Travel

Exploring Jewish Communities in Unusual Places

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The following, written by Sun-Sentinel Staff Writer James D. Davis, appeared in the newspaper on Sunday, February 12, 2012.

Jews have gazed on golden pagodas in Burma.

They've built settlements in the forests of Siberia.

They've prayed among the date and mango trees of Tahiti.

They've worn sarong-like "lungi" garments like others in India.

Ben Frank has seen all that and more. And he shares it is his book, "The Scattered Tribe: Traveling to the Diaspora From Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond".

Frank, a veteran travel writer, has visited not only the Jewish population centers of New York, Israel and South Florida, but also tiny communities in Eurasia and the Pacific. He details his amazement in his 302-page book.

"Jews are one of the most traveled groups," Frank, 77, says from his home in Boynton Beach. "And they're still moving today."

Frank's story is a classic case of turning a passion into a career. He began as a newspaper reporter in the Northeast and a public relations man in New York. He also plied a travel writing hobby on the side, flying often to Paris to work with the French government tourism office.

While there, he learned about Paris' Jewish community, including museums and kosher restaurants. Then he did the same as he traveled around France, then Europe. He began turning out Jewish-oriented travel guides to the continent, then Russia and Ukraine, then the Caribbean.

Finally, he got the idea to specialize in the smaller enclaves in exotic lands. The travels yielded many crystalline moments -- sensory, intellectual and emotional.

Frank spent a Passover Seder in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam -- at a Chabad house.

"People around the table told of their Passover experiences. The rabbi said to me, 'I'm sure this will be your most memorable.'"

Among the palms and beaches of Tahiti, he asked a Jewish woman: "How do you feel about living in paradise?" Her answer: "The only paradise is Jerusalem."

In Cuba, he saw a thriving Jewish community, complete with dancing and Hebrew praying. "I knew about it but couldn't believe it. They were thriving in an oppressive land."

In Algeria, he saw two of the last rabbis in northern Africa -- one Algerian, the other Moroccan -- pray together. Hours later, the Moroccan was on a flight to Israel.

He attended a Jewish wedding in Mumbai and strolled with his wife on the grounds of the Taj Mahal. He said the latter was "one of the most moving places for me. The atmosphere makes you forget the outside world."

On a visit to Moscow, Frank heard Dudu Fisher, a Jewish stage and cantorial singer. He reflected: "Here I am in a theater not far from Red Square, and Fisher is singing Yiddish songs with an Israeli flag on the stage. If Stalin were alive today, he'd have another cerebral hemorrhage."

He was touched by the efforts of many Jews to keep their heritage alive. He tells of a man in Rangoon, Burma who gets up every morning and opens the synagogue building, even though few attend. "I see that in many places. They want people to know, 'We were here.'"

Yet even in Burma, he sees a revival. Its recent Hanukkah celebration drew more than 100 people; previous years had drawn only a handful.

"I encourage people to get out there. After the usual places like London, Paris and Rome, there are a lot of places to visit."

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