Raised in a nonreligious Jewish family, Charles London knew his heritage but had no strong desire to experience it personally. Then in the summer of 2004, while doing relief work in Bosnia, he stumbled upon a remarkable communitywhere Jews worked alongside Muslims and Christians to rebuild a city ravaged by war. This encounter gave him the idea for a journey that would take him around the world and back to his roots.
Far from Zion is the story of Jews in far-flung, often surprising places. Despite efforts by Israel to bring these scattered people home to Zion, they have chosen to remain in the lands of their birth: a shopkeeper selling Jewish trinkets in Iran, a caretaker keeping watch over an all-but-forgotten synagogue in Rangoon, revelers at a Hanukkah celebration in an Arkansas bowling alley, a Cuban engineering professor, proud of his Jewish heritage and prouder still of his Communist ideals. It is through their stories and many others that London examines his own identity, as he, too, struggles to come to terms with his connection to Zion.
An assimilated Jew, journalist London (One Day the Soldiers Came) was shaken to learn that his thoroughly modern grandmother was born in a small, Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking community in Virginia. A reunion of this now-gone “shtetl” that had coexisted peacefully with its gentile neighbors inspired him to discover other Jewish communities in challenging circumstances that live peacefully with their gentile neighbors—which he rather simplistically opposes to Israel, whose violence in the West Bank and Gaza he deplores. In Rangoon, Burma, in the midst of a military crackdown, he wonders why the city's Jewish community is dying; in Iran, he finds a Jewish community not too worried about anti-Semitism, with a guaranteed seat in Parliament, 30 synagogues and six schools. In Cuba, London wonders whether Jews join the Jewish community more for spiritual connection or for perks like a government beef ration; in Bosnia, he finds an inclusive Judaism that gave back to society at large. Finally, Israel's powerful Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial makes London believe for the first time in the necessity of a Jewish state. While a sincere and soul-searching observer, London often comes across as politically naïve and admittedly ill-informed about Jewish history and rituals. Photos. (Oct.)