Israeli Life: Privatizing Pots and Pans
Change is never easy. For kibbutzniks at Gesher Haziv, change meant saying goodbye to communal dining and adjusting to food shopping and cooking at home.
Iris Sharif was 57 when the pattern of her life was upended. Gesher Haziv, the kibbutz in northern Israel where she had lived nearly all her adult years, was the first of Israel’s kibbutzim to privatize. Faced with mounting debts and a dwindling population, in 1997 the members decided to make radical changes in the system of collective life they had chosen decades before.
After the process of privatization began, the dining hall- the central provisioner of both body and soul—closed down. Not only did Sharif, like the other 180 members of Gesher Haziv, have to digest the switch from a moneyless environment to one in which everyone’s worth was measured in financial terms. Suddenly she also had to provide meals for her husband and four sons.
“I had never cooked anything more complicated than scrambled eggs,” says the New York-born Sharif. Nor had she ever had to buy more than a few items in Gesher Haziv’s canteen. Now she had to bring home huge amounts of groceries and turn them into meals. At 59, she got her first driver’s license so she could shop in a supermarket in Nahariya, the nearest town, two-and-a-half miles away.
The change from communal to home dining is one of the less-reported aspects of kibbutz privatization, though it affects every individual, every day. So powerful is the dining hall as a symbol of the collective life that even when a kibbutz goes private, the hall may continue to function. In 2003, Haifa University researchers found more than half the kibbutzim that gave up a communal framework kept their dining facilities.
When Gesher Haziv’s dining hall closed, Aliza Elkon put a humorous spin on her culinary ignorance: She was a virgin in the kitchen. “I am a 68-year-old bride,” she would declare.
She had never learned to cook, and not only because she had come to the kibbutz from the United States when she was 19. Her idea of Zionism was directly linked to avoiding the role of homemaker.
“I came from a family [in which] all they talked about was food and clothes,” she recalls. “I came to Israel to get away from it.”
When the dining hall closed, Elkon had only one item in her cooking repertoire: a tuna casserole, which she had learned to make when it became customary for families to have Saturday night dinner at home.
So she hunted for a basic cooking course, such as those available when she first arrived in the country. But all she found were lessons in gourmet cooking. Pressed to produce meals, she begged and borrowed tricks and shortcuts from those who already knew something.
Most important were what she calls “cheating recipes,” those that rely on prepared sauces. Chicken with honey, soy sauce and ketchup became a favorite. Then she started collecting Israeli cookbooks.
When Elkon’s early culinary attempts failed, her son, who lives outside the kibbutz and makes gourmet meals at home, would encourage her. “Ma,” he would say, “women who have been cooking for 30 or 40 years don’t taste anymore; they don’t have any imagination. You have the chance of a lifetime.”
So cooking became an adventure and a social bond.
“For our 50th anniversary, we invited all our friends,” Elkon says. “We asked guests to bring a dish of food instead of a gift. Then we took some of the recipes and published a little booklet and gave it to all the guests.”
When the kibbutz still had a dining hall, even those who preferred to prepare and eat some of their meals at home would come to the hall to pick up cooked food.
For Ilan Goldzweig, 65, it’s hard not to be nostalgic for the largesse of the dining hall, though he—and other kibbutz members—would sometimes use it as a take-out service for their families. “I dream of walking into the dining room on a Friday night,” he says. “I could take all the food I wanted—tons of chicken, too much food—for everyone. I used to bound into the house and put everything on the table.”
The transition from communal to home cooking took about a year, starting in July 1998, when privatization actually began. First the evening meal was canceled, then breakfast. All that was left was lunch, traditionally the main meal of the day, and members had to pay for it. Strange as it was to be charged for what until then had been free to all, it was bearable as long as the cost was subsidized. It was bearable even when the caterer running the kitchen tried to cut corners and the quality of the food deteriorated. But when the subsidy was cut, members could no longer afford the meals.
In the end, members were most upset over losing their favorite place to see friends, catch up on local news and exchange a bit of gossip. The dining hall had been a constant source of social energy, providing a stream of topics for couples to discuss later at home.
