Travel As A Religious Act

Turning a trip into a pilgrimage.

Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Insistence on following my own instincts nearly got me kicked out of my hotel in Israel several years ago.

Accompanying a delegation from the U.S. — the sponsoring organization shall go unnamed — on a 10-day “educational” trip whose itinerary was planned in meticulous detail, each hour of the day and many of the nights accounted for, I found some of the activities of little interest. With my paper’s consent, I always inform the sponsors of such trips in advance that while I certainly would write about their activities, I was not beholden to strictly follow their advice about the itinerary or interview subjects, and they would have no control over the finished product. This is standard journalistic practice among publications that decide to accept such trips. In Israel, I skipped several group events in favor of individual interviews or research I deemed more productive.

The contact person was livid. We determine where you should go, she blustered. We know what’s better for you. We know the tradition.

I ignored her. I was in Israel for me and my paper. In the end (the contact person didn’t carry through her threat of evicting me from the group’s hotel), I’m sure I gained more from my personal choices than from the get-on/get-off/move-on itinerary the sponsors favored. As it turned out, I legitimately wrote several stories based on my time in Israel. The sponsoring organization had no complaints.

This memory resurfaced recently while reading “Travel as a Political Act,” a collection of musings and reflections by travel guru Rick Steves, host of PBS travelogues and author of a series of “field reports.” The soulful book by a man who calls himself “a comfortable, white, Protestant, suburban American,” who has treaded much of the First-to-Third World, offers a spiritual guide to travel — traveling for one’s soul, not for a photo album; traveling to learn, not to gawk; traveling as a student of what the foreign can teach, not as a lecturer about the foreigner should learn.

Which is why I thought of my decade-old encounter in Israel. I would not get the most out of my limited time in Israel, I knew, if I followed someone else’s lead around the clock. Every trip to Israel — and to Jewish venues I’ve visited on every inhabited continent — becomes part pilgrimage, even if the formal purpose is journalistic.

Inspired by Steves, I have put together some guidelines for travel as a religious act: Slow down, listen to your own voice, don’t follow the crowd, respect local traditions, know when to keep quiet, be willing to be a participant instead of an observer and acknowledge the value of the journey as equal to the value of reaching a destination.

Don’t accept secondary sources. My yeshiva rabbis always encourage me to look “inside” for myself, not to automatically accept anyone’s interpretation of a biblical or Talmudic phrase. 

For instance, I made one trip to Jordan nearly 25 years ago, when the Hashemite Kingdom appeared to be the second Arab country willing to make peace with Israel. I went to Israel that year. Not satisfied with asking Jewish experts there about Jordan, I decided to see for myself. Crossing back and forth, schlepping a suitcase of kosher food, figuring out an unknown culture ... all were a hassle. But the insights I gained from a week with Arab academics and Arab shopkeepers were invaluable.

Learn the language. In prayer, you miss nuances if you depend on a translation. Likewise, when I travel, I always learn the country’s language, at least several hundred crucial words. You can’t get lost on the street, and people appreciate the effort.

In Bulgaria, I covered a program teaching families to conduct their own seders. One class featured a “Wheel of Fortune”-ish game, questions and answers in Bulgarian. I was persuaded to participate. The emcee, I figured, would quiz me in English. I was wrong. I knew enough simple Bulgarian to answer two questions correctly. For the rest of my time there, every door opened to me.

Unfortunately, for the rest of the time many people assumed I could speak fluent Bulgarian.

Keep an open mind. In Torah study, you stay at a superficial level if you don’t move beyond first impressions.

In Albania a decade ago, at the end of the refugee crisis created by the war over the former Yugoslavia’s Kosovo territory, I volunteered in a refugee camp administered by the Joint Distribution Committee and wrote some stories for this paper. I was particularly interested in one potential story that involved a Muslim Albanian, recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, who had risked his life to save 26 Jews during World War II.

During my free time, I desperately tried to locate the man, or a living relative. No one knew the family. Meanwhile, I kept getting calls from someone from the “Albanian-Israeli Friendship Society” who wanted to meet me. Not interested, I kept putting him off. Finally, to stop the noodging, I agreed. He pulled up in front of my inn, in a clunky Eastern European car; a swarthy man sat quietly in the back seat.

The Friendship Society young man introduced himself, and then pointed to the stranger. “His father and he saved some Jews from the Nazis.” A bell rang in my head. “Ask him how many.” 

The young man translated the old man’s answer. “26.” 

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

 

 

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