Remembering his childhood and his father

UF Professor Avraham Balaban's book "Mourning a Father Lost" is a painful memoir that recounts a childhood in a kibbutz.


Published: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 11:01 p.m.
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Avraham Balaban, professor of modern Hebrew Literature at the University of Florida, has written a memoir, titled "Mourning A Father Lost," about his kibbutz childhood in Israel.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun

Facts

'Mourning'

  • What: "Mourning a Father Lost: A Kibbutz Childhood Remembered," published by Rowman & Littlefield
  • Cost: $21.95, paperback
  • Details: Available through area bookstores and at Amazon.com

  • Professor Avraham Balaban says that the protagonist of his first novel, "Mourning a Father Lost," is really his mother.
    Balaban, who teaches modern Hebrew literature in the African and Asian languages and literatures department at the University of Florida, concedes that his father was a cold, distant figure.
    "In America, in places like Alabama and Georgia, the father's absence is the excuse," says Balaban. "My father was there with me. But I never really knew him."
    While his family and upbringing are at the forefront of his book, the backdrop is the story of the kibbutz movement in Israel, the country where Balaban spent the majority of his first 39 years, before coming to the U.S. in 1983.
    Balaban says he gathered material for the book by spending many summers reading archives in Israel about his community.
    "The more I read . . . the more I realized that (my father) was a victim just as I was. I started with a lot of anger. I ended with a lot of pity," he says.
    Balaban's father spent much of his time organizing a kibbutz, a small intellectual and agricultural community in Israel. The kibbutz movement began between 1900 and 1910, and grew as immigration to the region increased, especially after the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. Kibbutzes prized communal living, incorporated small-scale farming, and attempted to base their society around the formation of an intellectual community. Balaban lived on one from 1944, the year he was born, until 1966.
    His kibbutz, Hulda, located in northeast Israel, adhered to a strict ideology in which everything was shared.
    "The kibbutz tried to develop a non-biological family," says Balaban. "The nannies and teachers would be the parents. The classmates would be the siblings. They (the kibbutz leaders) didn't realize the strength that binds mothers to their children and children to their mothers."
    Balaban remembered that his mother often was available to him to listen, scold and share special moments, but his father usually spent their time together talking about productivity on the kibbutz or teaching lessons.
    In March 1997, Balaban missed his father again. His father passed away before Balaban could reach Israel. He mourned his father with his mother and siblings in the family home in Israel for seven days.
    "When I returned (from Israel), I wrote a 30-page article about going to Israel for the funeral, meeting again the kibbutz of my childhood," says Balaban. "There was so much missing. I realized, 'Why 30 pages? Why not 300 pages?' "
    He spent the next four years making the seven days of mourning into a framework, and inserting the childhood memories as flashbacks.
    "Writing it (made me) so tense that I couldn't work on it more than 10 minutes, a quarter of an hour at a time," he says.
    So Balaban put two computers next to each other in his office. He did his job as chairman of the department of African and Asian languages and literature with one computer, and wrote bits and pieces of "Mourning" with the other.
    Balaban finished the book in 2000, and it was published in Israel under the title "Shivah," which means mourning in Hebrew. It received a great deal of literary and public response and got Israelis talking about the significance of the kibbutz movement. The book was published in English just this year.
    "I think the book is for everyone," says Balaban. "I talked about it in Chicago and someone asked, 'Who is the book meant for?' Before I could answer, another woman stood up and said, 'It's a book for everyone who used to have a mother.' "
    Balaban believes many people can relate to his experiences in the book, which show how a mother and child were able to overcome obstacles and keep a strong rapport. The book is also about living with other children, he says.
    "(In the kibbutz) kids were left by themselves, but kids need some adult guidance," says Balaban. "Kids can be very cruel. While we were there, though, there was a wonderful moment of camaraderie. There was this sense that we were the avant-garde, the elite."
    Rina Donchin, director of the Hebrew program at the University of South Florida, says she also had that feeling when she lived in a kibbutz as a young woman.
    "The family of the kibbutz is not just (made up of) family members," says Donchin. "The kibbutz has control over everybody's life. The book reminds me of all sorts of silly, stupid arguments - is Raffi allowed or not to keep his wedding presents?"
    Donchin says anybody who has not lived on a kibbutz tends to idealize it. "But kibbutz members are human beings," she says.
    Professor Moshe Pelli, head of the Judaic Studies program at the University of Central Florida, says the book is very accurate in its portrayal of a kibbutz.
    "It is a fascinating story of a death in the family and of the death of the kibbutz," says Pelli. "As the kibbutz grew and mushroomed over time, they became quite well-to-do. But they started to decline (because) the younger generation did not return to the kibbutz. From idealism, (the kibbutz) changed into a normal way of life. Somehow it did not sustain the spirit of nurturing the new Israel."
    Today, there are still hundreds of kibbutzes, but the movement has lost its base. They began to die economically and socially in the late 1980s. They lost population, and many were privatized. Of those that still exist today, many are essentially nursing homes for former members or agricultural specialty communities.
    Balaban says his the book is an elegy for his family, the kibbutz, and Israel as he used to know it.
    "Everywhere I read (the book), at least one person ended up crying and shouting at me, 'How dare you ruin my image of the kibbutz!' " he says.
    But he also receives many letters thanking him for telling the truth about what it was like to grow up with a family that was not really there. He said he always returns to his mother as an example of what the harshness of kibbutz life could do to a person.
    "She was a very loving mother, but also very dedicated to the life of the kibbutz. She would work from morning to evening, and see me for half an hour before bed when she was completely exhausted. She was really a torn human being," says Balaban.
    Balaban says he would like to return to the subject of his mother in his next book of poetry, which will focus on her life in a nursing home at another kibbutz.
    "The problem is that I won't be able to use (the kibbutz) because it is a disappearing civilization. Fewer and fewer people will know what I'm talking about," says Balaban. "I was surprised by the amount of interest it created in Israel still."

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