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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Learning the Land

May 7, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

When the pioneer teachers of the early 20th century in Palestine sought to create "The New Jew" through education, a key element of the curriculum in their new schools was Yediyat Ha'aretz - Knowledge of the Land. Whole treatises on the subject were published in the teachers' union magazine, translated from German educational literature - for not only in Palestine did the rise of nationalism lead to a deep fascination with the link between landscape and identity. All over Europe teachers were leading their classes on hikes into the fields to identify the local flora, while youth movements were organizing camping trips in the woods. The message, in the words of the Hebrew poet Tchernichovsky: "A person is nothing but the imprint of the landscape of his homeland." Normal, natural people are rooted in their ancestral soil, and their culture is organically connected to their physical environment. The dream of Zionism was to revolutionize Jewish identity,
to create New Jews who would be not "luftmenschen" ("air-people"), but earth people, with their feet planted securely on the ground - their ground.

Therefore, as soon as the first Zionist schools in Palestine opened, Yediyat Ha'aretz was an important part of the curriculum. And the vehicle par excellence for teaching this subject, from the beginning, was the annual school trip. For a hundred years, the annual trip has been a fixture of the curriculum, with most schools maintaining a traditional sequence of increasingly longer (in time and distance) trips for each succeeding grade; by fifth grade the trip generally includes an overnight stay; by 12th grade it is most of a week, usually at the maximum distance possible from home (within Israel!).

Once, these trips were serious camping trips, with lengthy hikes during the day and a "kumzitz" at night; often they were somewhat dangerous, and there were, alas, sometimes martyrs to the cause of our cultural rebirth, victims of falls, drownings, or terrorist incursions. Today, most schools stay in youth hostels, field schools, and even hotels, and the routes are carefully planned and supervised to avoid dangers (and the attendant lawsuits). For some schools, teachers, kids, the trips still carry the romance of the pioneering days. Our local high school is proud of its policy of doing full scale wilderness camping excursions for the annual trips; kids plan, purchase, and cook their own food, and hike all day between campsites. Many kids hate it, and find all kinds of excuses to get out of the trip. Our daughter, who loved these trips and looked forward to them each year, commented that they made her feel "more Israeli" than anything else she
did. So the tradition does have some content and some continuity.

But with modernization and westernization, the romance fades. Aside from the dangers, the 24 hour discipline burden on teachers is often overwhelming, and the dispute over what can be demanded of teachers and how they should be compensated for trip duty has led to at least one major strike in recent years. And when the trip becomes a tradition maintained for its own sake, without the romantic commitment to communion with the land, then it becomes a classic multidimensional struggle among competing interests and goals: the parents want their kids safe and comfortable; the teachers want a few hours sleep and some educational content during the day; the kids want to do all the things kids want to do when they are with their peers, away from the normal structures and strictures of home and school. Needless to say, these goals aren't generally congruent.

This week's 9th grade group at our hostel was typical: the tearful roommate selection process; the sexual posturing; the long-anticipated overnight pranks and counterpranks; the bleary-eyed, crabby teachers; the kids too tired during the day to respond to the program; the inevitable injuries and sore throats; before cell phones, I would have added the long line at the pay phone - but no more.

And yet, I hope that creative and well-organized educators will manage to save this institution, against all odds, lest we become luftmenschen all over again.


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