You would be 55 today.
My first gift to you
on your birthday
— your one and only Broadway musical —
Kiss of the Spider Woman, with Chita Rivera;
my last, roses to your hotel room
Planting a cedar today
might not be such a good idea.
(With thanks to April Scholz for saving Peter’s itinerary.)
Do Not Try This at Home
A Fulbright Study Tour of Israel and Egypt
I am several hundred feet up on the face of the Avdat canyon in Israel’s Negev desert. I am hanging on for dear life to the metal rungs which are allowing myself and my fellow Fulbright participants to make a vertical course up toward the top of the canyon. My heart is pumping with the exertion and fear created by the view below—and this is only the mid-point of the ascent. Clearly I am not a seasoned mountaineer. I am just a mild-mannered history teacher who accepted one of sixteen openings for a Fulbright Summer Study Tour for Teachers in Israel and Egypt. The vertical hike continues, I reach the top, and feel that special pride in having tried something new and survived. In my excited state the risky crawl up the canyon’s face became a logical and completely appropriate exercise in gaining an understanding of the Negev Desert. “But,” my inner cynic reminded me, “do not push your luck—and do not try this at home.”
Although the Negev desert did not transform me into a permanent outdoor adventurer, my participation in the study tour of Israel and Egypt made a wonderful addition to my experiences in international education. The Fulbright grant introduced me to an entirely new region of the world: the passionately controversial Middle East. With this travel experience, I would be able to complement my teaching of history and world affairs with the unique perspective that is added by visiting the actual sites which my lessons so often targeted.
As the date of departure approached, the offices in Cairo and Jerusalem heightened my anticipation with descriptions of our program of study. The sixteen teachers would spend three weeks in Jerusalem, followed by three weeks in Cairo. Within these three weeks for each country, the study directors would schedule extensive road trips to balance the more traditional lectures which comprised our study. By the time I boarded the plane for Tel Aviv, my mind was racing with the excitement of seeing a part of the world that I had not yet had the chance to explore.
Our arrival at Ben Gurion Airport provided a stark introduction to Israeli realities: Airport security was intense if not efficient, and illiteracy in spoken and written Hebrew made it difficult to distinguish political protests from “for sale” signs. Our Israeli study director, Arie Shoval, was present from our arrival until departure to serve as translator, guide and resident head scholar. Arie organized informative lectures in Jerusalem, concert outings, lunch at a falafel stand in the sweltering heat of Tel Aviv market at high noon, and, always at a safe distance, evidence of the unrest caused by the new Palestinian state. Arie’s love for his country and his commitment to it impressed many of us who had never before witnessed such deeply felt patriotism. For a people who have struggled to survive as a nation for thousands of years, such patriotism became a standard observation throughout our study tour.
Although over a third of our time was spent touring the whole of Israel, our home base was the Ariel Hotel, just South of the old city of Jerusalem. Israeli realities converge and become explosive within the walled confines of the old city, with security forces always present. The Arab Quarter has seen less violence due to the peace accords but an outsider still has to tread carefully as he passes Damascus Gate toward the Arab market. The Grand mosque of the Old City is only a five-minute walk from the Western Wall, the holiest site of the Jewish faith. Access to the Western Wall is heavily watched, and during the time of our stay rumors of Arafat demanding the Old City as Palestine’s capital added extra tensions, and extra security forces.
Jews and Arabs are not the only sources of violence in the Old City. In the Christian sector, orthodox Armenian and Greek sects and Franciscans coexist with great difficulty. Israeli police have had to break up fistfights among the clergy of those various denominations, and tensions run especially high during Easter services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Above all this fracas, the rooftop garden provides one source of peaceful coexistence. On the roof, Coptic Christian and Ethiopian monks live in austerity in dome-shaped, individual cells. Here these holy men pray, tend gardens, and thrive in a thoroughly ascetic existence.
Far away from the tensions of the Old City, The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum stands on a hill in the new part of the city as testimony to the horrors of the Nazi death camps. Through a variety of exhibits Yad Vashem takes the visitor back to the first attacks on Jews in the early 1930’s, the German government’s codification of anti-Semitism by the Nuremburg laws of 1935, the hardships of the ghettos where Jews were forced to live without adequate food or sanitation. The last exhibits focus on the “final solution” and the death camps in all their horror. Such testimony gives a special context to the Israeli state. The vow, “Never Again,” was clearly expressed throughout our travels in Israel, from the United Nations peace-keeping outpost in the Golan Heights to the heavily armed Israeli-Lebanese border.