Why is a Sephardic Jew Walking the Camino de Santiago?

Vaulting, Loye Sur Arnon

Greetings from Chateaumeillant, an outpost about 20 km East of La Chatre, my next stop on the Camino de Santiago. I don’t have a place to plug into today, so this post is being written against the clock–approximately 30 minutes left of battery, at last glance, so please excuse any typos or general disarray on my part.

The sky is big here

The past couple days have basically been nothing more than long walks through the countryside, with the occasional stop through small towns for water and a brief rest. On the downside, it all is starting to look the same to me, but on the upside, the less captivated one is by one’s surroundings, the more likely one is to look inward and think.

Opening

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and it has occurred to me that most of my readers probably haven’t the slightest clue as to why I am walking the Camino de Santiago in the first place. And the funny thing is, not once as I was planning this whole adventure did I pause to really ask myself the same thing.

Abraham sacrificing Isaac, St. Etienne de Bourges

Let’s start from the beginning here: I am a Sephardic Jew. My father’s grandparents spoke Ladino, the Spanish-Hebrew patois of Jews who lived in Spain until the Inquisition. From a purely genealogical perspective, maybe I was always fascinated with Spain because hundreds of years ago my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents were doing business, studying Talmud, and trying their best to coexist with their Moorish/Christian (depending on the time and place) overlords and neighbors somewhere in the Iberian peninsula. Walking the Camino de Santiago is one way–albeit not a Jewish way–of making a homecoming appearance.

It Shines

I also obtained a degree in Art History, with a concentration in Medieval and Renaissance studies. I am one of those people who bristle when people mention “The Dark Ages.” There was no such thing. Sure, when the Roman Empire fell there was an entropic release of energy around Europe, and yes there was plague and war and famine (we’re in the 21st century and we still have those things though), but between the arrival of the Goths and Copernicus declaring that the Earth revolved around the Sun, a ton of really interesting, cool stuff happened. Specifically, a lot of it was happening in France, where the Romanesque and Gothic churches we see today sprang out of the ruins of old Roman towns and gave life to the surrounding countryside; where masterful architects, sculptors, and glass makers took what was around them and pushed ideas that were tremendously advanced for their time and created something unique and beautiful. Walking the Camino de Santiago lets me see, up close and personal, this rise from the ashes of Rome, and the creation of a new civilization, the one that we now know as modern Europe.

Desolation

The question I have really grappled with lately is the spiritual one. Let me remind you that this is a CATHOLIC pilgrimage trail, not a Jewish one. When my feet begin to tire near the end of the day; when my pack causes my shoulders to ache; when the sun has beaten onto the back of my neck; when the only hostel in town (last night, in Le Chatelet, in case you were wondering) is booked and I am forced to wander the streets for a place to sleep, I ask myself: Who do I call on for help? What is the purpose for my suffering? I am not walking to Santiago for the absolution of my sins. I do not enter these ancient churches because I wish to pray to this saint or that. I am not religious anymore, so what am I doing walking this road? Fittingly, my laptop battery is about to die, and I think this is a good place to stop and let us all consider the answer. That, like the question of God, is something I don’t really have an answer for, at least not yet. Onward I go.

Empty Walls, Open Spaces

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83 thoughts on “Why is a Sephardic Jew Walking the Camino de Santiago?

    1. I’m glad you came across my blog then! Serendipity is a massive part of the Camino de Santiago–I have bumped into a couple Camino friends just when I thought I would never see them again, and today I walked for 20 km in the rain (and had another 24 to go) before a car came out of nowhere and picked me up. I hope you don’t put your Camino off for too long!

  1. I was coming to you from Via Lucis…and then saw you on Freshly Pressed.
    It sounds to me as if you are walking home through history though I suspect that sore feet don’t always find that a good enough argument

    1. Hi Helen! I LOVE Via Lucis! Dennis and PJ are awesome photographers (and people, I’m sure–hoping to meet them next Spring) and they have played such a huge part in putting my story out there. You have great taste!

      And yes, there are moments when I wish I could be done with it already, but there is truly something special about walking the Camino de Santiago, sore feet be damned.

    1. Jacob and Joshua of Nazareth were indeed the sons of a certain Miriam 🙂

      When I finish the Camino I plan on reading Reza Aslan’s book “Zealot,” which caught my eye well before Fox News had that fiasco of an interview.

