18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2013
SEARCHING FOR ZION: THE QUEST FOR HOME IN THE AFRICAN DIASPORA by Emily Raboteau (2013, 350 pages) is a most compelling, fascinating and absorbing read. Raboteau, a writing teacher at City College in Harlem, explains her personal, painful journey through our world in a quest for her own identity, her own "home".
Perhaps seeking something she can never get from her distant black father (one of America's most prominent professors of religious history) yet completely ignoring her white mother, New Jersey-born Raboteau starts us with her journey to see her childhood best friend, a devout Jew living in Israel. Raboteau ended with the painful shock of trying to get into Israel at all - she looked too Arab. Once there, she was hurt by the suffering of both the Palestinians and the Jews.
It was strange to see Raboteau's photo all over the net. She looks just like my baby sister: white as a sheet, black hair, deep brown eyes. I have seen a photo of one of her brothers, who looks just like my four brothers: black except with mocha skin. Raboteau herself is as painfully white as I am, contrary to her self-described "wooden spoon" complexion. I know how that feels, not wanting to be quite so pale one day, wondering whether I am really all that pale another day.
This color-confusion makes no sense, and Raboteau never found any answer for it. She would find in Israel she was often mistaken for an Arab; in Maine, close to her native New Jersey she felt what it was like to be purely black since "there are no blacks in Maine"; in Jamaica, probably the most hypocritical place on the planet, she felt what it was like to be despised as "white" (which she technically is according to her skin color).
Later, in Jamaica, someone would tell her she looked like a sabra (native-born Israeli). Amazingly she already understood through her childhood friend what it was like to feel despised as a Jew, though Raboteau herself is Catholic, raised Christian.
This is the story of a person who actually needed a definition of "home" before she could understand what her own definition might be. She discovers the painful, horrible situations of black communities around the world: Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jews who are being treated like dogs in Israel. The African Hebrew Israelites, a nearly 40-year-old community of American blacks in the Negev Desert in Israel (of whom Whitney Houston had been a member). Among the Ras Tafari of Jamaica who dream of Ethiopia as their home - and an amazing group of little-known Ras Tafarians living in Ethiopia in a sort of accursed, suspended state with no citizenship.
Like me, Raboteau cannot fathom the weird, ignorant hatred borne by those Jamaicans who love and follow Bob Marley's music/message. A lover of Marley's music and message, as I am, Raboteau cannot ever reconcile the evil homophobia which makes Jamaica and its people officially the most homophobic country on earth. She also finds Marley's old Ras Tafari sect drowned in some horrid racism that demonizes everyone who is white.
Bob Marley's father was white! He preached unity and the meaninglessness of skin color! In Ethiopia, among the Jamaicans settled there, she sees a broken-down community of 200 that had once numbered in the thousands, still pining for Haile Selassie. Naturally, they are despised by the locals.
In short, Raboteau found nothing but lost, pained black communities in exile as the Jews had been, among the Americans who continue to carry the scars of slavery, among others who continue to carry the burden of their skin. They are so readily like one another that Raboteau began to feel queasy at the circular conundrum of disenfranchised blacks she had discovered encircling the world. In a Jamaican Sephardic synagogue, she found a mix of black and white Jews who simply said their families had been there for nearly 4 centuries.
They seemed lost also, these Jamaican Jews, because they could not bear up to the slaveholding tenets their ancestors had brought upon the West. Yet the Ethiopian Beta Israel managed to sneak their own personal slaves into Israel with them when they emigrated - and I was disgusted to read that because my colleague, Simcha Jacobovici, had been in a small way responsible for that mass exodus that took so many years.
You must read this book. Raboteau is nothing if not a faithful reporter. She does not hide her immaturity, her lack of general knowledge or her occasional lack of proper English writing skills. At times a bit too self-absorbed, she still manages to convey a sharp, stinging feeling and a great deal of accurate fact. I admire her ability to describe (if not understand) people's weird religious ways. Her restraint among so many stupid zealots is most admirable. Bill Maher should take lessons from her.
This book is a deeply personal book for me. I have often confirmed I am a Jew and proud of it. I have described my black father, whose ancestors might have been Jamaican (we don't know), both my immigrant parents being from old Mexican families, my Catholic upbringing as a Converso Jew.
Too well do I know Raboteau's chilling sense of loss, with her very pale skin never being quite black enough sometimes, sometimes of being a bit too 'black' for comfort (which I actually think is more "person-of-color" than "black"). The desire for spiritual "home" when it is in one's own head the entire time. And the ugliest thing of all: the division amongst people.
I have lived Raboteau's most sensitive pain, being too pale to pass for anything much at all. I have ocular albinism and as a result am pasty white like a German, with violet eyes. Yet I have the black blood in me, and at the most incredible times there are people who have somehow detected it. It is odd, since the black people I have come to love so much do not believe for one second that I am half black or that I am an albino.
