Jerusalem Report

Destination Diaspora
by Darren Garnick

Jewish life outside Israel is thriving, writes Larry Tye, belying conventional continuity surveys.

Being Vice President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany comes with fringe benefits for Paul Spiegel. The government gives him a free Mercedes, a complimentary chauffeur and a full-time bodyguard. At high-profile events, Spiegel is assigned additional protection by plainclothes federal agents.

A cynic might say Germany is covering its public relations behind, minimizing the possibility of a neo-Nazi attack, or characterize this VIP treatment as a palliative for the collective national guilt. In “Home Lands: Portrait of the New Jewish Diaspora,” author Larry Tye acknowledges that “Jews in Germany are displayed as trophies in the very halls where Hitler inaugurated his Third Reich,” but chooses not to let this irony become the story.

To Tye, Spiegel’s home in Düsseldorf — the first major German city to surpass its pre-Holocaust Jewish population — represents not a historical aberration, but rather a positive new Jewish reality, one of dozens of communities around the world undergoing a religious and cultural renaissance. The “Next Year in Jerusalem!” cry at the Passover Seder table is an “outdated metaphor,” claims Tye, a Jewish reporter for the Boston Globe who first encountered his subject while on other assignments. According to the author, Israel is no longer the Jewish homeland, but one of many homelands where the Jews are there to stay. No longer should the Diaspora be regarded as a temporary station on the way to Israel. The Diaspora is a final destination.

“Home Lands” is an anecdotal survey of Jewish life in seven cities — Düsseldorf, Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine), Buenos Aires, Dublin, Paris, Boston and Atlanta — concluding with a visit to Israel to meet friends and relatives of the Diaspora interviewees. Each location is presented as one with the potential for a thriving Jewish future, with the exception of Dublin. But even here, there is a success story: Many young Irish Jews are leaving, but they are moving to communities where they can find Jewish spouses.

Tye’s upbeat book runs counter to the “Diaspora Is Doomed” genre. The author concedes the alarming rates of intermarriage and assimilation, but argues that encouraging signs exist — new Jewish day schools, innovative adult education programs, increased synagogue attendance — that predict we will evolve into a “Diaspora of fewer Jews, but better Jews.” Tye’s storytelling skills as a reporter serve him well and he avoids dry or preachy language. His optimism shines through his subjects: “Every night when we sit down and have a meal we say the blessing over the bread,” says one intermarried Atlanta parent. “Now the kids will sing the Hamotzi at McDonald’s and I’m the only one who is embarrassed by it. They did it at Arby’s once, and a Jewish family three tables over was beaming and introduced themselves to us.”

“Home Lands” is a reminder that Jews are obsessive over identity issues, regardless of where they may live or how Jewish they want to be. In Düsseldorf, Jews tell Tye that “we don’t allow the Germans to tell us that we are not German,” yet worry when other European Jews see them as “too German.” Russian Jews in Germany face a double whammy: If they didn’t hate Germany growing up as a Jew, they surely did as a Russian.

Even comfortable Americans have their worries. “There was a Southerness here which I’m not sure is here anymore,” says a fourth-generation Atlanta Jew, referring to an influx of Northern transplants. “That’s a kindness, a neighborliness, a concern for other people. Whether it’s Southern-Jewish or just Southern I’m not sure. Our Southern heritage is being diluted.”

The book also chronicles hope set against worst-case scenarios coming true. The chapter on Buenos Aires is especially timely, providing context for why the sudden economic collapse of Argentina is not causing an immediate exodus of its 200,000 Jews. For starters, they’ve faced worse. Every Monday morning, surviving friends and relatives gather at the site of the 1994 Jewish community center (AMIA) bombing to blow the shofar as a demand for justice. The terrorists responsible have never been apprehended — or even definitively identified — in a suspiciously slow government investigation.

Debi Pinson, 17, demonstrates the same resilience as Israeli teens who face frequent terrorism: “The people who put the bomb, what they want is for me to leave the shul, to say, ‘Yes, Judaism here is finished.’ I will not give them what they want.”

No matter which “home land” we decide to live in, the joys of being Jewish continue to have a dangerous underbelly. That reality, says Tye, makes a permanent Diaspora all the more important: “History and reason argue that the more options Jews have, the more likely they are to survive and thrive.”

February 25, 2002