Preface: Charting the Journey

Diaspora. The word itself suggests an existence as unsettled as it is unsatisfying. It describes a homogeneous people uprooted and dispersed from their native land by unstoppable armies or irreversible social forces. It bespeaks a yearning to go back. The Irish know all about having to abandon their homeland, and the loss that creates. So do Armenians and Chinese, Kurds and Kosovars. But the oldest diaspora of all is that of the Jews. It dates back at least 1,900 years, to when Rome toppled the Second Temple in Jerusalem and Jews were scattered across Asia, Africa and Europe. Each time they settled somewhere new, a new persecutor, the inquisitors of Spain, the Russian czars, Hitler and the Holocaust he unleashed, reminded them they were strangers, with the perils that implied. For not just centuries but millennia, Jews have vowed to make their community whole again by returning to the homeland, the Holy Land. Each year at the Passover Seder, parents and children end by reciting a solemn vow: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

That metaphor of a people longing to go home is compelling.

It also is outdated.

There is a new definition of diaspora. If there are many who have slowly come to sense it, it remains a vision not yet articulated. This book sets forth that story. It tells of Jews who are forever rooted in Israel, but no longer need to live there. It describes a heterogeneous people who thrive in secular societies as far-flung as the former Soviet Union and Argentina, but continue to embrace a core of beliefs and practices that define them as Jews. It presents a Judaism that, after centuries of dispersion, marks a race as well as a religion, a culture as well as an ethnicity. It shows that the diaspora is no mere curiosity of history, but rather the reality of today and tomorrow.

The foundation of the Jewish future is an understanding that the diaspora is here to stay. After nearly 2,000 years living outside their ancestral homeland, diaspora Jews finally can say that they have new homes. And they can know that those homes are secure in a world that, for the first time, is more promising than problematic for Jews. There are substantial threats posed by a slow shrinkage of diaspora population and its concentration in fewer lands, by a watering down of belief and a rising up of hate groups. But there is even more reason to celebrate as Jewish communities once presumed dead or dormant are being reborn from the old East Bloc to the jam-packed shuls of Los Angeles and Manhattan.

What about the Zionist dream of rebuilding the biblical birthright in Palestine that has inspired the last six generations of Jews? That, too, is being transformed. Israel today is a settled society made up mainly of native Israelis. It is inwardly focused, multifaceted and increasingly prosperous. It still has a Law of Return that welcomes all diaspora Jews, but these days Israel is a refuge mainly for those who have nowhere else to go. It is experiencing air and water pollution, too much private construction and too little public transportation, environmental problems that would only get worse if many more Jews of the diaspora accepted its offer to emigrate. Most Israelis see their nation as complete even if is not home to all the world’s Jews, just as most diaspora Jews are coming to see themselves as complete even if they do not sign up and move to Israel.

All of which suggests the evolution of a new relationship between Israel and the rest of world Jewry as part of the new definition of diaspora. Erez Israel will remain the nourishing center of Judaism, a place where diaspora Jews go for everything from replenishment to relaxation and research. But much as grown children do not have to live with their parents to maintain family ties, Jews need not emigrate to Israel to experience its lifeblood. And much as parents must acknowledge their children’s self-worth to forge a lasting relationship, so too must Israel accept that diaspora Jews have something rich to offer in their own right.

What is left, then, is not your grandfather’s or even your father’s diaspora. This new Jewish diaspora has a novel way of looking at itself: as something permanent and positive. It is forging a new partnership of equals with Israel. Its wide-ranging communities are coming to see that they have even more in common with one another than with the Jewish state as they search for spiritual and religious meaning in a largely non-Jewish world.

My first clue that something extraordinary was unfolding in the Jewish diaspora came as I traveled the world for The Boston Globe. I might have been in Moscow to cover the surge of Pentecostalism, the planet’s fastest-growing religion, or in Warsaw to see how 40 years of socialism devastated Eastern Europe’s environment – but what really intrigued me was the reawakening of those cities’ long-repressed Jewish communities. So long as I wrote the stories they wanted, my editors let me write an extra one on the Jews of Moscow and Warsaw, along with those of Hong Kong, Belfast, Buenos Aires or whatever other city I was visiting. The more communities I got to see close-up, the clearer it became that the Jewish world was being revitalized and reshaped in ways that, for reasons that still puzzle me, was not reflected in all the books I was reading about the disappearing diaspora and the vanishing Jews of America.

