BOSTON, Oct. 10 (JTA) — When Bruce Feiler’s “Walking the Bible” hit bookstores in 2000, the 434-page book became an instant bestseller, tapping into a groundswell of grown-up readers thirsty for knowing more about the world once inhabited by Abraham, Noah and Moses. With the late-September release of the kids version of the book, Feiler extends the opportunity to a younger generation who can open the book, travel the biblical world and capture Feiler’s sense of enthusiasm and marvel for the Bible as a living map and guide. The inspiration for the original book came at a precise moment, Feiler writes, as he stood with a friend on a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem and realized that the historical site of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac was at a place, a real place he could visit. “In the Middle East, the Bible is not just a book. It’s a living, breathing entity,” Feiler writes. At that moment Feiler’s grand sense of adventure was set in motion. He was determined to travel the route of biblical stories with illustrations and photographs and write about the experience. Feiler, a travel writer, set off on his rigorous, and at times dangerous, journey, accompanied by Avner Goren, an archaeologist, who proved to be a wise walking companion and guide. In a recent phone conversation from his home in New York, Feiler said his journey with Goren took about one year, traversing “10,000 miles, three continents, five countries, four war zones and we’d go to the places and read the stories.” Since publication of “Walking the Bible” and a later book, “Abraham,” Feiler, who grew up in a fifth-generation Jewish family in Savannah, Ga., has addressed thousands of people across the world in 250 speaking engagements in synagogues and churches. He’s received at least 10 e-mail messages each week for the last three years and the most common question he’s asked is, “Where should I go when I visit Israel?” But Feiler, who used to direct children’s theater and once spent a year as a circus clown, had a dream beyond his initial venture. “It’s been a running desire of mine for 15 years to turn everything I write into a children’s book,” Feiler said. The success of the original “Walking the Bible” gave him the opportunity to follow his dream. “I wrote the book with a smart 10-year old in mind,” Feiler said, though the book’s audience is officially targeted from age seven and up. Feiler, who recently turned 40, speaks so rapidly you wonder how he slowed down to the hot desert pace of camels and nomadic life. “For the kids book there’s a lot of adventure, interesting information, a lot of gee-whiz science facts, like the fact that manna comes from trees. That was exciting,” he said. Feiler extends his sense of wonderment to questions of biblical location. In the chapter on parting the Red Sea, Feiler explains that no one knows precisely where the Red Sea was, and that the area is now unsafe for travel because of Islamic terrorists who live there. He instantly engages readers with an unsolved mystery and provides biblical, historical and geologic clues and a summary of the biblical story of Moses. Feiler places his readers right there with him as he and his entourage of guides, a driver, and a police escort set out from Cairo, Egypt, and into the Nile Delta, to cross Lake Timsah. Is this the biblical Red Sea? His style is contemporaneous, like an on-the-ground travelogue, including the problems: When they finally arrive at their destination, large tankers may prevent their crossing and it begins to rain. Everyone else asks to turn back and give up, reminiscent of whining family members on a drawn-out vacation. A teenager from a small fishing village comes to the rescue with his small rowboat. Feiler’s persistence comes across as nearly heroic and in the end, offers a tender and moving connection with the biblical past. When Feiler first traveled the desert, he tried to pretend it was a 4,000-year-old story, without engaging the present. But while uninterested in directing readers on what to think about today’s world news headlines from the Middle East, Feiler said, “In a fantasy world, a parent and a child would read this together and it would allow them to talk about what’s on the news and what’s on the front page of the paper.” What’s his answer to the most frequently asked email question about visiting Israel? “I don’t care if you’re going on your own or with a group, for two days, or two weeks; take an afternoon, break away from the sightseeing, even the holy sites, and go out into the desert. If you spend two hours, you will look at the Bible differently. Reading the Torah not in your home and not in a pew will change your opinion of it.” “Walking the Bible, An Illustrated Journey for Kids Through the Greatest Stories Ever Told,” by Bruce Feiler (HarperCollins, 2004, $18.99; 112 pages; ages 7 and up.)
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Penny Schwartz is a contributing writer to JTA.
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