The New York Times expresses astonishment at members of the tribe living in out-of-the-way places.

Media criticism.
Dec. 7 2009 5:27 PM

Jewspotting

In which the New York Times expresses astonishment at members of the tribe living in out-of-the-way places.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

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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.

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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 slate.pressbox@gmail.com 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.)

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