Finding God in the Wilderness
Hiking the Appalachian Trail—once before Tisha B’Av—taught me the essence of observance
I first hiked on the Appalachian Trail at the age of 13, on a three-day trek in the Poconos with Camp Ramah. Our packs were weighed down with prayer books, kosher cooking utensils, and kippot. At camp, the interconnectivity of man, nature, and God seemed as self-evident as the relationship between rain and puddles. And just as everything at camp was somehow more than it was elsewhere, so too was our hike in the woods somehow more than just a hike. It was the most spiritually fulfilling experience of my life, an ecstatic awakening to the beauty and splendor of the natural world, and I knew some day I would return.
This year, I made it back to the Appalachian Trail, twice as old as I was that first time at camp. I returned—on a four-week solo trek from southern Virginia to the border of my home state of Pennsylvania, all alone in the wilderness—because I wanted to give up the burden of my individuality and feel part of something greater: not Judaism, but nature.
But the forest has a way of choosing its own lessons to teach. As it would turn out, thanks to an index card and a pair of friendly Germans, my most important lesson had everything to do with both Judaism and nature. When my personal struggles collided with a need to commemorate Jewish suffering, a need I’d struggled with ever since my days at Ramah, I found I was confronting the very essence of observance. But in the end, the answer to all my problems—inward and outward, spiritual and physical—would be found on the trail.
Days after I returned from that first trip, it was Tisha B’Av. As a new bar mitzvah, I would be experiencing the full “adult” holiday package for the first time at camp: fasting, attending classes and services all day, hearing the stories of sorrow and suffering told and retold. It may sound petty, but soon after the giddy high of our journey on the trail, Tisha B’Av marked the final stretch toward the end of the summer, and my gloomy outlook on the upcoming school year reflected the morose atmosphere all around me. As the liturgy spoke of communal destruction, my pain was entirely self-contained and self-involved: my own problems and worries, nothing larger. The sickly empty feeling in my stomach signaled the emptiness I knew I would soon feel when I had to leave my closest friends in the world and return home; I spent Tisha B’Av climbing into the dark void of my adolescent anxieties, alone. After the sun went down, the energy of camp was flipped back on like a light switch, and I was able to shake the pallor and join the communal celebration. But from then on, Tisha B’Av would mean most to me as the dividing line that demarcated the unwelcome beginning of the end of my personal summer happiness.
Thirteen years later, five days into my trip back on the trail, I began experiencing a deepening sensation of loneliness and dread—similar feelings to those I felt on that first Tisha B’Av. Except this time I was actually alone. It didn’t help that the weather had been brutal, the water sources had proved unreliable, and the food I packed wasn’t sitting well. A day had not yet passed without some incident of either personal failure or abject calamity—a parching stretch of drought followed by a near-hypothermia-inducing monsoon and a terrifying lightning experience rounded out the first weekend—and my body ached constantly. My blisters were growing blisters, my chafe marks looked like a topographical map of the Rocky Mountains, and my knees had revealed themselves as traitors, completely abandoning me in my time of greatest need.
As I sat down to my lunch that April day—tuna and crunchy peanut butter sandwich, served smushed and dirty—I entertained myself by calculating exactly how long it would take from the moment I called my parents to when I could be watching TV in my underwear with an IV of cookie dough attached to my veins. I might have made that call and left the journey midway if I hadn’t happened to open my notebook; out fell an index card I’d stuck inside, on which I had scribbled down, for reference and emergencies, all the important numbers, names, location, and dates along my journey. Picking up the card, I was surprised to find that next to that day’s date—between “brother-in-law’s birthday” and “pick up food”—I’d written “Holocaust memorial day.”
Unsure of what to do with this information, but struck nonetheless by the need to do something, I cursed myself for not having the forethought to bring a candle. As the grandson of a survivor and the fiancé of the education coordinator at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, I felt a personal responsibility to show my proper respect for the day. But with nothing concrete to use for commemoration, I decided to dedicate the rest of my thoughts for the day—which, being alone in the wilderness, were the one thing I had in abundance—to the Holocaust. At least this way, I’d be utilizing some of my physical pain—a bruised hip, a bum knee, an aching stomach—to connect, if only in a small way, to the spiritual pain I was meant to feel on that day.
The owners of Jezebel, a new restaurant in Manhattan, try to give kosher cuisine a trendy home downtown