Slate magazine’s press critic, Jack Shafer, tells us he hopes to “to talk Jewish readers out of their affection” for articles about Jewish holdouts in far-flung places. Whether it’s last week’s New York Times story about Montana’s vestigial Jewish community, or this week’s L.A. Times story about the last Jewish man in that city’s largely Latino Boyle Heights neighborhood, Shafer calls such stories “pseudo-exotic Jewspotting.”
Not only are such stories temptations for lazy journalists, he complains, but they ignore some obvious, non-newsworthy facts: the general demographic shift to cities, the tiny size of the world’s Jewish population, and the “cultural and religious reasons” that make Jews want to live near other Jews.
“Jewspotting stories appear to be about something when they’re really about nothing,” huffs Shafer.
And yet stories about the “last Jews of _____” are popular among Jews, at least the ones we know who link to them on Facebook or e-mail us a copy whenever they appear. Not every Jew grew up in the big city, and even the ones who ended up there remember the small towns and remote locales where their ancestors once lived.
Such stories also speak to Jewish yearnings and anxieties. As a community, we are constantly in dread of our own demise, and stories about Jews in exotic places simultaneously confirm our fears of dissipation and seem to confound them. If, after all, even one Jew can somehow survive in Nowheresville, surely the rest of us stand a good chance. The Chabad rabbi posted in Podunk is our Jewish astronaut, exploring new worlds in case we don’t make it in this one.
Finally, Jewspotting speaks to our unrecoverable past. As Jews, we tend not to live in the past, but we usually try to keep it alive. The occasional Jewspotting story is a yahrtzeit candle, reminding us of the lives once led.