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Following history's footsteps

Schusterman fellow Rabineau studies the Israel trail system

By Jaime Kaiser
On January 13, 2014

  • Post-doctoral fellow Shay Rabineau hopes to turn his dissertation into a book about the history of Israel’s hiking trails. Courtesy of David Landis

From the Southern banks of the Kadesh stream to the Canyons of the Negev Desert, natives asked a trio of hikers over and over again why they were hiking the Israel National Trail. "It seemed liked a weird question to me," recalled Brandeis post-doctoral fellow Shay Rabineau. "I mean, why does anyone go hiking?"
Rabineau is a 2014 Schusterman Center for Israel Studies post-doctoral fellow in the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. He earned his doctorate in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and wrote a dissertation about the history of the Israel hiking trail network, a topic seldom tackled by scholars, much less with the multidisciplinary narrative Rabineau outlines in the dissertation manuscript he plans to publish as a book.
A new lecturer in the NEJS department for the spring 2014 semester, Rabineau will teach two undergraduate courses, one of which he will co-teach with Prof. Ilan Troen (NEJS).
Teaching Israel Studies was never something Rabineau thought he would pursue as a career. As a non-Jew from the Midwest "I'm sort of an odd duck in my department," Rabineau said.
Rabineau developed his interest in Israeli hiking in 2006 when he walked over 3,000 miles of the Israel National Trail over the course of a month along with his brother and friend. When natives he met along the way asked him why they were hiking, Rabineau realized that "what they were really asking us was why are you as a non-Israeli and non-Jew interested in hiking Israel."
Despite the scholar's recent passion for the hiking history of the region, he explained that he has been curious about the Holy Land since he was young. As the child of a minister in Indiana, he was naturally very familiar with the Bible. "You have this geography of what happens in the scriptures and that lends itself to being interested in what's going on in Israel in the present day," he said.
Rabineau majored in English writing as an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma. The first seeds of his academic pursuit of Middle Eastern studies, however, were planted when he went to Morocco with friends after his freshman year, prompting him to learn Arabic.
A couple years after his Morocco trip, he made his first visit to Israel and began studying Hebrew. In a stroke of good fortune, his beginning Hebrew language class was taught by Norman Stillman, "a giant of Judaic Studies," said Rabineau.
Rabineau visited Israel multiple times before he discovered its hiking opportunities. "I got tired of bus tours. ... I wanted to find a way to walk across Israel," he said. As he researched ways to do this, he had two realizations: Israel contains, by some measurements, the most highly developed trail network in the world, and almost no foreigners know of its existence.
"If you look at the ratio of kilometers of marked trails to square kilometers of territory proportionate to country size, Israel's one of the most densely marked territories in the world," said Rabineau.
Upon walking the Israel National Trail for the first time, Rabineau "felt like he was seeing Israel through new eyes," he said.
Rabineau wanted others like himself to have the same experience. Approximately three million tourists visit Israel annually but at the time, there was a serious lack of English language resources for tourists. Unlike the commercialized trail network of countries like France and Switzerland, Israel's trails were not easy to navigate for non-Hebrew speakers.
"I went back in 2008 and started recording GPS routes in the Negev because I wanted to create English language resources for non-Hebrew speaking hikers," he said. Rabineau is the creator of the Israel National Trail Data Project, a website he created where he has translated various trail-related guides and other resources from Hebrew into English.
Rabineau has held various jobs in the Middle East, including working for a Holy Land tour company, but he was not sure how his Middle Eastern interests could translate into a career until he applied and received the Brandeis fellowship as Stillman suggested.
Rabineau's completed dissertation is titled "Marking and Mapping the Nation: The History of Israel's Hiking Trail Network." His research is a throwback to his National Trail Data Project. It examines the development of Zionist culture through the creation of Israel's marked hiking trail system after the establishment of the state of Israel.
To complete the field component of his study, he lived in Israel from July 2011 to July 2012.
His research involved visiting historically significant portions of the trail such as a two-kilometer path that runs through Masada, the first trail section ever marked, in 1947 by the Palmach, a militia group of the Haganah, a Jewish parliamentary organization.
Rabineau also discovered that although many foreigners did not know about the trails, most Israelis are highly familiar with them and in fact, the trails continue to play an integral role in primary and secondary education through class trips.
Rabineau's advisors encouraged him to write his dissertation accessibly, as opposed to cloaking his ideas in scholarly prose. "I tried to write a book that I would be interested in reading," he said. Rabineau is in the process of submitting his book manuscript to publishers.
The classes Rabineau are teaching this semester are titled NEJS 193B: "Walking the Land: Hiking and Religious Pilgrimage in Israel, Palestine and the Holy Land" and NEJS 145A:" "History of The State of Israel," the latter of which he has taken as a student and been a teaching assistant for.
The first course will be loosely based on his dissertation but its focus will be broader. "It's not just about Jewish walking. It's about the meaning different groups have invested in walking through that part of the world ... other maps that still exist in the minds of other non-Zionists," Rabineau said.
"I've always enjoyed teaching and communicating and telling stories," said Rabineau. "My hope is that my broad interest will translate into new ways of understanding a part of the world that people have been talking about for a long time."  


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