Zion in the Desert: Amer­i­can Jews in Israel’s Reform Kibbutzim

  • Review
By – February 20, 2012

William F.S. Miles has writ­ten in the past about exot­ic peo­ples around the world.” In Zion in the Desert, this polit­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gist turns to a cul­ture clos­er to home: my own strange tribe: the Jews.” In this book Miles offers a glimpse into his six weeks on Yahel, the first Reform kibbutz. 

Miles deft­ly weaves three nar­ra­tive threads: the his­to­ry of kib­butz­im and the Reform move­ment set against the back­drop of Israel’s polit­i­cal his­to­ry; the sen­ti­ments among Amer­i­can Jew­ish baby boomers about a soul-less, mate­ri­al­is­tic and Jew­ish­less’ exis­tence which draws them to the desert; and Miles’ own quest to answer the ques­tion Who would I be now if I had indeed made aliya?”

Miles search­es for answers by inter­view­ing those who did make aliya, and through these inter­views he invites the read­er on a jour­ney which might allow her to answer the same ques­tions for herself. 

Yahel began in the late 70s with a few rad­i­cal rab­bis and Israel immi­gra­tion activists.” A found­ing mem­ber cap­tures the sen­ti­ments of the ear­ly days in a pas­sage that exem­pli­fies the infec­tious pas­sion puls­ing through the book: Per­haps it was the brash­ness of youth and the lin­ger­ing mad­ness which had led us from the com­forts of nor­mal’ exis­tence to this stark and life­less desert. But we laughed at the chal­lenge and called our laugh­ter idealism.” 

Miles brings us deep into the rich­ness of Yahel’s nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment with descrip­tions of the desert’s beau­ty as well as its harsh­ness, and with descrip­tions of life on Yahel, which is sim­i­lar­ly beau­ti­ful and harsh. The res­i­dents some­times strug­gle with the ten­sion between group and indi­vid­ual liv­ing, pub­lic and pri­vate life. There are affairs, jeal­ousies, mid-life crises, pre­ma­ture death, gen­der inequities, strug­gles to keep up with the Jone­ses, child rear­ing issues. Human frailty treads firm­ly amid the ide­al­ism that built the kib­butz. But that frailty is coun­tered by the strength and sup­port of com­mu­ni­ty, and it’s that sense of com­mu­ni­ty that many kib­butzniks seem to have sought and found at Yahel. 

This book offers a unique­ly beau­ti­ful glimpse into kib­butz life, told from the per­spec­tive of those who live that life as well as that of an author who won­ders — what if he had?

Discussion Questions