Category Archives: Writers & Thinkers

Jews in the Wonderful World of Literature, Thought, and Scholarship

Jew of the Week: Benjamin of Tudela

The Jew Who Inspired Marco Polo

A 19th century engraving of ‘Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara’

Binyamin MiTudela (1130-1173) was born to a religious Sephardic family in the town of Tudela, now in Spain. In 1165, he set out for what is believed to be a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had a larger objective in mind as well, since this was at the height of the Crusades and a perilous time for anyone to make a pilgrimage, especially Jews. Binyamin wanted to explore all the Jewish communities along the way and to create a detailed map showing the route one should take and where a Jew can find safe refuge on his journey. This would open the door for more Jews to take a trip to their beloved Holy Land. A lover of history and geography, he also wished to leave a record of what the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world looked like in the 12th century. Binyamin recorded all that he saw in his Sefer haMasa’at, “Book of Travels”, also known as Masa’aot Binyamin. His adventures were so popular they were soon translated into just about every European language. Today, the book is among the most important historical documents for scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as of Jewish and Muslim history. A great deal of what we know about that era, including the daily lives of simple people, comes from his book. Some believe that it was this book that may have inspired another, more famous, adventurer about a century later: Marco Polo. Binyamin’s travels took him to France and the Italian Peninsula, then to Greece and across what is today Turkey to the Near East, then to Persia, back around the Arabian Peninsula, to Egypt, and returning to Iberia by way of North Africa. While in Ethiopia, he describes a large Jewish community, which was a key source of information allowing modern-day Ethiopian Jews to be accepted by the State of Israel and the rabbinate. He is possibly the first writer to detail the community of Al-Hashishin, better known as “Assassins”, as well as among the first to describe the Druze. In Posquières, he meets and describes the great Raavad. In Rome, he sees a Rabbi Yechiel, who is an advisor to the Pope, and has “free access to the Pope’s palace”! While in Baghdad, he writes of the Caliph, who is “like a Pope” for Muslims, and that the Caliph is fluent in Hebrew and knows Torah law extensively, though he rules with an iron fist. All in all, Benjamin of Tudela visited and wrote about some 300 cities. Today, there are streets named after him in Jerusalem and in Tudela, Spain, where there is also a high school bearing his name.

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Words of the Week

One day I learned that dreams exist to come true, and since that day I do not sleep for rest. I sleep just to dream.
– Walt Disney

Jew of the Week: Bertha Pappenheim

A Jewish Heroine You Should Know About

Bertha Pappenheim

Bertha Pappenheim (1859-1936) was born in Vienna to a wealthy and religious Jewish family of Austrian and German heritage. Her father was a cofounder of Vienna’s famous Schiff Shul, the city’s largest Orthodox synagogue (later destroyed during Kristallnacht). At 16, she left school to take care of her home and her ill father. Around this time, she started developing psychological and emotional issues and was treated by the Austrian physician Josef Breuer, together with his student Sigmund Freud. Her case (known as “Anna O”) would play an important role in the development of psychology and psychoanalysis. After Pappenheim recovered, she moved with her mother to Frankfurt and the two became big patrons of the arts and science in the city. They helped found Frankfurt University, and built a reputation as generous philanthropists. Pappenheim intensified her studies, started writing, and became involved in politics. She volunteered at a soup kitchen and at a Jewish orphanage. She eventually became director of the orphanage and transformed it into a place where Jewish girls could learn real skills and become independent. Pappenheim wrote extensively on women’s rights and worked diligently to combat the trafficking of women. She founded the Jewish Women’s Association (Jüdischer Frauenbund, or JFB) which quickly grew to some 50,000 members and became the largest Jewish charity organization in the world. Pappenheim also founded numerous kindergartens, orphanages, and refuges for women who had been trafficked or abused. These institutions were strictly kosher and Shabbat-observant, providing warm care, education, vocational training, and religious instruction. Pappenheim collaborated with (former Jews of the Week) Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, and Sarah Schenirer, pioneer of the Beit Yakov movement of girls schools. She wrote several plays, books of poetry, novella, and children’s stories. She also translated parts of the Talmud, Midrash, and Tanakh for women, along with a handful of other important texts. In 1954, Germany issued a postage stamp featuring Pappenheim in their “Benefactors of Mankind” series.

Words of the Week

Oftentimes a man believes he ought to be a leader because he desires to benefit his fellows; this is untrue. He is in reality seeking self-honour, and hides his true intention under a mask of kindness.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)