The pain is unbearable and nearly indescribable. Raboteau has explained and described it in this book - I think critics of this work totally miss the entire line of thought. She will show you a world full of people who rail against discrimination and division while they do nothing but make it worse. At least she risked herself to bring us this brilliant piece of deep reporting mixed with an autobiographical urgency for one so young (she is still in her 30s).
No more of this fine reading will I spoil for you. Get this book! It is one of the most important books you can ever study, and I do recommend you study it carefully.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
This is an astoundingly powerful memoir that is in fact much more than a memoir. To say that it educated me in many areas about which I previously hadn't a clue, including the culture of reggae music and Rastafarians, the existence of Beta Israel, and a great deal of the history of parts of Africa, is just the beginning. In addition, Raboteau brought into clearer focus some recent events with which I have personal connections, such as the Civil Rights marches and boycotts in Alabama (we were teaching at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University from 1966 - 1974). And then of course there is the vivid description shared in the last section of the book concerning Hurricane Katrina as viewed through the eyes of her cousins.
What I believe Raboteau has accomplished most in superlative style, however, is to share a tremendous diversity of cultural, sociological and spiritual insight not only with keen and vivid observation and lyrical description, but also without losing a sense of balance and reality. She neither glosses over defects in the various circumstances, characters and situations she describes, nor does she become critically judgmental. She "tells it like she experienced it", and leaves the readers to enter with her into the immediacy of the experience or not, as they see fit. The characters she introduces us to are real and fascinating people, not stereotypes in any sense of the word.
The book does indeed leave me a bit breathless and amazed that this young woman was brave enough to investigate all those various cultures, many in states of upheaval and even violent transition, by herself. Never having been a particularly intrepid adventurer, I doubt if I'd have even begun a similar Odyssey. However, although at times she left me feeling a bit white-knuckled, she also left me with a profound sense that I'd enjoyed a valuable opportunity for an enriching glimpse of a vibrant world quite far from my own.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This fascinating and powerful memoir took me to places I didn't know I wanted to go and considered questions I didn't know I had. When author Emily Raboteau visits her lifelong best friend at her new home in Israel it sets Raboteau off on a ten year quest to find a homeland of her own. With a black father and white mother giving her an appearance that made it difficult for people to classify her, Raboteau often had the sense that she didn't fit in anywhere. She became intrigued with the idea of a black Zion, or homeland, and that led her first back to Israel to visit the Beta Israelis, Jews from Ethiopia with a long religious tradition who are renamed and re-educated when they immigrate to Israel, and also a community of African American Israelis who have lived for decades in the Negev Desert .
After that she travels to Jamaica to understand more about the culture and beliefs of Rastafarians, Ethiopia to see the settlement created there by Jamaican transplants who are convinced Ethiopia is their promised land, and Ghana to talk to African Americans who relocated there seeking connection with the continent of their ancestors. Raboteau is deeply curious about these peoples, why they moved where they did and how they feel about it now, and this book provides a mesmerizing inside look at their subcultures. She treats everyone she meets with sincere respect, but doesn't gloss over or ignore their shortcomings and inconsistencies--for instance in Ethiopia it's the Jamaicans who are colonizers and they don't always treat the locals well, in spite of their own experience of colonization.
The book ends with Raboteau visiting her Hurricane Katrina displaced relatives in the American South, where she tours sites of the Civil Rights Movement and again considers questions of what makes a home. I learned a lot reading this book, and enjoyed the journey immensely. As an added bonus, Raboteau has a wonderful way with words, deftly picking out details to set a scene or describe the many people she met in her travels.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Searching for Zion by Emily Raboteau is a soul-bearing contemplative journey seeking an answer to the question – “So, where is my home?” Growing up in the privileged environment of Princeton, New Jersey where her father was a professor specializing in antebellum African-American Christianity, Emily was aware she was different. Finding kinship with another girl, Tamar, who was also different as her father was a professor in medieval Jewish history, the girls learned and bonded around their connected history of oppression and the concept of the Promised Land. Disillusioned by America’s false hope of equality, her family’s unspoken ghosts of past racial transmissions, acerbated by her father’s leaving the family, Emily spent most of her young adult life in a “blanket of low-burning rage” until a vile humiliating incident with EL Al security staff turns up the flame. Emily realizes despite whatever imperfections that may exist, her friend, Tamar had her Zion – Israel, a real physical place that she can call home, and her mind is screaming where is my Promised Land (home). Thus the seed for the author to explore places Blacks have sought out to settle and establish a sense of home was germinated.
