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.