Steve and American Jewish friends at Masada (Dead Sea in the background).

Steve and American Jewish friends at Masada (Dead Sea in the background).

Shalom from Mt. Masada!

Filing away another item on the bucket list, I climbed Mt. Masada alone, via the ancient “Snake Path” yesterday. The rest of our group took the modern tramway that the Israelis installed a few years ago, while I set out alone on the precipitous, 900-foot vertical climb, and not without trepidation.

The Snake Path is mentioned by First Century B.C. Jewish/Roman historian Flavius Josephus, when he recalls the final stand of the Hebrew nation against the Romans in A.D. 73-74. A Zealot named Eliezar ben Yair had led 960 men, women and children to the top of Herod’s imposing desert fortress beside the Dead Sea, and there they tried to hold out against a seige of 10 thousand Roman soldiers under the command of Gen. Lucius Flavius Silva.

While the Zealots blocked the eastern ascent (named Snake Path for its winding, zig-zag course up the east cliff), the Romans finally erected a seige ramp from the western side, and broke through the defensive double wall there. But what they found shocked even the battle-hardened imperial forces: realizing that the end was upon them, the Zealots had organized a mass suicide. Only five children and two women escaped, one of whom told Josephus the story from the Jewish side.

The episode is iconic for modern Israeli culture. Until the early nineties, all IDF (Israel Defense Forces) conscripts ascended the mountain via the Snake Path and declared their commitment to defend their ancient homeland. “Masada shall never fall again,” they would chant. (Nowadays the induction ceremonies are held at the Western–or “Wailing”–Wall at the Temple Mount.)

Most American Jews who come to Israel are sure to visit three places: the Western Wall, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, and Mt. Masada. I ran across four of them yesterday descending the Snake Path as I (by then out of breath!) climbed it. They were college students from New York City, in Israel for a month of study, and headed for Jordan to see the ancient Nabatean city called Petra. They worried a little about being identified as Jews in that Arab nation, but I assured them of the friendliness of the Jordanians I had known. (I also told them that Jordanians usually assume anybody from America is Christian!)

Till next time, Shalom (“peace” in Hebrew) and Salaam (Arabic) from Jerusalem!