From Tunisia to India, Scattered captures other Jewish worlds

Encountering fellow Jews in far-flung, unexpected places brings home the recognition that we’re part of a global community, with distant cousins worldwide. Perhaps that’s why Jewish geography is such a popular game, establishing instant kinship among travelers.

Bryan Schwartz’s quest for Jewish community has been more purposeful than a chance encounter with a rabbi in an Athens supermarket or a yeshiva student on an African safari. Ever since he was a law student at U.C. Berkeley, the Oakland labor and civil rights attorney has been researching and visiting isolated Jewish communities around the world that survive — sometimes even thrive — despite a multitude of obstacles.

Man communing with one of his ostriches in Oudtshoorn, South Africa photos/scattered among the nations

Over the past 16 years, Schwartz has traveled throughout the world, documenting the stories of the Bene Israel in India, the Abayudaya of Uganda, the Jewish gauchos of Argentina and the Inca Jews of Peru, among others. In 2002, he created a nonprofit, Scattered Among the Nations, to bring to light the diversity in the worldwide Jewish community. Not only has the project helped to rally assistance to Jews in these remote outposts, it has also resulted in photo exhibitions throughout the country (and inspired paintings by African American artist Sam Renaissance, on view at the Osher Marin JCC through Jan. 3).

Now these stories are coming closer to home with Schwartz’s latest achievement, “Scattered Among the Nations: Photographs and Stories of the World’s Most Isolated Jewish Communities.” This gift book, offering an intimate, in-depth look at 16 Jewish communities in five continents, includes the contributions of Scattered colleague Jay Sand and photojournalist Sandy Carter.

The book is a reminder that not all Jews fit a white, urban, Ashkenazi paradigm. Indeed, most of those featured are people of color in tiny villages far from major cities. This is an important point for Schwartz, who believes that American Jews need to come to terms with the growing diversity in their communities.

“Kids are growing up with a more multicultural vision,” said Schwartz, 43. “My 7-year-old daughter has Jewish friends who are African American, and this doesn’t faze her.”

Woman carrying a Torah in Bershad, Ukraine

Schwartz’s style of imparting this multicultural message is not a hit-you-over-the-head screed that shouts, “Not all Jews are white!” Rather, in detailing the rich history and daily lives of Jews in remote communities, “Scattered” enables the reader to forge connections and gain respect for a resilience and determination to carry on Jewish traditions under difficult circumstances.

Take this passage in the chapter titled “A Shabbat in Tunisia,” which focuses on the Jews of Djerba, who first came to this small Mediterranean island more than 2,600 years ago:

“As the women and girls work preparing, boys dominate the streets between brightly whitewashed mud and stucco walls, with their soccer balls. Some wear kippot and tzitzit, some do not. In the mid-afternoon heat, at more than ten synagogues and prayer halls, old men wake from midday naps, chant the Mincha [afternoon] service, and argue Talmud. Nearby, women in head shawls lean out windows, cleaning turquoise shutters. Sounds of brooms sweeping courtyards for Shabbat echo from behind the walls of homes, and women toss buckets of mop water into the dusty streets. One woman shouts as she beats the life out of a North African desert scorpion.”

Stories of Jewish communities are complemented by arresting images: a woman carrying a Torah in Bershad, Ukraine, a man blowing a shofar in Rusape, Zimbabwe, an older man communing with one of his ostriches in Oudtshoorn, South Africa, a woman praying behind a mechitzah (divided women’s section) in a synagogue along the India-Myanmar border.

“The chapter on our community provides an intimate and vivid depiction of who we are and how we ordinarily lead our day-to-day lives,” wrote Isaac Thangjom in an email. A pillar of the Benei Menashe community in Manipur, India, he now lives in Israel. “For me, looking through the pages is like coming home. I know the people who have been photographed, and the settings are places where I once grew up.” 

Tudor Parfitt, a British expert in Jewish communities who wrote the foreword, calls the book, an “important volume [that] records a moment in the long history of the Jews when many communities from Morocco to Argentina or Azerbaijan are on the point of extinction” at the same time that communities in Africa are turning toward Judaism and those in Portugal and Mexico are discovering their Jewish roots.

In a separate interview, Parfitt said that “Scattered” demonstrates that “the Jewish world is more variegated and pluralistic than we’d imagined.” Worldwide, “there’s much more fluidity” in people’s choice of religion, and “a lot of people are coming out to say they’re Jews.”

For Schwartz, who has spent considerable time with remote communities of Jews that are hanging on by a thread, as well as those that are coming into their own, there is no choice but to support them. “These people are devout,” he said. “It’s critical that we embrace them … It’s the right thing to do.”

“Scattered Among the Nations”
by Bryan Schwartz with Jay Sand and Sandy Carter (Weldon Owen, 252 pages)

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.