The Arty Semite

When Traveling in America Meant Trouble

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

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Flickr/Count Rushmore

Crossposted From Under The Fig Tree

For centuries, taking to the road has been the stuff of grand adventure and equally grand literature. From Benjamin of Tudela’s 12th century “Book of Travels” to Jack Kerouac’s 1957 “On the Road,” travel has been bound up with freedom and an enhanced sense of self.

But what if travel turned out to be more a matter of constraint, of diminished expectations, than of affirmation?

Consider the experience of kosher-keeping Jews in America of the early 1900s, at a time when kosher food was hard to come by. For them, traveling throughout the United States was surely no picnic.

To ensure that those American Jews who observed the dietary laws at home could maintain them while on the road as well, the United Synagogue of America published a pocket-sized compendium listing those venues where a good kosher meal could be had. Its “Directory of Kosher Hotels, Boarding Houses and Restaurants in the United States” (1919) provided a detailed list of “racial restaurants” where America’s Jews could find a ready welcome and an ample menu.

For African Americans, in turn, the pleasures of travel in the United States were mitigated not by the dictates of religion but by the cruelties of racial prejudice, which severely hampered their freedom of movement. By supplying a list of hotels and “tourist homes” where African American travelers might safely rest their heads, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” (1936) held the world at bay.

As much a form of travel literature as Kerouac’s salute or Benjamin of Tudela’s picaresque tales, this text is the subject of a new play, “The Green Book,” which will be given a staged reading in Washington, D.C., next month, under the aegis of Theater J and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

With my students in tow, I hope to be on hand for that event. And who knows? Perhaps it’ll even give rise to a brand new course.


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