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 It is also an important historical document outlining the lives of medieval Jews.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 Blogs 10 New Hollywood Movies That Aim to Show Support for Israel (SATIRE)

    10 New Hollywood Movies That Aim to Show Support for Israel (SATIRE)

    Ten major film studios are currently in production on projects that promote a decidedly pro-Israeli narrative. In famously liberal Hollywood, such a development has left mouths agape and set tongues a wagging. Since the Jewish State began defending itself from the thousands of rockets that Hamas has hurled at it – as well as ongoing terror attacks and murders, the overwhelming number of Tinseltown’s producers, directors, actors, and studio moguls have remained indifferent to the plight of millions of Israeli [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Sports So Close: Israeli Judoka Loses Crown in World Cup Final, Finishes With Silver (VIDEO)

    So Close: Israeli Judoka Loses Crown in World Cup Final, Finishes With Silver (VIDEO)

    Israeli Judoka Yarden Gerbi (63kg), 25, of Netanya, on Thursday lost the final round at the Judo World Cup, and her world title to Clarisse Agbegnenou of France, at a match held in Russia. “I have mixed feelings,” Gerbi told Israeli Army radio. But, “I shouldn’t assume that I’d win the world Judo championship twice in a row,” she admitted. Gerbi won gold in Rio De Janeiro last year. “When I made my decision, I knew it was going to [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity Surviving the Holocaust by Hiding Their Faith (REVIEW)

    Surviving the Holocaust by Hiding Their Faith (REVIEW)

    “Jews Out!” was just the name of a child’s game that three little girls played in World War II Europe. But all is not as it seems because the three girls were Jewish, but hiding their true identities. In award-winning author R. D. Rosen’s riveting non-fiction work, Such Good Girls, “Jews Out!” wasn’t a game; it was a struggle for survival. The girls, Sophie, Flora, and Carla, grew up at a time and a place that did not allow them [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    JNS.org – “He was part hippie, part yippie, part beatnik, and part New Age,” wrote Elli Wohlgelernter in a Jerusalem Post eulogy in 1994, following the Oct. 20 passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Twenty years later, more robust accounts of Carlebach’s life have come to the surface. Earlier this year, Natan Ophir published the book Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission & Legacy. This past summer, Rabbi Shlomo Katz’s The Soul of Jerusalem hit the shelves. But even the authors will admit [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Music Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    As Hamas loses its grip on power in the Gaza Strip as a result of war, poverty and disillusionment, the Islamist terrorist group has developed an ingenious way to raise the moral of the 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs it was elected to serve. While currently focused on delivering a rocket into every Israeli home, Hamas has not left its own people behind. To gently wipe away the tears of children strategically placed inside kindergartens as human shields, the Hamas Interior Ministry has [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    In a strong statement that challenges the historic divide between Christianity and Judaism, Pope Francis recently proclaimed, “Inside every Christian is a Jew.” But if you look at Renaissance artworks that depict Jesus, you will not find any evidence of a Jew inside the Christianized Jesus — even though the Gospels in the New Testament tell us that Jesus was Jewish to the core. Getting that point across to the public is a daunting task, as I learned in interviews I [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities Recycling His Roots

    Recycling His Roots

    JNS.org – Having started his career playing on his family’s pots and pans, Jewish musician Billy Jonas has maintained this homemade performance ethic while spreading his messages of simple living and environmentalism to a shared home throughout the world. After beginning in the kitchen, Jonas soon moved to the music room, where he picked up the piano, guitar, and trombone. These days, the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist plays on with pretty much anything he can find, including cans, bottles buckets, and other recycled-object [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    JNS.org – Sara Davidson’s The December Project is a new book that should be read by all senior citizens, and by those who hope to live a long life, for it raises a question that most of us have not been taught how to answer: What should we do in that final stage of our lives? Many of us continue working past the traditional retirement age of 65, not because we need the money and not because we find the [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.