Wandering Jewishly: Visiting People, not Places by Jeremy Leigh

June 7, 2013 by jewish journeys


When it comes to travel, all evidence suggests that the advertisers won and the educators lost. I’m referring to the misconception that travel is merely about seeing things. For those who write brochures and design posters, travel appears to be about opportunities to marvel at the vistas of nature, swoon at the beauty of art and architecture, or become voyeurs of the strange debris that history has left behind. Such travel is supported by a vast catalogue of books devoted to telling us what to look at in the world, including Patricia Schultz’s rather morbidly titled 1,000 Places to See Before You Die (Workman; 2003).

But places should be about conversations, not silent reverence. When it comes to Jewish traveling, the case is even stronger for emphasizing the verbal alongside the visual. Indeed, if the minuscule field of Jewish travel ever becomes a full-f ledged industry, Schultz’s volume of pre-death mustsees might be replaced by 1,000 Places to Talk Jewish, While You Still Have the Chance. In addition to visiting the cathedrals of our common past, people would also be treated as “sites.” Instead of having photos of places, one’s travel mementos would be the relationships developed and opinions challenged on the journey.

I would start my version of the book in the Greek town of Larissa, where an elderly gentleman approached my travelling companions and me, valiantly attempting to welcome us Jews to his town, before his face crumpled as he recalled his brother, who had been executed in 1943 for hiding Jews. I would continue in Split, Croatia, where a respectable-looking anti-Semite cursed us for taking over the world as we sat harmlessly by the cemetery. Finally, I would describe the man in Vilna’s Choral Shul with whom, despite the absence of a common verbal language, I ‘conversed’ for over an hour, he in Yiddish, me in Hebrew, and both of us in gestures. It was a conversation of assumed language and, judging by the warm embrace as we parted, full of emotion.

Jewish travel, rather like being Jewish itself, does not work well as a solitary experience. Intriguing things happen to all people when they travel. Most groups form interconnected, ad hoc communities, and with the distance from the comforts of home, travellers bond in unexpected ways. Jewish travel invites Jews to reach into their bags of knowledge, experience, and whatever skills of Jewish literacy they possess to make sense of their surroundings.

Several years ago in Salonika, Greece, we sat in the serene mosque-cum-synagogue built at the turn of the twentieth century by the Donmeh, an intriguing group of “Jews” who, in the late 17th century, believed that the Messiah had come in the person of Shabbatei Zvi, a Jew from Smyrna. Like many in the Jewish world, they were a little surprised when this so-called messiah converted to Islam after threats of executions from the Turkish Sultan. Yet instead of turning their backs on the messianic pretender, they followed his example and also converted.

As an educational moment, it was breathtaking. The story of the Donmeh was certainly compelling, but not half as challenging and, yes, educational as the underlying question: What does one do when the long-dreamed-for Messiah does not come? People with a wide range of backgrounds took part in the ensuing discussion: those whose study of the Holocaust had robbed them of all optimism or belief in the future, a kibbutznik musing on the soiled legacy of collectivism, a former revolutionary Jewish socialist picking up the pieces after history’s cruel verdict on that movement, and twenty-somethings who cynically questioned the very notion of a messiah in the first place. In the quiet of this odd Salonika “mosque-agogue,” Shabbatei Zvi was no longer mere history, because site, subject, and student had become one.

There are few formal rules governing what may be regarded as a Jewish site, except that it must form a tangible link with the Jewish experience. Thus, the idea of suitably chosen backdrops to serve as ever-changing batei midrash (houses of study) represents a thrilling intertwining of travel and education. I have travelled with groups who have studied the Book of Kohelet on top of the Acropolis, the Zohar in the Atlas Mountains, Chaim Grade’s Quarrel in Vilna, and the teachings of the Kotsker rebbe in, well, Kotsk.

Best of all came last November, on the weekend of the Immaculate Conception to be precise, when I joined a group of Jews in Seville’s overpowering Gothic Cathedral for what was supposed to be a polite theological “show and tell,” officially referred to as “a dialogue with the Church.” In reality, however, the Jews were split. There were those for whom profuse apology from the archbishop’s appointed interlocutor for the sins of the fathers was sufficient and graciously received. For a second, more vocal faction, not even the intervention of the Trinity and all the Saints would have calmed them down, made them listen, or placated their anti-Catholic biases. The journey had provided a remarkable backdrop and the chance to converse with others, yet the true result was an even deeper encounter with ourselves.

Not all educators appreciate the spontaneity of conversation and dialogue, fearing that such openness undermines some of the fixed agendas of existing programs. Whether it is the unreconstructed Zionism of some Israel tours or the death-camp obsession promoted in some Poland programs, fixed agendas do not always make for good education. Ultimately, the thrill of Jewish travel lies in the opportunity it affords to join the great Jewish conversation. Who are we? Where do we come from? What are we trying to do? Armed with inquisitive minds, suitable reading material, and a willingness to talk, the wide world of Jewish space is in fact the ultimate Jewish classroom.

© Jeremy Leigh and Jewish Journeys 2013.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited


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