It wasn’t until publishing Kevin Haworth’s 2012 essay collection Famous Drownings in Literary History that I learned for the first time about the Jewish institution known as the kibbutz, a concept that is part practical and part political; in reality not much more than a collectively owned farm in the style of ’60s hippie communes, the part that’s important to Judaism is that they were founded by the very first “Zionists” who in the 1910s moved to the region now known as Israel, explicitly to establish a nation for Jewish people where none had existed for thousands of years, and it was these mostly Eastern European radical socialists who believed that the key to a “Jewish state” was the embrace of these communist-style cooperatives, even going so far to believe that such collective farms would transform the deserts of the Middle East and eventually bring peace between Jews and Muslims.
As American non-Jew David Leach points out in his fascinating new personal-essay collection, Chasing Utopia, although it’s considered a duty by every Jewish person worldwide to regularly spend volunteer time at a Israeli kibbutz, these organizations also accept volunteers from all walks of life, Jewish or not; and back in the ’70s and ’80s when Leach was a youth, such kibbutzes were considered by many young people to be “the place where backpacking college students went on holiday when they didn’t have any money” (or so once said Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon, merely one of thousands of such ’70s youths to spend a summer on one of these farms, helped immensely by kibbutzes’ reputations as places where the liquor flowed freely and sexual opportunities were easy).
That’s what led Leach to spend a summer at a kibbutz himself, an experience he would fondly remember with hazy nostalgia well into his middle-aged years as a Catholic Canadian journalist; but one day thirty years later, he happened to catch an item on the news about one of these kibbutzes recently filing an initial public stock offering (IPO) for their brand-new high-tech startup, which made him realize that the very nature of these organizations had gone through a radical transformation during the last half of the Postmodernist Era.
That’s what Chasing Utopia basically is, a record of Leach’s revisit to Israel for the first time in decades to learn what’s happened to the collective farms he so warmly remembered from his youth, a trip that took him on a circular tour of the entire country and that entailed dozens of probing interviews with the remaining communards, government officials, NGO personnel, and fellow journalists. And the results are gripping: profoundly scaled back in number from hundreds to now dozens, the kibbutzes still remaining in Israel have largely been forced through economic circumstances to abandon their old collective roots, transforming themselves into traditionally capitalist, publicly held corporations, ones that have largely given up on agriculture to specialize instead in such 21st-century items as transistors, high-quality mirrors for medical equipment, and even cutting-edge women’s razors.
And in the meanwhile, as the politics of the region have continued to get even more fractured and complex with every passing year, instead of less like the originally Zionist founders of modern Israel envisioned, this too has had an effect on the kibbutzes, propagandized as a source of nationalist pride by conservatives (with the resulting terrorist attacks by Palestinians you would expect), while being held up as a bold experiment for inter-faith peace by liberals.
The lovely thing about a book like this being written by a non-Jew like Leach is that you don’t have to be Jewish yourself to follow along with the issues; Leach approaches these subjects exactly like the disinterested outsider he is, and in many ways this is a great exercise in traditional journalism that helps explain these complicated issues in a clear and balanced way. But what makes the book even more interesting is Leach’s personal connection to it all, which is why the sum of this book’s chapters is a bigger whole than simply an addition of its parts, and why you couldn’t just run these chapters as individual articles in a place like The Huffington Post; for in the spirit of 21st-century personal essay, Leach delicately weaves his personal story into these traditional journalism pieces, not afraid to express his own opinions about the things he’s seeing and the people he’s talking to.
It makes for a fascinating book when all is said and done, my favorite type of nonfiction and the kind of book I would’ve published if it had been submitted to CCLaP; and it comes strongly recommended to one and all today, a book inherently interesting to those already familiar with the subjects at hand, and a book that will likely make you interested if you never have been before.
Out of 10: 9.6