The Medieval Jewish Globetrotter
Tue, 08/03/2010
Staff Writer
Blue Mountain
Blue Mountain

 If he were alive today, he would spend most of his time checking plane fares on the Internet. 

A century before Marco Polo, Benjamin of Tudela was a Jewish scholar and merchant from Spain who traveled throughout most of the known world, writing about diverse Jewish communities in the context of their Christian and Muslim societies. His account, “The Book of Travels,” (Sefer ha-Masa’ot), written in Hebrew, but with many Arabic grammatical forms, is the most detailed depiction of everyday life in the Middle Ages that has come down to us. Breathtaking in scope, Benjamin’s project was so far ahead of its time that it anticipates not just contemporary debates about the nature of Jewish identity, but also overarching issues of multiculturalism, globalization and the diasporic movement of peoples throughout the world. Discovered by Renaissance scholars and translated into many European languages, Benjamin’s book became a favorite of 19th- and early 20th-century scholars, for whom travel writing was an essential part of the Romantic quest for self-expression. 

For a figure whose work has become so celebrated, it is striking how little is known about Benjamin’s background, age, education or even the motivation for his trip. Even the exact timing and length of his voyage is impossible to pin down. Of his birth, we know only that he was from the town of Tudela, which is in the northeast area of Spain, in the region of Navarre. But this is the only extant work of his, and he never tells us why he set out on his journey in the first place, whether it was for commercial advantage, religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land or out of a desire to find places where Jews could seek haven from religious persecution. 

This last possibility seems especially plausible, given that Benjamin lived at a time when the balance of power was shifting back and forth between the followers of the Crescent and those of the Cross. During the First Crusade, which took place at the end of the 11th century, the Franks had massacred Jews in France and Germany before continuing to the Holy Land, where they conquered Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks. But by the second half of the 12th century, when Benjamin began his travels, the Muslims were making a comeback, leading to a major defeat for the Christians in the Second Crusade. 

On the Iberian Peninsula the invasions of Berbers from Morocco, the Almohades, effectively ended the Golden Age, which had been marked by relatively peaceful coexistence among Jews, Christians and Muslims. But Tudela remained under Christian rule, and entrepreneurial Jews like Benjamin benefited from an expanding economy and continuing tolerance. 

There were certainly other medieval Jewish travel writers, including Eldad ha-Dani, a ninth century voyager from an “independent Jewish state” in Eastern Africa who claimed to have traced the lost tribe of Dan to Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia), and Ishtori Haparchi, a 14th-century Frenchman who, after the expulsion of the Jews from France in 1306, went to Spain and Egypt before finally settling in Palestine, where he wrote the first Hebrew book on the geography of Israel. In his five-volume study of the letters and shipping documents found in the Cairo Geniza, Shelomo Goitein found evidence of Jewish merchants traveling all over the Indian Ocean in the period from the ninth to the 13th centuries. But Benjamin’s account is the fullest and most wide-ranging of the Jewish travel writers of the Middle Ages. 

His itinerary was nothing if not ambitious. Setting out from the city of Saragossa in Spain, Benjamin traveled first to Marseilles, sailing from there to Genoa, Pisa and Rome. After visiting Greece and Constantinople, he headed for Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Persia. He then backtracked through Arabia, ending up in Egypt and North Africa. Finally, he returned home, having visited more than 300 cities and seen many extraordinary sights. 

The Jews of Cush, Benjamin wrote, worship the sun, but, because of the extreme heat in Africa, cannot go outside from Passover to Rosh HaShana; they illuminate lanterns and do all of their business at night. In addition, he wrote, “They do not bury their dead, but embalm them by means of various spices, after which they place them on chairs and cover them with fine linen. And each family has a house where it preserves the embalmed remains of its ancestors and relations.”

