A border-crossing people living in a borderless world

NEW YORK (Sh’ma) — There is nothing that makes me feel as alive as walking the streets of a

new city — with a notebook, a map, and a camera — waiting for a portrait to take shape out of

color and sound, clamor and empty space, concrete and stone and sky. A city is, first and

foremost, a rhythmic organism: It takes a lot of patience and attention, and many miles on foot,

to be open enough to hear the particular music of a place, and to feel how a city situates itself

uniquely on the earth.

I have spent the past several years traveling — to places like Bosnia, Argentina, Russia, Hungary,

Mexico — exploring these cities’ communities, trying to understand better what it means to be a

Jew in different parts of the world and, just as importantly, what it means to live in the world as

a Jew. What started as a way to explore my own identity has become the central act of

expressing my identity. I have discovered myself, Jewishly and otherwise, as a visitor and a

stranger in cities all over the globe.

Jews and cities have a special relationship. Cities are open-ended places and, like Jewish culture,

can’t be fully described according to geographic boundaries. The great Hungarian novelist

George Konrád wrote: “Those Jews who lived in Budapest or Berlin or Belgrade or Bucharest

were certifiably at home there. To what extent they were Jews, Hungarians, Germans, Serbs or

Romanians is an open question.” In other words, even if a Jew can’t completely claim citizenship

to a country, that Jew can feel fully at home in his or her city. Urban spaces are integrated,

porous, works-in-progress. Nations exclude, but cities embrace. And just as Jews have made their

mark on cities, the ethos of cities has left indelible imprints on us. The survival skills of urban life

have become our cultural hallmarks: education, translation, innovation, mediation, and


One must be willing to leave a new city as a slightly changed person. If you’re not open to that

possibility, then you haven’t really travelled, not in the profound sense that demands so much

more than just stepping onto an airplane. Jewishness and travel are inseparable for me because

they make the same moral demands: curiosity and empathy. We are border-crossing people living

in an increasingly borderless world.

Last fall, at the Brooklyn Book Fair, I stood for many hours at a table selling copies of Habitus:

A Diaspora Journal, a Jewish magazine of international literature and arts that I founded. The

issues were spread out on the table, and a sign with our name and logo faced out toward the

thousands of people who streamed past. Something amazing, something I hadn’t expected,

happened because of one word on that sign: “Diaspora.”

Over and over, I watched people pass by and engage, even briefly, with that word. The faces

couldn’t have been more varied in type or shade; this word was obviously not the exclusive

domain of any group. The word “Diaspora” stopped them in their tracks, held their gaze, and

quietly called out to them. They didn’t know exactly what it was doing there, but they knew it

had something to do with them. The word conjures an entryway to a shared society of

transplants and transients. It is a familiar code for people who have started in one place and

ended up in another.

That day at the book fair, I was more convinced than ever that this sense of Diaspora was key to

something both profoundly Jewish and urgently modern. “Diaspora” is a Greek word, of course,

adapted from biblical Hebrew. It means to scatter people, like seeds. For Jews, this is deeply

rooted; it is inscribed in our very name and language (“Ivri,” in Hebrew, is “to cross.” Our

passage to Canaan was so transformative it gave us our collective identity). But it is also

something that connects us to many other people, too, and to an experience that has become a

defining one in today’s world.

“Diaspora” is a process of creating proximity and intimacy over great distances and, as such, it is

primarily an act of imagination. It is a creative feat to see ourselves as part of something larger

than what we can see and feel and touch. To be truly at home in the contemporary world is live

in a complex web of longing and belonging.

The ability to project oneself beyond borders and limitation is the real genius of Diaspora culture.

As Jews and modern people, it’s the currency in which we trade — and it’s our only true and

lasting birthright.

Joshua Ellison is the editor of Habitus: A Diaspora Journal. This article first appeared in Sh’ma.