The McDonaldization of the Kibbutz Dining Room
The McDonaldization of the Kibbutz Dining Room
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter addresses the unexpected consequences of the privatization of iconic kibbutz institutions. Based on ethnographic research conducted in the dining rooms of three kibbutzim in different stages of privatization, or “McDonaldization,” the chapter follows the contested meanings of the dining room experience. The food and eating patterns that prevail in these dining rooms are presented as expressions of hegemonic power structures, and their modifications reflect changing values within and beyond the kibbutz. The chapter's findings challenge the common understating of the “kibbutz crisis,” or the understating of failure in general as a consequence of the rise of individualism in contemporary Israel.
Since the beginning of kibbutz life, eating together has been a uniting element. … Whatever changes the kibbutz will experience, it is only reasonable to assume that the dining room will remain the symbol of kibbutz “togetherness” and the heart of hearts of any settlement that remains a kibbutz.
Many [kibbutz] dining rooms were turned into full-payment cafeterias, often operated by outside contractors and their staff . … Once the dining room is completely or partly shut down, the family receives additional funding for its home economy budget.
THIS CHAPTER DEALS WITH YET another emblematic Israeli culinary institution: the kibbutz dining room. Kibbutz members have always made up only a tiny fraction of Israeli society (6.5 percent of the population at the peak in 1948, 2.2 percent in 2005,1 and 2 percent, about 165,000 members, in 20152), but they were perceived for many years by many Israelis as the spearhead of Zionism and the jewel in Israel’s crown. Despite their socioeconomic decline and the mounting critique of their privileged access to resources and abusive treatment of other social classes (Mizrahi Jews, Palestinians, and, as of recently, migrant workers), kibbutzim remain unique Israeli creations, inspiring and resilient utopias whose social, cultural, and economic achievements3 are acknowledged in Israel and abroad.
The hadar ha’ochel (dining room) has always been the spatial and social heart of kibbutz communal life. Ideological and socioeconomic adjustments and transformations were decided on in the asefa klalit (general assembly), which was traditionally held in the dining room, while informal discussions, debates, and negotiations took place in the intimate context of daily communal meals. The 2009 secretariat report of Kibbutz Yotveta states: “The (p.113) dining room is the pulsing heart of the kibbutz, the central institute where our ‘togetherness’ is expressed daily” (Garfunkel 2010, 74).
As the dining room was a pillar of kibbutz communal life and ideology, it is little wonder that it was often the direct target of criticism and renovation plans meant to adjust the room, and the kibbutzim themselves, to changing times, circumstances, and ideologies. This chapter is focused on the major changes that kibbutz dining rooms underwent over the years, including the shift from table service to self-service in the 1980s and the switch to privatization in the 1990s and early 2000s. These shifts, the outcome of increasing liberal and neoliberal trends in Israeli society, have much in common with what sociologist George Ritzer (1983) termed “McDonaldization,” a process in which irrational systems are reformed for efficiency, predictability, calculability, the introduction of nonhuman technology, and control over uncertainty. Ritzer went on to argue that McDonaldization, sometimes described as globalization or Americanization, is a deterministic, unilateral process that will inevitably result in a standardized, uniform, flat, irrationally rational, and disenchanted social world, one reminiscent of Max Weber’s bureaucratic “iron cage.”
Ritzer’s theory instigated a great deal of academic research that expanded and modified the McDonaldization thesis (e.g., Ritzer 1998; Alfino, Caputo, and Wynyard 1998; Smart 1999; Ram 2012). Anthropologists, probably because of their attention and sensitivity to cultural differences and daily practices, have been struggling with the universal uniformity and conformism instigated by the McDonaldization thesis (Watson 1997; Matejowsky 2008). In this chapter, I show how the McDonaldization of the kibbutz dining room resulted in the reemergence of premodern social categories at kibbutz socialist ideology had tried to get rid of and that the standardized McDonaldization flow was supposed to eliminate. This chapter is therefore both an extension and a critique of the McDonaldization theory.
Lunch at Kibbutz Darom
In May 2006, I had an appointment with Jacob, the community manager of Kibbutz Darom4 in southern Israel. I had just landed a job at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, and my wife and I had decided to move to the vicinity of the university. As I had nice memories of kibbutz life from my military service in the Nahal5 some twenty years earlier, I suggested that we explore the option of moving to a kibbutz.
(p.114) Jacob and I had a pleasant conversation that mainly concerned the privatization process the kibbutz was going through. We also discussed Jacob’s title. Originally, the position he held was termed mazkir (secretary), the socialist idiom for a head of a political or administrative unit. While there has always been a treasurer and a merakez meshek (farming and economy coordinator) in charge of the economic affairs of the kibbutz, they were subordinate to the mazkir, who was clearly the kibbutz leader and main authority. Jacob, however, was titled menahel kehila (community manager), an oxymoron representing the impossible coalescence of neocommunal and neoliberal agendas in contemporary kibbutzim. He explained that economic affairs were now handled by independent professional managers, either qualified kibbutz members or hired executives, who reported to the board of management and not to the asefa klalit (general meeting), the main venue of the kibbutz direct democracy in the past.
It was noontime, and Jacob had invited me to have lunch in the kibbutz dining room, so we climbed the stairs from the mazkirut (secretariat, which had retained its old name; some traditions are die-hard) to the dining room. Stepping into the dining hall itself, I was engulfed by nostalgia. Everything was so familiar: the large hall with its surrounding windows; the 360-degree view of trees, small houses, fields, and azure sky; the stainless-steel buffets; the humming of the large dishwashing machine (after the meal, the diners placed their own dishes onto trays on the dishwasher conveyer belt); the groups of men in shabby blue working clothes and muddy boots occupying some of the larger tables; the school kids eating together in another corner; the white-collar kibbutz members sharing smaller tables; and the aroma, not of mom’s cooking but of a large and busy, no-frills kitchen. The few young men and women, who looked somehow European, reminded me of the volunteers on my old kibbutz, but they were speaking Russian not Danish.
We approached the food-serving area, picked up trays and cutlery, and joined the line by the buffets. The first featured four trays of main dishes: roasted chicken thighs, meatballs in gravy, turkey in red sauce, and, to my pleasant surprise, whole fish grilled with garlic, rosemary, and lemon. I was thinking that the variety and quality of food had improved substantially since my kibbutz days. Then I noticed that there was a small sign with two sets of numbers by each tray. When I asked Jacob about this, he explained that the dining room was now privatized and that diners had to pay for what they ate. “This,” he pointed out, “was a very important step toward efficiency and saving, as the members now think twice before filling up their plates, making sure to take just enough.” (p.115)
When I asked why there were two sets of prices for each dish, Jacob added, “The lower price is for kibbutz members, whose food is subsidized. The full price is for the others.” He went on to explain that “the others” were mostly employees at the kibbutz’s factories along with some hired professional workers and socharim (renters)—people who rented a house on the kibbutz and purchased some of its services (mainly education for their children) but were not kibbutz members.
We chose our main courses, which were portioned by a dining room worker, and moved on to the side dishes and salad bar, where we helped ourselves to a choice of steamed rice, baked potatoes, or boiled vegetables and a variety of fresh vegetables. There were two sets of prices for each of these items as well. The subsidized meal seemed quite cheap, but I calculated the full-priced meal to be roughly twice as expensive (about 30–35 shekels, or US$8–9), which was fairly pricy when compared to similar meals in other institutional dining rooms and canteens.
(p.116) I followed Jacob and joined the line for the cashier, yet another innovation as far as I was concerned. When we reached it, the elderly female cashier nodded toward us and asked Jacob, “Are they your guests?” Jacob responded agitatedly, “Yes, they are the secretariat’s guests.” “The secretariat does not have a dining room account,” she responded. Jacob asked us to wait and went to discuss the matter with some of the diners. He returned, visibly relieved, and told the cashier, “Just put it on the culture committee’s account; they’ll manage it.” The food itself was mediocre at best, just as I remembered it from my kibbutz days, similar in taste and quality to the fare in most commercial mass dining rooms in Israel.
While we were eating, Jacob returned to our conversation about the privatization of the kibbutz and recounted how he once proposed that the renters not pay full price in the dining room: “Let the renters pay the subsidized price, I said at the meeting, let us make them feel at home. … After all, we want them to stay!” When I asked about the reaction to his proposal, Jacob said that it had been declined.
I found this lunch both disturbing and intriguing. I realized that the kibbutz dining room, which I remembered fondly as a warm space of community and camaraderie, had changed dramatically. I also realized that I was facing a new and exciting research field that combined my interests in food, postsocialism, and social change.
The lunch touched on the main issues I will discuss in this chapter, which focuses on the ideological fundamentals of the kibbutz movement: the tensions between the collective and the individual in contemporary Israeli kibbutzim, and kibbutz power structures as they are manifested in the kibbutz dining room. I explore each of these issues in the context of two drastic changes made to kibbutz dining rooms over the years: the shift from table service to self-service and the privatization of the kibbutz culinary system. I present each of these changes as a major ideological shift, explore the power struggles that surrounded them, and discuss their consequences.
