Back to the Bible for Jewish journalist

You remember that Woody Allen movie, right? The one filmed with the hand-held cameras about New York Jewish intellectuals suffering through relationship issues? You know that one, right?

Just as the Wood Man has carved out a milieu with his art, so has Bruce Feiler with his books. Yet rather than the Upper East Side or Upper West Side, the best-selling author Feiler focuses on the Middle East.

With “Where God Was Born,” the immersion journalist has produced his third peripatetic account of a Holy Land journey. But just as no filmgoer would confuse “Annie Hall” with “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” Feiler’s readers will easily differentiate his latest from his prior works “Walking the Bible” and “Abraham.”

While Feiler’s earlier books helped him figure what role Judaism played in his life, “Where God Was Born” is more of an external query.

“I decided to go back to the period of time where religion was born as an idea. Back to the land where God was born and try to figure out if religion is just a source of tension or could it help bring us back together,” said Feiler, who will travel through the Bay Area on his book tour next week.

“The other really big difference between ‘Walking the Bible’ and ‘Where God Was Born’ are these places that haven’t really been seen for the past 35 years, many of them. My wife says that in ‘Walking the Bible,’ these are places you want to go to, but may not. In ‘Where God Was Born,’ these are the places you never get to go to.”

Case in point: Newly liberated Iraq.

Feiler blew into Baghdad 10 months after the fall of Saddam on a flight that certainly didn’t tout the virtues of the “Friendly Skies.”

He hopped aboard a C-130 Galaxy in Kuwait (“the only plane I’ve ever been on where the flight attendant wore a pistol”), and the massive cargo plane literally corkscrewed its way into the airstrip in Baghdad to foil any hidden insurgents packing shoulder-fired rockets. From there, it was just a very brief, very perilous 60-mile trek to Babylon.

“Saddam had rebuilt Babylon in order to show that just as Iraq had destroyed Jerusalem once, it could do so again,” he said.

The site Saddam had rebuilt with his trademark ostentation was one Feiler had always associated with profound sadness and loss for the Jews — “By the rivers of Babylon/Where we sat down/And there we wept/When we remembered Zion” as Bob Marley (and Psalm 137:1) put it.

But the visit triggered a change in his thinking.

“Before, God had been living in the Temple, he’d been in Jerusalem. But once the Temple was destroyed, [people asked] ‘OK, where is God?'” he said.

“Before, only priests could enter the Temple and handle religion. Now anybody could worship God. They invented synagogues. Religion became portable, God became universal and no longer just attached to the Promised Land.”

As he traveled throughout Israel, Iraq and Iran, Feiler saw more than just legitimacy in the diaspora. He saw equality.

“The Bible says living in the land is not the most important thing and even having a state is not the most important thing. Being in relation with God is the most important thing,” he said.

He sees his work as part of a move to “take back the Bible from extremists.” Though he does receive his fair share of hate mail, Feiler thinks his message must resonate with someone; his books, after all, aren’t buying themselves.

With six-month-old identical twin girls at home, Feiler’s globetrotting may be curtailed. But he’s more than happy if his readers carry on his journeys for him, even if only intellectually.

“I want people to look at the books and be entertained, but I also want them to learn something and, when they shut the book, reach out to someone and have a conversation about it.”

“Where God Was Born” by Bruce Feiler (405 pages, William Morrow, $26.95).

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.