For a woman stuck in an African country with no departure date in sight, Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is in very good spirits.
“May I have a coffee with milk, please?” I overhear her ask a server in an upbeat voice as we speak by phone from her hotel.
“So what are you currently working on over there?” I ask her.
“Oh, you know, the usual,” she says with a laugh.
What she blithely refers to the “usual” is actually her venturing off to remote countries – often risking her own life – to chronicle what distressed Jewish communities around the world experience on a daily basis. At times, she also takes a look at the wider picture of the community’s society at large, often writing about whatever political and economic turmoil is around her.
We agree that I won’t specify which African country she’s in at the moment for her protection, as her home country Sweden has closed its borders due to coronavirus and she’s not sure when she’ll be able to return.
But Hernroth-Rothstein is used to precarious situations. From being held up at gunpoint in Venezuela to being interrogated by Iranian officials attempting to ascertain if she’s an Israeli spy, being holed up in a comfortable hotel for an indefinite period of time is but an inconvenient hassle in the grand scheme of things.
“Both Iran and Venezuela are good examples where I did what I love to do the most, those experiences felt the most valuable and meaningful,” she says of her some five years traveling the globe where she penetrated the most secretive and elusive Jewish communities around the world. Her book, Exile: Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora, is a raw account of the sacrifices each community has had to make in order to live as Jews.
“I don’t think I’m practically helping these people in oppressed states who are lonely and destitute. But I’m making them be seen and matter,” she says.
While many Jews in Europe and the US lament having to celebrate a Passover in solitude, for many Jews in these disadvantaged communities, all they have is each other and a yearning that someday they will be free.
For Jewish communities in Caracas and Tehran, for example, Hernroth-Rothstein has given them a voice because oppressive regimes have denied them one.
Hernroth-Rothstein has managed to steal precious moments and glimmers of unvarnished honesty from these communities. Women in Tehran huddled behind the mechitza (the partition between men and women in a synagogue), asking with a lump in their throats what Jerusalem is like; a Shabbat dinner in Caracas where guests bellow out their hatred for Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro Moros – offer the reader a glimmer into what life is like behind the curtain.
So when they gather around the Passover table and say, “Next year in Jerusalem,” it’s a cry coming out from the depths of their soul.
But this isn’t the first time Hernroth-Rothstein has been deeply familiar with feeling so far away from family and home on Passover. Two years ago, as she visited Caracas for the second time, local authorities – livid at her coverage of the injustices in the country on her previous trip – deported her.
“I landed in Caracas hours before Passover eve,” she remembers. “I was immediately detained, questioned for hours and then sent back. It was heartbreaking.”
Instead of enjoying a warm meal while safely ensconced within the fortified walls of the Jewish community in Caracas, Hernroth-Rothstein was put in handcuffs and escorted onto a plane by the Venezuelan military.
Her crime? Telling the truth about the starvation, depravity and injustice of the Maduro regime.
Her plane landed in Paris, where she checked into a hotel. Alone, shaken and humiliated, Hernorth-Rothstein spent her Passover inspecting the literal and figurative bruises the military thugs left on her body as they roughly hauled her on and off the plane.
“I lost my spirit because it was so demeaning. They also manhandled me quite a bit. It’s a strange thing, and the police in Paris have to take you off the plane. There, they grabbed me and walked me off the plane in front of everybody. You’re being marked as a terrorist. It’s so degrading,” she said of the harrowing experience.
However, Passover is a time of hope, and it didn’t take long for her to plot how she would sneak into the country and continue her mission of telling a story of freedom, revolution and yearning for a better future.
“There is no stronger yearning than a yearning for freedom,” she says. “Venezuela is a great example of that. They don’t have water. They don’t have toilet paper. The women don’t have tampons. They don’t have food. Still, they take to the streets and fight.
“The price for freedom there is so high,” she continues. “It makes you think, ‘maybe stay in Egypt.’ But like our ancestors in Egypt who were fine with the devil they knew and were reluctant to break from the Pharaoh because freedom is hard, they ultimately knew they had to put it all on the line.
“I love retelling that story,” she marvels. “It shows that there is humanity behind freedom and that it certainly isn’t free. It hurts. But we fight for it because the yearning burns within us. It’s as natural as breathing.”
For someone who writes so often about freedom, she hesitates when asked what it means to her.
“Ultimately, it means not being in chains,” she says after a thoughtful pause. “Those chains can mean bowing down to somebody, a government, military or person,” although in her native Sweden, where antisemitism is on the rise, Hernroth-Rothstein stills feels free because she knows that, as a Jew, she can rely on Israel in any time of need. “I don’t bend my back to anybody. I’m not subservient. Me not having to bow down to any power apart from God, that’s what freedom is to me.”
But despite her intrepid and optimistic nature one can see that her indefinite stay in Africa where she will need to spend another Passover away from loved ones, hits close to home.
“My kids ask when I’m coming back and I don’t know what to tell them. Luckily, they’re old enough to understand the situation,” she says of her two teenage boys. “I don’t know if I’ll have a seder this Passover – the Chabad house is probably closing down which is unheard of.”
But when she looks back at the stories she’s told, the tales she’s heard and digested, her plight seems to pale in comparison.
“We live cushy lives now. We’re so used to community, but we’ll bounce right back. This will not be something that will shape us as Jews,” she says of the current coronavirus pandemic. “This is a drop in an ocean of misery.”
It is an ocean she’s spent the better part of the decade wading through and one where she sheds a light on their moments of fear, joy and, yes, hope.