Affective Community (Habonim Dror) Nostalgia


I probably shouldn’t be posting this. It’s a little too personal, and probably self-serving. But folk have been posting scads of old photos from Habonim Camp Moshava from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and I’ve been wanting to comment in a more formal sort of way. So please excuse the conceit. If it weren’t for this  picture from 1965 I might not have bothered. I like the  upper quadrant, in particular. It reminds me of Rodchenko’s avant-garde photography from the Soviet Union in the 1920s; and the fact that you can’t, at least in this picture, identify the figures milling about at the bottom. While I’m not uncritical of nostalgia, it’s also true to say that I love the rush of recognition and recollection, when you spot as if out of nowhere old pictures of yourself, your friends, old places, and old objects.

Looking at these pictures online, what interests me “professionally” are two things: [1] how they might contribute to an understanding of “affective community,” small, closely knit groups  organized around, generated by and generating all at the same time, affective ties bonding its members to each other and to a common purpose perceived to be just and true, [2] the historical archive that they now constitute. They propagate what legal theorist Robert Cover called “paideic nomos,” super-crytalized value systems set off apart from the larger social order, or “imperial nomos,” in which they are embedded.

These could include ideological schools and summer camps, youth groups, church and synagogue groups, unions, lobbies, arts collectives, etc.

For me, it was Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth movement organized around Jewish democratic socialism and the kibbutz-socialist idea mixed up with rump end 1960s youth culture. Habonim, which later merged with the Dror youth movement, ran summer camps and youth activities during the year, whose professed ideological purpose was to move us all to Israel to live on kibbutzim. Many of us went to kibbutz for the gap year after high school, before resuming our pre-ordained lives as solid, bourgeois college students, soon to be liberal U.S. citizens. Some of us moved to Israel and to kibbutz, and a very small few of us actually stayed. But for most of us who spent significant time “in the movement,” the experience was profound, stamping the idiosyncratic ways by which we have come to think about and articulate ourselves vis-à-vis culture, politics, and religion.

Looking back at these pictures, especially from the 1970s, what strikes me is the almost naïve and open self-giving of ourselves to a camera. I’m probably imagining it, but the faces seem more relaxed, less anxious, and happier than the way people appear in pictures today, when the relationship to cameras and other types of imaging technologies is more knowing and critical.

The Habonim summer camps were organized as self-governing, youth-led organization. While there was always a token adult presence on site, the highest authority was usually the director, a 22 year old kid. It’s a testament to the trust, or lack of worry and concern, our parents put in us back then, to let kids out of the house, to spend summers under the supervision of 18, 19, 20 year olds with effectively no or little experience of the world.

Like I said, these photographs belong to an archive. They are already historical documents of postwar American Jewish culture. In 1975, we were closer to 1945, to the end of World War 2 and to the Holocaust, than we are today, in 2013 to 1975. And closer still to the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the Six Day War.

Things looked differently back then. Israel looked different, America looked different, we looked different. I won’t say better. Worlds were smaller back then, perhaps less self-critical and self-aware than today, less cynical, but less wise also. For those on the inside, it was great. For those on the outside, it must have been terribly cliquish. But I think it’s true to say that we were better bonded back then, to each other, to history, and to ideological ideas. The notion that none of this was “genuine,” that it was, indeed, all posed, represents a little bit of postmodern wisdom, which may be true, if not in an absolute sense, then at least more or less, but in a way that is probably beside the point.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Affective Community (Habonim Dror) Nostalgia

  1. efmooney says:

    Zak, I weep a tear (as it were) when we have to apologize for the possibility of nostalgia as rich and worthy — as if all affective ties from yesterday or a dozen yesterdays were somehow tainted. Sure, some memory is falsified fluff. But if some isn’t the real thing, we have no identity, no identity at all. There’s no such thing as presentist identity.
    It’s good to remember the kibbutz/social democratic dream — its a touchstone of who we were, however much we may have changed, and change ought not to wipe the slate clean entirely, as if it were polluted — solely in very virtue of being now past, and so accessible ONLY as tainted nostalgia.

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