Follow along as your local Jewish millennial chronicles his travel through the United States amidst a pandemic and human rights movement.
Life is different, life is the same, life is weird, and life is insane. Since Spring of 2020, our country has literary exploded in a colorful array of (mostly strange) flavors of life: COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, multiple hurricanes in the south and southeast regions of the USA, fires charring land in the Pacific West and Northwest regions, and now an election of a reality TV Star versus a seasoned politician? Oy, my kop hurts just thinking about it.
If you are like me, I needed a break. Maybe wandering the United States with a loose plan would help me figure out what I was looking for as a salve to my wounded heart and neshama. I took a short cross-country road trip that lassoed the United States to grab a little perspective, thinking that maybe a journey like many of our forefathers have done in the past might help me gain perspective.
As Jews, our story has been largely graced with a generous helping of a theme of wandering, generosity, and wanderlust (and matzo ball soup). We, Jews, are arguably the world’s first nomads. In fact, we deserve credit for some of the longest and strangest road trips ever: 40 years in the desert of Egypt, being kidnapped by your brothers and becoming Egypt’s first Jewish leader, and fleeing the town of Lot by foot while a mob chases after you.
While we may not have had a smartphone to GPS and take us from Mount Sinai to the promised land, lessons were not lost along these trips from Egypt to Israel and beyond. Our ancestors were tested time and time again by God, and their trips, they were asked to examine how they treat themselves, their neighbors, and the poorest of their community.
During these times, what are we being tested to do? What inner voices are we needing to listen to learn our lessons amidst these strange times? thought about similar questions. As I thought about my trip, would I learn to look favorably on my neighbor as I would onto myself amidst the changes of COVID-19? What about championing the causes of the widow and the orphan? And what about the commandments to judge righteously and give charity?
As I traveled, as a pseudo-anthropologist at a distance (no pun intended) in disparate communities much like some of our matriarchs and patriarchs, these words were on display as I saw how people of different places practiced tikkun olam and repaired the world.
I chronicled life amidst a pandemic, human rights movements, natural disasters, and new election cycles in the following pictures and videos. My trip began and ended in Southern California and lasted from May 30th – June 10th. With nothing other than a rental car, tent, and sleeping bag to camp in, I asked myself: in what ways is life similar and different since the first nomadic Jewish wandering spell? What was there to learn along the way as I photographed COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, natural landscapes, and political elections?
You be the judge.
We start our trip in the great Pacific West: California, Nevada, and Utah. In the above pictures, my closest neighbors were deer. Stop on the road for 20 minutes while a herd of deer loafed on by? Contrary to Balaam, I did not treat my braying and talking neighbors by beating them on the back.
We patiently waited and enjoyed the natural beauty of life lazy deer walking by, admiring the grass in the road, blissfully unaware of a Ford F-150 truck with its brights on. In the above picture, I “honor thy mother and father” by taking a picture of this old-timey Mom-and-Pop gas station.
In the above pictures, I found myself traveling through Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota. I could not help but think in the above pictures of nature at how God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (“and it was good!”).
Fortunately, God never determined how many days I could go camping, so I spent some time photographing the general symmetry of the trees, the grandeur of Mount Rushmore, and the way the sun idly sets in the evening amidst an old mining town in Minnesota.
Amidst a pandemic, civil rights movement, and political election season, the world still looks beautiful, and the world’s creation, well, “it was good.”
My trip happened to coincide with the week George Floyd was killed. I could not help but notice the kindness, generous spirit, and charity young adults demonstrated, especially Illinois’ Brave Space Alliance organization (above four pictures) handing out free meals at Young American restaurant near Chicago’s Logan Square, as well as in Wakefield, Michigan, where individuals came together at the local town’s community center (above three pictures above these four) to champion the needs of those who have been too long forgotten or ignored.
Despite our divisions, I like to think God is looking down and smiling as people gave free meals and cheered as cars drove by honking in support of the dignity of those too soon lost.
What was most surprising about this trip was the fact that, despite the heat, the flames of passion and desire for change, whether it be from George Floyd and countless others’ deaths, from COVID-19 fatigue, and even natural disasters.
In 28-degree weather in Vail and Aspen, Colorado, I could not help but look at the above sprouting dandelion and think about the commandment, “Judge righteously” (Proverbs 31:9), as I saw my own humanity sprout from the cold, snow-covered Earth.
At this time, I think it is crucial to look at ourselves with kindness and judge our actions in as gentle and righteous a way as possible. That does not mean advocate for change and fight, but also it means to look at the beauty sprouting from every corner even when the world seems at its coldest and bleakest.
It is important to treat ourselves kindly, gently, and see our own righteousness, even when all around us looks dark, cold, or snow-covered, and especially when you are sleeping in the back of a GMC Terrain SUV in 28-degree weather in a sleeping bag on folded-down middle seats because all campsites are closed due to COVID-19 and you want to save money and do not want to spring for a hotel.
Whether we can see it or not, we are sprouting the seeds of hope, blooming and making the world better, whether through continued conversation, or helping those in need, but we need to see ourselves as doing so and look at the dandelion sprouting hope in the middle of a forest of greys and snow whites.
So, what did I learn from my wandering journey? Somewhere between wide-open prairie roads and clogged crosswalks in downtown Chicago, it dawned on me that the meaning I was searching for out there in the world is visible everywhere and in the tiniest of places: charity, beautiful sights, honoring the past, and, most importantly, judging myself with righteousness were all lessons that kept coming back to me.
When change happens, it is easy to lose our way and to feel like the world is burning, swirling, or coming down in a heap of flames. It is even easier to say, “It is time to pack up and leave.”
What is more challenging is finding the dandelions along the road, the symmetry of trees and rock formations, the ever-present love and generosity that can be found on every street corner in nearly every city, and most importantly, the willingness to acknowledge, stay, and work for its continued existence in our community, one patient and loving act at a time.
While we are not “obligated to complete the work” of creation, “neither are we free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot, 2:21). I hope wherever you are in life’s journey, that you take a moment to see the that there is room to start the work and enjoy and relish in the work you have already done for the world right now. It need not be a huge road trip, but it might mean enjoying a beautiful scene in nature, donating a dollar to charity, or speaking your heart in times of need. Maybe doing so will remind us of our own humanity amidst challenges and of the beauty right in front of you.
The next time you find yourself looking for meaning, remind yourself to open your eyes and ears to see and listen: your next steps might be just in front of you if you pay attention. You might just find the next road, tree, squirrel, or rock formation may awaken you to your next journey for God’s path for you. I hope to see you later down that path, wherever our wanderings lead us.
Check out some of Aaron’s other videos from this travels:
Aaron Wertheimer is a 28-year-old Southfield, Michigan native who moved to southern California at age 10. Though he spends his time teaching near Los Angeles and surfing in Orange County, his heart remains in the hands and mitten-state of Michigan, a place where he visits the bulk of his family on the regular.