Join globetrotter Bruce Feiler on a journey through Jerusalem


Every religion has its pilgrimage, and PBS’ “Sacred Journeys” provides a lively visual guide to six of the best-known destinations for the devout.

On Dec. 23, series host Bruce Feiler visits Jerusalem, and while the date might indicate a link to Christmas, the focus is on Sukkot, one of three Jewish pilgrimage festivals.

In biblical times, Jews were commanded to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem during Sukkot, though following its destruction by the Romans and the dispersion of the Jewish inhabitants, few were able to follow the tradition.

With the rebirth of the State of Israel, the number of pilgrims has swelled, with Jews joined by Christians, Muslims and even Buddhists converging on Jerusalem’s Old City, which contains the Western Wall, Al-Aqsa mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“This is the most contentious quarter-mile in the world,” notes Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, and is contested not only by different faiths but also frequently by competing factions within the same religion.

The tension erupts at times into confrontations between local Arabs and Jews, who Feiler likens to “a couple in a bad marriage living in the same home.”

For observant Jews, the Sukkot pilgrimage starts at the outdoor market to select the most perfect lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron), which are inspected with the care of a jewelry dealer seeking the perfect diamond.

At the Western Wall, men, many clad all in white, chant prayers and, in one vivid snapshot, an Orthodox worshiper records the scene on his cell phone, combining ancient ritual with modern technology.

Locals and foreign visitors join in the building of a sukkah, an experience which Ahava, a young woman from Philadelphia, describes as “celebrating Judaism in a physical way.” An outdoor dinner in the sukkah lends itself to introspective conversation, with Ahava debating whether she should stay in Israel or return to the United States.

The camera and Feiler join Christian pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where, according to their faith, Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. The hardiest then travel to the Galilee, retracing Jesus’ steps in a 40-mile hike.

One of the more unusual visitors is Brian Kwon, whose Buddhist parents emigrated from their native Thailand and settled in Colorado Springs, Colo. Kwon, like many others, has come to Jerusalem as a faith seeker, and eventually converts to Christianity and is baptized.

Feiler, the 50-year-old best-selling author and the narrator of “Sacred Journeys,” is somewhat of a pilgrim himself, having traveled and worked in 65 countries, at latest count.

Born in Savannah, Ga., he is the descendent of five generations of Southern Jews, among them men who fought for the Confederacy in “The War of Northern Aggression,” as the Civil War was known in the South. Feiler now makes his home in the Yankee enclave of Brooklyn.

As a Jew, he cannot visit Mecca, but otherwise his ethnicity has not proven any barrier to filming in Muslim countries or any other. It took him five years “to raise the money, shoot and edit” the six segments of “Sacred Journeys.”

Asked if he believes that the world’s different faiths could ever live peacefully together, particularly in the Middle East, Feiler answered, “If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t get up in the morning.”

However, he thinks that now and in the future the struggle will be not among opposing faiths, but primarily between the religious and the nonreligious.

But even among believers, Feiler said, traditional religious practice, such as “sitting in the pew while someone preaches at you,” is on the decline, while pilgrimages are on the upswing as “an expression of religious activism.”

He cited a recent United Nations study that one-third of the world’s tourists are primarily motivated to travel by pilgrimages. “It used to be that a pilgrimage meant going from Tiberias to Jerusalem on foot, but with discounted air fares, it’s easy to fly from Los Angeles to Israel,” he said.

“Sacred Journeys” airs in six one-hour segments, presented in two-hour blocs for three consecutive Tuesday evenings, and can be seen locally on KOCE (PBS SoCal).

The earlier Dec. 16 premiere presentation featured visits to the French town of Lourdes, sacred to Roman Catholics, and to Shikoku, Japan, popular with Buddhist worshipers. The Jerusalem segment will air on Dec. 23 at 8 p.m., followed by a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia at 9 p.m.

On Dec. 30, the journey will start on the banks of the Ganges River in India, followed by a visit to Osogbo in Nigeria and a festival in honor of the river goddess Osun. 

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