Friday, September 6, 2013

Why Jews Wander...

A Shtetl in Poland circa 1900
Jews have always been wanderers. I'm inclined to believe that a large part of the reason is that often we have not been full citizens of the  of countries where we have resided. Jews have been merchants bringing back spices and products, money lenders, scholars and, most frequently, refugees running from genocide.

Traveling brings up painful truths for those of us who long for a genuine history that immigrants from other countries take for granted.Yes, some folks settled in Israel, displaced the population living there and revived an ancient, unspoken language to call their own and pass on to their children. The real history of the way Jews lived in countries all over the world has been obliterated. Aside from the obvious suspects who brought us the Cossacks and the Holocaust, Jews have been systematically expelled from many other countries including Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. 

As I travel, I hear folks tell stories of homecoming: finally arriving in a place where the people look like you, hearing the language of your parents or grandparents come alive, seeing the town your ancestors called home and meeting long, lost relatives. For Jews, these places no longer exist. Our ancestors live only on paper and in the memories of a generation that is now dead or dying.

There are no actual Russian shtetls or Polish villages for me to visit. No new immigrants bringing the language and customs of my people. As a group we are alone, making our way without the wisdom of the past to guide us. I feel I have more in common with Native Americans than with Greeks or Belgians. There will never be a living window into either of our societies. Both groups have been deprived of the historical experience of our people.

The world that nurtured Geronimo and Isaac Bashevis Singer cannot be retreived. We can read about it or listen to tales passed down by those who remember. But we have been deprived of a vast legacy that cannot be replicated, reconstructed or replaced. It is just gone, a loss I grieve deeply.