Like the peripatetic medieval native of Italy known as Benjamin of Tudela, who spent a decade visiting and writing about Jewish communities on three continents, Pittsburgh native Ben Frank has spent a major part of his life traveling around the Jewish world. A publicist and former newspaper reporter, current resident of Palm Beach County in Florida and former resident of Westchester County here, he has written a series of travel guides, including books devoted to Europe, Russia and Ukraine, as well as the Caribbean and South America. His latest book “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” (Globe Pequot Press), is a record of his jaunts to exotic locales like Burma and Vietnam, and his visits to standard Jewish travel destinations like Russia and Israel.
“We travel to observe, to experience, to have adventures,” Frank writes in the introduction.. “Many Jewish travelers seek out their brothers and sisters in far-flung Jewish communities, or comb far-off lands in search of the last fragments of the scattered tribe. Travel is knowledge, discovery and enlightenment; the more we explore our world, the more we realize how much there is to learn.” The Jewish Week spoke to Frank about how Israel has changed as a travel destination.
Q: Has Jewish traveling changed since the days of Benjamin of Tudela?
A: While Benjamin of Tudela reached much of the then-known Jewish world, in the 12th Century, he obviously was hindered in time and distance due to antiquated means of transportation. With today’s technology, we can now can obtain immediate access to information about a community, and fly to a Jewish community within 12 to 24 hours. Jewish communities all over the world are accessible today; they were not in Benjamin of Tudela’s time.
Everybody writes travel books or articles about Israel. What’s new about what you experienced there this time?
The last chapter of “The Scattered Tribe” is entitled “Coming Home.” While I had been to Israel every few years since 1952, I wrote this chapter from the perspective of Israel, then and now; then being four years after the founding of the Jewish state, and “now” 2011. While researching the book, I took my 12-year-old grandson to Israel to show him places where I lived and visited 60 years ago, as well as today’s sites. In “The Scattered Tribe,” I commented on “visiting Israel through the eyes of a 12-year-old.”
You’ve been everywhere — or almost everywhere. How does Israel rank as a tourist destination, in terms of affordability, ease of getting around, accommodations for the disabled, etc?
Since my first visit in the early 1950s I have witnessed Israel build a well-rounded tourist industry that even today can withstand global economic shocks. Israel ranks high as a tourist destination, not only because it is the land of the Bible and the homeland of the Jewish people, but also because it realized that the benefits of tourism aid the nation itself, spiritually, economically and politically.
Certainly Israel is competitive and yes, still less expensive than Europe. The choices are enormous in Israel — from luxury hotels to pensions, from fancy gourmet restaurants to the fast-food schwarma and falafel outlets.
As for accommodations for disabled, I found it certainly up to high standards. As I understand it, Israeli law requires facilities be available to the handicapped. But I believe in Israel it is more than law.
I shall never forget strolling along the boardwalk in Eilat; I came upon a caravan of wheelchairs, youngsters wearing blue-T shirts and white shorts and blue hats, emblazoned with emblems of logos of Zichron Menachem, the Israeli Association for the Support of Children with Cancer.
What’s your best advice for a first-time visitor to Israel?
I always recommend that the first time visitor go on a tour group, simply because for a small country with so much to see, this is the most efficient way, although a large family can rent a private guide and a van. On the second trip, one can rent a car and drive around the country. Before you go, it’s a good idea to read a brief history of the struggle for a Jewish state and the years since its founding in 1948.
Israel now has established itself as a magnet for foodies, for techies, for gays and other specialty groups. How has Israel worked, in the years since you’ve been going there, to broaden its tourist base beyond the typical lovers of Zion and of the Bible?
In researching “The Scattered Tribe,” I realized that the Jewish people were for obvious historic reasons one of the most traveled groups in the world. So it is no wonder that the people involved in Israeli tourism had an inherent feel of what comforts and facilities to offer travelers. Israel took it one step higher: it made the state a magnet for many diverse interest groups. At the same time, it sent its future tourist managers abroad, to Switzerland, for example, to learn the skills needed in the tourist industry, and built an ever-expanding, modern national airline, El Al.
Israel has become a world tourist destination despite the tensions in the neighborhood.
It took time, of course, but Israel is now known for its excellent Mediterranean cuisine, gourmet restaurants as well as multi-national dining. So Israel has become an attraction for “foodies,” who also have discovered, humus and falafel. Another group that visits Israel is what one might call “medical or health tourists.” The spas such as Carmel Forest Spa, near Haifa, the sulfur baths throughout the country and the facilities at the Dead Sea certainly attract world health travelers.