Friday, January 12, 2007

Exile Pittsburgh

Do you dream of returning to Pittsburgh? A growing number of the Burgh Diaspora never left, meaning that they weren't born there in the first place. The generations beyond the first wave of emigrants have a unique sense of homeland that doesn't require relocation. This very sentiment is growing among the Jewish Diaspora:

In fact, a Jewish cultural revival is going on not just in Russia and Germany, but all across Europe. Tony Lerman of the Jewish Policy Research Institute in London cites steep rises in the numbers of Jewish museums, Jewish day schools and academic Jewish studies courses; more people are studying Yiddish, a dying language not long ago; Jewish film, music and cultural festivals are flourishing everywhere, even in Poland, a cradle of anti-Semitism.

Partly this reflects a fad for exotica among non-Jews. Still, it suggests that many Jews are reacting to anti-Semitism and fears of assimilation not by moving to Israel, but by rediscovering what it means to be Jewish outside it. Mr Shneer and Ms Aviv make the intriguing prophecy that in ten years, American Jewish foundations “will spend as much money sending young Jews to Vilnius to study Yiddish or Prague to study Jewish art or architecture as they do sending young Jews to Israel.”

The old-style attachment to Israel, treating it as a potential future home, a shield against assimilation, and an ongoing emergency needing support, is a mistake, Mr Lerman argues. “The way to continue it is with common concerns about education, civil society, human rights and values.” Even the Jewish Agency, a bastion of traditional Zionism, is changing tack. Makom, one of its partner agencies, now sends envoys to American Jews with a new brief: to get young Jews interested in Israel not by “hugging” it but by “wrestling” with it and its contradictions.

Accepting this challenge may be Israel's best chance to stay relevant to non-Israeli Jews. Israelis may still speak of the gola; but the Jews who fled to the Hellenistic world after the destruction of Jerusalem's Second Temple in 70 AD deliberately adopted the Greek word diaspora, “dispersal”, because it was more neutral. “Diasporism”—the idea that Jews are better off outside the Holy Land—is a tradition that began with the prophet Jeremiah and still exists among a few ultra-Orthodox Jews. But increasingly, today's young Jews see the future not as a choice between Zion and exile, but as a fruitful fusion of both.

I doubt Pittsburgh has a rich enough cultural tradition to survive many generations in exile, which indicates that the clock is ticking on enfranchising and networking the Burgh Diaspora. Furthermore, the parochial charm is busy dying off, which signals a reinvention of Yinzerville. In the meantime, perhaps Pittsburghers are better off outside of Pittsburgh.

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