Tag Archives: Rome

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 Today, the book is among the most important historical documents for scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as of Jewish and Muslim history.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

“The Pope of the Jews”

Rabbi Toaff with Pope John Paul II

Rabbi Toaff with Pope John Paul II

Elio Toaff (1915-2015) was born in Livorno, Italy, the son of Livorno’s chief rabbi. Despite the fact that his father did not want his son to follow in his footsteps, Toaff nonetheless pursued religious studies (as well as law and theology at the University of Pisa) and was ordained a rabbi by age 24. At 26, he was appointed rabbi of Ancona. Not long after, Germany occupied northern Italy, and Toaff became a resistance fighter. Captured by the Nazis and sentenced to death, he managed to escape while digging his own grave. Following the war, Toaff became the rabbi of Venice, and a professor at its university. In 1951, he became the Chief Rabbi of Rome (and, in effect, the Chief Rabbi of Italy) a post he held for 51 years until retiring in 2002. He had the monumental task of restoring Italy’s Jewish communities after the massive destruction they experienced during the war. Rabbi Toaff focused his efforts on rebuilding Jewish infrastructure, reigniting Jewish education, and bridging the gaps between Jews and non-Jews. In 1986, he invited Pope John Paul II to Rome’s Great Synagogue for a joint prayer. The Pope accepted, marking the first time in history a pope visited and prayed at a synagogue. The two had a very close relationship. Incredibly, Rabbi Toaff was one of just two people that the Pope mentioned in his last will and testament (the other being the Pope’s personal secretary), writing “How can I fail to remember the rabbi of Rome?” Rabbi Toaff cleared the way for the Pope to visit Israel in 2000, and to establish formal diplomatic relations between the Jewish State and the Vatican. Rabbi Toaff was beloved by Jews and Catholics alike, and was a central voice of morality in Italy, as well as the primary authority in Jewish law. Toaff was knighted by the Italian Republic, and given the title of ‘Senator for Life’. He was commonly nicknamed “the Pope of the Jews”. Sadly, Toaff passed away on Sunday. He would have turned 100 years old next week.

Words of the Week

A rabbi doesn’t work only for his community or for the Jews. A rabbi has to talk to every human being who needs him. He belongs to everybody. He is for everybody.
– Rabbi Elio Toaff

Jew of the Week: Shula Cohen

Shula Cohen, "the Pearl"

Shula Cohen, “the Pearl”

Shulamit Cohen (b. 1917) was born in Argentina and raised in Jerusalem with her twelve brothers and sisters. Her father was from a wealthy Egyptian-Jewish merchant family, and her mother was the daughter of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem. In 1936, the family experienced severe financial strain, and Shulamit’s father arranged her to marry Joseph Kishak-Cohen, a wealthy businessman from Beirut. Shula moved to Lebanon, and had five kids by the time she was 24. One day in 1947, she overheard people discussing military activities against Israel. Shula recorded the information in a letter to the Haganah, which was fighting for a Jewish state in Israel, addressing it to her brother in Jerusalem. Five weeks later, an agent of the Haganah’s secret service contacted her. For the next 14 years, Shula worked as an Israeli spy in Lebanon. Her work consisted of two major goals. The first was to gather intelligence about Arab military activities, which she was able to do by getting herself into Lebanon’s high society, including the home of the prime minister, who considered her like one of his own daughters. The second was to help smuggle Jewish families fleeing persecution in the Arab world, particularly from Syria. Over the years, she helped countless families find safe passage to Israel. Shula communicated with the secret service using invisible ink, under the code name “Pearl”. She was first caught for smuggling in 1952. Pregnant at the time, Shula was taken to jail just three weeks after giving birth, and spent 36 days in confinement. She continued her clandestine activities for another 9 years before things got too dangerous and she moved to Rome for three months. Upon her return in 1961, she was immediately arrested for espionage. The trial went on for several months during which she was brutally tortured. She was initially sentenced to death by hanging, but the verdict was softened because she was a mother of seven. Her sentence was reduced to 20 years of hard labour. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel captured Lebanese citizens, and used them in a prisoner exchange for Shula and a captured Israeli pilot. Shula has lived in Israel ever since, and still volunteers at schools and IDF bases, despite her advanced age. Two of her sons have high-ranking roles in the Israeli government. A book about her story has been published, called Shula: Code Name The Pearl.

UPDATE: Sadly, Shula Cohen passed away in May of 2017.

Words of the Week

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.
– Winston Churchill