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The nation of Israel is constantly in the news, a small nation whose very existence attracts a disproportionate interest from the rest of the world. Israel is also a modern creation, whose groundwork was laid in the late 19th century, and whose birth came as a promised land of safety and return after the horrors of WWII. Return from what? From the Diaspora of Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. From Roman Palestine, over the next 1900 years, the Jews spread throughout much of the world. And with the creation of Israel, many did return. But many communities of the Jewish Diaspora either remain where they planted themselves centuries (or even millennia) ago, or have continued to spread into different, and sometimes unlikely places around the world.
Exile, the first published book by an author already known here on Ricochet, Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, is Annika’s investigation into a number of these Diaspora communities. How did they arrive where they are? When did they arrive? And why do they stay, with the promise of a return to Israel beckoning? Over the past several years, Annika has been visiting some of the most unlikely or far-flung Jewish communities around the world, and she presents their stories here in a single volume.
Annika has chosen communities that seem very unlikely — Jewish communities within Muslim-majority nations both liberal and repressive, communities deep within Asia, the last remnants of a Jewish community in Cuba, and several other surprising ones along the way. For instance, the author chose to avoid looking at places like Germany or Poland or France, in no small part because for those places the Holocaust looms ever large. One of the common threads in her selection is instead the study of communities who either were largely sheltered from the Holocaust, or who are peopled by those who managed to stay ahead of it, though she confesses that this was not entirely by design:
“I could say that I chose this entirely on principle, but that wouldn’t be honest or true. At times, I dislike focusing on the Holocaust as the only marker of Jewish identity – as if it were the alpha and omega of our existence. I fear what it does to our self-image and the strength we, as a people, feel and project.” (Page 155)
This is a thread running through the book, along with a deeper revelation: wherever she travels, she is welcomed as family by the other Jews, and this common ancestral connection is more vital and more binding than the Shoah.
Yet the ancient and ongoing persecution of Jews is a constant topic throughout the book. Every community has had to learn to cope with it in one manner or other, but every community has faced different challenges. Time and again Annika remarks that she feels freer as a Jew even in Iran than she does back in her native Sweden, while ancient communities in Djerba, Tunisia, and Marrakesh, Morocco, have a safety and respect (after a fashion) that Sweden utterly lacks. Even so, in some countries the Jews are thriving, and in others their communities are stagnant or dying off. Which is which is not entirely predictable. Some communities, such as in Palermo, Italy, are being reborn as the descendants of the city’s Jews, forcibly converted under Spanish rule in the 1400s, rediscover the faith and family of their ancestors.
Exile is not a long book, at just under 200 pages. Annika has made no attempt at comprehensive local histories or understandings — this was not her intent. As she says in her introduction:
“For too long, the Jewish diaspora has been described as a problem to be solved, but with this book I wanted to show the other side of our beautiful Jewish people and highlight the history, culture, and lies of my brothers and sisters all across the world.” (Page xv)
In this, she succeeds quite well. And there are lessons for more than students of Jewish history or faith, for what has kept these people alive and intact as a people is something that we should all observe. The communities that remain the strongest are not necessarily the freest or the most repressed, but instead, they are the most faithful. Time and again, what the author finds is that the communities who best retain their identity as Jews are the ones who keep the closest and strictest watch on their actions, their observances, and their families, and never take their education for granted. This should be a lesson for us all in our highly secular and atomized Western culture. Many of our churches are struggling and our schools are a disaster, and so much of this is because we happily outsourced the work of maintaining them to others. Not so the Jews of the Diaspora. Granted, this was forced upon them, living as they do as small minorities in hostile nations, but every generation has faced the same choice: assimilate to the culture or fight it. For nearly 2,000 years, these communities have fought.
This, too, answers why so many have yet to make Aaliyah and return to Israel. For nearly two millennia, these communities have carved out their homes and livelihoods elsewhere. Their family is close by, the graves of their ancestors too, and they have fought for everything they have. Israel may always be home for them, but so is where they live and work and marry today, and this is what Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is trying to show us.
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