Interview: The Wandering Jew travels the world for stories, Ben Harris of Jewish Telegraphic Agency, by Peter Menkin
by Peter Menkin 11/13/2009 / Relationships
An American journalist named Ben Harris, who works for Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), is traveling the world in search of stories about Jews in their various communities. He says in his blog how unique this assignment has been.The blog has all the reports on his work as the "Wandering Jew,".
This lively interview with the Wandering Jew, American Journalist, Ben Harris, about his travels and traveling, was done mostly by email, with two conversations via webcam on Skype. When this writer spoke to him off the record for background, he was in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency offices in New York City, but the reported interview via email comes mostly while he was abroad.
He reports in his blog about getting the assignment:
"Imagine this: Your boss calls you up one day. He tells you he wants to send you on a trip of many months, pretty much anywhere you want to go to write about ... well, pretty much anything you want to write about. You will be blogging, making videos, Twittering, and writing that old standby, the feature story. Starting now, he says, you are to spend your days scrounging up great stories of Jewish life and dreaming up interesting ways to report them around the world. Amazing, right?
"That's more or less the genesis of The Wandering Jew, a new JTA project that will take me across Europe and North America in the coming months, searching out stories that illuminate the many ways people express themselves Jewishly. Along the way, we'll hopefully shed some light on some larger themes of Jewish life in these early years of the 21st century."
How do you pack for this trip of yours?
Nothing special on the packing really, though I probably travel less lightly than I should. I have a wheeling Victorinox suitcase, a NorthFace backpack with all the fragile items -- laptop and cameras mostly -- and a tripod in a third bag. I can manage alright with everything, but I'm not exactly light on my feet.
I generally manage on my own. Backpack on one shoulder, tripod on the other, and the suitcase trailing behind. Again, if you're looking for tips on light travel, I'm not your guy. I have waaaay too much stuff.
Have you anyone to help you carry all that stuff? Where do you usually stay, by the way? Hotels? Will you tell us the names of one or two that you recall, and how about the food?
I normally stay in hotels, but Europe is expensive, so I have had to get creative. The Pfefferrebet hostel in Berlin was clean and adequate, though not cheap for a hostel. I paid 59 Euros for a private room. It was also a little noisy, and I need quiet to work and sleep. So I upgraded to the Hotel Amano, a very stylish place, and about 25 more Euros a night. The room was tiny and the heat didn't work. Berlin was not great on accommodations.
In Warsaw, though, I stayed at an exquisite hotel. The hotels are relatively inexpensive here, even the nice ones, so I treated myself a bit. The room was gorgeous, staff incredibly helpful, though the Internet was a bit pricy, which was an issue for me. But I would highly recommend the place -- the Hotel Rialto.
Food wise, it has varied. I sampled kosher Hungarian ghoulash in Budapest and kosher Wienerschitzel in Vienna. But this part of the world is meat and potatoes country, and frankly it gets old kind of fast, especially not being a meat eater. I found a lovely vegetarian restaurant a few blocks from my hotel in Warsaw and I've been there three times already.
Any special tips to travelers who want to know about packing and carrying? You are now a professional traveler.
My best tip is bring an inexpensive laptop and familiarize yourself with the crucial travel sites. I have no idea how I could have pulled this off without web access -- every city I visited, I read the reviews, checked the maps, made hotel and flight reservations, networked with people over Facebook and Twitter, searched recommendations for food, and on and on.
Here's a good story for you. In Mexico, I was in Zacatecas visiting friends for the weekend and wanted to visit Guadalajara to be with the Jewish community there for Yom Kippur. But communities in Mexico are very closed -- you can't just show up. And we tried to get in touch with people there and were having trouble. Then out of the blue I get a message on Twitter from someone who was following my trip, just asking if I was planning to come to Guadalajara. I responded immediately that not only did we want to come, but we couldn't find anyone there to host us. Turns out, the guy who Tweeted me was the rabbi of one of the two synagogues there. He invited us for dinner before the fast and generally hooked us up with everyone we needed to see. Was amazing.
Most of my movement around Europe has been by air, though I have taken some trains mostly for shorter hops. I have a lot of equipment with me. I have a Sony HD video camera, a wireless lav mic, a Samson USB mic (for voiceovers mostly), a heavy duty tripod, various electrical adaptors and connectors, and my MacBook pro for writing and editing video. All my work is done on the laptop, and for interviews I either write, record, or take notes right into the computer -- and sometimes a combination. Depends on the circumstances really. Recording tends to be the worst option because of the time required to then go back and transcribe the interviews.
