Buying Cat Food with the King of Achziv, from Chasing Utopia

This fall, we’re releasing a unique memoir that explores the controversial decline of Israel’s kibbutz movement. Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel draws readers into the quest for answers to the defining political conflict of our era. Offering an outsider perspective of a non-Jewish North American traveller, Leach brings the story of the kibbutz and Israel to date after decades of change.

Until September 30, 2016, get 35% off with the code CHASING35!


“Leach’s report is both affectingly personal, delving into many intimate stories of visionaries, and a sound historical study . . . An eye-opening look at an Eden of eco-villages gradually giving way to economic exigencies.” — Kirkus Review

“Wonderfully written. Through the story of the kibbutz, Leach captures all that is beautiful and less beautiful in Israel. It is a story about partnership, solidarity, and estrangement in various levels and dimensions. A good read for anyone interested in utopia, Israel, and the way we deal with unfulfilled dreams.” — Dr. Oded Lowenheim, chair of the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

 “Leach reveals an imaginative and sharply inquiring mind, a gift for capturing the social complexity of the Israeli kibbutz and the troubled society beyond through humorous, moving, and often thrilling anecdotes. Lively, unsentimental, yet deeply empathic, Chasing Utopia is a new classic in kibbutz scholarship, a vibrant story with real heart and intellect.” — Ranen Omer-Sherman, author of Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature & Film, endowed chair in Judaic Studies, University of Louisville



Here's a excerpt from Chasing Utopia editor Jen Knoch’s favourite chapter, “Buying Cat Food with the King of Achziv” 

My return flight from Tel Aviv touched down in Toronto, and I shoved my passport under the Plexiglas edge of a customs booth. The young agent flipped the pages, ready to bless my return, until his finger paused.

“What’s this?”

His digit incriminated two blue-inked stamps. The crude markings stood out next to the bureaucratic icons from Israel proper; they looked like a daycare art project, carved and inked into wobbly, spud-like ovoids. On the bottom stamp, Hebrew lettering and the words Medinat Achziv encircled a half-ruined mansion with a palm tree sprouting between Moorish domes.

“It’s from the State of Achziv,” I said, as though the location were common knowledge.

“Where’s that?”

“It’s a micro-nation on the coast of Israel,” I explained, and then added, with the slack authority of a Wikipedia citation: “It’s in the Lonely Planet.” Achziv’s Lonely Planet listing appeared in an eccentric guidebook to “homemade nations,” which included a country whose monetary system fluctuated with the price of Pillsbury cookie dough, another that had elected a poodle as president and an island nation known as the Conch Republic that seceded from Key West.

“Is it a Jewish state?” the agent asked.

Why did that matter? Was it a trick question?

I suppose it was true: Achziv was a Jewish state. One of only two in the world. But it was so much more.

I simply answered, “Yes.”

The agent waved me through. 

~ *~ *~

 A bonfire threw sheets of flame at the stars. Beyond the circle of dancing light, behind a scrubby lip of eroded dune, the tide drummed against the Mediterranean shore. Pair by pair, kibbutz volunteers descended the stone steps of an amphitheatre toward the heat of the fire pit, like the first animals approaching the ark. There, silhouetted against the inferno, awaited our Noah, our Moses, our Abraham. Decades of salt spray and snorkelling had blanched and bristled his once-dark beard, while the sun had bronzed the wrinkled dome of his bare skull. A long, loose, dirty-white jalabiya—an Arab tunic—hung to bare ankles; on his leathery feet were scuffed sandals ready to disintegrate.

Eli Avivi looked like a caricature of a pop-eyed desert prophet. His soft voice lacked oratorical rumble, but his words still carried above the snap and hiss of the bonfire, the pounding of the surf, the snickering of the tipsy audience of volunteers from Kibbutz Shamir. Eli had presided over hundreds such rituals of holy mischief with the solemnity of a temple priest.

“In our time under the sky,” he began, “two truthful, naked people have come to join together . . .”

To be truthful, we weren’t naked. Not yet anyway. Our wedding procession approached in work shorts and T-shirts, flip-flops and canvas boots.

“Behold!” our host commanded. The first couple stepped forward. “The virgin son of god and the virgin daughter of nature!”

In English and Hebrew, he pronounced a pair of Swedish volunteers husband and wife. We raised a toast with bottles of Goldstar beer and arak. More couples tied the knot. Finally, I stood with my intended. Mikkel was a new arrival from Denmark, with a thick neck, square head and blonde crewcut. He peppered his rudimentary English with obscenities, chain-smoked with self-serious nonchalance and owned a pair of elephant-faced gag underwear with an anatomically incorrect trunk sheath. I’m not sure how I knew this last fact or whose idea it was to get married. When our busload of kibbutz volunteers disgorged on the Shabbat trip, Eli had asked if he could perform any weddings. Looking back, I now cringe at our frat-boy hijinks, how we thought it would be hilarious to get married—two beery-eyed blonde bros—by an odd old man in a ratty tunic.

It was the spring of 1989. Even then, I doubt we were the first same-sex union Eli had validated. He adapted his spiel to the moment: “Two truthful people join together, the virgin son of god and the virgin son of nature”—he didn’t make clear who was whom—“are getting married!” He produced a certificate he’d hand-written in red marker and then burned the paper’s white edges with a cigarette lighter to give the document the raggedy-edged faux-antique patina of a pirate map or a Dead Sea Scroll. We signed the top corner, and Eli inked his own name, as witness and legal authority.

Technically, the only authorities in Israel allowed to sanctify marriages were Orthodox rabbis, Christian priests or Islamic imams. Non-religious marriages weren’t permitted, let alone same-sex ones. For a civil union or a marriage between faiths, couples travelled to Cyprus or another country. What Eli Avivi had done that night violated the spirit of his land and the letter of its law. He didn’t care. The ground on which we stood was no longer part of Israel. He would never bend to the endless thou-shalt-nots enforced by the rabbinate or the government on its citizens. He had declared his independence years ago. If Eli wanted to wed young, drunk foreigners in mass moonlit marriages, that was his business.

He rolled his passport stamp across an ink pad and slammed it down on our certificates. It was official. Just twenty years old, I was now a married man in the Free State of Achziv.

Read the full excerpt here.


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