Photo: Lithuania, Vilnius EDJC 2023 - © Valdas Kopustas, Lithuania Jewish Community

The People that Formed on the Road

Routes, networks and connections are what shaped the Jewish people. From the time of the legendary Exodus from Egypt and the very real dispersion that began after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (and then again by the Romans), the history of the Jewish people is a history of movement. From antiquity to the present day, both the trajectories of individual destinies and the cultural development of the entire community as a whole were determined by transport routes and infrastructure

The gradual settlement of Jews across the European continent while maintaining a separate identity and a system of intercommunal ties is unique. The desire for commercial gain, knowledge and holiness motivated merchants, students and pilgrims to travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers. Persecution, or, conversely, promises of greater tolerance than in other regions, forced entire communities to move.

By migrating, Jewish groups  took with them a culture and language that had been formed in a different social environment in other parts of Europe. Being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, the Sephardim brought to the Balkans and Turkey a specific Spanish-Jewish dialect – Ladino. The Eastern European Ashkenazim, moving from the Rhine Valley to the Slavic lands, retained as a colloquial dialect of German language, which began to be called simply “Jewish” – Yiddish. Today, Yiddish speakers form the core of ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel and the United States.

Any diaspora of people far from their homeland, or  without their own state at all, is a community of widely scattered horizontal ties . On the European continent, few peoples have created such a network social structure – for example, the Roma (travelers), or the Armenians in the eastern part of the continent. In the static and hierarchical traditional society of the Middle Ages, such flexibility is the exception rather than the rule. The Jewish people have been one of the most mobile communities in Europe for centuries, if not the most mobile one.

Of course, this mobility was largely forced. Jews were the only significant religious minority in homogeneous Christian Europe before the Reformation. Religious differences contributed to isolation from the surrounding majority, and led to stigmatization. However, at the same time, those factors helped maintain identity and increased the level of internal solidarity within the community itself. Due to the dietary requirements dictated by the requirements of kashrut, when arriving in another city, in the Middle Ages, a Jew simply could not stay anywhere except in the local Jewish community. However, he could always count on the fact that in the Jewish community he would be able not only to stop, but, if necessary, to receive help.

A typical example of this solidarity, as well as the scale of the ties of Jewish communities already in the early Middle Ages, is the Kyiv Letter. This is the most important source on the history of Eastern Europe. It is in this document, which has come down to us in an authentic form from the tenth century, that the name of the Ukrainian capital is mentioned for the first time, long before the East Slavic annals and other sources. This message was sent to Jewish communities with the aim of raising funds for the ransom of a Jew who fell into debt slavery. The extent of the connections of the Jewish communities is eloquently evidenced by the fact that the document was found in the Cairo genizah – the repository of documents in Hebrew at the synagogue. The Kyivan letter, which is kept today in Cambridge, can serve as a vivid illustration of the contribution that the study of Jewish history makes to our understanding of the past of the entire continent.

Today, Europe's population is more diverse than ever before. The experience of Jewish communities, once marginal and exotic, continues to attract increasing interest from modern Europeans and tourists from other parts of the world. The routes of the Jewish people, which have left invisible traces on all roads and in all ports on the continent, deserve to be introduced into wide cultural use.

The Jewish Diaspora of Antiquity are the Foundation of the Christian World

Archaeological material and written sources testify that by the turn of the new era, Jews already lived throughout the Mediterranean. From the New Testament book “Acts of the Apostles”, as well as from other historical sources, we know that in the first decades of its existence, Christianity began its spread across the Mediterranean among the Jewish diaspora in the first place. Due to the stereotype about the historical confrontation between Judaism and Christianity, we often forget about the common roots of these religions. The Jewish diaspora became the circulatory system through which Christianity spread throughout the body of the Roman Empire.

Tourist and pilgrimage routes in the footsteps of the preaching of the Apostle Paul in modern Turkey, Greece and the islands of the Mediterranean Sea are very popular among Christians, as well as anyone interested in religious and cultural history. Awareness of the role of the Jewish component in the infrastructure of the times of the Roman Empire contributes to a more complete and adequate understanding of the history of Christian Europe.

