Jews and Journeys
Travel and the Performance of Jewish Identity
Series: Jewish Culture and Contexts
- ISBN: 9780812252958
- Published By: University of Pennsylvania Press
- Published: August 2021
In recent years the field of Jewish studies has seen major attempts to approach Jewish history in transnational perspective, to pay attention to mobility, and to recognize that national borders have often obscured, rather than defined, localized variations of Jewishness. Jews and Journeys: Travel and the Performance of Jewish Identity, an essay collection edited by Joshua Levinson and Orit Bashkin, is a welcome addition to those efforts. It centers travel and movement within the historical experiences of Jews. It theorizes that travel narratives have much to tell us about the ways that Jewishness has been performed. “In one way or another,” co-editor Levinson explains in his opening chapter, “travel narratives are about the construction and representation of identity” (9). This is an intriguing gambit, ripe for exploration, especially in a Jewish context. The long experience of diaspora, the ever-present possibility of displacement, the internationalism of Jewish community life—all this centered mobility as a key dynamic of the historic Jewish experience.
The written word is the site of the “performances” of Jewish identity under consideration here. This volume focuses on identity as performed through the writings of Jews, and the writings of non-Jews who wrote about their encounters with Jews and Judaism. The kinds of writing analyzed in this collection range from the literary to the historical, from biblical studies to memoirs. The breadth of genres included offer a healthy reminder of the many different forms that expression of identity in writing can take. I especially appreciated the inclusion of chapters on contemporary media, such as museum guest books and maps, alongside more narrative genres commonly assumed to be literature and literary.
Fifteen chapters are divided into five thematic sections, arranged broadly chronologically. Each section is prefaced with an introduction by one of the co-editors that helpfully theorizes the genres of travel writing engaged by the authors, and the ways that they investigate questions of Jewish identity. The first section probes the concept of travel writing itself, particularly in relation to Jews and Judaism. The second section addresses accounts of migration and travel in biblical literature. The third explores Orientalism in travel writing by and about Jews. The fourth section addresses dynamics of otherness in travel writings between Jews, and among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the medieval and early modern periods. The final section pays attention to representations of travel and Jewishness in maps, films, tourism, and paintings in the early modern and modern periods.
The introductory essays and various contributions to this volume extensively theorize the nature and genres of travel writing. They also encourage us to expand our understanding of who travels and why. Miriam Frenkel’s chapter on “Travel and Poverty,” focusing on writings by and about abandoned wives, captives, and itinerant paupers, is particularly notable here. Less attention, however, is paid to “Jewish identity” as an analytical construct. This is a shame. There has a been an extensive conversation, particularly in the social sciences, about the historical genealogy of “identity” and its limitations as a metric for understanding Jewishness. It would have been productive to engage some of it here.
Perhaps, though, the readers who have most to gain from this volume are not those whose scholarly work is rooted in questions of Jews and their identities, but those who might benefit from, to paraphrase the title of a 2002 book by historian of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, “taking Judaism, for example.” If travel narratives often suffer from Christian Eurocentrism, then Jewish travel narratives can offer a helpful corrective. Jews are, after all, the paradigmatic outsider-insiders. Jewish identity has always been transnational, even while Jews have also adopted the vernaculars, cultural frameworks, and preoccupations of the territories in which they have lived. This is not to say that Jews have not also been guilty of Eurocentric and Oriental biases. How Jews portray other Jews in their travel writings, as Orit Bashkin reminds us in her Introduction to Part 2 in this volume, has much to tell us about questions of power among and between among Jews, and particularly about Jewish Orientalism within Jewish communities (93). But Jews have also been just as likely to have been the subjects of Eurocentric and Orientalist travel accounts as the authors of them, and numerous chapters, particularly in sections 2-3 of this volume, highlight this in detail. By taking Judaism as an example of travel writing, scholars across a range of disciplines and subject areas might benefit from a case study that highlights the diverse, the comparative, the layered, and the complex.
Laura Yares is assistant professor of religious studies at Michigan State University.Laura YaresDate Of Review:August 5, 2022