Here's how the piece was summed up on the opening spread. Just below the title – in lower-case type so readers won't think it's about the Old Testament – came this: "You can't buy it in any store, can't send for it online, can't meet the author (there are thousands), and you probably won't be able to read it, since much of it is written in Hebrew. Patrick Symmes follows the trail of an underground global legend: the everywhere-and-nowhere travel bible of Israel's combat-fatigued, footloose vagabond youth."
Now, if this article about a nearly mythic travel book (or books) written by assorted former Israeli soldiers as they kick around Asia and South America after completing their army service had appeared in Hadassah, Moment or the Forward, then it would make sense. But it appeared last month in Outside.
Outside began as an outdoorsy magazine that followed all sorts of impossible-seeming, rugged pursuits, some of them extreme before there was a name for such things. But due to competition in the marketplace, the publication seems now more of a lifestyles magazine dealing with health and fitness issues.
Symmes was also an odd choice. He's not Jewish (though that's not a requirement) but the quirkiness of the subject – a decidedly informal travel book that offers tips about where to visit and what to avoid, and meant for other Israeli wanderers – seems to put it off to one side of the Jewish world. But Symmes clearly recognized an intriguing story with its own sort of mystery, and he pursued it expertly.
His writing was evocative: "The pages in the Book are yellow now – not from time (what's 16 years?) but from the careless caresses of too many readers. Thousands of grubby hands have pressed their oily fingers on these pages. The drunk, bored, pissed-off, and horny of many nations have pawed through them, used them as drink coasters, and dribbled falafel crumbs into their folds. The corners are curled up, and the cover was long ago wrapped in butcher paper, as if it were porn."
Well into the piece came a number of outbursts from interview subjects on Israeli politics, especially the treatment of Palestinians, and it was then I thought I'd discovered why the article had been written. Israel didn't look too flattering in these tirades, though they were voiced by Israeli citizens. But, in reality, these were just necessary interludes, a fleshing out of a deeply Israeli story.
Once these interludes faded, they seemed like red herrings. I simply had to accept that there was no "why" to be found, that this was just a fascinating little travel sidelight with some flashes of political insight. Or maybe it was just a quirky little story that, with my Jewish sensitivity, I'd read far too much into.
Then again, maybe not. u