Ben Harris, JTA’s Wandering Jew, is exactly like wandering Jews of centuries past: He carries his belongings, and searches for Jewish communities the world over. But instead using the stars for navigation, Harris has Google Maps. Since last August, Harris, 33, has been on the road almost continuously, visiting Jewish communities as close as Helena, Ark., and as far away as Eastern Europe. Along the way, he has reported, blogged, tweeted and filmed his travels and experiences with all types of Jews. Harris’s next trip will take him — like many wandering Jews before — to Israel. The Forward caught up with Harris on one of his few travel breaks, in Vermont.
1 How do you choose where you’re going?
The Israel trip is a result of a vote; it was the winner of a contest we had online. The winner was Kibbutz Hanaton in the Galilee. There’s some interesting Jewish pluralism going on there. Generally, the M.O. has been [this]: We wanted to do some reporting from [certain areas], so within that it was kind of up to me to figure out where the interesting places were.
2 What are the three items you would never think of traveling without?
Excluding a toothbrush and passport, my Mac PowerBook, which is a pretty indispensable tool for writing and researching… and booking hotel rooms in the next city. I don’t know how people traveled before the Internet. My camera, obviously. And the third thing? It’s a little lame, but pretty indispensable — my tripod.
3 Travelers always meet interesting people. Who are some of the most interesting people you have met on your travels?
At Burning Man, I stayed at a Jewish camp, and most of the people who were there were alternative Jewish spiritual types, but there were these two guys who were both Satmar Hasidim from Williamsburg. They spoke in this classic Brooklyn Yiddishe accent in the middle of the Nevada desert. It blew my mind to hear that out there.
In Vienna, we went to a place that serves kosher Vienna wiener schnitzel and we ran into this guy…an Israel-American businessman who happened to be internationally ranked as an arm wrestler. Of course, we had to challenge him. My friend Martin lost, clearly.
4 What was the most interesting Jewish experience on the trip?
In between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I was in Zacatecas, this tiny mountain town in Central Mexico. Guadalajara is the closest Jewish community to there, but like many places, you can’t just show up for Kol Nidre, not know anyone and expect that you’re going to get in…. Someone needs to vouch for you. We kept trying to reach the right people, but it wasn’t happening. Out of the blue, I get a Twitter message from a guy asking if I’m coming to Guadalajara…. As it happens, he is the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue there. He was very nice, and he invited us, and we had the pre-Yom Kippur meal with him and his wife, so that was really cool.