Reality Check: The Camino de Santiago

During Succot, we went on a pilgrimage.

JEFF BARAK and his wife, Yemima 370 (photo credit: Jeff Barak)
JEFF BARAK and his wife, Yemima 370
(photo credit: Jeff Barak)
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 fitness.
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 outlook.
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.
For the 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 night.
AND IT’S these chance encounters with people that leave the strongest impressions.
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.
During 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 Righteous Gentiles.
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 pilgrimage.
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.