Next in our series of Fall 2014 Author Q&As is Martin Jacobs, whose book, Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World, explores the Islamic world as it was encountered, envisioned, and elaborated by Jewish travelers from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. The first comprehensive investigation of Jewish travel writing from this era, this study engages with questions raised by postcolonial studies and contributes to the debate over the nature and history of Orientalism as defined by Edward Said.
(Previous Q&As: Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots; Jennifer Curtis, Human Rights as War by Other Means; Matt Cohen and Edlie Wong, The Killers: A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia; Jacqueline Bhabha, Human Rights and Adolescence; Rebecca Cook, Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective: Cases and Controversies; Megan Threlkeld, Pan American Women: U.S. Internationalists and Revolutionary Mexico; William Paul Simmons, Binational Human Rights: The U.S.–Mexico Experience)
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Penn Press: Why is it that most extant accounts of East–West travel, specifically in Hebrew, involve trips from West to East and not the other way around?
Martin Jacobs: As a literary genre, the Hebrew travel account emerged in the wake of the Crusades when European Jews, much like European Christians, took advantage of the increased traffic between the Western and the Eastern Mediterranean. From the time period discussed in the book (mid-twelfth to early sixteenth centuries), by contrast, there are comparatively few extant travel writings that were written by Jews from the Islamic cultural orbit, whose language of choice was Judeo-Arabic rather than Hebrew.
To what extent did the variable legal standing of Jewish subjects of Mediterranean states influence the perspectives they adopted as travelers?
In neither Christian nor Muslim-ruled societies were Jews equal citizens prior to the nineteenth century. However, their social and vocational integration varied greatly and these differences indeed impacted the perspectives the travelers adopted toward the countries they visited. European Jews, during medieval and early modern times, were excluded from guilds and numerous professions, while their Near Eastern brethren experienced a greater degree of vocational integration. Some Jewish travelers from fifteenth-century Italy marveled at (and perhaps exaggerated) the business opportunities awaiting an enterprising Jew in the Levant.