Cases have been recorded when the buildings of ancient synagogues became churches. Either as a result of the gradual conversion of the entire community to Christianity, or as a result of pressure from the authorities who adopted a new religion, with minimal architectural alteration, the building became a temple. A vivid example is the archaeological site in the Hellenistic city of Tauric Chersonesus, on the outskirts of modern Sevastopol on the Black Sea coast in the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula, known as the “Basilica of 1935”, after the year of discovery. According to archaeologists, the synagogue was transformed into a Christian church in the IV century.

In subsequent centuries, after the strengthening of Christianity on the continent, more synagogues became Christian churches. Most often this happened after the expulsion of the Jewish community from the country by the authorities. This is another side of European history, associated with the appropriation and cultural appropriation by Christianity of the heritage of other religious traditions. On an even larger scale this happened with Islamic architectural heritage after the Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula, and also as a result of the expulsion of the Ottomans in the southeastern European regions. Buildings of synagogues that have become churches have been preserved in England, Spain and Portugal. The study and recognition of such stories helps to reveal the multi-layered cultural history of the European continent.


The stereotype of the Jews being a nation of merchants has real grounds,  rooted in the history of the community in medieval Europe. Jews have always been an important part of the urban population of the continent. This situation has developed largely due to religious restrictions. In Christendom, Jews were forbidden to own land. Professions related to agriculture were closed to Jews. Trade and other economic activities associated with mobility, on the other hand, provided the Jews with many opportunities.

From the early Middle Ages, the resettlement of Jews across the continent followed trade routes. The history of the emergence of Jewish communities in Northern and Eastern Europe largely reflects the history of the development of trade.

Long before the discoveries of Marco Polo and even before the Crusades, in many respects it was Jewish merchants, whom Arab sources called “radhanites”, who provided trade between the Islamic and Christian worlds. They travelled from France and Spain to North Africa and the Middle East by sea, and through the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe, the Turkic Khazar Khaganate (the ruling elites of which, according to legend, even converted to Judaism) by land, and further, through the Caspian Sea – to Central Asia and, possibly, even China.

Commercial interest in precious stones, as well as the desire to visit the Holy Land, served as the motives of the most famous medieval Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela (in Navarra), who lived in the XII century. He described his route through a significant part of Europe and Asia in detail. His notes, which enjoyed considerable popularity, not only talk about the exotic lands and customs of the peoples he met along the way, but also testify to the spiritual unity and solidarity of Jews in communities located thousands of kilometers from each other.

Market Square in Novogrudok ©The Together Plan
Market Square in Novogrudok ©The Together Plan


But, of course, not only commercial interest forced Jews from the most remote corners of the continent to keep in touch with each other and set off. The geography of contacts between Jewish communities can be traced by responsa – letters with answers for various questions addressed to religious authorities.

Judaism  organises all spheres of life and requires the thorough observance of numerous commandments. In order to understand how to act correctly under certain circumstances, members of the community turned to spiritual leaders. Rabbis known for their wisdom, such as Rabbi Meir Bar Baruch of Rothenburg, who lived in the XIII century, answered literally thousands of such letters from Austria, France, Italy, and Spain.

There is no formal hierarchy in Judaism. The informal authority that ensures the respect and recognition of the community is won by learning. Like the universities in Christendom, the yeshivas, institutions of learning that offered the best possible religious education, attracted young Jewish people from far and wide.

One of these yeshivas was founded in the XIX century in the small Belarusian town of Mir. At the beginning of the XX century, many young people not only from Poland and Lithuania, but also from all over Europe, as well as both Americas, South Africa and Australia, aspired to get into this yeshiva. The history of the salvation of this educational institution during the Second World War is very significant in illustrating the trajectories of the spread of the European Jewish religious tradition. Thanks to the efforts of the Japanese consul in Lithuania, students and teachers were able to cross the Soviet Union with a transit Japanese visa and settle in Shanghai for some time. Further, the tradition of the Mir yeshiva was divided into two branches, which retain not only the name, but also their significance as important educational centers to this day: one part moved to Brooklyn (New York), the other to Jerusalem.


