Photos and Text by Lydia Aisenberg
When Dr. David Mendelsohn offered to teach a short course in hieroglyphics as an extra-curriculum activity during the third MASA-Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Semester – the students not only jumped at the opportunity but also at the end of the course decided to travel with him to Egypt so as to read for themselves the originals!
The enthusiasm of both students and teaching staff, David and history teacher Yisrael Neeman, spilled over to encompass others and became somewhat of a family affair with two mothers, two sisters, one brother and his partner coming from the United States to join the Israel based students for the 9-day trip to Egypt.
One of the stops was the Step Pyramid and here the students gathered in a pose reminiscent of a famous photo – being held by one of the students in the photo above – that was taken in the 1940s of Jews from Palestine who joined the British Army, trained as parachutists, partially in Egypt, before being sent on dangerous missions behind enemy lines in Europe. Among them Hannah Senesh and Haviva Reik, both of whom captured and killed, and after the latter in 1949 the Givat Haviva Institute was named.
“Gathered together at the Step Pyramid and discussing the actions of Haviva and her comrades made us understand even deeper just what a sacrifice they made for Israel,” said David Mendelsohn recapping on his second journey to the known – and unknown – guiding Intensive Arabic Semester graduates.
Paying honor to Haviva and the other parachutists at the very spot where she had been – in her British Army uniform – so many years before was a very emotional experience,” said David who found the photograph in the Givat Haviva archives and asked for a copy to be made so as to take with them.
The tour, organized by David Mendelsohn, began in Cairo with visits to Memphis, Saqqara and the pyramids of Giza. “Tracing the history of Egypt and our Jewish connection to it – for example dispelling the myth that the Jews built the pyramids when in fact they were already ancient monuments before the Israelites became slaves – is fascinating and was hugely thought provoking for the students and their family members who joined us all the way from America,” said David, who originates from Montreal and made aliya with his young family in recent years.
“It is quite amazing to watch the students faces as they read hieroglyphics for themselves and – as with the first group of IAS students I took last year – the most meaningful thing for me is taking in their facial expressions as they stand in awe in front of the mummified remains of Ramses ll,” explained David, jokingly calling Ramses ll “Moses mate.”
The group flew to Luxor where they explored the Valley of the Kings both from the ground and a few hours up, up and away in a hot air balloon over the valley, followed by a Nile cruise. An overnight train along the Nile back to Giza and car journey to Alexandria to visit the Jewish area of the city as well as a visit to the National Museum of Alexandria to see artifacts from the Red Sea Library of Alexandria after which they returned to Cairo for a visit to the Archaeological Museum and more.
For Intensive Arabic Semester history teacher Yisrael Neeman, who is also a much sought after qualified study tour guide in Israel, this was his first visit to Egypt and when asked what it meant to him Yisrael enthusiastically described the experience as “life impacting.”
“Rare is the place on earth where one finds a people, a culture and a history reaching back further than the Jewish People and the Land of Israel. Egypt holds such a distinction,” explained Yisrael. “For me our trip to the Land of the Nile with students and guests at the end of the Intensive Arabic Semester was a life impacting experience, firstly as a Jew descendant from the Israelites seeing the land where one’s ancestors lived, were enslaved and eventually fled, was inspiring,” said Yisrael, a resident of the Western Galilee community of Eshchar, a village where both religious and secular families live together.
“Personally, having a visual image of a 3500 year-old defining moment when conducting the Passover Seder is invaluable for Jewish understanding,” said Yisrael, a secular Jew who originates from the United States. “Beyond the Jewish context Egypt is fascinating in its own right. Hieroglyphics came alive as our Scholar in Residence, David Mendelsohn, read and interpreted stories found in the millennium old burial chambers of the pharaohs. Most gripping is the historical continuity of Egypt featuring Greco-Roman influences, the advent of Coptic Christianity and its preservation of ancient Egyptian language, customs and understandings within its theological confines.
Yisrael also commented that local Egyptians were amazed at the ability of David to read the hieroglyphics and stood by amazed as the Arabic speaking sociolinguist and archaeologist explained also to them. “Today’s Egypt is of no less interest and quite possibly is the fulcrum for conflict or peace in today’s world. Nowadays secularism and Islamist understandings clash in the Arab world’s most populous society and particularly in its capital Cairo. Mosques and night clubs exist side by side in the heartland of Islam and one feels that a certain tenuous balance has been reached. But is it permanent?” he asks.
“Egypt is a pulsating society, one at peace with Israel now for other thirty years in defiance of the skeptics. And despite the harshness of our clash with the pharaohs and particularly Ramses ll, the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is very clear there should be no enmity towards the Egyptian people as in Deuteronomy 23:8) ‘Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite; for he is thy brother; thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian; because thou wast a stranger in his land’ – in other words despite being strangers, the Egyptians took in Jacob and his descendents (remember Joseph and his brothers?) in time of severe famine. Let’s say we have a bit of a debt,” he says with a laugh.
Summing up his first visit to Egypt, Yisrael says that it helped him take the Biblical verse a step further towards understanding through an invaluable hands on experience and that he certainly will be back – probably together with David Mendelsohn and more eager Intensive Arabic Semester students from the next semester due to start January, 16th, 2011.