Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Searching for Zion

by Emily Raboteau

“This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking book. My head gets blown off every page. . . . Everyone [Raboteau] meets she renders with great deftness and empathy—a novelistic level of detail and understanding. I doubt there will be a more important work of nonfiction this year.” —Dave Eggers, author of A Hologram for the King and Zeitoun

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date February 11, 2014
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2227-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date January 08, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2003-8
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

A decade in the making, Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion takes readers around the world on an unexpected adventure of faith. Both one woman’s quest for a place to call “home” and an investigation into a people’s search for the Promised Land, this landmark work of creative nonfiction is a trenchant inquiry into contemporary and historical ethnic displacement.

At twenty-three, Emily Raboteau traveled to Israel to visit her childhood best friend. While her friend appeared to have found a place to belong, Raboteau couldn’t say the same for herself. As a biracial woman from a country still divided along racial lines, she’d never felt at home in America. But as a reggae fan and the daughter of a historian of African-American religion, Raboteau knew of Zion as a place black people yearned to be. She’d heard about it on Bob Marley’s Exodus and in the speeches of Martin Luther King. She understood it as a metaphor for freedom, a spiritual realm rather than a geographical one. In Israel, the Jewish Zion, she was surprised to discover black Jews. Inspired by their exodus, Raboteau sought out other black communities that had left home in search of a Promised Land. Her question for them is the same she asks herself: have you found the home you’re looking for?

On her journey back in time and across the globe, through the Bush years and into the age of Obama, Raboteau visits Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana, and the American South to explore the complex and contradictory perspectives of Black Zionists. She talks to Rastafarians and African Hebrew Israelites, Evangelicals and Ethiopian Jews, and Katrina transplants from her own family—people who have risked everything in search of territory that is hard to define and harder to inhabit.

With Searching for Zion, Raboteau overturns our ideas of place and patriotism, displacement and dispossession, citizenship and country in a disarmingly honest and refreshingly brave take on the pull of the story of Exodus.


“Emily Raboteau has written a poignant, passionate, human-scale memoir about the biggest things: identity, faith, and the search for a place to call home in the world. Searching for Zion is as reaching as it is intimate, as original as its old soul. I didn’t want to put this beautiful book down.” —Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild

“Lucid and ranging . . . A brilliant illustration of the ways in which race is an artificial construct that, like beauty, is often a matter of perspective.” —Thomas Chatterton Williams, The Wall Street Journal

“Brilliant . . . Raboteau’s curiosity and keen intellect lead her to find more than she is seeking. . . . [Her] voice is as complex as her journey. Her descriptions are cogent and striking. Her irreverence and gumption provide comic relief.” —Imani Perry, San Francisco Chronicle

“This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking book. My head gets blown off every page. Though it describes Raboteau’s very unique journey for her spiritual Zion, it’s somehow wholly universal, too. Everywhere she goes, she hopes to find some straight and golden thread that would draw a line in the direction home, but instead she finds a tangle of humanity that refuses to adhere to any tidy narrative. An African-American named Robert E. Lee who lives in Ghana. Ethiopian Jews who find Jerusalem but not acceptance. And yet everyone she meets she renders with great deftness and empathy—a novelistic level of detail and understanding. I doubt there will be a more important work of nonfiction this year.” —Dave Eggers, author of A Hologram for the King and Zeitoun

“Informative, heartfelt . . . The rigor of Raboteau’s journalistic work and her candid self-assessment . . . is thoughtful, well-researched, and deeply fascinating.” —Kim McLarin, The Washington Post

“An instructive read . . . ‘You don’t stomp on any permanent ground if you’re between black and white,’ Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s widow, tells [Raboteau] in Ghana. ‘You don’t have no grounds as a half-caste.’ But there is a definite arc to Raboteau’s book, and in her way, she proves Rita Marley wrong. She finds the ground she wants to make her own, and she sinks her roots there.” —Laura Collins-Hughes, The Boston Globe

“[Raboteau’s] detailed depictions flash with insight and beauty. A section on slave tourism in Ghana is frankly fascinating, as are the sections on visiting Birmingham, Ala., and Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.” —Lizzie Skurnick, Los Angeles Times

“Extraordinary . . . Beautifully written.” —Rebecca Carroll, Good.com

“Vivid . . . Ambitious . . . Frank and expansive.” —Lynell George, Chicago Tribune

“An exceptionally beautiful and well researched book about a search for the kind of home for which there is no straight route, the kind of home in which the journey itself is as revelatory as the destination. Go on this timely and poignant journey with Emily Raboteau and you will never think of home in the same way again.” —Edwidge Danticat

“I burned through this eye-opening book, utterly engaged with Raboteau’s search—which is, after all, everyone’s search. Raboteau presents a self full of contradictions, smoldering energy, and the willingness to lay it all bare. Searching for Zion is a glorious meditation on what it is to be alive.” —Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

“Luminous . . . An investigative odyssey . . . With masterful prose and insights bursting from every page.” —Judith Basya, Heeb

“No quest for home is ever limited to a simple place, and [Raboteau] evokes that reality beautifully. . . . A fresh perspective [on the] elusive concept of home.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Profound and accessible . . . Her earnest, interior study is well worth the journey.” —Publishers Weekly

“Part political statement, part memoir, this intense personal account roots the mythic perilous journey in [Raboteau’s] search for home. . . . Candid, contemporary . . . Never self-important, this is sure to inspire [a] debate about the search for meaning, whether it concerns ‘the din of patriotism’ or the lack of closure.” —Hazel Rochman, Booklist

“Intelligent and illuminating.” —Sharon Chisvin, Winnipeg Free Press

Praise for The Professor’s Daughter:

