Asked if he remembers when he was first bitten by the travel bug, octogenarian author Ben Frank does not hesitate to respond.
He was a 14-year-old boy growing up in Pittsburgh and headed for the first time out of town: to a summer camp in Michigan, with a stop in Detroit, where he was given a tour of the city by his cousins.
“That was a lot of fun — and I’ve been traveling ever since,” said Frank, who recently published the fourth edition of his 600-page book, “A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe” (Pelican).
Frank, who has explored 90 countries in his lifetime, makes it a point to “seek out the Jewish aspects” wherever he goes, including cultural attractions, synagogues and kosher restaurants.
He shares his discoveries of what’s going on Jewishly in a variety of countries in “Jewish Europe,” while also delving into the Jewish history of each locale.
Frank is a former newspaper reporter and lecturer, having earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and his master’s at the Center of Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University. After graduating from Pitt, Frank headed to New York City, where he spent most of his life — when not traveling. He currently resides in Boynton Beach, Fla.
“Jewish Europe” was published first in 1992, with subsequent iterations coming out in 1996 and 2001.
The 2018 edition covers 20 countries, including France, Ireland, Greece and Bulgaria. It’s a handy reference for Jewish travelers looking for kosher lodging options, memorial sites, museums and even Jewish cemeteries.
Some of Frank’s favorite travel destinations in terms of Jewish interest, he said, are Paris, which boasts the largest Jewish community in Europe, and Russia and Ukraine, “which have interesting Jewish communities still. The whole American Jewish heritage stems from Eastern Europe. There are fantastic Jewish communities there with interesting history.”
Frank has traveled and sought out Jewish life beyond Europe, as well. Some of the more exotic Jewish communities he recommends include Tahiti, India and Morocco.
“But I never tell people where to go or where not to go, because it’s a personal decision,” he said.
Despite increasing worldwide anti-Semitism, Frank nonetheless encourages Jews to travel.
“I think American Jews should visit Jewish communities around the world, especially in Europe,” he said. “If we don’t go, then the terrorists win. We need to bond with our Jewish brothers and sisters there.”
Travel, Frank said, “is one of the greatest things a person can do because it makes you richer and shows how much you don’t know. And it’s important to meet Jews all over the world — we’re all one people.”
The fourth edition of “Jewish Europe,” which comes 17 years after its last version, is “up to date,” Frank said. Not only are there “exact addresses of kosher restaurants,” in the guidebook, but also included is “the political and social history and what’s going on now.”
Some Jewish communities that are “hidden gems,” according to Frank, are Stockholm, with its “fascinating Conservative synagogue” and its “welcoming community,” and Berlin, where “there are lots of Israelis.”
Because of security procedures, Frank recommends contacting European synagogues at least a month in advance if one wants to attend services.
“It shouldn’t stop you from going there, but the days when you can just walk into a synagogue in Europe are over,” he said.
As a lifelong travel enthusiast, and one who has sampled food at restaurants all over the world, Frank confirms what might be obvious to some: the best kosher restaurants in the world are in France.
“France has more kosher restaurants than New York and Los Angeles combined, and you don’t get a bad meal in France,” he said. “But there are also good kosher restaurants in Antwerp, Belgium, Rome, and Budapest.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.