Q & A with Charles London
Torah connects Jewish communities around the world, says author of “Far from Zion”
By Cindy Mindell
WESTPORT — Author Charles London, 30, grew up in Baltimore in an assimilated Jewish family, without much connection to Jewish identity. “Technically, we belonged to a Reform synagogue, but only went on High Holidays and only under pain of death,” he says. His mother was involved in the National Council of Jewish Women, working for social justice, “but I never made the connection between Jewish values and that work,” he says.
At age 28, while researching a book on far-flung Jewish communities around the world, London began to discover what it meant to be Jewish.
London wrote about his journey in “Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community,” published in 2009. He will speak at the JCC of Eastern Fairfield County on May 12 at 7:30 p.m. He gave the Ledger a preview.
Q: What inspired “Far From Zion?”
A: It happened by accident. I had never actually thought I would take a journey like this. I had never strongly identified with my Judaism and was not raised in a religious household. On a personal level, I hadn’t felt much connection to the Jewish religion or Jewish culture. I think I was typical of a lot of people of my generation. I didn’t want to limit myself to one particular identity. Those were the terms in which I thought of it at the time: limits. But when I was doing research in Bosnia for my first book, “One Day the Soldiers Came,” about children and war, I stumbled upon the Jewish community in Sarajevo. Not only had I not realized there was a Jewish community in Sarajevo, I was shocked to find that they ran the multi-ethnic youth group that I was there to visit. They had used their historical experience of disaster, displacement, and vulnerability to help that city survive the siege during the war in the nineties, and were using their position to help Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims talk to each other and to reconcile. They ran a soup kitchen every day of the siege of Sarajevo; they had the best pharmacy in the city, and they got thousands of civilians out through the front lines to safety during the war, to the US, to Israel, to other parts of Europe. It was an amazing thing. Their story inspired me, as did the way they got along with their Christian and Muslim neighbors. They were truly acting as their brother’s keeper, which I find to be one of the highest values of Judaism. They were actively tearing down the boundaries between themselves and their neighbors and were safer for it, and were growing stronger as a Jewish community because of it. They were certainly not “limited” by being Jews.
Shortly after my time in Bosnia, my grandmother passed away and I discovered that she had come from a Yiddish-speaking shtetl outside Norfolk, Va. She had never spoken about it. The community was long gone, but I suddenly felt a longing for something I never knew that I lacked: a sense of place in the vast continuum of the Jewish experience. So, thinking again of the Bosnian Jews, I set off to find far-flung communities around the world that might teach me something about how they got there, why they stayed, and what it meant to be part of this global people in an interconnected world.
Q: What did you experience on your journey?
A: I tried to focus on communities that had different or surprising experiences from what I knew of Jewish life, so I went to Burma to see a community about as far-flung as I could imagine, hanging on the edge of survival. I went to Uganda to see the birth of a new Jewish community in sub-Saharan Africa, made up of converts from several different Ugandan ethnic groups, and to Iran to see why some 15,000 Jews stayed living under the harsh regime of the Islamic Republic, when most of the community had fled. Everywhere I went had something new to show me about a different way to create community and to create a Jewish and a national identity. The diversity showed me the strength and vitality of the Jewish people, even as it showed me the effort it took to have a meaningful Jewish life in the modern world, be it in the “Bible Belt” in Arkansas or amidst the enforced piety in Iran. I also realized that for every place I went, there were 20 others I could have gone. I could spend the rest of my life looking for these communities and not exhaust the search, though that is changing. Over 80 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel or America now. I do hope that other 20 percent can remain a source of creativity and strength for the rest of us.
Q: Did the experience change your views?
A: The journey changed me completely. I started out skeptical of everything that had to do with Judaism as a religion and a culture. I was going to write a Jewish book that had nothing to do with Israel or the Holocaust. I had grown up with the notion that being Jewish meant having the Holocaust and Israel rammed down our throats, but for me, that wasn’t enough to make me care about being Jewish. I wanted to try to write about those who are far from Zion, those Jewish communities who are not defined by these two major things.
But I discovered that that was impossible. I learned that the Holocaust is an unavoidable piece of Jewish history; even in communities like Iran, who weren’t in Europe, it still played a role, especially with the rhetoric of Iran’s current president. Israel obviously played a major role, even for anti-Zionist Jews, because it was the object of spiritual longing, it offered shelter to people from every community, and everyone had a relationship with Israel. So I couldn’t avoid grappling with it.
My journey ends with a trip to Israel and I arrived skeptical but fell in love with the country. My politics are left of center and Israel certainly has its problems, but I went from complete apathy to deeply caring about Israel’s relationship with the rest of Jewry and the rest of the world.
There is so much complexity among Israelis in their political debate. In America we don’t have that conversation. I always felt that I was an outsider to organized Jewish life and didn’t have a right to an opinion. When I visited all these communities, everyone had a place and was entitled to an opinion. If there was enough room in Judaism for all these different voices, there was room for me. But it was up to me to become part of the conversation, have skin in the game.
Q: What were some of your more surprising discoveries?
A: Two or three top out as the most surprising. One is the existence of the Ugandan Jewish community and how they are growing. These are subsistence farmers from two or three different ethnic groups who have embraced Judaism and are creating a vibrant Jewish community. They are officially affiliated with the Conservative movement in the U.S. They are all converts who have adopted Jewish values, and they do outreach work in a poor rural community
The second surprise is the existence and life of the Jewish community in Iran. I knew I had to go there. Most of the Jews left during and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but 15,000 stayed and I knew nothing about them. I went with all these assumptions.
I found the community openly praying as Jews, with vibrant Jewish institutions, grappling with all the usual issues of a Jewish community, with the added pressure of how to deal with the current government and its relationship with Israel. They deal with it, and with a range of opinions as any community would. The Jews in Iran are subject to arbitrary arrest and political oppression – but as Iranians, not as Jews, and that’s the danger. Within Iran, the Jews are widely respected. They are a religious minority in a theocracy so there are problems, but I was very surprised to see how openly they live as Jews and to hear why they stayed. I asked the head of the Jewish hospital in Tehran, who is also a Jewish member of Parliament, “Why do you all stay? You know you could get out.” He said, “We may speak to one another in English, we may pray in Hebrew, but we dream in Persian.” The Jews have been there for 2,500 years and if this community were to leave, there would be no more Jewish life in Persia.
That’s true in any community. We are not a wandering people; we have been compelled to move, but everywhere we go, we try to plant deep roots and create optimism and hope for the future. In Iran they succeeded and even the current situation has not been able to uproot them.
Q: Did you find anything in common among the Jewish communities you visited?
A: The communities had diverse histories and languages. They were every color under the sun. They had their own politics and communal challenges. They did share the universal challenge of engaging young people and figuring out how to adapt their institutions to the next generations, to create something lasting. But really, the main unifying factor was Torah. They understood and interpreted differently, and some of the communities were deeply secular, but this narrative of the people, whether they viewed as a sacred or a normative text, or something in between, had a role to play. The other unifying factor was simply a desire to be connected to each other, to be part of the same ecosystem as the other Jewish communities. I saw that we are not one people, but rather, more like a rainforest: rich in diversity, stronger for our diversity, and deeply tied to one another. We may struggle amongst ourselves over everything from women’s prayer to the politics of Israel, but we are all creating the same project: a living expression of Jewish values on earth, even if we understand those values differently sometimes, and a meaningful and safe Jewish life for everyone who seeks it.
Charles London will speak on Wednesday, May 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the JCC of Eastern Fairfield County, 4200 Park Ave., Bridgeport. For more information call (203) 372-6567, ext. 127 / firstname.lastname@example.org.