I argue that the most important competitor for kibbutz members’ loyalty and commitment is not the individual or individualistic tendencies6 but rather primordial social institutions such as extended family and ethnic groups as well as newly reestablished socioeconomic classes and allegiances. This chapter therefore suggests that neoliberal processes of dining room privatization, reminiscent of what George Ritzer (1983) described in his “McDonaldization” thesis, may result in unexpected twists and allow for the reestablishment of traditional social entities and/or the establishment of new ones.
Kibbutz dining rooms were established as hubs of commensality and food sharing. Breaking bread and eating together have long been recognized by social scientists as exceptionally important venues of group consolidation and solidarity (Sobal and Nelson 2003). In his article “The Sociology of the Meal,” Georg Simmel suggests that communal eating was among the earliest human steps toward social integration: “We know of very primitive peoples that they do not eat at set times, but rather anarchically—eating individually whenever each person gets hungry. The shared nature of the meal, however, brings about temporal regularity, for only at a predetermined time can a group of people assemble together” (2000, 130). Audrey Richards (1939) notes that the need to obtain food and process it fosters and even compels social cooperation, an observation that has been repeatedly reaffirmed in other contexts (Thiel 1994; Hawkes, O’Connell, and Blurton Jones 2001a, 2001b).
Food sharing, however, is not only about inclusion. It also works to demarcate group boundaries and define exclusion. Mary Douglas (1975) pointed out that while drinks are for strangers, meals are for family members and close friends. Leonore Davidoff elaborated that “who partakes of the meal, when and where, helps to create the boundaries of the household, of friendship patterns, of kinship gradations. … These eating patterns vary between and help to define the boundaries of classes, ethnic, religious, age, and sexual groups” (1995, 76).
While the daily meal eaten at home is the clearest expression of the family (Charles and Kerr 1988; Murcott 1997), family boundaries are routinely expanded during feasts, ritual meals, festivals, and other occasions to include larger social circles, such as the extended family, the community, or the clan.7 Taking part in such events and sharing the food serves as a token of membership in the social group.
Communal meals are social arenas where norms and hierarchies are enacted and reaffirmed. A classic example is Richards’s observation that among the Bemba of Congo, “the preparation of porridge … is the woman’s most usual way of expressing the correct kinship sentiment toward her different male relatives” (1939, 127). The elevated status of men in patriarchal societies is expressed by their privileged access to food, and especially to meat (Herzfeld 1985; Fiddes 1991; Adams 1990), while in societies or social echelons that adhere to other (p.118) systems (matriarchal, bilateral, egalitarian, child-oriented, etc.), other forms of food sharing and distribution arrange the meals.
Shared meals are also arenas for social competition and conflict (Bove et al. 2003), where alternatives are suggested, negotiated, enacted, and, at times, rejected. Richards (1939) recounts how, in instances when a Bemba woman would dish out porridge in a sequence that somehow contested her husband’s vision of the social order, he would react swiftly and forcefully. In my own work on Vietnamese foodways, I highlight similar occurrences and show how time and again, the social order is not only enacted but also subverted, negotiated, and challenged during the meal (Avieli 2005a, 2007).
Finally, spaces of communal eating, and dining rooms in particular, can work as spheres of coercion (Moore 1999). Food sharing expresses intimacy and mutual obligation, but dining rooms are also social arenas where eating is managed, limited, and, at times, denied. Regulating the food intake of others or preventing them from eating altogether is the utmost form of coercion (Counihan 1998). In this context, I argue that while much of the literature conceives of the kibbutz as a social utopia (Spiro 1963, 2004; Blasi 1978; Gavron 2000) or social dream (Bettelheim 1969; Lieblich 2001), Erwin Goffman’s (1968) concept of “total institutions,” and specifically of “open total institutions,” are disturbingly appropriate for thinking about some aspects of kibbutz life, particularly kibbutz dining rooms.
According to Goffman, “total institutions” are social settings where individuals sleep, play, and work in the same place, with the same coparticipants, under a single authority, and in adherence to a single rational plan (Davies 1989). Goffman defined a more nuanced subcategory that he termed “open total institutions,” where individuals are free to join or leave and where all positions in the hierarchy are (theoretically) open to everyone.
These definitions apply to the kibbutz, a social organization where members live, work, and spend their free time and where an overarching ideology arranges most aspects of public and private life. Kibbutz members are free to leave the kibbutz at will (though social sanctions abound), and the principle of rotation means that all positions are potentially open to every member.
Goffman points out that one of the main mechanisms that facilitates managing inmates in total institutions is “the stripping of self-identity,” which involves loss of personal possessions, intrusions on privacy, and submission to demeaning practices (Clark and Bowling 1990). Goffman observes that dining rooms in total institutions are the main venues for such stripping of self-identity, as inmates have no control over the choice, quality, and (p.119) quantity of food; are allotted limited portions; are denied knives and forks; and must ask for their most minute needs (e.g., a drink or permission to go to the restroom). Inmates are often required to eat all their food, and if they decline, they may be force-fed.
If kibbutzim are open total institutions of sorts, their dining rooms are important spheres of social control, ideological indoctrination, and potential coercion. Kibbutz dining rooms are obviously very different from those at prisons or nursing homes, mainly because members eat there voluntarily and may come and go as they like. However, some of the attributes of total institutions’ dining rooms, in a diluted and mild form, can be observed in kibbutz dining rooms, mainly those concerning free choice and autonomy. In fact, surveillance and oppression were mentioned repeatedly in my interviewees’ recollection of their dining room experiences, highlighting the coercive nature of these institutions despite the fact that attending them is voluntary.
Researching Kibbutz Dining Rooms
The data presented in this article was collected between 2006 and 2009 in three kibbutzim in different stages of privatization (a process I will explain later in this chapter): a fully privatized kibbutz, a kibbutz going through the painful process of privatization, and a kibbutz that has maintained its communal characteristics. Many of the interviews and a substantial part of the fieldwork were conducted at Kibbutz Dagan, where I lived with my family for two years, from 2006 to 2008, and where we experienced kibbutz life at its worst moments: the year preceding hafrata (privatization) and the year that followed this radical change. I experienced kibbutz life from a renter’s perspective, which is essentially one of the lowest-ranking and weakest social positions in what is meant to be an intimate, utopian, and egalitarian society.
While living at Kibbutz Dagan, we ate in the dining room quite often. We regularly had our Sabbath evening meals there and occasionally also our weekday lunches. We also participated in some of the festive meals (Sukkot, Chanukah, and Shavuot). I had dozens of informal conversations with kibbutz members and other dining room patrons regarding their eating experiences and held several semistructured interviews with kibbutz members that worked or used to work in the dining room. I also had dozens of informal conversations with members of other kibbutzim and had meals in various kibbutz dining rooms whenever I had the chance.
(p.120) To make sure that my reading of the kibbutz dining room dynamics was not biased by the state of affairs in Kibbutz Dagan during privatization and by my complex status as a renter, I worked with a research assistant, Ortal Buhnik, who conducted participant observation and interviews in two other kibbutzim in 2008 and 2009: the fully privatized Kibbutz Hanoter and the fully communal Kibbutz Tipa. All three of these kibbutzim were established in the 1940s and were relatively well-off during the research period, so the state of culinary affairs was shaped not by economic constrains but rather by informed choices made by dining room operators and patrons.
Ortal made trips to Hanoter and Tipa roughly once a fortnight at different times of the day, and these included participant observation, informal conversations, and semistructured interviews with various diners and dining room functionaries. The data was transcribed during these trips or immediately after their conclusion, and some of the interviews were taped and transcribed.
A review of the vast sociological, historical, economic, and psychological academic literature on the kibbutz movement and its recent socioeconomic crisis is a major project and should be done by those more qualified than me (see also Ben Rafael 1997; Gavron 2000; Lanir 2004; Palgi and Reinharz 2014; and Spiro 2004). I therefore limit myself to three sociological observations I made based on the academic literature while carrying out fieldwork, which are essential for understanding the arguments I make in this chapter.
First, “the kibbutz” as such does not exist. My interviewees repeatedly pointed out that “each kibbutz is different” and said things like, “In our kibbutz, we do things this way.” Interviewees also tended to point out that “things were different” in other kibbutzim. In such instances, the comparison was often accompanied by an observation regarding the essence of the difference. For instance, a hitchhiker from a neighboring kibbutz said about Kibbutz Dagan, where I was living: “Well, they have exactly the same food every Sabbath eve because they are Yekes” (German Jews, who are notorious for being particular, orderly, and strict; see Zimmerman and Hotam 2005).
