Among the memories this time of year evokes for many people my age are those of what once was a cherished summertime ritual: the family road trip. Same for an advertising copywriter in Wisconsin named Richard Ratay, who has written Don’t Make Me Pull Over! An Informal History of the Family Road Trip, a nostalgic view of the history of American vacation culture coupled with memories of the childhood years he spent traveling with his efficiency-minded dad, his beleaguered mom, his two teenage brothers, and a sister perpetually on the brink of car sickness.

The 1960s and ’70s were the years when America’s infatuation with long vacation trips by car was at its peak. The coast-to-coast interstate highway system, which received legislative approval in 1956 but took over two decades to complete, made exotic locales more accessible than ever before, while air travel was still an untested and prohibitively expensive phenomenon. The postwar baby boom, an automotive industry that had perfected mass production of vehicles for the war effort, and a booming economy all contributed to large numbers of American families packing up the station wagon and heading out onto the road for parts unknown.

Ratay highlights a central difference between plane travel, which is purely a means to get somewhere, and car trips, which can often be more about the journey than the destination. “In simply making the drive together,” he says, “we were already in the best place of all.”

Like many other areas of life that have benefited from modernization, there are inevitable tradeoffs. We might consider ourselves very fortunate to have these enhancements, but it’s worth realizing the corresponding loss of certain experiences and the precious human gifts such experiences bestow, things like resiliency and family togetherness. Spiritual ones, too, like bitachon and ahavas Yisrael.

Car trips meant exploring other parts of the country and seeing how others lived, even if only fleetingly, and merely seeing people who didn’t look or speak like you was a valuable eye-opener. Ratay recalls, for example, driving past fields where children were working alongside their parents.

Those were the days before leasing meant everyone drives the latest model car, and cars were in any event less mechanically reliable. Would anyone given the choice want to return to a time when an automotive breakdown on a long road trip usually wasn’t a matter of if, but when? Or when, pre-Waze and GPS, the likelihood of getting significantly farblonjet was far higher than it is now? On both counts, no.

Yet there’s no gainsaying that, as Ratay observes,

part of that stress helped families bond together because when something did happen, you were going to have to overcome it as a family. You were going to have to have patience and get through it together. It sure felt back then a lot more like when you went on a family vacation, you were setting off into the wild frontier on a great adventure together. You as a family were going to have to overcome these challenges and find ways to deal with them. I don’t think it feels that way anymore. If something does happen, help is only a call on your cell phone away.

For years now, every time I whiz by a frum person waiting for roadside assistance alongside a broken-down vehicle, I feel a little nostalgic twinge for a time when breakdowns and accidents were a prime opportunity to put into practice one’s feelings of oneness with all other Jews. My family’s road trips yielded some wonderful experiences of this sort with some amazing people on both the giving and receiving ends.

Then, of course, there was the ultimate in character building — the sharing of an extremely cramped space for interminably long stretches with one’s parents and siblings, which Ratay wryly calls “part of the magic of the experience.” The negotiations and compromises this entailed required the summoning of inner strengths you never knew you had — or actually didn’t and had to develop on the spot.

When asked what road trips are like today, Mr. Ratay says: “Everyone has their smart phones and devices that they can use to retreat into their own little worlds. We’re more distant, and it will be difficult to get back to that shared experience of the road trip that we look back at so fondly.” And I wonder: Is someone keeping count of all the casualties of the digital age as they pile up?

He notes, too, that for too many of us, getting there fast, by plane, is all that counts. “We’ve lost the idea,” he muses, “that the journey is the destination.”

 

Prisoner of His Conscience

As a youngster growing up, I would attend a Shabbos afternoon youth group in a local shul, where my group leader, Yossi, would talk to us about the Free Soviet Jewry movement then coming into its own. Russian Jews were being regularly imprisoned or otherwise oppressed, and movement activists held large demonstrations, while others, like the Jewish Defense League, engaged in more violent protests.

Idealistic kid that I was, I became very inspired, and I remember having up on my bedroom wall a number of posters featuring various Prisoners of Conscience languishing in Soviet prisons. I can see even now in my mind’s eye the pictures of these refuseniks pictured with iron prison bars superimposed upon them. 

I don’t recall if Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky’s picture was among them, but he was certainly a well-known Prisoner of Conscience. Upon being freed from the Soviet gulag, Sharansky made his way to Eretz Yisrael, where he became deeply involved in politics and eventually served for nine years as chairman of the Jewish Agency.

Last week, he stepped down from that post, which will now be filled by Yitzchak Herzog, and in an exit interview with the Times of Israel, he spoke about his achievements:

We are bringing many members of Knesset to Jewish communities around the world so that they will see that it is not fiction…. They understand that [non-Orthodox Judaism] is real Judaism — these people are living full Jewish lives….

The MKs spend Shabbat with them. They find out. It is very easy when you simply hear about it, to think that [non-Orthodox Judaism] is some kind of a sect, hostile to Judaism, which lives only on assimilation, and because they already succeeded in assimilating Americans, they are now looking for the ways to penetrate Israel. Suddenly they understand — more than half of American Jewry lives like this…. In the Knesset today, it is more difficult to pass these types of decisions than it was two years ago, simply because there are already 40 MKs [whom the Agency took to the US to meet American Jewry].

So this is how Mr. Sharansky repaid G-d for taking him out from the belly of the Russian bear, by using his position to bring upon the Land of Israel the plague of Jewish heterodoxy that is naught but open rebellion against G-d.

Later, Sharansky discussed his attempts to move forward with an expansion of the egalitarian prayer site near the Kosel. Of the recent decision by Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev — who sat on the government committee overseeing that work — to resign from the panel as a matter of conscience, he said,

Miri Regev has the right to any opinion. The fact that she wrote [that she could not serve on the committee building the pavilion] as “a matter of conscience” was a mistake. If it is a matter of conscience, it cannot be changed from two years ago. If it is a political decision, okay.

The 40 members of Knesset whom Sharansky brought to visit Jews in the United States are to be guided to a radical change of mind on religious issues from traditional to liberal. But Heaven help the politician who changes her mind in the opposite direction. That, Sharansky rules, “cannot” be done.

Anatoly Sharansky was a long-ago prisoner of conscience. But who appointed him its arbiter?

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 720. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com