Tag Archives: Druze

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 Today, the book is among the most important historical documents for scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as of Jewish and Muslim history.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.

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: Heather Reisman

Heather Reisman, CEO of Chapters and Indigo Books

Heather Reisman (b. 1948) was born in Montreal and studied at McGill University to become a social worker. Looking for a fresh start after getting divorced, Reisman moved to Toronto and switched careers, entering the world of business. In 1979 she co-founded a consulting company which she directed for seventeen years. That experience led her to become the president of Cott Beverages in 1992 (a private Canadian soft-drink company that makes RC Cola, among others). Several years later, Reisman noticed an opportunity to expand Canada’s book retail market. In 1996 she founded Indigo Books & Music, with help from her husband Gerry Schwartz, who is listed by Forbes among the richest Canadians. In 2001, Indigo acquired its top competitor Chapters (and its subsidiaries Coles and SmithBooks) to become Canada’s largest book retailer. Reisman is still the CEO of the socially-responsible company, praised for its green initiatives, progressive policies, and for being among Canada’s top 100 employers. Indigo also produced Kobo, Canada’s most popular eReader. Reisman herself is a noted philanthropist, donating generously to the University of Toronto and Harvard, Mt. Sinai Hospital, the UJA and a host of other institutions, many of which are pro-Israel, such as the Heseg Foundation which assists Israeli lone soldiers, as well as Israeli Ethiopian and Druze soldiers. Indigo also commits $1.5 million every year to schools across Canada through its Love of Reading Foundation. For all of her efforts, Reisman has been listed among the world’s 50 top businesswomen. She has been awarded several honorary degrees, and has even served as the governor of the Toronto Stock Exchange and McGill University.


Words of the Week

When one eats and drinks, one must also feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and the other unfortunate paupers. But one who locks the doors of his courtyard, and feasts and drinks with his children and wife but does not feed the poor and the embittered – this is not the joy of mitzvah but the joy of his stomach.

– Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Festivals 6:18)