KIBBUTZ EIN HAROD, Israel - In the rosy light of a March dawn, the fields of the Jezreel Valley slope to the west, quilting the foothills of the Gilboa with an undulating spread of olive trees, sweet-smelling citrus and scarlet anemone.
From the veranda outside the dining hall on Kibbutz Ein Harod, the air above the fields already swirls with tractor exhaust and tufts of raw cotton spewed from the combines.
H. L. Mencken saw the same bucolic landscape when he visited this experiment in communal living in 1934 and came away most impressed by the early Zionists. Then, as now, the morning milkers trotted behind disorderly cows, coaxing them toward a wooden feed pen across the slippery dairy floor, with low whistles and pats on the rump.
"My eye is trained to detect excess of piety, but I can find none of it in them," Mencken wrote after observing Jewish colonists working the land. "On the contrary, they are realistic and enterprising fellows who look like Americans, even when they are Poles or Rumanians; and whether they farm communistically or as individuals, they have good cattle, modern farm machinery, and decent houses. Their colonies, seen from a distance, are extraordinarily charming, what with their red-roofed houses, their prospering orchards, vineyards and wood-lots, and their wild green fields; and at close hand they turn out to be swarming with Leghorn chickens, glossy Holstein cows, and fat, well-dressed children.
Today, that modernization has continued apace. Rising beyond the edge of Ein Harod's fields is a stainless steel government milk processing plant. The kibbutz dairy - still with 300 milk cows, as when Mencken counted them - has been updated. Computerized ID tags keep track of daily milk output, rewarding the most productive cows with the biggest helpings of feed.
On the once-empty prairie behind the chicken coops - now doubled in size to hold 5,000 eggs - there are three factories and an outlet store. In the dining hall, two spike-haired teens recount jokes from the latest episode of "Seinfeld."
More likely than not, Mencken peered down from this highest hilltop, where the dining hall now stands, perhaps chuckling as a class of preschoolers filed out of their communal children's housing on the way to breakfast, led by a diminutive wet nurse.
"The Ein Harod brethren are communists of the highest voltage," he wrote. "They even raise their babies in common. When a child is born, it is taken in hand by professional nurses, bossed by a young and very scientific-looking doctor, and lodged in a spick-and-span nursery, the largest and finest building on the grounds. When it arrives at the age of 3 it is transferred to a kindergarten across the street, with a dormitory upstairs, and there it labors under other professionals until it is 6. Then it enters school, and begins to live with its parents. How does the scheme work? I can only report that the children all looked healthy, and showed excellent manners to strangers."
Today's schoolchildren live at home with their parents. If they are accompanied to breakfast at all, it is only by friends, family members, or, as on a recent morning, a pair of huge black Newfoundland dogs.
But many of this community's 1,000 members (about double the 1934 population) still gather at the commons to dine together, arriving on foot and on bicycle, alone and in huddles of two and three.
Mencken figured Ein Harod would have trouble surviving, if only because it wouldn't be able to keep its youngsters down on the farm.
"As soon as its present kindergartners grow up they will begin to marry outside," he predicted, "and then there will be quarrels over shares, and it will no doubt go the way of Brook Farm, Amana and all its other predecessors."
The kibbutz has defied that prediction, but the young ones do wander off, despite the recent additions of a disco, pub and cafe. Whether setting their sights on San Francisco, London or Bangkok, Ein Harod's youth tends to go abroad after years of mandatory military service. Only half end up on a kibbutz, here or elsewhere.
The ones who stay eschew the coveralls and heavy boots of the founding workers' movement for Levis and shiny white athletic shoes.
But even if the kibbutz could hold its population, Mencken
figured, Ein Harod and the rest of "Eretz Israel" - the Land of Israel - might disappear. There was the "squalid Arab town" of Qumya on a nearby hillside to worry about, as well as "the vast reservoir" of Arabs across the River Jordan - "all hungry, all full of enlightened self-interest. Let some catastrophe in world politics take the British cops away, and the Jews who now fatten on so many lovely farms will have to fight desperately for their property and their lives."
The British did leave, in 1948, but it was Qumya, not Ein Harod, that died. Its Arab residents fled that year during Israel's War of Independence. The Zionists, meanwhile, kept coming.
Pub Date: 4/26/98