Emily Raboteau. Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013.
Near the end of her memoir, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, Emily Raboteau finds herself standing before the meditation pool by the tomb of Martin Luther King Jr. A small sign reminds people not to throw pennies into the water. And yet the pool is full of coins, a visible reminder that, Raboteau says, we are all “distressed magical thinkers” (271).
Nearly all of the individuals Raboteau introduces in Searching for Zion are searching for home. Some are seeking the Promised Land in the modern political state of Israel; others are hoping to find their roots in Africa. Still others are waiting for the banquet table they have been promised in heaven, having given up on the idea of an earthly end to their Exodus. Almost to a person, their dreams of Zion are a little magical, a little too hopeful, and, when faced with reality, a little distressed.
Raboteau herself, the biracial daughter of a historian of African American religion, always felt adrift in the United States. From Israel to Jamaica to Ethiopia to Ghana to, finally, the American South, Raboteau spent much of the first decade of the 2000s searching for home in other parts of the world and chronicling the various attempts of others to do the same. By writing a book about the stories of some understudied communities in the African Diaspora and their attempts to find Zion, Raboteau hopes to elucidate her own search for home in a supposedly post-racial America.
The book is arranged in roughly chronological order according to Raboteau’s travels around the globe. Each chapter contains an analysis of a different community or group from the African Diaspora interspersed with long stretches of personal narrative, memories from her trips, and accounts of her efforts to come to terms with her family heritage. The story of the Exodus, the miraculous journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, is retold repeatedly, as different groups of people adapt the story to refer to their own situation and the home they are seeking.
Raboteau begins with her childhood friend Tamar Cohen. After years of friendship with Raboteau and a shared sense of displacement, Cohen makes aliyah, claiming her birthright to move to Israel. Raboteau initially finds Cohen’s decision inexplicable, but throughout the book, her understanding of Zionism, the Exodus story, and the complicated political and social structures in Israel evolves. It is in Israel that Raboteau first begins to think about examining the less-studied parts of Zionism and the African Diaspora. She learns that there are a number of black Jews living in Israel, most of whom are refugees from Ethiopia. She finds the blending of two categories that she had thought mutually exclusive—black and Jewish—an irresistible area of study, and it is this study that takes her several years later to Haifa, in northern Israel, to meet with a group of Ethiopian Jews who search for home in a country that does not find them easy to assimilate.
Her arrival in Israel is less than auspicious: when she first visits Tamar, she is strip searched in the Newark airport by the employees of El Al Airlines, presumably because of her Arabic-sounding middle name, which she inherited from an aunt. Raboteau’s anger over this situation, a particularly painful part of her long history of being racially profiled, is still palpable years later, as she uses the story to launch into a convoluted account of her family history and her childhood.
Although Raboteau is adept at sketching characters such as Cohen with remarkable depth, the emotional core of her memoir is her relationship with her father, a professor of religion at Princeton. Her grandfather was murdered in Mississippi in 1943, and her grandmother left for the North, their Promised Land, with her children in tow shortly after. Her father’s professional historical perspective on African American history and his religious interpretations of Zion are informed by his personal story, and Raboteau inherited her father’s sense of displacement. He left her mother when Raboteau was a teenager, and Raboteau spent much of her life struggling to come to terms with his actions and his influence, both positive and negative, on her life. Although her father had never really lived in the South, he had always considered it his home, and as if fulfilling her father’s wandering, it is there that Raboteau finally comes to some sort of resolution about her feeling of homelessness.
Raboteau wanders the earth, following the footsteps of those searching for an embodied Zion, a physical location that is meant to fulfill their deepest wishes. Those who make pilgrimages to a tomb or throw pennies in a pool are ultimately little different, she realizes, from the Jamaicans hoping to find true redemption in Ethiopia or Americans Jews who move to Israel. Yet Raboteau’s answer, the end of her search, is that Zion is embodied in earthly, human relationships.
Raboteau ultimately argues, in a move that might disappoint some readers, that the Promised Land is never reached. Sometimes home is the physical location where you grew up, no matter how disconnected you might feel to that place. Sometimes Zion is a journey, not a destination, and sometimes it is the joy of finding home within yourself and within your relationships with loved ones. Hell might well be other people but so is heaven.
In one of the most poignant scenes in the book, Raboteau finds herself in St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem, singing the familiar words of “Amazing Grace” with Cohen while Cohen’s toddler daughter scoots around on the floor in her diaper. The sound of their voices rises toward the rafters in two-part harmony.
In the end, this is Zion: the song about our wretchedness lifting up to save us, our voices leashing us together, the child walking towards us on unsteady legs. Two steps. Her first. She will fall down, but right now our song holds her up like hands, and this is Zion, right here, in the moment before she does. (59)
Whether readers find this definition of the Promised Land—human relationships sustaining each other—theologically sufficient or not, the book itself is beautiful and moving. The historical analysis throughout Searching for Zion is quite strong, but Raboteau’s real gift is in her ability to express her personal journey in a way that keeps the narrative particular but allows readers to see themselves in her desperate need for home. Her writing is generous enough that even those who have lived in the same town their entire lives can find themselves in the story. No place will redeem you; the route home cannot be traced on a map.