Tag Archives: Sephardic Jews

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 Today, the book is among the most important historical documents for scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as of Jewish and Muslim history.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

Brazil’s Most Beloved Person

Silvio Santos (Courtesy: SBT)

Senor Abravanel (b. 1930) was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Sephardic parents who immigrated from Greece and Turkey. He is a descendant of (former Jew of the Week) Don Isaac Abravanel, who was treasurer to the Spanish monarchy in the 15th century. Senor worked hard from a young age to help support his family. At 14, while working as a street vendor, he got his first job at a radio station. It didn’t last long, as he made more money on the street. Several years later, Abravanel moved to São Paulo and worked a number of jobs in broadcasting before being hired to host a TV game show. Abravanel adopted the stage name “Silvio Santos”. His show was hugely popular, and Santos quickly became a wealthy celebrity. He soon bought the show’s production company, Baú da Felicidade, and started expanding across Brazilian media. He also diversified into real estate, hotels, agriculture, cosmetics, and banking. After years of trying to get his own TV network, the government finally relented in 1981, and Santos launched TVS (now SBT, Brazil’s second most-watched channel). By 1989, Santos was recognized as Brazil’s most famous personality, and that year he even ran for president! His life story—from poor immigrant to Brazil’s first celebrity billionaire—has served as an inspiration to countless Brazilians. He is admired for trying to help his country wherever he can and, in a place of rampant corruption, for paying his taxes. (In fact, Santos is Brazil’s single biggest individual tax-payer.) He was recently voted by Brazilians to be the most beloved person in the country. Amazingly, although he is nearly 90 years old, Santos still appears on television as the host of the Silvio Santos Show.

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Words of the Week

When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” …and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. When we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” …and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.
– Jonathan Haidt