Following the Beaten Path: Part 5 – Yodfat instead of Masada

My friend, Israeli writer and public intellectual Yuval Ben-Ami set off to see what it is like to re-examine his country′s main tourist attractions with a critical native eye (all posts here), and I decided to virtually follow his path.  In my blog posts I share my memories on what it was like visiting those places as an expat in Israel. This is how Yuval describes his idea, and here I describe mine (which is also Part 1 of my journey – the Western Wall). I have followed Yuval to the Baha′i Gardens (Yuval′s post and mine) and Nazareth (Yuval′s and mine), and the Sea of Galilee (Yuval′s and mine. Although his journeys have a different sequence, a recent reading made me return to his text about Masada, but this time it wasn′t easy to follow him.

Several people sang praises to the sunrise view of the fortress of Masada and told me it was a must. When I complained that I found it difficult to reach, people said there were buses or that I should look for company on Couchsurfing. In May 2010 it looked like I found company, but in the end the trip was cancelled. I visited Israel two more times and never reached Masada. Oh well. After all, I have seen a desert sunrise on Mount Sinai in Egypt, at Beerot campsite, and in Sde Boker. Yuval suggested that in parallel to his post on opera in Masada I write about hitchhiking in the Negev or something of that sort. I was hesitant. But today another Israeli writer gave me a new idea. I had never given the story of Masada much thought, so I almost skipped what Yuval wrote about Josephus Flavius and the Jewish revolt against the Romans, which, the story goes, ended in a mass suicide. Ellis Shuman, who I exchanged Twitter follows with recently, elaborated on the story and decided to post his old article on Twitter the other day, so I noticed and read it. Yuval writes:

Masada is about imagining. Don’t limit yourselves to one version of the tale or notions of scale and proportion, time and space that are not your own. Make your own Masada. Herod saw a dramatic geological formation and turned it into a palace, the rebels saw a palace and turned it into a fortress. Later came monks who saw a ruined fortress and turned it into a monastery. Finally, Israelis came and turned it into a symbol: a tourist attraction, an excavation site, a McDonald’s, an opera venue.

Ellis Shuman writes:

Josephus modeled much of the Masada legend on his own personal adventures. The story of the mass suicide, of rebels fighting against the Roman Empire and preferring death to enslavement, all were experienced by Josephus at the siege of Yodfat in the Galilee.

I must admit I have read very little about Masada and never been there, but hey, I′ve been to Yodfat!

I visited Yodfat as a part of a road trip in March 2010, when I traveled around the Galilee and Golan with four other European expats. It was the same trip that we visited the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth (see earlier blog entries of the series). The current town is not the original Yodfat – it was established in the 1960s and named after the town of the famous revolt, where a mass suicide of Jewish soldiers is more likely to have happened than in Masada. Today′s Yodfat is tiny, but rather famous for its monkey zoo. The open-air zoo keeps other animals too (such as pelicans), but the monkeys are probably the most popular. I recently talked to an Indian programmer, who often travels to Israel for business. “I think I′ve seen everything, and locals can′t think of another place I should see,” he said. Still, having grown up in an Indian megacity with lots of wild animals roaming around, he was surprised to hear that anyone would travel to some small town just to see a few monkeys.

People can walk around this large space with trees and shelters. As we walked in, we were greeted by a perfectly tame pelican, and hurried to take photos with it. Later we saw chicken, geese and peacocks roaming around. Three parrots were having something like group sex. We even saw deer calmly walking around – it is forbidden to chase after them, but visiting kids did it anyway. Behind the bars were curious ostriches, dirty alpacas and newborn lambs. Macacas and baboons were in cages, but squirrel monkeys ran around free and could interact with humans if they pleased. A Russian-speaking child had her pita sandwich stolen, and she kept complaining for a while that the monkeys were bad. After the trip I wrote to family and friends:

As expected, one swift monkey grabbed a sandwich from a little girl, dissected it on the spot and shared it with others, following the best traditions of jungle communism.

Individual accomplishment turns into common good [click on the image to enlarge it]

Individual accomplishment turns into common good [click on the image to enlarge it]

You may say that the story of monkeys in contemporary Yodfat has nothing to do with the romanticism of Masada. Still, I wonder if anyone bumped into the monkeys of contemporary Yodfat while searching for the city of rebels. Israel is so full of history that there are always several layers under the ground, and historical past often shapes various towns′ identity. Sometimes it also traps them in prescribed narratives. Yuval asks his readers to look the other way – to notice the music scene and a McDonald′s. These towns are not only for tourists. At some point they must also remember the preferences of the locals. Yodfat tries to be on the beaten path, but for many tourists it is not as unique as it is for locals. Whoever built contemporary Yodfat did not bother to fill it with historical references.

History aside, my strongest memory from Yodfat will always be a group of squirrel monkeys splitting a pita sandwich, falafel by falafel. The saddened Russian-speaking child and I brought back completely different conclusions. She thought that the monkeys were bad because they stole the sandwich. I thought they were good because they shared it.

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