There is something slightly paradoxical about taking the time to go to a synagogue on the other side of the world when at home you rarely and reluctantly grace one with your presence. And yet I’d hazard a guess that I’m far from unusual in having done this.
Just last month, travelling round India's southwestern coast, I made sure to stop off in Fort Kochi, once home to a sizeable Jewish community, many of whom came to India from the Iberian peninsula after the Spanish Inquisition. You can now count the number of Jews still living there with your fingers, but the synagogue - built by Portuguese Jews in the mid-16th century, and now the oldest in the Commonwealth - remains a tourism highlight for Jews and non-Jews alike.
It's not just India. I've visited the synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados, which dates back to the 17th century when a community settled there (although it has been rebuilt in that time), and smiled at the explanatory note recalling the year that Succot services were temporarily cancelled due to the fact that a hurricane had blown down the Succah.
I've trawled around shuls of little note in France, Italy, Germany and further afield, and on one particularly dedicated sojourn trekked up a mountain in the Spanish town of Segovia, a rural spot some four hours outside of Madrid, in search of the site of Jewish interest enthusiastically promised by the guide book. Sadly, the trek was in vain: the guidebook was misinformed, although the view was at least rather pleasant (and if you’re ever in the area, worth visiting just to see the castle Walt Disney allegedly based his version on).
At other times, I've been to the Altneu in Prague and peered through the slits in the women's section, frustrated at the second-class vantage point. I've gazed at the stunning decor of the Dohany Shul in Budapest, and I've enjoyed Kabbalat Shabbat at Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah. I’ve visited old Jewish quarters in any number of cities, wandered around the Tenement museum in New York’s Lower East Side, and placed stones on Jewish graves at the cemeteries of Ypres.
At home, I'm by no means unobservant, but my preference for a Saturday morning lie-in means my attendance record at Shul is lamentable, while I tend not to spend my weekends wandering around the UK’s oldest Jewish landmarks. The same is true, I suspect, for many of those who when abroad rush to Jewish sites, hurry to meet other Jewish (or frequently Israeli) travellers, or seek out the nearest Chabad House the minute they’ve hoisted a backpack. When we’re away, we seem to crave a community that we don't necessarily miss in our day to day life.
Certainly, it's not simply about seeing sites of touristic interest, albeit that old synagogues or Jewish quarters are often heavily promoted by guidebooks. The Paradesi Synagogue in Fort Kochi was stunning to behold, but I expect I'd have gone out of vague curiosity, even if wasn't deemed of particular significance.
In some ways, it is an extension of the way we seek out Jewish faces on television or in news stories, even when we have no expectation of any actual link to them. Likewise, when we read a book or watch a film that on the face of it has no Jewish angle, only to find several pages in an anecdote about the protagonist’s Jewish grandmother, or find ourselves regaled by a tale of an East End upbringing, it’s strangely gratifying. It's a feeling almost like meeting an old friend; a way to connect to the story that is unfolding.
What is it about? A desire to delve deeper into our shared heritage? A need to find a connection in a strange place? A wish to feel we are part of a group even when we are far from home?
Perhaps - and this is merely supposition - it is that as a wandering people, spread across all corners of the globe, there is some sense of closure when we go so far to discover something so familiar. Perhaps meeting a fellow Jew from a far flung locale, or searching out an ancient Jewish site, however random or unremarkable, answers some thirst for knowledge about who we are and where we came from. Maybe we go to Jewish destinations and share meaningless chatter with fellow Jews as we travel, not because we are introverted, nor because we are necessarily curious about those we meet, but because there are still so many outstanding questions about who we as a people are.
Perhaps also, it's about pride; we visit these sites to recall the places Jews once touched, if not for long, where Jews of days gone by fled to and from, secure in the knowledge that our community lives on.
Of course, maybe we're just nosy, and the desire to see Jewish sights and meet Jews abroad is about an unrivalled opportunity to sneak a peek at the lives of others. But as I look back at my photographs from Jew Town, Fort Kochi, I'd like to think that the enthusiasm for finding the Jewish legacies in destinations near and far comes more from an interest in our collective past and a commitment to our future.
Jennifer Lipman is a writer living in London. She tweets on @jenlipman. She is the former Comment Editor of The Jewish Chronicle and has written for a number of British newspapers and online publications including The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times. http/Jenniferlipman.wordpress.com
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