Reviewed by Abram Sterne
Far From Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community, by Charles London, William Morrow, 2009, 320 pp, $25.99
I am troubled by Charles London’s latest book, Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community. The award-winning journalist, activist, and author of One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War, raises complex questions about the links between Jewish history and Israel that are not easy to answer. How does one place Israel and Zionism within the constellation of one’s own Jewishness? Can one be a good Jew and not support the State of Israel? How does one bridge the narratives of the particular with a universal vision of tolerance and love for all?
In an attempt to answer these questions in this book, London has chosen to explore and portray communities that can only be described as being on the fringe. He begins with the empty synagogue of Burma (and I wonder why he chooses to use the colonial name rather than “Myanmar”) where, basically, only a father and his son remain; it was a community that could never have been described as anything other than merely surviving. He then moves to the newly formed Bentonville Jewish community in Arkansas, and afterward to the decimated but renewed community of post-Katrina New Orleans. From there, the author focuses on Bosnia, the community that first moved him to make the footsteps of his own personal Jewish journey. He then travels to the wild safari lands of Uganda and a community that appears — though barely genetically Jewish — alive with passion and song. From Uganda, he goes to the tiny Jewish community of Iran, and then to an even smaller one in Cuba.
London explains his voyage as a global journey seeking answers to questions of how to relate to Israel. It is curious, then, that he only visits Israel at the end of his travels, and then only for a short stay. Even more strange is that he only achieves a self-proclaimed epiphany about the reason for and fundamental importance of Israel’s existence during his visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. There is something too simplistic about both this journey and this conclusion. There is a naïveté to London’s exploration and, while his descriptions of each location are moving and powerful, his story lacks an overall narrative arc.
London does not share with the reader how he chose which communities to explore. Even more important, he has left unanswered his own evolving process of discovery. He begins his journey with the metaphor of leaving Egypt to find a promised land, but the reader remains clueless about how he evolved from an assimilated Jew to — by the end of the book — someone who has clearly gained knowledge of Jewish history and ritual, and Hebrew, the language of Zion and Israel. He knows blessings and prayers and recites them by heart while praying in a mosque in the city of Qom in Iran. The greatest missing piece in London’s story might be this: Where does he place knowledge of Hebrew in this mélange of troublesome questions of identity?
I, too, have been on a journey, one that has led me (at least for the time being) to Jerusalem. I’ve lived in London, South Africa, and New York. I’ve been immersed in communities of diverse Jews, with a range of practices, non-practices, beliefs, and ideologies. I chose to move to Israel when my wife received a job offer, and I was excited by the opportunity to explore another Jewish community, one for which our tradition historically longs.
Note that I use the verb “move” and not “make aliyah,” the words traditionally used for “going up” to Israel, obviously implying that the rest of the world is spiritually lesser than the land of Israel. I am not comfortable with this notion of Israel’s spiritual superiority, implied in the Tanakh, that the Jewish people always knew something better was waiting for them in the land of Israel. It is implied in the imperative of God’s words through the prophets: If we, as a people, do not follow his commandments, then the land will become sickened and will eject us. The land of Israel needs a special commitment of the Jewish people.
I sometimes wonder whether I have that commitment. I loved being a Jew in New York and found it in many ways easier than living as a Jew in Jerusalem. I, like the author Charles London, am uncomfortable with the actions of the Israeli government and the everyday complex realities of our life here. I am discomfited by the fact that 20 minutes away from where I live, there are thousands of men, women, and children who do not have sufficient water, electricity, or hope for a better existence.
The final chapter on Zion is perhaps the most disappointing of the book. London’s realization at Yad Vashem of the necessity of the Jewish state is too easy an answer for the complex questions he raises throughout. For a book about Zion, it seems perverse not to have actually met committed Zionists in Israel to understand their narrative. While the Holocaust is a critical part of Israel’s establishment, it is not the reason for its existence. Jews survived 2,000 years of exile, and they could survive for another 2,000 years. Zion has been the goal of the Jewish people for all time, expressed in all of our prayers, festivals, and celebrations. It is fundamental to Judaism and indeed created a marked division when the Reform movement made Germany its own Zion at the beginning of the 19th century.
What is missing from the book is an exploration of this kind of Zionism — the culmination of hopes, yearnings, and narratives of Jewish history. London’s understanding of this yearning, of the ingathering of the Jewish people, would be greatly deepened not by searching for exotic communities, but rather by visiting mainstream communities — thriving and diverse Jewish places — to gain a real understanding of the Jewish people’s relation to Zion. And, most important, he needs to understand why, even as many Jews say words that bind them to Zion, they still choose to remain far from Israel.email print