Past Perfect: Traveling

Traveling is a Jewish trait. Statistics show that Israelis travel more than do most others in the Western world.

Traveling is a Jewish trait. Statistics show that Israelis travel more than do most others in the Western world. Jews have always been wanderers since our earliest days, even from the time of our earliest ancestors. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, the generation of the desert that left Egypt, all were travelers. Needless to say, after the destruction of the First Temple and more intensely after the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews scattered to the four winds. In our time there are few places on the globe that have not witnessed some sort of Jewish settlement at one time in their existence. I am told by those in the travel industry that Jews are very devoted travelers far disproportionate to their actual numbers. It seems that there is a gene of wanderlust embedded in our bodies. The appellation "the wandering Jew" foisted upon us derogatorily by a hostile world contains a grain of truth to it. Jews truly seek to wander, though they long for comfort and security on their journeys. Part of this motivation for travel is the inborn Jewish restlessness, drive and curiosity about God's world and its nature and secrets. It also had a degree of economic creativity to it. Jews engaged in globalization economics long before our time. Economics and commerce played a strong role in the dispersion of the Jewish Diaspora. A 12th-century London merchant ruefully remarked: "As long as Solomon of Jerusalem has a cousin Isaac in Baghdad, there will be salt in London." And so it really was. In the Middle Ages when there were no passports and very little border controls, Jews traveled rather easily over the entire world. The great inveterate traveler Benjamin of Tudela left a record of his travels throughout the Mediterranean area in the period of the high Middle Ages. He described the Jewish communities of Spain, Provence and the Levant in a vivid and colorful fashion. Jews usually traveled in groups for self-protection from robbers and hateful people of other faiths. Both Rambam and Rabbi Judah Halevi left for us (Rambam in prose and Halevi in matchless verse) records of their sea and land voyages to the Land of Israel. The perils of hostile humans and nature were always present on such voyages. Nevertheless, be it wanderlust, love of the Land of Israel and the overwhelming desire to see it and live there, or commercial benefits, Jews traveled regularly and extensively in that period. It was during this time that the Jews migrated from France, Germany and Central Europe to Poland and Lithuania, as well as to Hungary. For some reason the Jews called Hungary "the land of Canaan" during the Middle Ages. Most of these migrations were for commercial reasons or to escape pogroms and persecution. But Jews always had their bags packed and were willing to go to somewhere new and untried. To them the unknown devil was always more desirable than the known one. Jews almost always found their new locations hospitable at the onset of their settlement there. The Polish kings welcomed the Jews and granted them rights and even a great deal of autonomy. Rabbi Meir Simha Cohen in his great commentary to the Torah Meshech Hochma points out that the first few centuries of Jewish settlement in a new area were usually progressive and relatively tranquil. Only when the Jews really felt very comfortable in their new surroundings did the troubles begin. After the exile of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Spanish Jews scattered over the entire Mediterranean basin. Some of them even journeyed to Germany and Eastern Europe and there they became Ashkenazim. Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein the author of the famous Torah commentary Torah Temima notes that his Lithuanian family was really of Spanish origin. The original family name was Benviniste, but when the exiled family traveled to Germany and settled in the city of Ebstein for a number of years before continuing on their way to Lithuania the name of the family was changed to Epstein. He asserts that any Epstein who is a Levite is in origin a Sephardi from Spain. The 20th century saw the mass migration of millions of Jews to North America and to the Land of Israel. We all hope that now our forced and coerced moving days are at an end and that our constant traveling bug is restricted only to leisure and commercial wanderings. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.