That sense of Jewish renewal fed into a decades-long debate I have been having with my oldest and closest friend, Philip Warburg, who after years of going back and forth to Israel moved there with his family in 1994 and became an Israeli citizen in 1999. He says that living in Israel finally puts to rest, for him, the vicariousness of a diaspora identification so premised on the return to a historical homeland. I have been equally insistent that the diaspora offers as compelling an identity for a Jew like me, who grew up and is back living in Boston, but has experienced Jewish life from Washington, D.C. to Alabama and Kentucky.

This book, then, is born out of personal passion and a quest to understand my own Jewish context. I know that, like my parents and many other Jews, I love to attend services and explore Jewish communities wherever I go in the world. It is as if I am seeing myself in different forms at each stop, and each adds to my sense of how strong we Jews are, how diverse, how faithful, how true. I feel that I, we, belong in Birmingham and Belfast and all the other places. But I needed to understand whether, centuries after we had shared a birthright in Russia or Germany, Babylonia or Jerusalem, there was anything more than a sentimental bond that united me to the more than 8 million Jews who populate the diaspora. What does a Jew in Hong Kong, who celebrates the High Holidays at the Arts Center using a Torah tiny enough to fit in the briefcase of his itinerant rabbi, have in common with one in Buenos Aires, who celebrates in a stately synagogue surrounded by four-foot-high barrels of concrete designed to deter suicide bombers? Is there really anything that an utterly American Jew like me shares with either of them?

Even more, I wanted to know whether it was okay for me to feel at home as a Jew in Boston, or anywhere else in the diaspora. Like most diaspora Jews, I grew up with a sense of being deeply rooted to my surroundings, of being a Bostonian and an American, and feeling comfortable with those identities. But at the same time the pride of belonging to an ancient people left me with an unsettled sense that, no matter how firmly grounded I felt in America, I belonged somewhere else. Those feelings of uprootedness were reinforced every Sabbath when we recalled the messianic vision of a return to Zion, and they were dredged up anew each time I thought of the decision my friend Philip and his American-born and raised wife Tamar had made to become actively involved in today’s challenging and perplexing Israel.

The best way to answer those questions was to see what actually is going on in today’s diaspora. I resolved to digest the unsettling numbers that the scholars of doom were citing on intermarriage and assimilation, then to weigh their evidence against what I found on the ground, as would any journalist. I would determine for myself whether the dying out of the Holocaust generation, and the easing up of anti-Semitism, were erasing the only compelling reasons for Jews to hold on to their Jewish identities. I wanted to find out whether there really were links among the diverse communities of Jews, and to see where I fit in with them.

My first challenge was to map out my rendering of the diaspora. I had to select a sufficient number of cities to get a representative cross-section, but set limits that would let me tell in full the story of each city’s origins, its evolution and, most important, its current situation. I consulted historians and demographers, rabbis and leaders of Jewish organizations, asking each to list 10 Jewish communities. I ended up with dozens of compelling choices from Melbourne to Montreal and Moscow, all convincingly argued by their advocates and all of which I was eager to explore. I did library research and live interviews on each, finally narrowing the list to seven that I felt had appealing stories, reflected the wider situation in the diaspora, and balanced one another. Dnepropetrovsk (Nep-ro-pe-trofsk) is representative of the whole of the former Soviet Union. It suggests how difficult it is for Jews to reclaim traditions stifled during a century of rule by the Nazis and Soviets, and how tens of thousands are defying the odds by reversing their assimilation. Buenos Aires is the story of 250,000 Jews who arrived in the early 1900s from Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire, settled in agricultural outposts, and carved a place for themselves in a land that also gave refuge to Nazi henchmen like Adolph Eichmann. Altogether my choices reflect Jewish communities that are growing and ones on the verge of death. There are places like Paris and Boston where everyone knows there are lots of Jews, and ones like Dublin, Dusseldorf and Atlanta where it is a tightly-kept secret. As a group they give a taste of today’s diaspora and a flavor of tomorrow’s.

In each city I tell the story in part through the experiences of a single family or congregation. Some are religious, some decidedly not. Several had written records of their family’s history, most pieced it together based on stories passed between generations. A couple are famous, the rest are not known outside their community, and one exists in the shadow of its city’s old slaughterhouse district. In Boston, the family I explore is my own. That is because it is the story I know best, and even more because my family’s roots run deep in Boston’s Jewish world, it remains actively involved, and it gives me the confidence that a diaspora existence can be compelling and fulfilling. It is, like most of the other families whose lives I probe, a diaspora success story.