In each locale, Benjamin recorded not just the population of the local Jewish community, but its occupations and worship practices, as well as the relationship that Jews enjoyed with the ruling Christian or Muslim class. He found that Jews were involved in a broad range of occupations, from glass blowing in Tyre to silk weaving in Thebes to overseeing pearl fishing in the Persian Gulf. He found equally varied modes of Jewish worship, from a heretical sect in Cyprus that ushered in the Sabbath on Saturday morning to the Palestinian Jews who read the Torah on a triennial cycle (as many non-Orthodox congregations do today).

In some places, such as in Constantinople and in the Persian province of Rudbar, ruled by the Hashishim (Assassins, related to the word “hashish” because of their purported use of cannabis), he found that Jews were violently oppressed. But this was the exception to the rule. In most countries, Jews seem to have been honored members of society, such as in Rome, where a Jewish scholar was the steward of the pope’s house, and in Baghdad, where many Jews attended on the caliph, a pope-like figure whose protection extended to 10 Jewish academies and 28 synagogues. Jews also possessed considerable wealth, from those that lived in seclusion in the rugged mountains of the Amalfi coast, to the wealthy, well fed Jews of Cairo, who fished in the Nile and enjoyed the fruits and vegetables that grew in the verdant river valley.

How reliable is Benjamin’s account? Scholars have questioned many aspects of his narrative, with some charging that he inflated the numbers of Jews and exaggerated their accomplishments. While he is the first to mention China by its present name — he may, in fact, have invented the name — he did not make clear that his descriptions of China and Tibet were not based on personal experience, since he never reached these countries. This makes some historians, including Benjamin Gampel, who teaches medieval Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wonder “how much of Benjamin’s narrative is his own, and how much is made up of stock stories taken from other sources.”

James Ross is a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of “Fragile Branches: Travels through the Jewish Diaspora” (Riverhead, 2000), based on his study of far-flung Jewish communities in Uganda, India, Brazil and Peru. He questions, as any good ethnographer would, how much Benjamin helped to shape the very phenomena that he described. In examining Jewish communities that are outside the mainstream of Jewish life, Ross found not only that his perceptions were shaped by his own background and language skills, but that his very presence had an effect on the communities that he was studying. “They performed some of their rituals for my benefit,” Ross recalled. 

Nevertheless, Benjamin’s legacy, like his travels, is wide-ranging. The modern field of diaspora studies often takes the Jewish experience as paradigmatic for the way in which economic, political and religious forces scatter the members of a particular ethnic group all across the globe. As our societies become increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan, Benjamin’s experience becomes ever more pertinent and valuable. Little wonder that he has inspired everything from major works of literature — Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim’s 1878 novel, “The Travels of Benjamin III” and Yehuda Amichai’s mid-1970s volume of poetry, “Travels of a Latter-Day Benjamin of Tudela — to a mid-1980s Upper West Side glatt kosher restaurant, Benjamin of Tudela (with an Irish Polish Roman Catholic chef named Mark Cummings), that helped to expand the very notion of gourmet, international kosher dining. 

Following very much in Benjamin’s footsteps is Peter Geffen, the director of Kivunim, a “gap year” program in Israel that gives recent high school graduates from North America the opportunity to visit 10 different Jewish communities — in Greece, Bulgaria, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and India — to learn firsthand about the varieties of Jewish life throughout the world. By keeping journals, taking photographs and shooting videos, the students preserve their impressions of Jewish life in each country. An exhibit of their photographs, with an accompanying book, ran this past April at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.

His students, Geffen notes, “see exactly what Tudela saw — that Jews dress in every costume, sing in every musical mode, build in every architecture and adopt or adapt every custom.” While Geffen is pessimistic that most of these communities will survive more than another generation, given the pressures of assimilation and the pull of aliyah to Israel, he sees it as imperative that these cultures be preserved. According to Geffen, “Our truest, most fulfilled nature is when we see ourselves in light of the ingredients that is the stew that is the Jew.” Benjamin of Tudela would be proud.

Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College (Carlisle, PA), where he directs the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life. He is the author of “In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture” (Rutgers, 2006). He is currently finishing a book on the history of the New York Jewish delicatessen. For the last ten years, he has served as theatre critic for The Jewish Week.