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Exile: Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora Is a Window to Struggling Communities

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Annika Henroth-Rothstein traversed the globe interacting with scattered Jews | Photo: Courtesy

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As I entered my third consecutive month of lockdown, I came across Swedish-Jewish journalist Annika Henroth-Rothstein’s new book Exile: Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora, an exploration of contemporary Jewish life, in what I can only assume are some of the world’s least hospitable environments for religious minorities, such as Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Cuba, Morocco, Iran, Turkey and Venezuela. Her book transported me out of the dystopian nightmare we are living through, and into the rich communal life of Jews living in countries, which usually make the news for all the wrong reasons.

Henroth-Rothstein and I spoke via Zoom from two distant parts of the African continent: South Africa and Ghana. She flew to Ghana in March for what was meant to be a short research trip, but has become a significantly prolonged stay in the West African nation because of the closure of its international borders three months ago due to COVID-19.

As luck would have it, the capital city Accra has a Chabad House and an Israeli expatriate community, both of which she connected with shortly after arriving in the country. She expressed gratitude for the Chabad rebbetzin who checks in on her twice a week, and for the local Israelis who supply fellow resident Jews with kosher food whenever packages arrive from the homeland.

During our conversation, Henroth-Rothstein said that even after writing this book, her prolonged sojourn in Ghana has taught her even more about the meaning of community, and has reinforced her belief that Jews “survive because we come for each other, we aid each other, and we are each other’s home when there is no other.”

The concept behind Exile was born in 2015, when she attended a Rosh Hashanah dinner in Jerusalem hosted by an Iranian-born Israeli, whose parents still live in Tehran. During the meal, he expressed a desire to glimpse into contemporary Iran, and see for himself what it is like today to be Jewish in the Islamic Republic. This conversation stuck with her, and within several days of returning home, she applied for a journalist visa at the Iranian Embassy in Stockholm. Despite her outspoken Zionist views and articles in right-wing Israeli publications, she was eventually granted a visa, and made her first of two visits to Iran in early 2016.

“I knew after just one day in Tehran that this has to be a book somehow,” she recalled. Fast forward two years, and she eventually immersed herself in ten countries, most of which have experienced extreme socio-political upheavals in the twentieth century, resulting in the departure of the majority of their Jews. In addition to sharing the stories of those few Jews who chose to remain in their homeland, she reflects throughout the book on the challenges of being Jewish in her native Sweden.

Through her travels, she came to realize that her own complex identity as a Jew in the world’s second most secular country is not dissimilar to the dual identity that Jews grapple with in countries that are fervently religious, and/or authoritarian. She provided the example of Jews in Iran, who “enjoy a greater freedom than I, a European Jew, have ever known. Their synagogues are unguarded, their Jewish identity on proud display, and their religious life lauded and encouraged, where mine is de facto outlawed and oppressed.”

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Despite Iranian Jews’ “suspicion toward outsiders and insiders alike, always fearing treachery and infiltration,” one gets the impression that Jews choosing to remain in challenging environments, be in Iran or Sweden, share a love for their unique heritage, and a sense of responsibility to ensure that their land of birth is never totally devoid of Jews.

Of all the communities Henroth-Rothstein encountered during the book, I was most intrigued by her impressions of the once prosperous Venezuela, which within the span of two decades has spiraled into one of the poorest, and most violent nations on Earth.

Taken of the book author, Annika Henroth-Rothstein, visiting Esther and Mordechai’s tomb, in Hamedan, Iran | Photo: Courtesy

She explained that those Venezuelan Jews who choose to stay are “used to inhabiting many different universes…without fighting the socialist machine, but rather understanding its cogs, and knowing when to push and when to let go.” This rationale for staying was further clarified by one of the matriarchs at a Shabbat dinner Henroth-Rothstein attended in Caracas, who told her, “You see why we don’t want to leave, right? In a way, we have everything, even with the troubles, and we truly love this country; it is more than our home – it is our heart.” The author spent a total of six months in Venezuela, where she was kidnapped, went into hiding, and was eventually deported. She still hopes to return to Venezuela, and is currently finalizing a documentary with Toronto-based filmmaker Igal Hecht on her six months in the politically fraught nation.

Exile is ultimately a narrative of profound resilience and survival strategies, employed by Diaspora Jewish communities, in some of the most stable and prosperous Nordic countries, to some of the most authoritarian regimes in the developing world. 

These creative survival strategies are put into practice in places such as Uzbekistan, where the community does not allow outsiders to dictate Jewish Law; the Tunisian island of Djerba, where the Jews resist assimilation by living in a self-imposed ghetto; Venezuela, where the Jews have developed a culture of communal self-reliance in a land of scarcity; Iran, where the Jews keep a low profile vis-a-vis the authorities; and Finland, where the tiny Jewish community has bucked regional trends and embraced tradition and Zionism.

Henroth-Rothstein (middle) in Istanbul, Turkey, being hosted for a local Shabbat dinner | Photo: Courtesy

Besides enabling me to vicariously travel to new countries, Exile also served as a catalyst for me to reflect on Jewish continuity in my adoptive country, South Africa. It is common for people to hear about Jews living in challenging countries like Iran, Venezuela and Turkey and immediately remark, “Why don’t the Jews just move to Israel?” I personally have been on the receiving end of such comments when speaking to South African-born Jews, in Sydney and Toronto. 

The reason for staying provided by that Jewish-Venezuelan matriarch could have very well been said at a Shabbat dinner table in suburban Johannesburg.

Regardless of where in the world the reader lives, this book is likely to spark some self-introspection into one’s own community’s strategy for continuity, and that alone makes Exile a very worthwhile read.

Exile: Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora is available on Amazon, and you can follow Annika Henroth-Rothstein on Twitter at @truthandfiction

Boston-born Dan Brotman is an American/Israeli/South African entrepreneur, activist and writer currently based in Johannesburg. During his almost decade in South Africa, he co-founded one of the country’s leading global business immersion companies, served as Executive Director of the South Africa-Israel Forum and managed Media & Public Affairs for the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies. He is a regular commentator in the South African media on issues related to the Jewish community and public policy. His column in TheJ.ca focuses on stories in the Jewish world outside of North America and Israel.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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