Sunday, July 29, 2007

See you In Damascus

Two things I've seen in the j-b-s got me thinking: this, at An Unsealed Room and this at Baka Diary. Both talk, in different ways, about wanting to be able to travel in the Middle East freely--someday, after peace.

Years ago, one of my college friends, whose grandparents were from Italy, went on a trip to her grandmother's home town. She met the cousins, saw processions for the Virgin, ate, spoke Italian with the family, and got taken to see the local sights. I heard the tales of how cool it was, and something occurred to me that I'd never articulated before--how totally impossible such a trip would be for most Jews. How gone most of 'the old country' is.

Imagine doing the Jewish roots trip just as I did the Irish. Utterly impossible. Imagine a trip to Vilna or Cracow, where instead of 'March of the Living', or a polite tour around what's left, you visited relatives, or stayed with homestay families, went to the same synagogues used for hundreds of years uninterrupted, heard Yiddish in the streets, went to the restaurants...hard to imagine, even without the war, somehow. My great-grandmother once commented that there were some good things in the Old Country, but I believe she was talking about a dessert recipe at the time.

Sure, there are people who visit Europe. There's even Jewish nostalgia tourism developing. But it's basically a trip to the cemetery. The week I once spent in Germany nearly exploded my head. A friend (Iraqi-Jewish) once told me that she bicycled across Europe once, and spit her way across Germany. The scene in the last paragraph just couldn't have happened, could it, even without the Shoah? But it's weirdly inviting, at least to me.

Imagine some of my friends doing the Jewish roots trip. Iraq. Syria. Morocco. Iran. Egypt. Think of the historic Jewish sites out there, the communities that in another world you could visit and see the changing life of.

In some ways, I think we've tried to address this by making Israel our everything. "Drive us out of every other place we've called home? We don't care! We got the original back!" But it's different, more emotionally complicated than that. Sure, we can see where David and Isaiah walked, but the towns our grandparents came from are largely gone, behind borders, burned out, lost. Our most ancient connections, even, go farther than our borders. I've always remembered a Shabbos morning in a Sephardi shul in San Francisco where the rabbi commented "Now, Lavan lived in Syria. Anyone here from Syria?" Hands went up here and there. Imagine being able to do the whole Genesis Roots Tour.

So we wonder. What would it be like to go to Damascus? What would it be like to be Jews in a friendly Middle East? What would it be like? It's tiring, all this war unending, it's exhausting to be the man in the joke whose travel agent can't send him anywhere because of what they did to the Jews. What kind of a world could it be if?

No comments: