Kanye West wants to start a Christian kibbutz - but what exactly is that?

The kibbutz was traditionally based on agriculture.(Photo: Unsplash/KellyNeil)

What do Kanye West and Liverpool taxi drivers have in common, do you think?

Why, the Israeli kibbutz system, of course.

Let me explain.

Many years ago, when I taught Hebrew at Liverpool University, some of my most enthusiastic students were Liverpool taxi drivers. And most of these had spent a period of time volunteering on one of Israel's kibbutzim.

That explained why they were all so outstandingly good at Hebrew, as well as being capable of out-of-the box thinking, when needed.

The first group of eager students which assembled to start this new subject – new for them, and new for Liverpool University itself - consisted of bishops, chaplains, professors, classicists, cooks, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, dockers, teachers, theologians, sociologists, linguists, translators, nurses, doctors, psychiatrists - everyone you could think of!

In other words, they were a good cross-section of Liverpool life.

But by far the best students – the quickest, the most alert, the most adept at reading from right to left, and at drawing huge insights from basic Hebrew words - were the taxi drivers of Liverpool.

In the following years, additional students of all ages and backgrounds started coming from Leeds and from Manchester, from Birmingham, and even on occasion from further afield, but my favourites – the ones I really remember – were still nevertheless, the cabbies of Merseyside.

We have all been reminded of the incredible sixth sense of Liverpool cabbies by the story of the very brave man who saved a number of lives when his passenger appeared to be acting suspiciously.

How to nurture your sixth sense is something that is taught on the Israeli collective farm structure, known as the 'kibbutz.' The origin of the word means 'a gathering'. And this is what it is – a gathering of like-minded people with one purpose, which originally was to safeguard the Jewish homeland from ill-wishers, marauders and murderers. Only then, after decades of back-breaking work, did this bear fruit, when thriving orchards and vineyards were turned into the industries for which the kibbutz system is known today.

No doubt that is one of the reasons that famous rapper, Kanye West, now known as 'Ye', wants to emulate the Israeli example and start his very own Christian kibbutz system. He thinks that the kibbutz provides a holistic way of life, with grandparents (i.e. people like me) on call 25 hours a day, to look after the grandchildren and provide solace and succor to their adult children and all the surrounds.

As it happens, the earlier kibbutzim didn't have grandparents - originally. Oldies would have died like flies in the malarial swamps. Early kibbutzim had young pioneers from Russia and Eastern Europe, who were on the run from oppression and pogroms, such as future Israeli Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, Generals, and heads of this, that and the other, working the fields, planting trees and just getting on with it.

These people would leave their children with adults specially chosen to look after them. Mostly, the grandparents had stayed behind in the old country. The young pioneers succeeded in building up the land into a fertile oasis in what was otherwise arid desert, as well as into a viable political enterprise. The two went together. It is hard to subsist in a swamp, after all.

The first thing that strikes you on visiting a kibbutz is the amount of hard work that goes into their uptake. Frankly, most young Brits today, keen on spending their gap year doing something useful, eg volunteering, would probably be turned down by the average kibbutz as simply not up to it. Kibbutz life is no joke after all.

The kibbutz system is however gradually declining as the moshav structure grows – a structure in which families live in separate housing, but are part of a village-like environment – holding some things in common.

But, to be honest, that's how I always felt about Liverpool – a port with a village atmosphere – where people tend to come together in crises and look after each other. A funny city, a city full of irony, brains, music and books with a common purpose. Even if we couldn't enunciate what that was.

Rapper Kanye West wants to start a Christian kibbutz.Lakewood Church

Yes, no one could wish for a greater childhood or young adulthood than in the city whose people are simply as a German friend once said 'eigenartig' - one of a kind, special – once encountered, never ever forgotten.

Even the Russian conductor, Vasily Petrenko, has waxed lyrical about his time at the Phil and stated that Liverpool reminds him of Russia. Liverpudlians, he added, are warm, emotional and humorous, and simply have 'a Russian mentality'.

Yes, teaching Hebrew to the Liverpool masses had its moments, but I would never have given it up for one minute – even when asked to help people convert – to Judaism that is. I always had my doubts about this.

Because it wasn't as simple as it sounds. Most people who wanted to convert to Judaism had already experiment with paganism, Shamanism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism (and not necessarily in that particular order), before ending up wanting to give us a go too. Often though, I would put prospective conversion candidates in the direction of the Manchester Bet Din and let them take it from there.

Some of them never looked back, but many of these converts became so 'frum' that we were simply no longer in the same league! Put simply, once my former students had converted, I was no longer observant enough for them. And teaching Hebrew to all and sundry was definitely out – in their minds at least.

Maybe a cautionary tale for those who leap at the idea of attracting converts. Converts don't only come into our own circle. They bring whatever they had before – and sometimes what they had before isn't compatible ......!

But to get back to Kanye West, it appears that the Israeli Kibbutz Movement has written to offer Kanye all the help in the world. Who wouldn't wish him good luck in his enterprise. As long as he bears in mind that little old grandmotherly ladies aged 70 simply don't exist in Israel.

In that country of doughty warriors and fearless pioneers, you are far more likely to find septuagenarians holding down a good job, going swimming every morning, travelling all over the place, promoting their opinions, running charities, and simply not having the time on an hourly basis to be there for the grandchildren.

Because, the word 'kibbutz', meaning 'gathering', is related to another Hebrew word, which is 'kibitz'. Kibitz is the expression used for looking over people's shoulders and offering unwelcome advice.

Yes, most Israeli grandmothers of my acquaintance are bossy, opinionated, sprightly and enterprising. They say what they think, are not particularly cuddly, and have at least 20 years more life left in them.

And yet, what Kanye is after is understandable. While the rest of the world appears to fall apart – with the Church often failing to lead by example - and whacky cults and violent extremism seemingly the only alternatives - why not emulate all those enterprising Liverpool taxi drivers and get to grips with what Judaism may have to offer. And the beauty of the whole thing is, we won't even expect you to convert. As far from our goals as anything might be.

Hebrew is a good start. You might learn a thing or two – not least about the context in which Jesus grew up. And then, if you are strong, willing and able, why not brave a trip to Israel, visit all the haunts where Jesus lived, and of course make sure you spend some time in the kibbutzim and moshavim that have so much to offer – only maybe not what you expected.

And, lest we forget, while no doubt following Kanye West's kibbutz progress with interest, do spare a thought for Liverpool's taxi drivers and work out the secret of what gives them the edge.

For, as Benjamin Disraeli declares in his book Sybil, after which my fabulous Liverpool French teacher was named, this country is comprised of "two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws."

And further: what is a community – the community that Kanye West so desperately seeks?

"It is a community of purpose that constitutes society.... [W]ithout that, men may be drawn into contiguity, but they still continue virtually isolated."

We can't all live on kibbutzim or on moshavim. But we can all try, wherever we happen to be, to form a 'community of purpose.'

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.