Commentary Magazine

Counting Jews

In the summer of 1828, Richard Lander, an English manservant turned explorer, returned to London from Africa bringing back the first definitive report on the course of the Niger. Upon his arrival, he was “met in the streets by a Jew who ran forth and cordially embraced me, asking how I had left our Hebrew brethren in Jerusalem. The fellow, by my beard and singular appearance, had taken it into his head that I belonged to his own fraternity and just returned from visiting the holy city, but being convinced of his ludicrous mistake, my affectionate would-be brother sneaked off without further palavering.” Thus Lander, in his serene and lofty contempt unaware that he was brushing aside, with his questioner, a tradition then already 2,500 years old.

Since the 6th century B.C.E., when Nebuchadnezzar’s transport of Judean prisoners had established the first Diaspora in Babylon, Jews have been inquiring after one another. The steady interchange of messengers, goods, and learning that followed between Babylon and Jerusalem was only the beginning of a persistent tradition of which Lander’s questioner was a classic representative. Emblematic of the hope and interest with which Jews have looked upon the traveler is the transformation of Elijah from the severe and often heartless prophet of the Scriptures into his more widely cherished folk character. The folk Elijah is not only the harbinger of the Messiah; he appears also from time to time to redress wrongs, to reward the righteous, and to comfort the injured. One of the most delicious elements of these folk tales is that he first appears as the travel-stained wanderer who then requites the charity of the humble—a woodcutter or a fisherman—with miracles and wonders. So long as the mores of Jewish life in Eastern Europe remained intact, the messenger, the visitor, the guest, continued to occupy a place of honor. A visitor to a synagogue was complimented with a place at the reading desk, and the stranger who arrived in a synagogue on a Friday afternoon was addressed ceremoniously with the Hebrew word for guest, while the householders vied for the honor of being his host. The householders were, of course, performing a prescribed meritorious act; but they were also satisfying an insatiable interest in the fate of Jews wherever they might be, however unrelated to themselves. Since the first Diaspora, Jews have never shaken off the sense of one people—one people dispersed, but nonetheless to be accounted for. The traveler, then, was always being asked to give an account not only of himself but of whatever Jews he had met on the way.

Travel has been, as we know, a constant, if not always voluntary feature of Jewish life. And the voluntary voyages were generally either business trips or pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Until recent times, few merchants of whatever religion could safely consign a shipload of goods to foreign ports without accompanying it personally. Merchants, however, tend to confine their observations to their ledgers, leaving us, thereby, the poorer. Those who could afford to choose their time, like Judah Halevi, would leave a pilgrimage to the end of their lives and their letters, like his poems, are ecstatic accounts of the happy realization of their desires. But Christians also made pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Christian merchants also accompanied their bales of goods across the world and into hazardous adventures in search of markets and profits. The Jewish travelers share the characteristics of their fellow Europeans; they write little of themselves, but largely of what they have seen; they comment copiously on God’s mercy which delivers them from storms and misadventures with men and beasts, and they are as eager to relate marvels as they are to tell the number of days for the journey between Aleppo and Baghdad. Jews did one other thing. They counted Jews.

In every age, whether merchant, pilgrim, or adventurer, the Jewish traveler includes his litany of numbers, a habit which cannot be understood on grounds of utility alone. Or, at least, it can only partially be understood in that way. As traders during much of their history in Europe, Jews found such news indispensable. But Jews who never hoped to trade more than a few yards of cloth in the next village inquired as eagerly after conditions in Syria as the merchant planning his next cargo. In the 10th century, when Hasdai Ibn Shaprut was physician and vizier to the Caliph of Cordova, no problem interested him more, and he questioned every embassy arriving at the court of his master for fresh information. When he discovered that there was a kingdom of Jews ruled by a Jewish king on the shores of the Black Sea—the land of the Khazars—he arranged to send a letter through an elaborate chain of envoys to this king. In it, after the usual opening compliments, he soon comes to the point: “Let not my Lord take it ill, I pray, that I enquire about the number of his forces (may the Lord add unto them . . .)! My Lord sees that I enquire about this with no other object than that I may rejoice when I hear of the increase of the holy people.”

