We are in a heady time of the Jewish calendar. While you are reading this piece near the end of Av, I wrote it during the three weeks of mourning culminating in Tisha B’Av. This solemn period recalls the destruction of both the First and the Second Temples which were both destroyed on the ninth of Av in 423 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. The destruction of the Temples, and the subsequent exiling of the Jewish people, resulted in the dispersal known as the Jewish Diaspora. On Tisha B’Av we read Eichah (The Book of Lamentations). Eichah is not a text that celebrates diaspora but, rather, it laments exile and grieves the loss of Zion. Observant Jews mark Tisha B’Av with customs associated with a day of mourning.
The result of both this ancient exile and the accumulation of contemporary exiles is the experience or condition of diaspora and, despite Tisha B’Av’s emphasis on solemnity, diaspora is complex and can be experienced across a spectrum ranging from the positive to the negative. Diaspora based on choice, dreams of economic prosperity, or wanderlust is experienced very differently from an exile and subsequent diaspora precipitated by reasons such as war, genocide, political instability, mortal danger, or oppression.
Jews have lived in diaspora communities for countless generations and in every corner of this vast planet. My favourite cookbook, Clarissa Hyman’s The Jewish Kitchen: Recipes and Stories from Around the World, pairs recipes with stories of the communities from which they have been sourced. The recipes and stories read like mini-essays on diaspora and syncretic living, revealing how communities have thrived in new environments by adapting local recipes to comply with Jewish dietary laws or by adapting traditional family recipes so that they correspond to local ingredients and cultural mores. For example, Eastern European Jews arriving in Cuba after 1920 found they shared the local fondness for eating soup every day, but they had to learn how to make gefilte fish from snapper or grouper. Hyman accompanies the recipes with stories describing how the Jewish community of Bukhara is at least 2,500 years old; how the Jews of northern circumpolar Norway must decide for themselves when Shabbat begins and ends; and how Jewish-Indian food reflects the coexistence of the ancient Bene Israel with Mizrahi Jews originally from Iraq. The book overflows with Peter Cassidy’s mouth-watering photographs of such dishes as pumpkin and sage risotto from the Venetian ghetto, Tunisian brik and msoki, chicken masala, Persian jewelled rice, and hazelnut rugelach.
When your family is particularly culturally and racially mixed up, adaptations and combinations can take on carnivalesque energy as they jostle together – usually benevolently, but sometimes discordantly – on the same table. My Dutch-Jewish relatives lived on the island of Java for several generations and brought back a taste for Indonesian nasi goreng which, in Holland and Canada, their descendants still make with chicken instead of shrimp. I make charoset with dates and figs to honour our Sephardi links, and, at Chanukah, I sprinkle white sugar on latkes for my “zaidye,” David Shentow z”l, who each year would swear up and down this was how his Polish family ate latkes in Belgium before the war.
The experience of diaspora can thus enrich our Jewish lives. And, yet, like many aspects of our tradition, there is a duality, a paradox, a twinning. Tisha B’Av reminds us that with diaspora there is grief, unbearable homesickness, and the struggle to rebuild a life. Both the celebration and the heartbreak of Diaspora are legitimate. Adapting your safta’s kibbe recipe for Canadian spices is one way of moving forward even as you simultaneously reach one hand towards the past. It is a kind of honouring, a kind of active witnessing. Likewise there is a rhythm in how Tisha B’Av, the month of Av, prepares us for Tishrei. There is a balance in how the lamentations and contemplation of Av, and indeed the dirges of the book of Eichah, reach a crescendo that mirrors the emphasis on turning, hashkiveinu, of the High Holy Days.
Mindful of the privilege we share in experiencing our diaspora(s) in a country as rich and as peaceful as Canada, and on land that is a homeland to the indigenous peoples, I invite us in this season to be equally grateful for the myriad homelands and customs that connect us across time and space to our ancestors, to those who continue to live in the places now lost to us, and to each other here where we have landed.