During Succot, we went on a pilgrimage.
Not to Jerusalem – that would be
too easy given that it’s only a short car ride from where my wife and I live.
Instead, we went on the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James,
in northwestern Spain.
There is of course a Jerusalem connection:
according to legend, the remains of St. James, one of the 12 apostles and the
only one to be martyred, were carried by boat from Jerusalem to Spain, where he
was buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela, the
end destination of the pilgrimage.
Tens of thousands of people walk the
Camino every year and, I suspect, the majority of them do so more as a hiking
holiday than an act of spiritual penance. Certainly that was my attitude as we
set out to cover 10 days of the trail – to complete the whole 800 or so
kilometers of the way would take around five weeks, depending on one’s
Nevertheless, while walking 20-plus km. every day, hiking up and
down mountain passes in the Pyrenees and then through the vineyards of Rioja
country and dozens of small villages, all dominated by one, or sometimes two
enormous churches or monasteries, one couldn’t help but switch off from the
thoughts that dominate day-to-day life back home and adopt a different
Coping with the physical demands of hard walking, day after day,
took priority and helped one become re-acquainted with the essentials of life:
simple food and drink, good health and a place to sleep at night.
middle-class, middle-aged traveler, who knows he has a comfortable home to
return to after the end of two weeks, there is something liberating about
traveling on foot from place to place, all one’s possessions carefully repacked,
every day, in a rucksack weighing no more than seven kilos, including that most
indispensable of modern-day items, an iPad.
There is also a communal
aspect to the pilgrimage: you are not walking the trail by yourself but
alongside a group of people with whom you continually bump into, both while
hiking during the day and in the evening, when relaxing over a chilled beer or
bottle of wine with supper at a restaurant or sharing a dormitory with them at
AND IT’S these chance encounters with people that leave the
There was a group of extremely fit 70-year-old
Canadians – three married couples – with whom we shared one memorable
conversation. We were talking about nationality – how I as an English Jew
decided to make my home in Israel, and they discussing how their parents, all
dedicated believers of the Dutch Reformed Church, decided to leave Holland after
the Second World War and make a new life for themselves in Canada.
the conversation, one of the men revealed that his parents had once received a
letter from Israel from a Jewish man they had hid during the Holocaust in
Holland, and said that he often wondered what had happened to that man’s family.
The man said it matter-of-factly, as if hiding Jews from the Nazis was nothing
out of the ordinary.
It took some persuading to get him to send a copy of
this letter to Yad Vashem so that his parents could possibly be recognized as
Given that his parents were long dead, he argued,
such an honor was basically meaningless. He only began to budge when I pointed
out that one of the lessons of the Holocaust must be, that besides all the
horror, there were people like his parents prepared to risk their lives to help
save persecuted Jews and that such heroism must be lauded.
Not all the
conversations reached such lofty heights – most of them centered on the
comforts, or lack thereof, of different hostels along the way and the state of
one’s feet and general physical tiredness – but still, the feeling of belonging
to a temporary community, sharing the same purpose despite widely different
backgrounds and nationalities, elevated the journey from a simple physical
challenge to something perhaps approaching the meaning of a
Every now and again, it is important to take a time out and
realize that there is more that unites as human beings, regardless of background
and nationality, than divides us. The more we close ourselves in, both as
individuals and as a nation state, the more we stand to lose.The writer
is a former editor-in-chief of
The Jerusalem Post.
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