An illustrious Italian rabbi of the 15th century, Obadiah da Bertinoro, is no different. Writing a letter to his father about a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he interweaves his pious reflections at every stage with the refrain of: “Palermo is the chief town of Sicily, and contains about 850 Jewish families. . . . Messina is not so large as Palermo, neither has it such good springs. . . . There are about 400 Jewish families. . . . Not many Jews have remained in Rhodes; altogether there are twenty-two families, all poor, who subsist with difficulty on vegetables.”



Only a handful of the narratives of the early Jewish travelers survive, and their motives are often as mysterious as themselves. When Leopold Zunz, the German-Jewish theologian, made a laborious study of Jewish travelers in 1841, he was able to find only 140 from biblical times to his own day who had left even “traces” of geographical studies. The most justly famous of these is Benjamin ben Jonah of Tudela who set out from his native city in Spain in 1160, traveled to Asia Minor, India, possibly to China, and returned home via Arabia thirteen years later to write some hundred pages of laconic, businesslike prose. “Two days to Melfi in Apulia, the Pul of Scripture, with about two hundred Jews of which R. Achima’ats, R. Nathan, and R. Tsadok are the principal. One day’s journey to Ascoli, the principal of the forty Jews who live there are: R. Kontilo, R. Tsemach his son-in-law, and R. Joseph. . . .”

There are few who would read Benjamin today for amusement, although he intersperses his jogging prose from time to time with descriptions of towns and people, or with legends and accounts of local belief. Whatever his literary merit, or lack of it, his dry, sparse sentences have yielded unintended riches to specialists since his is one of the rare surviving accounts of the medieval world. Although Benjamin is the first Westerner to report on China, it seems doubtful that he ever actually got there, or even past Baghdad. In this Benjamin betrays himself by his own scrupulous recording of the names of the principal Jewish householders wherever he stops. These lists cease after his account of Baghdad, and thereafter he seems to rely on hearsay. But the fact that it is contemporary hearsay has its own historical interest. Archeologists have profited most from his account. His report that the remains of Nineveh lay across the river from Mosul, for instance, was a valuable hint to 19th-century excavators who found there only overgrown grass mounds. In sifting Benjamin’s text the geographer learns what the world looked like in the 12th century, the anthropologist the customs of the peoples of Mesopotamia, the historian what Western Europeans knew or believed of other nations. Of Russia, for example, Benjamin writes, “The country is very mountainous and full of forests. . . . In winter the cold is so intense that nobody ventures to leave his house in consequence of it; so far the kingdom of Russia.” And since he visited and inquired after Jewish communities with such care, we can catch a glimpse of how Jews lived in Europe and Asia Minor in the 12th century. Invariably, his words of praise are “learned,” “wise,” “pious.” He lists seven cities of Germany with the comment, “all these cities contain many rich and learned Jews.” He praises Paris because “it contains many learned men, the equal of which are to be met with at present nowhere on earth; they employ all their time upon the study of the law, are hospitable to travelers, and on friendly terms with all their Jewish brethren.” From all this prodigious account, however, Benjamin himself is missing and we see him, and for centuries those who come after him, only in stylized postures of prayer or thanksgiving.

Ultimately the traveler sees and brings back what his compatriots want to hear. Jews, too, have wanted to hear different things in different times. The taste for miracles is a fluctuating one, but in these early travels, business affairs and religious history, the marvelous and the literal, are inextricably joined. The account of Rabbi Pethachiah of Regensburg, who made a journey to the Middle East at the end of the 12th century, begins very properly with his purpose: “And Rabbi Pethachiah went round all the countries as far as the river Sambatyon, and all the news and all the wonderful things of the Holy One, praised be He, which he saw or heard, he wrote down as a memorial to tell it to his people, the house of Israel, thus to bring hidden things to light.” The difficulty here is that the river Sambatyon is a mythical river beyond which the Ten Lost Tribes are presumed to have been banished. According to legend its sacred nature is shown by the fact that it runs swiftly for six days, but ceases to flow on the Sabbath. (The only dissenting voice, from Pliny to the Talmud, is that of Josephus who, with his talent for perversity, has the schedule reversed! According to him, the river runs on the Sabbath and rests on the other six days.) When Pethachiah reaches Baghdad, where he visits the tomb of Ezekiel, he is told that he is forty days’ journey from the river Sambatyon. Real camels traveling in real time (or is forty a mystical number?) will take him to a magical river. Unfortunately he decides not to make the journey.



