The most famous world traveler in Jewish history was, arguably, Benjamin of Tudela, a 12th-Century native of northern Spain’s Navarre region whose interests took him around Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Born in Tudela, the rabbi/merchant/explorer spent more than a decade visiting far-flung communities and writing about his observations on the Jewish and wider communities. He spent time in a couple dozen countries.
But Benjamin was a rank amateur compared to Drew Binsky.
Binsky, a 28-year-old native of Arizona, will soon be part of a select group of people who have visited every country in the world.
As of last count, he’s been in 189 of the 197 countries (and Antarctica) recognized by the United Nations – including Israel three times. Though no one keeps an official record of Jews who’ve set foot in all 197, he likely will be the youngest.
After finishing college in 2012, with a career as a professional golfer in mind, he and some friends took 2½ weeks to travel around the U.S. and Canada. Since then, “I haven’t stopped traveling,” he said last week from his temporary base in the Philippines. “We hopped in my Mom’s car … that was my first taste of freedom, I was addicted to the thrill of travel.”
He gets around “mostly by airplane” (he’s an expert on finding cheap flights) with the occasional bus, train, boat, ferry, taxi and rented car thrown in. “Uber works in 90 countries.”
Total miles logged? “Definitely over one million.” Maybe, 1.5 million.
Binsky travels light. “Only two small backpacks. I never check a bag” on an airplane.
Not even an umbrella. “If it rains,” he said, “I buy an umbrella.”
“Ultra-travelers” like Binsky are a small-but-growing group.
The Travelers’ Century Club, which began in 1954 for people who had visited at least 100 lands, has expanded to organizations and Facebook groups of those who’ve gone to every country.
There’s no official count of such people (it’s on the honor system), but it’s become a thing to reach the status of the youngest, the first from a particular country or ethnic group, or another superlative.
The leader in this Jewish clique is Binsky.
An economics and entrepreneurship major in college, Binsky (drewbinsky.com, @drewbinsky) supports himself by teaching English, partnering with brands, and by making 900-plus videos for his Facebook page and his Youtube channel — several are on such Jewish topics as “The Filipino Jewish Rockstar” and “The Jews of “Curaçao” and “The forgotten Jews of Ethiopia.”
“I look for Jews” and for Jewish stories in every place he visits, Binsky said.
“I love to document these stories because they’re untold.”
Binsky called himself a “Jewish messenger” following in the footsteps of the late Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef and travel documentarian who focused on a country’s culture.
Binsky said he enters each country as a blank slate, with minimal prior knowledge of its history or traditions. “I go with open eyes. The stories always come out spontaneously.” Like the last Jew of Afghanistan, an old man living in the only extant synagogue in Kabul, the capital. Binsky heard about the man while several hours away, and set out the next day for the capital, where he made a video about the man’s story. “It’s one of my most proud moments.”
“I think what Drew’s doing is great,” said Ben Frank, a prolific author of Jewish travel books. “Though enriching, travel is not easy.
“As a veteran Jewish travel writer who has been to 91 countries, I can only give a ‘shout out’ of ‘bravo’ to Drew Binsky, for his bringing Jews of the world closer together through travel,” Frank said.
Frank has written Jewish travel guides to Europe, Russia and the Ukraine, the Caribbean and South America; his latest books are “A Jewish Travel Guide to Europe, (all Pelican Publishing), and travel narratives, “The Scattered Tribe, Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti and Beyond,” (Globe Pequot Press).
Frank said Binsky’s videos “add to the resources for many Jews who seek their roots, or search for places where relatives and friends once lived or who just like to connect with the Jewish people who reside in far-flung and exotic nations.”
Binsky’s real last name is Goldberg, but he uses his childhood nickname, “Binsky,” because “it just sounds better as a brand” and it is less likely to identify him as a Jew in countries where Jews are not particularly welcome.
But, he said, once on the ground, he is sure to identify himself as Jewish. Which never presents a problem, even in the Arab and Muslim lands where he has spent time.
Danger? “Not once.”
“To be honest with you, the more I travel in Islamic countries and surround myself with Muslim people, the more amazed I am by how humble and hospitable they are,” Binsky wrote in a blog. “I’ve never had a single person discriminate against me for my religion … from my experiences of telling people I am Jewish, they become more curios and want to get to know me!”
Binsky titled one of his videos “I’m Jewish and I Love Muslims.”
One of his favorite countries is Iran. “I try to look past the politics.”
Of a secular orientation, Binsky has spent the High Holidays and Passover “all over the world. There’s Chabad almost everywhere.”
Some logistic details about his traveling:
Language – He speaks Spanish and Korean, “survival Russian and Tagalog. I can read and write Hebrew.”
Innoculations – Just yellow fever and Hepatitis B.
Laundry – He does it weekly at a hotel, or at a nearby laundromat.
Communications – If his T-Mobile SIM card doesn’t operate in his venue de jour, he’ll buy a local SIM card.
When he’s reached his goal of visiting all 197 countries, does Binsky plan to settle down and get a typical office job in the States?
“I don’t think that’s the case,” he said. He’ll keep traveling, but not so much. “I’ll try to scale.”
Binsky, who is at work on a 90-minute documentary about his travels (he hopes to get it on Netflix) said a bus crash in India, an earthquake in the Philippines, dealing with officials and border guards who demand bribes, and invitations to eat and stay in people’s homes number among his most memorable experiences on the road.
He’s become a celebrity among his millions of social media followers, recognized “everywhere. It can happen 30 times a day.”
The question he hears most often: “What is your favorite country?”
“The question is impossible for me to answer,” he says. “The term ‘favorite country’ is too vague. It’s almost like asking, ‘What’s your favorite food?’”
So, what’s his favorite food?
Korean barbecue, he said, among several cuisines he’s sampled around the world.
He has helped raise funds for the “Water is Life” charity that supplies potable water to schools in Kenya, and is on the outlook for other worthy causes he can support during his travels.
By this summer, Binsky said, he plans to add his last eight unvisited countries – Panama, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Palau, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Ecuador and Jamaica – to the ones he’s visited.
To celebrate, he’s planning “a fun event” in Jamaica. “I’ll party with friends.”
One day, Binsky said, he hopes to visit Tudela, to pay homage to that city’s Benjamin, the most famous wandering Jew. “Absolutely. It’s on my list.”
Travel blogger Drew Binsky is en route to being the youngest Jew (maybe person, ever?) to travel to every country in the world. Here's a sneak peek into his unique encounters with Jewish communities in some of the remotest regions on the globe.See comments for link to full story.
פורסם על ידי The Jewish Week ב- יום שלישי, 21 בינואר 2020