May 22, 2010
A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED TOURIST IN THE HOLY LAND
Recently I’ve been poring over my collection of guidebooks in anticipation of our upcoming trip to Israel. I’ve got the latest Fodor’s, but I am also paging through a yellowing copy of a guide that was first published in Israel in 1956. As a bookmark, I am using a postcard that was mailed from the King David Hotel to our family home in Culver City only a few years after statehood.
Unique among my travel resources, however, is “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide” by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman (Jewish Lights Publishing: $18.95, 243 pps.). More than a mere guidebook, however, it must be described as nothing less than a guide for the perplexed tourist to Israel.
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land is an ancient tradition, of course, but not much in fashion in Jewish circles nowadays. “Secularism runs so deep that we often reduce spiritual moments to mere lessons in history,” complains Rabbi Hoffman. “We are good at history, good at aesthetics, not so good at the life of the spirit.”
So Rabbi Hoffman offers his book as a corrective: “A Companion for the Modern Pilgrim” is its unapologetic subtitle. “[T]ourism is the wrong word for what Jews do when they go to Israel.”
The book begins with readings, meditations, and prayers that are offered as spiritual exercises to prepare the reader for travel to Israel. Once on the ground in Eretz Yisrael, he encourages us to deepen our experience by focusing on the religious significance of the places we visit: “For tourists, the world is made of ‘sights’; for pilgrims, it consists of ‘sites,’” he explains. “A ‘sight’ is only to be seen, whereas a ‘site’ retains its existence even if no one ever sees it.”
Rabbi Hoffman is unafraid of sentimentality and always seeks out the spiritual dimension of travel in Israel. He offers a collection of prayerful “acknowledgments” to be recited or sung at various places around Israel, including one that is “to be said, perhaps, in the fields of a kibbutz” — “Dress me, good mother, in a robe of many colors,” goes the poem “Toil” by Abraham Shlonsky. “Lead me at dawn to work.”
Many guidebooks offer advice on the best places to find an exceptional falafel stand or a fine meal, but “Israel: A Spiritual Guide” is less concerned with what or where we eat in Israel than with achieving the proper kavannah — spiritual consciousness and intention — when we “[share] a meal of thanksgiving and celebration on sacred soil.”
Only rarely does the harsh reality of the here and now penetrate the pages of “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide.” For example, Rabbi Hoffman prescribes a ritual to be observed at “the sites where the Bible says our Matriarchs and Patriarchs are buried.” But he acknowledgers that there are risks in visiting Hebron and Bethlehem: “Political considerations may make such a visit physically dangerous,” he cautions, although he also holds out the hope that “a secure and lasting peace will open Hebron and Bethlehem to Jewish pilgrimage.” To which we should say: “Amen!”
Perhaps the most appealing quality of Rabbi Hoffman’s book is the fact that it is not a one-way experience — he provides blank pages where the reader can enter his or her own reflections and experiences, thus turning “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide” into a travel journal to be cherished over a lifetime and handed down, like my 1956 guidebook, as a family treasure.
(For the sake of full disclosure, I am obliged — and proud — to say that, over the years, I have consulted with Jewish Lights Publishing, the publisher of “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide,” on business matters unrelated to this book.)
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of 13 books, including “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.” He can be reached at email@example.com.