Rabbi Pethachiah represents a strand in Jewish travel writing that is as persistent as that of the counters, a strand in which the holy and the temporal, the miraculous and the mundane, are indistinguishable. The very antiquity of Jewish history has done much to blur the boundaries of actuality, confusing and combining legend and history into one whole. In reporting the physical relics of this past, the travelers were establishing a continuity as tangible as the numbers they inquired after so tirelessly. The graves of the innumerable learned whose words are studied daily, the monuments of ancient kings whose names reappear rhythmically in the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah, all reaffirm the indissoluble unity of Jewish history with contemporary Jewish life. To a man who reads the Mishnah every day, Judah the Prince (the compiler of the Mishnah in the 2nd century) is as vivid as his neighbor in the synagogue. A visit to Judah’s grave is not an abstract act of piety; it is the incorporation of the past into the living present.

The element of the miraculous is no less important than tangible manuscripts and gravestones. It gives license to that sense of wonder that Jews feel about their past, so that in early travel accounts the physical and visible elements of the past shade imperceptibly into the marvelous. A 13th-century rabbi on a mission from Paris to the Holy Land writes: “About three parasangs from Hebron is the stone upon which Abraham sat after he had been circumcised, and people take dust from this stone to heal circumcision.” Or later, “Four parasangs from Al-Kufa is the place where Noah entered the Ark. . . .” In the 14th-century a Spanish Kabbalist, Isaac ben Chelo, visits the town of Ethain outside Jerusalem. “One of the keepers told me,” he writes, “that every year on the day of the giving of the Law, a voice is heard coming out of the Holy Ark which says, ‘Study the Law, O sons of Israel. . . .’ This is the voice of Rabbi Simeon who comes back every year into his synagogue.”

Yet even these reporters do not neglect the living reality that they find amid these evidences of the past. Pethachiah tells us that Rabbi Judah’s descendant keeps a stall in the market, that in Shushan there are two Jews who are dyers, and eight hundred Jews at Nisibis. Isaac Chelo draws up a list of the occupations of the members of the “holy congregation” in Jerusalem.

The archeologists, those modern pilgrims into the past, perform much the same emotional function for the layman as these old travelers. When they discover the copper mines of Solomon at Ezion Geber, his stables at Megiddo, or the wine jug of Jehoiakin, the exiled king of Judah at Babylon, with his name on the seal, they too are establishing a sense of immediacy with the past. In the same way that the Jews of the Middle Ages visited the graves of Abraham or Ezra, modern Jews visit the archeological museums of Israel and experience essentially the same emotion in a new key. With the blessing of science, these artifacts reaffirm as they did for Pethachiah that unbroken bond with remote, but still looming, ancestors. Our investigations are different; the talismans remain the same.



In one surprising episode in the 17th century, this blending of the miraculous with the real, the past with the present, emerged from the dreaming world of the ghetto to have powerful political consequences. In 1644 Antonius Montezinos, a Portuguese Marrano, returned from the New World with a remarkable tale. He appeared before Manasseh ben Israel, the head of the Portuguese-Jewish community at Amsterdam, and other elders to make a sworn statement of his experiences. When he had been in the neighborhood of Quito two and a half years earlier, he had met a people who lived in a remote fastness beyond a river that no one was permitted to cross. They had convinced him that they were Hebrews. Two of the men had recited in Hebrew the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one God. . . .” They also told him, “Our fathers are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Israel,” and that they were of the tribe of Reuben, one of the Ten Lost Tribes. Montezinos himself, poor wretch, went back to South America six months later and died shortly thereafter.

