This account of "the Jewish Diaspora in twelve portraits" is far greater
than the sum of its parts. Through small personal tales of Jews in Europe
and Russia, it evokes a broad landscape of history -- history of oppression,
violence, and faith.
From Isaac Abravanel, a sephardic Jew who fled the paradise of Spain in the
chaos of the reconquista and lost his beloved son, to Boris
Kochubiyevsky, Russian Jew of the 20th century -- these were a people
"forever marked." Whether by the armband (an insidious invention not of
Hitler but harking back to fifteenth century Spain) or by the category of
religion on their passports, they were "not true citizens of the state, but
rather a second-class minority not to be fully trusted."
In Spain the Jews were forced -- by incremental changes in the law which
prodded them at every turn, as well as by slaughter and isolation -- to
convert to Christianity or to flee. Some conversos found peace with the
power structure and comfort in being more Christian than the Christians.
Some were used in ill-favored jobs such as tax collection, making them all
the more despised. Those who wouldn't convert were constrained to leave,
though history slowly bore down on even those who fled in the simple hope of
By the time of Hitler's mania, Jews had become once again the target of the
hunters and the haters. Pinsker, one of the fathers of Zionism, defined
judeophobia: "a form of demonopathy...a psychic aberration. As a
psychic aberration, it is hereditary; as a disease transmitted for two
thousand years, it is incurable."
There have been great philosophers and spiritual leaders among the Jews who
held out hopes that the scattered peoples would transform themselves and
have no need of a homeland. There have been fanatical Zionists who could
see no other possibility for the safety and continued perpetuation of the
race and the religion of the Jews than by occupying the Biblical homeland.
Diaspora is a concept, not a location, and the Jews of the Diaspora are as
varied as the homes they have found.
American Jews are assimilating so well that they are in danger of being
"killed by kindness" -- conditions being so favorable for them in our current
culture that the new generations no longer feel the slightest sense of
persecution. "What future can there be for Jews when future generations
will have no understanding of what it means to be Jewish?"
Perhaps they will have the kind of experience, at some point on their own
personal timelines, that so moved Chaim Chissim, a Jewish student in Moscow
who wrote in 1892, "Until these pogroms began I myself had thrust aside my
Jewish origins. I considered myself a devoted son of Russia. Then
suddenly, with no warning, we were shown the door...Yes, whether I wish it
or not, I am a Jew." The "door" to expulsion may not be within their own
country; we can perhaps say with assurance that it will not be within ours. But a Jew of the Diaspora may encounter within himself a profound sense
of identity with his fellows elsewhere. Perhaps he will be inspired by the
other image of the door - that which encloses and controls, described so
eloquently by Yitshok Rudashevski in 1941: "Here is the ghetto gate. I feel
that I have been robbed, my freedom is being robbed from me, my home, and
the familiar Vilna streets that I love so much."
In updating the successes and the continued failures of the Jewish people to
live unthreatened, Levine takes us to the current headlines. "Supporting
Israel was admittedly an easier task in the first thirty-five years of its
existence as an independent country." Post- 9-11, our fears have provoked
us to push back against the ideal of the Jewish homeland; how can we
support the country that draws the heat that fires the hatred against us?
Levine refuses to lose hope and maintains that being a Jew is a state of
mind, and a choice, requiring a "constant search for answers to questions
about faith, life and existence."