The six episodes of Bruce Feiler's latest project explore not only what compels so many people to go on spiritual pilgrimages each year, but what has happened to make each destination into a religious locus.
For his new series on PBS, Bruce Feiler is going over a lot of the same ground he has covered before — literally.
Thirteen years after the publication of his international bestseller, Walking the Bible, which begat its own television series and follow-up books on biblical exploration — Abraham and Where God Was Born — the 50-year-old author returns to terra both cognita and sancta in Sacred Journeys With Bruce Feiler, which airs this month.
In each episode of the six-part series, Feiler follows people making pilgrimages to holy places in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba and Judaism. Along the way, he delves into not only what compels these pilgrims to walk their particular path, but what has happened to make each destination into a religious locus.
“I’m an explain-aholic,” Feiler says.
He agreed to helm Sacred Journeys because he wanted to show how pilgrimages are considered essential rites of passage for so many people around the world. According to him, an estimated 330 million believers from many different religions go on pilgrimages each year, accounting for roughly one-third of all tourists.
“I think that pilgrimage at its core is about going to a sacred place and opening yourself up to an encounter with the sacred, with the Divine,” Feiler says. “It is an opportunity to figure out what people want their own personal faith to be.”
Feiler points out that “pilgrimage used to be important to Jews” — indeed, the Bible states that Jews are to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem every Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, and many observant Jews still do — “but not as much now, not like 100 million people bathing in the Ganges” for the Kumbh Mela, the Hindu pilgrimage that is considered to be the largest religious gathering on Earth.
While Feiler’s time in Jerusalem for the series was part of his job, he readily acknowledges that his own faith and upbringing played a role in his desire to return to Israel.
“I really wanted to do a Jewish strand,” says Feiler, a fifth-generation Savannah Jew who was Bar Mitzvahed in the Georgia city’s Mikveh Israel, one of the oldest synagogues in the United States.
Having such deep roots in one place and growing up Jewish in the Deep South, even in a city with a relatively strong Jewish community like Savannah, instilled a certain amount of wanderlust in him.
“A huge part of my identity and writing life comes from being Jewish in Georgia,” he says. “I was a part of American and Jewish tradition — and apart from it. It’s why I like going into different worlds and building bridges to them.”
In the episode on Jerusalem, Feiler joins people trekking the “Jesus Trail” in the north of the country and the Via Dolorosa through the Old City, as well as Muslims who come to Al-Aksa Mosque, considered to be the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.
He also spends a great deal of time walking around the city with Ahava Atara Zarembski, a Moorestown, N.J., native who went back to Jerusalem over Sukkot to decide whether or not to make aliyah.
Zarembski, who may be familiar to people in the region as the founder of the N3RD Street market — pronounce it “Nerd Street” — in Old City and the creator of the AhavaZ clothing line, says that being in Jerusalem during a major holiday like Sukkot and getting together with friends to celebrate the festival was an essential part of her journey.
“I moved to Israel when I was 22,” the now 37-year-old says. “From the time I was 34 to 36 years old, I moved back to Philly, but I really didn’t feel spiritually connected here at all. I felt like something was missing.”
She wound up testing the Israeli waters again on camera thanks to a friend in the public relations department at the Jewish Agency for Israel who was looking for people willing to be accompanied by Feiler during their travels.
In the Jerusalem episode, Zarembski is uninhibitedly exultant at being back, dancing with friends in a sukkah, taking Feiler on a hunt for an elusively ideal etrog and talking about the meaning and impact of Jerusalem and Judaism on her life.
“Everything you see, with me talking about spirituality and light, that is who I am,” she says. “I can’t do anything halfway — if it resonates as worthwhile, I put my heart and soul into it; if it doesn’t, I want no part of it. It wasn't enough for me to be half in, half out” of a Jewish life in Philadelphia. “I wanted to be living it, not learning it from a book — I am most alive in Israel.”
Spoiler alert: She decided to stay in Israel.
Sacred Journeys With Bruce Feiler
Dec. 23 at 8 p.m.
whyy.org; brucefeiler.com; ahavaz.com