“Away, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.” — “Shenandoah,” American folk song
From Lewis and Clark to Thelma and Louise, the long-haul, emotion-laden journey is hard wired into the American soul. Huck and Jim on the raft, the stars glistening over the Mississippi; Ishmael in the crow’s nest atop the Pequod, the roll and swell of a vast ocean meshed with his own beating heart; Kerouac on the road, chasing the sunset; Nat Cole swinging through Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino along Route 66 — journeys both literal and mystical define our national character. To cover ground, to light out for the territory — and to come back transformed, new — this is part of what it is to be American.
We cover some ground in this year’s issue of our annual magazine, Directions. Some of it is physical ground, sure, but the bulk of it is inner, spiritual ground. And it’s something of a departure for us. Other editions of the magazine have been more outer-directed, with an emphasis on trend spotting. Last year it was 18 people who inspired us; a few years ago it was changes taking place in the Jewish family; a few years before that it was the burgeoning Israeli community in New York.
This year’s model is more personal, more impressionistic. The journeys aren’t so much out into the community as journeys of self-discovery, the kind Nick Carraway takes as he lugs his Midwestern morality to the East End of Long Island and is pulled into Gatsby’s orbit. Or the one that Abraham takes from Ur to Haran to Canaan, along the way becoming a new man with a new name, and a deepened faith. “Lech lecha,” God tells Abram, “go forth.” And so we’re off, Whitman-like, the song of the open road ringing in our ears, until we too “know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.”
One stop along the way is upstate Monsey, an ultra-Orthodox village in Rockland County. There, in a crowded Orthodox study hall on long summer afternoons an inquisitive but religiously tentative journalist drinks water from an ancient well, quenching his thirst for a deeper Jewish engagement. Another stop is modern-day Berlin, brimming with life yet dripping with loss. As a young New York writer retraces her grandmother’s footsteps, she discovers that what’s present and what’s absent are her strolling companions. And in another kind of roots journey, an amateur genealogist’s wanderings — inspired by a long-lost relative she discovers who played a role in the Resistance — take her to a Franciscan monastery in Budapest. Inside those quiet walls, she offers a simple thank-you to the monks there for what those in their order had done 60 years before: hidden Jews marked for death — one bravely delivered there by her cousin Eva — in a room with windows facing only an interior courtyard, safely hidden from the street; shelter from the storm.
An Upper West Side journey unfolds as a secular Jewish family takes a leap of faith that tests its values. How to make one day of the week transcend time? How to create a Day of Rest where two adults and two children can together slip the bonds of daily life and sing hymns at heaven’s gate? The old/new world of Poland — the country of the Jewish killing fields and the fascination with all things Jewish — provides the backdrop for a coming-of-age journey filled with stunning paradoxes. A first-time visitor to Israel on a Birthright trip falls hard for the country, and its soldiers, as if Ari Ben Canaan himself had boarded her tour bus.
And in a uniquely told convert’s tale, illustrator Isaac Peterson draws his remarkable journey as a kind of graphic novel. It takes him from the northern lights of Alaska to the bright lights of New York City, and eventually to the sacred flame of Shabbat candles. In that sanctified light he sees reflected both his love of nature and his love for his Jewish wife; paradise lost, paradise found.
“Camerado,” Walt Whitman implores, “I give you my hand!/ Will you give me yourself. Will you come travel with me?/ Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?”
And that ribbon of highway rolls on, our stories hitched to it.
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