Spring 2004


 

  Graduate Student Rejuvenates Jewish Thought at Her (Secular) Kibbutz
 

What are the Rambam, the Abarbanel, the sacred Zohar, and the Talmud doing in a 72-year-old secular kibbutz?  These books would seem, at first glance, incongruous in this setting, their only function to gather the dust of ages.

        Not only are they not out of place on Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan, a young kibbutz member is putting the thousand plus book collection on Scripture and Judaica into library-like order.  For the unlikely kibbutz library.

        The kibbutznik who is bringing order to a hodgepodge of classic Jewish texts is Nurit Feinstein, 25, a native of the kibbutz, which is just north of the Haifa suburbs.  In effect, Nurit is exploiting the knowledge she has gained in a field that, again, might seem incompatible for a secular kibbutz member.  She is a graduate student in Jewish Thought at the University.

Her objective is to make it easy for students, teachers, and cultural “officers” in her and other kibbutzim to find source material about the Jewish religion, Jewish philosophy, and Jewish customs.  She explains the bottom line for this activity, to which she devotes two days a week, in addition to vacations: “It is very important to strengthen our identity.  It is our reason for being here [in Israel].  There shouldn’t be a break between the people and the land, no less for the general Israeli public than for those who wear a kippah.”

It was this faith–in Jewish culture, tradition, and identity, rather than the practice of the religion—that has captivated Nurit since she was a child. 

Ironically her secular kibbutz, which did not take an anti-religion line, helped foster her affirmative view through its collective observance of the holidays, albeit with a stress on their agricultural basis, and other rituals.  In school, she had a Tanach (Bible) teacher who imparted a sense of relevance to Scripture rather than treating it as ancient history as the secular educational stream often relates to this compulsory subject.  Another influence was her mother, who came from a religious household, but did not abandon all observance when she married a secular kibbutznik.  

Drawn to Jewish texts, Nurit did a high school matriculation program in Jewish Thought—which was not a common course of study in a kibbutz school—and then studied Hebrew and Comparative Literature along with Jewish Thought at the University for her B.A. degree.  In fact, she has been participating in an accelerated, intensive B.A./M.A. program, enabling her to complete the two degrees in four years.  In between, she did her army service as a cultural events non-com and, upon discharge, started producing cultural events for her kibbutz.  Looking back, she says she doesn’t know what came first, the studies or the cultural activities.

The reason Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan has this library that she is now reorganizing, she related, had to do with the Institute for Life Experience and Festivals, which it had started in the 1940s.  The idea was to provide sources for researching Jewish tradition in general and Zionism in particular, especially tradition on the kibbutz.   A kibbutz poet and educator was the person who delved into the ancient sources to develop ceremonies for holidays and other events adapted to a rural context.  By the 1970s, however, the library lacked professional handling even though material still poured in, through gifts, legacies, and occasional purchases.   In addition to the haphazard arrangement of the holdings, which led Nurit and others to find things accidentally after having giving up looking for certain works, there was much duplication and not a little irrelevant material.

Asked why anyone on the kibbutz couldn’t reorganize the library, Nurit responded that one had to know the material to do the job: the chronological order of the texts, whether a certain volume was a scientific edition, and indeed which books were basic and which more arcane.  “You have to know the whole field,” she said, “so that this library and archive and the exhibits can have value for everyone.”

A changing of the guard at the institute and library gave the graduate student the opening to convince the kibbutz secretariat of the “spiritual profitability” to be gained from an organized institute library.  Not only kibbutzim, but schools and ulpans (intensive Hebrew-language study courses), too, that wanted to put on holiday-related ceremonies would have a ready source to consult, whether a classic Jewish text or the proceedings of a modern pageant staged by some kibbutz.  

The institute would also, if she and others had their way, supply prepared programs, not just on the holidays themselves, but also on related themes.  She gave the example of a program on milk, which fit in with the holiday of Shavuot, when the tradition is to eat dairy products.  This activity actually took place during a one-year pilot program, in which kibbutz members volunteered their work in free periods.  “Today, though, in order to turn the program into an ongoing activity, you have to invest resources and have a permanent staff, in addition to volunteers,” she comments. 

It wasn’t simple to persuade kibbutz officials to allow her to undertake the reorganization, Nurit admits.  To do so, she had to explain that “just as a kibbutz needs officers for organizational purposes, who don’t earn money for the collective, the kibbutz also needs people to work on cultural and social matters, too.”

The graduate student began the library reorganization project last October.   Much work is still needed for computerizing and cataloguing everything in the institute.  It might have gone faster, she notes, but she is involved in preparing cultural events for the kibbutz, which takes time.  Being musical, she also prepares songs to teach the kibbutz’s children.  “Both modern and traditional and Zionist songs,” she remarks, “so they can participate in the cultural events of the community.”

Nurit has to submit her Master’s thesis by next November.  She is doing her research on reflections of Jewish and general philosophy and kabbala in the Abarbanel’s commentary on the Haggadah.  Afterwards, she may take a year off to travel, something she did not do after her army service as many young Israelis do before starting their college education.  Then to resume her studies and research in pursuit of a doctorate in Jewish Thought.  “The field is worthy of gaining the utmost attention,” she states.

 

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