In all seven cities I found evidence of hope alongside reason for despair as Jews negotiate their identities with the secular societies that engulf them. In Paris, the intermarriage rate tops 40 percent, but the Jewish community has never attracted larger crowds to cultural and religious events and never seen stronger bonds between its once-warring Ashkenazic and Sephardic factions. In Atlanta, half the Jews are not affiliated with any Jewish institution, but the other half attend services in such large numbers that existing synagogues are enlarging, new ones are sprouting, and Atlanta is the envy of Northern neighbors who a generation ago thought that Southern Jewry was an oxymoron.

Faced with such conflicting evidence on the future of Judaism I choose to remain an optimist, hopefully without being a Pollyanna. I believe that promising signs are just that: signs that give reason for real hope, in that they bespeak a vitality that those focussing on the bad news often miss. Appreciating the way young Jews and old are reengaging, for instance, makes it easier to nurture those ties and build on them. The truth is that we have been counseled and cautioned repeatedly about the dreaded threats to the faith, from intermarriage to resurgent anti-Semitism – but the countervailing, contradictory trends do not generate similar headlines or make their way as easily into books.

I see this book as a journey. Each city is a different stop, one that tells the particular tale of that place but, more important, helps answer overriding questions of what the diaspora is all about. What emerges in the end is a scorecard of sorts on the state of world Judaism – along with a measure of the potential for diaspora communities today to sustain their ties with ancestral roots at the same time they play meaningful roles in their adopted cultures. After returning from the diaspora communities I decided one more trip was essential, to Israel. There, I looked at the changing nature of the diaspora’s relationship to the Holy Land and visited with Israeli brothers and cousins, close friends and fellow congregants, of the families I focused on in my seven cities.

The first impression that emerges from those travels is each city’s singularity. Jews in Paris not only speak a different language than those in Buenos Aires, they are occupied with issues that reflect their different geography and economics, history and politics. The former generally are well off and confident; the latter too often are struggling financially and their communal institutions are crumbling. Likewise in Atlanta, Jews speak with a Southern drawl and approach their lives with a civility that makes their cousins in Boston wonder whether they really could be Jewish.

Far more striking than the differences, however, is the unity. Jews from Buenos Aires to Dnepropetrovsk have enough customs and rituals in common, along with culture, values and other traits that matter, for outsiders to see them as part of the same people and for them to define themselves that way. Stop by a synagogue in Dublin or Dusseldorf on a Friday evening or Saturday morning, the way I did, and you will see worshipers donning the same traditional yarmulkes and talliths. They chant prayers in the same age-old Hebraic tongue and pause afterwards to break bread, sip wine and share conversation. They parse the same passages from the Torah, Talmud and Midrash in search of contemporary applications, and debate the same questions about whether there is a God, whether it is a he or she, and what that Divine Being requires of mere mortals.

The same energy and vitality also characterize all seven Jewish communities in a way that is eerie and inspiring. Each had some seminal event that spawned a reawakening of spirit, from the arrival of North African refugees in Paris to the bombing of the communal center in Buenos Aires, and each has a passionate leader or leaders along with a community anxious to follow. In each, there has been a dramatic reversal of generational roles that sees children speaking Hebrew better than their parents and grandparents, having a clearer grasp of their Jewish heritage, and bringing older relatives back with them to the shul and classroom. There is a sense that the worlds of free trade, global culture and the Internet, which could make an ancient faith like Judaism seem quaint, have in fact pushed people to reach out for the very sort of spiritual meaning and uncompromised identity offered by Judaism. At the very moment when Jews have more freedom than ever to assimilate in secular society, more of them than ever are reconnecting to their Jewish culture and faith. The first time I observed such signs of renewal I dismissed them as interesting anomalies. But as I saw them repeated in one city after another, I came to believe that they reflect a real and widespread renaissance.

Nowhere is that more visible than in Germany. The Weimar Republic welcomed Jews in a way that promised a Golden Age, just as the Holocaust seemed to spell the end of the diaspora. It is the one land on Earth that Jews vowed never to return to. Yet they are coming back, tens of thousands of them, and Germany’s Jewish population is growing faster than that of any nation, including Israel. Which is, as the leader of Germany’s most influential Jewish organization says, “a miracle.”