“A bolt of energy . . . Fearless and lyrically inventive, Raboteau is a writer to watch.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“Engaging . . . Takes up the fundamental American obsession with racial categorization and acknowledges the claims that the history of such categorization makes on the individual.” —James Smethurst, Chicago Tribune

“[Raboteau’s] prose is vibrant with life. . . . Her timing is excellent, her humor is wry, her voice is on point, and her eye works with laser-like precision. [Her] sensitivity to life and to people is nothing short of astounding.” —Francesca Wodtke, San Francisco Chronicle

“I much admire [her] prose, the fierce intelligence, the way she looks race straight in the eye and yet creates characters that are all fully human.” —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Raboteau possesses what is rare in this age, an adventurer’s spirit. She does not seek a thrill, speed, the buzz of fear. She seeks a home for her own expansive spirit, to know more and to be comfortable with knowing less.” —Percival Everett


Winner of a 2014 American Book Award



Shadrach took another hit of weed. “I’n’I must put away our petty difference. We all come from one root. One blood. The truth is not about black nor white. The truth is not about writs nor rights. The dawta here no seek indoctrination. Tell us, dawta, what you seeking?”

“Home,” I said quietly.

“Then you must read the Bible and find truth for yourself,” Reuben interjected. His Star of David ring caught the light as he spoke. “Read the book from beginning to end. Don’t just pick and choose. Start at Genesis 1. Finish at Revelation 22.”

I have never met a group of people as versed in the Bible as the Twelve Tribes members. They, and other Rastafarian mansions, preach that the stories of the Old Testament refer to black Africans who descend from the Jewish fathers, Abraham and Jacob. White Christians, they believe, had altered this fact to keep Africans in a subordinate position.

“A chapter a day keep the devil away!” piped Culture.

“I tell you this, sistren,” Reuben said. “The truth will be revealed to you if you seek it but not through the path you come by. The path not by genealogy, geography, or blood but by spirit. . . . The place you looking for is a inborn place. Zion can only reveal itself unto you when you know who you are,” he told me. “If you read the book, then you will see you are a true Jew.”

Reading Group Guide

Searching for Zion Reading Group Guide

1. Searching for Zion has been described by several of the writers who blurbed it, including Dave Eggers, Edwidge Danticat, and Nick Flynn, as a search for home and belonging. Why didn’t Emily Raboteau feel at home at the start of the book? Can you relate to her desire to belong?

2. The loss of her best friend, Tamar, to the State of Israel is the impetus for Raboteau’s quest. She spends many years looking to find the same sense of ease and acceptance she once shared with Tamar. Have you ever experienced the loss of a good friendship to changes of circumstance? If so, how did you fill that hole?

3. At several points in Searching for Zion, the author has dangerous encounters, or serious flirtations with danger, in regions of the world most tourists don’t venture. Where do these occur and how does she cope? How have you reacted in dangerous situations?

4. Raboteau occasionally references The Wizard of Oz. How is her journey like Dorothy’s? Would you describe her as na’ve?

5. Zion is usually discussed as a homeland of the Jewish Diaspora. Raboteau discusses it instead as a metaphor for liberation in the African diaspora and, beyond that, as a feeling of kinship and belonging at home. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Raboteau revealed that her personal Zion is the condition of travel itself, because she feels most free when she’s on the road. What is your personal Zion?

6. Raboteau’s expectations are defied at several places in the book, forcing her to shift her attention. For example, she goes to Jamaica intending to learn about the Rastafarian faith but winds up focusing on gay rights instead. In Ghana she’s disturbed to discover facts about slavery, past and present. Where else is she surprised or disturbed by her discoveries?

7. Raboteau admires Kati Torda’s craft of stringing beads together “by listening,” and tells us ‘she was exactly the kind of artist I wished to be.” How has Raboteau used the same technique to craft this book? In other words, who would you say are the “beads’ she listens to in the “necklace” of her own project, and what does she hear?

8. Many of the seekers Raboteau interviews–such as Mary Ellen and John Ray in Ghana, Tezeta in Israel, and Brother Bryan in Ethiopia–seem bitter with the places they’ve emigrated. Others, like Rita Marley, Cousin Tracy, and Ras Hailu (the Banana-Man), seem more positive. What do you believe accounts for the difference in their outlooks?

9. Victor, the author’s eventual husband, suggests that her quest is really an elaborate search for her black father. Do you agree with him, or do you think he’s being reductive? Why?

10. The unprosecuted murder of the author’s grandfather is a touchstone in the book, referred to again and again as a source of disenchantment with America. At one point, Raboteau’s Aunt Alise reveals, “I knew him. He wasn’t a saint. He was just a man.” The same might be said of other literal and metaphorical father figures in the book, including national fathers Haile Selassie, Kwame Nkrumah, and, it is implied, Barack Obama. In your opinion, what are the dangers of expecting perfection or sainthood from our fathers? What are the consequences of not demanding more of them?

11. In the final chapter, newly pregnant and en route to New Orleans with her father, Raboteau writes, “I felt now what I’d known from the beginning. Zion is within. I understood that I would forget this fact, and, as with love, or faith, have to learn it again.” Earlier on, in Jamaica, she came to an understanding that “at its root my quest was about faith, not identity.” What kind of faith do you imagine she is referring to in these two passages?

12. In Ghana, master beader Kati Torda tells Emily that when a person stops swimming against the current, the water can take her to fascinating places. Where does the author wind up when she stops swimming against the current and finally returns home from her travels?

13. At the end of the book, the author tells us she doesn’t believe in fairy-tale endings and is resistant to conclude the book with her wedding or the birth of her son. Instead she chooses to finish in a more ambivalent place–”on the road.” How has Raboteau’s perception of Zion transformed, and how has her character changed by the book’s end? Do you feel she will spend the rest of her life seeking home?