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September 1, 2014 | 6th Elul 5774

Hearing the Stones

October 12, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

A few generations ago, there were still many Jews who could hear the stones speak here. Jews with a rich education in classical texts, biblical and rabbinic, would visit a historical or archaeological site, and the place came alive for them. The encounter with the place was informed by their familiarity with it – before they had ever seen it – via their knowledge of the figures who had inhabited it, what they said and did, taught and suffered. For both Diaspora Jews and for native born Israelis, the landscapes of biblical battlefields and the toppled remnants of Roman-period dwellings and shops and synagogues evoked powerful memories – memories not remembered, but learned in a lifetime of text study. (The same was true for Christians – see Mark Twain's mocking descriptions of his fellow pilgrims in Innocents Abroad ).

Now, living as we do in a post-textual Jewish generation, we find ourselves bringing Jews to the ancient stones in the hope that somehow that exposure will motivate them to "go and learn," to study the texts that might give meaning to the sites. Generally, this doesn't work. If you don't know what the Mishnah is, then the pile of rocks that was Zippori is just a pile of rocks. We drag Israeli school children and foreign tourists from archaeological site to archaeological site telling them and telling them and telling them why these stones are important. They may hear us, but they don't hear the stones. This is a frustrating and important educational challenge.

I have been privileged to play a supporting role in a couple of projects that have sought to address this challenge in creative ways:

For several years in the mid-90's our seminar center produced "Zippori Live" for playwright and director Joyce Klein. Joyce prepared a script involving a tour guided by third century guides, encountering along the way vignettes from third-century life – all based on rabbinic texts. We even served an authentic period dinner at the end of the tour. Both Israelis and tourists responded with enthusiasm. Essentially what we did was to fill in the visitors' missing textual background by bringing the text to the site and dramatizing it; in this way, we integrated the text study with the site visit, enabling the visitor to hear the stones, not just to see them. Unfortunately, this program was too expensive to support itself, so it closed down after a run of four summers.

This week, a unique new project came to fruition: a year ago, Sigalit Ur, a Galilee Fellow at our center, expressed interest in producing an interactive guide book to Zippori for Israeli families with young children. Another Galilee Fellow, archaeologist Dina Shalem, senior Parks Authority educator Ettie Kuriat-Aharon, and Tal and Danit, a team of graphic artists, got involved. What followed was an exciting and intensive creative process, that had to deal with religious pluralism, sensitive historical allusions (there was an Arab village where the park now stands, until 1948), a commitment to classical text, and the goal of involving family members of different ages in independent touring, study, and thinking; and of course, the product would have to be attractive enough to motivate people to buy it. A New York Times bestseller it won't be, but a good percentage of visitors are buying it, and their responses after using it are uniformly "wow." We are all amazed that we really did it, and that the product turned out to be so impressive. And the creative team, who forged a strong friendship during their year of work together, is already looking for their next site…

 

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