Recently, Tel Avivâ€™s Museum of the Jewish Diaspora announced that it â€œwill completely overhaul its exhibitions in an effort to put Diaspora Jews on an equal footing with those in Israel.â€ Part of that effort even means that museum is getting a new name: The Museum of the Jewish People.
This development acknowledges that the mindset in Israel has shifted from â€œthe negation of exile,â€ to the reality that the Jewish People are a geographically and culturally diverse people, a global people.
In the past year, while doing research for a book, Far From Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community, I had the opportunity to explore some of that diversity. What I saw astounded me, from the Abayudaya in Uganda — black African farmers who have been long identified as Jews, and are now officially converting to Judaism by the hundreds and building Jewish institutions in the dusty hills outside of Mbale — to the so-called Wal-Mart Jews of Bentonville, Arkansas, a group assembled from all over the country and all across the spectrum of Jewish affiliation who are creating an amazing community in the heart of the Bible Belt.
I was lucky enough to get into Iran, where I could learn firsthand about the large Jewish community living in the Islamic republic, and I even celebrated the High Holidays in Burma, while thousands of monks staged the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in decades.
Within each of these Jewish communities there was nothing static about their identities, but also something amazingly unified, a sense of history and purpose that was awe inspiring.
It is that awe that I hope the new Museum of the Jewish People will capture. Its newly-stated purpose reminds me of a famous Jewish explorer. In the 12th century, a man known as Benjamin of Tudela took a journey. He set out from Navarre, in northeast Spain, to visit the Holy Land, but he took the long way ’round, so to speak, and visited Jewish communities in India, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. His published account, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, provided a description of western Asia one hundred years before Marco Polo.
At the time of his journey, things were pretty rough for the Jews of Spain. The published Itinerary told of countless other communities of Jews, some of which were thriving, some of which were suffering. His journey seemed to say to his people back at home that no matter their current state, there were Jews all over the known world whose circumstances were different. Sometimes we are up, sometimes we are down.
He even described a war-like race of Jews in India who raided the lands from high atop mountain castles. All these diverse groups shared a Jewish — which he read as distinctly religious — identity, and the rising and falling of the communities gave his brethren in Spain a sense of the historical sweep of the Jewish people.
We canâ€™t be sure why he wrote the book he wrote, but I think of it as a kind of community therapy for the times he lived in. Things may be uncertain, his work said, but Jews will survive and will continue to find their place in societies as diverse as Ethiopia and Baghdad, the French countryside and Jerusalem.
I hope this newly-conceived Museum will provide a similar comfort to Jews now who worry about our unstable times. Everywhere we find ourselves, from Arkansas to Tehran, we find ways to build meaningful Jewish lives and meaningful lives as global citizens, serving our neighbors and our nations. My own journey through the Diaspora certainly made me optimistic that weâ€™ll continue to do so for a very long time. I often think that the greatest gift of the Jews to the world was not Monotheism, but Diaspora — the ability to be a people scattered, home in a thousand places.
Charles London is the author of One Day the Soldiers Came and the just-released Far From Zion: The Search for a Global Community. Visit Far From Zion, his official website, and come back right here, where he’ll be blogging all week.