I sat down to read the New York Times Travel section, which this week featured a major piece on Jerusalem. By the second paragraph, I was shaking my head in disbelief.
The author, Matt Gross, declared up front that “I will go pretty much anywhere, anytime” as a travel writer. Yet, in the very next paragraph, he revealed that “of the world’s roughly 200 nations, there was only one – besides Afghanistan and Iraq (which my wife has deemed too dangerous) – that I had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting: Israel.”
Two paragraphs later, he took a stab at explaining why: “But to me, a deeply secular Jew, Israel has always felt less like a country than a politically iffy burden. For decades I’d tried to put as much distance between myself and Judaism as possible, and the idea that I was supposed to feel some connection to my ostensible homeland seemed ridiculous. Give me Montenegro, Chiapas, Iran even. But Israel was like Christmas: something I’d never do.”
Actually, I was hoping for a happy ending after that kind of set-up – some realization that, as a first-time visitor, Gross had forged a bond with Israel, that would outlast his stay. Yet, unless the tug of the Austrian Hospice, “my own secret hideout,” or the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, “now my favorite church in the world,” or the Barood bar, can lure him back, it didn’t seem to happen.
It almost goes without saying that the New York Times would find a travel writer on Jerusalem who brings some heavy-duty baggage to the topic. In this case, he turns out to be a person whose self-declared curiosity extends to every country – remember that Iraq and Afghanistan are off limits only because of a jittery wife – except one, Israel.
And this is my point. It’s that a travel writer by profession could proudly proclaim no place – not, in his own words, Bridgeport, Connecticut, nor Iran, nor Chiapas – was beyond his scope of interest, save the Jewish state.
And yes, that he considers his Jewish identity relevant to his self-description only makes matters worse.
How can it be that a (Jewish) travel writer could work in the field for so long and only because of a chance meeting with a friend reverse course – “suddenly feeling life calling my bluff” – and journey to Jerusalem, otherwise bypassing one of the most intriguing cities in one of the world’s most interesting countries?
But then again, for Gross, I repeat, “Israel felt less like a country than a politically iffy burden.”
Does Israel somehow make his life uncomfortable as “a deeply secular Jew,” while those pesky Israelis endlessly deal with the messy demands of sovereignty and neighbors who aren’t always ready, even after 63 years, to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist? Would his self-image and place in the world be enhanced if only Israel closed up shop?
Funny how no other country awakens in him such feelings. He’s ready to go anywhere, he says, as if there were no other “politically iffy burdens” in the world, no other countries in conflict, no other territorial disputes, or, unlike Israel, no countries with major issues of domestic political legitimacy.
I understand that Judaism means little to him. He’s not alone. But if he’s willing to call himself a Jew, as he does, was there nothing about the Jewish state – its history, archaeology, society, complex tapestry, geopolitics, culture, or psyche – that aroused the faintest curiosity in all these years?
Does Gross think he was dropped by parachute onto this earth, disconnected from a past that, yes, originates in the Middle East, and not in the shtetls or in the suburbs of Boston where he was born?
Does he not realize that without this part of the world - without Jerusalem, without the Bible and the prophets who roamed the Land, without a territorial linkage, however abstract it might have become to some in centuries of Diaspora living - there would be no Jewish people today, not even "deeply secular" Jews?
And since he did visit Yad Vashem, where he described himself as moved by this “hellaciously detailed museum,” might he have reflected on the meaning of Israel for those who found refuge there? Or those who might have been saved had a Jewish state existed in the 1930s, at a time when Bridgeport, Connecticut, Iran, and Chiapas weren’t falling all over themselves to offer a new home to Europe’s beleaguered Jews? Instead, within a sentence, he moved on to his principal quest, as he said, in the western part of Jerusalem: “eating well.”
Sadly, of course, Gross is not unique. I know other American Jews for whom Israel has no meaning, no calling. They’ll travel to the ends of the earth – from Tibet to Timbuktu, from Botswana to Bali – but always skip Israel.
It’s a shame.
They’re missing out on an essential, and deeply fulfilling, part of their identity. For all of its daily challenges, the rebirth of Israel is nothing less than a modern-day miracle. How many Jews over the centuries, recognizing the intrinsic link between the land and people, would have given anything to witness, savor, feel, and experience the State of Israel!
That connection may not have happened, at least not yet, for Gross, who doubtless will rush off to Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as his wife gives him a green light, unfazed there by “politically iffy burdens.” But ask other first-time visitors to Jerusalem how they feel and you’re likely to catch the twinkle in their eye.
It’s only unfortunate that the Times’ editors didn’t turn to one of them – with the writing talent and absent the heavy psychological baggage – to author this featured travel article.