I would imagine that for most of us we think of Jews when we hear the word diaspora. It is a term which has a long and important history. I went to Dictionary.com to start my research, and found the clearest and most compact resume of the word’s history.
“The history of the term diaspora shows how a word’s meaning can spread from a very specific sense to encompass much broader ones.
Diaspora first entered English in the late 19th century to describe the scattering of Jews after their captivity in Babylonia in the 5th century B.C.E. The term originates from the Greek diasporá, meaning “a dispersion or scattering,” found in Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 25). While this specific historical sense is still used, especially in scholarly writing, modern-day definitions of the Jewish Diaspora (often with an initial capital letter) can refer to the displacement of Jews at other times during their history, especially after the Holocaust in the 20th century. The term can also refer generally to Jews living today outside of Israel.”
Lately I have heard the word used in reference to a variety of groups beyond Judaism, ranging from national and ethnic groups to economic communities, business and industrial settings, and even sports fans. Living in New England, I am part of the Red Sox Nation, a term applied to the millions of fans of the Boston baseball team. But they are not restricted to New England. There are communities of the Red Sox Nation all over the country. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that there are even Red Sox fan groups in other parts of the world. They are the diaspora of a New England institution. When you watch a game from Los Angeles, for instance, it is not at all surprising to find a sizeable group of Red Sox fans there in the stands cheering. That’s one reason teams like to play the Red Sox. They bring large numbers of fans (read that money) into the place where the game is being played.
But the most prominent understanding of the term diaspora is that of the Jewish people. Living in this time in history, our reference to the term is usually directed to the post-World War II dispersion of the Jews from Eastern Europe and northern Asia to safer locations around the world. There are large numbers of Jews of the diaspora, for instance, in South America. It might have seemed an unlikely location for Jews, but at the time of the Holocaust it made all kinds of sense to relocate to a place far away and safe.
Wherever the Jews settled, they brought with them traditions and cultural patterns which were reminiscent of the place from which they came. But there were also new patterns of life, leading to a variety of forms of Judaism. Many might think that Judaism is monolithic. But the reality is that there are differing forms of the faith, often the direct result of the relocation during the diaspora. In Spain, for instance, one finds a tradition known as the Sephardic Experience. It became a prolific community, today claiming the origin of half of the Jews throughout the world. Those who trace their origins from Eastern Europe retain the term Ashkenazi, a word translated as meaning “German.” But even they may be from Poland, Russia, or other Eastern European countries.
One of the signs of richness in Judaism is the melding of colorful traditions which emerge from the variety of locations and cultures in which the people have settled. Including the United States.
Photo Credit: Darren Quick