One of the great themes of Jewish history is that of wandering. Jews have perpetually wandered from land to land over thousands of years of primarily Diaspora existence. It is not by chance that the myth of the wandering Jew took root among the nations: our collective story certainly justifies the motif of the restless Jew who wanders the world, searching for salvation.
How can we explain why the Jews moved so many times to so many different countries? The first fact to understand is that, despite being scattered, the Jew people maintained a strong ideological commitment to the idea of Eretz Israel as their homeland. Although there were times when the Jews became very attached to the lands in which they lived and prospered, until the modern period, they never saw these host countries as their own in the deepest sense. Without the same sense of deep attachment that living in one’s homeland is likely to bring, these factors made it relatively easy for Jews to move to other countries if the situation demanded it, as it often did.
We must remember that, for most of Jewish history in the Diaspora, Jews were tolerated for the economic contribution that they made to their host societies. It was vital for the Jews to grasp opportunities to improve their economic position: not to do so would have made them more vulnerable. Thus Jews tended to travel in order to seize economic opportunities. They traveled to new towns, new areas and, often, to new lands.
In addition, we must remember that, for large parts of Jewish history in the Diaspora, Jews were not liked by many elements in the surrounding society. This feeling of dislike often took the form of trying to move them out of a particular town or area; unfortunately, small- and large-scale expulsions are a prominent part of the Jewish story. Taken together, these three factors help to explain the extraordinary mobility of the Jewish people throughout their history.
We can say with certainty that there are no Jews alive whose families have not taken part in this process over time. Until recently, there was one family living in the Galilee that claimed it had never left the Land of Israel, but that line too has now come to an end. None among the rest of us can make such a claim. Many of us should realize that our own family saga has passed through at least half-a-dozen countries over the last few thousand years. Very few of us, however, are capable of reconstructing our family story beyond the last few generations. In that length of time, it is unlikely that the family will have made more than one jump across national borders.
It is hard to say whether Jews could ever be called happy wanderers. Despite the fact that their migration from country to country has often been voluntary, it has usually taken place because a deteriorating situation has pushed them to go. Sometimes this deterioration has occurred because of anti-Semitism in the host country. Sometimes it has been a question of simple economics – the desire to make a better living for one’s family. Often these two dynamics have combined to ‘push’ the Jew out of the country where he was previously resident. We call the things that have caused the individual Jew to leave his land ‘push’ factors.
We also need to discuss the ‘pull’ factors, those things that have attracted him to a particular destination and caused him to move to land B rather than land C. In order to understand the full reasons for a move from one country to another, we must look at a combination of these two sets of factors.
Jews have almost always left land A for land B because it has been difficult, or sometimes impossible, for them to stay in A, and because they have sensed attractions in B that make it preferable to other possibilities. The attractions of the new land may be many and varied. They may include, for example, the presence of family members who have already made the move, or the presence of a Jewish community willing to absorb the new immigrants. They may include new economic possibilities for the immigrants.
Perhaps the idea of a country that is perceived as a safe-haven from anti-Semitism will also play a part in the decision to migrate. Maybe the country has an almost mythical attraction for the hard-pressed Jew living in a very different reality. Such was the case of sixteenth-century Poland, when the Hebrew name Polania was understood by some to be the place where ?? ?? ?? - here God rests. Similarly with regard to Italy in the same era, there were those who understood the Hebrew name Italiah as ?? ?? ?? - the island of God’s dew. Such was also the case with regard to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the idea of the Goldene Medina - the golden country - developed.
Sometimes ideology plays a part, as we see most clearly in the case of the Zionist attraction of Palestine/Israel, or even for a few, the Socialist attraction of the new Soviet Union after the Russian revolution. All these factors, and perhaps others, can be seen as part of the pull that have brought Jews to new lands throughout history.
So where we live tends to be a result of a combination of push and pull factors, and also a fair amount of chance. There are many families living in the modern Jewish world who live where they do because of particular circumstances that have placed them far from shores that may have made a more logical home. There are families who fled wars and ended up as unintentional refugees elsewhere. There are those who ran out of money on the way to a new home and had to make do with what they found when they were unable to continue their journey; or those who were tricked into thinking that they were in one country when, in fact, they were in another. Each family has its own story of individuals who made choices to leave their previous country and sent the family story whirling across time and space to a new land. Many of the stories are similar, but each in its own way is unique: all of these narratives are about different individuals who fit into a wider picture, but retain their own particular character. It is to these stories that we will now turn, examining the particular and integrating it into the larger community framework.