Arts and Culture | Local | Travel | World

With real-life travel curtailed, Tucsonan’s Jewish travel podcast is unique opportunity

A travel group (minus leader and photographer Tom Price) on tour in Fez, Morocco, once a major center of Jewish life. (Photo courtesy Tom Price)

International travelers seeking new and exciting experiences can depart today from Tucson, or anywhere, at no cost, with no passport, and with no travel restrictions. All that’s required is an Internet connection, a digital device, some curiosity, and one’s attention for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.

Tom Price

Around the Jewish World with Tom Price,” a podcast series produced from Price’s Tucson home, covers how Jews came to populate some faraway places that have played major roles in history, yet are not necessarily on the bucket lists of even more seasoned travelers.

Want to visit Montenegro and learn how a rabbi is breathing new life into a small but vibrant Jewish community? Wondering why the owners of a restaurant in northern Greece speak Spanish due to the fascinating history of Jews in the region? Aching to know more about the remarkable confluence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Cordoba over several centuries?

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It’s all part of the journey when you’re online with Price who, prior to COVID-19’s disruption of physical travel, was leading small group tours to places of historical significance to Jews and non-Jews alike.

“My podcasts focus on general history, geography, and culture, weaving in the Jewish experience of places that, for most travelers, are off the beaten track,” Price says of the series, which can be accessed by a browser search of its title or via its Facebook page. “My aim is to share what I’ve learned and experiences I’ve had over the years, including the insights of some interesting people I’ve come to know.”

A former U.S. diplomat turned Judaic scholar, Price brings deep knowledge and decades of travel experience to the series of expertly researched yet unscripted podcasts that are unique in the realm of virtual travel. The result is a highly authentic narrative honed from a life spent visiting more than 140 countries and acquiring proficiency in more than a dozen languages.

In addition to general information on the nations, regions, and cities he features in each episode, Price informs listeners about migrations to and the building of historic centers of Jewish life, how Jewish identity flourished and was challenged in these places, Jews’ relationships with other religions and local governments in the past and present, and more.

“I’m essentially following an abridged version of my approach to leading on-the-ground tours,” Price says of the podcast episodes. “That is, to visit out-of-the-way places and meet people with the stories and insights you won’t find in any guidebook.”

Since turning 21, Price has led trips to Europe, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

His educational and professional backgrounds, commitment to lifelong learning, and wanderlust have fueled a longstanding interest in educating others through travel.

While receiving his undergraduate degree in social relations at Harvard University, Price worked on a grant for social science research in India and Sri Lanka and studied at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He went on to receive a master’s in education from Harvard, then worked in London for the World Union of Jewish Students, during which time he traveled to Morocco, Rhodesia, Costa Rica, Panama, and other nations.

In 1978, Price attained his security clearance with the U.S. Department of State and entered the foreign service. Following postings in Europe and Africa, Price worked at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.

There, between meetings with leaders of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as part of his duties, Price organized Jewish experiences in informal settings, including dinners at his home on Jewish holidays. He hosted people of Jewish backgrounds, or those who were simply interested in Jewish life.

“We probably had every Jew at the time in Pakistan, all 35 or so, and these evenings were done in a semi-clandestine way so as not to attract unwanted attention,” he says.

Colleagues view Price as a master travel planner who also knows when to slow down and savor the lesser-known aspects, as well as the food and wine, of a particular area. Retired U.S. Ambassador Eileen A. Malloy, who entered foreign service in the same cohort as Price and later travelled with him, points to Price’s “interest in the ethnic and cultural backgrounds that have created these modern cities.”

“Carpets of the region represent elements of cultural life,” notes Malloy, an avid photographer. “I’ll look at a carpet and see the colors and patterns. Tom will look at the same carpet and be fascinated by the style of knot and references in the work.”

Following more than 20 years of diplomatic service, Price worked in Vienna on the international staff of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, continuing his travels throughout the world.

“I’ve lived most of my adult life overseas,” Price says. “Consequently, many of my best friends live in other countries.”

Price has arranged meetings with some of his closest contacts for groups he’s led abroad, allowing these experts to provide additional perspective on the complex histories and societies of certain areas. Past sessions have included discussions with the Turkish ambassador to the Republic of Georgia, or the Swiss ambassador to Kyiv in Ukraine.

“In Northwestern Ukraine there’s a town called Lviv,” Price says when asked about one of his groups’ more memorable experiences. “On the eve of World War II there were about 200,000 Jews in a city of half a million people. The first Yiddish newspaper was published there. Today it has a Chabad rabbi and there are maybe a thousand Jews. There are old storefronts that still have Yiddish lettering stenciled on them from prior to the Holocaust, remnants of what is called Old Jewish Street. Most of the people on the tour had never heard of the place, yet at no other place on that trip did they feel more Jewish.”

Price moved to Tucson for a new job in 2001, just prior to the events of 9/11. When the position was put on hold, he fulfilled requests by CNN and other network news organizations to appear on air and provide expert commentary about the terrorist attacks.

Over the next 19 years, Price was an adjunct professor in Judaic studies at the University of Arizona, during which time he served as faculty host for overseas trips sponsored by UA’s alumni association.

Price began leading tours of his own design, largely for friends and acquaintances, in 2016, completing several until earlier this year. He’s already organized his next group tour to take place once COVID-19 is no longer curtailing international travel, with an itinerary of Kyiv and Odessa in Ukraine; Tbilisi, Georgia; and Istanbul, Turkey.

Meanwhile, Price invites armchair travelers to tune into his podcasts.

“Wherever I may be or whatever I may be doing professionally, I’ve always felt some responsibility to educate others about the Jewish experience,” he says. “It might be arranging a visit to a religious site, a hospital, or a cemetery. I feel related to all Jews in the world, and I believe it’s important to maintain a sense of community.”

Jon Kasle is a communications consultant and freelance writer.