USA Today: Home Lands

USA Today

Jewish ‘Home Lands’ looks beyond Israel Author’s premise: No singular homeland
by Cathy Lynn Grossman

A new book exploring Jewish religious identity and its relationship to Zionism offers relevance beyond its Jewish framework.

The publishing of Larry Tye’s Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora (Henry Holt, $27.50) was timed to coincide with the Jewish High Holy Days, a period of reflection. Many rabbis had requested copies as a resource for holiday sermons planned on Jewish renewal and on the changing dynamic between 5 million Jews in Israel and 8 million abroad (the Diaspora).

Rosh Hashana, which began Monday evening, marks the Jewish New Year and ushers in 10 days of repentance leading to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins at sunset Wednesday. This also is the traditional kickoff season for Jewish philanthropy drives and pulpit-call reminders of ties to Israel.

The provocative premise of Home Lands: Israel is no longer the only homeland, the only place to which all Jews aspire and where they can fully live their faith.

For the book, Tye, a former reporter for The Boston Globe, explored Jewish communities in seven cities on four continents. He found that Jews today are more likely to base their identity on their own spiritual experiences, not on the religious institutions of the past or unquestioning and automatic Zionism, the political movement to establish and support Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Although Jewish prayers for 2,000 years have spoken with longing of the day when all will live in Jerusalem, Tye says Jerusalem is an idea, not an address, a metaphor for the day when the world lives in complete spiritual and earthly peace.

Among evidence he cites:

* In cities such as Buenos Aires, Tye sees a reawakening of spirit, with ”children speaking Hebrew better than their parents and grandparents, having a clearer grasp of their Jewish heritage, and bringing older relatives back with them to the (synagogue) and classroom.” It is an astonishing recovery from a tragedy Tye once thought would spell the end of Jewish community life in Argentina. In April 1994, terrorists bombed a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 86 people and slashing the heart of Argentina’s 200,000 Jews.

* In Dusseldorf, Germany, and Paris, Jews are restoring religious and communal life, defying the Nazis’ genocidal war. French Jews feel less tormented by suspicions of dual loyalty, and ”Germany’s Jewish population is growing (at a rate) faster than that of any other nation, including Israel.”

* In the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk (Ne-pro-pe-trofsk), Cossacks, Communists, Nazis and collaborators once slaughtered Jews and banned survivors from practicing rituals or educating the next generations. Today, an Orthodox community is reconnecting Jews with the faintest memories of faith with rituals that have kept Judaism alive.

* In Dublin, where Jewish numbers are dwindling with emigration and assimilation, there still remains a loyalty to history and heritage. Tye connects with young Irish Jews around the world through a cyber Jewish Interest Group, Irish JIG.

* In Atlanta and Boston, seedbeds of Jewish renewal insistently grow through the blanketing trends of assimilation and intermarriage.

”Larry’s book says Diaspora Jews are not Jews in a holding pattern, waiting to land in Israel and be bona fide. We are genuine Jews,” says Andy Savitz, host of Tye’s book party and a source in the book.

Savitz, who scarcely knew his own Jewish identity and married a Catholic woman, still knew he wanted to rear their children as Jews.

”I didn’t want to be on the outside looking in on my children’s spiritual life,” says his wife, Penny McGee Savitz, so she chose to convert three years ago. Through her education and observance, her husband found his own footing in faith. Today, they are leaders in their synagogue. ”Once you enter Judaism, you enter the community,” she says. ”You can’t be a Jew on your own.”

The Savitzes are part of the Jewish renewal movement, which has spread from Boston in the 1970s through cities and suburbs across America.

Tye interviewed hundreds of people, who talked about lives of prayer, study and service. ”Our parents had Jewish forms, they had institutional religion,” he says, ”but it’s the kids who are getting to the real and the rich in Judaism.”

Zionism, he says, is an option, not automatic as it was for Jews who survived World War II, the Holocaust and Israel’s struggle to survive as a refuge for them.

Tye found similar attitudes within Israel as well. He writes: ”What growing numbers of (Israelis) do is reject religion and a feeling of connection to a Jewish people outside of the (Jews) in Israel. Religion to them is too bound up in ritual.”

Sheri Sable of Cambridge, Mass., who lived in Israel for 13 years, says, ”Israel must still be a beacon of light for Jews, for its own sake as well as for those in the Diaspora. But Jews today are vital to the survival of every country — Israel and any other country where they live.”

Says Tye, ”The questions Jews today ask themselves are not ‘Where are we?’ but ‘Who are we?’ ” Bearing the burden of history is not the only reason to be Jewish, he says, and Israel is not the only safe place. Jews in the Diaspora are equal partners in the future of the Jewish people.

Philip Warburg, an American who moved his family to Israel after the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, told Tye: ”A healthy Israel isn’t a ‘stand-alone society.’ It’s a nation with real, affirmative ties, not just to the Jewish Diaspora, but to Arab societies.”

While the pain of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America is so fresh, Tye, Jewish and American, reflects that ”new resolve, new strength and new depth can come from how we respond to these days. You realize you are bigger than just yourself. Now is the time to cling to values that make us all American.”