Although a Jewish transplant from Belmont, Mass., to Israel, the first fervent sentence uttered by our guide is, "This is the land of the Bible. Every step you take is a throwback to Sunday School."
She will spend two feverish weeks with us, carefully pointing out landmarks, giving detailed historical, archaeological and biblical lectures, narrating and acting out Roman playlets as in a one-woman show, relating colorful local anecdotes, and patriotically extolling the virtues of her adopted country.All without any notes at all.
Frequently, she even includes news updates and a sophisticated inside interpretation of the latest problems of the Red Sox and the Celtics - News New England style for travelers who have no other way to keep up.
Susan Marcus is not just a tour guide - an elite, prestigious position in Israel - she is a dedicated if unofficial ambassador. She is also a genuine intellectual and a persuasive actor.
Sixteen years ago, she traveled from her native, lush Massachusetts home to parched Israel to stay for just one year - but she ended up making the desert her home. Her background could not have been better for it. She was educated at the University of Hartford and Boston Hebrew College, and was awarded a B.A. in Education and another in Hebrew Literature.
Her father, William Levinson, "an exceedingly intelligent man," had a Harvard education and an extensive Judaic background and library that further enriched her.
When she met her husband, Aaron, at a basketball game at the University of Hartford in 1976, he didn't realize the Holy Land was so important to her. When she tried to explain it to him, he thought she was out of her mind.
"I knew it was where I wanted to raise my kids. He wanted Jewish grandkids, but for me, it was the Zionist movement."
Susan is not an orthodox Jew, although her love of country and culture translate into a deep devotion that is contagious. Now she and her husband, who is employed as an accountant at Hebrew University, have three children and four grandchildren. Firmly settled in Jerusalem, she, at least, has no desire to return to the United States.
That's partly because she frequently flies back for visits. When she returns once or twice a year to give lecture tours, she always spends time in her beloved Boston, where she stocks up on Oreos and Snickers. She often visits Washington, D.C., the South and the Midwest.
Her family is mostly on the East coast. She is not the only one to claim high accomplishment. Her sister, Ruth Kleinfeld, is a federal judge in New Hampshire.
But Susan is always happy to go back to Israel. "My basic feeling is for spiritual principles and to live in the land. And it's a damn good feeling to be a part of the majority."
She also loves being a tour guide, even though she takes with a grain of salt the compliments people regularly shower on her. "Everyone who tours Israel thinks their guide is the best!"
Tour guides in Israel must be licensed by the government. They are required to take a two-year course, culminating with a battery of tests. Susan says government officials look for "a personality profile" as much as knowledge. Licensed for only one year, she is constantly forced to take refresher courses. Although the work is exhausting, and she has to do a tremendous amount of reading, she has never looked back.
"I put a lot of myself into it - but everybody should be as happy in their jobs as I am."
Susan loves the fact that people see Israel through her eyes. "I get a thrill out of it," she says, "but I also view it as a major responsibility." The secret of her success lies not only in her extensive preparation, but in her innate talent for controlling group dynamics. When asked about it, she claims it is "not a conscious thing I do."
Most tours last 10 days, and some as long as two weeks. Susan leads 20-25 tours a year, two to three a month. She goes all day, and often into the evenings. She is masterful at creating an instant rapport with our driver and everyone else of diverse ages and backgrounds on the bus. In turn, she loves the personal reactions.
"Thanks, Susan, for letting us run where Jesus walked."
"Congratulations! You have made me look like my passport picture!"
As the bus rolls, people constantly shout out questions at her, "Susan, what's that growing over there?"
"Susan, how old is that wall on the right side of the bus?"
"Susan, do they have fast food in Israel?"
"Susan, why do people in such nice apartments hang their laundry out on the balcony?"
Always unruffled, and ever ready with witticisms, she answers every question. In fact, it seems there is nothing she doesn't know.
"The laundry on the line," she says, "tells you anything you want to know about a family - how many children they have, whether they are boys or girls, if anyone is married or about to be married. A laundry line is not ugly; it is a sociological study."
"On the right you will see MacDavids - they have shakes, burgers and fries - just like at home! Except that McDonald's is not too happy about it. They brought suit against them, and MacDavids was able to stay in business - but they had to take down the golden arches."
"When in England, you always drive on the left. In the United States, you always drive on the right. In Israel, it's optional."
"Israelis will always give you directions. They will not always know how to get there! So you have to take a SURVEY."
Sometimes Susan asks and answers her own questions.
"Why does the Knesset have such a hard time getting anything done? Because it is impossible to get 120 Jews to agree on anything."
"How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb? None! `Never mind. I'll sit in the dark!' "
And so it goes, all over this small country about the size of New Jersey, with Susan increasing her popularity with each stop. When she expounds on history or scripture, she is serious and persuasive.
As the bus approaches Jerusalem for the first time, she delivers an eloquent preparatory sermon: "We like to feel that you are not the same person again once you've come to Jerusalem. This is where the Man of Galilee walked. Blessed art Thou, Oh Lord, thy God, who has sustained us and allowed us to reach this moment."