How did you hook up with this assignment?
How long will you be gone, and will you do it again? Or don't you know, yet?
I really have my editors to thank. The trip is being financed by grants that we have received for a number of different types of coverage. I don't have to worry about it.
The Europe stretch is about six weeks. Before that I was in Mexico for 10 days and in Nevada for a week. When I return before Thanksgiving, I will be setting off again a few days later for about 2.5 weeks in the American South -- Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas and possibly some others are on the schedule. I would love to keep doing this. It's exhausting, physically and mentally, but the opportunity to travel and meet incredible people is really to good to pass up. If JTA is willing to keep me on the road, I'm happy to keep at it.
(Just at the beginning of November, 2009 Ben Harris reported on how things were going with his stories and travels. He has some ups and downs:
"One after another, the stories I intended to pursue have fallen through, or wound up not being stories at all. After three weeks on the road, I have to admit the possibility that it's me -- too little sleep, too many nights in strange hotel rooms, a certain fatigue beginning to set in. And I know it's dangerous, if not lazy, to traffic in crude stereotypes. But after weeks in which I've barely seen the sun (except for the few hours I spent in transit above the clouds), it's hard to resist.")
Who is your favorite person you've met, or most memorable, so far?
Tell us something of the character of the European Jew, as contrasted with the American. If you want to do so.
I'm reluctant to name favorites, but given Europe's difficult Jewish history, there is no shortage of amazing stories. In Germany, I met an Orthodox rabbi who was born to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father in Budapest. Intermarriage and kids with difficult, or even unknown, Jewish identities is extremely common in Europe because of the Holocaust and decades of Communist oppression. But this guy had an amazing story of discovering his roots, and today is helping to rebuild Jewish life in Germany. I could share some more details about him if you're interested.
Please do tell us more. This is interesting, to learn about the Jewish community of Europe "growing" and "growing up."
I've also come across a lot of American Jews who have, for various reasons, left the relative comforts of Jewish life in the United States behind and dedicated themselves to helping Jews, particularly in Eastern Europe (my travels have been entirely in central and Eastern Europe so far -- I'm heading west this week), rediscover their identities. Their selflessness has been quite inspiring.
In Budapest, I met a group of young Jews who had opened a bar/event space as a sort of hangout for young Jews and as a way to participate in the wider Hungarian discussion. Hungary is unique in this part of Europe because its Jewish community is so large. Most were totally wiped out during World War II. But a sizeable number of Hungarian Jews remain -- estimates are around 100,000. These kids couldn't get the permit to open the bar, so they essentially occupied the place. They are squatters, three years later. And the place is a huge success. There's a video about them on the blog.
(Hungary is a special situation, for a recent JTA story reports on how few Jews live there. They hope to bolster its Jewish population through immigration. Ben Harris says in one report about his visit to Hungary:
"The offices of the Haver Foundation occupy one room of an apartment on the third floor of building around the corner from my hotel (convenient, see?). There I met Mircea Cernov, the Romanian-born director, just before noon. With Cernov as its only full-time employee, Haver uses a network of some 30 volunteer educators to bring Holocaust and Judaic studies to Hungarian public school students.
"'Generally speaking, Hungarian society became very intolerant, I would say, or a bit aggressive,' Cernov told me. 'Everything is very polarized. There is no dialogue. I think that is the most problematic thing at all levels of society, from the top political elite to the level of civil society.'"
I'll be sure to offer the video to readers. Thank you.
There's a lot to say about European v. American Jewish identity -- if you can sharpen the question a bit maybe I can be more helpful.
Do you plan to meet a famous or prominent Rabbi? Have you? Who?
Are you getting a friendly reception?
I'm getting an unbelievable reception. I've been able to tap into truly transnational networks of young Jews that have been incredibly helpful and illuminating to me on the way. In almost every city I've visited, there has been someone who has taken it upon themselves to show me around, to show me a good time, to introduce me to the relevant people, etc.
I've also had the chance to meet the leadership of the local communities. In Poland, I spent the Sabbath here with the chief rabbi, a New York born and bred rabbi who has been here on and off for about 15 years.
He's one of the selfless Americans I mentioned above.