  2. Very interesting, Nathan. I’m a Catholic but I walked the Camino Frances last year without a particularly religious motive and at times I hated both the path and my fellow pilgrims. Despite my frequent cynicism it had a huge impact on me and now I’m doing a PhD on walking and spirituality, focusing on the Camino. I’ll be back for more next year.
    I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    1. Hi Sian!

      I know exactly why you didn’t like the Camino Frances: there are way, way too many pilgrims. One of my Camino buddies did it three years ago from Holland and said that by Roncesvalles the essence of the Camino is pretty much gone. If you walk the Camino from Vezelay like I have, you’ll definitely see it in a different light. It’s a journey meant to be made in solitude.

      Btw, thanks for liking my facebook page–I do try to post things besides blog updates, which a lot of people don’t realize.

    1. Thanks for accompanying my pilgrimage Laura! I’m glad you like my photos–I use a simple Samsung point-and-shoot and it’s a point of pride for me that a lot of what I post looks just as good as those behemoth cameras that cost about the same as round-trip plane tickets from the USA to Europe!

      And when you get the chance, try making the real pilgrimage. It will change you for the better 🙂

  3. You are aware you are on a pilgrimage, but its roots are different from those traveling beside you, and perhaps richer because you are filled with and open to questions. (I started to write “routes,” which may be applicable, too.)
    You are also aware of how much Spain lost because of the Inquisition and by driving out people who included your ancestors.
    You say you’re not religious anymore, but I’m not so sure. Just why does that art attract you, in the first place? And what are your responses really saying as you go?

    1. Good observations. I endured a formal Jewish primary school education that left me brainwashed until I attended a secular public secondary school, and by the time I entered University I was pretty much done with the concept of organized religion, but I have still maintained a relatively strong spiritual connection to God/The Universe. Maybe I’m still young enough that I have not been jaded by age, but I see tremendous beauty not only in the great cathedrals I have visited, but also in the landscape and sky. And it’s not a coincidence that the cathedrals are meant to evoke the Kingdom of God in Heaven. As Pastor James said, we’re all driven in some way to some sort of fundamental connection to God. If you conceive beauty to be a facet of God, then there’s your answer.

  4. Walking “The Way” is something my husband and I would love to do – especially after watching Martin Sheen in “The Way”. Although we are Catholic, I never thought of the journey as a Catholic one – rather an opportunity to get in touch with God and ourselves. We have so many distractions today – TV, phones, etc — this is a way to really ‘listen’ to what God has to say to us – and what we probably need to say to ourselves. Enjoy the Journey!

    1. Hey Katie! “The Way” sort of crystallized my desire to walk the Camino, but I knew long before the movie came out I wanted to try it. If you and your husband do get around to walking The Way, make sure you don’t start where Mr. Sheen does–by that point it’s a little too crowded to hear yourself think.

  5. I also think a journey like El Camino is one that is beyond religion or denomination or even specific belief. It can be a way to connect with yourself, the Earth, and/or God (in any form of God in which you may believe). Good luck and God bless!

    1. Hi crafty mom! The Camino definitely transcends any one creed. That’s the beauty of it. There is something extraordinary about going on a pilgrimage–one does not need to believe in any specific deity to be enriched. Thanks for your blessings, and for stopping by!

  6. Going to Spain, you can find the shadows of the country’s Muslim and Jewish past. So many of Toledo’s churches are painted-over temples and mosques – you can even see the Arabic calligraphy left over in one. I guess this isn’t as much the case in the far north of the country, where the Moors never went as I understand it.

    You make a good point about the Dark Ages, too. The “fall of Rome”, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance – they’re all nice constructions historians put together to make sense of things. The Dark Ages one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, though. I guess a big part of it is the destruction of the centralized Roman power in Europe, but that had been on the wane for centuries before anyway. And it’s not like having a dominant empire is necessarily a good thing. Certainly not for the people it displaces, etc.

    Fascinating post. I’m going to follow your blog to see where this trip takes you.