At Jerusalem's Holocaust Museum, she explains the supposition that made Jews so vulnerable to Hitler - that they were "Christ-killers, the lowest of animals. Killing Jews was supposed to be ridding the world of this alleged parasite that was about to take over the world. Six million Jews killed. How many Einsteins, Bernsteins, or Golda Meiers were lost to the world?
"When I was young, I asked a wise rabbi, `Where was God in all of this?' and he gave me a challenge I'll never forget. He said, `That question is an obscenity to God. The question is `Where was MAN?' "
During her one-woman playlet about Roman history, she asks "Was it Herod the Great or Herod the Butcher? Herod stole to the crown like a fox; he ruled like a lion - and he died like a dog."
In the blazing sun of the desert by the Dead Sea, we hike to the top of Masada, the mountain palace and fortress built by Herod in the year 20 Before the Common (or Christian) Era (BCE). Here Susan tells the impassioned story of the Jewish Zealots, 960 men, women and children, who tried to stave off the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era. "It's ironic that every time you think you have solved the `Jewish problem,' like dandelions on your spring lawn they pop up again."
She recounts the story as told by the Roman historian, Flavius Josephus in "The Jewish War." The only way up the mountain was by a dangerous, winding "snake path," making a conquest very difficult for the Romans. They finally built a land-filled ramp so they could reach the defenses of Masada and capture the site.
In the meantime, the Zealots, led by Eleazar Ben Jair, were determined to avoid slavery at all costs. When the Romans approached, he gave an emotional speech to his followers, encouraging them to choose death with dignity rather than slavery.
Then, from Josephus, Susan quotes a passage of Eleazar's speech:
"Let our wives die unabused and our children without a knowledge of slavery. Let us do each other an ungrudging kindness, preserving our freedom as a glorious winding-sheet. Let our possessions and the whole fortress go up in flames. It will be a bitter blow to the Romans - that I know - to find our persons beyond their reach and nothing left for them to loot. Our store of food and water will bear witness, when we are dead, that we perished not through want, but because we chose death rather than slavery."
Eleazar's speech was very long, but he finally convinced his people to take each other's lives, with the last man falling on his own sword. According to Josephus, two women and five children concealed themselves in a water cistern and afterwards told the Romans what had happened.
At her dramatic best, Susan says, "Our story should end here, but it doesn't. Here we are, 1900 years later, retelling this story. Why? We come to retell the story of the courage of a people who felt their faith and their freedom was far more important than slavery, and death a much more honorable end than the humiliation of living as a slave.
"For us here in Israel, Masada has had a very special meaning. We have an expression here that says, `Masada will never fall again.' This doesn't mean that, because we have this great tourist attraction, everything is terrific. It means, very simply, that with the establishment of the State of Israel, we shall never again be in the position where we have to choose death or slavery, for today we have an army and navy and air force to protect us. And whereas we may not be exactly a spit-and-polish army, the record can stand for itself."
Then she tells how new Israeli soldiers completing their basic training come to the top of Masada, where they take a torch-lit oath of allegiance to their country. In unison, they shout "Anee-Nishbah," meaning "I swear" in Hebrew, and it echoes off the mountain into the cold desert air. Then the commander shoves a book inside each soldier's shirt on top of his heart.
That book is the Bible.
"So that at the same time he receives his weapon of defense for his country, he receives, if you will, his identity - his past, his present, and for those of us who believe in biblical prophecy, even his future. With this he goes off to defend the land. And it is not an easy defense, for there is not a family in this country who has not suffered once or twice or more from the ravages of war."
In fact, both young women and men in Israel have an obligation to military service. Women serve for two years and men for three years.
Then in hushed tones heavy with emotion, Susan recalls her own son's tragedy. "I have been proud to see him walk home in the uniform of an independent, free and Jewish state. When he came home from Lebanon, he walked on only one leg - 6 feet tall, on a 6 feet-four frame. I am not unique as a mother, but the Jewish state IS unique. I am one of the lucky ones. How many others do you know who are left with no one?"
Raising her voice once again, she continues, "The price has been exceedingly high. Lives have been lost. Families have been shattered. And we ask ourselves `Is it worth it?' We are Jews, and the thin fabric of faith that weaves the souls of each of us here together with every other Jew in the world teaches us that our survival has been miraculous. There is a song that says, `Your streets are painted with the young blood of those who praise your name.' And I say, Oh, yes, it's worth it.
"For look at us now. Standing tall and free in the one place in the world where our strength comes from the dignity of life and not from the fear of oppression. No more as in generations past will a Jew ever walk with his head bent over, afraid to be a Jew. Because of this land, his life has meaning. His life has dignity. He will walk tall. He will walk proud. And he will walk free. That, for me, is the message of Masada."
With the force of her entire being, Susan Marcus leaves us with a searing patriotic statement worthy of her own passion and charisma. It is hard to imagine any of her listeners descending the mountain without increased understanding. I know I will always remember the message of Masada - an unmistakably powerful one. But even more important for me is the unique power of the messenger.