The seven communities are at different stages of evolution in creating a welcoming, nurturing environment for Jews, just as within each community some feel more at home than others. Again, the German case is instructive: most of Dusseldorf’s older Jews doubt they can ever again feel like German Jews as opposed to Jews who happen to live in Germany, but their children are more sanguine as are many who arrived recently from Russia. Jews in Dnepropetrovsk, meanwhile, are at the earliest stages of creating the texture and comfort level that those in their sister city, Boston, have enjoyed for decades. Even in Boston and Atlanta anti-Semitism sometimes surfaces that makes Jews there question whether they really are as well off as they presume. Yet in those communities and the rest the realization is growing that the challenges they face are so similar that they no longer need to feel alone – and that they can learn from one another rather than having to devise from scratch their own solutions.

That understanding is so logical, so critical, that one is tempted to ask why it has been so slow in coming. History is partly to blame. Diaspora Jews throughout the ages have had a sense that they are in a state of waiting to return to some idealized land where their ancestors flourished. That is the image conjured up by the word diaspora, which means dispersion, and it is conveyed even more clearly by the often-used label galut, which is Hebrew for exile. But the notion that diaspora Jews are residing in some unnatural exile is a distortion of history. The first and second temples, and the golden ages they represented, were relatively brief notations on a Jewish timeline that is, instead, dominated by diaspora. Abraham, father of the Jews, discovered his God outside Israel. The Torah was given to the Jewish people outside Israel. The most important Talmud, or compilation of Jewish tradition, is the one from Babylon, not the one from Jerusalem. Even during the era of the Second Temple more Jews lived in the diaspora than in Israel. “Displacement,” then, has been the normal state of affairs for Jews for nearly 2,600 years.

Yet when the story of Jews forging new connections in new homelands finds its way into popular accounts, or even scholarly writings, the focus is typically on the exotic and historic rather than on wider patterns and contemporary trends. That makes it difficult to get Jews in a given city to appreciate their own special legacy, not to mention those of other cities that seem a world away. It is not that the stories lack originality and drama. What could be more tension-filled and moving than the Jews of France facing down their accusers when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Army Captain, was falsely charged with spying for Germany in 1894, or 19 years later seeing the Jews of Atlanta besieged by enraged mobs after Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager, was mistakenly convicted for the grisly murder of a teenage girl? Nor do the stories lack relevance. What could have given Atlanta’s small and isolated community of Jews more hope in 1913 than the knowledge that fellow Jews in France had confronted an equally chilling onslaught, and that they ultimately triumphed? And what could be more inspiring nowadays to warring factions in the Balkans or Somalia than the Jewish model of a religious and ethnic minority living peaceably in pluralist societies around the globe, promoting universalistic values even as it clings to its ancient culture?

Numbers tell part of the story of today’s Jewish diaspora, and many of them are sobering. Most of the world’s 13.2 million Jews now live in Israel (37 percent) and the United States (43 percent), with the rest of the world accounting for just 20 percent. In 1936 there were 56 countries with more than 5,000 Jews, by the year 2000 there were just 36, and demographers warn that the trend is towards further concentration in Israel and a handful of large cities in America and Western Europe, with outlying areas continuing to lose the critical mass needed to sustain a Jewish community. But those experts never predicted the rekindling of Judaism in the former Soviet Bloc, or faraway Australia, and diaspora history is filled with tumultuous shifts in Jewish geography. Worldwide there are 20 percent fewer Jews than there were on the eve of the Holocaust, but there are three times as many as there were in 1850. American Jewry, meanwhile, was rightfully rocked in 1990 by a nationwide survey that showed that, after years of creeping up, the rate of Jews marrying non-Jews topped 50 percent. Yet that survey included people who had a Jewish parent but were not brought up primarily Jewish, or no longer consider themselves Jewish; the intermarriage rate among the narrower group of those who define themselves as Jews was almost 10 percent lower. A look behind the numbers also found that some non-Jewish partners are formally converting while many more embrace Judaism when the Jewish community reaches out to them.

