36 Under 36 2009: Joshua Ellison, 31
Friday, April 24, 2009

Joshua Ellison spent a year in Israel, he became immersed in Israeli culture and society. But his trip, through the DOROT Fellowship in Israel, also prompted explorations farther afield than the Jewish state, landing him first in Budapest, and later beyond. "I tried to make sense of the experience of living in Israel and I went to Budapest and something really clicked, very much something Jewish," he says. "The more I traveled the more I had those experiences."

Ellison, who started out as a music writer, processed those experiences through writing, founding Habitus: A Diaspora Journal as a response to the international Jewish communities he visited. The journal, which draws on an international assortment of writers, is both scholarly and engaging, and its vivid graphics illuminate the Jewishness of the communities described.

"There’s a misperception that New York and Jerusalem are the only permanent Jewish addresses," says Ellison. "I don’t experience it as Israel versus the diaspora. The project started as a way to understand Israel, and Israel’s a more complicated society than people think; there’s a multiplicity of places Israelis come from."

He says he is "unscientific" in his choice of location, looking more for where he can find people who will open up the city for him. He focuses on finding local writers to contribute to the journal, and hopes that readers will feel an intimate connection to what they read, as though "they’re listening in on local conversations."

When he was starting out, Ellison anticipated resistance from people who worried that a focus on Jewish life in cities around the world might take away from a vibrant conversation about Israel. But this has been less the case than he thought, and he finds through the magazine he can chart "what is uniquely Jewish versus what is universal" in ideas of culture and identity.
"I wanted Jewishness to be the core, the starting place, not the end point," he says of the project’s Jewish roots.

Upcoming issues will include Moscow and Mexico City, and Ellison says the possibilities for travel, exploration and illumination are endless. "I bring each place with me; once I’ve been to Sarajevo it informs me when I go to New Orleans," he says. "I want to make the case for curiosity about the world as a fundamental value."

Monkey see: Ellison is "really enamored of monkeys," and was particularly charmed by the monkeys he saw dressed as teenagers in baggy pants in Moscow’s Red Square.

Staff Writer

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