The Jewish Chronicle
Travel has always been in our DNA
IF CIRCUMSTANCES were different, I might have been writing this from a sunny balcony in Tel Aviv. Over the years, I’ve spent plenty of Yom Tovs there, along with visits to attend weddings, meet new babies and, sadly, go to funerals. Midway through this second lockdown Pesach, the days when you could jet off somewhere — anywhere — at the drop of the hat feel very distant. Some of us will have travelled overseas in the last year but none without immense disruption, from masks to testing, quarantining and the constant buzz of uncertainty.
What else could we expect? Nothing has been normal and, for those who have lost a loved one, become unemployed or battled other challenges during this period, the question of when we can next grab some sun, sand and sangria will seem trivial. As it stands, there’s a possible £5,000 fine for people caught sneaking off and we won’t know until at least next week whether foreign travel will be possible this summer. Even then, any opening may still be temporary.
The debate around getaways has pitted heartless holidaymakers against pious public health experts — just another episode in our endless culture war.
But the reality is that travel isn’t just about relaxation or adventure — not that we should be critical of wanting either — but also connection, culture and family. That’s true across the board, and certainly for members of a globally dispersed diaspora.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit five continents and have rarely felt more Jewish than when I’ve been abroad, climbing steep hills outside an obscure Spanish town because the guidebook (wrongly) spoke of an ancient synagogue, lighting shabbat candles in Chabad House in southeast Asia, or meeting one of the remaining Jews of Kochi in her shop while on honeymoon.
Wherever you go, there’s always a Jewish connection, even if it’s just that peculiar exhilaration of finding another Jew in whatever remote spot you’re in and bonding over your shared identity. Perhaps it’s because we are a wandering people, scattered across nations. The Jewish story, as recited at Seder, is one of travel across borders, of families separated by seas, and of pioneers embarking on impossible journeys to make the desert bloom or find sanctuary. If that romanticises the reality — some of our ancestors would have happily stayed put — the result is that we’re a community with a global footprint. And even as the Jewish presence in some places has dwindled, we have left traces almost everywhere we’ve been.
In the decades since foreign travel opened up, for many Jews it has often been at least partly about seeking out that Jewish story — visiting silent synagogues, traversing Jewish quarters, placing stones on long-forgotten graves — or living out the next chapter by meeting fellow Jews in obscure places and learning more about their communities.
And for diaspora Jews, it’s also been about building and maintaining a connection with Israel, from group tours to gap years, kibbutz stays to or reunions with distant or not-sodistant family.
Reading about a place is not the same as physically experiencing it. Putting your hands on the Western Wall for the first time, sweating as you reach the top of Masada at sunrise, tasting the salt of the Dead Sea; these take the notion of a Jewish homeland from political theory to meaningful reality. By the same token, driving along roads abutting the West Bank or seeing the Dome of the Rock soar alongside Judaism’s holiest site bring home the complexities of the Middle Eastern conflict.
If some trips were holidays, for me they were rarely only holidays. Like many British Jews, I grew up in a family separated by a sea. My grandparents lived on the other side of the Mediterranean and are now buried in a serene, light-dappled cemetery outside Netanya. Today, my sister-in-law and her family are living there — including a son born just pre-pandemic, who has yet to meet his British cousins for the first time.
There were 17.6 million trips overseas in 2017, up on the previous year. To members of a global family and community, Jewish or otherwise, inability to travel means more than simply a staycation. It means missed milestones and memories unmade.
If foreign travel is permissable by 17 May, it will be fitting: our borders will open as we commemorate the journey across the desert to Sinai on Shavuot.
If not, we will pin our hopes on shared Succots, Chanukahs, and so forth. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a deep loss, nor that we should feel frivolous for our innate yearning to be elsewhere.
Next year in Jerusalem, as we said. Or Tel Aviv, or Bali, or Buenos Aires. Next year.
Reading about a place is not the same as physically experiencing it with your senses’