Both Marc Tracy writing in Tablet and Jack Shafer writing in Slate seized the opportunity to take the New York Times out behind the woodshed for a small but incredibly popular item it ran over the weekend. The piece, written by Eric A. Stern is one part caricature of the Jewish community of Montana (which seems to consist entirely of people abducted while waiting on line at Russ & Daughters), and one part shaggy dog story (literally) about a Dutch-born, Israeli-raised German Shepard trained to sniff out bombs, respond osnly to commands in Hebrew and now works for the Helena Polica.
Striking first, Tablet called the article, “charming—in a bad-Bernard-Malamud-story kind of way.” And after cataloging the various stock characters of Jewish life that live in Montana –but just like us!– Tracy gently chides, “Memo to the Times: a philo-Semitic stereotype is still a Semitic stereotype.” He then goes on to cite the article’s supposed redeeming properties which include the well-known 1993 story of Antisemitism directed at Jewish families in Billings with Hanukkah menorahs (the Frédéric Brenner photo which re-creates the town’s reaction is a much better summary of the story). And of course, the above-mentioned tale of Miky, the bomb sniffing dog with a heart of gold, but an ear of tin.
Jack Shafer, who makes red-penciling the Times his stock-in-trade, was less forgiving. He not only derided the article for its exclusive on the breaking story of matzoh availability in a Great Falls supermarket, but he bashed the Times for a litany of articles in the same vein. “Pseudo-exotic Jewspotting has become so common in the Times that the paper might as well turn the genre into a standing feature.” Well, duh–it’s called the Weddings/Celebrations section in the Sunday Times Style. Shafer runs off a list of strange-Jew-in-a-stranger-place features the Times has run going back to 1996, along with a yizkor for the sub-genre of last-synagogue-in stories dating back to 1990. For those keeping score, it is a total of 15 stories about Jews and the absence thereof over slightly less than twenty years.
Still, he’s absolutely correct that stories like these tend to be fluff — sepia toned throat-lumpers that bemoan the forgotten Jewish structures and communities that the former denizens were generally happy enough to abandon (if it was their choice to do so). They could be accorded some respect if they took a serious look at the demographic trends that lead to the rise and fall of the doomed community, and here Shafer trots out his own demographic history of the Jews to show us what that might look like, “the urge to relocate might be irresistible for those who live in a small Jewish enclave but are looking for a spouse—many Jews won’t marry non-Jews.” It’s not terribly impressive, but we get the point. Really, he concludes, these stories get written because of lazy readers and writers, “Rarity stories are easy to write, and their sappiness makes them even easier to read.”
But over the years I’ve been doing cultural programming here at the 16th Street J, I’ve come to a different conclusion about the popularity of the genre of Jews-in-strange-places. We’re a more frequent offender than the Times–the most recent example being last night when we screened a double-feature of documentaries about Jews in India. Over time we’ve been all through South America, China, Greece, Ireland, Tunisia, Libya, the American South, Ethiopia, Uganda, Albania and countless abandoned shtetlach in Poland, Russia and the like. Unlike Shafer, I believe the appeal in these stories is not that of the “holdouts—the guy who refuses to sell his home, the Papua New Guinea tribe that won’t become “civilized,” the last blacksmith in town, the last survivor of World War I, even the last Oldsmobile.” Rather the answer lies in a culture that has been defined by diaspora.
History gets written by the majority culture and for most of the past 2,000 years Jews haven’t been in that position. Until the 19th century, Jewish communities existed in foreign lands for as long as the sovereign tolerated them or found them useful. When that tolerance ended, or another better use, that of scapegoat, was found for them, those Jewish communities disappeared. But even putting aside those Jewish communities that have declined through genocide and expulsion, there is a still deeper reason we are attracted to these stories.
These stories are reminders that Jewish life and Jewish communities, even when they feel permanent, lasting components of the larger culture they exist within, may not be so. They remind us that before we were here, we were of somewhere else, and in the future might be elsewhere still. It is the paranoid kernel at the heart of any serious look at Jewish history. While the 21st century may well mark the era of lasting pluralism, sustained economic prosperity and religious tolerance, it also may not. In the end, the Jews-in-strange-places narrative is a self-affirming tale of Jewish persistence that we’d like to think ourselves capable of living if the need were to arise. Perhaps, it is the very fragility of Jewish identity, teetering as it often seems to do on the edge of American assimilation and the triumph of consumerist culture that we are seeking to reassure.
The Times will be running other Jewspotting articles in the future. You can bet on it. But not because the writers are lazy. But because they are seeking to find something of ourselves.