Old Reading for the New Year

December, 28 2009

By Caroline Kessler

As a way to occupy myself over winter break (and not go stir-crazy in the process), I’m picking my way through the Best American Essays collections. They’re an interesting assemblage of what’s considered the “best” in essay writing from publications like The New Yorker and The Kenyon Review. Starting with the 2003 volume, I’m skipping around to the present, although I don’t have my hands on the 2009 volume yet.

After bypassing essays on sea turtles and French politics, I stumbled upon a gem: Emily Raboteau’s “Searching For Zion”, first published in Transition Magazine and anthologized in the Best American Essays of 2008. I highly recommend reading the full text, linked here. Raboteau beautifully interweaves her story of growing up as a mixed-race child in suburban New Jersey, with bits of fact and other stories: that of her best childhood friend, a Jewish girl named Tamar Cohen, the experience of Ethiopian Jews emigrating to Israel, and a far-out community in Israel called the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem.

The complexity of Raboteau’s search for a people that talk or look like her is intriguing, and filled with the nuances of race, immigration, ethnicity, and identity in a place that is not America. In an age where we seem fixated on our own hulking country, her story was a refreshing study on a place that many American Jews may call their spiritual home—Israel.

What’s most interesting to me is a shifting from broad ideas and values to the faces of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The trends seems to move away from the faces of diplomats and heads of state who are doing most of the talking, to the people who are actually embroiled in the day-to-day conflict. Ben Sales, editor of New Voices, wrote an editorial dealing with similar themes to Raboteau’s story. His first-hand account is much shorter than hers, but by no means less poignant.

As we weed through news of the conflict in the Middle East, which seems to appear afresh everyday, I encourage you to look for stories, op-ed pieces, and articles that deal with the specific. You might be surprised.

Caroline Kessler, hailing from the not-so-charmed city of Baltimore, is an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University.

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