I have seven things to tell about Israel this time, and I can personally recommend them all. (I’ve been very busy when I’ve been off the base. ) I’ll begin with En Gedi, a nature reserve at the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, on the shore of the Dead Sea. The reserve covers about 3500 acres and there are two valleys running through it fed by sweet water springs. Imagine it like one of the adventure films you saw when you were little: you’re trekking across the dry desert, parched and, turning up into the hills, suddenly you hear water and you look up to see jujube trees and acacias, balsam, and cordia. Down below you, at the edge of the stream are ibex and if you walk slowly the rock hyrax will sit still and watch you ascend toward the falls. Tristam’s grackles fly overhead. You think maybe you are in paradise. You’re not, but you are in En Gedi. If you could be there at night, you might see the rare leopard, or an Afghan fox, or a wolf. More likely you’ll be there in the day, hiking upward toward one of the falls where you can jump in and cool down. Go ahead. People have been doing it for 5000 years.
From En Gedi, we drove north and stopped at Qumran National Park, another, like En Gedi, of the 65 national parks in Israel. Like En Gedi, Qumran has long had a Jewish population. It was settled around the 8th century BCE, but that’s not what made it famous. Around the 2nd century BCE, the Essenes, a break-away sect, made a community there and except for a 25 year hiatus after an earthquake, stayed until 68 CE when the Romans drove them out. While they lived at Qumran, the Essenes made scrolls in their scriptorium, including books of the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and some of the sect’s own works. When the sect was threatened, as it was ultimately by the Romans, the members tucked their scrolls, what we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls, in clay jars and hid them in the caves that dot the surrounding hills. The jars sat there for 2000 years, well preserved because of the dry desert air, waiting to be discovered by Bedouins shepherds in 1947.
Last night I had dinner with a family of Iraqi Jews. The grandparents came to Israel in the 1950s, soon after Independence. There were about 20 people at the dinner, but they told me this was a small group because usually the whole family came. Being with them reminded me of my year and a half in Afghanistan. We talked and ate and laughed and ate more and then talked more and then ate more. In this tiny but cosmopolitan country, it is exciting to think that from the northern border to the southern border there are Iraqi, Afghan, American, Canadian, German, South American, Nepalese, African, Italian, French, Czech, Austrian, Dutch ….orthodox, conservative, reform, and secular Jews all sitting down to Shabbat dinner every Friday night.
Before that fine dinner last night, I spent the day at Zikron Yakov with a group of students from the IDC in Herzlyia, a private international university with top scholars on faculty. The first thing we did when we arrived in Zikron was plant trees. Why? Because next week is Tu b’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, and hundreds of people plants trees for the holiday, making the desert bloom even more than it already is. Once we’d rinsed our hands and put the shovels away, we went down to the winery, one of 200 in Israel. This particular one was developed in the late 19th century by the Rothchilds. The town is situated on high hills back from the sea, and originally, the settlers had hoped to raise vegetables and fruits there, but the soil was not right. It was right though, Rothchild knew, for grapes, and thus the winery and it’s now gold-medal studded welcome room.
I have a little necklace I wear. It’s ceramic, a turquoise circle with a red center. I wear it on a green cord, and it’s one of my favorite things. I bought it from a young woman in Jerusalem several years ago. She was making money for her schooling and had learned jewelry through one of the program of Yad Sarah, the largest charity organization in Israel. Yad Sarah has 16 sorts of support services, but they are most known for lending medical equipment, and on no small scale. They save the Israeli economy about $400 million every year in medical costs, and at the same time help Arabs, Christians and Jews in need of medical equipment but without the means to pay for it. My necklace reminds of what big things can come from a simple idea.
Back to volunteer work tomorrow. I’m ready to sleep now and I’m going to put on my favorite song of the Yemenite Moroccan singer, Eyal Golan. His rich golden voice will carry me into yet another aspect of Israeli culture.