Lesbian Russian activist Masha Gessen released a book about a failed Soviet experiment and asks searching questions about Jewish identity.
The twentieth century did not bring an end to Jewish wandering. I’m a case in point: All four of my grandparents, originally from Poland, survived the Holocaust and made their way to Israel. There my parents were born. But the socialist ethos of Israel in its early years did not sit well with my paternal grandfather, and he did not feel safe there. He had seen the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the gas chambers of Majdanek. And having sent two of his sons to the Israeli army, he was not eager to send another two. His attachment to a Jewish state was strong, but his survival instinct was stronger. My grandfather continued to wander, looking for the safest place for his family to remain Jewish, moving to Los Angeles well into the middle of his life, where he started a factory in East L.A., and where I was born.
The idea of Israel as the glorious culmination of Jewish history has left these alternate endings in the shadows. But other notions of Jewish home and Jewish survival have always jostled against Zionism, both before there was a state and long after. At the end of the nineteenth century, as Jews and anti-Semites alike grew obsessed with the “Jewish problem,” debates and sub-debates proliferated about what a solution should look like. The Jews needed their own place? Fine. But did that place need to have its own political and military power? Did it need to be in Palestine? Was it reasonable or desirable to imagine a fantastical return to the glories of the temple period and the rebirth of an ancient language?
Cultural autonomy emerged as the levelheaded answer. If the Jews had an opportunity to build and flourish together as a people while still under the protection of a beneficent state—a place to speak their uniquely diasporic language, Yiddish—this would free them both from anti-Semitism and the quickly accelerating forces of assimilation.