I found the fact that each kibbutz is different to be especially true when exploring meal compositions, specific dishes, and seasoning styles in each kibbutz. While eating procedures were very similar in the three dining rooms (p.121) I studied as well as in dozens of other kibbutz dining rooms in which I dined over the years, the dishes themselves varied substantially, as both choice and taste had to do with the ethnic composition of each kibbutz, its ideological position,8 historical events that left a culinary legacy, and specific people running the dining room or kitchen.
In his analysis of structure and content in commercial culinary establishments in Israel, Uri Ram (2004) suggests that the meal structures in these establishments are often global, yet the food served tends to be local or modified according to local tastes. In kibbutz dining rooms, however, differences in structure and content are created within the tension that exists between communal ideology and the demands made by local subgroups on each kibbutz.
The second observation is that the kibbutz movement has been situated since its beginning within an irreconcilable tension between radical revolutionary innovation and extreme conservative rigidity (Punch 1974, 315). In other words, kibbutz members have always been torn between the demand for strict ideological commitment and adherence to norms and the fact that their ideology is all about radical social change (Fast 2000; Talmon 1972; Aviezer et al. 1994). The kibbutz project was revolutionary, but maintaining the revolution called for extreme conformity to the newly established rules. The staunch resistance to change and the reluctance, established early in the movement’s history, of many kibbutz members to rethink or reform social arrangements, such as communal child-rearing (Gavron 2000) and equal salaries (Rosner 2000), express the unyieldingly rigid aspect of kibbutz life. A common complaint among younger interviewees (under the age of fifty) concerned the difficulties they faced when suggesting changes or deviating from norms or standard procedures. The term they often used was kashe (hard or difficult), as in, “It is so hard [kashe] to change anything here,” or, “People here are so difficult [kashim].”
This inherent tension leads to my third observation: the most common expectation among my interviewees was that the social experiment of the kibbutz would imminently fail and cease to exist. As early as 1926, economist Franz Oppenheimer predicted the “immediate, inevitable demise” of kibbutzim (quoted in Rosner 2000, 1), while Eliezer Ben Rafael wrote that “seventy five years after the first kibbutz was established, it seemed that all efforts have failed to create communities based on sharing and equality” (1997, 1). On the one-hundredth anniversary of the kibbutz movement, Daniel Gavron (2001, 1) lamented, “The dream that begun … with the (p.122) establishment of the first kibbutz … is disintegrating, … with less then half of the 120,000 [kibbutzim] members believing that the kibbutz has a future.”
While the arguments regarding its collapse are decisive and authoritative, the kibbutz is still alive and kicking, and, as of recently, it has been experiencing yet another period of revival (Hammershlag 2008; Shani 2009; G. Adar 2009; Palgi and Reinharz 2014). In fact, in each of the three kibbutzim I studied, plans had been made for future development, which took the future of the communities for granted (though there were explicit concerns about what this future would look like). I therefore think that instead of conceptualizing this looming notion of the end of kibbutz as a doomsday prophecy, it might be more fruitful to think about it as one of the kibbutz’s essential constants, an outcome of the inherent tension between the revolutionary edge of kibbutz life and the conformity demanded of its members.
These observations—that each kibbutz is different, that kibbutzim are structured around the tension between revolutionary innovation and conservative conformity, and that any change is perceived as the end of the kibbutz—serve as the sociological context for the findings and arguments presented in this chapter. Although I point to common characteristics and processes in the three kibbutzim I studied (which may be applicable to other kibbutzim), my arguments should not be generalized and expanded without modification as, indeed, each kibbutz is different.
The First Dining Room Crisis: The Switch from Table Filling to Self-Service
The dining room has always been the physical and symbolic heart of the kibbutz. Located right at the center of the kibbutz grounds, usually between the living and working zones (Chyutin 1979; Halfin 2016), it was clearly the main hub of collective life. Most kibbutz members frequented the dining room for their three main meals and usually for one or more minor food events (e.g., morning coffee, four o’clock tea, nighttime snack). As the central kibbutz edifice, it was the venue for the weekly asefa klalit, for the celebration of festivals and rituals, and for any activity that required the community to assemble. The dining room was where communal life materialized most frequently and concretely and where communal ideology was endorsed publically. Simon (fifty-six, Kibbutz Tipa) pointed out: “The dining room is the kibbutz, is the ideology. … You come to the dining room and see the manager (p.123) sitting with the worker. We are all equal, all engaged. Here there is really no impression [roshem]—there is kibbutz.”
In the early years of the kibbutz movement, the dining rooms were modest structures, but they soon became the focal points of architectural attention and were planned with the goals of maintaining and expressing the success of this utopian revolution.9 Most existing kibbutz dining rooms, called hadar ha’ochel, were built during the 1960s and ’70s, when many kibbutzim were prospering socially and economically. They are therefore large and imposing concrete, modernist buildings with the dining space itself located on the upper floor, with large windows overlooking the kibbutz, and most other important social venues (secretariat, treasury, main billboard, members’ club, canteen, mailboxes, infirmary, etc.) are located on the first floor or in adjacent buildings.10
These new dining rooms were not only large, comfortable, and luxurious (most were air-conditioned and equipped with water coolers, soda fountains, and other amenities) but also planned so as to facilitate a new mode of dining: hagasha atzmit (self-service). The diners would line up, pick up trays and utensils, dish out their own food from a buffet, and then choose their seats. This mode of eating was very different from the previous culinary arrangement, termed miluy shulhanot (literally “table filling”), in which each arriving member would take a seat at the table that was being filled up and food would be served only once the table was fully occupied. Self-service allowed diners to choose their food and their company; table filling facilitated neither.
The original system of table filling was a clear enactment of the kibbutz movement’s anti-bourgeois ideology of extreme egalitarianism and asceticism: all members were equal and food was meant to give them the necessary energy to work. There was no place or prerequisite for personal choice when it came to food or companionship. Alternatively, as some of my interviewees pointed out, table fillling could be read as an expression of the feeling among many members that the kibbutz was not an alternative to family, as is often argued (Spiro 1954; Talmon 1972) but rather an alternative family, whose members were all siblings and therefore happy to take a seat next to and eat with anyone present. Both understandings of the table-filling system can be discerned in Rachel’s (seventy-three, Kibbutz Tipa) recollection of the dining room at her kibbutz in the 1950s, when table-filling was still practiced: “We would come up to the dining room, and one wouldn’t have to think, ‘Who should I sit with?’ You would just take a seat wherever there was one available. We were served some bread, jam, cheese, and a pot of tea. We would eat, and then we would all go to work.”
(p.124) This eating arrangement is remembered fondly by many kibbutz members. Muki Tzur’s book All the Beginnings: 1937–1987, published to celebrate Kibbutz Ein Gev’s fiftieth anniversary, recounts how “in the previous system, in which dining room staff served the food and demanded that members would fill up the tables, members would dine with different members in every meal. With self-service, breakfast is almost a ‘permanent seats’ affair, based on country of origin, work units and age, lunch is a job thing and dinner is by families” (Tzur 1987, 52).
Nostalgia notwithstanding, most of my interviewees were critical of the traditional system. For instance, the tables were set up for eight people,11 and food was served to a table by toranim (shift workers; all kibbutz members took turns working shifts serving food and dishwashing) only once it was fully occupied. This meant that the diners had to wait, sometimes for quite a while. Yohanan (sixty-eight, Kibbutz Tipa) commented: “What I found most disturbing was that a table of seven had to wait for the eighth diner to start eating.”
Since food was served to whole tables rather than to individuals, members had to be considerate, patient, generous, and careful not to consume more than their share. This, however, was not easy in the early years, when kibbutzim were rather poor, food was meager and unwholesome, and members did demanding manual labor. Hanna (seventy-four, Kibbutz Mishmar) recalled: “At first, there wasn’t much of a budget. You would come up hungry for lunch, but the rest [of the members at your table] would eat faster than you and get much of the food. It brought the beast out of the human. … Shameful [busha].”
Obviously, there was also an issue of preferred company, as Rivka (fifty-four, Kibbutz Dagan) pointed out: “What happens when a particular member does not want to eat with someone? Or when I arrive with two friends and there is only one seat available?” Under such circumstances, the tensions surrounding the need to wait for the table to fill up and to share food with whomever was sitting at one’s table were further exacerbated.
The shift to self-service was described by most of my interlocutors as a necessary and welcome alternative to the inefficient table-filling system and a practical solution to the increasingly complex demands of growing kibbutzim. Yael (sixty-two, Kibbutz Mishmar) said: “The kibbutz was getting bigger. We couldn’t eat all at once—it was problematic, and we had to find a solution. Self-service was a good solution because meal times were extended, people were more flexible with their meal times, and members did not come all at once to eat.”
