Book Comment

Far From Zion: In Search of A Global Jewish Community

by Charles London

Published by HarperCollins, 2009

Opening a non-fiction book is a reader’s declaration of intent, of expecting something to think about, mull over, recommend. Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community is the story of a personal journey by the author Charles London in search of his Jewish self. It is a journey that the reader can observe and follow, but one that is hard to identify with unless you share similar life experiences, interests and perhaps biases.

The starting premise is plausible: a Jewishly-alienated New Yorker with a stable, committed gay identity searches far afield to find what has kept Jews Jews, and perhaps deepen his own sense of Jewish connection. The journey, more travelogue than cross-cultural bildungsroman, is a literary “on the road” experience for the reader, accompanying the author to a series of communities and countries as he tries to discover the hidden or not so hidden meaning of each community’s endurance and what still holds its people together. The author’s choice of destinations is an odd one: isolated Jewish communities such as Myanmar (Burma), Iran, Cuba and Bosnia (three out of four very small), Uganda, with a community of Jews by choice, New Orleans and Arkansas, small American Jewish communities, and Israel. It would have made interesting reading for the reader to know why the author chose these particular communities. What were their similarities and differences? One can only speculate.

image: Yusef Abad Synagogue in Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran

Yusef Abad Synagogue in Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran.
Photographed by Charles London during writing of Far From Zion

The book is written in a breezy, hip style, which makes it easy-to-read but, at the same time, detracts from the seriousness of tone. I was hoping to find more self-examination and reflection along the way and to understand how the author’s experiences affected his sense of Jewish self and added to his knowledge of his Jewish heritage. However, the author does explain when and why he embraces the idea for the journey. It is a reunion of multiple generations and branches of his family, descendants of his Jewish great-grandparents, that creates the spark and raises the question: In a family of relatives, connections seem clear. But is there a glue of universal Jewish values common to otherwise unrelated Jewish communities that keeps them intact? That is the question that London sets out to answer…as he seeks a “model” of what those values might be. While the journey is colorful and features several memorable interchanges with members of globally far-flung communities, there is no satisfying summing up of what he has learned. His most inspiring comments describe his impression of the Kulanu-supported Abayudaya community in Uganda.

Nor does the author tell whether or how he prepared for this important personal journey or how he made up for his acknowledged initial unfamiliarity with the beliefs and ways of his people. Nevertheless, one is caught up by the book’s premise. London is in full raconteur mode as he talks about challenges he faces traveling the globe, from when he enters the closed society of Myanmar (Burma) through to his skeptical fact-finding trip to Israel. Noteworthy is his unconcealed discomfort with things “Zionist.”

The book ends with the author reconfirming his interest in and commitment to his spiritual community back home in New York at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, whose Judaic orientation and congregational spirit resonate with him. It is a Wizard of Oz Dorothy moment. Although he has traveled to exotic places as well as more familiar locales (in the US), there is no place like home.

In the end, despite shadowing his travels and reading his colorful commentary about history, customs and remnant communities, we are left knowing neither the inner author, nor whether he believes he has found the answers to the questions that inspired his journey.

image: Far From Zion book cover

Charles London’s Far From Zion was a finalist for the 2009 National Jewish Book Award