Yet, I must confess that I find myself disappointed each time I read the work. So much information lacking, so many details absent: How did Benjamin travel? What languages did he use? What dangers did he encounter on the way? And what about the people whom he met: What did their homes look like? How did they greet him and interact with him?
Here is what Benjamin wrote about his experiences in Beziers, “There is a congregation of learned men. At their head is R. Solomon Chalafta, R. Joseph, and R. Nethanel. Then it is two days to… Montpellier.”
That is all! Like this portrait here, the information he offers throughout much of the travelogue are sparse. So too, Benjamin’s tone is dry and impersonal. Utterly absent are the sorts of details that abound in memoir-style travelogues of today. There is no first-person perspective. We learn nothing about the details of his life, or what sort of man he was. Nor does he give any indication of why he traveled, how he funded his journey, or who he may have left behind.
Yet, I continue to read Benjamin’s travelogue. I return to it, fascinated by the bits of information he did leave behind. I am drawn to the work as a historian; interested in the few tid-bits of information that he does provide about Jewish life in the Middle Ages. And I am also interested as a contemporary social theorist. His observations – scantly as they are - teach us about the organization of the Jewish world in days gone by. And they continue to have resonance today.
Here are a few of the lessons we can take away from his travelogue:
1. Viewing the Jewish world through a wide-angle lens.
Jewish values, knowledge and identity are largely shaped in local synagogues, community-centers, schools and camps. Yet--Benjamin reminds us—these institutions are embedded in a system of large far-reaching networks.
Although he does not tell us why he traveled, some guess that Benjamin may have been scouting out places of safe refuge for those considering fleeing from instability in Christian Spain. Others take note of his focus on Jewish communities on the Mediterranean coast who were engaged in commerce, and suggest that he may have been looking for far-reaching business connections. Or perhaps he simply sought comfort in learning that Jews lived across much of the Mediterranean world, and that they were faring well. Regardless, Benjamin’s expansive wide-angle view of the Jewish world is a compelling one, and it may be one of the reasons his book continued to be copies and circulated for centuries.
2. Dynamic Authority in the Jewish world
Baghdad is one of the few cities that receives extensive treatment in Benjamin’s travelogue. As backdrop to his description of Jewish life in the city, he opens with a depiction of Muslim society. Focusing in particular on the Caliph (Islam’s political and religious leader) and his lush palace and grounds, Benjamin provides a very interesting note on this leaders’ family members. While they each had a luxurious dwelling space within the palace grounds, they were “all fettered in chains of irons” and guards were placed to keep watch, “over each of their houses” so that none would attempt to usurp the Caliph. (p.96-97)
While the Caliph was able to exert authority through the force of arms, Jews did not have this possibility. How, then, were medieval Jewish leaders able to garner and rise to authority? Without state power at their disposal, they had to resort to other means. They relied on knowledge, charisma and wit. They drew on pedigree and on relationships with the wealthy. So too, alignment with authorities in the non-Jewish world provided leaders a source of power upon which to draw. In short – without any real power, authority could never be fully agreed upon in the Jewish world. It was (and still is) fluid, open to much change, and—as a consequence—it is dynamic, creative and adaptive.
3. Waxing and Waning Centers of the Jewish World
Why does Baghdad receive so much of Benjamin’s attention? In part, because the community there of 40,000 is one of the largest that he visits. So too, the city was rich in its institutional life. Religious academies abounded, the influence of the Jewish leaders stretched across great distances, and students flocked to the city from afar. It is no coincidence that Baghdad was located in one of the Muslim world’s important centers of art, finance, scholarship and politics.
Even today, the Jewish communities that are most active and influential, are those that are situated in centers where cultural, political, and economic life thrives; in educational hubs; in tourist destinations. So too, throughout history, the lives of Jewish communities have waxed and waned with the fortunes of non-Jewish worlds in which they are embedded.