On the Road to the Jewish Grand Tour

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Written by Julian Resnick and Jeremy Leigh Thursday, 04 December 2008

Julian Resnick and Jeremy Leigh discuss places which might feature on a list of must-see destinations for those making Jewish Journeys.

According to some, one should not approach death without having taken a cruise through Patagonian fjords or a slow barge down the Canal du Midi (‘Unforgettable Journeys to Take Before You Die’, Steve Watkins, Clare Jones BBC Books, 2006). Others are more ambitious, offering at least one thousand such places before the lights go out. (“1000 Places to See Before You Die”, Patricia Schultz, Workman Publishing, 2003) Heaven help us now that the world economy is in tailspin, destined to check out of this life without having first checked into the Hotel Cipriani in Venice, or made it to Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

In the spirit of our times, we will just have to make do with watching it on telly or reading a ‘travelblog’ of someone who has. Nevertheless, for the intrepid or higher earners, there remains so much to do - countless flight schedules to be co-ordinated, hotels to be researched and visas arranged if one is to make it before the final curtain comes down. I assume that inoculations and health insurance can be skipped as one nears the end of the list.

To be fair, the significance of such lists certainly lies not in the actual places mentioned – one person’s fjord is another one’s seasickness – rather in posing the intriguing question whether geography and travel have canonical authority. The idea of a ‘canon’ is usually ascribed to the field of literature, the ‘great books’ one is supposed to have read to be a whole and completed member of Western culture.

Watkins, Jones and Schultz are really doing no more than expanding on the time honoured tradition of previous generations. The late eighteenth century saw ladies and gentleman of high standing, set off on journeys of self improvement. Rooted in the optimism of the Enlightenment, these early ‘Grand Tourists’ believed that by visiting the cultural temples of the Western world (which apparently are to mostly found in Italy and France), they would gain insight and wisdom.

Some years later, in the year 1923, a Jewish representative in the Polish Senate, Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Piotrkov and Lublin made a revolutionary proposal that all Jews in the world ‘meet’ daily on the daf yomi, agreeing top study the same page of Talmud. They would endeavour to complete the entire 2711 pages of Talmud collectively, day by day, Jew by Jew, everywhere around the world. ‘A daf [page]‘, argued Shapira, ‘is the instrument of our survival in the stormy seas of today. If we cling to it faithfully all the waves of tribulation will but pass over us’. And so was born a modern expression of the Jewish canon.

You will be surprised to learn Shapira’s proposal, put forth at the First International Congress of Agudath Israel World Movement in Vienna, was accepted by many and totally ignored by everyone else. No matter how well intentioned, the declared objective of promoting Jewish unity via the Talmud was just another shot fired in the great cultural war of Jewish modernity. Yet he did succeed in posing a crucial question that is as relevant today as it was then, namely are there books that all Jews need to have read, in order to have a reasonably intelligent Jewish conversation.

This is not an easy question to answer, especially if one does not want to incur the wrath of the post modernist culture police who get squeamish about such hard and fast declarations. Personally, I am going to side step the ‘books’ debate by returning to the challenge raised by the ‘Cipriani before you die’ brigade mentioned above. Put bluntly, are there places that Jews must visit – not necessarily before they die, but at least if they can?

We share this dilemma with you as a collective answer to many a question posed over breakfast on one Jewish journey or another, ‘so where are you going to next?’ If Julian and I were more savvy business types, the answer might be, ‘so where would you like to go and we will arrange it’, but we have some way to go in that department. The answer is where should we go?

Personally, I am inclined to say to Salonika, to the mosque / synagogue (‘mosquagogue’?) of the Donmeh (those who continued to believe Shabbatei Zvi was the Messiah and like him converted to Islam), representing as it does, the challenge of dealing with failed dreams. And then to the village of Aguim in the High Atlas whose community upped and left after two thousand years with the help of a shaliach from Israel on a donkey. But that is me... What about you?

Feel free to be in touch with other JJ-ers you are in contact with and let us know your thoughts. The brochure for 2009 is closed for the moment (maybe with the addition of a December weekend to Sarajevo) but we start planning in earnest for 2010 in the next month or so.