The Scattered Tribe: Discovering Remote Jewish Communities
by Jeffrey Barken / JNS.org
Author Ben G. Frank takes the old fortune cookie prediction “you will be on the soil of many countries” very seriously, especially as he embarks on a journey to forbidden Burma. That prophecy echoes the biblical story of Abraham, affirms Frank’s Jewish faith, and motivates him to travel to isolated regions and uncover the legacy of the Diaspora.
In his new book, The Scattered Tribe, Frank first embarks on a quest to uncover his familial roots in Russia but then discovers a remote Jewish community on the exotic island of Tahiti. Later travels to India, Vietnam, and Morocco reveal intricate histories of Jewish achievement, tragic purges, and a diverse people’s stubborn endurance throughout the centuries. Frank even manages to infiltrate the communist regime in Cuba, where a suppressed Jewish community struggles to revive in the face of politically imposed atheism.
“I wanted to meet my people and learn how they lived and survived,” Frank explains his reason for traveling to the ends of the earth. The Scattered Tribe contemplates the author’s nearly 60 years of personal and professional travel as a reporter. In the course of his long career he witnessed the creation of Israel and a half-century of tumultuous relocation among Jewish people around the world. The resultant travelogue lifts the heavy veil of the Holocaust, exposing an extended Jewish identity that in many places is now under pressure in an age of secularization, inter-marriage, and the magnetic pull of an Israeli homeland for Jews.
“Over and over again in my travels in the Diaspora I was to hear the name of Jerusalem uttered with awe…Paradise is only in Jerusalem,” Frank writes, describing his choice of destinations in relation to the holy city central to Judaism. Having visited some countries so far west of Israel that congregations debate what direction to place their temple’s Bima so as to face Jerusalem during prayer, Frank draws concentric circles around the Old City, connecting disparate points of the faith and demonstrating universal reverence for the Holy Land.
Frank routinely asks congregation leaders and community organizers of each locality he visits: “What do all Diaspora Jews hold in common?” “How and when did Jews come here?” His questions may reveal Jewish participation in European colonialism or uncover well-worn ancient trade routes.
The author is both mindful and appreciative of the influence of Chabad-Lubavitch, an international Hasidic organization that holds the spread of Judaism in the widest possible manner as one of its chief tenets. Chabad has established stations in many of the remote countries visited by Frank, providing a safe haven for Jewish and Israeli travelers and a source of renewed Jewish life in regions where those traditions are in decline.
Although Frank accepts aggressive propagation of Judaism around the world, his American identity changes his perspective slightly, enabling him to be subtly critical of the true nature of the Diaspora. His aversion to the word “remnants,” when used to describe the shrunken, “formerly large Jewish communities that survived the Holocaust” in Europe, suggests a question that he is not willing to state outright: At its height, was the Diaspora less an epoch of expulsion, suffering, and wandering that Jews typically are taught to believe, or rather a thriving Jewish cultural empire?
Readers carefully consider the meaning of the word Diaspora as they travel with Frank. Jewish historian Nathan Katz’s observation “that Jews are not western but global” appears to confirm Frank’s uncertainty about the word and the communities it is intended to characterize. Additionally, Frank’s encounters in the East reveal a generally peaceful and positive experience for many Asian-Jewish communities, especially in India. Their heritage renders Frank self-conscious of his Western-based expectation that wherever Jews have been scattered, they have encountered hardship and persecution. The author is at once delighted to feel connected to a version of Judaism that is less scarred than the faith in which he was raised and to participate in the charming and unique traditions that have evolved in these regions throughout centuries of admirable, successful integration.
Frank’s belief in the “Sanctity of the Diaspora” has kept him traveling despite his earlier inclination to immigrate to Israel. In some cases, his memoirs digress. The chapters on Tahiti and Cuba, included to show the exotic fringes of the faith, are more of a travelogue of local anecdotes and fun tourist tips than a critical analysis of the Diaspora in some remote corners of the globe. Readers may also become frustrated by the lack of a dedicated chapter on American Jewry, a large and successful Diaspora community with wide-reaching influence on Israel and the Jewish faith.
Returning to Israel in the final chapter, the book pivots after Frank’s encounter with a North African immigrant to Israel who casually observes, “All Jews are brothers.” Frank then recognizes that something spiritual has kept Jews connected to each other and to Israel, wherever they live, whatever language they speak, and whatever regime threatens.
Frank is interested in the future of his people. He is desirous of Jewish cultural solidarity but also tolerant of the degree of separation that is the inevitable product of centuries of oppressive conditions and wanderlust inherent in the Jewish experience. Frank’s tracking of his own family’s origins and his recapitulation of the Scattered Tribe’s journeys East and West may raise more questions than answers, but such is the nature of the Diaspora. Readers will delight in Frank’s remarkable accomplishment, ponder the tracks in the sand left by their own wandering Jewish ancestors, and wonder what has been lost or gained along the way.
Jeffrey Barken, Cornell University graduate and University of Baltimore MFA candidate, frequently reports on Israel news topics and Jewish-interest literature. He is currently writing a collection of stories, “This Year in Jerusalem, Next Time in America,” based on his experiences living on a kibbutz in Southern Israel from 2009-2010.