Homelessness and Displacement: Jerusalem, America, and Beyond


Perhaps now is a good time to redefine the term "displaced person." Consider the remarks a former homeowner made in the New York Times. “It’s amazing, when you have a home, you’re thinking about vacations, or who you’re going to have over for dinner, or when should you do spring cleaning,” said Jody Crispin, adding: “When you don’t have a home, you don’t think about any of that stuff. All you think about is when I’m going to have a home again?” To make matters worse, Crispin told the Times that she had already missed several days of work, out of embarrassment at the prospect of admitting her housing situation to her colleagues, and now risked losing her job.

Once upon a time in America, a person who worked full time and saved carefully could reasonably expect to buy a home for his or her family. This home might not be large or fancy, and might be in a remote area, but home ownership remained in the grasp of most families.

Today, of course, many who realized the American dream of owning a home now face foreclosure, high debt, and uncertainty about the future. This destabilization of the norm has effects far beyond the realm of housing: people living with relatives or friends, in temporary housing, or under the threat of foreclosure may find themselves ill-able to manage other areas of life.

Jews are no strangers to the feeling of displacement that Crispin identifies. Throughout history, Jewish communities have moved from place to place in search of a secure and permanent home. These wanderings began with the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the subsequent expulsion of most Jews from Jerusalem, and continued through the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE; expulsions from Spain, Portugal, England, France, and other countries in the Middle Ages; escape from Nazi Germany and occupied Europe; and flight from Iran, Algeria, Afghanistan, and other places where the political climate became hostile to Jews in the 20th century.

Jewish communities have experienced this intermittent homelessness not only as a material crisis, but also as an existential one. The liturgy, literature, and rituals that commemorate the numerous expulsions and escapes speak not only of a longing for physical safety, but also of a sense of loneliness and emotional displacement.

This commingling of emotional pain with concern for physical comfort and safety is most apparent in the literature and traditions of Tisha B’Av, the holiday that commemorates the destruction of the two Temples, and that has come to be understood as a day of mourning for dozens of tragedies throughout Jewish history.

The overwhelming feeling of Tisha B’Av is that of loneliness. The biblical book of Lamentations, a poetic account of the destruction of the First Temple, describes families torn apart, and social structures collapsing as a result of the expulsion. The book begins with a description of Jerusalem sitting alone, mourning the loss of its residents, and ends with the Jewish people describing themselves as being like orphans and widows. For the people, this loneliness manifests itself in an inability to find joy in community or in the celebrations of everyday life. The author laments that, “The elders have ceased from the gate, the young men from their music. The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning.” (5:14-15)

A number of midrashim (rabbinic interpretations) of this book speak of God and the Jewish people each mourning alone, angry at one another, and yet unable to connect through their shared suffering. One such text comments, “Before the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt, they dwelt alone, and the shechinah (divine presence) dwelt alone; when they were redeemed, the two became one; When they were exiled, the shechinah returned to dwelling alone, and the Jewish people also returned to dwelling alone.” (Eicha Rabbah petichta 29) On the day of Tisha B’Av (which falls this year on July 30), it is traditional to avoid even saying hello to another person. Though the mourning is national, each individual experiences the suffering alone, without the comfort of community.

The United States is currently experiencing a sort of national homelessness. While Americans are not being forced, en masse, to migrate to another country, we are confronting a collective internal displacement. Millions face foreclosure, and even more live in homes that have lost value, or find themselves unable to sell or refinance their homes. Few people are lucky enough to have no home-related worries whatsoever. As was the case in Jerusalem 2,500 years ago, many in America feel alone in this suffering, even while others around them share similar pain.

In commenting that her personal housing crisis has disrupted other areas of her life, from friendships to leisure time to job performance, Jody Crispin identified the extent to which the lack of a secure home can create a sense of displacement in all areas of life. When Jewish communities fled Jerusalem or other temporarily secure homes, they worried not only about where to live, but also about how spiritually to sustain a displaced people.

Jews have survived multiple displacements first by creating community in the midst of suffering, and second by constantly re-imagining what Judaism and Jewish community might look like. Rituals such as Tisha B’av serve as opportunities to lament what was, and to find some comfort in the presence of a community that also mourns. One who attends the reading of the book of Lamentations with which this holiday begins might not say hello to others present, but cannot feel entirely alone in the presence of so many other mourners. At the same time, Judaism ultimately has endured because of the willingness of each generation to claim the tradition as our own. After the destruction of the Temple, prayer replaced the traditional system of sacrifices. In modern times, Jews have responded to changing times by finding new or renewed modes of ritual practice, cultural expression, and study.

In addition to seeking solutions to the physical displacement of so many Americans, we can also overcome the spiritual crisis of displacement by reaching beyond our personal mourning and loneliness, sharing our experiences and fears, and taking the risk to create community in the midst of suffering. At the same time, we will need to re-imagine the American dream: perhaps homeownership will cease to be the ultimate expression of success. Maybe the age of large suburban houses has come and gone. We may utterly change our national attitude toward spending and debt.

The physical displacement caused by America’s economic crisis will not be permanent. We will eventually dig out of the economic mess, and most people will find housing again. But the true test of the strength of America will be our ability also to endure the spiritual crisis of displacement by creating community, and by creating a new ideal of American life.