Exile: Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora
Bombardier Books, 2020, 208 pp., $27.00
In 1925, the Israeli writer and Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon published “The Fable of the Goat,” a short story that asks a simple question: When is it time to leave? In the story, a young man and his father own a goat that repeatedly disappears for days at a time, returning with “milk whose taste was as the taste of Eden.” To figure out where she kept going, the youth tied a long rope to the goat’s tail so that he could follow her the next time she left. He ultimately accompanies the goat through a cave to the Land of Israel, and gets stuck there on the Sabbath when he cannot travel. He sends the goat back to his father with a note in the goat’s ear, urging him to join his son in the beautiful new country.
Tragically, the father assumes the worst when he sees the goat return without his son. In a fit of grief, he slaughters the goat, and only afterwards finds the note. He and his son spend the rest of their days apart. The story concludes that, “Since that time the mouth of the cave has been hidden from the eye, and there is no longer a short way. And that youth, if he has not died, shall bear fruit in his old age, full of sap and richness, calm and peaceful in the country of life.”
The animating question in Annika Hernroth-Rothstein’s first book, Exile: Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora, is nearly identical to Agnon’s: Should Jews stay or should they go? In 2013, Rothstein filed for asylum in her home country of Sweden to protest anti-Semitism, yet she has chosen to remain there. In researching her book, she visited little-known Jewish communities across the world—including Cuba, Siberia, and Iran—to find out why they too have chosen to stay in their old countries, and what that means for Jewish life.
Each chapter of Exile focuses on a particular community, combining a brief history of the area with a description of Rothstein’s trip. In the ancient societies of Uzbekistan, Morocco, and elsewhere, many Jews refuse to let go of cultural and religious heritages that seem to be disappearing. Of course, Jews have been described as a stiff-necked people since biblical times, but this attitude has produced mixed results. Rothstein often invites the reader to wonder along with her about the wisdom of encouraging young people to remain in their homelands despite dim economic and marital prospects.
These prospects vary: In the Tunisian island of Djerba, for example, Rothstein reports that the Jewish population has grown significantly in recent years, and around half the community is age 20 or younger. She stayed with a family that included four daughters and an untold number of sons; the oldest sister, 17-year-old Avia, was engaged to be married to a man she barely knew. The community is geographically isolated, strictly religious, and supremely sheltered. They are classified as dhimmis, secondhand citizens permitted to live under Muslim control, but in many ways Djerban Jews are thriving. Some of the young women Rothstein spoke to assured her that they wouldn’t choose to date and travel even if they could, that secular norms seem to ruin communities; many Djerban Jews never leave the island even for vacation. In spite or perhaps because of their cloistered life, they seemed happy. Rothstein was struck by the warmth, cohesion, and demographic growth of a group that had refused modernity and a type of freedom she’d been raised to cherish.
The splintered communities in Uzbekistan provide quite another picture. Whereas divorce and intermarriage are unthinkable among Djerban Jews, one of the Uzbek groups Rothstein met with seemed to have taken the opposite approach. To preserve Jewry in Uzbekistan, self-identified Orthodox Jews have defied rabbinical instructions by making it extremely easy to convert to Judaism. (Ordinarily, Orthodox conversion entails a lengthy process.) Bukharian Jews in particular have a long history in the region and seem determined to maintain their presence by virtually any means possible, including by compromising religious law. They are also competitive with nearby Jewish groups whose traditions differ from their own.
According to Rothstein, the Bukharians stubbornly guard a set of practices that seem confused. In one example, some men used their phones on the Sabbath—a clear violation according to virtually any Orthodox Jewish standard. At the same time, they were offended when Rothstein got up to ritually wash her hands before men at the table had finished doing so—an act that is obviously permitted by virtually any standard. In the conclusion of her chapter on Uzbekistan, Rothstein described a series of trips she’d made with a Jewish guide during which he repeatedly urged her to try local non-kosher delicacies. She would insist that she could not eat non-kosher meat, and he would insist that meat slaughtered according to halal standards was close enough. She was firm, explaining that the details of Jewish law matter, and, as she wrote, it was “obvious that her answer both bewilder[ed] and disappoint[ed] him.” To Rothstein, their circular conversations reflected a broader struggle. By circumventing or broadening the rules to maintain a semblance of Jewish life, Rothstein fears, Uzbek Jews are contributing to its destruction.
Rothstein has observed similar problems in her home country of Sweden, where religious observance has declined for decades among both Jews and the general population. According to the Swedish government, only 8 percent of its citizens regularly attend religious services, and Sweden was ranked the second-least religious country in the world by Gallup in 2015. But on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Swedish synagogues are packed, and the king and queen attend special services to honor the victims. To Rothstein, this emphasis on the Holocaust has replaced religious life for too many Jews. It also obscures government failures to protect its citizens from current anti-Semitic attacks.
Given Sweden’s history, prioritizing Holocaust commemoration makes some sense. During and after World War II, thousands of Jewish refugees sought shelter in Sweden, and this influx dramatically reshaped its previously tiny Jewish community. Sweden’s Jewish population doubled in size between 1945 and 1970, and it now stands at somewhere between 13 and 15 thousand. The inherited trauma of the Holocaust formed the Jewish identity of many of the refugees’ descendants, even as their commitment to Jewish practice waned.
