In 1991, Jay Garfinkel, an independent television producer, was commissioned by the Library of Congress to produce Christopher Columbus: God, Gold, and Glory, a television special commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. Garfinkel’s research at the Library of Congress—which holds original documents and maps of the Columbus expedition—resolved an issue that has been the subject of persistent scholarly speculation: Columbus, Garfinkel concluded, was not Jewish.

But while poring over the library’s extensive collections, Garfinkel found that Jewish explorers had been among those who had once crisscrossed the globe. Intrigued, he began gathering information more vigorously. His newly published book, Wanderlust: 20 Extraordinary Travel Adventures, is an anthology of 500 years of travel writing by explorers of Jewish origin. Garfinkel, the book’s editor, wrote introductory chapters summarizing the career of each.

If one stops to think about it, few if any Jewish explorers leap immediately to mind. Yet Garfinkel says that the dynamics of the post-Roman Jewish Diaspora actually made Jews extraordinarily well-placed to travel the globe. At a time when Christians and Muslims sought to bar each other from their respective homelands, Jews were frequently able to operate as middlemen. Whenever Jews moved between port cities, they were able to communicate—either in Hebrew or in a related dialect—with Jews already living there.

By the dawn of the age of exploration—the late 15th and early 16th centuries—Jews had assembled the requisite experience, maps, and personal connections to make their mark. Abraham Zacuto, a 15th-century astronomer and Spanish exile living in Lisbon, not only invented the copper astrolabe, a vital navigation tool, but he outfitted both Columbus and Vasco da Gama with nautical charts. About the same time, Jewish map-maker Jehuda Cresques was tapped by Portugal’s Henry the Navigator to run the first European school for navigation.

Garfinkel says that Jewish explorers generally receive less attention in the history books than do Christian explorers; in fact, it was one of the reasons he put the book together. Though he found brief references to many explorers in the pages of Jewish encyclopedias published in 1907 and 1974, locating anything more substantial often proved difficult.

“The question I always had was, ‘Why the hell were [these explorers] doing this?’” he says. “They endured tremendous hardship. They did things that no sane person would do. They put their lives in danger. In most cases, their family relationships were broken because of what they endured. A general goes to conquer, and gold-seekers go to get rich. With them, you can understand the motivations. But these guys are like Star Trek, where you’re not supposed to impose yourself or change people—you’re just supposed to report what you find.”

Garfinkel, 52, now has a documentary in the works about one of his explorers: Emil Bessels, who was the chief science officer on the Polaris, a doomed, 19th-century U.S. arctic-exploration ship. When the ship was crushed by an iceberg, the crew had to float for 1,800 miles on an ice floe before being rescued—six months later. The story became a sensation. “It has all the elements of a great documentary,” he says. “Science, heroes, villains, mystery, and death.”

As something of a guilty pleasure, Garfinkel—who has traveled widely, including a stint in the ’80s as head of television production for Voice of America—reprinted some of his own travel writings in his anthology. “I don’t consider myself like the others, who lived in jungles and ice floes,” he acknowledges. “I’m just a fellow who likes to travel and write about it. There’s room for that in any anthology.” —Louis Jacobson