This fluidly-written book takes the reader on an honest and intimate voyage to Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana and the American South. At each stop, Emily pays attention to the truth of each community and the reality of their situation while getting to the bottom of identity, citizenship, acceptance, and commitment. Always asking the frank questions why are you here in this place, are you better in this place, would you leave this place and did your mind, body, spirit find the solace you were seeking.
As an African-American female, this is a subject close to my heart as I have often asked the same question, especially in young adult years – where is my home, a place that will unconditionally accept me. I was immediately engaged and the storylines appealed to me on many levels – the seamless weaving of historical, political, cultural, and personal information gave deepness and made all of the situations more poignant. The physical and emotional geography are well-played out so the vibe of the diverse communities has their own signature. I appreciate the author’s candid exploration of her family history against the background of the stories of others. For each of us reading this book, it will be a personal journey as it was for the author. But the commonality for all of us is - home is where the heart is for better or worse.
Overall, it was a profoundly beautiful read – sobering, exhilarating, contemplative and achingly tender. I recommend this book for readers of memoirs and those who enjoy stories about displacement, citizenship and the many guises of freedom.
This book was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
Reviewed by Beverly
APOOO Literary Book Review
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2013
As I've probably mentioned before, I used to manage a couple of Black bookstores back in the day. And besides being able to do my favorite thing, talk about books all day long, I also learned so much about Black history, African history, and the many cultures within the African diaspora. I came to meet Rastafarians, Hebrew Israelites, Muslims and felt my world become bigger because of it.
Raboteau, the biracial daughter of a Princeton professor of religion, grew up hearing about the concept of "Zion" and the promised land as it relates to the African-American experience. Her childhood best friend was a Jewish woman who relocated to Israel, a place considered "home" for her people and visiting her, comes across a community of Black Jews while in Israel and she begins to take an interest in other black communities who have set off from their place of birth to find their Zion or Promised Land.
Her journey finds her in contact with Black Hebrew Israelites who left America to establish a home in Israel, Ethiopian Jews who have done the same, and Rastafarians who have relocated to their spiritual home of Ethiopia. In visiting these communities and hearing the stories of the seekers, she also reflects on her own need to find a "home" and where she, as a half black woman, belongs in the world. Although this memoir tends to go off the rails at times, it was in the interest of providing historical context to Raboteau's experiences. Quite a unique memoir.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2013
Emily Raboteau spent a good ten years wandering the globe looking for home or for Zion - a heavily loaded term. Zion isn't Paradise, and it isn't the little bit of Middle East designated as Israel. For her, Zion is the true soul home, the place she really belongs, the place of freedom.
In search of that she visits various Black Zionists, from Ethiopian Jews in Israel to Rastafarians to Evangelicals in many locations, including New York City. She balances travel writing (descriptions of the places she goes and the people she meets) with her growing understanding of her past, her family, and what home means to her. She takes a nuanced view of all of this.
In other hands this book could have been a dreary self-righteous slog, but it is far from that. Ms. Raboteau has some perspective, whines very little, laughs at herself where she merits it, and uses her writerly skills and inventive prose to bring readers along with her on the physical and spiritual journey.
If you're ready to look at Zion in a new way, and able to deal with a writer who does not observe the usual pieties about various Black communities in African and elsewhere, take the time to follow Emily Raboteau on her quest.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Envoys will come out of Egypt; Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God. Psalm 68:31 (NASB)
"I inhaled, knowing he was right as soon as he said it. At its root, my quest wasn't about identity. It was about faith." (Page 76)
Emily Raboteau's newest work, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, is truly a book about the quest for home. It is a raw, angry, hopeful, and frustrated journey that takes the author on a journey to parts of Israel and Jamaica that tourists do not visit or perhaps know about; and to places they do visit - a place of Rastafari pilgrimage called Shashemene in Ethiopia; to Elmina Castle in Ghana that sits along the Atlantic coast and through which slaves bound for the west were huddled and herded into slave ships; and finally into the American south and a place called Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
But it is also an inward journey as Raboteau - whose mixed race heritage and light skin causes her to be frequently misidentified and, as she admits early in the book, made her very angry - commences her decade long journey to find a place she calls home, beginning with a trip to Israel to visit a childhood friend whom she had grown up with in Princeton, New Jersey where her father had been the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion.
During that journey she discovers that there are Jews who are black and the discovery creates a desire to return and find out more about the black Jews and their history. Finding a unique blend of Judaism in the Negev desert alongside Rastafari in Tel Aviv night clubs, Raboteau begins to explore the wider themes, events, and personalities as the book's subtitle indicates "the quest for home in the African Diaspora." The result is an important addition to understanding the history of Biblical themes of Exodus, Egypt, and Babylon that is a part of black history and religion.
