Q&A: Leading Travel Guru Sets Sights on Jewish Europe

Talking Jewish Europe with Travel Guru Ben Frank

July 30, 2018

Summer is a time when countless travelers set off in search of beautiful vistas, delicious food, and perhaps a peek into history. For those headed to Europe, including travelers on JDC trips to Hungary, Poland, Greece, and Germany, there’s no better guide than renowned travel writer Ben Frank, who recently released a fourth edition of his essential A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe.

Frank has been a guest of European Jewish communities for decades, exploring intimately their daily lives and seeing first-hand the effects of JDC’s century of work. He’s witnessed incredible changes: the fall of communism, the rise of challenges like terror, anti-Semitism and nationalism, and, in spite of everything, the reemergence of Jewish life.

We caught up with Frank to learn more about his book, his thoughts on JDC’s role in European history, and his recommendations for a European tour steeped in Jewish culture.

1. Why was 2018 the ideal time to release the fourth edition in your travel book series?

Fortuitously several factors came together at the right time.

First, the fourth edition was long overdue, as the third edition came out in 2001.

Second, travel experts predicted record numbers of travelers in 2018 noting that a stronger economy and lower airfares for international travel would lead to an increase in Americans going abroad.

Third, the major upsurge in Jewish roots tourism — with people heading in large numbers to Central and Eastern Europe — means that many Jews are eager for practical, informed travel knowledge and also want to have authentic experiences of self-discovery.

Finally, most tourists believe they shouldn’t succumb to challenges in Europe, like terrorism, which can spread fear regarding travel.

2. Those family roots trips you mention often focus on the past. But what about the Jewish present and the progress that has been made in Jewish life in the years since you have been to many of the countries you write about?

A good question: Jewish life in Europe is not static and every year we hear about larger audiences attending new, dynamic exhibits and programs on Jewish life on the continent, such as, heritage functions; rallies for support of Israel; symposiums; new Jewish institutions; and yes, even more lighting of the Chanukah menorah celebrations in small towns and cities.

There is also an increase in the publishing of Jewish books and religious and historical commentaries. Finally, Jewish community centers and summer activities like camping, many supported by JDC, are growing in number.

3. You’ve been described as the “dean of Jewish travel writers.” How did you get into this line of work?

I began as a journalist and loved to travel. Even when I was a reporter in the U.S., I would go abroad and write stories of exotic Jewish communities around the world, and send those dispatches back to the U.S. I love history and I believe that tourists should prepare themselves before traveling.

They should at least read a history book about the country they are visiting. And for Jewish travelers, my A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe provides that opportunity. I believe that tourists appreciate the country they are visiting if they know something about that country. The same goes for Jewish communities in Europe.

4. Why was is it important to you to include stories and important Jewish contributions to European history in the book, and what should American Jews keep in mind about European Jewish history?

We should always remember that Jews have contributed, and still contribute, much to European society, from science to art, literature and politics, etc.

So in each chapter, I included a section on ‘Notable Jews.’

For example, there have been three Jewish prime ministers of France, and today Jews in many countries in Europe hold high government positions.

5. What are a few “must-visit” travel destinations for someone looking to stop at key Jewish sites across Europe?

With the largest Jewish community in Europe, Paris is a must. With probably the fastest growing Jewish community, Berlin is also crucial.

In Eastern Europe, Budapest is high on the list, especially for JDC folks interested in seeing the flagship local JCC and Szarvas camp that you founded and continue to run.

For smaller communities, stop in and visit the Jews of Helsinki, Lisbon, and also Poland where your Jewish cultural activities, community centers in Warsaw and Krakow, and summer camps have sustained and grown a community experiencing a miraculous revival.

6. Why are you interested in sharing Europe’s Jewish history? How does it resonate with your own family’s history?

First, and above all, Europe was a center of Jewish civilization for generations. Today its continues to be home to hundreds of thousands of Jews. American Jews should travel to Europe and visit our Jewish brothers and sisters so the ties we share are strengthened.

In doing this many of us can explore our family histories; never forget the crimes of the Holocaust; and give new meaning to the concept that we are one people by recognizing that European Jewish community life exists and is flourishing despite many issues.

My wife is a Holocaust survivor, and she inspired me to learn more about and keep alive the traditions of the Jewish people. This certainly encouraged us, as a couple ,to seek out details of our roots among Europe’s Jews.

Besides this history, I wanted to offer the traveler a taste of my own experiences, of Jewish life happening at every hour of every day. They can get insights by visiting synagogues, JCCs, street festivals, monuments, museums, kosher restaurants, cafes, and cultural heritage sites.

7. The New York Times review of an earlier edition of your book, said it was “full of interesting tidbits.” Any favorites you would like to share?

I include those same travel experiences in the latest edition, helping give the book life and a personal feel.

For instance, I’ve danced at a bar mitzvah party in Marseille and shared food at a shalosh seudos (the third meal customarily eaten on Shabbat) in the Altneuschul, the “Old New Synagogue,” in Prague.

I spent hours at the Shoah Memorial and Holocaust Center in Paris. And I people-watched on the Champs-Elysées and Via Veneto, and stared at stately statues in London.

8. Why did you ask JDC’s CEO David Schizer to write the book’s foreword?

Since the 1960’s, JDC has helped me better understand the condition of Jews in Europe, as well as connecting me with Jewish leaders who helped me accurately write about the Jewish community in each country.

So who better than David to set the context? And who better than your Europe Director, Diego Ornique, and his team, to help me again as I updated the latest edition?

Over the years, I have seen JDC adapt to meet the needs of Jewish around the world.

And in Europe, I know that your are working to bolster the Jewish community’s resiliency and investments in Jewish life in the face of what David calls the ‘volatile political and social movements that are sweeping that continent today.’

I wanted to make sure I truly reported that phenomenon and turned to those I trust to be able to convey that.

9. Any tips for Jewish travelers who have never been to Europe or are visiting a particular community for the first time?

Most important: if you are planning to visit a synagogue or a JCC, it’s a good idea to contact them ahead of time to arrange the date and time. Security is tight and visitors can no longer just walk in on the spur of the moment.

Secondly, plan your trip ahead of time; you can change it on route. But it is better to have a daily outline than lose valuable time sitting in the hotel lobby deciding ‘what shall we do today?”

Also, if you are not on an organized tour, best to take a city tour, bus or car, to get the general idea of the town, and then go back to specific places.

It’s also a good idea to read about the country or community, you are visiting before arrival. That’s why included a section on history and politics of each European country and city in my book.

And finally, enjoy! Do all you can to get the most of experience — immersion in a new Jewish community gives you perspective on your own identity and news ways to see the world.

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