I like to define “The Old Kibbutz Way” as: “why pay for it when you can make it yourself by pulling some old shelves from the rubbish”. In many situations, I applaud this. When our fridge breaks down and, instead of shelling out thousands of shekels for a new one, my husband, with much cursing and clouds of dust, manages to fix it, I am pleased. I love living in a kibbutz. It’s quiet, friendly, green and the kids can play outside by themselves. Everything is close, friends and family are here, and there is space to keep animals. What’s not to love?
The problems arise when the Old Kibbutz Way is applied to animal care. I have European standards when it comes to animal care. I get funding from the kibbutz and I use it to buy poultry and rabbit feed and to get veterinary care. I think this is how it should be – a pet zoo should be full of well-fed, happy, healthy animals. But not everybody agrees. My father-in-law regularly has a fit when he realises the we actually PAY for animal feed. “It’s ridiculous!” he fumes. “You don’t understand anything! Chickens eat kitchen scraps! Rabbits eat cabbage from the fields! You don’t pay to feed them!”
I do see what this must be like for someone who has been through wars and food scarcity. The concept of paying to feed chickens instead of profiting from them must be impossible for him. But times have changed, and so has pet care. We now try to understand the animals’ specific needs and try to give them a happy life, instead of just… having them, I suppose. I wince when I hear him talking about cabbage and scraps. Rabbits will die miserably if they are fed nothing but cabbage. Chickens living only on kitchen scraps will not get enough nutrition to support their egg-laying.
Some background information: a kibbutz is a rural living community in Israel. In the not too distant past, everything was done communally: working, raising children, celebrating holidays… Meals were cooked in a communal dining hall, the washing was done in a big launderette. Cars were shared, houses were public property and everyone was expected to contribute by working, on the fields, in the factory, in the kibbutz itself or in town (gasp). Everybody earned the same salary, from the factory manager to the people who washed the dishes in the dining hall.
Those days are now long gone. Since I arrived here as a volunteer in 1999, much has changed. The kibbutz could no longer sustain itself and had to be privatised, like many others. For some of the older people living here, the many radical changes are hard to take in their stride. The kibbutz went from being a tightly knit, shared community with a strict rule system and a lot of social control to a loosely hanging together village-like system, where everyone is free to do as they please. People who have done hard manual work all their lives to support the entire community, now feel wronged as the support system is falling apart now they need it.
My father-in-law is one of those people. He ruined his back working all his life on the fields and in the dairy. He tells us stories of days when there wasn’t enough to eat, when children were raised communally in ‘children’s houses’ and when hard manual work was the highest moral good. Now, he struggles with the concept of ‘retirement’ and refuses to give up his little-appreciated job even if his back almost literally kills him. Sometimes he reminisces longingly, telling us that everything was better in the Old Days.
I understand and respect him and his friends, but I don’t agree. The old system didn’t fit the times anymore. People want their freedom, and as soon as they don’t need to worry anymore about where their next meal is coming from, they’re going to fight to have that freedom. The kibbutz is different now, more like a village than a community, but people are happy. They run their own lives, earn their own salaries and own their cars and houses. They decide what they do and when and how to do it.
Not only does the kibbutz work differently, the way it looks has changed, too. Some people had the courage to start ambitious projects, which make the kibbutz a beautiful place. The old kibbutz shop is now a lovely ceramics studio, the ugly old laundry building has become a trendy café and there is a new, better stocked shop next to it. Two of my friends have recently opened their studio/shop of handmade home decoration, and I don’t think I have ever seen two people more on top of the world. I could go on and on. The places lives and thrives!
And of course, there is my own modest effort at reviving the old pet zoo – but a New and Improved version of it. A tidier, better-run and more animal-friendly version. That’s what I think, anyway. Unfortunately, my father-in-law is not the only one who thinks I’m a nutter. I regularly get mocked for being a European control freak. People have laughed at me for meticulously scrubbing cages clean. “For god’s sake, they’re only chickens!” I often get asked, full of disbelief, if I really go to the pet zoo EVERY DAY? Yes, animals need to be fed every day. You can’t really skip a day if you don’t feel like it, you know. Also our decision to neuter most of our male rabbits, in an effort to control the amount of accidental litters we got, was mocked extensively – even, weirdly, by the vet who did the surgery. I don’t know why people find the idea of neutering rabbits so ridiculous – because they are small? Because they are not dogs? Because they didn’t know it was possible?
Of course, we get lots and lots of good comments, too. Most people really appreciate our efforts and enjoy visiting the New and Improved pet zoo. The Old Kibbutz Way might still work for some things, but it’s hopelessly outdated when it comes to animal care. Our pets need and deserve proper food, space, attention and respect. If I can teach our children that, I will have reached my goal and more.