Friday, December 4, 2009

Guide for the Perplexed

I rather rashly implied in my last posting that I might put something up today about my trip to Israel. However, I must once again temporize. It isn’t simply that the flight from Tel Aviv arrived in Paris only last night, leaving me to attempt, somewhat half-heartedly, to resume something of a writing schedule this morning. The real problem is that the trip was so overwhelming, in so many ways, that it is going to take me a few days to sort out even my initial thoughts. There is no education like travel; and the problem with education, as we all know, is that it so gratuitously disturbs perfectly good and settled opinions. It will be quite annoying to me, at my age and stage of pontification, to have to go back and completely rethink the State of Israel. I’d just as soon go back and try to rethink the Principia Mathematica. I’ll probably have to do that, though let’s postpone it for a week or two. Israel, I mean. Newton may take a whole month.

On one thing, however, my opinion is clear and informed, and that is the quality of the guidance I had during my trip. The great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote a famous book that is usually rendered in English as The Guide to the Perplexed. Well, I was certainly many times perplexed on my journey, so that I was particularly happy to have as my personal guide a modern Jewish philosopher. I refer to my son-in-law, Professor Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, a professor of world history at New York University. Two years ago I found among my Christmas presents a slim envelope that contained a kind of promissory note. It was a coupon, valid for one extended guided tour of the Holy Land, signed by Zvi. This past week I cashed it in.


ZVI BEN-DOR BENITE from the Mount of Olives

It would not be easy to have found a more determined or knowledgeable guide. In the first place, he is a native Israeli. In the second place he is an historian. In the third place his special fields of interest are in comparative religious history. It doesn’t hurt that he is a native speaker of both Hebrew and Arabic, or that his brother-in-law is among the elite group of highly trained tourist guides officially credentialed by the State. Those two collaborated for hours, putting together a custom-made itinerary that ministered to my own desiderata: pre-historical and ancient archaeology, biblical geography (especially that associated with the life and ministry of Jesus), the archaeology of the Crusades, and, finally, natural history and geology.

Zvi is a trained Sinologist, and his first book (The Dao of Muhammed: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China deals with Islam in China—a topic so hip and current as to threaten to mask the deep learning he poured into the book. But it is his very recent book that is most relevant to our tour. It is called The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford, 2009), and it is among the more amazing (and sometime amusing) works of erudition I could possibly recommend—which, obviously, I am now doing. (I do so at greater length in the reviews section of the website.) There was more than one occasion on which I felt thoroughly lost, as for example, when searching for our B&B in a jumbled Druse village where the streets have no names and the houses no numbers. This proved no problem for Zvi. He simply stopped a guy coming out of shop with a large bag of chickpeas. He was, of course, the mayor of the place, and while I don't think he confused me with one of his constituents, the natural politician in him did come out; and he led us by two-car convoy to the place we needed to find. After all the guy who found the lost tribes--all ten of them--is unlikely to be fazed by an undocumented hostelry.