Jewish Travel Through the Ages

November 11, 2012 4:57 am 1 comment

In an effort to study the relationship between the Hungarian language and the languages of central Asia, Arminius Vambery (pictured) disguised himself as a Muslim and joined a group of pilgrims on a journey through parts of modern Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Photo: Mihály Kovács.

Among us Jews, it’s a common saying that there’s one of us everywhere. These days, whether it’s the recently released Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier backpacking through India or South America, or those who run the Chabad house all the way in Laos, the Jewish people make their presence known in nearly every nook and cranny of the world.

Throughout history, some Jews traveled to distant parts to escape persecution, others were explorers who were curious about the culture or science of new places, and some just ended up on strange shores completely by chance.

JNS.org presents some of the quirkiest historical cases of traveling Jews.

Isaac the Jew

In as far back as 797 AD, Charlemagne, the founder of the Carolingian empire who was later crowned Holy Roman Emperor, sent a man named Isaac the Jew to the Baghdad caliph Harun al-Rashid. In 802, Isaac returned to Charlemagne’s court with an elephant as a gift to the king from the sultan.

Benjamin B. Jonah of Tudela

Sephardic Jew Benjamin B. Jonah of Tudela traveled in approximately 1160 to the Far East, about 100 years before Marco Polo. The Hebrew account of his travels, Sefer ha-Massa’ot (Book of Travels), is one of the most important accounts of the Mediterranean world and Northeast Africa. It described the Jewish community in Rome under Pope Alexander III, holy places in the land of Israel and Jerusalem, and more. It is also an important historical document outlining the lives of medieval Jews.

Luis de Torres

In the 15th century, Sephardic Jew Luis de Torres worked as an interpreter who traveled with Christopher Columbus to Cuba. Torres and his fellow men were the first Europeans to witness the use of tobacco. Like Torres, many Spanish Jews of this period had converted to Christianity to escape persecution during the Spanish inquisition. Some continued secretly keeping the Jewish faith.

Christopher Columbus?

Regarding Columbus, the most famous explorer who discovered America, scholars have recently put forth the theory that he too was a converted Jew. A British historian argued that a triangular signature of dots and letters on Columbus’s last will and testament might have been a secret substitute for the Kaddish prayer. The Hebrew letters bet-hei, meaning b’ezrat Hashem (with God’s help), have also been found on several letters Columbus wrote to his son.

Hernando Alonso

Also in the Age of Discovery, Hernando Alonso was the first Jew to be burned at the stake in North America. He was a successful colonizer who served under Hernán Cortés and officially lived as a Christian until a Dominican friar accused him of secretly observing the Jewish faith.

Simon von Geldern

In central Europe, Simon von Geldern, the great-uncle of German writer Heinrich Heine, lived in the 18th century and traveled in Europe, Africa, the Near East and the land of Israel, where he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Joseph Halevy

In the 19th century, French-Jewish explorer and scholar Joseph Halevy traveled to Africa to study a community of Ethiopian Jews. He wrote a report on his journey,Travels in Abyssinia, and afterward embarked on a new journey to Yemen, where he examined and deciphered hundreds of ancient inscriptions.

The arctic: Israel Lyons and Isaac Israel Hayes

In the 19th century, Jews were involved in several arctic expeditions. Among these, British-Jewish mathematician and botanist Israel Lyons was appointed as an astronomer on a 1773 expedition to the North Pole. Isaac Israel Hayes also directed missions to the Pole and to Greenland, and Jewish physician Emil Bessels proved that Greenland is an island.

Nathaniel Isaacs

Jewish explorers also reached Africa. Nathaniel Isaacs is considered one of the founders of Natal, a region in South Africa. His record, Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa, described Zulu customs and lives.

Arminius Vambery

Hungarian orientalist Arminius Vambery came from a poor Jewish family and was lame in one leg. This didn’t prevent him from getting an education and teaching French in the mid 19th century in Constantinople (Istanbul) to the daughter of a sultan. In an effort to study the relationship between the Hungarian language and the languages of central Asia, he disguised himself as a Muslim and joined a group of pilgrims on a journey through parts of modern Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Vambery also may have introduced Hungarian author Bram Stoker to the Dracula legend, and Vambery himself is said to have been a model for the character Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in Stoker’s famous novel.

Eduard Schnitzer

Another European Jew, Eduard Schnitzer, came from a German-Jewish family in what is now Poland and moved to the Ottoman Empire, where he worked as a doctor. He renamed himself Emin Pasha, an Ottoman name followed by the title of Pasha, which he had been accorded. Emin Pasha also spent time in Egypt, Khartoum, North Sudan, and Uganda. As a naturalist, he collected African plants but then was killed by Arab slave traders in 1892.