    1. Hey Sonatano! Thanks so much for following along.

      I think the symbiosis of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity that existed at times in Al-Andalus is especially fascinating for me, given my heritage. And Toledo is but one example of a reconstitution of architecture. Another place I will visit one day, Istanbul, also has a pretty famous building you probably know about that has undergone a change like the churches in Toledo 🙂

    2. Hey Sontano! It’s indeed incredible how the different cultures of al-Andalus have melded over the centuries, and it’s one of the reasons for my fascination with Spain. Another place I plan on visiting that has a very famous appropriated religious building is Istanbul 🙂

      Thank you so much for your insightful comment, and for following my blog!

  7. Good for your Nathan!!…I just started a blog on my current experiences in BA and I am so lame at it that I keep hitting buttons( I’m old..I know they aren’t really buttons) and how lucky I am to have discovered your blog… Buen Camino!!!… I will be doing what I call El Camino” lite” from Leon to Santiago de Compestelo end of October. When do you–expect–calculate (all words that may lose meaning on the Camino) to be in Santiago. I look forward to hearing about your journey and as many say how El Camino walks you… Be free of blisters!!! K

    1. I feel lucky that you discovered my blog! And I’m happy that you will be doing the Camino–even if it is the diet version. I think I will be done by the end of October, maybe we shall see each other. And I wish the blisters would leave me alone, but luckily they have medicine for those things.

  8. My school principal walked the Camino de Santiago last year, and she is still referring to it in speeches at assemblies. So, it must have had a pretty meaningful effect on this woman, whether it be spiritual or not. Listening to her talk about it has urged me to add it to my own bucket list, even though I am also Jewish, and I would love to walk it when I am older. I hope that you take something from the walk, and I can’t wait to read more about your adventure! 🙂

    1. Thank you Alexandra! I highly encourage you to walk the Camino. One of the first people who told me about it was an alum from my alma mater who is a Jew by birth but practices Buddhism. So from the start I never saw the Camino as an exclusively Catholic thing to do, and nor should you! As your principal makes it so obvious, it is a journey that will touch you and stay with you forever. Do it.

  9. Nathan, I’m an atheist Kiwi, and I want to do this trip more than anything on Earth. Good on you – and happy travels.

    1. Thanks a lot! Enjoy your summer down there, my Kiwi friend. And make sure that one of these days you make the trip over the equator and walk the Camino. You don’t have to believe in God for it to mean something–once you walk it, you will at least believe in Man.

  10. Several years ago, I was in Burgos and what took me by surprise were all the scalloped seashells of the pilgrimage. It is an image that has haunted my imagination and I loved seeing the scalloped shell used at my daughter’s baptism last year. Not that it’s a great source for life philosophies, but Wikipedia’s article on the Way of St. James has this little gem that makes me think about the purpose of your journey: “The scallop shell also acts as a metaphor. The grooves in the shell, which meet at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims traveled, eventually arriving at a single destination: the tomb of James in Santiago de Compostela. The shell is also a metaphor for the pilgrim: As the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up onto the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago.”
    Thank you for a lovely post.

    1. Hey Amanda, thanks so much for reading. Burgos is supposed to be a lovely city and I can’t wait to get there (hopefully within a month or so). The seashell is indeed the perfect metaphor for the Camino. Supposedly, it was also the way that pilgrims a thousand years ago proved that they actually made it to Santiago. After reaching Compostela, they walked another three days to Finesterre and took a shell out of the water with them. I think by the time I reach Santiago my feet will hurt so much that even a cool legend like that won’t be enough to make me walk an extra 90 km but we shall see!

  11. How great to stumble upon your blog, Nathan. I am an areligious, often anti-religious Ashkenazi Jew who has walking the Camino on my List for Living. I agree with craftymadre above about connecting with self and the earth. Not being religious does not mean not being aware of or not connecting with a sense of spirit. (Sorry for so many negatives!) I wish you good walking and thoughtful connections.

  12. Reblogged this on Via Lucis Photography and commented:
    As readers of Via Lucis know, PJ and I have been following the pilgrimage of Nathan Mizrachi on the Camino de Santiago. One of his posts, “Why is a Sephardic Jew Walking the Camino de Santiago?” was “Freshly Pressed” recently. Worth a read.

  13. Go Nathan! You’ve got my attention! I think we are all interested to see how your story ends. I suspect that the question in your title will not produce answers but only more questions. But what you’re doing is admirable and I’ll be reading as you go along.

  14. I have always been fascinated by the spirituality of the Camino and the incredible kismet that blossoms from each souls journey there-I’m looking forward to reading more about your adventures

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