Manasseh let the statement lie neglected for several years until he became engaged in a scheme to urge the readmission of Jews to England, and then Montezinos’s account suddenly fitted into an elaborate theological argument. In 1650 he published a pamphlet called Hope of Israel showing that the redemption of the Jews and the coming of the Messiah were at hand. Since the prophets foretold the end of days when the Jews would be scattered to the four quarters of the earth, he argued that Montezinos’s discovery demonstrated the completion of this prophecy. The English Millenarians took up this idea enthusiastically and, in late 1655, Manasseh arrived in England to attend a special conference on the readmission of the Jews. The prospect of large-scale Jewish immigration, however, frightened the soberer elements among the English Puritans, and when the debate began to turn against the Jews, Cromwell adjourned the conference, leaving the question unresolved. In the two years that remained to him, Cromwell, who had been more interested in the commercial than the theological consequences of readmission, managed only to assure the safety of the handful of Marrano families already in England. The excitement occasioned by Manasseh’s interpretation of Montezinos’s story subsided almost immediately, and it was not until 1664 that Jews were officially admitted to England.

The search for the Ten Lost Tribes was another aspect of the past that, like the river Sambatyon, bewitched those in the present. As late as the 19th century, a Hungarian Jew named Israel Joseph renamed himself Benjamin II, and departed for a trip to Asia and Africa. He was impelled to this, he wrote, not only by his passion for geography, but above all by his hope to discover the Ten Lost Tribes. Benjamin II is among the last of the visionaries, and his account of his travels which take him as far as Canton is a curious mixture of references to the Scriptures, pious exclamations, and sober ethnographical descriptions of the life cycles of Jews in Morocco, Syria, Persia, and elsewhere across the Middle East. In a second trip, which he made to America between 1859 and 1862, he does not mention the Lost Tribes, but in a more scientific vein promises to write nothing less than the “history of the Jews in this land of political and religious freedom.” His results, published in two volumes, are indeed the first complete description of the Jewish communities across the continent.



As we move into modern times, the utility of both travel itself and of travel accounts becomes more evident. Travelers are, themselves, emissaries to the communities they are visiting as well as reporters to their own. Until World War II the figures of messengers from Palestine collecting money for educational institutions, for orphanages, for resettlement or retraining schemes were familiar all across Europe and America. Beggars though they may have been, they carried with them the aura of Elijah; the visitor from the Holy Land had a moral authority wherever he was received. The representative of a school took the occasion to lecture givers on the way they were educating their children; those collecting for land settlement reminded listeners of their Messianic hopes; fund-raisers for old-age homes spoke sternly of the commandment to honor one’s parents. These were mutually purifying events.

Something important was accomplished by the traveler who went abroad and counted synagogues, people, houses, wealth. He helped his readers to reach out and touch one another in a menacing world. His reports assured them that neither good fortune nor ill is exceptional or lasting. He reminded them of the varieies and possibilities of life. When the great Jewish Encyclopedia was published in 1901 one of its most delightful features was the sprinkling of stiff photographs and engravings through its volumes showing “Jews of K’ai-Fung Foo, China,” “Jews of Tunisia in Native Costume,” “Jewess of Samarcand,” “Turkish Jews of the 16th Century,” or even “Samaritans.” However distant and different in time, in dress, and in belief, they were all included in one people.

Today we are uneasily aware of the trivialization of travel. Travelers’ accounts dwell more heavily on where they stayed and what they bought than on what they saw; the counting is left to the experts, and for good reason. In the last decades counting has been a somber task. As if in remembrance of the consequences of the old Davidic census, it has been done in fear, numbering the fallen, the saving remnant, the defenders of outposts. The gruesome counting of those who had perished during World War II was succeeded for years by columns of names in Jewish periodicals of survivors seeking relatives and friends. In Israel they count themselves and those around them. Those who come out of Russia still count in the old way: how many newspapers are published, how many synagogues are open, how many Jews left in the last year, what is the natural increase of the community? It may be that when Jews stop counting and begin to behave like ordinary travelers, telling us what they ate and drank, and whether they enjoyed themselves, they are also telling us something about Jews in the modern era. If the world is becoming just one large marketplace, with or without Muzak, perhaps it is not so menacing to Jews after all; and we can see in triviality, alas, the symbol of safety.



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