In his last blogs, Charles Lon­don talked about a col­lect­ed Jew­ish muse­um and the Abayu­daya Jews of Ugan­da.

The ancient Israelites and I have some­thing in com­mon. When we trav­el, we tend to under pack the essen­tials — food, water, leav­ened bread — and to over pack books. They had the Torah, which I imag­ine was total­ly imprac­ti­cal in the desert. I have a library card from the New York Pub­lic Library, my own kind of Mt. Sinai, and before I trav­el, I stop by and try to choose books to take. As I often trav­el alone, I take the choice of my com­pan­ions very seriously.

Dur­ing research for my first book, I head­ed to war zones and refugee camps to work with chil­dren, and need­ed read­ing that would inspire, uplift, inform, and occa­sion­al­ly, dis­tract. I went with Virgil’s Aeneid and Christo­pher Logue’s War Music. I brought along Nel­son DeMille for when I need­ed to escape, and there was always a book on the region where I was head­ing — The Bridge on the Dri­na  by Ivo Andric for Bosnia, Adam Hochschild’s stun­ning King Leopold’s Ghost when I found myself in the Congo.

I took Rud­yard Kipling’s Kim to Bur­ma, where I would be talk­ing to plen­ty of orphans and street urchins, but I brought along the first in the Han­ni­bal Lecter series, Red Drag­on, and a heavy book about the mil­i­tary jun­ta, Liv­ing Silence.

I had my clas­sics, my irrel­e­vant thrillers, my infor­ma­tive non­fic­tion. It was all pret­ty clear and I always packed more books than I could ever read while I was work­ing. I rarely trav­el for pleasure.

But then I set out on a year-long jour­ney to far-flung and unlike­ly cor­ners of the Jew­ish Dias­po­ra. I didn’t know what to bring. DeMille felt too pro­fane. Kipling felt irrel­e­vant. Jew­ish Pirates of the Caribbean was checked out.

Mon­day morn­ing ser­vices at the largest syn­a­gogue in Tehran

I couldn’t bring any­thing too polit­i­cal, either, rul­ing out so much. Burmese immi­gra­tion agents might go through my bags; the Ira­ni­ans and the Cubans cer­tain­ly would. One doesn’t real­ize the lim­its on free speech in the world until one starts to choose books for a long jour­ney. I had no desire to go to prison for a stray copy of Exo­dus or Portnoy’s Com­plaint.

Geral­dine Brooks’ Peo­ple of the Book would be fine for my return to trip to Bosnia, with its com­pelling tales of the Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah, mix­ing the thrilling, the lit­er­ary, and the divine, but oth­er­wise, I was at a loss.

What kind of books do you take on a spir­i­tu­al quest?

I knew the Five Books of Moses made sense, even though it stirred ter­ri­ble mem­o­ries of Hebrew school. Revis­it­ing the sto­ries could ground me in the nar­ra­tive that uni­fied the Jews of Bur­ma with the Jews of Ugan­da and of Arkansas. They could be that nor­ma­tive doc­u­ment that would locate me in our peo­ple­hood, while I found my head swirling through cul­tures and time zones, eat­ing fes­en­jan in Iran and brisket in Arkansas, look­ing for the best roux in New Orleans, or hav­ing man­goes plucked right from the trees just before Sab­bath in Ugan­da. God knows food wouldn’t uni­fy my journey.

I need­ed more books.

I packed Buber’s On Judaism, and a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries by Isaac Bashe­vis SingerThe Pen­guin Book of Hebrew Verse  seemed an inspired find — 3,000 years of poet­ic rumi­na­tion on God, Dias­po­ra, faith, and even being drunk. I planned to explore all those things. It was nice to have the old poets as my guide.

But I wor­ried that the friend­ly offi­cer at Imam Khome­ni Air­port out­side of Tehran would be sus­pi­cious of the Hebrew and Yid­dish in the poems, think­ing me some kind of Zion­ist agi­ta­tor. He didn’t even look at bag, much less in it. Why hadn’t I brought Jour­ney from the Land of No, Roya Hakakian’s mem­oir about being a young Jew­ish girl caught up in the 1979 rev­o­lu­tion against the Shah? Why hadn’t I brought Peace Be Upon You, an explo­ration of Mus­lim, Jew­ish, and Chris­t­ian coop­er­a­tion through­out the cen­turies? I found myself lament­ing all the books I didn’t bring. No Sholem Ale­ichem? No Phillip Roth at all? Should I have brought a Jew­ish cook­book? More reli­gious writ­ing? Some Chabon? The Acci­den­tal Empire or The Case for Israel? Why had no one trans­lat­ed the great Jew­ish Cuban authors into Eng­lish? Where was the epic of African Jew­ry? What was I missing?

In every air­port, at night in every hos­tel or hotel or long dark bus ride, I found myself lament­ing those books I hadn’t brought, the writ­ing that could have shed some light on my search­ing that I would nev­er know. I nev­er missed clean socks or malar­ia pills or a decent first aid kit. I missed books. Per­haps that was the tru­ly Jew­ish expe­ri­ence I’d been look­ing for.

Charles Lon­don, the author of One Day the Sol­diers Came: Voic­es of Chil­dren in War and the just-released Far from Zion: In Search of a Glob­al Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty, has been guest-blog­ging for MyJew­ish­Learn­ing and the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week. Vis­it Far From Zion, his offi­cial website.