Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination

Article excerpt

by Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 370 pp. $45.00.

Sidra Ezrahi's book on the permutations of the themes of exile and return in modern Jewish imaginative writing is an impressive work of scholarship. Laced with passages of astute literary and cultural criticism, the author's narrative -- itself a journey through a thousand years of touchstone texts exploring fictive wanderings, pilgrimages, deportations, and migrations to and from the Holy Land -- raises questions about the durability of metaphors of utopian desire once the conditions of unfulfilled longing on which they are based no longer exist. Her main thesis is that ever since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, the potential for Jews of the Diaspora to make a literal, territorial return to Israel has infected the symbolic resonance of the trope of an endlessly deferred redemptive repatriation, vitiating part of its force and poetic function. The result, in Ezrahi's view, is that contemporary writings that address these themes must inventively deconstruct the old mythologies and offer new twists and turns on the experience of inner and outer exile in a post-exilic, post-holocaust era. The challenge they face is to negotiate the pull toward a literalism that threatens to destroy the rich lode of allegorical meanings associated with the old idea of a final return to the sacred homeland, while developing an idiom that speaks to the living reality of actual arrival.

Ezrahi sets the stage by establishing the character of the genre in the centuries straddling the turn of the first millennium C.E. Epic tales and travelogs about the dislocated Jewish experience, including medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land and quests for the Lost Tribes of the Jews, are described and analyzed as the book focuses on key works by Eldad Ha-Dani, Yehuda Halevi, and Benjamin Tudela. These poignant narratives of remembrance and frustrated reunion with the holy city preserve the utopian spirit and the redemptive drive that lent eschatological meaning to the nomadic status of the wandering Jew.

Jumping next to Jewish authors flourishing around the second millennium (late nineteenth and early twentieth-century writers such as S. Y. Abramovitch, S. Y. Agnon, Sholem Aleichem, and Isaac Bashevis Singer), Ezrahi shows how in the modern age the genre of narrative journeys took on the cast of mock epics that offered slanted readings and sophisticated interrogations of the pilgrimage motif. This section of the book contains some of the most striking textual analyses, giving new vitality and an elevated importance to stories familiar to many readers from childhood. One is stirred to revisit these narratives from the perspective of the shtetl culture that reassessed the troubled theme of exiled longing, providing new, complex literary forms to express the changing hopes and fears of enacting, or even in a sense of becoming to themselves, an actual homecoming. …