Will you tell us his name and the Temple or community of which he is a part? You have some thoughts on this, as I see by your answer.
His name is Michael Schudrich. He's the chief rabbi, so that's his community I guess.
He's one of the selfless Americans I mentioned above.
(Here is a taste of Ben Harris' reporting on Michael Schudrich:
"Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, has the air of someone who enjoys being a little unorthodox. I suppose you have to be to leave behind a comfortable Upper West Side upbringing, spend six years leading a community in Japan, and after that set up shop in post-Communist Poland. He's an Orthodox rabbi who was originally ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a vegetarian in a meat-and-potatoes country, and seemed to relish telling me about seeing the Grateful Dead perform at Nassau Coliseum in 1973.")
This is interesting, to learn about the Jewish community of Europe "growing" and "growing up."
In Central and Eastern Europe, not surprisingly, the legacy of the Holocaust and Communism has been the dominant narrative of Jewish life since World War II. The Holocaust wiped out an entire generation, and most survivors and their children who grew up under Communism denied or hid their Jewish identity. When the Iron Curtain fell, rebuilding those communities began in earnest, largely with philanthropic help from the West.
Now 20 years have passed, and the work continues. But in significant ways, the communities are beginning to deal not just with the baggage of the past, but with the very same challenges that Jewish communities everywhere are facing -- how to engage the young, how to ensure continuity, build support for Jewish organizations, etc. And that, I believe, is a sign of their maturity.
One issue you see in the East is the absence of a philanthropic culture. In America, Jewish organizations are almost entirely private non profits that rely on the support of their membership to survive. In the former Communist bloc, this notion remains a foreign one. Most Jewish communities are official entities, recognized by the state, and often receive substantial public funds for their activities. Their members expect services. This makes it hard for innovative projects outside the communal structure to win support. At present, the majority are dependent on philanthropy from Americans and Israelis. There's some effort to change this, but there's a long way to go.
It was you who told me something of the differences, and what you said rang true. Jews in Europe tend to be more conservative and Orthodox. Americans are more secular and most are Reform. Say something on this, and about mixed marriage.
That's not quite the situation. What I said was that European community institutions are generally Orthodox, or hew to Orthodox standards. Most Jews everywhere are not particularly religious. But in Europe, this creates a certain tension. Religious pluralism is not a widespread value here. In several countries I visited, only certain Jewish religious movements are represented on the established community councils. Other groups are effectively left out in the cold. And because these councils are conduits for public funds, the other groups are at a significant disadvantage.
In America, if the existing communal institutions are not serving your needs, religious or otherwise, you go down the street and start your own. Of course, you can do that here too, but the price is higher -- it normally means being shut out of money. And given what I saw before about the philanthropy thing, the other groups struggle, or get funds from abroad.
In Hungary, I met a young Jewish theater troupe, the Golem Theatre that gets 95 percent of its support from abroad. There are plenty of other examples.
On the intermarriage thing -- this is an issue everywhere. But in the former Communist countries, you rarely find a single young Jew who has two Jewish parents. And if your mother is not Jewish, Orthodox Judaism does not recognize you.
Also, given the tiny numbers of young Jews in a lot of these communities, it's hardly clear that the younger generation is going to do much better finding Jewish mates.
It's so good to be wined and dined, especially as part of a worship community. Is there a characteristic you noticed about the practice? Food? Hospitality? Where did you sit, for instance, and did you give a short speech? Were you introduced? (One seminar I took at a San Francisco Bay Area theological seminary Presbyterian had as visitor to the luncheon the editor of "Weavings," and he gave about five or ten minutes of talk to everyone from his table. Very informal, and memorable in that he commented on religion and Hollywood and movies. That was the subject of the seminar.)
It depends. In Osnabruck Germany, they had me give a little talk on Friday night, which they translated sentence by sentence. In Warsaw, Rabbi Schudrich conspicuously invited me up to sit next to him at the communal Shabbat dinner. Normally, I try to slip in unobtrusively and sit in the back. But that's often not possible.
Best of luck and good travels on your journey.
--Peter Menkin, Mill Valley, CA USA
Peter Menkin, an aspiring poet, lives in Mill Valley, CA USA where he writes poetry. He is an Oblate of Immaculate Heart Hermitage, Big Sur, CA and that means he is a Camaldoli Benedictine. He is 64 years of age as of 2010.