(p.125) Arye (sixty-seven, Kibbutz Yafit) told me that lining up in the old dining room, especially on Sabbath eves, became extremely irritating: “You had to wait for your seat, then wait for the ‘train’ of trolleys, get your soup, then wait again for the main courses and the dessert, and, once you left, the table had to be cleared, cleaned, and set again, along with a white Sabbath tablecloth. People would have to line up outside and wait for very long time, and in the winter it was really miserable.” Self-service was devised to overcome such inconveniencies, as timing became more flexible and diners did not depend so much on the schedules of the other members.
Some interviewees even described self-service as a strategy of saving the kibbutz. Shaul (sixty-four, Kibbutz Dagan) told me: “I insisted on self-service! Right, it is not very ideological, but with ideology we lose the young people. Life changes! It is not what it used to be for my father and grandfather. We had to move on to the next millennium with our kibbutz style.”
This restructuring of the dining system was not accepted without resistance. Some kibbutz members, such as Dov (seventy-six, Kibbutz Mishmar), pointed out that they grasped this supposedly practical change as a major ideological threat: “I knew that this was the beginning of the end. Everyone said, ‘It is only for the good! There will be more choice! People will be satisfied!’ … But since the legitimization of self-service, whereby members sit wherever they like, there is no more ‘us.’ In my days, one wouldn’t even drink a cup of tea alone—the members gave you everything.” Yael added: “I knew that this was the end. It started with drinking tea in one’s room12 and ended in a meal where one is like a guest: you pick up your food, sit, eat, and leave. You don’t care about other members. It was the end of ideology.”
Jacob (seventy-one, Kibbutz Dagan) explained: “When a kibbutz member chooses where and with whom to eat, the kibbutz loses its privileged status as above everything else.” Argaman (fifty-two, Kibbutz Tipa) asserted: “The buffet crushed us. Supposedly, it was just an easier way to eat, but it was against the values for which my father built the kibbutz.” Shani (forty-six, Kibbutz Mishmar) also mentioned her father: “I remember my father fighting unfalteringly [beheruf nefesh] against self-service, arguing that today it is a kettle, tomorrow a gas stove, and by next week there will be no dining room.”
Indeed, self-service stresses different social ideas and ideals then those governing table-filling meals, requires different abilities, and fundamentally alters the diners’ relationships with one another (Wildt 2001). First, while table service renders diners passive and static, self-service requires diners to actively pursue their food. It therefore demands initiative, motivation, (p.126)
and dynamism. Second, self-service allows for a wider range of dishes than table service because it is more efficient, involves less food waste, requires less manpower, and is technically more flexible (as it only requires additional food trays at the buffet). The system is therefore more tolerant of personal preferences and enhances choice. Finally, diners are not obliged to be considerate of one another: the food is served in large pans that are constantly refilled,13 and there is no sense of sharing food at the table.
The shift from table filling to self-service was not only about efficiency and practicality but also about ideology. Specifically, it was about the legitimization (p.127) of individualistic wishes, tendencies, and choices. The self-service system acknowledges that kibbutz members have personal culinary and social preferences and that these are legitimate. It is important to note that this legitimization occurred within the central, most public communal kibbutz institution: the dining room.
The Second Dining Room Crisis: Privatization
By the mid-1980s, the kibbutz movement was struck by a major crisis, the sources of which were political, economic, and social (Ben Rafael 1997; Lanir 2004; Lapidot, Appelbaum, and Yehudai 2006). The Labor Party, the movement’s main supporter, lost much of its political hegemony in 1980s and had to share power with economically liberal and politically conservative parties. The shift in political power exposed the deep resentment many Israelis—mainly Mizrahi Jews in the periphery, who lived next to kibbutzim and were often employed by them but lived under very different socioeconomic circumstances—harbored against the predominantly Ashkenazi kibbutz movement, with its privileged status and discriminating policies (Fogiel-Bijaui and Egozi 1985). This was exacerbated by an unstable economy and misguided economic decisions made in many kibbutzim and fanned by Likud electoral campaigns.
The wider context for these changes was the demise of socialism in Israel, the adoption of neoliberal ideology and practices at the national and personal levels, and the country’s gradual shift from “melting pot” and “conscripted society” ideologies toward multiculturalism, individualism, and capitalism. The kibbutz ideology and way of life lost much of its appeal, and the ever-increasing number of “kibbutz leavers” was no longer counterbalanced by enthusiastic young recruits. By the early 1990s, it was clear that a radical change was needed. Once again, this crisis period was perceived as “the end of the kibbutz”: it was obvious that the kibbutz in its present form would not survive for long, yet a radical change would challenge its fundamental ideology and might alter it to the point of extinction.
The main solution to the kibbutz crisis was hafrata (privatization; Helman 1994; Rosner 2000; Sosis and Ruffle 2003; Fogiel-Bijaui 2007; Halfin 2016). The first step in this process was that most of the communal budgets (education, health, and culture as well as “personal maintenance,” which included food, clothing, and car use) were divided among the members, (p.128) who could now make their own economic decisions.14 The next stage was usually a move toward a differential salary.15 By the end of 2010, of a total 264 kibbutzim in Israel, 193 (73 percent) were mithadshim (privatized; literally “renovating”), 62 (24 percent) remained shitufi’ym (communal), and 9 (3 percent) had devised a “combined model” (Getz 2011).
It should come as no surprise that the dining room was identified once again as an important component of the crisis. In many kibbutzim, the dining room was the first institution to be privatized, and this often was deemed the most urgent step in the attempt to overcome the crisis. Quite a few interviewees pointed out that a communal, fully functioning dining room is the most salient feature that distinguishes communal kibbutzim from those that are in the process of becoming privatized or are already privatized. Privatization of the dining room meant, first and foremost, that members who had gotten their food for free now had to pay for whatever they ate.
While my research focused on a communal kibbutz, a privatized kibbutz, and a kibbutz undergoing the process of becoming privatized, the critiques made by interviewees from the three kibbutzim regarding their dining rooms were quite similar. First, they depicted the dining rooms as wasteful. Danni, Kibbutz Dagan’s former econom (dining room manager; note that the title reflects the notion that the person entrusted with feeding the community is considered its economic authority), told me that diners would fill up their plates with huge amounts of food and then end up throwing much of it away: “When we had to share our food with the other diners, members would see if someone took food in excess and would criticize him for that. They would often joke about it, but it wasn’t really joking. Also, each table had a limited amount of food, so there was very little left over. But with self-service, people would load their plates and then simply throw good food into the garbage.”
From my own experience living on a kibbutz in the 1980s, long before privatization, I vividly remember that dog owners would place boxes with their dogs’ names on them by the garbage bins so that members could throw in their leftover meat. My gar’in (military peer group) members, who mostly came from lower-middle-class families, were disturbed by the amount of perfectly good meat that was given to the dogs and often commented negatively on what they perceived as an unacceptably wasteful practice. Privatization was meant to put an end to such wasteful practices, a goal that was apparently achieved. An article by Michal Navon (2001) quotes a kibbutz (p.129) functionary who reported a 75 percent decrease in garbage output in privatized dining rooms. This is very much in line with my own observations in privatized dining rooms: kibbutz members were very careful to take only what they intended to consume, and leftovers were routinely packed up and taken home.
More important than waste, however, were issues of choice and quality. While self-restraint and frugality had been idealized during the early years of the kibbutz movement, by the 1980s and ’90s, members wanted to enjoy the fruits of their economic success (Palgi and Reinharz 2014). They were also influenced by the increasing importance of consumption in Israeli society, specifically by the new attention being paid to the nutritional and cultural qualities of food (Kleinberg 2005; Gvion 2005). Yet the large, communal kibbutz dining rooms, which often fed thousands of people daily, were managed and operated by people with limited culinary backgrounds and gastronomic abilities, whose palates had been developed in institutional food venues, and while they produced food that was rationally planned, edible, and possibly nutritious, it was hardly tasty or exciting.
Despite the arguments made repeatedly in this book—that taste is culturally constructed and that people develop a taste for what they have to eat, “a taste of necessity” (see chapter 3)—my interviewees complained bitterly about the food in the communal dining rooms of the 1980s and ’90s. This was very much in line with their criticism of dining rooms in other Israeli total and quasi-total institutions, such as military and academic institutions, hospital cafeterias, and factories. The food, I was told, was greasy, under- or overseasoned, under- or overcooked, industrialized, tasteless, characterless, monotonous, and generally unappetizing. Nurit (fifty-four, Kibbutz Hermesh) recounted that, in the 1980s, “The new econom decided to add Chinese food to the menu. Every Tuesday we had stir-fried vegetables with chicken. But he had no idea how to cook it. He used cheap soy sauce and overcooked the vegetables, and, as the dish was kept warm throughout the meal, it became soggy and disgusting.” Oded (forty-five, Kibbutz Hermesh), who spent a few years in Singapore as a kid, complained about the food during the 1980s: “There are so many ways to cook great rice, so why was the rice always undercooked and tasteless?”
