Searching for Zion opens with a search not unfamiliar to many who have flown El Al, that intimidating examination by airline security. Author Emily Raboteau isn’t waved past after a few cutting glares and pointed questions. No, she’s taken down to the basement for a more thorough search. The additional treatment is in part because she’s a twenty-something with an attitude who mouths off to the guards, but it’s also because she doesn’t look like a typical tourist to Israel. In fact, she doesn’t look typical anything. With an Irish mother and an African-American father, Raboteau has a deep sense of not belonging anywhere. This memoir is Raboteau’s search for home.
Raboteau starts her journey by following her closest childhood friend, Tamar Cohen, out of Diaspora. Cohen made aliyah after college, and now makes her home in Jerusalem. On the visit, Raboteau learns of Africans who also found a homeland in Israel, and she seeks them out on subsequent visits. The stories these Ethiopians, Jamaicans, and African-Americans tell are full of faith, loss and love, and many also feel the displacement Raboteau feels. But, none provide a satisfying answer to her question, “Where do I belong?”
Raboteau’s quest continues through the places that Africans have fled from, or seek to flee from, or seek to flee to. The following sections of the book trace Raboteau’s travels to Jamaica, Ethiopia, and Ghana, and eventually, the Deep South of the US, a place that has left deep scars on her father’s side of the family.
Raboteau is a talented memoirist, and her writing is consistently engaging, honest, and wise. The journey itself gives Raboteau the courage and fortitude to embrace what she knew all along, and what Jews have meditated on every Passover for thousands of years. There is no easy path out of Diaspora; home is much more than geography.