Summer vacation: J-Tours and detours into Jewish geography
LOS ANGELES — As the end of the school year looms, Jewish geography awaits. Not the Jewish geography in which you thunderingly discover that your third cousin who lives in Milwaukee actually lives on the same block as your neighbor’s nephew.
No, this is real geography where you travel to places with Jewish history and people. In a land of cultural diversity, it’s good to know where and what our contributions have been.
With three pilgrimage holidays, travel is built into Judaism. We love travel, and as a group we are drawn to Jewish cultural tourism, looking for a little bit of ourselves wherever we go.
Perhaps the most famous Jewish tourist was Benjamin of Tudela, who in 1159 began a trip from Spain to Jerusalem and beyond, visiting Jewish communities, taking note of their size and number of scholars in his “Book of Travels.”
This summer, here in the United States, you can take your own Jewish trip, chew up a little of your own Jewish geography. Besides, Jewish life can seem so much more interesting in someone else’s town.
Your school-age children, who are studying the Colonial period or the Civil War, will always benefit from a trip to Colonial Williamsburg or Gettysburg.
Identity-wise, kids also will benefit from trips to historic Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, in Charleston, S.C., or the Gold Rush-era Pioneer Jewish Cemetery in Marysville, Calif., to learn about the roles Jews played in American life.
In our own cities and towns, signs of Jewish life may become pedestrian, even invisible, disappeared by our routines. On vacation, our eyes come alive with new signs of Jewish life in the streets, shops, even in the faces and speech patterns of fellow travelers.
Who while eating an egg in ek velt hasn’t shot a glance at someone at the next table and said to themselves, “There’s another MOT”?
Organizations in America have become more aware of Jewish cultural tourism, offering Jewish film festivals, museum shows and kosher food guides. Local Jewish papers are a great source of Jewish happenings and places to eat, as well as Jewish guides published for specific cities such as Chicago or entire states like Washington.
In several cities, including Los Angeles and New York, you can take a tour of Jewish sites. The self-guided ones are free; the others have a fee. Be sure to make arrangements ahead of time.
In Los Angeles, the Jewish Historical Society sponsors a tour of Boyle Heights. In New York, the Lower East Side Conservancy offers several of the area.
The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia offers for fifth-graders and up the “Philly J-tour,” an exploration of the “Colonial Jewish experience.” Boston has a series of self-guided Jewish Friendship Trails for walkers and some for bicyclists too that are offered online.
On the West Coast, a Jewish walking tour of Balboa Park in San Diego is available.
When we visit other cities on our family trips, sometimes we tour the synagogues. Hearing new melodies and approaches to old texts gives a fresh perspective on Jewish life.
On a trip to Berkeley, Calif., we visited a temple where the reader’s table, via adjustable plastic legs, could be lowered quickly to accommodate a reader in a wheelchair. In Chicago, while riding a packed train to Wrigley Field, we were chatted up by a rabbi who directed us to a downtown shul.
“They have the best kosher Shabbat lunch in Chicago,” he said, “and the service is not bad either.”
We attended, connected with the new nusach and the congregation’s wonderful hospitality.
How do you find a synagogue to visit?
Your car GPS isn’t going to tell you “turn here for a Jewish experience” — at least not yet. Until then, a trip to your hotel computer can turn your stay into a J-cation.
Or you can get creatively resourceful.
An extended family cruise of the Mexican Riviera gave our family an opportunity to express our Jewish identity at sea. I asked the maître d’ if the ship’s kitchen could bake special twisted bread for Friday night dinner, a challah.
“What’s that?” he asked.
Using one of the ship’s PCs, I downloaded a recipe and photo. That Shabbat, the tables where my family sat were presented with baskets of freshly baked twisted challot.
Jewish geography includes the outdoors, of course. You know: mountains, rivers, trees and their inhabitants.
Brush up on your summer camp repertoire; try a Shabbat under the stars. The outdoors will give you a chance to celebrate a day of rest together, away from the city’s bright lights, where you can peacefully see the heavens.
Since before Rabbi Benjamin’s time, Jews have been hitting the road, dealing with its uncertainties and unpredictability. So it’s not surprising that there is a traveler’s prayer for a safe journey: The Tefilat haDerech asks that “you lead us toward peace, emplace our footsteps towards peace …”
Thinking back on a family trip we took to Ellis Island, I wonder now how many great-grandparents and grandparents said the prayer and to what effect.
On that trip, walking through the exhibit in the grand hall, our kids learned that coming to America, the “goldene medina,” was a trip of uncertainty and some danger. If your papers weren’t in order, they sent you back. If you were sick, they sent you back.
Outside, on a gray day, we found a memorial display listing the names of some who entered the United States there. Inscribed on a stone wall, we found the names of my grandparents.
They traveled here without GPS and sunscreen; definitely without a meal plan. They came here as teens and twentysomethings with bags full of hope.
For many of us, this is where Jewish geography begins.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer.)