out" or "We're still discussing this in the group." The answers speak for themselves. The best path is one of constant dialogue to "know from whence you came" and to "know yourself." It is clear to the commune members that an individual or a society that has no heritage also has no future. They are convinced that if they asked their parents "Jewish or Israeli?" they would reply "Israeli." "And you?" Noam and Yoni feel that "five years ago, they would never have considered stating "I am Jewish," but now it's different."
"And what does it mean to be a Jew?" I ask. For Noam Baruch it is clear: "To know the Jewish sources in the fullest sense of the word." Lavi adds, "And to extract from them the hidden traditions that were concealed for the sake of convenience or for whatever other reason, and to find our own way to express them. For example, there is the saying "If there is no flour (bread), there is no learning. " I would love to just sit and study, to write and to create, but I rejected this option from the outset. And if we feel that the traditional blessing for lighting the candles does not help us relate to the sources, then we will find our own way to make the blessings."
All the members apart from Itamar belonged to youth movements and served in Nahal units, which is when their relationship with Bina began. In their typical manner, they explain that Bina is an active and developing organization. As it continues to evolve, its definitions continue to change, and now, after five years in the neighborhood, they are undergoing a process of disengagement from Bina, "the mother ship and the inspiration."
Noam explains that the breakaway from Bina is physical, not conceptual. Five years ago, they separated themselves from their parents' homes, and now they are doing the same with their ideological home. Based on their approach and from what I can see for myself, the word "disengagement" is inaccurate. I point out that one of the things they are envied for is the mature relationship they enjoy with their mentors - both living and dead. They maintain an inspiring dialogue with both sides. Bina is a center for the study of Jewish identity and Hebrew culture. Its main study center or beit midrash is located in Ramat Efal. It has a library, a computer, lecture rooms, and tea- and coffee-making facilities. "And its doors are always open," Ayelet adds. At Bina, there are almost no formal lectures. Instead, they studied the festivals and the festive seasons; they read aloud the writings of Jewish and Zionist thinkers, philosophers, publicists, authors, poets and playwrights; they studied Bible, Talmud and Rabbinic literature; this is where they found their inspirational material. They study both Jewish and Israeli texts, and assess how the texts will take expression in the field. "Brenner is one of our favorites," they say.
|"It is clear to the commune members that an individual or a society that has no heritage also has no future. They are convinced that if they would reply "Israeli," "And you?" Noam and Yoni feel that "five years ago, they would never have considered stating 'I amJwish,' but now it's different"|
In addition, they are intimately acquainted with the history of the neighborhood and plan to publish a book about it, thus creating a place in the Zionist narrative for a different aspect of history. About eighty years ago, Yosef Haim Brenner lived here, in a commune of sorts, on the Kiryat Shalom boundary. He was murdered in the 1921 May Day riots in Jaffa. His body, and those of his friends, was laid out on the fence surrounding the Moslem cemetery located on Kibbutz Galuyot Street in this neighborhood. Local residents are afraid to enter the cemetery, fearing the evil eye, but they still regard it as a living part of Jewish and Israeli history.
Time for tortoises
Noam: "Justice is not born of money. It comes from the intimacy of a close relationship."
The "Bina Baschunah - Bina in the Neighborhood" program is based on the Talmudic concept "Study leads to action" and Herzl's "If you will it, it is no dream." Its organizers decided to approach all types of young people with this concept, including youth movement graduates, those who choose to spend a year doing community service, and those seeking an alternative framework during and/or after their military service. The idea of making a commitment to help build a conceptual home for new immigrants and for the weaker sectors of Israeli society appealed to the commune members. Five years ago, they rented two apartments in the area, and have lived in the neighborhood ever since. They acquired their nickname, tortoises, while studying at Bina. Once, I also heard someone refer to them behind their backs as meshunimkim or "weirdos," meaning they were strange, unusual and different. But they listened carefully to Eran Baruch, who initiated and coordinated Bina in the Shapira and Kiryat Shalom neighborhoods and now heads the center, when he reminded me that a handful of young "weirdos" also established Kibbutz Degania. He pointed out that we must not forget that even then, only one in every 15-20 attempted cooperative communities succeeded. Did Degania succeed? They smile and say, "They are tortoises, and it is well known that the tortoise was victorious over the hare."
Time for bread
Avigail: "A few days ago, I was sitting in the staff room of the junior high in the Ironi Heh High School. One third of the students come from north Tel Aviv and two thirds come from the south. I was telling the other teachers of our plan to base the opening of the school year at Bina on the theme of bread. Most of them thought about the caloric value of a slice of bread, and the conversation deviated to diet. When the bell rang, one of the homeroom teachers who stayed behind quietly said, 'Did you know, bread is the thing that is most needed here at school?' When she saw I was surprised, she continued, 'The school administration is so busy with enrichment programs, leadership campaigns, co-existence projects, and what-have-you, that they forget that children here do not know how to write; they don't notice that there is no time to develop a sound education-based relationship between teacher and student, and between the students themselves.' 'There is no time for bread,' as she called the staples of education."
