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In Praise of Wandering Jews

In Praise of Wandering Jews

Vintage map and compass

The term “wandering Jew” goes back to medieval Europe and was used by Christians to describe the curse they believed adhered to the Jewish people because of their rejection of Jesus.

Although I reject the notion that Jews have been living under a curse since the diaspora that followed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the fact remains that Jews have been wanderers since the very first Jews, Abraham and Sarah, departed from Chaldea (today’s Iraq), wandered to Haran (today’s Turkey), turned south and settled near Hebron – and took a side trip to Egypt.

I have been an admirer of heroic Jewish wanderers since my introduction as a teenager to an amazing book, Sefer Ha-Massaot (The Book of Travels) by Benjamin of Tudela, who has been compared to Marco Polo. Benjamin set out in 1159 from his small city of Tudela in northern Spain and spent the next 13 years exploring Jewish communities in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Most of what we know today about 12th-century Jewry is derived from his writings.

It may have been the wanderings of my great-grandfather, Rabbi David Masovetzky of Grodno, a city in western Belarus, that influenced my own wandering that brought me and my family to the Caribbean island of Curacao in 1962.

Rabbi David was captivated by the dream of Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, who founded the Jewish Colonization Association to improve the lot of East European Jews by settling them as farmers in North and South America. Under the Baron’s patronage, Rabbi David set out for Argentina, where he became the first rabbi in the Entrerios Province, serving the transplanted Jewish farmers. After five years in Argentina, Rabbi David and his family settled in Jerusalem and he became a dayan (rabbinical court judge) until his death in 1917, on the exact day the victorious British General Allenby entered Jerusalem.

I did my own rabbinic service abroad for five years (1962-1967) at Curacao’s Mikve Israel Emanuel, the oldest, continuously used synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. One of my rabbinic predecessors (who served the synagogue from 1762-1764) was Hakham (the Sephardi term for rabbi) Haim Isaac Karigal (sometimes spelled with a C), who may have travelled as many miles as Benjamin of Tudela, but for different purposes.

Karigal was born in Hebron, Palestine, the traditional burial place of the ancient Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs. It is also the site of an historic yeshiva that, when Karigal studied there, needed funds. Not yet 30, Karigal was chosen as an emissary to raise money for his yeshiva. From 1754 to 1760, he collected large sums of money in Europe. His success led yeshiva leaders to send him out again two years later to raise funds from the Sephardi Jews living on the Caribbean islands.

When he reached the magnificent synagogue in Curacao, built just 30 years earlier in 1732, he found that the congregation lacked a rabbi. Karigal agreed to remain as interim hakham for two years, after which he would return to Hebron.

In 1768, we find Karigal on the road again, this time in London, not only collecting funds but also teaching Talmud. By 1771, he’s back in the Caribbean, a year later in Philadelphia, and a year after that in Newport, Rhode Island, the largest Jewish community in North America at the time.

In Newport, Karigal befriended the brilliant Protestant minister, Ezra Stiles, who later became the president of Yale University. Stiles was thrilled to continue his Hebrew studies with a scholar from the Holy Land. After Karigal set sail for another fundraising mission in the Caribbean, Stiles commissioned the eminent portraitist, Samuel King (who later painted George Washington) to do a portrait of Karigal from memory. That portrait hung for over a century in the Yale University library.

At a time when traveling was perilous to the extreme, Karigal made several trips to Europe, taught in London and Newport, visited every known Caribbean Jewish community, and filled in as hakham in both Curacao and Barbados. At the time of the American Revolution, he was again in the Caribbean. He died in 1777 at the age of 48; his gravestone can be found in the recently restored cemetery of the Nidhe Israel Synagogue on the island of Barbados.

This article is dedicated to Benjamin of Tudela, Haim Isaac Karigal, and all the other intrepid Jewish wanderers over the centuries since Abraham and Sarah, who have brought honor to the once demeaning sobriquet, “wandering Jew.”

Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin has served in major rabbinic pulpits for half a century and is a former president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He is the author of Gates of Mitzvah, …And Turn It Again, the novel Uncle Sol’s Women, and the recently published God for Grown-Ups: A Jewish Perspective.

Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin
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