There is an unbroken tradition of Jewish travel, from the exotic voyages of the ninth-century Eldad Ha-Dani and the 12th-century Benjamin Mitudela and David Ha-Reuveini, to the somewhat less exotic — but nonetheless serious — peregrinators Label and Laurie Littlechap of Lawrence travelling to Cancun for Pesach.
The tradition of “exotic” Jewish travel is exemplified by one of the giants of the rabbinic leadership of the Sephardic world, Rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azulai — known by his Hebrew acronym as “the Hida” — who lived in Jerusalem and Livorno in the 18th century. The Hida, renowned in Sephardic communities as a halachic decisor, was the author as well of one of the great travel diaries, fascinatingly analyzed by Indiana University’s Matthias B. Lehmann in “Levantinos and Other Jews: Reading H.Y.D. Azulai’s Travel Diary,” (Jewish Social Studies, Spring/Summer, 2007).
Azulai’s travelogue is the detailed report of two lengthy fundraising missions: one took the Hida through Italy and German lands as far as London — no mean feat in the 1750s; the other, to Tunisia, Italy, France and Holland. The Hida’s travel diary is a treasure trove: descriptions of the people he met, and of their communities; the varied responses to his mission (UJA fundraisers: take note!); the books and manuscripts he found on his way — important as an indicator of the social and intellectual atmosphere of the communities he visited — and most important what Jewish identity was all about in his time and in those places. Azulai’s travelogue suggests that the notions of “Jewishness” in the 18th century developed not just in response to the encounter between Jews and non-Jews; this idea has been the dominant focus of the regnant historiography of inclusion and exclusion, of “exclusiveness and tolerance.” The Hida challenges the notion that “pre-modern Jews were linked to other Jews by bonds of solidarity, trust, and a common ethnic identity.” Not so, asserts the Hida: he experienced the Ashkenazic world as an outsider. What emerges from the travel diary is a picture, not of one diaspora in which Jews are linked, but of different, competing Jewish diasporas.
Travelogues of a vastly different nature are those that pop up all over the place at the beginnings of modern Hebrew literature — the Hebrew literary enlightenment, the Haskalah — and in chasidic travel stories. Journal Watcher notes that the substantial demographic shifts of the 19th century — Jews were on the move — is reflected in the literature of the times, and this arena is comprehensively explored by Syracuse University’s Ken Frieden in “Neglected Origins of Modern Hebrew Prose: Hasidic and Maskilic Travel Narratives” (AJS Review, 2009).
As did many Israeli and American Jews, the teenage Journal Watcher loved the picaresque travel tales of S.Y. Abramovich, who in the Jewish world was known as Mendele Moykher Sforim. But Ken Frieden broadens and deepens the story of the travel-narrative genre in Hebrew literature: the genre begins in the early 19th century, with the sea-travel narrative, popular in both chasidic literature and among Haskalah writers, despite the ideological disparities between these two Jewish worlds. Using the writings of two influential (but forgotten today) authors, Mendel Levin and Rav Nathan Steinharz as exemplars, Frieden demonstrates how the travel-narrative genre broadened to include satire, adventure story and even children’s literature, and “were a conduit that carried ‘folk Hebrew’ into the stream of secular Hebrew literature,” thereby directly influencing the course of modern Hebrew literature.
Also under the rubric of the travel guide — albeit in this case of a voyage that never took place — is Vivian Liska’s and Tamara Eisenberg’s “A Travel Guide in Palestine: Walter Benjamin in Israel” (Naharaim, 2008). Liska and Eisenberg (University of Antwerp and Hebrew University) discuss the eponymous “travel guide” to Palestine, which Gershom Scholem in fact sent to Walter Benjamin in 1924.
Walter Benjamin never reached Palestine; indeed, “it is doubtful that he ever looked at the travel guide, and even more uncertain whether he would have enjoyed it if he had.” Benjamin, who was a seminal 20th-century Jewish thinker, never had the opportunity to gain an understanding of the land that Scholem had made his home. “Yet, piecemeal and belatedly, Benjamin’s work has arrived in Israel, and it endures.” Liska and Eisenberg make the case that Walter Benjamin’s work is in fact “invoked by some as a guide to an imagined Palestine that is not only unlike what he could have seen in 1924, but is also very different from anything to be seen there today.” The travel guide is therefore metaphoric for the impact that Walter Benjamin’s thought, in a broad range of philosophical arenas, has had in contemporary Israel. Does one need to travel in order to get somewhere?
The answer to this question is a forthright “yes” — or at least a “maybe” — to Tel Aviv University’s Orit Rozin, who explores the question of how travel plays out in the arena of international law and public affairs, specifically in the question of the restrictions placed by Israel in its early years on foreign travel by its citizens. In “Israel and the Right to Travel Abroad 1948-1961” (Israel Studies, 2009), Rozin demonstrates how the objective needs of the new state — the realities of international politics; social factors; and, transcending all, economic exigencies informed Israel’s relatively restrictive policies with respect to travel. Moreover — and this is Rozin’s insight — the collectivist ideology that characterized the period of nation-building, which was the regnant ideology of the decision-makers, led to limiting travel abroad even as Israel was in other ways contouring itself as a democratic and open society.
The Hida would have had a tough time junketing had he been getting off the ground in 1950 instead of 1750. But what about our fearless wayfarers, Label and Laurie? Are they not foursquare in the tradition of Benjamin Mitudela and the Hida?
Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism through the Ages” (ADL), editor of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (Praeger) and editor of the forthcoming “Whither American Zionism?” (Bar Ilan) and “The Future of American Jewish Religion” (Columbia University Press).