Journeying to Kingston, Jamaica and learning about the influence of the late Bob Marley (she would later meet with Marley's widow in Ghana) and Rastafari, Raboteau begins to encounter themes and issues that she would face again and again in her journey - the effects of the slave trade centuries later, race relations, economic inequalities, the hollowness (perhaps shallowness) of the museums and shrines erected to those who sought to create a new African union and consciousness, and, most importantly, her increasing realization that home is not a place of geography but something deeper. But in her visit to Jamaica she encounters a heart felt desire by many to return to Africa and especially Ethiopia "the Promised Land."
Her journey to Ethiopia, which is part three of this five part work, takes the reader back into both pre and post colonial African history and reveals a nation's history that stretches back to Biblical times. But there she sees a disconnection between the hoped for dreams and the reality that surrounds her. After entering a party in honor of Haile Selassie's birthday anniversary celebration that turns dangerous for her, there is a turning point in her journey, "I was sick of Rastas and Ethiopians as they were of each other. And I was sick of myself." But it was also a point at which she further realized "there was no such place as Zion; that it was a metaphor at best."
Her journey then took her to Ghana and there she toured a major Elmina Castle a major departure point for slave ships to the West. But she also was increasingly disillusioned with the disconnect between what she saw in both the native culture and the visiting culture, embodied in the group she toured Elmina with. The result in some notable conversations result in a surprise for Raboteau, "Most of the pilgrims I'd met on my travels through Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia, and Ghana seemed as focused on the past as on the present. Very rarely on the future. They were shackled by the old stories, as if there weren't any others to tell. I was ready to go back to America, my nation."
The result is the book's final trip with her husband and her cancer-stricken father to the gulf coast of Mississippi and the town of Bay St. Louis, still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina, the place of her family's ancestry for a family celebration. While en-route she notes, "I felt now what I'd known from the beginning. Zion is within. I understood that I would forget this and, as with love, or faith, have to learn it again."
What I like about this book is the meshing of both the panoramic sweep and personal views (author and those interviewed for the book) regarding African history and life. There is a lot to ponder in this book. A second reading might be a good thing because this is a `rich' book. Rich in tone, personality, emotion, and humanity.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Amazon's description suggests that this is in some sense a a travel book; it is not. It is a personal journal recounting the author's conversations with people and her reactions to them. Those people are largely outside the U.S. but she travels to them for philosophical reasons, not for the sake of travel. As the title suggests, the home she searches for is more an idea than a place. And so her descriptions of places are limited to things she happens to encounter going to the people she wants to talk to. The exception rather proves the rule: she gives a broader description of Jamaica but only to illustrate the homophobia and class division revealed to her in conversation. What the book describes instead -- consistently and in detail -- are people's clothes and appearance, which are usually unnecessary to the theme but are necessary to a creative-writing teacher (viz., Ms. Raboteau) attempting a literary product.
The nature of this particular personal journal is that its reader ends up not learning much except about its author. Ms. Raboteau would, I'm sure, describe herself as progressive, socially conscious, and politically aware. By the end of the book we know those things and also that she greatly admires Reggae singer Bob Marley -- whose lyrics are the basis of her philosophical quest.
That may seem a thin thread on which to base a quest. In any event, it cannot be said that the journal reveals an impressively broad or deep mind. Those who do not share the author's social views and her love of Reggae lyrics (that she appreciates music itself is less evident) will find it excruciating and unreadable. Those who do may not.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 24, 2013
As a northern born but now southern living white male in my 70"s, I never understood the black persons unhappiness with living in the USA. It seemed to me that living in Africa would be worse than here. Well, Emily Raboteau found that out the hard way by spending 10 years traveling to Jamacia and Ganaha as well as Isreal and Ethopia. As a fair skinned women with a white Irish Catholic mother and a black AME Protestant Harvard educated father she found Zion where most people do, where your heart is. Bloom where you are planted is a trite but valid quotation. At my age, I have been a world traveler and discovered many beautiful places to live but I also learned that to be happy you need to be contented and, if you are lucky, with a partner that you love and who loves you. Emily found that partner in NYC where she was born and she found Zion with it. We should all be that lucky.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2013
I have never written a reveiw previously, but I was so enthralled with "Searching For Zion" that I thought I should take the time to
recommend highly this fascinating memoir. This book is a glorious weaving of so many sights, sounds, odors, and feelings all put together
by a gifted storyteller whose curiosity knows no bounds.
The world would be a far better place if more people followed Emily Raboteau's understanding of the importance of respect and the virtue of dignity.
It is easy to say "We are one" but how many of us can say our travels and feelings support this fundamental insight? How many of us have actively
taken personal risks to bring us all together? Emily has, and good readers should be eternally grateful that Emily Raboteau took the risk, and
was willing to share her voyages with us.