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A secular Jew and a lapsed Christian walk into a bar…. Though it may sound like a joke, Gideon Lewis-Kraus is (mostly) serious in his exploration of faith and purpose, A Sense of Direction. As the book starts, Lewis-Kraus is estranged from his father, an ex-rabbi who came out at age 46, and feels envious of his younger brother, who has a stable job and girlfriend. He’s dissatisfied with his life in Berlin: a whirlwind of raves, gallery openings, intellectuals and girls who never quite return his affections. So when his friend, the writer Tom Bissell, suggests that they undertake a Catholic pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago, Lewis-Kraus jumps at the chance (even if, in the haze of the hangover, he has a slight problem remembering making such a pledge).
The Camino de Santiago kicks off a mini-binge of pilgrimages, followed by the Buddhist perambulation of the Japanese island Shikoku and the Hasidic Uman pilgrimage in Ukraine to the grave of Rebbe Nachman. Lewis-Kraus’ secularism allows him to view these pilgrimages with a certain distance, and he strikes upon what, to him, seems to be the fundamental paradox at the nature of the pilgrimage: it’s a voluntary activity, in which you are commanded to follow instructions. Sort of like S&M, I suppose.
And the masochist aspect is on full display. Lewis-Kraus doesn’t sugarcoat the physical toll walking takes on one’s feet. The blisters and sores become a point of pride, a source of camaraderie on the trail: we’re all suffering together. But Lewis-Kraus also reflects on his more personal, interior suffering, particularly his fractious relationship with his father. Lewis-Kraus sees his father as unreliable and selfish, even though he realizes that he’s being overly harsh. More than love, more than hate—Lewis-Kraus feels ambivalence towards this father, and that same ambivalence finds its way into other aspects of his life, like his worries about his career or his wanderlust.
Lewis-Kraus eventually convinces his father to accompany him and his younger brother on the Uman trip, where they reconcile. Lewis-Kraus, in trying to get to the root of his father’s betrayal years ago, realizes that perhaps the specifics are unnecessary. Instead, he recognizes, in his dealings with his father, his own issues dealing with the tension between necessity (“I did it because I had to”) and desire (“I did it because I wanted to”).
Uman, however, also proves to be a conceptually problematic section. Early on, Lewis-Kraus chooses the quasi-secular and somewhat touristy Camino and Shikoku pilgrimages over more overtly religious ones—like what may be the world’s largest, the Islamic Hajj. Thus, going to Uman seems at odds with what Lewis-Kraus has set out. Indeed, the fervor of the Uman-goers comes off as obnoxious, and though Lewis-Kraus doesn’t spare his criticism of them, one longs for the more tender and thoughtful conversations he had on the Camino and Shikoku.
Indeed, the Camino section is the strongest, prompted, in no small part, by the company Lewis-Kraus keeps. He and Bissell bicker like an old married couple, constantly trying to one-up each other either in miles walked or in the agonies suffered. The evolution of his relationship with Bissell gives the Camino section a forward drive that the others don’t quite have. By contrast, the Shikoku section, which Lewis-Kraus undertakes solo, takes a definite inward turn, with Lewis-Kraus nursing a heartbreak.
But throughout, Lewis-Kraus keeps his humor sharp, and he’s as comfortable referencing Wittgenstein as he is riffing off The Real Housewives of New Jersey. His observations, in particular, of the differences between travel guides and the realities of travel are tinged with good-natured pique. Through it all, Lewis-Kraus stays on the pilgrim’s path: even if he can’t find his direction writ large, what he does find is what others have laid out for him, little arrows to point the way to go.
A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful
By Gideon Lewis-Kraus
Hardcover, 9781594487255, 344 pp.