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