NEWS FEATURE: Israeli `living history’ project to tour U.S.

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

TZIPPORI NATIONAL PARK, Israel _ Rabbi Yosef Ben Zimre and Rabbi Bar Kapra, sit under a grove of trees in their third-century”academy”in Tzippori debating a fine point of Jewish law.

Nearby, a poor Jewish peddler wanders the streets, selling a vial containing”the secret of life”for the coins of passers-by. In a residential quarter, Roman aristocrats in silk finery negotiate the purchase of a dress from a Jewish seamstress named Miriam. And a Jewish woman named Sara _ who says her name is Theodosea in Greek _ shows off landmarks in the town to”guests”from a faraway land called America. “Tzippori is a mixed city in which Jews and Romans live together peacefully,”Sara tells her audience.”Our great scholar Rabbi Yehuda Ha Nasi has a very good relationship with Antonious, the Roman governor, who may even become the next emperor. Perhaps you have come to see Rabbi Yehuda,”she queries her audience.”Unfortunately, he is not here today. He is in Tiberias.” Just as Americans can see their colonial past preserved in Williamsburg, Va., or Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, Israelis now are recreating scenes from biblical times for the first time in a”living history”project set in the country’s newest and most popular archaeological park, the northern Galilee site of Tzippori.

And following this summer’s on-site performances in Israel, the living history project traveled to the United States where it is being staged at the University of Michigan together with an exhibition of Tzippori’s archaeological finds.

Despite Israel’s rich archaeological and historical legacy, living history had not really been tried seriously until Joyce Klein launched the”Tzippori Live”project three seasons ago. “There are so many layers of history here, one upon the other, that often the whole country can seem like a giant `tel’ (archaeological hill),”said Klein, co-founder and director of the privately funded project.”Israelis and tourists who visit here want to see the places that touch their past. Still, it’s often difficult to look at a pile of rocks and imagine the house or the market that once stood there. And that is where living history can help.”Until we created Tzippori Live, the application of living history techniques had not been done in a serious way in Israel,”Klein added.”Some tourist sites would dress up guides in Roman togas, but if the guide is wearing sneakers and using his portable telephone _ which Israelis are prone to do _ it breaks the illusion.” Using ancient Jewish and Roman literary sources, as well as the imagination of her professional actors, Klein has painstakingly scripted a series of everyday interactions in the ancient town, which was known as something of an oasis of peaceful coexistence between oft-warring Jews, Romans and Christians.

The project thus conveys a modern message as well as a history lesson: If some of Judaism’s most famed sages could live side by side with idolatrous Romans, then peoples of the region today should somehow be able to get along. “Tzippori was an early center of rabbinic life and also a major center for Hellenistic Roman culture in the region,”Klein said.”You had major Jewish scholars operating alongside Roman art and theater. It raises the question of whether the rabbinical world in antiquity was perhaps less isolated and exclusivist than it is today.” In Tzippori Live, Klein seeks to recreate the delicate web of relations that seems to have existed between Jews and Romans at that time.

Tourists stopping at the Roman theater, for instance, will probably meet a guide garbed as an ancient Jewish resident of the town, who describes in detail a dramatic performance going on at the theater _ but then informs his audience that he is forbidden by Jewish law to attend. The guide then urges his listeners to sit in on a debate at the town’s Jewish religious academy or”Beit Midrash”if they want to see a”better show.””There, you will be entertained, but you also will come away with wisdom,”he says.

At the Beit Midrash, two scholars of Yehuda Ha Nasi’s rabbinical academy engage in a lively, and often humorous, debate on topics such as whether a Jewish seamstress would be permitted to sew coins imprinted with the image of a Greek idol onto the garment of a Roman aristocrat since idols are forbidden by Jewish law. In Tzippori, the sages tend to take a flexible approach on such matters, arguing that the seamstress can attach the idolatrous coins to the garment since the customer is not a Jew.

Both archaeological finds and literary references confirm the importance of Tzippori, known as Sepphoris in Greek to Romans and Jews of the biblical and post-biblical period.

During the rise of Jewish nationalism in the 1930s and 40s, Tzippori was a center of Arab nationalist feeling, and was quickly destroyed in 1948 after being captured by the fledgling Israeli army. Most of its Arab residents were expelled to Nazareth, where a large community of former Sapphoriyeans still live today.

Since then, the town lay largely in ruins. Children from the new Israeli farm village of Tzippori, formed in the valley, played among the archaeological remains, neglected and overgrown.

In the early 1980s, Israeli archeologist Ehud Netzer launched a series of digs in the area. The excavators were richly rewarded. In 1987, workers unearthed the intact ancient mosaic of a large Roman aristocrat’s house, portraying images of the Greek wine god Dionysus, as well as a portrait of a woman now known as the”Mona Lisa of the Galilee”for her pensive half-smile.

Other striking finds include one of the largest synagogue mosaics ever uncovered, and an enormous fifth-century”Nile mosaic”depicting Egyptian festivals celebrating the flooding of the Nile delta.

Some of those artifacts are now part of the traveling exhibition,”Sepphoris in Galilee, Crosscurrents of Culture.”The exhibit was on view this summer at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and reopened Sept. 7 in Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archeology and the school’s Museum of Art.

In mid-October, University of Michigan students trained jointly by Klein and by Michigan theater professor Martin Walsh will launch a U.S. version of”Tzippori Live,”which will be performed in the museum, using the archaeological displays as props and stage. The exhibition later travels to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta for display Jan. 24-April 12.

Eventually, Klein, a former New Yorker who has lived in Israel for seven years, hopes to raise money to make the performances a regular year-round feature at Tzippori, which became an Israeli national park in 1992. “When I first visited Israel as a student many years ago, I wanted a time machine to go back into antiquity. Then I realized I could use theater to allow the archaeological remains to jump out of the rocks and into people’s imaginations.” Eds: For information and reservations for Tzippori Live performances on site in Israel contact Makom Ba Galil Moshav Shorashim at 011-972-4-990-2431 or fax to 011-972-4-990-2476.)


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