Another problem created by the self-service buffet system was the ease with which kibbutz members could take food home. This was termed the “plastic-box phenomenon” (after the type of container members would use to take food home). Under the old system, all food had to be eaten in the dining (p.130) room, but the introduction of self-service allowed members to take large amounts of food home and dine there with their family members, further eroding the communal lifestyle. The following exchange, which took place at Kibbutz Tipa during a dinner in 2009, exposed the tension surrounding this phenomenon. A member named Nehama approached Dan, a fellow member. “Is everything ok?” she asked. “You are taking food to your room again! Is Miriam [Dan’s wife] okay?” Dan explained that everything was fine but that “things were a bit busy with the kids,” so he was taking some food home. When he left, Nehama said angrily, “This is the third time this week he is taking food home, oblivious of everyone, thinking that this is a restaurant.”
Privatization legitimized the plastic-box phenomenon, as members paid for all food they ate, whether they consumed it in the dining room or at home, but at the still-communal Kibbutz Tipa, the practice was seen as problematic and considered a breach of proper conduct. Michael, the manager of Tipa’s catering system, explained: “The kibbutz is not what it used to be. Even though we have no privatization and we are communal, members were coming into the kitchen and taking boxfuls of food home. We had to stop it. We locked the refrigerators. Otherwise, the kibbutz would have gone bankrupt. Members were merciless [hasrei rahamim] and took food with no consideration of what would be left for the others.”
Despite the criticism of the communal system, the suggestion of privatizing the dining room sparked a debate that was much more intense than that preceding the shift from table filling to self-service. While some members thought of it as an urgent and even inevitable move, others felt that it would lead to the end of kibbutz.
David (fifty-eight, Kibbutz Mishmar), for example, felt that there was no other choice but privatization: “There was a time when no one came to the dining room anymore, only the old people. Everyone thought that the kibbutz was over, but privatization resuscitated the kibbutz and gave it a few extra years. Now the kids come home from school and have lunch in the dining room. There is a feeling that there is choice and that everyone can find a place in the dining room. We even reintroduced Sabbath meals.”
Yet other members of the same kibbutz felt very differently. Becky (seventy-three) said: “Before, we had a limited choice of food, but the dining room was meaningful for the members. Today, we have a lot of choice, but the dining room seems nonexistent for the members.” Ruha (sixty-eight) added bitterly: “It is all over. There is no togetherness. Everyone is on his (p.131) own.” Joe (who gave his age as “almost eighty”) went as far as to say: “When it was decided to privatize the dining room, I felt as if one of my limbs had been amputated. That’s it! What else is left?”
While Tipa’s dining room remained fully communal, the dining rooms at Dagan and Mishmar went through a process of privatization that included a gradual move toward full economic independence and commercialization. The dining room budget at each of these kibbutzim was divided among the members and the food was priced. The kibbutzim subsidized the price for members, but outsiders had to pay the full price (and most likely even extra, resulting in some profit for the kibbutz). The dining rooms were taken over by kibbutz members with previous catering experience, who tried to run them as profitable businesses. The food was diversified, and there were attempts to improve quality and taste. This, however, failed in both kibbutzim, as there was no change of kitchen personnel. As there was less and less demand for food, it was decided that the dining rooms would stop serving weekday dinners and cancel Saturday operations altogether, and, in Dagan, breakfast service was also eliminated, leaving only weekday lunches.
There were debates regarding the partial closure of the dining room. Avi (forty-five, Kibbutz Mishmar) said: “I knew that this was the beginning of the end. Everyone said, ‘It’s only dinner,’ but I liked dinners the best. During breakfast and lunch I was anxious to return to work, but during dinner you would meet friends, talk, enjoy. Since we legitimized having dinners at home, … there is no more ‘us.’” I attended the last breakfast served at Kibbutz Dagan. The feeling was very much that of a kibbutz veteran’s funeral, with just a few elderly members attending and a strong sense that it was “the end of an era.”
Once it became clear that kibbutz members were unable to successfully operate the dining rooms of Dagan and Mishmar, the work was contracted to nonresident, professional caterers. In both cases, this decision resulted in the improvement and diversification of the food, but there were also price hikes, which caused a lot of resentment because many members had no experience with managing their personal budget and didn’t know how to deal with unstable and volatile prices. Zeev, who was in his seventies, (Kibbutz Mishmar) commented: “I would rather eat a set menu at a restaurant than eat in the dining room, where prices rise every day. We joke that, as promised, there is a daily surprise in the dining room.”
However, the privatized Mishmar dining room featured an ice cream machine, an espresso machine, and a sophisticated kitchen that produced a (p.132) variety of dishes prepared by a professional chef that, according to some interviewees, were tasty and appealing. Leah (seventy-six) explained: “The children wanted [sophisticated gourmet food], and times have changed. If this makes them come here, it’s ok. We didn’t lose anything, we only gained.” In fact, Mishmar’s privatized dining room was visited by outsiders, some of whom ate there on regular basis.16 Other interviewees, however, complained that the change was only about appearance, arguing that the taste and quality of the food remained inferior.
At Dagan, according to Bat Sheva (fifty-seven), the nonresident chef “took it as a personal quest to save the dining room. So he decided to serve dinner once a week, but he serves very special things, like pizza and moussaka. Believe it or not, the dining room is packed. People missed dining room dinners. My daughter is crazy about it. She says that it is so comfortable with the kids.”
Tipa members, however, staunchly resisted privatization and considered their dining room to be the main proof of their ideological commitment. Nachum (sixty-two) stated: “The fact that we are still here, eating together, verifies that the dream is alive. The kibbutz is [still] above everything.” For Nachum, and for other members of both communal and privatized kibbutzim, a collective dining room is still the most important authentication of the kibbutz and its unique way of life. Iris (forty-one), who rents a house in Kibbutz Beit Yehuda, told me, “There is no dining room; they closed it down. And I know that this means that this is not a kibbutz anymore and not even a community.”
The Reemergence of Family, Ethnicity, and Class
Kibbutz scholars seem unanimous in their contention that the kibbutz crisis is very much a consequence of the shift from collective ideology to individualistic tendencies (Leviatan and Rozner 2002; Ruffle and Sosis 2006). In their book Crisis in the Israeli Kibbutz, Uri Leviatan, Hugh Quarter, and Jack Oliver state: “The Israeli kibbutz is experiencing major changes. … The underlying debate is about what values should govern kibbutz functioning: Collective and altruistic values are clashing with individualistic and egocentric values in determining policies and directions for the future of the kibbutz society” (1998, vii). Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaui (2007, 103) adds that in the context (p.133) of neoliberalism, the contemporary kibbutz emphasizes meritocracy, defined as a combination of individualism, capability, ambition, competition, and hierarchy, all of which are individualistic qualities.
The term “individualism” is highly contested, but the scholars quoted above seem to take it for granted in choosing not define it. Both academics and kibbutz members seem to perceive of any group formation that does not include all kibbutz members as individualistic. This, however, challenges Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim’s (2005, xxi) definition of the “self-sufficient individual” as lacking any sense of mutual obligation toward other members of society. It also contradicts the vast sociological literature that explores the tensions between the individual and the family, the village, the ethnic group, and any other social collective for that matter.
My findings suggest that the collective ideology of the kibbutz was not challenged merely by individualistic values or selfish inclinations but also by other collectives, which competed over members’ loyalty and commitment, including the family, ethnic groups, and new socioeconomic classes that have evolved within the processes of kibbutz privatization, or McDonaldization.
Melford Spiro (1963) and Yonina Talmon (1972) recognized well before the kibbutz crisis of the 1980s and ’90s that the family was a main competitor for members’ allegiance (Halfin 2016). In the kibbutz dining rooms I studied in the late 2000s, it was clear that this battle was over and that the nuclear and extended family had overwhelmingly prevailed.
In her seminal research on the family in the kibbutz, Talmon pointed out that the family and family meals were recognized as threats to kibbutz communal ideology that needed to be tackled: “The inherent tension between the collective and the family … led to far-reaching limitations on the functions of the family. … Among the many devices used to prevent the consolidation of the family as a distinct and independent unit [was the fact that] … all meals were taken in the common dining hall” (1972, 6). She added that the children ate their meals in “children houses” and that members’ rooms had no cooking facilities (beyond a kettle), so family meals could not exist as such.
But with the institutionalization of kibbutzim, the family gradually reemerged along with the urge for family meals. Talmon (1972, 82) detailed (p.134) how, even during the table-filling period, dinner (as opposed to lunch and breakfast) became a family affair within the dining room, a custom which self-service further facilitated (see also Tzur 1987, 52). Once lina meshutefet (the practice of all the children in a kibbutz sleeping together in one place) was abolished and parents took over the nurturing of their own children, family dinners, whether in the dining room or at home, became the norm.
