by Sala Levin
Matt Gross went to Jerusalem, and all he got was this lousy set of tefillin.
This, more or less, was the takeaway from Gross’s piece in the New York Times this Sunday, in which the paper’s former Frugal Traveler took on the holiest city in the world. He says at the outset: “Of all the world’s roughly 200 nations, there was only one…that I had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting: Israel.” Well, okay. Naive assumptions led me to believe that travel writers didn’t have a blacklist, and it seems deliberately petulant for even a self-described “deeply secular Jew” to disavow any interest in the Jewish state. But hey, better late than never, and Gross was on his way now.
Gross, understandably, focuses primarily on the Old City, the hotspot of holy landmarks. He visits the Luthern Church of the Redeemer, awed by its “impossibly elegant” architecture and “transported” by the no-frills prayer service. When it comes to Jewish culture, Gross admires the Hurva Synagogue, but is put off by a Californian rabbi who tries to convince him to put on tefillin. “I could be persuaded to try again,” Gross writes, but the rabbi fails his test, leaving Gross underwhelmed. “I couldn’t find my way into the believers’ world,” he writes.
Is it a surprise to anyone that a rabbi peddling tefillin didn’t leave Gross with lasting enlightenment? Anyone who has encountered these rabbis knows that it’s not a spiritual experience–it’s a sales pitch. If Gross expected a revelation, he was bound for disappointment. But even Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, doesn’t seem to have much meaning for Gross. Mostly, he writes, he is “terrified that I’d come across the identity card of a long-lost relative or the photo of someone I somehow recognized.” Why terrified? Maybe a murdered relative would have forced Gross out of his complacency, his hands-off attitude toward Israel, his misguided belief that somehow he is free to desist from the task of understanding the role of the Jewish national homeland in today’s world. It’s an irresponsible position, one unbefitting a man whose job it is to travel, a tasks that demands curiosity and openness–even to our own history, even when we would rather avoid it.