The Next Generation
By Jesse Tisch
The End of the Jewish Diaspora
By Caryn Aviv and David Shneer
232 pages. NYU Press. $20.00.
If you’ve traveled through the Jewish “Diaspora,” then you probably don’t need to read New Jews, by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer. You probably already know that L.A. is a capital of Jewish museum culture; that New York is the “new Zion”; and, incidentally, that Matisyahu (the Hassidic reggae star) grew up in Westchester, not Hebron or Brooklyn.
But you should go read it anyway. New Jews is a thoughtful, persuasive case for why the Diaspora matters. That may sound obvious: the “Diaspora,” after all, is where the majority of the world’s Jews live. But as the authors explain, Jews have a tendency to see their world like the old Saul Steinberg cartoon from the New Yorker, with Israel at the center, and a dozen or so less-important islands floating around it. Tilting that map toward “Diaspora” is the mission behind New Jews, which makes the provocative case that the Jewish future lies outside of Israel.
In other words, don’t be fooled by the sub-title, The End of the Jewish Diaspora. As the authors strain to point out, it’s the idea of a Jewish world split into halves that they’re against. The word “Diaspora,” literally translated, means “dispersion,” although the Hebrew and Yiddish equivalents imply “spiritual diminishment” and “exile.” The word itself can be traced back to Deuteronomy: “and thou shalt be a diaspora in all kingdoms of the earth.” For centuries after the second temple, all Jews were considered “diasporic” while they longed for the mythic Zion. Diaspora wasn’t where we were, so much as who we were.
New Jews unpacks the history of Diaspora, beginning with the fall of the First Temple (586 B.C.E) and fast-forwarding past the Second Temple period, and the Inquisition, to 1948. Given the “right of return,” many Jews demurred, preferring exile. Today, Aviv and Shneer argue, diasporic Jews are in a new era of comfort and “rootedness”: they have found home. “The majority of Jews… no longer see themselves as ‘in Diaspora,’” the authors write. They see themselves “at home, not pining for a Promised Land.” Exhibit A is the Russian-Jewish community of Moscow, still revelling in their post-glasnost freedoms and security. Exhibit B is the Queer Jewish community, which forms its own meta-Diaspora in New York and San Francisco.
And yet—despite this vitality and diversity, the authors recognize that Israel (the mythic Zion, come to political life) still has a hold on the Jewish imagination. For some Jews, living “in Diaspora” means feeling as if they could be leading fuller, more authentically Jewish lives in Israel. As the writer Jeffrey Goldstein puts it in his recent memoir, “Exile was the disease, and Israel was the cure.”
Why does exile remain a burden to some Jews, but not to others? To put it slightly differently: Who controls the discourse about Israel and Diaspora? New Jews argues that Jewish cultural institutions play an outsize role in shaping our perceptions of Diaspora, and that Jewish museums, tourist concerns, and Holocaust memorials are reinforcing the notion of Diasporic exile.
The authors argue that in America, supporting Israel has become a “civic religion”—a barometer of one’s Jewishness. New Jews deftly connects this to “fears… that Jewish life is dying around the world.” The authors expose—which is not too strong a word—how this works. In a chapter on the “Diaspora business,” they show how “instill[ing]… Jewish identity” drives operations like March of the Living and the Taglit-birthright program, which sends young Jews on trips to Israel. They move on to Holocaust museums and re-opened concentration camps. From the ghastly installations at Auschwitz—now a tourist destination—to Shoah “pornography” at the Museum of Tolerance, the exhibits telegraph the message that this could all happen again. Israel is the last, best hope for Diaspora Jews should the unthinkable happen (now please think about it), and simultaneously, a place in imminent danger from anti-Semites (now please lend your support).
Aviv and Shneer are hardly alone is seeing something sinister, or at least insidious, about this. Douglas Rushkoff’s Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, for instance, built a similar case with the bluster of an exposé. New Jews isn’t a J’accuse; the authors have a light touch, even when arguing that too much time, money, and attention are spent on Israel. “In our many years working in Jewish education and in Jewish communities… we rarely hear people exclaim, ‘Wow, Jews in America are doing a wonderful job of building Jewish culture, educating people, and fostering dynamic visions for the Jewish future,” Aviv and Shneer write. After years of hearing that “We need to support Israel no matter what,” and declining their publisher’s request to write a book about Israel, they decided to “write a book, not about fear and crises, decay and demise, but about the dynamic ways Jews actually live and thrive around the world.” That’s exactly what they’ve done. Embedded in their reporting is an argument that the “New Jews”—the mostly young, mostly secular Jews they encounter in Diaspora—represent a better, and certainly more positive, vision for the Jewish future. The new Jews travel widely. They’re fluent in global culture, and less likely to see the Jewish world hierarchically, “with Israel at the top, the diaspora on bottom.” Most of all, they are defining Judaism for themselves, on their own terms; they live and think outside of the Israel/Diaspora framework.
New Jews celebrates their sense of empowerment, and their diversity—if the book has a center, it’s how awesomely varied the Diaspora truly is. Which may be the real problem with “Diaspora.” As the authors point out, it takes all that diversity and crudely flattens it by shoehorning so many Jewish communities into one category.
Fortunately, the authors are not only alive to those differences, but keen to show the rest of us. As for “Diaspora,” no single word can do justice to so much diversity. As New Jews ably demonstrates, it takes a book.