Before I knew her and her family at Congregation Beth Ahm, and before I knew her as a community organizer and activist, Sam Woll z"l was my student at the University of Michigan, by happenstance. When she was looking for a faculty advisor for her senior thesis, I happened to be visiting there that year. Long story short: I had the privilege of working with her for an academic year.
Rereading her thesis a couple weeks ago, I was reminded of a notion about what it means to write history — and, I suppose, what it means to write, in general. On some level, historians write about themselves. We are drawn, often unselfconsciously, to those aspects of the past that resonate most deeply with those aspects of the present that we find most important and most meaningful.
Sam was no exception, in this regard. The subject of her thesis was a medieval Spanish Jewish writer, Benjamin of Tudela, who is best known for travelling across the Jewish world. The travelogue he wrote as a series of reflections of these travels, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, is singularly important as a window into the lives of 12th century Jews, in Spain and across the Jewish world.
This travelogue is more than simply a compendium of Jews and the places and broader communities in which they lived. Sam explored its many facets in her thesis, titled "Between Spain and Zion: The Juxtaposition of Diaspora and Exile in the Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela." One of his main objectives in undertaking this journey was, as Sam notes, "to link the various Jewish Communities scattered across the Mediterranean or, at minimum, for Jews living in these various communities to be able to share their experiences with one another."
In other words, one of Benjamin's goals was to help Jewish communities learn not only about each other's customs and culture, but from each other's successes and failures. The onerous task of forging links between Jewish communities at a time when these communities lived largely in virtual isolation of each other was one of the principle aims of Benjamin's travels and themes in his travelogue.
This same goal, in no small part, was at the heart of Sam's tireless work on behalf of the various communities, Jewish and otherwise, of which she was an integral member, participant and contributor. Just as the Itinerary connected Jews across physical and cultural distance, Sam helped Jews of different religious and political temperaments, and Jews and non-Jews, connect with each other and know each other better. She was the spoon that stirred the soup made of a diverse array of human components.
The other recurring theme of the Itinerary was the ever-present tension between exile and diaspora in the way Jews understood their place in the world. While Jewish notions of exile and diaspora refer geographically to the same place — everywhere outside of Eretz Yisrael — the two terms have distinct valances. Exile conveys a sense of displacement, dislocation and alienation; diaspora, by contrast, conveys a sense of rootedness and belonging. Jews in exile feel the loss of homeland and longing to return there, a sense of incompleteness. Jews in the diaspora immerse themselves in a broader world that welcomes them in varying degrees.
In Jewish tradition, the first to define the difference between exile and diaspora was the Prophet Jeremiah, who articulated a crucial alternative to the prevailing Jewish responses to exile — lament and despair. In Jeremiah 29, essentially an open letter to the Jews who were exiled from Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Jeremiah introduces the possibility that Jews who continue to be Jewish and live as a community outside of the Land of Israel — hitherto a revolutionary notion in Jewish History. A pivotal element of this new possibility was his instruction that Jews see themselves not only as part of a Jewish world but also participants in and contributors to the broader world around them: "Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall find peace." (Jeremiah 29:7)
Commenting on this verse, Sam noted that "although the Jews were to be in exile, there was still meaning and significance to be found beyond simply waiting for its end." Jews in Spain were keenly aware of this tension between the rootedness of diaspora and the rootlessness of exile. Jews like Benjamin of Tudela lived in a richly textured world of Judaism and a mainstream culture, Hebrew and vernacular culture, Talmud and Greek Philosophy; and regarded participating in and working to improve both words as the dual hallmark of a full Jewish life that balanced notions of exile and diaspora.
Sam's life and worldview exemplified this age-old Jewish notion of a life in balance. She was dedicated to the values of Judaism and Zionism, and to improving Jewish life in the diaspora and in Israel; and no less to the Jewish responsibility to make the world a better place — locally, regionally, globally — for everyone, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
May her memory be a blessing.