Global Jewish Reflections | “Is It Scary to be Jewish There?”: Parashat Mishpatim and the Anxiety of Diaspora

For cantorial student Stefano Iacono, a JDC Entwine trip to India helped him discover new ways of thinking about exile, community, and global Jewish peoplehood.

By Stefano Iacono - Cantorial Student | February 5, 2021

For cantorial student Stefano Iacono, a JDC Entwine trip to India helped him discover new ways of thinking about exile, community, and global Jewish peoplehood.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

In Exodus 20, Moses descends from Mount Sinai and begins to relay the mitzvot (commandments) he received from G-d to the Israelites. Parashat Mishpatim picks up one chapter into the decreeing of these laws. From Moses, the Israelites learn 53 commandments,  23 of which are “thou shall,” and 30 of which are “thou shall not.” For the most part, each of these rules seems completely unrelated to one another, and the reader is left to wonder if we should take this list at face value or attempt to uncover a deeper logic to this nascent code of ethics. 

This collection of laws indicates that its authors were aware of our human potential for self-destruction. Before Moses stepped down the mountain, the Hebrew people had wandered the desert after escaping persecution in Egypt, a land of enslavement that had once been a sanctuary for Joseph’s family in a time of famine. In a handful of generations, the Hebrew people in Egypt experience vicious political turnover: In Genesis 41, Joseph is second in command of the nation, looking out for his extended family as the highest-ranking Hebrew member of the royal court. By Exodus 1, a new Pharaoh has ordered the Hebrew genocide that catalyzes our escape from bondage. 

Stefano enjoys a fresh coconut juice in Cochin, India.

The list of laws Moses carries down the mountain is a reaction to this chaotic experience in Egypt. The Torah is evidence our ancestors knew that a nation needs laws and social order, especially when living clan-to-clan in a foreign land. Perhaps the commandments are not only prohibitions and obligations but also a living script for how to form and protect a unique culture in the face of external pressures

“Isn’t it scary to be a Jew in the United States?” Traveling to India with JDC Entwine, I was asked this question over Shabbat lunch by a group of local Jews in their 20s and 30s.

“What do you mean?” I asked, trying not to imply with my tone a sense that it might be “scarier” to be Jewish in India than New York. They explained that, from their perspective, the West had seemed hostile to Jews throughout history. As I weighed my answer, I thought about the cautionary tales I had heard from Americans when they learned I was traveling to India.

I deflected, saying something like, “Antisemitism is a stabilizing force for the dominant culture to maintain control. It’s a powerful political tool.” But over the course of my trip, my Indian friends and our tour guide, Hannah, slowly opened my eyes to a reality I had never considered: Indian Jews have lived in peace for centuries as a tiny minority in India’s diverse society without experiencing antisemitism from their neighbors.

Indian Jews have lived in peace for centuries as a tiny minority in India’s diverse society without experiencing antisemitism from their neighbors.

Our hotel in Cochin, a coastal city in the southern state of Kerala with 2,000 years of Jewish history, was just a bus ride away from what was once a thriving Jewish quarter with seven synagogues. Though many of India’s Jews have relocated to urban centers like Mumbai or immigrated to Israel, Cochin’s Jewish history is celebrated and maintained by local Hindu, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish residents. As we convened for minchah (the afternoon prayer service) in the Paradesi Synagogue, I realized that not only is this community able to visit and pray at its own historic sites, but its non-Jewish neighbors have played an active role in preserving and upholding that history and cultural significance. 

I saw this everywhere. Signs in English, Hindi, and Malayalam directed traffic to the Old City, where “Jew Town” boasts stores, restaurants, and hotels in the most densely populated part of Kerala. The local government protects Cochin’s Jewish legacy and spaces for both the sake of  the city’s remaining Jews and for its tourism potential. It is no wonder that many of the new Indian friends I made on the trip told me they do not regard themselves as a “diaspora” community, but rather one with two homelands where they are safe and “seen.”

Stefano, left, laughs with a friend during a boat tour in Kerala, India.

Virtually everywhere else on Earth, Jews have experienced some form of oppression at the hands of their neighbors. Perhaps a people who encounters its G-d in the desert after narrowly escaping death at the hands of a foreign government can teach us something about thriving against political odds. Mitzvot are our obligation and we attempt to better the world through our Jewish efforts. So what can the way we make laws like those found in Mishpatim tell us about our ancestors’ priorities in a time of crisis?

What anxieties betray their obsession with property and financial restitution? Why the fear of miscarriage and “barren women”? What about the xenophobia of the divine promise to wipe out neighboring nations? The Israelites are a community in survivor-mode, drafting a covenant in a time of crisis. Naturally, their primary concern is establishing a code of ethics for a people who have never self-governed. This body of newly-free people grappling with the lingering effects of financial subjugation, infanticide, and genocide are understandably proactive when it comes to preventing future abuses.

For all of Moses’s life, his people suffered under the hand of the Egyptians. In response, Mishpatim takes a “law and order” approach, encoding divine Hebrew law for a nation that will find their Promised Land only to learn they will be exiled once more. This cycle is such an integral part of the Jewish experience that the yearning for a homeland is a core part of our daily prayers. As I learned through my travels with JDC Entwine, that’s a feeling that may be more familiar to those of us in America than to our global Jewish family in India.

Back to that Shabbat lunch in India: Is it scary to be a Jew in the United States? Sometimes. My Indian friends heard me worry a lot about the future of Judaism in the United States. I fear that we will be defined by our experience of (and response to) antisemitism. I worry we will fail to learn from our ancient wisdom as people who have faced these pressures for as long as we have existed. I’m concerned the growing threats to our safety mean fewer precious hours spent engaging with prayer and text.

But as India and Mishpatim teach, it doesn’t have to be that way. This week’s parasha responds to this fear so plainly that it reads to me almost as a mantra. Though the Torah anticipated our centuries-long exile, wandering in search of the Promised Land, our response to adversity is one we determine for ourselves. We can find home anywhere we choose to.

Stefano Iacono graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2016 with a BA in Women’s Studies. Stefano has served as the Student Cantor of Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady, N.Y., where he studies and shares Torah with a vibrant community. He is an alumnus of the Weitzman-JDC-HUC partnership, having traveled with JDC Entwine to India in 2019.

Stefano recently submitted a thesis of exegetical work reading the biblical narrative of Joseph as a gay man, and he hopes to continue sharing his love of Torah after he is ordained as a cantor in May 2021. Stefano lives with his husband Alex and their parrot in Brooklyn.

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