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October 25, 2014 | 1st Cheshvan 5775

Yodfat

October 13, 2002
Marc Rosenstein

For about a year, we have been thinking and talking about developing a program for seventh graders at the ancient site of Yodfat, a small ruin about a 10 minute drive from here. Finally, we succeeded in convincing our regional school to try the idea out, so we have been working hard on planning the day. The idea is to do a day in Yodfat, examining the experience of those who fought to the death against the Romans in the Great Revolt, and then to spend a day in Zippori to learn about the experience of those who signed a separate peace and didn't fight. The school is interested in three goals: teaching history and geography; thinking about value conflicts; and teaching critical thinking skills. The role of the two field days in the unit is to provide an informal, nonacademic, experiential component to the learning. We are planning a range of activities, from struggling with dilemmas like how to ration water in a siege, to figuring out how to assemble and fire a Roman ballistra (catapult).

The other day, D., one of this year's Galilee Fellows, arranged a private inservice for our little staff with Motti Aviam, the archaeologist who led several years of excavations at Yodfat in the late 1990s. D. is herself an archaeologist, who studied under Motti and served as his assistant. It was a fascinating morning, and was a classic experience of the "religion" of archaeology in Israeli culture.

Yodfat was a small town on a small mountain in the middle of the Galilee. If it had not gone out in a blaze of glory in the Great Revolt, no one would probably have heard of it, much less excavated it. It is a beautiful spot, surrounded by a typically Galilean view of natural scrub and forest, cultivated fields, rocky hillsides, Beduin camps and red-roofed Jewish communities. Bedrock comes all the way to the surface of the mountain: this is not a tel, but rather simply a ruin, frozen in time when it was last inhabited in 67 CE. Joseph ben Mattityahu, a priestly aristocrat, was sent from Jerusalem to command the Jewish forces in the revolt, and fortified Yodfat to serve as the first obstacle to Vespasian's march across the Galilee. The town held out for 47 days; when it fell, there was a massacre. One of the few survivors was Joseph, who surrendered and became known as Josephus Flavius, the historian, without whose writings we would know nearly nothing of the events of the Great Revolt, including the stories of Yodfat and Masada.

Motti's approach is scientific archaeology: we only have what we find, not what we imagine, or want to imagine. And yet, he can't resist imagining, and taking us with him. He shows us remains of houses and workshops, cisterns and fortifications, and it is impossible not to hear the music swelling in the imaginary documentary film through which we are walking. Arrow heads and ballistra stones, sandal nails, human skeletons from the period of the revolt, were all found here in this small site. With the luck of an archaeologist, Motti magically spots a period coin as we stroll through the rubble, on a path that has been walked by thousands: Beduin shepherds, school kids on tour, archaeologists. The plaster on the water cisterns is all original. It is hard to turn off your imagination, hard not to be swept away by Motti's enthusiasm for the site, hard not to find echoes and connections between the dilemmas of the ancient defenders and our own.

This is the kind of site in which the place of archaeology in "civil religion" in Israel is clearly manifest. Try as I might to extricate myself from the web of romantic nationalism that the language of classical Zionism spins, there are times when I feel pleasantly, helplessly, bound by it. This is such a time. I am, we are rooted in the memory, in the history, in the rocks here. And there is indeed a certain sense of strength, of calm, of stability that comes with that rootedness. Dig we must.

 

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