Reimagining Jewish pilgrimage

There is a passage in Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ new memoir, “A Sense of Direction,” that will make any secularist smile. Having arrived with his brother and their gay father, a Reform rabbi, in Uman, Ukraine, for the Rosh Hashanah festivities at the grave of the Hasidic master Nachman of Bratslav, Lewis-Kraus’ first instinct is rebellion. On the afternoon before the festival begins, when the pious crowd of thousands of revelers is entering the peak of spiritual ecstasy, father and sons sneak out of the barricaded pilgrims’ zone Lewis-Kraus refers to as the “ghetto,” and steal into a local grocery for a non-kosher salami. Under the scornful gaze of a few passing Hasidim, the three huddle together on a park bench, defiantly munching their treyf lunches. Take that, Hasidim!

Lewis-Kraus describes his family’s secular wagon-circling with wit and humor, but it seems strangely inconsistent with his attitude toward pilgrimage in the rest of the book. Uman, “the Jewish Woodstock,” as one of the participants calls it, is the third and final pilgrimage Lewis-Kraus, a regular contributor to Harper’s and other publications, undertakes in the book. During both of the first two journeys, along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain and the 88-temple circuit on the Japanese island of Shikoku, from the very first footfall, the author takes on wholeheartedly the identity and mantle of the pilgrim; he is participant as much as observer.

Read the whole review of “A Sense of Direction” from 2012 in Haaretz.