At the same time Sweden’s Jews have drifted from tradition, disturbing incidents of anti-Semitism in Sweden have increased. Over the last decade or so, attackers have thrown dozens or perhaps hundreds of molotov cocktails into synagogues, Jewish community centers, and funeral chapels. In 2017, a Jewish youth club was holding its annual party at the Gothenburg synagogue when three men began throwing homemade bombs through the windows. (Rothstein reports that no one died and that a large fire was successfully put out.) That same year, a Jewish community center in Umea was shut down due to repeated death threats against its director. The Nordic Resistance Movement, which registered as an official political party in 2015 and whose stated goal is to rid Sweden of its Jews, has gained in popularity in recent years and appears to be behind many large and small anti-Semitic provocations.
Rothstein further argues that anti-Semitism in Sweden has taken more subtle forms. Kosher slaughter is prohibited, and there have been repeated attempts to ban circumcision and the importation of kosher meat. These trends have influenced the Jewish community, which counts fewer committed Jews in each successive generation. In considering the future for Sweden’s Jews, Rothstein reflects on the relationship between their Jewish identity and their approach to the Holocaust, and concludes that remembrance devoid of responsibility for future Jewish life seems empty. She’d like the government to do more to protect Swedish Jews from anti-Semitism, and for Jews to invest more in everyday communal and religious obligations.
Just around an hour’s flight away, in Finland, the situation is quite different. The story of Finnish Jews is discomfiting: They have long enjoyed religious protection in Finland, and the Finnish parliament even granted the Helsinki Jewish community a plot of land for a permanent home in 1906. In return, Finnish Jews tend to be fiercely patriotic, and they fought in the Finnish army as equals during World War II—which meant fighting Russia alongside Nazi soldiers. This episode was documented at length by John Simon in his recent book, Strangers in a Strange Land, and it is as bizarre and unnerving as it sounds. Heinrich Himmler visited Finland twice to request that the Finnish government give up their Jews for deportation, and he was refused both times. A German soldier pulled a gun on a Finnish comrade-in-arms upon learning he was Jewish, and a commander stepped in to “make sure everyone knew [he] was a soldier in his army.” Near the end of the war, Finland signed a peace treaty with Russia while Germans were still on Finnish soil, and German troops set fire to Finnish cities as they retreated. Three Jewish soldiers were awarded the Iron Cross at the war’s end, but none accepted. Ultimately, not a single Finnish Jew was sent to Hitler’s camps.
The community remains tiny, at around 1,500 people, but according to Rothstein it is surprisingly stable and deeply traditional. Sabbath services are well attended in Helsinki, and the synagogue Rothstein attended contains tributes to Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Finland in its many battles. The Jews there appear to feel welcome and are free to espouse Zionist views, unlike their Swedish neighbors. This is in large part because the Finnish government has long maintained friendly relations with Israel; in Sweden, Jews are often accused of harboring dual loyalties. Among the places Rothstein visited, Finland seemed the most like America—a modern country where religiously devout and patriotic Jews are permitted to thrive.
Perhaps the oddest politico-spiritual situation for Jews anywhere is found in Iran. Persian Jewry dates back some 2,700 years, preceding the region’s Muslims by around a millennium. Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the mostly prosperous Jewish population was estimated at somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000. Since then, it has plummeted to around 13,000, as Jews fled to Israel and the United States. The Jews that remain today find it hard to leave.
Despite having taken in Jewish refugees during World War II, the Iranian government aggressively denies that the Holocaust ever happened, going so far as to sponsor a yearly “Holocaust cartoon contest.” Citizens of Israel are banned from Iran, and Iranian Jews who visit Israel for even a short time put their families in Iran at risk. They are free to practice their religion in many respects, and the culture of Iran even encourages certain traditions. But they are closely monitored, and lack many of the freedoms Westerners take for granted. Rothstein reported that one woman quietly asked her to pray for them; others begged her to describe Israel. Yet many of the Jews she spoke to also pronounced their loyalty to and pride in Iran.
It’s difficult to know what the internal lives of Iranian Jews are like—they don’t seem able to speak freely. As long as they remain in Iran, it seems their identities must be shaped by their views on Israel and the Holocaust. In 2007, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews helped 40 Iranian Jews emigrate to Israel, the largest group to arrive in the country since the Islamic Revolution. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which supports the immigration of religious minorities out of Iran, has also helped a few hundred Jews leave in recent years. But Iranian Jewish leaders have formally denounced offers from Israel to help them escape, and insist they are proud Iranians.
In each country Rothstein profiled, there appears to be some push and pull on these issues: Finnish Jews may publicly support Israel, yet must contend with a past that includes fighting beside Nazis. Cuban Jews are pressured to downplay the atrocities of the Holocaust; after a moment of silence for Holocaust victims during a 2017 UNESCO summit, Cuban representatives called for a moment of silence for Palestinians. Siberia’s Jews enjoy relatively substantial religious freedom, but the country largely maintains the Soviet Union’s narrative regarding World War II, which downplays crimes against Jews. Each tiny group must reconcile genuine appreciation and fondness for its home country and culture with the knowledge that it may not last.
Exile raises some important questions. It’s always hard to know when to leave, and few of us feel an acute, individual responsibility to preserve history, as Jews living in the ancient communities of Morocco or Turkey might. Rothstein saw great beauty in many of the places she visited—ornate synagogues, warm homes—but was almost always left with the question of whether these communities would flourish again or simply continue to hang on. As in the Agnon story, there is a poignant sense of missed opportunity. If nothing else, the book is a blessed reminder of how good religious minorities have it in the United States. It contains quite a number of technical errors, which is surprising considering that Rothstein is generally a superb stylist. One hopes that in a second printing, these mistakes will be corrected, as the book provides invaluable portraits of worlds that ought not be forgotten.