Heritage: A Third Way for Jews

A new videologue highlights the centers of vibrant Jewish communal life over thousands of years.

Planning a trip to Paris, Budapest or Rome? How About Buenos Aires? Or Segovia, in Spain?

Chances are there’s an old Jewish quarter and a long, fascinating Jewish history in the places you intend visiting. The chances are also good that Harry Wall has already been there and captured the Jewish experience, both past and present, with his video camera.

And even if you’re not travelling, why not join Wall as he does a walking tour of the Marais, the traditional Jewish district of Paris, or the original Jewish ghetto in Venice?

These and many other destinations appear on www.JewishDiscoveries.com, a site that features an online video travelogue with a lively perspective on Jewish life around the world, and a compelling reminder of the vibrancy of Jewish communal life throughout the ages.

Browsing through the videos on Jewish Discoveries, one is struck by the realization that Judaism is not only about religious practice or commitment to the State of Israel. It is also about thousands of years of Jewish life in virtually every corner of the world, and about the unique cultures that developed in these myriad communities.

Judaism is not binary; it is a complex and engrossing mosaic of diverse cultures, traditions and practices that sprouted from, and were sustained by, a common heritage. The mission of Jewish Discoveries is to document that mosaic, and make it available to both Jews and non-Jews the world over.

Wall, the guiding spirit behind the site, is former director of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League. “I shifted from seeing the world through the prism of anti-Semitism to one where Jews have made a remarkable contribution and have much to show for it,” he says.

“I felt that there was not enough known, or [that was] easily accessible, about Jewish heritage and culture in the many places I traveled to,” Wall explains. “It’s easy to see Jewish history as dark and sad, especially in Europe. So many Jews travel and only find empty shtetls, concentration camps and ghettos. What is missing is an appreciation of the Jewish contribution to civilization. And an understanding that there is a remarkable Jewish renewal in many countries where Jewish life was nearly extinguished.”

A self-described secular Jew, Wall takes an upbeat perspective of the subject he deals with. “I am fascinated by the cultural intersections, by Jewish contributions to civilization. For example, how Sephardi cartographers enabled the great Portuguese explorations, rather than only viewing the Jewish experience in Iberia through the Inquisition. My films always include references to persecution and Holocaust, where these happened. It’s unavoidable. But they are not the focal point. Rather, I believe that we have much to celebrate and discover; we need not only see the dark side.”

'Make them short'

A long-time traveler who divides his time between New York, Europe and Tel Aviv, Wall launched www.JewishDiscoveries last year. Considering its newness, the site already has a remarkable amount of content. On the site, Wall writes that he welcomes contributions from writers and photographers.

Among the many places about which he has made travel videos are Argentina (“Viva Jewish Buenos Aires”), Rome (“The Longest Diaspora”) Budapest (“Judaism without Walls”) and Warsaw (“Poland’s Jewish Reawakening”). He has also produced a full-length documentary on Jewish heritage in Spain and is currently making one about Italy.

Several of the online videos were produced on behalf the Joint Distribution Committee, which, Wall says, is in the forefront of reviving Jewish life around the globe. “There is no Jewish renewal in Eastern Europe without the Joint,” he says flatly.

The short-form video is what appeals most to Wall, he says: “My children, now in their early 20s, would tell me that if you want to catch their attention, and that of their generation, make them short, interesting and put them online."

Wall also makes significant use of social media to encourage surfers to view his footage. He says he realizes that his approach on the site does not necessarily conform to the dominant Jewish narrative.

“Thousands of Jews visit Poland each year and see only the graveyard of European Jewry,” he says. “But there is little awareness of the 1,000-plus years of Jewish life that helped to shape Zionism, philosophy, Yiddish culture and theater [there]. Not to mention the young Jews of today’s Krakow and Warsaw, who are passionate about their Judaism and [are] rebuilding their communities.”

The trips to Israel that are offered within the framework of the Birthright program, he adds, provides a better "template," but its range is limited to the Jewish state. “It shows how Judaism can be fun, a positive experience in building a shared Jewish identity,” Wall explains.

However, he sees informed travel as a way to connect Jews to various communities and to their common heritage. Jewish Discoveries, he adds, is aimed at anyone who is thinking about taking a trip – whether it's in the framework of a group from a synagogue, a federation mission or just a vacation – and who is interested in knowing something about the Jewish heritage of the destination they will visit.

“It’s a way to engage, to learn about the communal life, food and Jewish history,” he says. “Today, people are a lot more likely to go online than to buy a guidebook.”

On the site are links to local communal institutions and special events. Wall says there is also an app in the works, a digital guide for certain destinations.

And yet, he adds, the site is not only for travelers. “It’s a way to introduce Jewish heritage using contemporary media. After that, if [people are] interested, there are books, study programs, and more in-depth experiences.”

Wall's plan is to produce videos and reportage on 100 destinations within the next five years, but not by himself. “Now that there is a template, I’ll be inviting others – from Cape Town to Costa Rica – to make videos about their cities, including whatever is interesting and new for the Jewish traveler or the digital viewer.”

What about Israel? “Definitely. As much as we think Israel is familiar to Jews [abroad] and others, there is so much going on here that is not known. The many festivals, street fairs, new museums, food and wine.”

Indeed, it seems there’s no end to the potential content covered by Jewish Discoveries.

Check out Jewish Discoveries

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Harry Wall
Harry Wall
Nadav Wall