Kibbutzim flourished in the 1930s and after World War II. Today, the picture has changed. A few hundred kibbutzim still exist in Israel, but residents are just as likely to be proficient on a computer as on a tractor. Private enterprise has bloomed in the desert. Some kibbutzim have added sleek guest rooms for tourists.
A traveling exhibition, newly in Palo Alto, tells the kibbutz's story in fabric and thread. "A Century of the Kibbutz" features 21 handmade quilts by members of the nonprofit Israeli Quilters Association, on the walls of the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center's fitness building. In vivid color, the panels depict many facets of the last century, from the kibbutz's early days as a walled stockade to the modern explosion of tech-fueled business.
Ronit Widmann-Levy, the JCC's director of arts and culture, says textiles are a perfect medium to tell a complex story in an accessible way.
"There's something about this material. It bends. It lives," she said. "It has an effect and an energy."
The earliest visions of the kibbutz are illustrated in the browns and beiges of Tamar Ophir's quilt "A View To The Past: Stockade and Watchtower." In the early days, kibbutzim were put up in a day, with walls and a tower for security. The sky is blue and filled with fluffy clouds over Ophir's walled but still peaceful-looking settlement.
In 1938, her aunt was one of the founders of Kibbutz Eilon in the Western Galilee, Ophir wrote in an exhibit card. "They built inside the walls tents for living and without air condition, telephone, heating, etc., but with a lot of faith and identification that they are going the right way."
Quilter Michal Dvir goes back even farther in time with "My Grandparents the Pioneers." The white-and-blue panel mixes photo transfers of relatives with shapes in cotton, silk and synthetic fabric, giving prominent space to the artist's grandparents, who in 1921 founded Kibbutz Ein Harod, one of the first large kibbutzim. (Today, the kibbutz's website advertises guest suites with plasma TVs.)
"I wanted to express the spirit of those times by combining the original photos with the national symbols: blue and white colors and the Jewish icon known as the star of David," Dvir wrote in an exhibit card. "I used traditional patchwork techniques to express their ... pioneering spirit."
Over the decades, as Ein Harod and its cohort communities grew, so did the vision of the friendly, communal lifestyle therein. In Ruthi Eldar's quilt "Kibbutz," the hills roll and the red house roofs are bright with color. The trees are impossibly green. This is Widmann-Levy's favorite panel in the exhibition; it brings back the summers she spent with her family in kibbutzim while she was growing up in Haifa.
"I love the flow to this, the scent of the field," she says.
This quilt and several others are displayed prominently, along a well-used hall leading to the fitness-center pool. Other panels are behind the front desk, with more upstairs in the fitness center. Widmann-Levy worked with local curator Simcha Moyal to make the traveling exhibition fit into the JCC.
On her tour of the display, Widmann-Levy points out a few quilts that show a darker side to the Israeli experience: concerns about security. "Vigilant Harvest" by Yemima Lavan depicts kibbutzniks at work in the fields, plows in their hands and guns on their backs. Some panels show tanks and sturdy walls.
Other quilts depict a mixed legacy of the kibbutz system: the housing model in which children slept separately from their parents in the kids' area and spent much of their time growing up in a group of the kibbutz children and not one-on-one with immediate families. That model has gone out of favor and receives mixed reviews today, said Widmann-Levy, who has friends who grew up in the system. Some loved the warmth and community, while others felt scarred by being separated from their parents.
Klein Rachel's quilt "Putting to Bed: Reality facing Dream" has one section showing children sleeping in a communal room, and another section with parents holding a child in a private bedroom. Bella Kaplan's "Shared Accommodation, A Reality That Has Passed" is grimmer, with the children faceless and the crib slats resembling cage bars.
More upbeat are the quilts showing the "lul," or playpen on wheels. In a community where one adult was responsible for many little ones, a simple stroller wouldn't do, so a small playpen with room for a few kids was put on wheels. The lul has become a symbol for the kibbutz.
In the modern world, there still is some nostalgia for the kibbutz system, as evidenced by the contemporary popularity of the playpen on wheels, Widmann-Levy said. "It's the cutest thing. In cities today it's very chic."
Info: "A Century of the Kibbutz" will be on display through July 3 in the Goldman Sport & Wellness Complex Lobby at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. The fitness center is open Monday through Thursday from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Fridays from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, go to paloaltojcc.org.