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 It is also an important historical document outlining the lives of medieval Jews.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...

  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater 10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    Last month, my one-man show Hoaxocaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey with the generous assistance of the Institute for Political and International Studies, Tehran ran in the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence Award. The play has now been selected to run in the Fringe Encores Series at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center, for four performances which started on Thursday, September 11. Getting the play to the stage was not easy, however. Here are [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Phenomenon: Tel Aviv-based musician and “sampler” extraordinaire, Kutiman (aka Ophir Kutiel) has hit another one out of the park with “Give It Up,” a fully-functioning song in its own right, assembled from hundreds of ameteur and instructional music videos. The Jerusalem-born musical prodigy is best know for his diverse online musical projects. In the latest video, uploaded to YouTube on Sept. 12th, Kutiel thanked most of the musicians and individuals he chose to include in the meticulously-edited clip, which opens with [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    A recently released behind-the-scenes reel of Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings shows just how far the director has gone to portray one of the Bible’s most famous narratives. In the clip, which shows scenes involving up to 4,000 extras, the visionary director discusses what drew him to the biblical tale of Moses. “The Moses story was a massive challenge, which I really love. I wanted to explore the complexity of his character and I was stunned by [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    JNS.org – Since 2006, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable and satellite TV network has hosted “The Projected Image,” a month-long showcase examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed on the big screen. At last, after previously covering African Americans, Asians, the LGBT community, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, and people with disabilities, the annual series is delving into Jewish film this month. “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” whose first segment aired Sept. 2, runs [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    The sight of young girls in pinafores and young boys wearing peyos – sidelocks – dangling over their ears is a sure sign that you have entered the enigmatic precincts of the Hasidim – the pious ones. Veteran New York Times journalist Joseph Berger’s new book, THE PIOUS ONES: The World of Hasidim and their Battles with America, takes the reader on a journey into the enclaves where various sects of Jews live a seemingly outmoded way of life in [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    JNS.org – Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle. Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics. “Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” says Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, published the year [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    JNS.org – Idan Ravin’s friends chipped in to buy him a humble but life-changing bar mitzvah gift—a basketball hoop his father attached to the roof of his garage. Little did his friends know that years later, he would be the personal trainer of National Basketball Association (NBA) stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Stephen Curry. Ravin’s new book, “The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Head of Basketball’s Best Players,” details his rise from a Jewish upbringing [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.