Living near Jerusalem – the epicenter of the Jewish world, ground zero for
Jewish landmarks – I never have had much interest in seeing local Jewish sites
when travelling abroad.
Kosher restaurants I seek out meticulously, and
will literally travel for hours to secure an overpriced kosher corned beef
sandwich. But local Jewish museums; majestic, empty and non-functioning
synagogues; or ancient Jewish cemeteries just don’t float my boat.
through work, I am fortunate to have a couple free hours in Rome , I’ll
the Coliseum rather than the Great Synagogue. If I’m spending a week in
with the family, hunting down the remains of an ancient shul in Maribor
high on my to-do list. And if I happen to be in Charleston , South
visiting the historic 18th century synagogue might be what I should do,
what I want to do – what I want to do is see the famed “Rainbow Row” of
It isn’t that I have no interest in Jewish history. I do, and
quite a bit, but there are three key elements at play here. The first is
Zionist ethos. The Jewish people, in my mind, belong in Israel, and
the physical manifestations of our painful sojourn in exile surely have
context and importance; but I don’t have to break my neck to go see
Second, I figure I have enough Jews and Jewish sites in Jerusalem,
and if I have limited time overseas, I don’t need to spend it looking
Christopher Columbus’ Jewish roots.
I mean why – living in Jerusalem –
would I want to see the Jewish museum in Brussels, with its “collection
religious objects dating from the 16th century,” and “documents and
illustrate traditional Jewish home life,” when I can see both religious
artifacts and folks living a traditional Jewish home life everywhere I
The whole idea of Judaism as a museum piece – artifacts celebrating
the Jewish life cycle – is not something that speaks to me. In fact, it
off. I don’t need to see an etrog case under glass in a museum; I want
to see it
in my home, as part of our living Succot experience.
I’m sure this
sentiment goes back to school field trips I took as a kid to the Denver
of Natural History.
There I would pass huge dioramas of the Plains
Indians hunting buffalo or gathering wild berries, with an impressive
of arrow heads on display nearby.
When I see Jewish religious artifacts
in a museum case, along with a description of the Jewish holiday cycle,
races back to those extinct Native American tribes and leaves me a bit
And, thirdly, I generally eschew Jewish local points of
interest because they are often just all so heartwrenchingly sad, such a
– especially in Europe. If you’re on vacation, you generally don’t want
depressed, but visiting huge synagogues that are no longer in use, or
quarters now bereft of committed, living, breathing Jews, is just plain
It screams out of dying or dead communities.
BUT WHEN planning a family
vacation to Prague this summer, I was told that visiting the Jewish
that city was a must. Moreover, the Jewish quarter – with medieval
and the Jewish cemetery holding the grave of Rabbi Yehudah Loew, the
are among the most popular tourist attractions there. Going to Prague
seeing the Jewish sites is like going to Denver without seeing the Rocky
And visit the Jewish sites we did. In fact, on Shabbat
morning, at the end of services at Prague’s 13th century Alt-neu Shul
Maharal once prayed, one of my boys – when we left – was shocked to see a
line of people waiting to get in.
“This is better than the fast pass in
Disneyland,” he quipped, referring to a special ticket at the amusement
that lets you cut in front of everybody else waiting in line for one of
rides. Not only did we not have to stand in line to visit the
were part of the attraction – veritable buccaneers in Disneyland’s
When we went on a more organized tour of the city’s
Jewish sites the following day, that same son expressed amazement that
people – not necessarily Jews, but regular folk – were actually paying
into synagogues to look at Torah breastplates on display behind glass,
walk past ancient Jewish graves inscribed in Hebrew that they could not
Indeed, observing non-Jews taking in the Jewish sites is among the
most interesting, and often most stirring, aspects of visiting these
For instance, what is most moving about the Holocaust Museum in
Washington are not the exhibits themselves – we have similar displays in
Vashem – but rather watching and considering the significance of busload
busload of non-Jewish visitors marching through the museum to hear our
In Prague, it felt oddly satisfying seeing non-Jews interested in
the Jewish sites, even though those same sites – because of the tragic
they bespoke – left me disheartened.
And those sites were most assuredly
genuine – not faux props to attract tourists. I know, because when I
half empty Altneu shul on Shabbat morning to daven, and went to sit on
the rickety wooden benches toward the back, some man hurried over and
that I couldn’t sit there. I guess it was someone else’s permanent seat,
that man never showed up.
But that simple act of the gabai reinforced my
original sentiment about not really needing to travel abroad for Jewish
since there is always plenty of what he served up back at home.