Jewish Journeys by Jeremy Leigh

Will the rabbi let you stop for petrol?
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The Independent Culture

There used to be "March of the Living" tours, writes Jeremy Leigh, which took young Jews from the death camps of Poland to the Promised Land of Israel where they could "affirm the power of Jewish survival and make some attempt to enjoy Israeli 'normality', in shopping malls, beaches and meeting 'real Israelis'". This may be an extreme example, but it is not unusual for Jews (like other groups) to travel in search of heritage, identity and commemoration. Much of this stimulating book reads like a debate about the value and complexities of such "modern secular pilgrimages".

Leigh guides Jewish tours all over Europe and beyond, but he grew up in the London suburb of Stanmore - until he realised he was "living in distinctly unremarkable times". His grandparents had made the great immigrant journey from Eastern Europe to Britain at the beginning of the 20th century. His maternal grandfather had been a Marxist Zionist. His father had fought in the Second World War and become a rabbi. His uncles fought and farmed on kibbutzim. Stanmore, by contrast, was "imbued with no romantic associations with the past and certainly no revolutionary potential". So it is hardly surprising that Leigh should take an early opportunity to leave London behind and reinvent himself in Israel.

He now lives in Jerusalem - a city where even the shortest, simplest journey soon brings one up against religion, politics and ideology. In his own district, all the streets are named after "dubious 'heroes' of the pre-state right-wing Jewish underground". His morning run forces him to "tease out the fault lines between the seams of an overburdening history" so as to avoid crossing the ultra-Orthodox quarter in "immodest" dress. And that's just the Jews. Leigh's warily friendly relations with Palestinian taxi-drivers, not to mention the looming presence of the Separation Fence, fill every journey with further layers of dissension and morality.

The first two sections of this book consider a wide range of Jewish journeys, taking in biblical journeys, journeys into exile, journeys into modernity - often just a short distance across a single city from the ghetto into a respectable middle-class district - and hikes in the Israeli hills. The Wandering Jew was both a Christian stereotype and a reality in the Middle Ages. A friend of Leigh's goes round and round the ring road as he checks with the religious authorities if he is permitted to stop for petrol in York, a city barred to Jews by rabbinic decree because of an appalling anti-semitic massacre in the year 1190. His own journeys to a new life in Israel and then back to visit his dying father in England add a more personal dimension. Although he tends to ask more questions than he answers (and sometimes skirts the banal notion that life is a journey), he offers many compelling, first-hand reflections on all these intriguing themes.

But what of tourism to the death camps and Jewish ghost towns of Central and Eastern Europe? Leigh cheerfully suggests taking some shaving foam, which can help decipher the writing on long-abandoned tombs. But he also quotes a great Israeli satirical sketch about a travel agent offering packages like "a weekend in Poland, which features seven concentration camps in three days - no, there's no free day for shopping." Such tourism can easily become ghoulish or exploitative, or a doomed attempt to conjure up the ghosts of destroyed communities by "looking very closely at something that is not there". It can discourage Jews from actually meeting Poles, Germans or Austrians or discovering what a country has to offer, while promoting a sense that Poland is just a Jewish graveyard and that all Poles are antisemites.

Leigh is alive to all these dangers but still feels the right kind of Jewish heritage tour can be a moving, rewarding, even life-changing experience. He attempts to square the circle through quotations from people like Yehuda Amichai and Joseph Roth which are designed to "tease out the essence", for Jewish tourists, of places like Paris, Rome, Toledo, Venice and Vilna. All are rich and subtle pieces of writing (although Leigh's commentary is sometimes rather simplistic) and some even subvert expectations. One about Berlin, for example, is specifically designed to help visitors get back beyond the Nazi era to the Enlightenment city. Most, however, focus on Jewish loss, suffering and survival. These are clearly poignant and powerful themes, however much they can get encrusted in kitsch and sentimentality. Jewish Journeys makes a bold and eloquent attempt to wrestle with the dilemmas.

Matthew J Reisz is Editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'