One would think that Jews, toughened by 4,000 years of hardship, would get a little more respect for their tenacity from the New York Times. Yet time and again the newspaper goes popeyed whenever it finds members of the tribe living outside the five boroughs and environs, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
The paper had another of its hey-folks-we’ve-found-some-Jews-living-in-a-strange-place moments in the Saturday, Dec. 5, edition. In a piece titled “Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana,” the Times disclosed the news that Jews inhabit Montana. In addition to your standard-issue Jews, the state is also home to three rabbis as well as a surplus Israeli Defense Forces bomb-sniffing dog named “Miky” that understands Hebrew but does not speak it. And if that is not enough to astonish readers, the Times also reported that a Great Falls supermarket will be carrying matzo next Passover. No, really!
Pseudo-exotic Jewspotting has become so common in the Times that the paper might as well turn the genre into a standing feature. Late last June, the paper spotlighted the decline of Jews of Iquitos, Peru. “It is getting very lonely here,” Reátegui Levy told a Times reporter. Earlier that month, the paper noted that Baghdad Jews were so rare they couldn’t raise a minyan (10 Jewish men) to perform rituals of their faith. In April, the paper conducted a mini-census of Bahrain’s Jews, where it found 36 of the chosen. (They’re treated OK by the state and they’re doing fine.)
The paper gave the dwindling-Jews story a twist in a piece reported from Rome in early 2007. The city’s Hebrews weren’t vanishing—rising property values were driving them from their traditional home in Rome’s old ghetto, which was becoming “a trendy enclave for the rich and famous.” In 2005, the paper chronicled the last of the Jersey Jewish farm girls. A 2002 article in the paper’s Sunday Style & Entertaining magazine lamented the paucity of Jews in Hawaii. No kosher butchers on the islands and just three synagogues to pick from in Honolulu, one of them in a military chapel. In 2001, the paper tracked down “one of the last Jews in Yemen” and in 1996 published a dispatch about the last of the Jewish gauchos.
When the paper isn’t writing about small numbers of Jews living in what it considers to be unexpected places, it’s stumbling onto a forgotten Jewish cemetery (Tombstone, Ariz. [$]) or writing sad pieces about the last synagogue in Dushanbe, Alphabet City, Baghdad, Hartford, Bombay, or Corona.
Obviously some Jews are in flight because of the long tail of the Holocaust or because of current religious persecution, but that’s not the frame for the Times Jewspotting articles cited here. Mostly, they’re doing what other people do when they see a better opportunity over the horizon: They pack their bags and move.
Montana’s Jewish population rose during the late 19th century mining boom, the Times reports, but then wound down: The population in Butte that erected a 500-seat synagogue in 1891 had sold the building for office space by the 1930s. What’s unstated is that other ethnic groups poured into the state and then left, too. Although their experience is not directly analogous, Chinese immigrants came to 19th-century Montana for similar reasons. By 1890, 2,532 of them lived there. By 1920, the state counted fewer than 900, in part because of exclusionary laws banning Chinese immigration—but you get my drift.
I’d be more sympathetic to Times Jewspotting if the pieces acknowledged the whole range of demographic reasons that places are running low on Jews. To begin with, there’s the worldwide shift of populations to cities. Plus—and there’s no way to make too much of this fact—there just aren’t enough Jews to go around! According to this Jewish population study (PDF), there were only 13.3 million Jews worldwide in 2002. Because Jews don’t proselytize, those numbers aren’t likely to increase quickly unless they start reproducing at a fast clip—which they’re currently resisting.
For cultural and religious reasons, many Jews tend to want to live in proximity to other Jews: One-third of world Jewry live in metropolitan Tel Aviv and New York. So if a significant number of Jews leave a village or country, it’s only natural that those left-behind Jews might feel a tug to join them or move to another Jewish quarter. Others might say to themselves, “Hell, if I’m going to live some place with no Jews I might as well live some place where the weather is better and there are more jobs.” Also, the urge to relocate might be irresistible for those who live in a small Jewish enclave but are looking for a spouse—many Jews won’t marry non-Jews.
Finally, if some Jews are taking advantage of the Law of Return by making aliyah and settling in Israel, it’s only rational to expect Jewish depopulation elsewhere, as well as abandoned synagogues and quite a few derelict Jewish cemeteries.
Jewspotting stories appear to be about something when they’re really about nothing. Then why such enthusiasm for them at the Times? Because journalists love to write about holdouts—the guy who refuses to sell his home, the Papua New Guinea tribe that won’t become “civilized,” the last blacksmith in town, the last survivor of World War I, even the last Oldsmobile. Rarity stories are easy to write, and their sappiness makes them even easier to read.
I suspect that the relative stability of Jewish populations—outside a drop in inhospitable countries—is the real story. But things staying the same is the opposite of a story, right?
Addendum, Dec. 9: Reader William Basuk calls my attention to a 2002 Times Jewspotting story I missed, which gives the lowdown on the last 20 Jews in Burma. Also, since publishing this piece I’ve learned that Jewspotting articles are known somewhat derisively inside the Times as “Jews on the Moon” or “Jews on Mars” stories.
It doesn’t fit my story, but I can’t resist linking this piece about the last of Kabul’s Jews: “From the Taliban tyranny to the American occupation, Ishaq Levin and Zablon Simintov squabbled and plotted against one another in Kabul’s Flower Street synagogue,” the Observer reported in 2005. “The pair lived at opposite ends of the synagogue, refusing to speak except to exchange curses. Both were jailed and tortured by the Taliban. Each accused the other of betrayal.” Thanks to Tom Miller and Michael Barnett, who’ve urged me in this direction. Hey, for a really silly last synagogue piece, see the one my boss wrote in 2003 for Slate. Who else deserves ridicule? Send candidates to firstname.lastname@example.org and do a little Shaferwatching at my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type minyan in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to email@example.com.