Writer retraces steps where Israelites trod

The popcorn- and cotton candy-strewn realm of the circus and the ethereal, blindingly bright deserts of the Holy Land are two entirely different worlds — and Bruce Feiler has spent a year in both.

An immersion journalist, Feiler in his last book chronicled his year under the big top performing as a circus clown. Trading in his slap shoes for hiking boots, the critically acclaimed author has moved from the three rings of the circus to the five books of Moses in his new book, "Walking the Bible."

He will discuss that journey and present slide shows from Thursday through Sunday, April 22 at three Bay Area locations.

Feiler's 10,000-mile trek through the Middle East was spawned by the Georgia-born Jew's long-procrastinated desire to re-read the Bible.

"I took it off my shelf and put it by my bed, where it sat untouched for several years. Then I went to Jerusalem in the summer of 1997 to visit a friend who is a rabbi," Feiler said in a telephone interview from New York.

The rabbi "was giving a tour and he took me to the promenade overlooking the city and said, 'There is the rock where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac.' It was like a bolt of Cecil B. DeMille lightning — it never occurred to me that this was an actual place, a real place you could visit and touch. I thought, 'Aha! At last I've found a way into the Bible!'"

Feiler went to work setting up a journey retracing the steps of the Israelites from the times of Abraham to Moses. Prior to his trip he spent a year studying texts and, most importantly, lined up a guide who shared his boyish sense of wonder and curiosity — renowned Israeli archaeologist Avner Goren.

"First of all, no Avner, no book, that's my motto. He is so learned. He speaks all the languages and knows all the people," said Feiler of his traveling companion. Goren was Israel's chief archaeologist in the Sinai during its control of the peninsula from 1967 to 1982.

"Even today, in an open election for king of the Sinai, he would win hands-down," Feiler continued.

Walking, driving, boating and camel-back riding from Mount Ararat to Jerusalem to Egypt, through the Sinai and into Jordan on the yearlong trip, Goren and Feiler make for two of the most entertaining traveling buddies since Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Their lively verbal exchange carries the 451-page book along at a brisk pace.

The exuberant Goren's knowledge is near-encyclopedic, and he is peppered with thought-provoking questions by Feiler. The author's years of research, meanwhile, are plainly evident, as he provides mountains of background information about every person, place or thing he and Goren uncover.

In addition, Feiler is a highly descriptive writer, and his travels turn up a number of colorful characters — ranging from an Egyptian cab driver who sees fit to hit 90 mph in downtown Cairo, to the white-bearded monks of St. Catherine's Monastery.

Yet "Walking the Bible" is more than a travel book. Through his journey, Feiler not only returned to his Jewish roots, he also transformed the Bible from a collection of arcane stories to a living, breathing entity.

"If I had to describe in one sentence what happened to me, my learning went from my head to my feet. By walking the Bible, I not only made an abstract spiritual connection to it, but a very concrete and physical connection," he said. "It was like crawling into the book and becoming a part of it."

When he first started on the trip, Feiler obsessed over the supposed authenticity of the biblical sites. Is that really the ark atop Mount Ararat? Is the bush at St. Catherine's Monastery really the burning bush? (Feiler notes the unintended hilarity of a fire extinguisher's presence next to the so-called burning bush.)

By the time he was halfway through his trip and rowing across the supposed site of the parting of the Reed (not Red) Sea, literal nitpicking had grown less important.

"I became much more interested in reading the stories for their meanings," said Feiler. "The first thing [the trip] did is bring me a lot closer to the stories. And it made me a lot more comfortable having conversations about God. But probably the main thing it did is make the Bible no longer a metaphor to me. It made it very real and very personal."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.