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The Camino de Santiago- A Modern Pilgrimage

In theory, the medieval pilgrimage routes of Europe shouldn’t have held any special allure for me. “It’s such a Christian thing,” several people commented when I told them about our travel plans. I am a 53-year-old Jew, but I am also a lover of the outdoors, of physical challenge, and of meditation. John and I wanted a taste, so we chose a relatively short section, 210km, 10 days, on the Camino de Santiago, a thousand mile and thousand year old migratory path that culminates in Santiago de Compostela, Spain with an emotional mass held in its ornate cathedral.

After attending the high mass (yes, the mass…) with Catholic rites and flair galore, my husband and I found ourselves roaming city streets in search of Jerusalem street, the center of the Jewish quarter that existed before the Inquisition. Where did our people fit in? We were migratory, we were spiritual, where were the monuments to Jews along this meditative way? All we found on the crooked alleyway was a bookstore with Judaica in its window (closed for midafternoon siesta). Still it was something, albeit small, but in a prominent location only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral.

The next morning, we flew to Marrakech, arriving at our riad in the Medina as the call to prayer was sounding. Traveling from the height of Christendom to a Muslim land was jarring. Still yearning for something of the Jewish diaspora, we visited the Synagogue of Marrakech, dating from 1492 – a year ingrained in any American schoolgirl’s head as the year when Columbus sailed the ocean blue… but it was also fourteen years after Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand began extinguishing Jews during the Spanish Inquisition.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to North Africa, the synagogue opening in Marrakech marked that Sephardic migration. I flashed back to my 7th grade French teacher, a Jew from Morocco – meeting her as a privileged, white, suburban kid in the 1970’s made an impact that has lasted to this day. Back then there was nothing more exotic to me than a French-speaking female Jew from Africa of all places. Who knew?

Over forty years later I was traveling to her homeland to hike into the High Atlas mountains. Our local guide pointed out the remains of various synagogues tucked away in small villages. Many of North Africa’s Jews were Berbers, living in these remote places. Morocco has always prided itself on being a pluralistic country, but when it achieved its independence from France in 1956, many of its Jews fled to Israel and elsewhere fearing inhospitable rule.

It wasn’t until I was sitting on the plane, writing down thoughts on the way back to North America, that I mused on our walk along the Camino followed by a journey to Morocco mirroring the migratory pattern of Jews over hundreds of years…. Walking, not toward a religious ceremony, but because they were chased out, first from Spain and Portugal and later from various North African countries.

Similar to Christianity, Islam places pilgrimage as one of its central pillars. Every year, 2-3 million Muslims make a Hajj (a word interestingly sharing the same root as the Hebrew word “chagag” meaning to make a pilgrimage) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This happens during a five-day period, starting on 8 and ending on 12 Dhu al-Hijjah, the twelfth and last month of the Islamic calendar. It is required that Muslims make this journey once in a lifetime. Their pilgrimage is a demonstration of Muslim solidarity as well as an opportunity to shed material trappings, to focus on self over outward appearance. Shedding material trappings, and self-introspection was also what John and I had endeavored on the Camino.

While we walked, John and I wondered what the Jewish version of a pilgrimage would be. Before the destruction of the Temple, the Hebrew Bible commanded Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times per year: in the spring during Passover, in the summer during Shavuot, and in the fall during Sukkot. There is not a specific trail prescribed, just a returning. Next year in Jerusalem!

We googled and researched in the evening after walking. We discovered the ancient road of Abraham, called the Abraham Path, thinking it might represent the Jewish equivalent of the Camino – but such a journey seemed unrealistic in today’s political climate. It stretches from Urfa in Turkey to Hebron in the West Bank, spreading over thousands of kilometers through Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.

Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the Jews sanctifying time over place. We worship in our homes, not in ornate churches. Shabbat is our cathedral – it exists anywhere – and is marked by time and the lighting of candles, not architecture. It is the Jew’s responsibility to treat time as sacred as opposed to places. Maybe he would have told us that our most important pilgrimage isn’t through tangible geography with a large building our stadium as the end-point, but through time. Below I have copied one of my favorite poems from the Jewish liturgy which is of the same spirit:

Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness –
And often back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat –
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination;
And life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage to life everlasting.

I found a poem called “Pilgrim’s Prayer” on a postcard in one of the churches along the Camino. It asks the question: what good is a pilgrimage if you don’t bring its teachings home? It reminded me of the Jewish text in Isaiah that we read each year during Yom Kippur, “Is this the fast I desire?” asking (and I paraphrase): What is the point of a fast if you are only going to take your discomfort out on other people? A proper fast should unlock the fetters of wickedness, untie the cords of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free. During a proper fast, one should share one’s bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into one’s home; upon seeing the naked, clothe them, and not ignore one’s own kin.