The dining room at Dagan stopped serving breakfast during my research period, but the members of Tipa continued to have communal breakfasts. Most working members sat with their workmates, while older, retired members usually opted to sit with others of their age group. I was told that the elderly preferred the company of those members they had immigrated to Israel with because they had the same mother tongue and shared memories and history from the old country. Thus, age and ethnicity were important considerations during weekday breakfasts and lunches.
In the privatized dining rooms of Dagan and Mishmar, dinner service was offered only for the Sabbath meal, which was predominantly a family affair. In communal Tipa, most diners ate with their nuclear family members during the daily dinner service. Quite a few members ate at home with their families. Ravit, an ironit (“urbanite,” a kibbutz term for city people that connotes contempt and jealousy) who had married a Tipa member, explained: “I don’t eat my dinners here. I don’t have a kibbutznik soul. I prefer eating at home with my kids; I find it uncomfortable taking them to the dining room.”
At the three kibbutzim, the Sabbath meal was a celebration of the family and the hamula (an Arabic term often used in kibbutzim to refer to the extended family). The dining rooms were packed on these evenings, and there were often some lines at the peak dinner hour (around 7 p.m.). The diners sat at tables with multiple generations of extended family. Many of the younger diners were children and grandchildren who had moved off the kibbutz but returned to have the Sabbath meal with their parents and grandparents. Older kibbutz members often approached the visiting siblings of other members to see their young children, who had been born elsewhere.
Quite a few members filled large plastic containers with food to take home, where they had their Sabbath meal in the private company of their own family members. Others used dinner plates as serving trays, heaping them with food to be shared by their family members at the dining room table. As the privatized, self-service system and the cashier were designed to (p.135) handle individual patrons, each with a single portion served in designated, standardized, and prepriced plates and bowls, the large takeaway containers or improvised serving trays often created friction and arguments regarding pricing, exposing the incongruence between the privatization processes, which was intended to accommodate individuals, and the actual preferences of many kibbutz members, who preferred eating as family units.
Eventually, the dining rooms I studied transformed to meet the demands of nuclear and extended kibbutz families and began accommodating family meals, eaten in the dining room or at home. While kibbutz scholarship tends to perceive family orientation as a form of individualism, what I saw in kibbutz dining rooms, both privatized and collective, was a celebration of the family, and for that matter the extended family, over all other social relations.
One of the main features of the kibbutz dining rooms I studied was the fact that the food was structurally and materially Ashkenazi. Structurally, daily lunches and all festive meals consisted of starters; soup; a main course featuring meat, cooked vegetables, and boiled or baked carbohydrates; dessert; and hot beverages. This meal composition clearly adheres to Douglas’s (1972) and Murcott’s (1982) models of British and Western meals, but it was introduced to Israel and to kibbutz dining rooms by their founders: Eastern European Ashkenazim.
The same was true for cooking modes, choice of dishes, and seasoning. Schnitzel, boiled or broiled chicken, and meat stews were very common, and they were most often served with boiled vegetables, baked or mashed potatoes, pasta, and steamed rice. The seasoning was mild, often resulting in bland food. One of the main features of Kibbutz Dagan’s lunch was the pale color of the dishes, another consequence of mild seasoning.
Breakfast and dinner were similar, both featuring raw vegetables (for salads), bread, a few kinds of soft cheeses, boiled and fried eggs, butter, jam, coffee, and tea. During winter, breakfasts sometimes included semolina porridge, and dinners featured the occasional “warm dish,” such as soup, pasta, or quiche (often made from leftover vegetables from lunch or potatoes). While large amounts of raw vegetables and salads for breakfast and dinner are characteristic of modern Israeli eating, the other components are essentially Ashkenazi. (p.136)
The Ashkenazi character of the food was most obvious during Sabbath meals, which featured Ashkenazi classics such as chicken soup with egg noodles, beef stew, and roast chicken, and during Jewish holidays, when gefilte fish, chopped liver, matzo balls, and regel krusha (chicken-leg jelly) were served.
Like the majority of Jews that immigrated to British Mandate Palestine, most kibbutz founders had emigrated from Eastern Europe and were of Ashkenazi descent. It is therefore hardly surprising that the ethnic origins of these immigrants as well as their humble socioeconomic backgrounds were reflected in kibbutz food: bread, hard-boiled eggs, meat and fish balls (small amounts of animal protein augmented by onion and stale bread), herring, porridge, boiled pearl barley, borscht, clear soups, of mechubas (boiled chicken, literally “laundered”), boiled potatoes, jam, and tea. The main “native” ingredients added to the menu were olives, halva, coffee, fruit (mainly bananas and oranges), raw vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers), and an array of milk products made in kibbutz dairies.
(p.137) Israel’s ethnic composition has changed substantially over the years, mainly during the 1950s, with the mass migration of Jews from Middle Eastern and North Africa, and in the 1990s, when roughly a million immigrants arrived from the former Soviet Union. The ethnic composition of the kibbutzim was also affected by these demographic changes, and they are not nearly as homogenous today as they were during the prestate period.
Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaui and Avi Egozi (1985) estimated some twenty-five years ago that roughly 9 percent of kibbutz members were Mizrahi. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics estimated this to have risen to 12 percent in 2005, but it is unknown how many of the 37 percent of Israelis categorized as “born in Israel” were Mizrahi or of mixed ethnicity. While calculating the exact number of Mizrahi kibbutz members is tricky, it was clear to me while living on Kibbutz Dagan that the number of Mizrahi members was well beyond 10 percent and was in fact closer to 30–40 percent (including the second-generation Mizrahi who were born in Israel and the children of mixed Mizrahi-Ashkenazi marriages), a supposition that was confirmed by Dagan’s telephone list, which included a significant number of Mizrahi surnames. Moreover, a substantial number of dining room customers were renters and kibbutz employees, many of whom came from neighboring development towns and moshavim, where a large percentage of the population is Mizrahi. Other Mizrahi customers in Dagan’s dining room were visitors who were staying at the kibbutz guesthouse.
This significant number of Mizrahi diners, however, had only a minimal impact on the food composition and none on the meal structure, both of which remained essentially Ashkenazi. A kibbutz physician who had immigrated to Israel from Russia told me that he found the dining room food “really, really homemade” and specifically mentioned the soup, which he perceived as a mealtime must. He lamented that soup was not always available in other Israeli commercial dining rooms he knew but said that it was always on offer in Dagan’s dining room.
The three kibbutz dining rooms I studied occasionally served falafel, hummus, and pita bread. As argued in earlier chapters, these are highly contested culinary artifacts in Israel, perceived by many as emblems of Israeli national identity and not as Middle Eastern, Arab, Palestinian, or Mizrahi foods. Kibbutz dining rooms occasionally served emblematic Mizrahi dishes such as couscous or dag Mizrahi (“oriental fish,” a fish fillet cooked in red sauce; sometimes termed “Moroccan fish”). However, the spiciness of these dishes was significantly toned down, and, though colorful, (p.138) they didn’t feature the complex tastes and aromas of the original North African dishes.
Yafa (Kibbutz Mishmar), a Mizrahi interviewee (her parents had emigrated from Morocco) in her forties who had married a kibbutz-born Ashkenazi, explained: “They cook Moroccan food here. They even asked me once to teach them how to cook it, but it turned out that my cooking was too spicy. So they replaced the hot paprika with sweet paprika. They have even replaced the beans in my hamin [Mizrahi cholent] with pearl barley. In short, [it’s only] Morocco in style.” David (Kibbutz Tipa), who was in his fifties, rejected the assumption that kibbutz food was predominantly Ashkenazi and explained: “We have everything here: falafel, fish. … Truly, there is no ethnic discrimination. This kibbutz is the melting pot Ben-Gurion was talking about.” However, when asked whether the food was spicy, he replied: “No. … Who would eat it? This is a kibbutz after all.”
David’s and Yafa’s words expose the gap between the perception among many kibbutz members that their fare is multiethnic, pluralistic, and based on egalitarian ideology and the culinary reality shaped by “melting pot” ideology, which practically meant that Mizrahi Jews had to be recast into Ashkenazi molds. Mizrahi food in kibbutz dining rooms is more about looks than substance: the food looks colorful and spicy, but the taste remains bland. This is true of most institutional dining rooms in Israel, where meal structures and food seasonings are essentially Ashkenazi.
This is all the more interesting when considering the fact that most employees in Israel’s catering industry, as well as in the kibbutz dining room I studied, are Mizrahi Jews, Palestinians, and, as of recently, migrant workers and refugees. Though they cook the food, their own culinary heritage is barely represented, and cooking remains restricted to hegemonic Ashkenazi standards.17
Privatization set the ground for the restratification of the kibbutz. While kibbutzim, like all other social organizations, had their own power structures, hierarchies, elites, modes of social remuneration and punishment, silent majorities, and marginalized minorities, the basic economic equality meant that social prestige and positions of leadership and decision-making were the main positive reinforcements. While age and seniority (in terms of years of membership) defined members’ entitlement to socioeconomic benefits (p.139) such as larger homes, new appliances, paid vacations, and so on, the introduction of differential salaries based on members’ professional qualifications, expertise, and skills, meant that within a few years, some kibbutz members, mainly those holding managerial positions in the kibbutz industries, became relatively affluent (A. Cohen 2010), while others, mainly those who had fewer skills or whose jobs got outsourced or canceled, became the new kibbutz poor. Though most kibbutzim going through the process of privatization devised mechanisms that were supposed to prevent substantial socioeconomic gaps, these procedures were undermined by the increasingly powerful members of the managerial elite.
