Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

The Scattered Tribe: Discovering Remote Jewish Communities

November 18, 2012 2:13 am 2 comments

The front and back covers of Ben G. Frank's "The Scattered Tribe." Photo: Ben G. Frank.

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.

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, which means, "Brings Forth Salvation," is Burma's only synagogue. Photo: Ben G. Frank.

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.

2 Comments

  • Bernad Freedman

    What do you think of a charitable organization known as FRJC or the Federation of Remote Jewish Communities in New York? Does it provide substantial charity for the residents of these remote communities?

  • Watch for ROZEN MAIDEN this winter through multiple digital outlets as well as a complete collection on DVD just in time for Christmas.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Features World Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Tour operators are calling attention to Jamaica’s little-known Jewish heritage by arranging visits to historic Jewish sites on the Caribbean island, including a cemetery where Jewish pirates are buried. A report in Travel and Leisure magazine describes the Hunts Bay Cemetery in Kingston, where there are seven tombstones engraved with Hebrew benedictions and skull and crossbones insignia. According to the report, centuries ago, Jewish pirates sailed the waters of Jamaica and settled in Port Royal. The town, once known as “the wickedest city in the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    JNS.org – Telling Israel’s story. It’s the specific title of a short film that Eyal Resh created last year. It’s also the theme behind the 27-year-old Israeli filmmaker’s broader body of work. The widely viewed “Telling Israel’s Story” film—directed by Resh for a gala event hosted by the Times of Israel online news outlet—seemingly begins as a promotional tourism video, but quickly evolves to offer a multilayered perspective. “I want to tell you a story about a special place for me,” a young woman whispers […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    JNS.org – The entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park was transformed from April 25-27 by a fire-breathing robotic dragon, which flailed its arms and attempted to take flight. The robot, a signature feature at Jerusalem’s first-ever “Geek Picnic,” was one of more than 150 scientific amusements available for the public to experience. This particular dragon was designed by students from Moscow’s Art Industrial Institute in conjunction with the Flacon design factory, said Anatasia Shaminer, a student who helped facilitate the display. Children […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love. CreateSpace, 2015. The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel. Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today’s Syria, as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New York-based characters — whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow […]

    Read more →
  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →