- New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora
Buses whisked a group of Jewish college students from Ben Gurion airport to the room where the first Prime Minster of Israel signed the Declaration of Independence in 1948. "Welcome Home," the trip leader called out to the disoriented and exhausted participants in a Birthright Israel program. As one of the counselors on this trip several years ago, I looked around to see how the students would respond. Even as a Jew who felt very strongly connected to Israel, I wondered whether the language of "at home" reflected my own understanding of the Diaspora-Israel relationship. I expected that the young adults wearing baseball caps and sweatshirts with college logos would find this message of homecoming even more bewildering less than two hours into their first trip to the country.
I was reminded of this experience while reading David Shneer and Caryn Aviv's provocative study, New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora. The authors' argument that the State of Israel no longer represents the central address for a new generation of Jews contextualized my own response in the Hall of Independence [End Page 188] as part of a larger trend. Contemporary Jews, Shneer and Aviv argue, feel increasingly at home and fully settled all over the world from San Francisco to Moscow. This phenomenon is transforming the role that Israel plays in the construction of personal and communal Jewish identity among this population, whom they label the "New Jews." No longer burdened with a sense of inferiority, Jews outside the homeland have created locally nourished expressions of Jewish life and de-centered networks that render the dichotomy between Israel and Diaspora of questionable descriptive value. Subtitling the book "The End of the Jewish Diaspora" reflects the authors' conviction that the cultural, religious, and geographic hierarchies encoded within the concepts of "Israel" and "Diaspora" belie the experiences of the "New Jews."
Aviv and Shneer support their bold claims by providing ethnographic reports of thriving Jewish centers. These case studies illuminate overlooked corners of the Jewish world. We tour Crown Heights with the Hasidic Discovery Center, pray with a group of American tourists in neo-Hasidic synagogues in Safed, and visit with the first female rabbi of Russia. One particularly fascinating chapter, "Castro, Chelsea, and Tel Aviv," explores how queer Jews create different expressions of Jewish and queer identities in America and Israel. At the same time, queer Jews also maintain global communities that transcend geography. Focusing on this rarely studied community provides an effective lens for clarifying the importance of considering local milieu in the formation of identity, the prevalence of multiple transnational Jewish networks each built around shared interests and concerns, and the give-and-take nature of the dialogue between Israelis and Jews living elsewhere in the world.
Other chapters, however, suggest that there remains a significant gap between the authors' ideal typology of "New Jews" as fully settled in their respective communities and the realities they encountered in their research. For instance, "Let My People Stay," the first chapter in the book, sets out to replace perceptions of the Russian Jewish experience as moribund with images of a secure and thriving community which parallels patterns of North American Jewry. Yet the long discussion of the prevalence of antisemitism in Russia, particularly the disturbing popularity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, left me with more, rather than fewer, questions about the long-term viability of Russian Jewish life. The pockets of renaissance described in the remainder of the chapter, while certainly significant, did not fully persuade me that the narrative of Russian Jewry's decline can be largely dismissed, as the authors imply, as a myth propagated by American and Israeli organizations.
It is also evident in the chapter documenting Jewish youth travel that the gravitational pull of the Israel-Diaspora model exerts an ongoing influence, even on the "New Jews" cohort. The popularity of the programs explored in [End Page 189] the chapter, such as Birthright Israel...