Of Homelands and Promised Lands: A Meditation On Exile

Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi posited that the first exiles in history were the first couple – Adam and Eve. Banished from the Garden they initiate human history, history as wandering and displacement. In the same essay,[1] Yerushalmi notes that the Jews spent more of their history – even in Biblical times – outside of the Promised Land. All men are wanderers, perhaps Jews more than others.

I want to take a tour through the ways that language, culture and religious practice has shaped and is shaped by the dialectic between a redeemed promised land and the open-ended uncertainties of exile. I hope that this can help deepen our appreciation of the complexities and opportunities of contemporary Jewish life both in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel.

Miqdash Me’at: Portable Zion

The practice of prayer anchors a Jew’s mind in the awareness that he or she is both rooted in one place but must always think of another place as the site of one’s orientation. In the West we face east and in the East we look towards the west, always reorienting and destabilizing the comfort we have in the places we call home.

In the seventeenth century a group of Jewish settlers made their home in the heart of one of Suriname’s lush and fertile river valleys. The area was referred to by the Jews and the Dutch colonial authorities as the Jodensavanne – the Jewish Savannah. These were mostly Portuguese Jews who found a safe haven in the port cities of Holland and her Caribbean colonies and who now found themselves beginning a new chapter as plantation owners in the Tropics. Many were born and raised as Catholics; they or their parents kept their Judaism as a dangerous secret as they lived under the watchful eye of the Inquisition. Now they were masters of their own territory and chose to craft the space to reflect their beliefs and aspirations in a way unimaginable in most parts of the Diaspora, let alone in their native Portugal. They placed the synagogue on a centrally located hilltop so that all could see it and place it at the center of their Jewishly configured space. Four paths spread out from the Synagogue, pointing outwards to the four corners of the world and leading the faithful back to its sacred space. When Pierre Jacques Benoit, a visiting French artist, painted his Vue de la Savane des Juifs sur la rivière de Surinam (1839)[2] the Synagogue of Beracha veShalom (1685) was on the highest hill in the center of the settlement. [3] Back in the Old World Jews would have to be sure to build their sacred spaces in the shadow of Churches and Mosques but here the space was theirs and they were able to fulfill the advice of the Talmud calling for the Synagogue to be at the highest point in the town.[4] It was their Jerusalem.[5]

Ir Ve Em be Yisrael: The Many Jerusalems of the Diaspora

We can sense a precedent for the openness and public pride of the Surinamese Jews back in their metropolitan center – Amsterdam. Jews were far from isolated in the bustling port – they were one “nation” among many other foreign mercantile groups that moved to Amsterdam beginning in the early 16th century. They lived in a centrally located and prominent neighborhood that had some distinguished Dutch Calvinist residents such as Rembrandt van Rijn who would use his neighbors for the models of his Old Testament subjects. In the 1630s the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam had their own synagogue building, handsome but modest. Three decades later in 1675 they were able to channel their wealth and status into the construction of monumental synagogue complex off a central canal in one of the newer neighborhoods of the booming city. These Jews who lived for generations as Catholics, who were forced to conceal their origins and their faith for so long, now were able to come out in style. Beginning on the Friday before Shabbat Nachamu there were eight days of dedication, processions with the Torah scrolls, musical accompaniment, visiting dignitaries and a special sermon preached (in Portuguese of course) by a different haham of the community on each day of the dedication.[6] These sermons were collected and published as were broadsides in Dutch depicting the new structure. In his introduction to the commemorative pamphlet of dedicatory sermons David de Castro Tartas describes the scene. The congregation entered:

. . . with the Torah scrolls (Sepharim), . . . encircling the Esnoga, accompanied by torches, the kindling of lights which adorn the building; with pleasant choruses of music, with celebrated instruments, and with Divine lyrics whose harmony was so delicate (suave), and angelic that it felt like a house where God is present. . . and in order to imitate the dedication of the Holy Temple, there were eight days of festivities, always with the same solemnity, accompanied each day by a sermon given by the rabbis of the congregation  . . .

He directly addresses the reader who was not able to attend these glorious celebrations:

I assure you my benevolent reader, that these [celebrations] were more like Holidays (Pascuas) with liberty in the Temple than festivities of captivity in a Synagogue.[7]

The Esnoga, the great Portuguese synagogue was meant to evoke Solomon’s Temple, its columns were evocative of the “Yachin uBoaz”, its sloping buttresses on the outside walls follow the depictions of the Temple’s outer walls in Rabbi Jacob Yehuda León Templo’s best selling Retrato del Templo de Selomo/Depiction of Solomon’s Temple (Middleburg 1642).[8] And so it may not be an instance of baroque hyperbole to see the inauguration of this building as a transformation of this corner of the exile into a place of redemption, or at least a place of stability that feels like home.

