Some Jews arrive in Israel and discover it is their homeland. Other Jews get there only to realize that, after all that, “home” is the place they just left.
One such traveler was Joshua Ellison, a young man who moved from Providence, R.I., to Jerusalem on a Dorot Fellowship three years ago. Ellison immediately came face to face with the “very fraught notion of what’s presented as a homeland, and there I was very much an outsider.” But rather than simply living with his discomfort, Ellison put it to creative use by founding a tidy little literary journal that has just debuted.
The new publication, Habitus, is called “a Diaspora journal,” and its operating premise is that the relation of Jews to their far-flung homes — in places like Buenos Aires and Sarajevo and New Orleans — has a great deal to tell us not only about Jewish life but also about the modern experience with all its dislocation and movement.
“Here we have this idea that is so deeply written into Jewish language — and rather than just being a tool for understanding Jews, it can also be a tool for understanding something that is profoundly modern and global,” said Ellison, who now lives in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn.
Ellison’s plan is to have each new issue of Habitus look at a particular city and its Jewish inhabitants. The subject of the first issue is Budapest, which has long been one of the most distinctive pockets of the Diaspora. Habitus seems less interested in the facts and figures of Budapest’s Jews than in diving into the literary and cultural weight of the city. There is a short story from Hungarian novelist Peter Zilahy and poems from Hungarian-born Israeli poet Agi Mishol. And in a historical essay, Hungarian intellectual George Konrad writes that “those Jews who lived in Budapest or Berlin or Belgrade or Bucharest were certifiably at home there. To what extent they were Jews, Hungarians, Germans, Serbs, or Romanians is an open question. But that they were denizens of these cities is beyond question. Nationalist, Communist, or theocratic statism excludes and expels; middle-class urbanism integrates.”
The slated topic for the next issue of Habitus, set to appear in six months, is Sarajevo, where Jews live in a city that is 80% Muslim and get along quite well, according to Ellison’s early investigations. Ellison has begun each issue by traveling to the city and talking to its citizens. Topically, the Sarajevo issue will focus much more on the post-Yugoslavian wars, where Budapest returned again and again to the Holocaust. But Ellison also wants the entries to convey the tone of the city. Where Budapest is “sophisticated and philosophical,” Ellison says that Sarejevo is “very dark and fun” but “less classically literary.”
In both cases, Ellison is hoping to give local literary talents a first gateway to the American reading public.
It is, of course, one thing to have these lofty goals and another to find readers and money to keep it all afloat. So far, Ellison has relied on continued funding from Dorot, a New York foundation, as well as on an anonymous Israeli donor. His first issue had a print run of 2,000.
Habitus is one of a number of new publications hitting the market as young Jews try to relate to Judaism on their own terms. Ellison, 28, grew up in what he calls a typical Conservative home, which he said “grew stale” for him at some point.
Now, after traveling and editing, he’s coming to his own understanding not only of Judaism but also of the Israel that felt so foreign during his first days there.
“To try to understand Israel without understanding Hungarian-ness — it’s like the sound of one hand clapping,” he said. “Hungarian-ness is deeply embedded in what it means to be Israeli — so is Argentine-ness.”
Nathaniel Popper is a staff writer at the Forward.