Travel writer Ben G. Frank has recently published the fourth edition of his book A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe. The first edition came out in 1992. In this personal essay he discusses some of the changes since then – and why he believes it is important for Jewish travelers to visit Jewish communities and heritage sites in other countries around the world.
I am a travel writer. But above all, I like to think of myself as a Jewish travel writer. My focus is the Jewish world: from large, established Jewish communities, such as London, Paris and Rome, to small, more exotic Jewish communities, in places like Mumbai, Yangon, Ho Chi-Minh City – but also in far-flung towns and cities in Europe.
I’ve been writing travel books and articles about Jewish sites and generally aimed at Jewish travelers for decades, and over the years I have witnessed cataclysmic changes: political upheavals, the downfall of governments, wars, the aftermath of the Holocaust; the birth of the Jewish state. All have had their impact on Jewish life — and with it, on Jewish travel.
Consider that in the 1960s in Spain, during the reign of the dictator Francisco Franco, you couldn’t even find a synagogue building. Today Jewish communities, with synagogues, Jewish centers, kosher restaurants, thrive in Madrid and Barcelona. The Jewish community in France, the largest in Europe, also underwent profound, changes, as Sephardim from North Africa, who came to France in the 1950s and 1960s, sparked a renaissance of Jewish life that has affected everything from religious practice to Jewish cuisine.
The miracle of 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, and two years later the fall of the Soviet Union, changed things further, opening up to outsiders, for the first time in more than half a century, the part of Europe that historically had been the spiritual and religious center of Jewry. Excitedly, Jews once again began to travel the routes of their ancestors – and traveling these routes they soon began to want to see more.
The phenomenon known as “Jewish travel” does exist. And Jewish travel-writing is a fine tradition that extends back to the Spanish Jew, Benjamin of Tudela, the twelfth-century rabbi who traveled the then-known Jewish world and recorded what he saw, how Jews lived and got along with their neighbors and rulers, how they survived under oppressive conditions and how they were influenced by their environment. He also included tales such as when he was in Istanbul, “where no Jew (was) allowed to ride on horseback.”
Jewish tourists, like tourists in general, go on journeys to experience different countries, their culture, their customs, their history, their attractions. They want to experience, to have adventures, to participate in group activities. They yearn for travel memories that they can cherish into the future. But I learned long ago that many Jewish tourists also specifically seek out the local synagogue, the kosher restaurant, the Jewish community center, Jewish museums, Jewish heritage sites. Many also seek out their brothers and sisters in far-flung Jewish communities; or they comb far off lands in search of the remnants of the scattered tribe.
That’s what I have done all my life. That’s why I’ve written six Jewish travel guides, a travel narrative and a historical novel. That’s why I’ve never stopped going back and digging deeper into our rich history and the life of our people, as well as updating travel information on new youth centers, institutions, synagogues, and kosher establishments. And that’s why I’ve updated for a fourth edition of my book A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe – a guidebook for Jewish tourists that first came out in 1992.
Things have continued to change, and change dramatically, in Europe since the first edition of my guidebook. It’s not just concerns about anti-Semitism and terrorism, or the fact that extremists and populist governments have come to the fore. On recent trips to Europe, I have felt the presence of tightened security at Jewish sites, but also in general: cameras, police cars, soldiers and guards who search you.
But many other things have changed, too. Once dying Jewish communities in Eastern Europe have been rekindled; once-ruined synagogue buildings have been restored; new Jewish museums, new
kosher restaurants, and new Jewish schools are opening; scores of festivals of Jewish culture, art, film, and music abound across the continent.
There is plenty to admire – and plenty to see, aided by the numerous travel and tour agencies that now specialize in Jewish itineraries.
We must not let fear deter us from the joy and inspiration and knowledge gained through travel: That’s exactly what terrorists and those who sow hate desire.
I believe it is incumbent on American Jews, as they observe and study the best of European culture, to visit their brothers and sisters living on that continent. Nations and people may change, but the Jewish people live on. A common bond of faith, tradition and unity bind us.
In all my travels, I’ve discovered that the ties between American Jews and other Jewish communities in the Diaspora are strengthened when visitors from the U.S. stop at Jewish institutions and centers and exchange ideas and share values. We need each other!
In my opinion, Jewish communities in the Diaspora must continue to support each other, even as Israel is central to our Jewish lives.
And I firmly believe that a powerful way to enhance this goal and to build bridges to other Jewish communities is travel.
About the Author:
Ben G. Frank is the author of the just-published 4th edition of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe (Pelican Publishing) as well as Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press), The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti and Beyond (Globe Pequot Press) and other Jewish travel guides. Follow him at twitter:@bengfrank.