Mother Tongues and Fatherlands: Language, Memory and Exile

Jewish culture has been deeply shaped by the diaspora and by the expulsions that have punctuated the Jewish journey since the destruction of the Temple. The very way we speak and read and write has been shaped by our wanderings. Judeo-Arabic or Judeo-Persian, for example, point to the rootedness of Jews in their diasporic homes. The language of the street is made familiar by writing it down in Hebrew characters and infusing it with Hebrew terms and rabbinic phrases. Jews could write in Judeo Arabic knowing that their Muslim neighbors would not be able to directly access the text. This orthographic barrier allowed for an internal dialogue for the Jews but in a language which when spoken they shared with their Muslim and (often enough) Christian neighbors. Jews used Judeo-Arabic to write love letters, contracts, recipes and shopping lists but they also used it to write works of philosophy, science, linguistics and Halacha. This was a common language of Jews from Morocco to Baghdad for over a thousand years. Was it a language of exile or home, a reflection of rootedness within a time and place?

While Judeo-Arabic points to the deep roots of the Jews of Arab lands to Cairo, Baghdad or Aleppo, Ladino and Yiddish reflect dislocation and exile from a former home. They are both products of exile, transplants in a second diaspora. Yiddish develops out of the German the Jews of Ashkenaz spoke and wrote down in Hebrew characters during their centuries of life in the West. As they find refuge and new economic opportunities in Poland and Central Europe, these Jews brought with them the Torah of the Tosafists and rich liturgical tradition of Ashkenaz, but they also brought their language. Surrounded by speakers of non-Germanic languages – Poles, Slavs, Ukrainians, Hungarians – the Ashkenazim maintained German as their internal Jewish language to the point that it becomes thoroughly “Judaized” into Yiddish.

Ladino followed a similar path. The Jews leave Spain with the expulsion and find refuge throughout the Mediterranean. After Portugal, the largest numbers of exiles make their way to the expanding and multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. In cities such as Salonika and Istanbul and Izmir the Jews of Spain and Portugal continued to speak their Iberian languages among themselves. Over time this vernacular absorbed local terms from Turkish, Greek, Arabic. They wrote this vernacular down in Hebrew characters and inserted Hebrew words in their everyday speech, hispanizing Hebrew: an unlucky man is “desmazalado” – someone without “mazal”, luck. The Ottoman’s granted the different ethnic and religious communities of their empire a great degree of communal autonomy. They spoke their mother tongue and practiced their folkways and religious commitments within tight-knit communities of Jews with a similar history, fellow exiles from Spain and Portugal and their descendants. The language endured and thrived because of the critical mass of exiles settling in their new homes and the waves of exiles who arrived in the century or two after the initial expulsion. It didn’t hurt that Spanish language and Sephardic lineage was a source of deep pride and carried heavy social capital.[9] These exiles arrived in communities where they often had relatives and where they could not only gossip or do business in Castilian or Portuguese, but where they found religious works – siddurim, Bibles, works of halakha and musar—in their mother tongue. To be Jewish in Salonika or Izmir and to some extent in many parts of the Land of Israel was to speak Spanish. While most people know of Judeo-Spanish as “Ladino,” it was just as often referred to by its speakers as “Judesmo” – Jewish!

So we have a double exile here[10] – exile from Zion and an exile from their homes in Toledo, Murcia and Lisbon.  (Similar to the way that the Jews of Poland and Hungary were Ashkenazim!) These double exiles find a way to make themselves at home in this new place of dislocation, through their mother’s tongue, through the oral ballads that were sung by generations of women as they washed clothes, prepared delicacies for Shabbat and sang their babies to sleep. These songs have roots in medieval Iberia, they tell of knights and maidens, betrayals and murders, longing and searching for lost loves. Over time Jews made these ballads their own, eliding or translating Christian symbols, spinning subtle allegories of redemption, teshuva and reunification.[11] In many cases the songs are explicitly Jewish- songs to celebrate weddings or the night before a brit-milah, holidays etc. Exiled from Spain, proud of their roots in that place of their first exile, and now marked by their Iberianess in a very non-Iberian context, these Jews made their new lives less strange by speaking, writing and singing in “Jewish.”

Rediscovering Diaspora in the Heart of Zion

These diasporic Jewish languages are dying as living, quotidian languages. Outside of the Hasidic community few people are ordering a sandwich or reading a newspaper in Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic or Ladino.[12]  These languages are studied with vigor at major universities but the interest for the most part is in recovering the past brilliance of these languages and the people that spoke and wrote in them. However, music is an area where these languages are finding a second life. Klezmer – from classical to schlocky to post-punk – can be easily heard both live and on the eternal stream of YouTube videos. Interpreters of Ladino songs are also widespread ranging in bands that specialize in ancient music to more contemporary interpreters of these mesmerizing songs.

However in the heart of Zion we can find a most remarkable diasporic musical revival. In recent years there are several musicians who have gone back to the great poetic traditions of the Hebrew poets of Al-Andalus. The hard-rocker Berry Sakharov produced a dark, meditative and propulsive album of poems by Ibn Gabirol. These are ruminations on life, death, the wonder of nature and the ineffable presence of the Divine.[13] Etti Ankri discovered and recreated a modern soundscape for the divine eroticism of Yehuda Ha-Levi’s poetry.[14] This is part of a larger trend of young Israelis –across the religious and ethnic spectrum- encountering the beauty and complexity of piyut. These are the children of a nation founded as a “negation of the exile” – shlilalt hagulat – who feel the need to go back into that exile to better understand their place in history, to better appreciate their own language and find new modes to make sense of their world.

