Contemporary Pilgrims’ Progress


Bestselling author, New York Times columnist, writer-host on PBS, Bruce Feiler is back at what he does best — traveling the world looking for a spiritual message, then sharing the results. “Sacred Journeys,” a six-part series that documents the paths of “contemporary pilgrims,” premieres on PBS on Dec. 16. Feiler spoke with The Jewish Week by email. This is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: First Japan. Then the Middle East. Now the Middle East and France and India, among the places you visited for your latest documentary series. Don’t you ever stay home?

A: I just unclogged my sink last week, thank you very much.

In 2008 I was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of bone cancer, and I thought I might never walk again. I didn’t leave my house for a year. I thought my walking days were done. Working on “Sacred Journeys” was an emotional return to what I love best — traveling as a way to understand the world. The Jerusalem show airs on the sixth anniversary of my (successful) surgery.

In this era of social media and “reality” TV shows, do people still do something as old-fashioned and tactile as going on actual pilgrimages?

What inspired me to make this series is a seeming paradox: Organized religion is more threatened than ever, yet pilgrimage is more popular than ever. Two hundred million people go on a pilgrimage each year. The Kumbh Mela alone — the festival on the Ganges held every 12 years — welcomed 100 million people last year. I think it’s precisely the abundance of technology that makes these journeys appealing. They allow people to experience something real.

going on these journeys.

How did you choose the venues, and faiths, on which you would focus?

We started with a list of over 100 sacred journeys and talked about it for a year. We locked into Lourdes early, for example, so that ruled out the Camino in Spain. We debated Tibet versus Japan. I wanted a journey in Africa, where there’s so much religious energy, and I think the film where we travel with African Americans returning to their pre-slavery roots in Nigeria (Dec. 30) is one of the most eye-opening of the series.

Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow non-Muslims into Mecca. How did you handle the Hajj program?

We thought this would be harder than it turned out to be. We hired a Muslim director and crew, and found an amazing group from Boston who invited us on their Hajj. The pilgrims included a Muslim convert making his first trip outside the United States and the female Muslim chaplain from Wellesley College. I made the first leg, to Jeddah, met with various scholars of Islam, and was in the desert a few miles from the heart of the journey.

You are an identified Jew? How did you feel being — in five of the six shows — in such very non-Jewish settings?

Ever since I started these religious journeys, I’ve believed that one overlooked thing Jews can contribute to the world is that we are comfortable being the minority. We have lots of experience! I grew up Jewish in Savannah, Ga. — I’m especially used to being at peace around people who disagree with me. I’m more struck now, having been to such widely divergent places, by how many people use similar language. The thing I heard most often was “I’m on a journey to learn what I believe.”

Do you have a single most memorable, most emotional scene from the whole project?

I got up early one morning and went to the priestly blessing at the Western Wall, during Sukkot. I got permission from the IDF and went to the outpost overlooking the scene, which was breathtaking. Later, I was down in the crowd as the men took off their shoes, covered their heads, and prayed. It was very intense and moving, but also had a wonderful modern touch. Every other person was holding up a cell phone. At first I thought they were recording, but then I realized they were broadcasting the prayer for priestly descendants who couldn’t be there.