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IF THIS IS SOCIALISM, WHERE’S THE BATHROOM?
by Marah Birnbaum
From the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
ALMOST EVERY DAY, I walk into the living room to find two to six young men in the assumed position: sunk into the couch, fixated on their phones or computers, necks tucked and backs hunched. The staccato clicking of video-game controllers and the obscene exclamations of Youtube commentators fill the room. Although this moment consistently fills me with dread, I hope that someday I’ll be able to laugh about how only in this unique space could playing hours of Super Smash Brothers every day be rationalized as an intentional, ideological choice that supports the class struggle and undermines the System.
This is my communa, a collective living arrangement in we share money, time, and energy as a conscious, practical, and ethical way to achieve personal and group goals. Though these collectives are becoming more popular as a lifestyle choice and for their relative affordability, my understanding of a communa is deeply rooted in a vision intertwined with Israel’s socialist roots. Our communa consists of an international group of a dozen 17- to 19-year-olds, all of whom grew up in Hashomer Hatzair, the Socialist Zionist youth movement, and chose to dedicate a year to experiencing different forms of socialist living in Israel. Initially, I was drawn to the idea because it offered the opportunity to live with some of my closest friends in a foreign country. Beyond that, I was intrigued by communal living after watching peers and family members a few years ahead of me begin their adult lives. I had searched among them for examples of successfully balancing the triangle — living according to beliefs and values, having an active and supportive social circle, and maintaining well-enough-paid jobs — but had seen many forced to prioritize only one or two of these while letting a third fall to the side. Hoping to learn how to manage all three in the coming years, I wanted to explore other options in this year abroad.
To launch our communa in Haifa, we were given a home in a vibrant city, independence, opportunities, friends, time, and transportation on shabbat (no small thing in Israel). With these immense privileges, we needed only to choose where we wanted to volunteer (the options were various community centers and elementary school programs), take those commitments seriously, and create our own “socialist” living space.
Our group decided to strive to be socialist in three primary areas: financially, in our internal social dynamics, and in the way we interact with and live in the community around us. We decided upon a shared budget to minimize the class differences among us; we listed expectations for a cohesive group that would support, inspire, and teach each other; we agreed to dedicate a majority of our days to learning about and acting in Haifa and Israel, particularly regarding social and economic challenges.
Despite living in the same house, however, we have struggled to sit down together and talk about our day or plan for the coming week. A lack of commitment to our ideals has resulted in tensions, resentments, and strange and unnecessary psychoanalysis of each other. Hot topics include sleeping until the late afternoon without regard for responsibilities, moral opposition to dishwashing and basic hygiene, and (on the other hand), micro-management, pretentiousness, and lack of understanding.
Conversations, excursions, and new opportunities for learning and stimulation pass by as everyone sits transfixed by their personal devices. When we do have interesting or challenging conversations about our values and the ways that we want to live in the world, our inspiration tends to fall flat as folks are lured back into the depths of Reddit or Snapchat stories.
BUT THE MORE TIME I spend in a communa that doesn’t quite work, the more motivated I am to create one that does. While I’ve witnessed the risk of a communa dissolving into an escapist, self-indulgent bubble, I’ve also seen how it can be an incredibly productive and enjoyable platform for people to live according to their beliefs, both day-to-day and longer-term. Together we have attended more tours, demonstrations, and conferences than any of us would have on our own, and we have completed dozens of projects that relied on the motivation and support that we give each other. We each face the valuable challenge of balancing personal wants and needs with those of the group, and have had to figure out when, if, and how to address such issues. While that mindset can give undue weight to minor decisions like when we want to wake up in the morning, it’s been refreshing after years of the high school grind, which in my experience focused almost entirely on personal goals and individual interests. Despite my frustrations and disappointments with this particular group, the unique benefits of a communa life that I have witnessed are too valuable for me to dismiss.
We talk a lot about hagshama, a concept that combines personal fulfillment with bringing principles and ideology into fruition. It’s very similar to tikkun olam, tikkun adam: that efforts to improve the world and improve ourselves are mutually dependent. I’m most familiar with hagshama in the framework of Hashomer Hatzair, which originally aimed to educate Jewish diaspora youth towards making aliyah and building kibbutzim. The earliest khalutzim (pioneers) of Hashomer Hatzair, who built kibbutzim in the country’s founding years, believed in this reality of a socialist, Jewish democracy to a truly fanatical degree, at least by today’s standards. They took to heart the idea that, as Elisha Shapira puts it, “values, if not forced to meet a tangible reality, remain but a dream in our heads . . . dreaming this dream can sometimes release us from the responsibility of fulfilling it.” Though the means and commitment to achieving our vision of a just, socialist Israel has certainly changed over the decades, accountability for one’s values remains a tenet of the movement. It manifests in the expectation that if you’re going to learn about an issue, you’d better be planning to do something about it, producing a community filled with passionate, young activists.
Communas seem to be a natural tool for fostering that power, creativity, and optimism into real social change that might be too daunting or difficult to carry out by one’s self. In contrast to the dominant expectation to prioritize personal happiness (found through great retail sales or juice cleanses), a communa and the ideals behind it encourage our desire to meet social and political challenges, while also fulfilling personal needs and fulfilment.
The language describing hagshama is often dramatic and extreme, evoking liberation, revolution, and transcendence on both a personal and societal scale. Though I was initially skeptical about a lifestyle that is clearly unrealistic, hagshama is the aspect of the communa life that I’ve grown to appreciate the most. Confronted with class inequality, the abuse of power, injustice, and the destruction of our planet’s ecosystems, I find strength to face these issues with the faith and high personal standards that hagshama demands. By keeping in mind the lessons of my communa experience and the ideas of hagshama as I enter my adulthood, I can accept the responsibility to address the issues I see around me and not live in complacency.
Marah Birnbaum, 19 years old, spent the past year in Israel living in Haifa and Kibbutz Givat Oz in a program that focuses on the role, history and values of Hashomer Hatzair, a Socialist-Zionist youth movement in which she participated in for many years. When Marah returns to the U.S., she will attend the University of Wisconsin, Madison.