There are other Israeli artists who take this rediscovery of the exile into radically new territory. A-WA, three Yemenite Israeli sisters who grew up in a musical family in a small town in the Negev took their grandmother’s Judeo-Arabic folk songs and spin them into a contemporary fury of dance hall, electronica and Arabic pop. Ravid Khalani writes songs in Hebrew and translates them into Arabic with his Yemenite father. The songs are an eclectic mix of African and Arabic musical styles all shot into your gut by Khalani’s powerful voice and the virtuosity of his band. Both groups have received critical and popular acclaim both in Israel and throughout the world. They have followers throughout the Arab world despite being very clear about being Jewish Israelis. At a time when Israelis may be feeling isolated by BDS and horrified at the violent dismembering of their greater Middle Eastern neighborhood bands like A-WA[15] and Khalani’s Yemen Blues[16], or Dudu Tasa and the Al-Kuwaitim[17] may offer a bridge back to a ruptured Middle Eastern past and forward towards a connection beyond politics and ideology.


I have tried to take a tour through the forking paths of Jewish language, culture and self-understanding in the hopes of answering questions about exile, diaspora and home. I am a historian and a living, breathing Jew and on both counts I have no answers, just a belief in the energizing dialectic between exile and redemption, of Israel AND the Diaspora and all of the spaces in between.


[1] Y. H. Yerushalmi, “Exile and Expulsion in Jewish History” in Crisis and Creativity in the Sephardic Word, ed. Benjamin Gampel (Columbia 1997) 3-22.

[2] Image comes from the John Carter Brown Archive of Early American Images, http://jcb.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/detail/JCB~1~1~597~230111:41-Vue-de-la-Savane-des-Juifs-sur-

[3] Rachel Frankel “ Antecedents and Remnants of Jodensavanne: The Synagogues and Cemeteries of the First Permanent Plantation Settlement of New World Jews”, The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West 1450-1800. New York: Berghahn Books, 2001 394- 438. Frankel is a New York based architect who has dedicated her spare time to the study and preservation of Caribbean Jewish sacred sites. She organizes tours dedicated to repairing decaying cemeteries and excavating old Synagogues see https://www.facebook.com/JewishJamaicanJourneys/posts/709513632535986

[4] Tosefta, Megila 4 (3), 23.

[5] Natalie Zemon Davis. “Regaining Jerusalem: Eschatology and Slavery in Jewish Colonization in Seventeenth-Century Suriname.” The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 3, no. 1 (2016): 11–38. doi:10.1017/pli.2015.29.

[6] While these former Conversos had to originally import Ashkenazi or “Old” Sephardic rabbis as their rabbinic guides, by the 1630’s they already were producing their own Torah scholars and rabbis.

[7] Sermoes que pregarão os doctos ingenios do K.K. de Taalmud Torah desta cidade de Amsterdam, David de Castro Tartas Amsterdam 1675. This book is available in the rare book collection of Columbia University.

[8] León Templo’s depiction of the Temple: https://www.delacuadra.net/escorial/judaleon.jpg

[9] We see the native communities often adopting Sephardic halachic norms and cultural practices, often enough becoming assimilated into the Ladino speaking world of the newcomers. One small example of this is in the use of Spanish names for new born girls- Esperanza, Blanca, Luna, Gracia, Fortuna etc.

[10] David Wacks investigates this idea in its Medieval context in his erudite, Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature (2015) and here https://davidwacks.uoregon.edu/2011/03/21/double/

[11] See the work of Vanessa Paloma https://inalco.academia.edu/VanessaPaloma. Paloma is an ethnomusicologist who studies Haketia, the Judeo-Spanish of the Jews of Northern Morroco. She is also a talented musician who interprets this tradition with flare and love: See this video for a traditional Passover song shot on location in Morocco were Paloma now lives: https://youtu.be/mM1qeR-NV30

[12] This despite the valiant and creative efforts of dedicated educators throughout the world. For one example see the case of Devin Naar at the University of Washington and the ways the Seattle Sephardic community incorporates Ladino into their liturgical calendar. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/179790/seattle-ladino-revival

[13] https://youtu.be/jk18_YIxINE?list=PLNDwr3PucPdWkeW5OsmOTxOWMj5aIPhpx

[14] Warning: this may break your heart: https://youtu.be/v11AuXN33U0

[15] This is A-WA’s break out video: https://youtu.be/g3bjZlmsb4A

[16] See this fantastic video shot in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem as part of the “IndieCity” project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-k37Kbnov0

[17] The great-nephew of one of the greatest musicians of Iraq pre-1948, Dudu Tassa discovers his uncle’s buried musical past and reinvents it in a new key: http://www.the-kuwaitis.com/videos