I was drawn to this one

…. for reasons that escaped me as I picked it from the shelf.  Pilgrimage in itself is not a topic that attracts me.  But within a few weeks I’d begun to notice some reviews, typically in the travel mags, suggesting I’d picked a fine read.  And it was about journeys; several of them.  The reviews weren’t wrong.

The son of two American rabbis Gideon Lewis-Kraus was bumming around in Berlin, wasting, it might be said.  His religion was largely gone, though he still missed those high days and holidays round the family table, returning when he could.  In my view the opening section on the former walled city can be ignored; you’ll learn more than enough of life in the city as our author sets out on his travels.


In A Sense of Direction, his first book but I’m pretty sure not his last, he sets out on the popular Christian pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago, across Northern Spain with his pal Tom, amid the hordes, before Tom finally settles down.  The boys have 800km ahead of them, and much soul-searching, for Gideon is riddled with angst.

There was trouble in the family, relationships fractured.  Throughout the walk, on which religion bore no part whatsoever, there were notes taken and emails of progress sent to family and friends in distant parts.  Eventually some dialogue with his father stuttered along.  They hadn’t spoken for a while.

For Gideon’s father had, eventually, followed his own needs and desires, setting aside acceptancy.  And he’d come out, found Brett.  Apologies and reasons were sought, unobtained.  But the walk set Gid on the path to reconciliation.

His walking, and indeed his pilgrimages, had a bit to go though.  Next stop Japan, and the 88 temples of a circular route of Shikoku, the Buddhist pilgrimage.  The first few days were in the company of octogenarian grand-father Max, who also was less than cordial with his apparently errant son.  Then Gideon was alone, through 1,200km this time, meeting occasional out of season fellow pilgrims as he examined and explored.

And as with most works on travel it is the inner journey that is the important one.  A third pilgrimage beckoned, the Jewish one.  Gideon realised he needed time with his father, and off they went to Uman, Ukraine, for Rosh Hashannah, without Brett, but with little brother for support.  Mount Kailash could wait.

Forty thousand Jewish pilgrims, Hasids mainly, with black hats and curls.  Three days of davening, and other practices alien even to our rabbi.  Father and two sons.  And together they found a sense of direction, and a purpose, even if the long-sought apologies were absent, not really required as understandings and acceptances, flaws and families, were explored.

There’s some interesting little sideshows – the girl in Shanghai for instance – but it’s all about that inner journey, after the physical ones.  And there’s none better than a Jewish writer for touching into his heritage, with a dash of humour, whilst offending none.  The book builds and builds, one journey after another.  And that final trip, in Uman and to Uman, is a fine finish.  Just ditch the Berlin section and dive straight in.

And I find myself, once again, with thoughts elsewhere, and hopes, of journeys to come; it might be no pilgrimage, for The Prodigal.


1 Comment

Filed under On the Bedside Table

One response to “I was drawn to this one

  1. I heard a bit of the last part dealing with the Camino when it was being read on Radio 4. I liked the bit about the annoyance of temporary walking companions – and how they are missed once they’ve gone. I’ve been to Santiago, and have visited various places in the French and Spanish Pyrenees that are on the route; I’ve often thought that I’d like to travel it end-to-end, perhaps as my retirement trip (thanks to serial Westminster Chancellors that’s now in 2025!), though probably by car.

    I hadn’t realised it was a paperback. I must get it – especially with that cover which just demands to be picked up. Thanks for flagging it.

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