The Most Dangerous Contraband of All

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In his last blogs, Charles London talked about a collected Jewish museum and the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda.

The ancient Israelites and I have something in common. When we travel, we tend to under pack the essentials—food, water, leavened bread—and to over pack books. They had the Torah, which I imagine was totally impractical in the desert. I have a library card from the New York Public Library, my own kind of Mt. Sinai, and before I travel, I stop by and try to choose books to take. As I often travel alone, I take the choice of my companions very seriously.

jewish author blogDuring research for my first book, I headed to war zones and refugee camps to work with children, and needed reading that would inspire, uplift, inform, and occasionally, distract. I went with Virgil’s Aeneid and Christopher Logue’s War Music. I brought along Nelson DeMille for when I needed to escape, and there was always a book on the region where I was heading — Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric for Bosnia, Adam Hochschild’s stunning King Leopold’s Ghost when I found myself in the Congo.

I took Rudyard Kipling’s Kim to Burma, where I would be talking to plenty of orphans and street urchins, but I brought along the first in the Hannibal Lecter series, Red Dragon, and a heavy book about the military junta, Living Silence.

I had my classics, my irrelevant thrillers, my informative nonfiction. It was all pretty clear and I always packed more books than I could ever read while I was working. I rarely travel for pleasure.

But then I set out on a year-long journey to far-flung and unlikely corners of the Jewish Diaspora. I didn’t know what to bring. DeMille felt too profane. Kipling felt irrelevant. Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean was checked out.

synagogue in tehran, charles london
Monday morning services at the largest synagogue in Tehran. Photo by Charles London

I couldn’t bring anything too political, either, ruling out so much. Burmese immigration agents might go through my bags; the Iranians and the Cubans certainly would. One doesn’t realize the limits on free speech in the world until one starts to choose books for a long journey. I had no desire to go to prison for a stray copy of Exodus or Portnoy’s Complaint.

Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book would be fine for my return to trip to Bosnia, with its compelling tales of the Sarajevo Haggadah, mixing the thrilling, the literary, and the divine, but otherwise, I was at a loss.

What kind of books do you take on a spiritual quest?

I knew the Five Books of Moses made sense, even though it stirred terrible memories of Hebrew school. Revisiting the stories could ground me in the narrative that unified the Jews of Burma with the Jews of Uganda and of Arkansas. They could be that normative document that would locate me in our peoplehood, while I found my head swirling through cultures and time zones, eating fesenjan in Iran and brisket in Arkansas, looking for the best roux in New Orleans, or having mangoes plucked right from the trees just before Sabbath in Uganda. God knows food wouldn’t unify my journey.

I needed more books.

I packed Buber’s On Judaism, and a collection of short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse seemed an inspired find — 3,000 years of poetic rumination on God, Diaspora, faith, and even being drunk. I planned to explore all those things. It was nice to have the old poets as my guide.

But I worried that the friendly officer at Imam Khomeni Airport outside of Tehran would be suspicious of the Hebrew and Yiddish in the poems, thinking me some kind of Zionist agitator. He didn’t even look at bag, much less in it. Why hadn’t I brought Journey from the Land of No, Roya Hakakian’s memoir about being a young Jewish girl caught up in the 1979 revolution against the Shah? Why hadn’t I brought Peace be Upon You, an exploration of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cooperation throughout the centuries? I found myself lamenting all the books I didn’t bring. No Sholem Aleichem? No Phillip Roth at all? Should I have brought a Jewish cookbook? More religious writing? Some Chabon? The Accidental Empire or The Case for Israel? Why had no one translated the great Jewish Cuban authors into English? Where was the epic of African Jewry? What was I missing?

In every airport, at night in every hostel or hotel or long dark bus ride, I found myself lamenting those books I hadn’t brought, the writing that could have shed some light on my searching that I would never know. I never missed clean socks or malaria pills or a decent first aid kit. I missed books. Perhaps that was the truly Jewish experience I’d been looking for.

Charles London, the author of One Day the Soldiers Came and the just-released Far From Zion: The Search for a Global Community, has been guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council. Visit Far From Zion, his official website.

Posted on August 14, 2009

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