Out There: Jewish culture abroad? I have enough here

There are plenty of Jews and Jewish sites in J'lem; if I have limited time overseas, I won’t spend it looking for Columbus’ Jewish roots.

Rome Cartoon 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rome Cartoon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
If, through work, I am fortunate to have a couple free hours in Rome , I’ll go see the Coliseum rather than the Great Synagogue. If I’m spending a week in Slovenia with the family, hunting down the remains of an ancient shul in Maribor is not high on my to-do list. And if I happen to be in Charleston , South Carolina , visiting the historic 18th century synagogue might be what I should do, but not what I want to do – what I want to do is see the famed “Rainbow Row” of historic houses.
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 my Zionist ethos. The Jewish people, in my mind, belong in Israel, and therefore the physical manifestations of our painful sojourn in exile surely have historic context and importance; but I don’t have to break my neck to go see them.
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 for Christopher Columbus’ Jewish roots.
I mean why – living in Jerusalem – would I want to see the Jewish museum in Brussels, with its “collection of religious objects dating from the 16th century,” and “documents and books that illustrate traditional Jewish home life,” when I can see both religious artifacts and folks living a traditional Jewish home life everywhere I turn.
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 puts me 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 Museum of Natural History.
There I would pass huge dioramas of the Plains Indians hunting buffalo or gathering wild berries, with an impressive collection 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, my mind races back to those extinct Native American tribes and leaves me a bit disheartened.
And, thirdly, I generally eschew Jewish local points of interest because they are often just all so heartwrenchingly sad, such a downer – especially in Europe. If you’re on vacation, you generally don’t want to get depressed, but visiting huge synagogues that are no longer in use, or old Jewish quarters now bereft of committed, living, breathing Jews, is just plain gloomy. 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 sites in that city was a must. Moreover, the Jewish quarter – with medieval synagogues and the Jewish cemetery holding the grave of Rabbi Yehudah Loew, the Maharal – are among the most popular tourist attractions there. Going to Prague without seeing the Jewish sites is like going to Denver without seeing the Rocky Mountains.
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 where the Maharal once prayed, one of my boys – when we left – was shocked to see a long 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 park that lets you cut in front of everybody else waiting in line for one of the rides. Not only did we not have to stand in line to visit the attraction, we were part of the attraction – veritable buccaneers in Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
When we went on a more organized tour of the city’s Jewish sites the following day, that same son expressed amazement that everyday people – not necessarily Jews, but regular folk – were actually paying to walk into synagogues to look at Torah breastplates on display behind glass, and to walk past ancient Jewish graves inscribed in Hebrew that they could not read.
Indeed, observing non-Jews taking in the Jewish sites is among the most interesting, and often most stirring, aspects of visiting these sites abroad.
For instance, what is most moving about the Holocaust Museum in Washington are not the exhibits themselves – we have similar displays in Yad Vashem – but rather watching and considering the significance of busload after busload of non-Jewish visitors marching through the museum to hear our story.
In Prague, it felt oddly satisfying seeing non-Jews interested in the Jewish sites, even though those same sites – because of the tragic history they bespoke – left me disheartened.
And those sites were most assuredly genuine – not faux props to attract tourists. I know, because when I entered the half empty Altneu shul on Shabbat morning to daven, and went to sit on one of the rickety wooden benches toward the back, some man hurried over and gestured that I couldn’t sit there. I guess it was someone else’s permanent seat, though 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 culture, since there is always plenty of what he served up back at home.