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Thoughts of “social networks” left behind may have occurred to pilgrims in the past, whether in bouts of homesickness or expectation of the tales to be told upon return. But now, as Lewis-Kraus demonstrates, these networks are no longer phantoms of memory or longing, but real-time digital entities, enabling uninterrupted communication with the known world. Though a traveler may voyage halfway around the globe, he or she remains at home, subjecting every footfall to nearly instantaneous discussion in the arena of the familiar self.
Lewis-Kraus is most compelling when he lapses from such echo-chamber self-consciousness into a traditional travelogue, describing Japanese vistas his reader may never see, detailing the machinations within the Berlin expatriate scene where he resides before setting off for Spain, or riffing on the squalor of 10,000 Hasidim sharing yontif in a Ukrainian backwater. The walking itself, often more than 30 miles a day, is unquestionably an impressive physical accomplishment. But when he reaches for more than this, whether it’s Byzantine philosophizing or, more disappointingly, toward an Elizabeth Gilbert, “Eat, Pray, Love”-style conclusion, he loses his way.
This last overreach is the most enervating. The reconciliation with his father, set crassly at the site of a mass murder of Jews — as if the alienation from a parent and the wanton slaughter of human life are historical traumas of a piece — seems manufactured and tacked on. I do not question the author’s emotional needs, but note only the staged quality of the denouement, and wonder whether it has anything substantive to do with the traveling that preceded it.
Having set aside the traditional stories of pilgrimage, Lewis-Kraus is left with only a hackneyed version of the old fable to serve as his narrative arc: the journey as a slide across the rainbow to the soul’s own pot of gold. Though this conclusion is here pitched more toward readers of the literary journal McSweeney’s than to the Oprah set, it still feels forced, a preordained emotional destination selected to maintain the author’s sense of direction, whether as pilgrim or as scribe.
He may have better taken his cue from the Zen saying that a real traveler knows neither where he has come from nor where he is going. Such a mentality would leave open the possibility of arriving somewhere one didn’t expect.
Benjamin Weiner is the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Amherst.