Interesting Times: Building towers

Height impresses. But what you see matters, too

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Nothing got Europe's goat more over seven years of acrimonious US-European relations than one snide reference by Vice President Dick Cheney to "old Europe." From its sleek trains to its minimalist decor to its cutting-edge fashion to its embrace of secularism, Europe revels in its modernity. Or so I thought. It would be hard for anyone attending the annual "Festa Major" in Vilafranca del Penedes - a small town within commuting distance of Catalonia's cosmopolitan hub, Barcelona - to conclude that Europeans are eagerly shedding the shackles of tradition. It was not just the medieval church, winding cobblestone streets, or the classic town square acting as an ancient, essentially forgotten backdrop for cafes and boutiques. The three-day event, judging by the thousands of locals either participating or watching it, showed that even in the heart of modernist Europe - we also saw the wonderful "modernista" creations of architect Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona - the traditional is gaining new life and has its own power. The festival included dances in costumes and styles that looked not to have changed for centuries, led by a dragon preserved by the town for 500 years, and by four-meter-tall, life-like dolls of the king and queen of Catalonia. That the assorted tattoos and piercings of the young dancers could be seen peeking out of their costumes only accentuated the obvious: that what we were seeing was not the embers of something barely kept alive, but a revival of the ancient that is perhaps becoming more resonant with the next generation, not less. THE HIGHLIGHT, however, was another recently revived tradition, that of building human towers. In the early 18th century, local guilds competed with each other over how high they could stack themselves in the town square. It became an intricate art, with set rules and techniques that allowed them to produce Eiffel Tower-shaped structures eight levels high (a great photo essay explaining the process can be seen at ( Today's tower-builders wear the same costumes - including the fasha, a long black cloth tightly wrapped around the midsection as a back support and foothold for those climbing up - and, after some years, have managed to duplicate and even surpass the towers of old. The current record is a "3 of 10," meaning a tower composed of three people on its middle levels and going up 10 levels high. Height, however, is not always the sole measure of difficulty or success. To me, the most impressive tower was a "Pillar of Eight" composed of a pyramid-shaped base for the first three levels, all supporting one man on the fourth level, who supported four more people standing straight above him, on his shoulders. That man was Felix Miret, our host and connection to the whole event. We met Felix when he came with a few of his teammates to Jerusalem to teach the kids of the Jerusalem Circus, including our daughter Tamar, how to build towers. He taught Tamar, who was seven, how to be the anxaneta, the child who scrambles up to the tip of the tower, lifts his or her left hand up for a split second, then scrambles quickly down so the tower can be dismantled before it collapses. The pressure on Felix, physical and mental, as his face contorted with effort at the epicenter of the pillar on his team's last try in the competition (they had just failed three tries to construct a record-tying 3-of-10 tower), with thousands of eyes in the square and untold more via live television on him, was inconceivable. He and his team had been training since February for these few crucial seconds. Though Felix seemed too used to thinking in team terms to admit it (his Web site is, it was fairly obvious why no other team was able to construct a pillar of eight - none of them had a Felix. As in any sport, the champions are the first to point out that physical strength, and even technique, are not the critical aspects. Rather it is the mental power to believe, to take yourself beyond what your body is telling you is the breaking point. It is impossible to live like this all the time, but such feats show all of us how much untapped potential we have available to apply to our lives, in whatever sphere. FOR ME, Felix's father, Josep, who also participated in the towers despite a sprained arm, illustrated another sort of potential. As he took us around town, he showed us alleys where Jews lived before the Inquisition, including the king's coat-of-arms on one archway, signifying that the Jews were protected property of the king. He also showed me statues of a particular saint who was a "bad man" because he instigated anti-Jewish decrees. Felix had told us about his father's passionate interest in Hebrew, Jews and Israel. It did not seem to be connected to any particular line of Jewish ancestry, though many families in this region could trace themselves to known Marrano, or hidden Jewish, names. When we asked, Joseph explained that his philo-Semitism went back to 1973 when, during the Yom Kippur War, the priest in his church called on his congregation to pray for the imperiled Jewish state. Imagine for a second if all priests in Europe had done this, and if the Church, and Europe as a whole, were to see the "Arab-Israeli conflict" as it is - the Jewish state's struggle for existence, a struggle that strongly deserves moral support. Imagine, in short, that Europe was pro-Israel. The supreme irony is that the conflict would have been resolved long ago. The conflict continues because of Palestinian/Arab/Islamist hopes that Israel will lose Western support and self-destruct. If such hopes were dashed - because Europe began squarely holding the Arab world responsible for the conflict and demanding that it abandon its country-cidal fantasy - the two-state solution, or something like it, would have been reached by now. Europe's post-colonial guilt, which fuels much of its anti-Israel animus, is actually blocking the reversal of Israel's supposedly colonial presence - which it is desperate to end - in most of Judea and Samaria. Due to its reflexive anti-Israel bias, Europe refuses to recognize that while "Greater Israel" is politically dead in Israel, the campaign to erect a "Greater Palestine" in Israel's stead is not only alive, but the real threat both to peace and to Palestinian independence. [email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11