Pilgrim’s Prayer
By Fraydino
Although I may have travelled all the roads
Crossed mountains and valleys from East to West,
If I have not discovered the freedom to be myself,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have shared all my possessions
With people of other languages and cultures;
Made friends with pilgrims of a thousand paths,
Or shared albergue with saints and princes,
If I am not capable of forgiving my neighbor tomorrow,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have carried my pack from beginning to end
And waited for every Pilgrim in need of encouragement,
Or given my bed to one who arrived later than I,
Given my bottle of water in exchange for nothing;
If upon returning to my home and work,
I am not able to create brotherhood
Or to make happiness, peace and unity,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have had food and water each day,
And enjoyed a roof and shower every night;
Or may have had my injuries well attended,
If I have not discovered in all that, the love of God,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have seen all the monuments
And contemplated the best sunsets;
Although I may have learned a greeting in every language
Or tasted the clean water from every fountain;
If I have not discovered who is the author
Of so much free beauty and so much peace,
I have arrived nowhere.
If from today I do not continue walking on your path,
Searching and living according to what I have learned;
If from today I do not see in every person, friend or foe
A companion on the Camino;
If from today I cannot recognize God,
As the one God of my life,
I have arrived nowhere.

I have learned that whether through foreign lands or through my time on earth, I am always on a pilgrimage. I might not be lacing up the hiking boots every morning, but all I can do is put one foot in front of the other, be my strongest, and help fellow souls along the way.

Time Travel

Starting our walk on the Camino each morning, we were smug setting off under a pre-dawn, pale blue and pink sky, the only sound being the chirp of waking birds. But in the northwestern corner of Spain, the sun didn’t rise until 9am. My brain had a hard time reconciling the position of the sun with the time on my watch. No wonder the Spanish sleep late and eat dinner at 10pm, their internal clocks are synced with their natural world. What would happen if we all cashed it in at 4pm during the long New England winters?

After 210KM on the Camino, we went to Morocco to continue being tourists, however, we were Red Sox fans first and foremost. Having downloaded the post season MLB package for international viewing on his tablet, my husband and I were trying to participate in the fun even though we were 9 hours east of the LA start. Before game 5 of the World Series, I set my alarm for 4am, a pattern that worked on previous nights in order to take in the game’s final innings. But on that particular night, all we saw was the last pitch being thrown. The announcer exclaimed the Red Sox had clinched in three hours and fifty-eight minutes. John and I looked at each other, confused. Sure we were groggy, but then I remembered the damned King. The king of Morocco had ruled 24 hours before the clocks were supposed to change that he wished to abandon daylight savings time. Problem was our phones, watches, and alarms didn’t get the message. Note to self: old-fashioned, battery-operated travel clocks are still a good thing. Missing game 5 of the World Series paled in comparison to all the people who missed flights, trains, and business appointments. The King could do what he wanted but Apple products had minds of their own.

Timetables were in disarray and flight times had to be adjusted by an hour so that connections could be made. The citizens were up in arms about the autocratic decision and so in that confusing, passive-aggressive manner of a local protest, still three days later, waiting in line at Passport control, chaos unfolded. Screens had times that conflicted with boarding passes. Dozens of people pushed to the front and cut under ropes, worrying they were going to miss their flights. Not a pleasant ending to our wonderful journey.

When we landed in Boston, I had just enough time to lay my head on the pillow before heading to Scottsdale for an author retreat. It was one week post the Moroccan King’s decision and now it was the US’s turn to put its clocks back. Fine, except I learned Arizona is the exception. Why was I experiencing two local governments in the span of one week that felt the need to be different? Crossing multiple time zones and jet lag, caused an insecurity that I was late and never really knew what time it was. You’ve all heard of FOMO, I was experiencing FONKWTIS: Fear Of Not Knowing What Time It Is. Was this some sort of sign from the universe? Who knew traveling in October could be fraught with such complications.

Forget the world’s clocks and time zones, my body’s clock is what was really thrown off. Fatigue had caught up – being in another continent and attempting to watch the play offs and the World Series was probably a bad decision…. But all the travel west meant I had to wake up in the wee hours of the morning and fight off collapsing at the end of the day. For a weekend trip to AZ I wouldn’t bother to conform. I wrote long essays (like this weird one) in the middle of the night and was waiting for the hotel gym to open in the morning. I had lived a full day before breakfast.

I soaked in every bit of desert sun before leaving for the airport. The sun’s rays and rise and fall provided the energy and charge my brain required. Flying east, I’ll soon be home for the first time in three weeks and hopefully prepared for four months of darkness.