Travel for business, pleasure, spirituality, and occasionally escaping religious persecution has been a part of Jewish culture from lech-lecha to Passover cruises. Because, as it turns out, those who wander are not always exiled.
From the medieval ages onward, merchantry, a travel-heavy profession, has been a staple career. Jews even have their own Marco Polo, or should we say the rest of the world has their own Benjamin of Tudela–since his travels to Jewish communities in 300 cities across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa predated Marco Polo’s travels by ~100 years.
Jewish travel also left its mark on halacha, such as the concept of abbreviated prayers for travel, like a one-line substitute for all of birkat hamazon (which works great at home too).
These days, traveling while Jewish (for any occasion) is an opportunity for sacredness–whether experiencing the unity of Jewish people or elevating the act of travel through Jewish heritage, rituals, and values.
How do you travel Jewish, you might ask? Well, you’ve come to the right place.
Visit a Jewish Community
For being just 2% of the world’s population, we sure do get around. I’ve attended Shabbat services in Asuncion, Paraguay, and Buenos Aires during my Peace Corps services, Krakow, and Jerusalem (to name a few).
Visiting Jewish communities around the world is not just about being more family than stranger anywhere in the world, but also experiencing the diversity of how people “do Jewish.” From Jachnun to henna designs, I’ve brought back different Jewish tunes, recipes, customs, and liturgy into my daily life.
Dive into History
One of my all-time favorite travel stories is the time I kayaked through the world’s first Jewish ghetto in my pajamas. The location: Venice, the season: winter, the attire: not me traveling across Europe for a month with only two outfits.
Murano glass, the blue city of Chefchaouen, the downtown shops of rural Wallace, NC (population 3,315), the street where your great-grandmother grew up–all of these are threads of a greater Jewish narrative that is often hidden from plain sight. Any trip can be elevated with a quick detour into 4,000 years of Jewish heritage.
Use our Secret / Sacred Language
It turns out that you don’t need to know many Hebrew words (or any grammar) to talk to Jews around the world, as I can attest from a discussion about the Moai statues of Easter Island in a very undignified Sp-ebrew (I was a little short on sleep).
And it’s tradition! Hebrew mashup languages like Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Greek, and more have helped Jews communicate privately in public for centuries.
Travel prayers and more
Like new sewing machines and the Czar, Judaism has a blessing for travel. Tefilat ha-derech, a short paragraph drawing language from the 16th blessing of the amidah, is often available on wallet-sized laminated cards so you can always keep a prayer in your pocket.
But perhaps my favorite Jewish travel custom is the tzedakah dollar. According to one rabbinic tradition, no harm can come to someone on the way to performing a mitzvah (such as missing your flight by oversleeping). Carrying a dollar folded in a triangle (to differentiate it from your slush funds) on each leg of the trip and donating it on arrival is the perfect mini-mitzvah to start your mini-cation.
Of course, the mitzvah-making doesn’t have to stop at a dollar bill. Conscious travel–ecotourism, lowering your carbon footprint, and practices that support rather than exploit local communities are all ways to make your next journey a Jewish journey.