New York Times
‘Home Lands’: Redeeming the Diaspora
by Samuel G. Freedman
During an academic conference in September 2000, the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, proclaimed that only the Jewish state could ensure the survival of the Jewish people. Those Jews living outside Israel, regardless of how educated or observant, would stave off terminal assimilation for two or three generations ”at best,” he said. And the Israeli leaders who pretended otherwise wanted only to exploit foreign Jews ”for their money and politics.”
Katsav’s comments set off a furious response among both Israeli and American Jews, but, really, they shouldn’t have. He was merely voicing the standard Zionist disparagement of diaspora Jewry. From its very outset, after all, the Zionist enterprise had aspired to create a new human, adept with plow and rifle alike, from the ”Golus Yid,” the cowering, insecure exilic Jew. ”In the diaspora,” Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, once wrote in a typical broadside, ”Jews are human dust, whose particles try to cling to each other.”
With ”Home Lands,” Larry Tye, a journalist with The Boston Globe and the author of ”The Father of Spin,” a biography of Edward Bernays, intends to redeem the diaspora, portraying the ”real and widespread renaissance” of Jewish life outside Zion. He contends that Jewish dispersal, not Jewish nationhood, ”has been the normal state of affairs . . . for nearly 2,600 years,” and in depicting seven modern communities, from Buenos Aires to Atlanta to Ukraine, he mounts a persuasive argument on behalf of the diaspora’s vitality.
That argument benefits from Tye’s accurate comprehension of the essential duality of Jewish existence today, the coexistence of enormous intermarriage and acculturation on the one hand and a boom in religious study and observance on the other. In all seven communities, he writes, ”there has been a dramatic reversal of generational roles that sees children speaking Hebrew better than parents and grandparents, having a clearer grasp of their Jewish heritage and bringing older relatives back with them to the shul and classroom.”
As if to underscore the significance of this revival, Tye shows how it has animated Jewish communities that had been persecuted, terrorized and nearly obliterated in the past. Perhaps the best chapter concerns the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, ravaged by pogroms before the Bolshevik Revolution and suppressed by Communist tyranny after it. Largely through the efforts of a single Lubavitcher Hasidic rabbi named Shmuel Kaminezki, the hidden, ignorant Jews of Dnipropetrovsk now have a religious day school, a Jewish old-age home, a Jewish weekly television show, a Jewish boys’ choir, even a kosher slaughterhouse. In Buenos Aires, as Tye recounts, the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center, which
killed 86 people and wounded 236, jarred a docile community into greater activism and visibility as Jews, largely oriented around innovative, iconoclastic synagogues. ”The people who put the bomb, what they want is for me to leave the shul, to say, ‘Yes, Judaism here is finished,’ ” a 17-year-old girl says. ”I will not give them what they want.”
Both similar and dissimilar motives figure in the rebirth of Judaism in Dusseldorf. For the 1,500 German Jews who returned after the Holocaust to what had once been the city of Heinrich Heine, Felix Mendelssohn and Rabbi Leo Baeck, the decision was a way, as one young man puts it, ”to show that Hitler doesn’t get what he wants.” The community has grown more recently, though, from the immigration of Russian Jews motivated by pragmatic factors — escaping the crumbling economy in their homeland and availing themselves of the generous social welfare programs in Germany. It is typical of Tye’s desire to be ”an optimist without, I hope, being a Pollyanna” that he acknowledges the role of the dole in this example of Jewish renewal.
If anything, ”Home Lands” would have benefited from more analysis. Except in his excellent prologue and epilogue, Tye prefers to report and illustrate, and he becomes almost a slave to his own diligence. From the evidence of the page, he is much too reluctant to omit any particular fact or detail or anecdote he has turned up. As a result, ”Home Land” ultimately stands as a book one appreciates more than enjoys. Several chapters — on the vanishing Jewish community in Dublin and the author’s home city of Boston —
could have been omitted entirely. Elsewhere, Tye too readily unspools lists of communal institutions and demographics, a profusion of data useful to a Jewish agency but numbing to a lay reader. In a broader sense, Tye has failed to give the book as a whole a sense of forward motion. The seven chapters amount to a deck of cards that could be shuffled in any order without gaining or losing effect, and that means an author and editor have not adequately wrestled with this book as a book rather than a kind of anthology.
To its credit, however, ”Home Lands” proves an anthology held together by an important and well-defended idea. At one juncture, Tye lets a Ukrainian Jew named Mark Shlyak serve as his own voice. ”I like the Jewish state and think the return of Jews to their historical model is a big step and a great step,” Shlyak says. ”But the strength and influence of the Jewish people today is mainly explained by the fact that they live across the world and that they are influencing the way other countries believe and live. The task of helping the diaspora, of creating the conditions in the diaspora that will let communities like this flower again, is not any less important than Jews emigrating to Israel.”