Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Desert Dreams and Supermarket Sieges

We’re back in Jerusalem after a week-long tour of southern Israel.  Summer is approaching and we figured it would be good to travel to the Negev before the temperatures became unbearably hot there, so we rented a tiny Hyundai hatchback and set out for the desert.

We spent two nights in Mitzpe Ramon.  This is Israel’s answer to MoabUtah—a desert town that is trying very hard to become a mecca for eco-tourists, mountain bikers, bird watchers and Jewish New-Agers.  Mostly, it has succeeded.  Mitzpe Ramon sits, literally, on the rim of the Maktesh Ramon, a very large crater/canyon with interesting rock formations and assorted geological oddities.  Rachel and Jonah especially enjoyed finding frogs in a small pond and chasing after the ibex, an exotic and beautiful species of mountain goat that populates the region.  And we all savored the extraordinary Israeli breakfast at the Ramon Inn, which featured everything from olives to omelets and scores of savory Middle Eastern treats.  The desert sky at night was dazzling and the weather was surprisingly cool, with a fair breeze moderating the brilliant sun.

From Mitzpe Ramon, we made our way to Lotan, a Reform kibbutz in the Arava desert plain. We spent three days with the community there, learning, sharing and celebrating together.  I led a workshop on Judaism and environmental ethics, which was challenging because, at our hosts’ request, I taught in Hebrew, and my conversational Hebrew is rusty at best. Indeed, on ecological matters, I learned much more than I taught.  Lotan is on the cutting edge of sustainable living, with mud and straw-bale housing, composting toilets, and specially-designed wetlands for water purification.  There are wonderful organic gardens, groves of date palms, and lovingly-tended herds of goats and cattle.  And the community is young and energetic, a vibrant collective living in harmony with the earth, according to progressive Jewish values.  I was very pleased to spend time with Leah Benamy, who was at rabbinical school with me at the HebrewUnion College in Cincinnati, and has lived with her family at Lotan for the past thirteen years. Leah’s daughter, Naamah, and Rachel quickly became fast friends.  When we weren’t teaching or touring, we spent a lot of time at the pool, as the mid-day temperatures at Lotan easily exceed 100 degrees.

We finished our tour with a night in Eilat, the southernmost place in Israel, on the shore of theRed Sea.  The coral reef there is fabulous; we snorkeled and swam and Rachel and I did a scuba dive at the Dolphin Beach.  It was amazing to swim with dolphins—and sea turtles and eels and magnificent Technicolor tropical fish.  Surfacing and walking back up to the shore was a bit like waking from a dream.

Now that we are back in Jerusalem, the Shavuot holiday is soon approaching, and we are looking forward to delicious dairy foods and Torah study.  With that said, I’ll confess that I am not having the easiest time of it in the holy city.  The pace of life here feels frantic and, at times, with the ultra-religiously charged air, a bit oppressive to me.  And I am not really well-suited to Israeli culture, which is, to say the least, aggressive.  Going to the supermarket is like girding for battle.  Daily existence here reminds me of Thomas Hobbes’ description of the state of nature in his Leviathan: “a war of all against all.”  Little interactions wear me down.  I love being in a Jewish state, but I wish there was a little more emphasis on the niceties and small graces that make social interactions easier and more pleasant.  Of course I know very well that others find the constant give-and-take exhilarating; I’m just not wired that way.  So I must find my own path and develop strategies to stay calm and comfortable in a chaotic atmosphere.

May this Shavuot festival, z’man matan torateynu, the time of the giving of the Torah, bring renewal, peace, and blessing to us all.

1 comment:

jbonawitz said...


I'm pleased that you're back in Israel--safe and sound. As I just wrote that, I thought how odd it is. Israel is not the safest place of all. But it is home.

Home is an interesting idea. It's a place we are from, where we have connections, where people are like us. But, as you said in your blog, Jerusalem (and, in truth, much of Israel) is inhabited by people who are more "assertive" than we might like. The stories and jokes about that are legion. And my own experiences in Israel suggest that they are not exaggerations.

I've wondered why. Is it climate, history, tradition, intellectual fervor misdirected, or something else altogether? Your ideas?

Enjoy your travels. We miss you.


Jack Bonawitz