Travel as ennobling — an educational pursuit that broadens knowledge and sharpens perceptions — is a 20th century concept, according to German-born scholar Martin Jacobs.
In earlier periods, and especially in antiquity, he continued, travel was far less grand, more practical and personal — a series of encounters between people that elicited many different responses, both conscious and unconscious.
"While traveling," explained Jacobs, "you always encounter others, and you encounter yourself in unknown situations, and you need to respond. There is no choice except to engage with other people, due to a lack of linguistic skills or because you don't know the schedule or the road map. These are situations that force you to respond in different ways — and also to reflect upon yourself."
And the study of travel as an academic pursuit? That's a newer phenomenon altogether, one that's taking place right here in Philadelphia.
Jacobs is one of three academics who put together "On the Road: Travel in Jewish History," this year's topic of study for the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Each year, the program invites scholars from around the world to analyze a particular aspect of Jewish culture from new perspectives.
Jacobs joined Ora Limor of the Open University in Jerusalem and Joshua Levinson of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, who first broached the topic, in fashioning the proposal they eventually presented to David Ruderman, the head of the center.
Ruderman had suggested that Jacobs, now an associate professor of rabbinic studies at Washington University in St. Louis, join the team, a notion that struck Levinson as perfect since he knew of Jacobs' work in their shared field, rabbinic literature.
Jacobs' other areas of research include Medieval Jewish history, Jewish life in Islamic lands, and Jewish-Muslim encounters in the Middle Ages.
This year's subject attracted many potential fellows. There were about 170 applications, said Levinson, which were whittled down to 12 scholars for the first semester and 14 for the second (which is now under way).
"Travel studies is very big, very much a part of cultural studies," Ruderman explained. "It's a way of understanding one's identity through contrast to the other."
And given Jewish mobility throughout history, it seemed a natural fit, he added.
The center has held to certain rituals throughout the years. Every Wednesday, after a communal lunch, a scholar gives a presentation based on his or her work to date. In addition, 11 of the scholars have begun giving public lectures on aspects of Jewish travel at venues throughout the region. And at the end of the year, the center will host its traditional multiday symposium, with presenters summing up their work.
Though many of the academics this year are from Israel, rather than from Europe, as in past years, they originate from a variety of cities and approach the topic from differing angles.
"I came to be interested in Jewish history from the Christian side," said Limor, who was born in Ra'anana when it was a sleepy "little place" rather than a Tel Aviv suburb. She got all three of her degrees in the general history department at Hebrew University.
"I wrote my Ph.D. on Christian anti-Jewish polemics. And then I began to be interested in how others see us.
"At the same time," the professor of Medieval history continued, "I am doing work on pilgrimages, sacred spaces and Holy Land traditions. I started from Christianity but I went over to Judaism and Islam. And I am interested in places that are venerated by all three of them, if possible — or, at least, two, in order to see if a place can be a zone of contact and not only a barrier."
Levinson, who made aliyah from New York City, did his graduate work at Hebrew University, where he now teaches.
His public lecture next month will consider "Rabbinic Responses to the Christianization of Palestine."
In the fourth century, when Constantine converted and the Roman Empire became Christian, Palestine suddenly became the Holy Land, the associate professor explained, "and so the map began being altered to reflect the aspirations of its new rulers.
"The simple question I'm trying to ask is: What was the rabbinic response in Palestine to becoming strangers in one's own land? What we have is Jews almost becoming guests — and sometimes uninvited quests. How do they respond to this?"
Two scholars who consider modern-day notions of Jewish travel are Jackie Feldman, a native New Yorker who now lectures on social anthropology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; and Nils Roemer, a non-Jew born in Germany, who teaches Jewish subjects at the University of Texas in Dallas.
Feldman's interests include the anthropology of religion, collective memory, pilgrimage and tourism, even though as an undergrad he studied mathematics and philosophy.
He was a veteran Israeli tour guide for many years, who, when plying his trade, often took American and European Christians to view the holy sites. He's now doing research on this phenomenon.
"I'm trying to understand these Jewish-guided Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land," he said. "Guiding these people is identity-creating because you're having this encounter with non-Jews who are looking at Israel in a different way than Israelis do — though the two ways do actually overlap."
The Hamburg-born Roemer, author of German City, Jewish Memory: The Story of Worms, is doing research in several areas, one of which is Jewish tourism to Germany after the Shoah.
"It's obviously one of the most painful periods in the larger German-Jewish experience outside of the Holocaust itself — the process of confronting it in its aftermath," the professor said. "And one of the things I've realized is that early on — and despite the unease individuals had for Germany — as early as 1945, Jews came, visited, looked at their former houses, came as members of the American armed forces, came as members of Jewish organizations."
At the same time, he continued, various German cities, even with rubble still filling their streets, began publishing tour guides — "for international tourism, not Jewish tourism per se, including guides in English, in which they had to confront that, obviously, much of the heritage they'd showcased in the past had been destroyed.
"What I've been trying to get at in my research is that this question of reviewing or revisiting Germany is a much more conflicted — but also much more varied — experience after 1945 than is commonly assumed."