Alexander Salmon

Unlike the abovementioned scientists and explorers, in 1841 an English Jew named Alexander Salmon arrived in Tahiti as a simple sailor. He settled on the island and married a royal princess, eventually becoming the Tahitian queen’s secretary. He and his wife had nine children, and one of their sons later befriended Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island.

Ehrich Weisz

The son of a rabbi, Ehrich Weisz was born in 1874 in Hungary, but joined a traveling circus at the age of 9. He would grow up to become the world-famous magician Harry Houdini. Traveling with his show around the world, he was known for daring escape tricks including handcuffs, shackles, torture cells and water tanks.

Material drawn from the Jewish Virtual Library; Medieval Jewish Civilization by Norman Roth; Brown University; the Jewish Encyclopedia; CNN; The Daily Beast; Columbia University; The American Council for Judaism; Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora Volume 1; Artdaily.com; The Social and Economic Fall of the Salmon/Brander Clan of Tahiti by Claus Gossler; David d’Beth Hillel: An Unknown Jewish Traveller to the Middle East and India in the Nineteenth Century by Walter J. Fischel; Encyclopedia.com; Israel Lyons: a short but starry career: The life of an eighteenth-century Jewish botanist and astronomer by L. B. Glyn; the Jewish Exponent; Archive.org; The New York Times; Psychology Today; The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: A Twelfth-Century Jewish Description of North-East by Robert L. Hess; University of Pennsylvania; The Dervish of Windsor Castle: The Life of Arminius Vambery  by Lory Alder and Richard Dalby; Robert-louis-stevenson.org.

1 Comment

  • Does anyone have a complete name for “Isaac the Jew”?

    His explorations and involvements with natural history discoveries appear worthy of further researching and reading.

    Thank you,
    Loren Coleman, Director
    International Cryptozoology Museum
    Portland, Maine

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Theater US & Canada New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    In his new play Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv, playwright Oren Safdie tackles an issue that he has a major concern with: the relationship between Israelis and left-leaning Diaspora Jews with their “I know better” critical views. At the heart of the one-act play is Tony, a Jewish and gay Palestinian sympathizer who expresses strong anti-Israel sentiments when the play begins and at one point even sides with a Palestinian terrorist who holds his captive. Tony, who is also an [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    A Jewish comedy troupe released a parody video on Wednesday of Taylor Swift’s hit song Shake It Off in which they joke about taking extensive time off from work for Jewish holidays. “And the goyim gonna stay, stay, stay, stay, stay. And the Jews are gonna pray, pray pray, pray, pray. I’m just gonna take, take, take, take, take. I’m taking off,” goes the chorus for I’m Taking Off. Menachem Weinstein, the video’s lead singer, is the creative director at [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    JNS.org – The 75th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind” on Dec. 15 presents an opportunity to examine the Jewish influence on one of the most popular films of all time. That influence starts with the American Civil War epic’s famed producer, David O. Selznick. Adjusted for inflation, “Gone with the Wind” remains the highest-grossing movie ever made. It earned the 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture, the same honor another Selznick film, “Rebecca,” garnered in 1940. Selznick [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Music US & Canada EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    Matisyahu got candid in an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner on Monday about his religious and musical journey – after shedding his Chassidic skin, yarmulke, long beard and all – from the start of his career in 2005 when he became a reggae superstar with hits King Without a Crown and Jerusalem. The singer-songwriter embarks on his Festival of Light tour this month, an annual Hanukkah event that stops in Montreal, New York, and other cities before ending in San Juan, [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Personalities ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    JNS.org – It was an era of steel strings, guitar heroes, and storytellers—high on heroin, rebellious. Outlaw country music, the hallmark of Nashville’s powerful and angry music scene of the 1970s, was the brew of greats such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt. But there is another, little-known music hero of that era: Daniel Antopolsky. A Jewish lad from Augusta, Ga.—the son of immigrants who settled in the south and ran a hardware store on Main Street—the [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi replaced Israeli star Gal Gadot as the female lead in the new Ben-Hur remake, Hollywood.com reported on Tuesday. The Homeland actress will play Esther, a slave that Ben-Hur sets free and falls in love with. Gadot quit the movie when it became clear that filming conflicted with her schedule for the Man of Steel sequel. The Israeli actress plays Wonder Woman in the superhero film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Actor Jack Huston takes on the [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    JNS.org – There is one sentence in “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” that made me sit up in surprise. I thought that I knew the basic facts about how Israel came into being, but while describing what it was like in the days and hours before the state was declared, author Anita Shapira provides one important anecdote I was not aware of. On the 12th of May, the Zionist Executive met to decide what to do. Moshe Sharrett had just returned [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.