The first time I went to Israel, one of the things that struck me most was that I was in a place where I was no longer in the minority. Anywhere I looked – in stores and on buses, on streets and in clubs – there were people like me. This was such a different feeling than anything I’d experienced before and it filled me with wonderment.
Of course, at the same time, I recognized that these people who were like me were also very different, that our histories in different places, our foods, our customs did not match, but it did not matter. Underlying it all, we shared historic roots as much as we shared holidays and prayers. Melodies may differ, but the words were the same.
Aside from Israel, being in a place where Jews are not a small minority can only happen in pockets in the rest of the world. Neighborhoods that reside in larger cities or countries where our minority status is still very clear. And not forgotten.
For this reason, two facts that I learned recently jumped out at me, and made me think, as I have in the past, about the world that has been lost, the potential continually extinguished throughout history.
The first of the facts I learned from a Facebook friend’s post. “During the early 14th century, more than 200,000 Jews lived in Portugal, which was about 20 percent of the total population.” Twenty percent. One in five citizens. As of 2018, Jews made up 0.0038%-0.0051% of the country’s population. That is, four or five for every 10,000 citizens, a far drop from where it once was.
The second fact jumped out at me as well. According to Legendary Voices: The Fascinating Lives of the Great Cantors, regarding the city of Berdichev, “In 1878…out of a total population of 54,000 more than 51,000 were Jews” (page 51.) Per Wikipedia, It was “the city with the largest share of Jewish population in Ukraine and the Russian Empire.” Granted, this is a city, a pocket, in a larger world that was decidedly not Jewish and so it doesn’t differ, perhaps, from some cities in upstate New York or in New Jersey. Today, Berdichev’s Jewish population is estimated as 1.13%, that is, one in 88 citizens.
Nonetheless, as I ponder the significance of there having been a time where the ability to live somewhere in the diaspora with great numbers of “people like me,” a phrase my late great grandmother Minnie used to say whenever she shared stories of her life that painted a different picture comes to mind: “Can you imagine?”
No, I cannot imagine living in a place (other than Israel) where Jews are not a miniscule minority. Not now in metropolitan Atlanta and not when I lived on Long Island. While the numbers in New York are better than say, Iowa, wherever we ar in the worlde, we are surrounded by a majority religion and culture that simply is not ours.
At the same time, it hurts me to the core to think about the reasons Jewish populations everywhere over time have been decimated. Pogroms, the Holocaust and the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions may all be among the more “well-known” ways the Jewish people have been targeted, but persecution of Jews and the innumerous ways we have suffered expulsions and exoduses does not stop there. It has been continuous through history, starting before the common era. I believe that reading these two linked Wikipedia entries cannot be anything other than impactful.
As I blogged in Preserving our past, preserving our future, “Until the founding of Israel, our people had no home.” Wherever else we were, we were at risk. The thought of how much larger a population in the world we could have been gnaws at me. How many lives were not only lost, but were never allowed to even be contemplated, because of ongoing persecution? From that same blog, “But Israel’s establishment and the decimation of so many communities across the globe doesn’t only mean we are left with an enormous challenge of how to preserve history where thriving Jewish communities once stood. There is also the bigger question of how Jewish history should be taught — and how we should think of ourselves.”
History is complicated. Ours especially, given how dispersed we have been throughout time. To think we once made up a fifth of Portugal, though – that is for me mindboggling. What have you learned from history that gives you pause? Whre does your mind go when you think of the future that could have been?