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Review of Pilgrims. By Daniel Gavron. Berkeley, CA: Creative Arts Book Company, 2000. 320 pp. $15.95.
In 1892, Adam Howard, a lay preacher from Boston, and his new wife Martha set out for Europe on their honeymoon. They plan on doing the "Grand Tour" which was 'de rigueur' for people of a certain class at that time. Fate intervenes in the person of one Joseph Pardo whom the Howards meet for the first time in the opulent dining car in the Orient Express. Pardo is a Jewish merchant of ancient Sephardic stock who makes his home in Jerusalem. The Howards are immediately drawn to his vigor and dynamism--and are fascinated that he lives in Jerusalem, a city that, for them as devout Christians, has profound spiritual associations. Pardo convinces the young Americans to alter their travel itinerary and journey with him to Jerusalem.
While in the Holy Land, Pardo introduces the Howards to his Muslim business partner, Ahmad Najjar, who agrees to show them the sights. At one point during their travels, Ahmad and Adam are almost drowned, and the near-death experience changes Adam radically. He decides that God has saved him for a purpose--to begin a "new Christian community in Jerusalem." From that point on, the Howards' lives become inextricably intertwined with those of the Pardos and the Najjars.
After an auspicious beginning, Adam's congregation ultimately fails because of internecine strife. However, the hostel he founded to accommodate the many pilgrims that flock to Jerusalem proves to be an extremely successful enterprise. Everyone in Jerusalem soon knows the Howards' hostel as Pilgrims' Hotel, or just Pilgrims'. The principle setting for Gavron's debut novel, Pilgrims' becomes a Christian enclave between the worlds of Islam and Judaism. Physically located just outside Jerusalem's Old City walls, it is, in a metaphysical sense, "on the seam between east and west, between old and new, and between Arab and Jew."
When the British Mandate government assumes control of Palestine after World War I, Pilgrims' Hotel becomes a regular meeting place for members of the three traditions competing for religio-cultural dominance--Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
The book is narrated by various individuals, including members of each of these three traditions. The reader is thus introduced to the perspectives of all three religions.
Gavron is amazingly even-handed in his interpretations of the historical conflicts. He presents the distinctive viewpoints of Christians, Jews, and Muslims so authentically, the reader may feel himself shedding previously held prejudices--at least for the duration of the read.
As a journalist, Gavron creates characters who, to some extent, "speak" the way a good journalist might be expected to write. His characters focus on the factual elements of their respective stories, but remain somewhat distant and dispassionate, even when they are relaying emotion-laden events and situations. Thus, while the stories the characters tell are exceptionally engaging and informative, the characters themselves lack dimension and seem too much like vehicles through which the author has chosen to tell his story.
However, Pilgrims remains a worthwhile read, especially for those of us belonging to interfaith families who may be used to facing perspectives that challenge long cherished beliefs--and biases.