What does it mean for Jewish travel if everyone makes aliyah?
I ask this question rhetorically, of course. No matter how charged the rhetoric or how tense the security situation, some Jews will always feel a stronger pull to their native or adopted territory — to the brilliance of South African sunshine or, yes, the warm, crisp baguettes and tidy green parks of the Paris Marais. And the solidity of our American Jewish community is reassuring.
But the furor over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s suggestion that French Jews, in the wake of the recent Paris terror attacks, ought to consider relocating to the Jewish homeland prompted me to consider anew the value of diaspora Jewish communities — and our role, as Jewish travelers, in supporting and appreciating them.
In a lot of places, you have to look hard for the Jews. You don’t have to look very hard at all for the anti-Semitism, though; it is sprayed upon walls in blood-red graffiti paint, sputtered from the mouths of bus drivers and casual acquaintances who assume their interlocutors are not Jewish, promulgated on Facebook pages and even in magazines at a corner kiosk.
But the Jews are there — still. While vast majorities have emigrated to America, Canada or Israel, Jewish communities maintain their distinctive presences around the globe.
These days, I usually have to call in advance if I want to visit the local synagogue, where pews are typically less than half-full even on holidays. But there is usually a warmly proffered Shabbat meal, and a proud group of locals eager to share what makes their tiny corner of the Jewish diaspora unique — be it guava cake for the Jamaican Kiddush or chicken baked with olives in a Catalan village.
The Jewish story, as of the 21st century, is in no small part a tortuous narrative of displacement and exile. To be sure, it is also a story of joyous rebirth, of hardscrabble success on pioneer shores, of achievement and integration and cultural triumph.
But to write about Jewish travel means to revisit — over and over again, from Thessaloniki to Samarkand — the sites of Jewish suffering, persecution and demise. Jewish travel is far more than an itinerary of loss, just as travel is much more than the accumulated detritus of human history.
Still, in large European cities and small North African islands, Central Asian villages and Latin American capitals, a similar narrative emerges. Here there was a ghetto, where Jews were herded. Over there was a mikvah, but the site has grown over with weeds since the last Jews fled. In this century, the Jews were expelled; in that era, there was an exodus to a more favorable regime; at one time, there were nearly a dozen working synagogues. Now there is one, or maybe none, only a mournful cemetery or — in the best case — a small museum to mark where Jews once lived.
So much of Jewish travel is heritage travel. And this is important, not only for the preservation of memory and deepening of primal connections, but also for the way such travel brings a visible Jewish presence — in the form of tourists — to places that rarely encounter Jews. In a world of virtual realities, live human contact is a powerful thing.
But it is infinitely more satisfying to visit a living Jewish community, however small and tenuous, than to bear witness to the vestiges of a dead one. France is a particularly rich example: In the heart of Europe, Jews are a towering intellectual and cultural presence, an integral part of the historical fabric, both in the arrondissements of Paris and the outposts of empire.
None of this is to deny the value of having a Jewish homeland to settle in; the critical importance of immigration for Israel; nor the very real compromises — in quality of life, opportunity and security — that Jews who live in small, relatively remote communities often make. And whether by tradition or necessity, Jews are resourceful and migratory enough that we will continue to encounter each other in some of the world’s far-flung places.
For the traveler, these are encounters to be cherished. Most of Bulgaria’s Jews immigrated to Israel after World War II — but not everybody, and the Chanukah candles flickering from windows were a lovely sight on my recent visit to Sofia.
And amid the ubiquity of Catholicism in the Spanish urban landscape, it was heartening to walk into a Barcelona café where the windows were lettered in Hebrew, and to share the New World stories that had brought a generation of Venezuelan Jews back to Iberia.
Like the bakeries and butcheries of Paris’ Marais quarter, each of these communities offers flavors, traditions and stories that cannot be found elsewhere. They are the stories that keep this Jewish traveler on the move.