While most well-off members at Dagan were careful not to flaunt their new wealth, which could cause anger, jealousy, and criticism, the newly impoverished members were clearly observable in the dining room, where they had taken over food-serving and dishwashing jobs to earn extra money. In communal kibbutzim, these tasks were performed by all members in toranuyot (rotation shifts). Managers of multimillion-dollar factories took their turns by the dishwasher just like everyone else, enacting the egalitarian principle. But privatization meant that these shifts, just like the nightly security watch, were either canceled or assigned a wage. As manual, nonprofessional jobs, they were priced according to Israeli minimum wage, which was roughly 21 shekels (US$6.50) per hour in the early 2000s. While the busy managers eagerly dropped their kitchen shifts, the new kibbutz poor discovered that this was an opportunity to generate extra income after working hours. In fact, some of the more desperate members even competed over these jobs, especially during weekends and night shifts, when pay increased by 50 to 100 percent. Thus, the new poor became very visible in the dining room—they were serving the food, cleaning the tables, and washing the dishes.
The economic distress of certain members also resulted in conflicts regarding meal prices and in the development of techniques to reduce these quarrels. Dafna (fifty-six), a Dagan member who had lost her kibbutz factory job and was essentially trying to survive, told me about a particular incident:
My daughter was on a diet, but one day there were French fries [a rare treat in kibbutz dining rooms], and she just wanted to have a bite. So she took a couple of fries. The cashier charged her for a full carbohydrate portion. The French fries were priced as a “special carbohydrate,” so the cashier charged her (p.140) twice the price of a full carbohydrate portion, maybe one shekel [20 cents]. I was furious. … I yelled at her so that everyone heard. … Where was her common sense?
Samuel (sixty-four, Kibbutz Dagan) explained how meal prices were calculated: “There are two bowl sizes. It was decided that a small bowl equals one portion and a large bowl equals two. But sometimes kids or guests don’t know that and place a spoon of rice or salad in a large bowl. The cashier charges them for two portions even though they took less than one. But what can I do? It’s embarrassing to tell your guests that they should only use small bowls.” He also told me that some members would stuff the small bowls and even compress the food so as to get more of it: “If you take the small bowls and empty them into the large bowls, you’ll see how they manage to squeeze two portions into a small bowl and pay for only one portion.”
Misunderstandings and overpricing, however, were much more common when it came to serving members of the newest social echelon of the kibbutz: the renters. During the 2000s, many kibbutzim with dwindling populations rented out available dwellings, warehouses, farm structures, and services such as education, to outsiders to generate extra income. While some of the renters were members’ children who wanted to live on the kibbutz to be near their parents but maintain economic and social independence, others were attracted to the peaceful green setting, reputedly good education, and high-standard facilities. A significant number of renters were from neighboring development towns and moshavim, and their relations with kibbutz members were already particularly strained due to many years of animosity, jealousy, and contempt. But no matter who they were, renters were all considered temporary outsiders, even if they had lived on the kibbutz as adults for many years (for a discussion of various tensions between renters and members, see Halfin 2016).
Discrimination against renters was institutionalized in the cost of food, for which renters were charged the same prices (in most cases, double what members paid) as occasional patrons stopping over for a single meal. While there were other modes of institutional discrimination against renters, they were concealed (usually in the contract renters signed with the kibbutz). The double-price system, however, was public and enacted in the dining room, the heart of the kibbutz and the main hub of communal egalitarianism. Commensality was clearly not meant to include renters.
(p.141) Yet renters were further discriminated against by the nontransparent food pricing and by the cashiers, who routinely overcharged them. In the three kibbutzim I studied, there was no price list and no explanation of the pricing system. At a Shavuot meal I attended, one of renters told me, “When we finally reached the cheese buffet, there was hardly anything left. We had to make do with a few half cheese balls, torn cheese slices, miserable vegetables, and squashed buns. But the cashier charged us the full price, and we paid much more than the price of a couple of cheese sandwiches in a cafeteria.”
At a Sabbath meal, one of my friends, who was tasked with dishing out the meat course, carefully laid two slices of beef, one on top of the other, on my plate and told me: “Make sure that she [the cashier] charges you only for one portion.” At another meal, he used the ladle to scoop a bunch of chicken necks from the soup container and dished them into my bowl. When I discussed these events with another renter, she said: “Don’t you know? The price of the meal depends on your relationship with the cashier.” This was confirmed by other renters, who told me that their personal relationships with the dining room staff or cashiers resulted in discounted and/or enlarged meals.
It turned out, then, that the restratification of privatized kibbutzim found its most blatant expression in the dining room, the previous hub of commensality and egalitarianism. So did the family and the ethnic group, social categories that kibbutz ideology had sought to eliminate.
McDonaldized Kibbutz Dining Rooms
The Socialist-Zionist kibbutz movement was devised as a modernizing self-improvement project intended to emancipate the Jews from their impossible diasporic condition and return them to history as am ke’chol heamim (a nation among nations): independent, productive, and self-sufficient. As a modernizing project, the kibbutz was very much a product of a McDonaldization process, as described by George Ritzer.
Ritzer applied Max Weber’s theory of rationalization to the world around him, observing the consequences of an emphasis on “efficiency, predictability, calculability, substitution of non-human for human technology, and control over uncertainty” (1983, 100). McDonald’s restaurants, in Ritzer’s view, are the ultimate expressions of rationalization, hence the term McDonaldization.
(p.142) Each of the five components of Ritzer’s McDonaldization theory carries a specific meaning. The first is efficiency, or optimization—that is, getting the most and best rewards with the least amount of investment. The second is predictability, the ability to be predicted, which allows expectations to correspond closely to outcomes. Ritzer posits that mass-production techniques, especially the assembly line, are necessary for achieving predictability. In a rationalized society, then, production shifts away from artisanal craft and toward systematized manufacture.
Third among the components is calculability, the ability to measure and compare by quantity. The fourth is quality, which is especially tricky and time-consuming to gauge. So, rather than risk efficiency, a McDonaldized system will develop “a series of quantifiable measures that it takes as surrogates for quality” (103). However, because humans are unpredictable and quality can vary between products produced by imperfect hands, rational systems seek to replace human action with nonhuman technology. Machines are built to be more efficient, more predictable, and therefore more calculable than humans. By combining these four factors, rational systems produce control over uncertainty, especially the uncertainty of human beings.
Ritzer concludes his seminal article with a discussion of the “irrationality of rationalization.” In line with Weber’s warnings that modern bureaucracy would make for an “iron cage” in a disenchanted world stripped of magic, fascination, and delight, Ritzer argues that McDonaldized systems tend to dehumanize people and create bleak and uninteresting realities. McDonald’s is the perfect example of this process of disenchantment: the giant food franchise has practically given up on taste as a feature of the food it offers.
Ritzer and many others have criticized, expanded, and fine-tuned the McDonaldization thesis. In an article that I find particularly relevant to the examination of kibbutz dining rooms, Ritzer and Todd Stillman (2001) analyze the evolution of the modern American ballpark as an example of how the rise of rationality ultimately detracted from the purpose of rationalization. They show that dehumanized parks were disenchanted and therefore less enjoyable. As a consequence, they became less profitable, defying the rationality of the process. Ritzer and Stillman argue that postmodern ballparks have therefore attempted to conceal their dehumanizing aspects by simulating the nostalgia and magical allure of yesteryear without sacrificing their reforms, which have followed all five components of McDonaldization. These hybrid systems, featuring rationalized irrationality, seek to combat the blandness of perfection.
(p.143) McDonaldization processes were clearly at play in the kibbutz dining rooms I visited, but, just as in American ballparks, these processes, aimed at improving efficiency, calculability, and predictability, have resulted in paradoxical outcomes. Kibbutz dining rooms were devised as rational institutions aimed at providing regular meals for pioneering Zionists under conditions of limited economic means and manpower. They were also modernizing ideological tools intended at replacing the identification and loyalty felt by kibbutz members toward traditional primordial social entities, such as family, ethnic groups, and social classes, with a modern, egalitarian collective.
Both socialism and McDonaldization became blunter once kibbutz members started forming families and having children. While lina meshutefet was the most radical move against the family in the kibbutz, the communal dining room was just as important in undermining blood-based kinship. As many of the older kibbutzniks interviewed for this study argued, the kibbutz was the family, and nothing made this clearer than the table-filling system, in which members were expected to share their meal with any other kibbutz members.
