In English

Portable Identities.  A Journey Among Jewish Communities

“In retrospect, I started writing this book in a dusky hotel room, sitting with my recently deceased father’s wallet in my hands. I realized at that moment that he was gone, a sense of loss that forced me to try again to bring him closer.  I did this, in part, by embarking on a journey into the Jewish community of which he had been a part.”

Journalist Maurice Swirc starts this journey at home, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands; he ends in New York City, his father’s home base in the 1980s and 1990s.  Between start and finish, Swirc travels to Austria, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Morocco, and Argentina, interviewing over 300 people in an effort to understand Jewish identity and history in far-flung and geographically disparate areas of the world.

And what a set of histories he collects. Swirc speaks with Jews in Buenos Aires about antisemitism in the time of the junta; travels to the Siberian Jewish Autonomous Republic, brainchild of Stalin, where Communist propaganda was used to create and reinforce negative Jewish stereotypes;  sings “golden oldies” with Jewish senior citizens in Vienna, who have returned, likely for the last time, to the city they fled in the 1930s.  Travelling around the world, and braving mountain peaks and swamps in search of unique stories, Swirc simultaneously confronts intermediaries and interviewees who would rather stick to the sunny and nonconfrontational sides of (Jewish) history.

Swirc is not content with seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.  His investigation goes toe-to-toe with highly contentious topics within the Jewish community, exposing and thoughtfully exploring internal conflicts often hidden from external critique.  In part, this tendency to closet internal division has been a question of survival for Jewish communities the world over – communities that have had to snatch advantage from the jaws of structural discrimination and persecution.  Identity, under these conditions, must remain independent of specific location.  Without the creation of this strong and “portable” identity, the Jewish Diaspora would arguably not have survived.  Swirc, however, challenges his interviewees to discuss these sensitive topics, to explore the ways in which they agree and disagree with the accepted wisdom of the wider Jewish community.

The author takes us into the daily lives of Jews around the world, with its accompanying complexity and human dilemmas.  Backed up with historical research and impressive photographic documentation, it also shows how the 2600 year old Jewish Diaspora is intimately connected to major chapters of world history.   Far from solely internally directed, Portable Identities also paints a vivid picture of the relationship between the states examined on the one hand, and their Jewish minorities on the other.  Antisemitism, for example, appears intimately and  perpeturally paired with hate against other minority groups, a finding that surely makes Swirc’s examination relevant for the Jewish community, but also for every migrant and every traveler.

About the Author

Jurist Maurice Swirc was born in Paris in 1970 and grew up in Amsterdam, with family members the world over. He writes about Judaism, culture, and the law for a number of Dutch newspapers, magazines, and journals, including de Groene Amsterdammer, Trouw and het Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad.


Swirc’s  opening captivates, draws in the reader immediately. He holds the interest, with each turn of the page bringing new suprises. Het Parool

A unique and impressively, throughly researched collection  (…), above all, it’s also a moving tale of travel and migration,  in which the author explores all aspects of daily life with great artistry and accuracy. Roodkoper

An interesting, masterfully written, and atmospheric book. De Volkskrant

This is a journalistic and anthropological achievement.  With it, Swirc introduces us to Jewish life in the Diaspora, forcing the reader to (re)examine his/her views on Judaism and on the relationship of Jews to the societies in which they live. Het Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad

Publishing details

Altijd mazzel. Een wereldreis langs joodse gemeenschappen (2010)

388 pp (130.000 words)

With illustrations in black-and-white

Notes and references

3.000 copies sold

Contact details

Maurice Swirc
Oudezijds Voorburgwal 129″
1012 EP Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Cell:  +31-6-29074447

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