Book Review: Are We There Yet?; Travel as a Spiritual Practice by Rabbi Shefa Gold

There is a folktale about a boy who has a vivid dream of finding treasure in a distant place. Deciding to follow the dream and throw caution to the wind, he embarks on a long difficult journey. Each place he visits draws him further and further from home, along the way meeting people and finding strange and beautiful places as he follows his quest. Eventually, he finds his treasure, but it turns out that the place he was dreaming of was in his own home all along. Why ever did he need to travel all that way, just to dig a hole under his own tree and find the treasure?

The reader knows for certain what the boy does not; it is because the process of leaving home awakened him to experiences he couldn’t have had in his own familiar spaces. The novelty of new places jolts us awake, so that we are invited to pay attention in new ways.

It is this meditation that comes across so richly in Rabbi Shefa Gold’s new book, Are We There Yet?; Travel as a Spiritual Practice. It is not so much a manifesto or a how-to book as a gentle set of reflections of what can happen when you venture out. With plenty of stories to inspire, the reader can accompany Rabbi Gold as she paddles along the Amazon river, people-watches in Manhattan, or skids into a car crash on a highway. Each adventure is an opportunity for some greater inner reflection, a form of paying attention that is made possible by the distance from home.

The reasons to travel are as diverse as they people who offer them. Some people enjoy the companionship, the opportunity to learn something new, meet new people, or experience themselves differently. Rabbi Gold’s reason to travel is because it offers her a profound opportunity to find what she might call Reality, blessing, or God. With all the details and context of her journey out of her routines, she meditates on the synchronicity, divine messages, and blessing in the most mundane of details. She rejoices in the messages given— by people, invitations showing up opportunely, or even a well-placed Cheerio. Rabbi Gold turns the awe typically associated with famous travel destinations (think of the Western Wall, the Sistine chapel), and brings it instead into the normal landscape of travel: your hotel room, the unlikely chance that your taxi driver has known you, or the possibility you might end up in the very spot that someone dear to you had been years before. Through countless examples, the reader shares her realization that although her environs look mundane, her layovers boring, her plane travel distracted, in fact, it is possible to see through the details to a shining reality she is eager to share with her readers.

Despite the beauty of the opportunity she offers, I imagine that most readers will not necessarily find themselves connecting with her experiences. For the most part, she travels without companions. She loses herself in her own thoughts as she encounters blessings precisely because she doesn’t have partners in conversation, children to care for, or business companions. I tried to match her deep merging with the flow of the universe to my own experience of travel; strollers and whining toddlers, misdirected luggage, and the constant tug of other people’s needs. I picture my own airport experiences; far from sitting and meditating on the people there, there are endless bathroom trips, requests for snacks that have just been packed away again, and the general sweating of trying to make our way from one place to the next through a maze of indignities and lines. Surrounded by these familiar frictions of parenting, it is hard to imagine that travel truly offers a different course. Even traveling with a companion is a form of the familiar that might make it difficult to access the type of experiences she writes about.

Still, the fact that this book offers something outside of the ordinary may be its asset as much as its challenge to the reader. The meditations in this book may serve as an inspiration, showing that shedding the familiarity of travel is maybe worth the discomfort of doing so. There are no promises made, no checklists to follow to arrive at her set of insights. Ultimately, this book is an invitation, holding out the possibility that in the spaces outside our horizons might be just the message we need to hear to feel more whole, connected, and at peace.

Ariella Radwin lives in beautiful Palo Alto, CA with her husband and children. She is irrationally fond of coffee, the Talmud, and CrossFit, although not necessarily in that order.

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