It's 6 am in our Toyota Corolla, as Shira and I are off to Keshet School, where she, along with the sleeping-bag deep in the trunk and the rest of sixth grade are about to embark on the annual field trip, that quintessentially Israeli institution of the tiyul shnati.
It's drizzling as we are driving down the hill from Talpiyot to Katamon and the wipers are swinging merrily, easily defeating early winter's gentle raindrops. But no wipers can wash away Shira's excitement. Today she and her friends will hike up Massada and tonight they will be sleeping on a bare slope somewhere in the Judean Desert, much the way David did there when he was fleeing Saul's wrath, near the caves where the Hasmoneans later fled Greek swords, and early Christians evaded Roman spears.
Back when we were teenagers, soldiers and undergraduates, the desert's tranquility, brutality and proximity bewitched us as effortlessly as amusement parks trap kids. But that was already after we had been conditioned to reach for the horizon and beat any dirt road, hikers trail, or cattle path, by car, by bike, by foot, by day or by night.
This Israeli tradition of field hikes harks back to the pre-state years, when the Zionist Zeitgeist demanded of the New Hebrews an intimate acquaintance with the motherland. Led by legendary scholars like Ze'ev Vilnai, the Jews of Palestine blazed trails on both flanks of the Jordan River, climbing hilltops while holding copies of the Bible, the Books of the Maccabees and Josephus Flavius's chronicles, so they could point with their fingers and feel through their feet the places where Abraham pitched tents, Joshua fought wars, David courted women and pilgrims sought God.
Every field trip was an escapade - from home, from metropolis, from the news. Walking through the Judean Desert's Mukalekh, Darajeh or Uja creeks, swimming in the Golan Heights' Yehudiyeh, Zavitan and Meshushim waterfalls, smelling atop a stampeding jeep the grain fields between Mount Tabor and the Issachar Heights, or cuddling in a sleeping bag with the right partner under star-strewn skies by the ruins of the Monfort Crusader fortress in the Upper Galilee were for us as priceless as tickets to the year's best film, play or rock concert.
And then came the 1990s.
First, reports began to emerge that kids were arriving at field trips with soda cans instead of the standard, army-issue, green plastic canteens, which to previous generations were an integral part of the field trip, alongside the rough-leather hiking boots, the triangular tembel hat, and the high-detail topographic map. To them, the notion of someone, let alone a hiker, gulping a Coke can in the middle of, say, Wadi Kelt, was as unthinkable as driving on the left lane, and as abominable as planting an idol in the Holy of Holies.
Then came the post-Zionist trend, that made some rich schools quietly question the tiyul shnati institution, a logistical headache that comes coupled with "too much" discussion of nationalism, wars and heroism.
Add to that recent years' security problems and the increasing affordability of short family trips abroad, and you understand why many of us were afraid that this most Israeli of pastimes, the venerable field trip, was as endangered as the many species we used to observe breathlessly with our thoroughly scratched binoculars, from bald eagles descending toward dusk from atop the Gamla waterfall to the soft-stepping leopards hiding in the cliffs of Ein Gedi.
Now, back in the school yard, this armada of rambunctious Israeli kids wrapped in a new era's uniforms, from Nike sneakers and NBA sweatshirts to Yankee baseball caps and Timberland sleeping bags, are as captured by the experience ahead of them as we were back when we wore the locally made, and famously shabby, Atta khakis, and subsisted while in the field off of disgusting chocolate spread and ancient sardine cans.
What the heck, I am thinking as I watch the kids cacophonously talk about how they will be sleeping tonight by the Dargot cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea. Times have changed, but the tiyul shnati has survived globalization, technology and post-Zionism, even if while hugging Shira I command her not to forget to flag us tonight, and tomorrow morning, just to say that everything is fine. "Call on the cellphone," I say unaware of my own manifest surrender to modernity's march, as she disappears among her friends, who are as oblivious of the raindrops as we used to be, back when we went on the tiyul shnati.
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