Emily Raboteau’s insightful new memoir, Searching for Zion, begins with a memory of her father, a black Princeton professor, describing blacks’ and Jews’ similarities to her childhood best friend, Tamar: “When we sang freedom songs about the ancient Israelites,” he told the Jewish girl, “we linked ourselves to you. Our people have much in common.”
Years later, after Tamar makes aliyah, Raboteau envies her friend’s newfound sense of belonging. But when she visits Tamar in Jerusalem she is surprised to discover a flawed Zion, rife with social and political inequalities.
This discovery launches Raboteau on a journey to the “Zions” of other groups, to understand the gulfs between their dreams and reality: to Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana, and the American South. The people she meets describe themselves in the language of the Israelites, as ever striving, on their quests toward Zion. Finally, Raboteau concludes that “Zion” is just a projection: it is the place we imagine we’ll find security and comfort. When she learns that she can find fulfillment within herself, Raboteau decides she is ready to go home.