10 June 2009

Summer travel: Playing Jewish geography

Jews have always traveled - for pleasure, to save their lives, or out of curiosity and a sense of adventure, like the famous Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela. He left Spain in 1159, travelled to Jerusalem and farther afield, writing down his travels and details of the communities he visited.

Most of Tracing the Tribe's readers are likely reading this posting in a very different place from where their great-great-grandparents lived.

When my husband and I told my grandmother (who arrived in New Jersey as a very young child in 1905) that we were going to live in Iran, she first said "There are really Jews in Iran?" This was followed by comments on how her parents had left Belarus for better lives, that she herself had been born, so her mother said, "where Russia, Turkey and Iran met and where they sold eggs on strings."

She repeated the stories her mother told, of travelling alone, dragging the samovar and its accessories, the featherbed, the candlesticks, her toddler brother and herself as an infant. Zayde Aaron had left months earlier for America and sent for them when he got settled. Her mother Riva traveled around Russia, hiding in churches during pogroms and that she herself was almost smothered one night because she wouldn't stop crying. If they had been discovered, all the Jews hiding there would have been killed.

Their trip to America was hard, she repeated, and that I was just going to get on a plane and go back there? "There," of course, meant anywhere on the other side of the Atlantic. It didn't matter where, it was simply "there."

Today, as genealogists, we are interested both in "there" - roots travel - and "here" - the communities our immigrant ancestors lived in, and the story of Jewish history in America from the earliest days.

To learn about some Jewish-themed activities, this JTA story offers numerous ideas.

As the end of the school year looms, Jewish geography awaits. Not the Jewish geography in which you thunderingly discover that your third cousin who lives in Milwaukee actually lives on the same block as your neighbor’s nephew.

No, this is real geography where you travel to places with Jewish history and people. In a land of cultural diversity, it’s good to know where and what our contributions have been.

With three pilgrimage holidays, travel is built into Judaism. We love travel, and as a group we are drawn to Jewish cultural tourism, looking for a little bit of ourselves wherever we go.
Across America, Jewish tourism is becoming more apparent in a plethora of film festivals, museums and even guides to kosher food. If you know where you'll be going in advance, check out the websites of local community papers to see what's on tap for the summer. Some cities have even published major Jewish travel guides.

Here are some suggestions:

West Coast:

Los Angeles CA: The Jewish Historical Society">Boyle Heights Tour.

San Diego CA: A Balboa Park Jewish Walking Tour.

Marysville CA: The Gold Rush-period Jewish Cemetery

East Coast:

New York: The Lower East Side Conservancy Tours. And don't forget Ellis Island!

Philadelphia: The National Museum of American Jewish History offers J-Tours, such as the Colonial Jewish Experience.

Gettysburg: Civil War period.

Boston: Jewish Friendship Trails has self-guided adventures for walkers or those on bicycle.

Down South:

Colonial Williamsburg: This is one of my own personal favorites. We've even stayed in one of the historic buildings. It was my first experience with what can only be termed a living, breathing "reality" show.

Charleston SC: The historic Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.
Our own travels have produced some wonderful memories. A long-ago Mexican vacation brought us to Guadalajara where I noticed on a plaque that the architects of our "boutique" hotel were Jewish with offices there.

We decided to attend Shabbat services and finally managed to arrange permission after phone calls to the architect who called the synagogue. It was an experience in those days to see a synagogue with armed guards who checked papers and asked careful questions.

Inside, at the beautiful Jewish club, we experienced a familiar Conservative service using the Buenos Aires-translated Marshall Meyer siddur in Spanish and Hebrew. The wonderful kiddush allowed us to talk to other congregants and learn more about the Jewish presence there.

Personally, I always recommend visiting synagogues on travels. Today, with the Internet, it is easier to inform the community of your travel plans - always a good idea because of security concerns. Whether you attend a service, enjoy a kiddush, are invited to congregants' homes for dinner, see local Jewish sites, it will offer a glimpse of how MOTs live in other places. It is always interesting.

Google for information on a Jewish community. If you are already into Jewish genealogy, contact a local Jewish genealogical society (click here for a list) for on-the-ground tips of what to see and where to go. You might even be invited to speak to the group!

The JTA story offered this idea:

An extended family cruise of the Mexican Riviera gave our family an opportunity to express our Jewish identity at sea. I asked the maĆ®tre d' if the ship’s kitchen could bake special twisted bread for Friday night dinner, a challah.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Using one of the ship’s PCs, I downloaded a recipe and photo. That Shabbat, the tables where my family sat were presented with baskets of freshly baked twisted challot.
Read the complete story at the link above for more ideas for your summer travels and experiences.


  1. I hope you don't get tired of my shameless promotion of Nashville, but if you had visited here earlier this year you could have visited the following exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum where admission is always free.

    Bagels and BBQ

    The story of Jewish immigration to Tennessee and how they embraced the culture they found here is documented in a new exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum. Bagels & Barbeque: The Jewish Experience in Tennessee begins with the saga of early Jewish settlers emigrating from Europe and continues through the Civil War and Reconstruction, World War II, the Civil Rights Era and up to the recent influence of the Jewish Community in Tennessee. The exhibition is a joint project of the Tennessee State Museum in collaboration with the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, Jewish Community Federation of Greater Chattanooga, Knoxville Jewish Alliance, and Memphis Jewish Federation, with the participation of other Jewish communities around the state.

  2. Genealogy is composed of people who care deeply about their family, their community and relevant topics. I am delighted that you promote Nashville, and wish that others did the same for their communities!