One of the central fixtures of traditional kibbutz life, the communal dining room plays a large role in forming a strong community bond. It is not only a place to eat, but is used for all large gatherings, administrative meetings and celebrations alike, and even doubled as a movie theatre in the old-fashioned kibbutz. Because of its importance in community building, the concept has also been adopted by most cohousing communities.
Every kibbutz takes a slightly different approach to the design and function of the dining room, but many aspects of it are universal: it is almost always one of the first “permanent” buildings in the kibbutz, and one of the largest; it is centrally located, next to a “town green”, playground and central parking lot, and typically in a place that gives it a good view of the whole settlement; its layout and decor are simplistic and adaptable, but not so Spartan that nobody wants to spend time in it; and the same building usually houses the kibbutz’s laundry facilities, post office, general store, a smaller gathering hall, and of course the kitchen.
Typically, the dining room is one of the very first buildings to go up on a kibbutz. It must be central and no more than maybe ten minutes’ walk from every house in the community. There are kibbutzim that toy with this idea, and as a community grows it inevitably spreads farther from the dining room, but if you want people to use the dining room frequently it has to be easy to get to. Next to the dining room there should be a park or green, a playground, and outdoor tables. The idea is to encourage people to linger in this community space, so they don’t feel a need to go back to their houses immediately after dinner.
Service is cafeteria-style, with an emphasis on a salad bar and a choice of three or four different entrees, and all the food is prepared by a completely separate group in the kitchen, so the staff of the dining room really don’t need to know more than how to run the dishwasher, mop the floors and plug in the steamer tables that heat up the food. It’s not a very interesting or challenging job, so the four or five members of the regular staff are usually kids just out of high school, new candidates for kibbutz membership, European volunteers or people who just got out of the army and are looking to plug in a few months of work before setting off on their trip to India.
One of the principal tenets of kibbutz life is that everybody takes part in the basic community work, so the regular dining room staff only work breakfast and lunch on weekdays. Every member of the kibbutz takes turns operating the dining room for supper and all weekend meals. In a normal kibbutz setup, you’ll get this duty once every couple of months. For one week you report to the dining room about half an hour before dinnertime, haul out the coffee cart, set up a few tables and get ready to serve the food. Doing this ensures that everybody gets to see everybody else serving food, washing tables or working the dishwasher, and works as a reminder of everyone’s equality. Even the most stiff-necked senior manager can’t get too uppity when he’s scrambling to unload hot dishes from a continually working industrial dishwasher.
Occasionally, the dishwasher will become so harried that he manages to drop an entire stack of dishes. This will get you a standing ovation and chants of “do it again!” Nobody gets too uptight about it, because sooner or later it happens to everyone.
An interesting aspect of the communal dining room is the way that organic social units are spontaneously formed within its space. Most of the tables are intentionally larger than individual family units, so there will usually be two or three families sharing a table. Smaller tables near the periphery are almost always occupied by groups of teenagers, volunteers or young, single members. These groups are fluid, and there is none of the rigid stratification familiar to most of us from high-school cafeterias. There aren’t separate tables for jocks and geeks, or any kind of ethnic segregation – it would be almost unthinkable to exclude anyone, for any reason, from your table. People will often eat their meal with one group, then join a different group for a cup of coffee. Within this space, the standard social units are quickly forgotten, and for the space of a meal or a movie, the whole community becomes a family.
The First Practically Annual Everything, Kansas Quest and Memorial Potluck