Where does that leave us? The overall number of Jews probably will continue to decline, while many of those at the periphery will continue drifting away to atheism, Buddhism or nothing at all. But there are just as many signs of strength. Never in the history of the diaspora have there been more opportunities for Jews to connect to their Judaism educationally, culturally and religiously. Enough are making those connections voluntarily and enthusiastically that communal leaders I met in Paris, Atlanta and New York offered a nearly identical forecast: in the future there will be “fewer Jews but better Jews.”

The deftness of that predication came home to me on a recent Saturday afternoon when I was walking through Harvard Square with a non-Jewish friend. A Jewish family walked by, presumably heading to shul – the father wearing a black hat, the mother with a shaytl or wig, the young boys sprouting sidelocks, and their sister wearing a skirt that reached to her ankles. Twenty years ago, or even 10, I would have talked wistfully about how their clothing and lifestyle were vestiges of a quickly-vanishing part of my people and my immediate family. Today, I told my friend, the Orthodox are growing faster than any part of the Jewish population and are a measure of the future as well as the past. The comeback in learning and experiencing is not limited to those in black hats, but has spread to many in the Conservative movement, the Reform and even to a marginally-observant Jew like me.

The story of the diaspora, seen in this context, is a story of triumph. It is a story of Jews surviving in mountains and deserts, when they were in the minority and the majority. It is a story, as Simon Rawidowicz said in his essay of the same title in 1948, of “Israel, the ever-dying people.” Throughout the 2,600-year history of the Jewish diaspora, its enemies have predicted its demise, and Jews themselves often believed the predictions. It happened in the Roman Era and the Spanish one, it happened during the reign of Khmel the Wicked in Ukraine and it seems to be happening again now. Each time, Jews have survived and thrived thanks to persistence and an understanding that it was within their power to reverse the prophecies of apocalypse.

It is that uncanny capacity to prevail that makes the Jewish diaspora such a magical experience for historians who these days are consumed with the general topic of diaspora studies. The way Jews have clung to their identity over millennia of separation helps us understand why Americans who have never been to Ireland, or Poles who have to look back to great-grandparents they never knew to find a link to Poland, continue to call themselves Irish- or Polish-Americans and to feel connected to their “homeland.” The impact made by a tiny religion — Jews account for about 1 in every 450 people on the planet – gives hope to the Ibos in Nigeria, the East Timorese in Indonesia and other long-suffering minorities. But there is one thing especially that differentiates the Jewish diaspora from all the others: it is the only one that has been entrusted, for most of its long history, with the very survival of its people. That is what makes the Jewish success story so compelling to a leader like the Dalai Lama of Tibet as he desperately tries to hold his people together and preserve their sacred customs during what is likely to be an extended period of oppression, dispersion and exile.

The stories of those triumphs, and of connections between Jews separated by geography and nationality, form the centerpiece of this book. They are stories that, like those of the Bible, are grounded in the past, but they are not mired there, as the recent transformations in Germany and the former Soviet Union make clear. They make clear that Jews have built permanent places for themselves in their adopted lands at the same time they have maintained ties to their age-old religion and culture.

How, then, should this newly confident diaspora relate to the State of Israel? The founding of Israel a half century ago seemed to answer what Jews of the diaspora were longing for. Now, at last, they had a place of their own to go, a way to end their physical isolation and realize the promise of celebrating a Seder in Jerusalem. That is a powerful image, and for more than 50 years its promise and seduction have held a powerful grip on the collective Jewish subconscious. But like many metaphors this one simply does not fit the real-life aspirations and situations of most diaspora Jews today. It is wonderful to know there is, finally, a homeland that would welcome us. Yet most of us have finally built secure lives in our adopted lands and have no interest in adjusting to the strange climate and society of Israel. Indeed the busiest traffic today between Israel and the biggest diaspora country, America, could be called aliyah in reverse, with four times as many Israelis living in America as US Jews living in Israel.

This book will outline the basis for a new, more nuanced relationship between Israel and the diaspora. It is a relationship that already is taking shape, as I saw during my visit to Israel, although it is only beginning to be discussed by those on either end, for fear of upsetting a tender balance and reigniting old antagonisms. It is a new encounter of equals, to replace the old one where Israel was seen as the center of the Jewish solar system with diaspora communities orbiting as distant planets. It is a sense that, as Israel becomes more secure and self-sufficient, and the diaspora does too, both will realize they are on parallel quests to promote pluralism and continuity. It is an acknowledgement, finally, that the Jewish diaspora is as critical to the survival of Israel as Israel is to the survival of the Jewish people.