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February 13, 2013 12:46 am

Wandering Jews of the Diaspora (INTERVIEW)

avatar by Bernard Starr

Shaa're Shalom Synagogue in Kingston, Jamaica. Photo: Paul Foer.

Jews comprise a tiny percentage of the world’s population — about 0-2 percent (13.75 million). And they are scattered in communities across the planet, even in remote places. That wasn’t always the case.

In the first century C.E., under the Roman Empire, Jews were mostly in the Middle East (concentrated in Judea and Galilee), and neighboring regions of Syria, North Africa, Greece and Asia Minor, totaling more than 2 million (with estimates as high as 4 million). Jews wanted to be within travel distance of the Temple in Jerusalem, the center for Jewish worship as prescribed in the Torah.

That era of Jerusalem as the center of Judaism came to an end after two disastrous wars. In 70 C.E., Herod the Great’s Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and looted by Roman legions. A million Jews were killed and others fled, according to Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus. When Jews soon returned to the Jerusalem area their population swelled again. Then in 132 C.E., Simon Bar Kokhba led another revolt. His army of more than 100,000 soldiers was initially successful. He decimated two Roman legions, captured hundreds of villages and drove the Romans out of Jerusalem. But his victory was short-lived. The Emperor Hadrian sent in half of the worldwide Roman army to defeat Bar Kokhba — with disastrous consequences for Jews. Five hundred thousand were killed, others sold into slavery, and Jews were banished from Jerusalem.

This was the beginning of the great Diaspora, in which Jews scattered and eventually settled in communities around the globe. Powerless and often persecuted, they typically lived on the fringe of societies; they had to survive by determination and ingenuity. But they did survive, as we learn from Ben Frank’s thrilling and informative book, “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” (Globe Pequot Press).

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Frank’s curiosity about this extraordinary phenomenon of the Diaspora sparked his mission to find and visit remote and isolated — sometimes forgotten — Jewish communities in surprising locations. As a travel writer with a passion for Jewish history, Ben Frank is the perfect person to have undertaken the task. He eventually visited 89 Jewish communities. I interviewed him to learn more about his fascinating journey.

When did you first get the urge to undertake this demanding adventure? Did you have concerns about the difficulties you might face in remote locations?

It all began in 1964 on a trip to Algeria. As a reporter/journalist, I was fascinated by the emigration of Jews from that war-torn country to France, where they were guaranteed the rights and privileges of French citizens, since, according to the Cremieux Decree, they too were French. When I landed I met with the last few Jewish residents in Algiers. They called themselves “le Dernier Carre,” the last unit in Napoleon’s army to stand in battle and defend themselves in the form of a square.

How did you find out about these scattered wandering Jews?

In the case of Algeria, I contacted organizations, such as the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and others who follow and aid Jews in the Diaspora. I discovered that Jews were scattered globally, including concentrations in Asia and South America. Jews have lived in India, for instance, for 2,000 years and they are still there. With contacts and research tools, I located them.

What did you learn about the state of the Jewish Diaspora? Has it changed?

It changes, depending on conditions and treatment of Jewish citizens in any given country. When anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, or dictatorships take over, there is usually emigration from that country to another. But the Jewish Diaspora has changed in a significant way since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Jews live in the Diaspora voluntarily, but they now feel they also have a home in the State of Israel should they need it.

As a skilled travel writer with lots of miles under your feet, you know how to get around. But arranging to get to these communities must have been challenging.

I am a firm believer in planning everything, especially because of tight security everywhere. Gone are the days when you could walk into a synagogue without prior arrangements. At one synagogue, in Costa Rica, they actually took my passport and gave it back to me when I exited.

How were you received in these communities?

Generally I was well-received. To ensure that, I’m careful not to criticize. And I never write that a Jewish community “is dead.” I have seen numerous Diaspora communities survive when many predicted their demise. A perfect example is the Austrian Jewish community: Today, though small, it’s still active. And even in Myanmar (Burma) a member of the 100-year-old synagogue in Yangon (Rangoon) opens the house of worship every day.

Looking back over you adventure, what surprised you most?

The vibrancy of Jewish life all over the world. Tahiti, for example. About 250 Jews reside there. They have a synagogue, obtain kosher food flown in from the U.S. and Australia — and sometimes they have a rabbi for the high holidays

One thing that surprised me in reading your book was that many remote communities — despite isolation from other Jews — retained their Jewish identities and practices.

Correct. It’s all about Jewish identity and keeping the community connected with co-religionists. Many far-flung Jewish communities send their young people abroad to study — for example, summer programs in Israel. Even in Cuba, with its political isolation, there is a strong Jewish community and Jews are free to practice; visiting rabbis and students from South America come to Cuba to provide Jewish education.

What about religious practices? Have communities retained traditional practices? Or have they evolved their own unique ones?

Many communities have kept their own traditional prayers and practices. But with immigration and emigration, some have changed. For example, France went from being an Ashkenazic (eastern European) Jewish community to a Sephardim (Jews who trace their origin to Spain) in the 1950s and 1960s.

Are there divisions like Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism?

Definitely. Though in very small communities, the synagogues tend to be Orthodox or traditional. France has a number of reform congregations and is the third largest Jewish community in the Diaspora, outside of Israel. The U.S. is first, Russia/Ukraine second. Argentina has a large Jewish Conservative organization.

Who are the religious leaders in these communities? Do they have trained rabbis?

In Russia, more young Jews are entering the rabbinate under Chabad Lubavitch tutelage [an orthodox Jewish group centered in the U.S. and Israel]. Chabad has set up Jewish centers and synagogues throughout Russia. In Southeast Asia, Chabad rabbis have established Jewish centers in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. And Argentina has a rabbinical seminary that serves Latin America.

What was the most unusual community that you visited?

Vietnam. There I did not find native Vietnamese Jews, but only American and French ex-pats, engaged primarily in the garment industry. They all meet in the Chabad Center in Ho-chi Minh City (Saigon).

What about economic and other opportunities? Is it any different today in the Diaspora than it was in the grim past when Jews were excluded from mainstream society?

I think Jews generally are in most professions in the countries where they live. But it depends on the economy. For instance, in India, many of the young Jews work in the telephone call centers. In Tahiti, a number of Jews are doctors, while others are engaged in buying and selling Tahitian pearls. In the democracies, more Jews are entering politics. For example, France has had three Jewish prime ministers. And in Germany there are Jews serving in national and local political positions.

One of the greatest challenges today for traditional religions is retaining young people. Christianity and Judaism, for example, are experiencing a rise in defections — Jews embracing Buddhism (BuJews), Christians changing denominations, with increasing numbers declaring no affiliation. What about the scattered tribe?

Intermarriage is up, for sure. It depends on the community and the strength of Jewish education and ties to Israel. In several countries, I was told that many parents send their children to the U.S. or France to study and hopefully marry within the faith.

How has technology and the Internet affected the isolation factor for some of these communities?

Obviously technology has brought world Jewry closer together. Most Jewish community centers have computer rooms. They are a vital tool in keeping Jews around the world connected.

I’m sure that your book will entice others to start packing and replicate your trailblazing adventure. What advice would you give them for preparing for their trips?

Of course, I have lots of tips in my book. But number one on my list is to know something about the background and history of the communities, especially the exotic ones. And plan, plan and plan ahead!

Thanks Ben. I think I’m ready to pack. Passover in Tahiti?

Bernard Starr is a psychologist, journalist, and college professor. He is author of the newly published book ‘Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew’, which is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other major outlets.

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