From antiquity to the present day, the most important Jewish routes are associated with pilgrimages. The Holy Land is of primary religious importance for the Jews. Trips to Palestine are best recorded in historical sources. On the way, the pilgrims stopped in communities of fellow believers, recording similarities and differences in the rituals and daily habits of local Jews and Jews in their homeland.

Speaking of pilgrimage, we are not only talking about history. In Europe itself there are many holy places that still attract Jewish pilgrims. They are connected with the history of Hasidism, a doctrine that was unique in its influence on Judaism and was formed in Eastern Europe. One of its features is the importance of the figure of the tzaddik, the righteous teacher, in some ways comparable to the role of Christian saints. Orthodox Jews from all over Europe, from Israel and the United States come to pray at the graves of Hasidic Tzaddiks in what is now Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.

The most revered Hasidic teacher, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, is buried in Uman in central Ukraine. In recent decades, this small town has become the most important pilgrimage site outside of Israel for Orthodox Jews from all over the world. The peak of the pilgrimage falls on the autumn, on the holiday of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, when Uman is filled with tens of thousands of Hasidim from all over the world.


The modernization and development of communications has dramatically changed the Jewish community. The  exhibition dedicated to this period in the POLIN Museum in Warsaw begins at the ticket office of the railway station. The development of manufactories and the facilitation of the delivery of manufactured goods seriously undermined the traditional handicraft professions. The opportunity to leave the closed community of a small town for large cities was tempting for young people who were receptive to new political and cultural currents.

Economic difficulties and the growth of anti-Semitism encouraged the Jews to leave the continent in the late XIX – early XX centuries. The formation of the Zionist movement prompted another category of Jewish emigrants, idealists and political activists, to leave their homes.

Emigration overseas had a significant impact on the demographic structure of the Jewish diaspora. It is true for the entire European continent that the history of emigration is an important part of self-consciousness. For European Jews, this statement is doubly true. Like other emigrants, Jews have always taken a piece of their European homeland with them. It makes sense to think about the possibility of symbolically perpetuating this large-scale process with information stands or commemorative signs at railway stations where a long journey began, and in ports, both Mediterranean and Atlantic ones.

The majority of the Jewish people no longer live in Europe, as they did two hundred years ago. However, the diaspora continues to be a system of communicating vessels. Personal, business and infrastructure ties continue to be strong, and have even become more intense in recent decades. There is a growing interest in the Jewish communities of Israel and the United States to visit places where their ancestors once left. The Journey to the Roots format is becoming increasingly popular. Such trips and the sentiments associated with them help to strengthen the understanding of the interconnections of the fate of the peoples of the European continent.

Jewish emigration is a good context for reflecting on how society accepts foreigners today. Refugees and forced migrants occupy a special place in this conversation. It may be recalled that the migration of Jews from Eastern European communities who fled the horrors of pogroms in the Russian Empire and after the Bolshevik revolution was an important factor in the strengthening of anti-Semitic sentiment in Germany and Austria after the First World War. Through the prism of the unacceptability of anti-Semitism, which is obvious in today’s Europe, it is productive to look at other, more relevant and tenacious forms of xenophobia against migrants. This can serve as the basis for productive work in a variety of educational and outreach programs, especially those aimed at young people.

Jewish migrations continue. Germany, which has set itself the task of reviving the Jewish community, has received more than a hundred thousand Jews from the territory of the former Soviet Union in recent decades. Political instability and the search for an attractive economic alternative encourages many Israelis, especially young ones, to move to the homeland of their ancestors, primarily to Germany. New Israeli street food establishments are opening, combining traditional Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern cuisine. The development of the vibrant Jewish community in Europe, which has always been characterized by increased mobility, continues.