The introduction of self-service was also the result of a long process of McDonaldization. Kibbutz members at self-service dining rooms were able to eat whenever they wished and with whomever they wished, eliminating long queues and saving precious work time. The buffet and dishwasher replaced much of the unpredictable human labor. These rational reforms increased efficiency and productivity, as less time and human labor were spent preparing the food and consuming it.
This process of modernization also had an ideological edge: it gave kibbutz members increased choice, autonomy, and flexibility. The buffet system allowed members to sit with whomever they wanted, control their own time, and choose from a wide range of culinary options with little, if any, consideration of other diners. These changes expressed and facilitated shifts in kibbutz ideology, mainly the diminishing importance of the collective, which had to yield to the desires and needs of other social players and institutions. While most of the literature positions the individual as the key player undermining the collective’s authority and power, my findings suggest that the family was the main social body accumulating power at the dining room buffet.
The next step in the McDonaldization of the kibbutz dining room was its privatization. At this point, the McDonaldization process became even more obvious: standardizing portion sizes helped kibbutzim ration and price food, (p.144) hence enhancing predictability and calculability; increasing economic efficiency not only saved money but also allowed for the diversification of the food and for more choice; and the installation of a cashier decreased waste and led to more control over consumption. Privatized kibbutz dining rooms were fully McDonaldized.
However, just like in American ballparks and other McDonaldized systems, increasing rationalization led to disenchantment. Unexpected price hikes and irregular food quality led many of my interlocutors to give up on the McDonaldized kibbutz dining rooms or, if they had no choice, to bitterly complain about them. And just like in American ballparks, professional caterers were expected to simultaneously cut down on expenses, diversify the food, and improve its quality. These attempts at “re-enchantment” were only partly successful, mainly because rationalized irrationality can’t provide for the human touch necessary to create food that enchants eaters.
While these outcomes are predicted by the McDonaldization theory, the McDonaldization of kibbutz dining rooms led to some unexpected consequences. The very primordial social categories that both Socialist Zionism and the standardizing flow of McDonaldization were expected to eliminate reemerged. Privatized kibbutzim were restructured along class lines, with newly rich and newly poor kibbutzniks sharing the space they used to own collectively. While socioeconomic class was most obvious in the private realm of members’ dwellings, the dining room became the sphere where lack of economic means was publically pronounced. It was where the poor had to limit their food intake, argue with the cashier about the ways in which their food was (over)priced, and take on dining room jobs and extra shifts that exposed them to the public gaze. Thus, the very exploitative social structure that socialism intended to eradicate found its most blunt expression in the McDonaldized dining room.
Ethnicity and gender, categories that socialist egalitarian ideology also aimed to eliminate, reemerged in the privatized dining room, too. The hegemonic Ashkenazi cuisine was challenged by Mizrahi and other paying clients, who demanded that their culinary preferences, shaped by their ethnic identities, as dynamic as these may be, be accommodated. And as women in the kibbutz were relegated to service and domestic jobs, it is of little wonder that many of the kibbutz poor who took on dining room shifts were women.
Most salient, however, was the blatant public victory of the family, and for that matter of the extended family, over all other kibbutz social components. Nowhere was this triumph more obvious than in the dining room, “the symbol (p.145) of kibbutz ‘togetherness’ and the heart of hearts of … [the] kibbutz” (Maron 1997, 22). In a bizarre way, the McDonaldization of the kibbutz led to a social structure that most Israeli Jews erroneously attribute to traditional Arab hamula, or extended family: multigenerational, patriarchal, patrilocal, and very much endogamous.
(1.) “Hakibbutzim veochlusiatam: tmurot demographiot bashanim 1961–2005” [Kibbutzim and their population: Demographic changes 1961–2005], Central Bureau of Statistics, 2008, www.cbs.gov.il/publications/kib05/pdf/h_print.pdf.
(3.) According to Palgi and Reinharz (2014, introduction), though kibbutz members make up only about 2 percent of Israel’s population, kibbutzim produce 40 percent of the country’s agricultural crops, 7 percent of the industrial output, (p.240) and 9 percent of the industrial exports, and they account for 10 percent of the tourism market.
(4.) I changed the names of all kibbutzim and kibbutz members to preserve anonymity.
(5.) Nahal is the acronym for Noar Halutzy Lohem (literally “fighting pioneer youth”), a military unit formed after prestate Palmach (see chapter 2). Youth movement graduates may volunteer in this unit and spend their compulsory military service with their peers in a garin (group, literally “core”). Originally, Each garin was associated with an “absorbing kibbutz,” in which the members spent roughly a year of their extended military service of forty-two months, and which they were expected to join as full members once their military service was over. Since the 1980s, garin members have been able to choose alternative social goals and locations during and after their military service. Nowadays, many of them opt for peripheral towns and neighborhoods as well as peripheral moshavim instead of kibbutzim. In any case, the number of garin members has been steadily declining.
(6.) The term “individualism” is highly contested. In this chapter, I use this term as a reference to the “self-sufficient individual,” a person who, according to Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2005, xxi), lacks any sense of mutual obligation toward other members of society. I use this definition not because I find it accurate but rather because it is most reminiscent of the ways in which the kibbutz members I interviewed conceived of individualism.
(7.) I have argued elsewhere (Avieli 2005b) that when the members of very large social groups, such as the modern nation, eat the same food item simultaneously (e.g., eating the national dish on the national day), a sense of commensality and shared identity emerges and overcomes the murkiness characteristic of the imagined nature of modern communities (Anderson 1983).
(8.) For instance, kibbutzim affiliated with the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement had a culinary legacy of purposely violating kashrut laws, mixing meat and milk and feasting publically on rabbits and pork.
(10.) It is tempting to suggest that the dining room is the watchtower of Bentham’s panopticon. However, kibbutz members are not hidden behind one-directional windows watching other inmates. Rather, they are both watching and being watched in the dining hall, which is accessible to anyone. Furthermore, my research is actually focused on dining room interactions, that is—interactions with (and within) the “watchtower.”
(11.) Eight is a “magic number” in most kibbutz dining rooms that was maintained after the shift to self-service, though the long tables were replaced by pairs of tables for four, which allowed for more flexibility.
(12.) The private kettle was one of the earliest end-of-the-kibbutz anecdotes (Spiro 2004), and it was mentioned repeatedly by my interviewees. Private teakettles (p.241) allowed members to have tea in the privacy of their rooms. It is interesting to note how brewing a cup of tea, a trivial and mundane culinary activity, can be endowed with such social and ideological meanings, some of them as ominous as the end of kibbutz. Just like in Zen stories, it is precisely the taken-for-granted nature of the cup of tea that makes it such a powerful symbol. The importance given to the cup of tea also expresses the extent of ideological commitment that governed the most minute, trivial, and private activities of kibbutz members.
(13.) In the self-service system, when specific dishes are more attractive, whether because they are tastier or because their amount is limited (e.g., meat dishes or the more luxurious desserts), diners are expected to be considerate and show restraint so that there will be enough left for other diners. However, as social control is weaker when food is served buffet style, it is often the case that an attendant is charged with portioning such dishes. This demonstrates that there is a need for increasing institutional control when informal social control is weakened.
(14.) The communal budgets were a method of pooling resources that allowed kibbutzim to invest relatively large sums of money in specific projects and offer some high-quality services to their members. Swimming pools are the emblematic example, and these were the focus of Likud criticism of kibbutzim in the 1981 parliamentary elections. But kibbutzim also pooled their resources (money and manpower) and invested in education, medicine, and community infrastructure. Most kibbutzim, however, did not invest in housing or other forms of personal and family consumption such as clothing, home appliances, cosmetics, and tourism. Much of the internal demand for privatization concerned such forms of individual consumption as well as a general demand for personal choice. Accommodating such demands meant that fewer resources were available for communal use. Swimming pools were once again an emblematic case: many had to be shut down or privatized, just like the dinning rooms.
(15.) Though mechanisms were established to prevent large income gaps, the outcome of privatization has been the emergence of a small but rich managerial class and an increasingly large echelon of mainly older kibbutz members who are poor and lack socioeconomic support.
(16.) During the research period, there was a large group of Israeli Palestinians that dined in Mishmar every Thursday. According to the dining room manager, they were an important source of income. While I didn’t get to interview them, their choice to dine at the kibbutz is extremely intriguing. My guess is that much of the appeal of the kibbutz dining room for Israeli Palestinians is the opportunity to access to what is perceived as one of the holiest spaces of Zionism as well as the possibility to purchase and consume the sense of modernity and sophistication of these spaces.
(17.) One exception is military dining rooms, where the food is often very spicy. I guess, though I have no empirical data to support this claim, that the predominantly Mizrahi cooks relegated to kitchen positions, which hold extremely low prestige in the Israeli army, spice up the food as a mode of resistance and subversion.