"That bread," continued Avigail, "is not easy to market these days, in this era of Internet, cell phones and chat rooms that all convey a message of instant gratification from quick and cheap consumerism." This fast pace makes it hard for Avigail and her friends to meet not only the needs of those they are guiding and working with, but also their own. They know that they offer real talk in exchange for computerized chat; inner beauty based on inward-looking self-examination instead of blinding, illogical external beauty; interest, study and personal development instead of rabid consumerism. And yes, in exchange for innumerable temptations and possibilities, they offer the much-needed simplicity of "me-and-you" and "us together."
About two years ago, I accompanied Lavi and Sharon (currently on a one-year leave) when they met with a group of women shortly before Passover. Eran Baruch had promised to scrape up enough funds to celebrate the Mimouna - an Oriental Jewish holiday celebrated the day after Passover - in order to build momentum leading up to the Shavuot celebrations with locally born chef and TV personalty Haim Cohen. "Lavi, you grew up in a typical secular family in Hod Hasharon and now you are finishing your university studies in philosophy and multi-culturalism. Have you ever attended a Mimouna celebration?" Lavi smiles, confirming that this is definitely not his home turf. The neighborhood streets are dark, and the skies threatening. When we reach the Community Center, out of the eight women in the group, only three - Smadi, Shoshi and Yvonne - are waiting. Lavi has brought with him written material about the significance of Mimouna and the women talk about it from their own personal experiences. This discussion proves to be a live experiment to see if this celebration can work in a non-homogeneous community whose residents were born in Israel to parents from Salonica, Turkey, Morocco, Bukhara and Georgia. All participants in the group are from traditionally observant homes. They fear changing the tradition, they say, such as not fasting on Yom Kippur in case it causes something bad to happen to them. It seems that they are no less busy than Lavi. Passover is almost here, they need to clean and cook, work outside the home and look after the children. Some of the women leave Tel Aviv, traveling to Sderot in the south to celebrate. In general, the Mimouna festival is traditionally celebrated in the home and not in the public arena. It was customary to open the doors of the homes, to go from house to house, and to come back to work the dough at home. Lavi listens.
In the end, about 400 residents of all ages attended the celebrations in the Community Center. They decorated the gymnasium in white and gold, there was live music, the Eliav family sang about the coming of the Messiah, and everyone danced: Ayelet, Noam, and Lavi - and facing them, a young girl looking as if she was born to dance - and a woman dressed in black with undulating arms. All the women from the group arrived in traditional dress, and served food and even wine.
This year, the women in the group will do everything - the study and the preparations - on their own, but if they need help, they know whom to ask.
A Communist synagogue
Ayelet discovered Moshe Shuchami. Initially, as part of the "Stories from the South" project, the commune members intended to ask local people of a similar age to interview their parents and their parents' parents. The idea was to gather these stories into a book for publication by the Babel Publishing House. When attempts to interest young people from the neighborhood failed, Itamar, Yoni and Ayelet decided to persist. Born in the neighborhood, Moshe Shuchami holds the keys to the Communist Synagogue his father built. It was important for Moshe to tell Ayelet that Zionism, not poverty, motivated his parents' aliya to Israel, and that they came to the Shapira neighborhood because there was already a community of Greek immigrants here along with a Greek synagogue. When they asked, "So why did they build another synagogue here?" Moshe, who had previously served in a Nahal paratroop unit and lived for a while on Kibbutz Gonen before returning to the neighborhood, gave a tortoise-like smile and said, "It began as a revolutionary act." Shuchami explains, "They didn't have a cent to their name, and in the synagogue, it was customary to sell honors to the highest bidders. So my father and his friends, who were unable to say memorial prayers for their dearly departed, to take a Torah scroll from the Holy Ark and carry it, to celebrate a bar mitzvah, wedding or circumcision, or God forbid, mark days of mourning, built 'Beit Tefilah' in 1937." He explained that they decided not to take any money from people, and none of the congregational leaders - the cantor, the rabbi or the gabbais - were to receive a salary. "The doors were open to all poor and disadvantaged people. Everyone knew that here it was customary to share, that what was yours was mine and what was mine was yours." Moshe points to one of the synagogue walls where a sheet of paper hangs on a notice board. "It's like the early days, when everyone who came to the synagogue could write down the date of an important event, or a request to carry the Torah. Whoever wants to donate money can, but there is no obligation to do so. I have never dealt with collecting money; each person gives according to his ability." After a short silence he adds, "People think that what is yours is mine and what is mine is yours is a communist invention, but Judaism came before communism. What more do you need than the verse 'Love your neighbor as yourself'?"
I ask him what he thinks of the commune in the neighborhood. "In the beginning, I told them it was a waste of time. The fact is that my kids didn't stay in the neighborhood, but I'm beginning to see that the group is something special, and I'm getting to like them more and more."
Today, after dreaming for three years, a united group of students has solidified in the neighborhood and lives here. "Soon," they say in a funny voice sounding like Israeli comedian Shaike Ofir or the comedy troupe Hagashash Hachiver, "the Communist Synagogue and its story will be the coolest site along Tel Aviv's Orange Tour Route. What did they used to say about the Shapira neighborhood? 'If you haven't seen Shapira, you haven't seen the world.'"
Dita Gary is a film director and screenwriter