When We Were the Vanguard

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published November 25, 2009, issue of December 04, 2009.
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Those were indeed the days my friend, and we truly thought they’d never end. We thought the nights would be for dancing and for stars, and the days — the days for making real the dreams, dreams learned from Isaiah and Amos and Walt Whitman and Camus. We loved being precocious and parading our precocity, Jewish and secular, and we knew our destiny was to “arise and build,” to go up to the land, the new State of Israel, there to plow and teach and share and show the world how to be — yes, the kibbutz.

Builders: Leonard Fein is pictured here with his fellow Habonim members in Israel. (He is in the center in the top and left pictures.) Click to view larger
PHOTOS COURTESY OF LEONARD FEIN
Builders: Leonard Fein is pictured here with his fellow Habonim members in Israel. (He is in the center in the top and left pictures.) Click to view larger

On the evening of November 14, in New York, some 300 current and former members of Habonim, young and aging alike, gathered in a New York restaurant to celebrate 75 years of Habonim in North America and to honor three people representing three generations of the Labor Zionist youth movement that was once our home and has remained, for many of us, our abiding inspiration.

Our inspiration, though the kibbutz has become in some ways a curiosity. Our inspiration, though the kibbutz hardly any longer seems the wave or even the wavelet of the future, at most a ripple. Our inspiration, though the part about the swords into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks has for decades now been on hold, tossed into an attic crowded with anachronisms. Our inspiration, even though, ever so reluctantly, we’ve learned that our people has its full share of charlatans and mediocrities, of whore houses and pimps and trafficked women and exploited foreign workers, its exploiters of every kind, all these alongside generosity and thoughtfulness and its immense achievements in the sciences, the humanities, the arts.

Those were the days we thought ourselves the vanguard of the Jewish people. We were never even nearly the size of Young Judaea or BBYO, but we — the more so if you counted Hashomer Hatzair and Bnei Akiva — were not a club or an organization, we were a movement, a movement that meant to write a new chapter in Jewish history.

Six decades and more have now passed. There was energy in the restaurant the other night, but it was the energy of reunion more than renewal, an evening’s suspension of disbelief so that we could immerse ourselves in nostalgia’s buoyant waters. It was too crowded and noisy to be sure, but I am confident that there were many times more sentences like, “Do you remember the hike in the pine forest when Rivkeh got lost?” than there were sentences such as “Can you believe how the Orthodox have hijacked Judaism?”

A characteristic vignette evoked by the evening’s atmosphere: Back in the ’50s, Habonim used clunky addressograph machines to prepare its mailings. (The mailings themselves were prepared with stencils and mimeograph machines, a whole other arena for tedious misadventure.) Each member of the movement had a plate with his or her name and address and a code, indicating her or his position in the hierarchy of this determinedly non-hierarchical movement. I remember the thrill I felt when my mail started to arrive with the ego-boosting code “KP” right there on the envelope, so that even the postman would know that Habonim regarded me as a “key person.”

Yet for all the individual flashes of memory and feeling, it is safe to say that here were gathered exemplars of that allegedly dwindling breed, people of the left who were and are Zionists. That is no small thing these days, and says something important about how deeply the movement’s values shaped us. Sure, the words “left” and “Zionist” are a good deal less precise than we once supposed. But there’s still enough to work with: “Left” means, at least, more equitable, and “Zionist” means in support of a Jewish state. (And yes, I know that “a Jewish state” is itself imprecise, saying nothing about the role of the rabbinate and nothing about the place of the non-Jewish citizens of the state.)

But precision was not our long suit back then, either. What we shared and, so far as I can tell, still share, is a sensibility, a continuing capacity for hope as also for indignation, for the specific hope and indignation that seeks the very best in Jewish values and ethics and aspirations and rejects the hype, the sham, the planting and reaping of fear that informs so much of our communal life.

I was one of the three honorees, which entitled me to four minutes of response. Three-and-a-half minutes for thanks and reminiscence, and 30 last seconds — how could I not? — to relight the fire: “This is an evening of delightful nostalgia, and it is exceedingly pleasant to immerse ourselves in nostalgia’s gentle waters, perhaps even to pretend that mah yafim haleilot b’chna’an, how beautiful are the nights in Canaan, is all there is to know. I do not want to spoil the fun, and I am fully prepared to sing as many verses of ‘those were the days, my friend’ as we can come up with — so long as all of us know that the song we must resume singing when this evening’s over is ‘these are the days, my friend’ — for they surely are, and there is much work to be done.”


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