Visu­al Arts

Scat­tered Among the Nations

Bryan Schwartz with Jay Sand and Sandy Carter
  • Review
By – August 19, 2016

To know the Jew­ish Dias­po­ra, it is vital to explore the Jews on its out­er edges, like the last of the Bukhari Jews of Azer­bai­jan, who arrived after the fall of the First Tem­ple, or the Benei Menashe of India, who believe they were among the 10 Lost Tribes that wan­dered out of Israel. The paths these far-flung com­mu­ni­ties trav­eled and how they man­aged to remain con­nect­ed to their Jew­ish her­itage sheds light on how the cus­toms, beliefs, and tra­di­tions of larg­er, more main­stream Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties evolved.

The beau­ti­ful and vibrant cof­fee table book, Scat­tered Among the Nations: Pho­tographs and Sto­ries of the World’s Most Iso­lat­ed Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ties, is a good place to start. Its vivid pic­tures and descrip­tions bring these and oth­er remote Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties to life and take read­ers to areas not nor­mal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence such as Mbale, Ugan­da; Sefwi Wiaw­so, Ghana; and Lima, Peru. It shows how the mem­bers of these com­mu­ni­ties strug­gles to main­tain Jew­ish life and the chal­lenges they face. leav­ing ques­tions about whether some of the com­mu­ni­ties fea­tured in the book will sur­vive to the next generation.

The book cov­ers 16 remote com­mu­ni­ties in five con­ti­nents. Most are active and vital group­ings of peo­ple cling­ing to their her­itage — with the excep­tion of the deeply seclud­ed Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of of Ouri­ka Val­ley, Moroc­co, which con­sists of just one per­son. Once a real com­mu­ni­ty of 300 fam­i­lies, the Jews of Ouri­ka Val­ley joined the Moroc­can wave of immi­gra­tion to Israel in the 1960s. Even­tu­al­ly, only three Jews were left. With the deaths of his wife and moth­er, only Hananiyah Elfassie remained to guard the tomb of the local tzad­dikwho died 500 years ago.

Per­haps one of the strongest lessons it shows is how Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties have always been influ­enced by the ways of the peo­ple in their host coun­tries. Indeed, no mat­ter how large a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty is out­side of Israel, it is still a minor­i­ty cul­ture, just like the small com­mu­ni­ties fea­tured in the book.

As a cof­fee table book, Scat­tered Among the Nations is loaded with out­stand­ing pho­tographs of all the com­mu­ni­ties and their sur­round­ings. A read­er can open the book any­where at ran­dom and find some­thing new and inter­est­ing on just about every page. The dif­fer­ences in dress and over­all appear­ance between peo­ple from dif­fer­ent parts of the world is stark. The dif­fer­ent ways they relate to Jew­ish tra­di­tion and how they keep it going is often fascinating.

Ulti­mate­ly, the book is uplift­ing because it shows the Jew­ish spir­it at its finest, like with the secret Jews” in Bel­monte, Por­tu­gal who hid their faith from the time of the Inqui­si­tion, and recent­ly began to return to open prac­tice. While knowl­edge about Jew­ish tra­di­tion, and par­tic­u­lar­ly Jew­ish laws and cus­toms, have dete­ri­o­rat­ed sub­stan­tial­ly in some com­mu­ni­ties, the com­mit­ment to the Jew­ish peo­ple remains solid.

Scat­tered Among the Nations is a fine addi­tion to any Jew­ish book­shelf or cof­fee table. Its attrac­tive pre­sen­ta­tion cap­tures a read­er’s atten­tion and the remark­able sto­ries of the peo­ple it fea­tures pro­vide a reward­ing read­ing experience.

Relat­ed Content:

Alex Mar­golin is a free­lance writer liv­ing in Jerusalem. He spends his free time read­ing Jew­ish books and blog­ging about them.

Discussion Questions