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Pilgrim's Progress: A Review of All That's Holy

Review of All That's Holy: A Young Guy, An Old Car and the Search for God in America by Tom Levinson. Jossey-Bass. $23.95

In his new book, a picaresque adventure through religious America, Tom Levinson declares himself a pilgrim. Levinson, who is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, began his yearlong tour through towns and cities at the dawn of the millennium. While Levinson finds plenty of people to interview and myriad spiritual paths to travel, his peripatetic journey never quite becomes the hoped-for quest. He has no particular itinerary. He relies on serendipitous discovery and to that end hands out a business card that introduces him as the Project Director of "God Is: An Oral History of Faith in America." The strategy has its charms, but loses steam by the end of the book.  

Levinson was raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, "a born and bred, fourth generation New Yorker who grew up a Christmas decorating, Judaism heckling doubting Thomas. We weren't antireligious as much as we didn't believe the subject merited serious attention." Eventually, the Levinson's "Judaism lite" stopped satisfying Tom. At Princeton he majored in religion and a few years later his search for the ways people worship God in America was a full-time occupation.

To great effect, Levinson follows the advice a teacher gives him before he hits the road: "Learn how to be silent." He soon discovers that that is its own prayer, the very language that God speaks. To be silent beckons midrashic opportunities. Throughout the ages midrash has been one of the most engaging tools of scriptural interpretation. The rabbis invented midrashim (the plural of midrash), stories or threads of connection, to explain scriptural inconsistencies or to extrapolate moral lessons. Levinson approaches his subject with the same creativity and enthusiasm that the rabbis had for delving deeper into a text to understand human nature. "Interpretation," writes Levinson, "should always be available for reinterpretation."

That conviction is beautifully played out in his encounter with Roxanne, a Muslim-American. Although Levinson's trip takes place before the tragedies of September 11, he is mindful of the stereotypes and prejudice that plague the community. An imam in Toldeo, Ohio, pointedly tells him that only 18 percent of Muslims are Arabs, but it is Roxanne in Dayton who inspires Levinson to ponder her "empowered Orthodoxy." Roxanne, who wears the traditional Muslim covering for women, explains that the veil creates a holy space from which she peacefully conducts her life. While the argument feels somewhat disingenuous to many modern sensibilities, Levinson accords her feelings due respect.

Lurking in the background of Levinson's narrative is his burgeoning relationship with Liz. The two meet in Boston, at the tail end of Levinson's time at Harvard. Liz is set to go to medical school in Chicago and Levinson helps her move west. The trip is yet another opportunity to find out more about Americans' religious faith. The centerpiece of the trip from Boston is an impromptu Kabbalat Shabbat--a ceremony on Friday night in which the Sabbath is literally welcomed--in a wheat field in the Midwest. In that scene the genuine spirit of Shabbat as a respite from frenetic schedules and everyday concerns is wholeheartedly celebrated. Never one to miss an opportunity to chat about belief, when Levinson arrives in Chicago he interviews Liz's family rabbi, Arnold Wolf. Rabbi Wolf is a devoted fan of the philosopher Martin Buber and the latter's assertion that "all actual life is encounter."

Buber's observation resonates with Levinson. Encounters and their attendant meanings are the crux of the book. For example, there is the nonagenarian evangelist minister who tells Levinson that "we are fearfully, wonderfully made." During a visit to a Hare Krishna residence, Levinson is struck that "in midday the house felt like early evening." Levinson makes the Dali Lama's appearance in Central Park all the more vivid and significant when he compares the moment to Moses' last speech in Deuteronomy or Jesus' sermon on the Mount.

Throughout the book, Levinson proves himself to be an equal opportunity pilgrim by including many of the myriad religious traditions that thrive in the United States. But at times Levinson's inclusiveness feels random. Like the self-described "Cafeteria Catholic" who tells Levinson how she purposely picks and chooses from Catholicism what she wants to believe in, Levinson interprets much of American religious tradition as having its own cafeteria-style way of worshipping. Yet it is also a blessed enterprise in which Levinson discovers that "for the American convert, being religious in America means outing oneself and one's faith; for the . . . immigrant, being religious in America becomes, in part, a process of blending in."

By the end of the book Levinson has both experiences as he edges closer to his own Jewish identity. Yet Levinson largely ignores the process of how he fully came to embrace Judaism. There is no personal midrash or sustained introspection to fill in large gaps of silence. Nevertheless, All That's Holy is largely an energizing pilgrimage, an inspiring romp through America's religious landscape. It's also a journey in which the horizon moves further away the more one moves toward it, not quite fulfilling its potential to be a memorable, cohesive quest.

The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday.
Judith Bolton-Fasman

Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance book reviewer and writer in the Boston area.

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