June 5, 2013 by jewish journeys
According to some, one should not approach death without having taken a cruise through Patagonian fjords or a slow barge down the Canal du Midi (‘Unforgettable Journeys to Take Before You Die’, Steve Watkins, Clare Jones BBC Books, 2006). Others are more ambitious, offering at least one thousand such places before the lights go out. (“1000 Places to See Before You Die”, Patricia Schultz, Workman Publishing, 2003) Heaven help us now, since the world economy remains in tailspin and we are destined to check out of this life without having first checked into the Hotel Cipriani in Venice, or made it to Botswana’s Okavango Delta. In the spirit of our times, we will just have to make do with watching it on TV or reading a ‘travelblog’ of someone who has. Nevertheless, for the intrepid or higher earners, there remains so much to do – countless flight schedules to be co-ordinated, hotels to be researched and visas arranged if one is to make it before the final curtain comes down. I assume that inoculations and health insurance can be skipped as one nears the end of the list.
To be fair, the significance of such lists certainly lies not in the actual places mentioned – one person’s fjord is another one’s seasickness – rather in posing the intriguing question whether geography and travel have canonical authority. The idea of a ‘canon’ is usually ascribed to the field of literature, the ‘great books’ one is supposed to have read to be recognised as a cultured member of Western culture.
Watkins, Jones and Schultz are really doing no more than expanding on the time honoured tradition of previous generations. The late eighteenth century saw ladies and gentleman of high standing, set off on journeys of self improvement. Rooted in the optimism of the Enlightenment, these early ‘Grand Tourists’ believed that by visiting the cultural temples of the Western world (which apparently were to be mostly found in Italy and France), they would gain insight and wisdom.
Some years later, in the year 1923, a Jewish representative in the Polish Senate, Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Piotrkov and Lublin made a revolutionary proposal that all Jews in the world ‘meet’ daily on the daf yomi, agreeing to study the same page of Talmud. They would endeavour to complete the entire 2711 pages of Talmud collectively, day by day, Jew by Jew, everywhere around the world. ‘A daf [page] ‘, argued Shapira, ‘is the instrument of our survival in the stormy seas of today. If we cling to it faithfully all the waves of tribulation will but pass over us’. And so was born a modern expression of the Jewish literary canon. What is remarkable about Shapiro’s daf yomi was how well it entrenched the idea of the ‘text’ as the homeland all Jews should traverse.
You will be surprised to learn Shapira’s proposal, put forth at the First International Congress of Agudath Israel World Movement in Vienna, was accepted by many and totally ignored by everyone else. No matter how well intentioned, the declared objective of promoting Jewish unity via the Talmud was just another shot fired in the great cultural war of Jewish modernity. Yet he did succeed in posing a crucial question that is as relevant today as it was then, namely are there books that all Jews need to have read, in order to have a reasonably intelligent Jewish conversation.
This is not an easy question to answer, especially if one does not want to incur the wrath of the post modernist culture police who get squeamish about such hard and fast declarations. Personally, I am going to side step the ‘books’ debate by returning to the challenge raised by the ‘Cipriani before you die’ brigade mentioned above. Put simply, are there places that Jews must visit – not necessarily before they die, but at least if they can?
I share this dilemma with you as an answer to many a question posed over breakfast on one Jewish journey or another, ‘so where are ‘you’ [Jewish Journeys] going to next?’ If Julian and I were more savvy business types, the answer might be, ‘so where would you like to go and we will arrange it’, but we have some way to go in that department. The answer is where should we go?
For what it is worth, I am less convinced of a canon of places and more inclined towards a canon of questions. Or to be more precise what are the questions and discussions that should direct the pathways of Jewish journeys. What those questions would be will have to wait for another blog but of one thing I am sure – the beauty of travel is its ability to sharpen one’s thinking and openness to seeing things differently. The central thesis of intelligent travel argues that distance from the norms of home makes us more open to seeing things afresh and from original viewpoints. By way of easy example, Diaspora and Israeli Jews seem able to confront the nature and dilemmas of their Jewish identities when visiting the other. Bizarrely, in observing Israelis travelling abroad I am struck how many of my fellow country men and women seem to benefit from coming to the Diaspora to discover they are ‘Jewish’ as well as Israeli. Conversely, Israel tours have long been an established rites of passage experience for Diaspora youth, a type of secular pilgrimage with swimming.
To return to the main question – do we have a canon of places? Should there be a list of thousand Jewish sites to visit before you die? My answer would be in the negative since no place is sacred and Jews seem to have managed to for centuries by concentrating on the inward, not the outward. More importantly, people are more interesting than places and personally, I am intrigued by the challenge of finding the thousand interesting Jews, alive or dead with whom I would like to have breakfast. I am certainly excited at the prospect of travelling across the globe to make that happen.
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