It was the tribal hearth, says Natan Gershuny, 77. And though to outsiders it might have seemed like an impersonal cafeteria, for the kibbutz members it wasn’t like that at all. “You walked into the dining hall and you knew everybody,” Gershuny says. “It had a family feeling.”
In the process of privatization, “the biggest single emotional factor was the closing of the dining room,” says Goldzweig, one of the most outspoken critics of the change. There “you saw the whole world of Gesher Haziv going past you.… It was the best hatzaga [show]. People put on weight, took off weight.… What you didn’t see, you heard.”
Goldzweig even remembers his father-in-law telling him that in the early days of the kibbutz, it was considered downright antisocial for a husband and wife to sit together at a meal in the dining hall. Though others discount this story, they agree that the dining hall was a very social place where adults could converse with other adults. The younger children ate in the children’s houses; the teenagers also ate separately, in groups.
With privatization, a husband and wife who had always shared meals with their friends and neighbors were suddenly face to face, alone, two or three times a day. Those with children had to adjust to eating with them.
Like others, Goldzweig bemoans the loss of opportunities to see friends. “There were people I used to see…every day for 40 years,” he says. “Now I see them only once in six months…in the shop, buying food.”
As in all kibbutzim, at Gesher Haziv there was a body of cooking lore in the hands of a few women. Though the kibbutz was meant to be egalitarian and all members took turns serving and cleaning up in the dining hall, the preparation of the food was relegated to women. But only a few of them—those who did the actual cooking—were privy to the secrets of the kitchen.
Sarah Grossman, who for years had worked in the kibbutz kitchen, became the support of many. She taught a few basic dishes, such as chicken and potatoes prepared in a roasting bag. She was open to phone queries around the clock, and her phone rang often. She remembers Elkon turning up at her house, putting a piece of fish on the table and asking bluntly, “What do I do with this?”
But advice and recipes were not enough help for the oldest members.
“They asked if I would cook for them,” Grossman says. “So I started preparing 30 to 40 meals for Fridays…. A lot of it was Sefardic style, but there was also gefilte fish.”
A broken shoulder and back problems put an end to Grossman’s endeavor, so some of her “customers” turned to the catering service of a neighboring kibbutz. Those determined to cook consulted Grossman, cookbooks and each other.
Most kibbutz women did have experience in baking, for Shabbat and for when other members came to visit. They had even home-published booklets of cake recipes. In the early years, no one had an oven, just a single kerosene burner, so women learned to bake cakes in a stove-top contraption called a wonder pot—a tube pan with a lid.
But now that all cooking was to be done at home, it was not a foregone conclusion that women would take on all the kitchen chores. Each couple worked out a division of labor.
Gershuny makes soups and salads and helps his wife, Hannah, prepare the main courses. Together they make jam and marmalade. What Gershuny would like most is to replicate dishes his mother made—bean soup, spinach patties, green peppers stuffed with vegetarian chopped liver—as well as the eggplant dishes and chicken he ate in the dining hall. Elkon and her husband shop together, buying produce at an inexpensive, Arab-owned market. They can always rely on neighbors for anything they have forgotten. “There is never a problem if I’m missing sugar, an egg or some oil,” Elkon says.
She does most of the cooking, and her husband, Tzvi, does the cleanup. In general, the meals are simple, with an emphasis on the flavorings.
For all their fond memories of the dining hall, Gesher Haziv members admit that privatization has some advantages. First and foremost, they no longer fear losing their homes to the bank. Many are better off financially. Some have enlarged their houses, especially the kitchens, which were not designed for serious cooking.
And some say they enjoy their meals more than before. “The truth is that we eat better now than in the dining room, [and] healthier,” Devorah Schlossberg says. “We enjoy what we eat. First of all, it comes off hot.”
Hannah Gershuny is happy to no longer be eating fried foods, staples of the dining hall menu. “I try to vary the food in other ways, for example, by roasting it,” she says.
Elkon says she has developed her taste buds and prefers to use only the best spices.
Yet most Gesher Haziv members still long for what the communal dining hall represented.
“Over a cup of coffee, kibbutzniks used to talk about the harvest and about tractors,” Natan Gershuny says wistfully. “Now they exchange recipes. It’s a reflection of the radical change.”