Legend has it that in the mid-1960s, the decade that archaeologists first excavated Masada, a group of diplomats' wives asked a Tel Aviv University archaeology professor to give them a lecture in English so they could learn more about Israel.
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He agreed. At least that's how goes the "urban myth" as Maayan Mor, a graduate student who helps run the series, describes it. An urban myth that nobody can quite prove.
Then that favor took on a life of its own, and for 40 years and then some, once a week the International Women's Club English Lecture Series learns the latest in Israeli archaeology.
With topics ranging from biblical to maritime to Islamic archaeology, many of the audience keep coming back week after week, over years, for the Tuesday morning lectures.
The stream of loyal customers has generated handsome profits over the years, though the course isn't expensive – just NIS 350 per person (or NIS 600 for a couple) per semester. There's also the option to attend a single lecture for a flat fee of NIS 50 per person. All the proceeds –NIS 40,000 last year – go to the university's Institute of Archaeology.
Last month, about 50 people, most of them retired women, listened intently to an archaeologist explain why he believes much of the city of Ramle was destroyed by an 8th century earthquake.
Why do people stay in the group for so long, in some cases decades?
Channa Eidelman, 85, has been going for more than 30 years and is on the organizing committee. She recalls a time when the series "flourished," attracting hundreds of people, including many members of the diplomatic community. Today, the audience typically numbers between 70 and 80 during semester-time. Most are retired Israelis: many are immigrants from English-speaking countries.
Sally Malevsky joined in 1979 and has hardly missed a talk until last year, when her health got in the way. Not only has she found it fascinating: the lectures gave her a social network in a new country, she says.
Yet over the decades the times have changed. Today Tel Aviv has a vast range of activities in English, making it more challenging to find new members than it used to be.
Twenty years ago, when 75-year-old Marilyn Ronen, organizing committee president, first joined, it was "the only English-speaking group going." It attracted "people like me who have no interest in archaeology, but are looking for English," she explains.
Annette Martin, who trained as a florist but ran a pharmacy for many years, attended her first lecture in 1977 for similar reasons. When her husband died six years after they immigrated to Israel, a friend brought her to get her out of the house. "I've been coming ever since," she says, adding, "It really taught me about the country."
"For those of us who are immigrants, we are missing many pieces of information the kids get in school when they grow up here," Ronen explains.
Jerry Iron, a member since he retired some eight years ago, says that the talks provide insight into Israel, where "archaeology surrounds you." The former chemical engineer recalls a rainy trip to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, soon after he moved to Israel from Canada in the early 1990s. At a lecture about Qumran years later, he showed the speaker a photograph of a pot buried at the site, which was revealed by the heavy rains. The lecturer immediately recognized the ceramic relic – "it was in his office," Iron enthuses.
Registration takes place during the first two Tuesdays of each academic semester, Mor advises. (For details, contact: Sara Lev Shachar at 03-6409417 or Ma'ayan Mor at Maayan.email@example.com)