Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Trip to the Negev, etc.

First of all, the big news of the week is that I have decided to attend Columbia's Yiddish Studies PhD program next year - and I am very excited about it! I don't want to write much about it because the purpose if this post is to write about the tiyyul but please feel free to ask me questions about it as I'd love to describe the program to you if you are interested.

OK, so we arrived home on Saturday night from a terrific tiyyul and it's been a very busy week as we're scrambling to finish homework between social engagements and preparation for our trip to Moscow. Today I was at the preschool, where we talked about Passover, made charoset, tasted some matzah, and danced to "avadim hayyinu". Yesterday in Hebrew class we had a long and heated discussion about Pat Oliphant's political cartoon about Gaza that appeared in the New York Times on Wednesday- we discussed whether it was anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, or both (and if it's possible to be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic), what the symbols used in the cartoon could mean, whether American Jews should have denounced it, if it should have been published at all, and we eventually got into a debate over whether American Jews should feel connected to Israel's political decisions and how they should express that connection. The conversation was particularly interesting because I was the only American Jew who took part in it - it was Europeans, some Jewish and some non-Jewish, an Israeli, several American Christians, two Koreans, etc. Some people were very certain that the cartoon was not anti-Semitic and some felt even more strongly than I do that it presented dangerously anti-Semitic images. My feeling is that I have no problem with the message of discomfort with Israel's actions in Gaza nor do I believe that a newspaper should not be allowed to publish such a thing, as I believe in freedom of the press, but I do think that the images in the cartoon were inappropriate, dangerous, and, yes, anti-Semitic. I think by equating Israel with Nazis, the cartoonist ignores the historical specificity of both the Holocaust and Israel's actions in Gaza and does both a disservice, and that by turning the Star of David into a symbol of destruction he suggsts more than that the state misused its powerful military presence, but that Judaism itself is a violent force in the world. By drawing the soldier without a head, Oliphant reverses traditional anti-Semitic cartoons of the Jew who controls the world through the power of his intellect, but that the Janus-faced opposite view of Israel as pure unthinking brute force is equally scary. And I also think that representing Gaza as a little old lady and a baby exaggeratedly unfair, even for a political cartoon. But I'm interested in hearing what you have to say. A political cartoon, after all, is supposed to be an exxagerated version of reality... Yesterday I also went to my two Yiddish classes - in one class we read a story about Jews in Eastern Europe moving to America, and in the other we discussed Tevye the Dairyman. On Sunday I had an interesting anthropology class in which we discussed the Religious Zionist singles scene and the pressures and forces that create the scene, the impact of the scene on the people within it, etc. In my literature class we discussed a story by Brenner titled "Nerves" which was not my favorite that we've read thus far but had some interesting points.

That brings me to Saturday, and to the tiyyul. Rather than going backwards in time in a disorganized fashion, I'll take it from the top, from Thursday morning when we loaded ourselves into the bus and left from HUC. We drove for several hours until we arrived at Ben Gurion's tomb, where we discussed Ben Gurion's leadership and vision, and the centrality of the dessert to an understanding of Israel. The Negev desert is 66% of Israel's area - over 6,700 square miles, and has an arid and semi-arid climate, defined according to average rainfall (2 - 6 inches), type of soil and natural vegetation.

After our initial discussion, we hopped on the bus and went to the Ben Gurion National Solar Energy Center, a research center to explore methods of collecting solar energy efficiently. A small soft-spoken man dressed in a thick sweater led us in the desert sun as he proudly described his facility. The testing center was established in 1985 to compare various alternative solar teachnologies, including one that uses solar energy to heat oil, which then creates electricity, a system of large parabolic mirror troughs used to heat water into steam, photovoltaic sysetems. In 1991 the center became a research facility that investigates new materials, the impact of solar energy usages on the enviroment, etc. The research facility also docuuments solar radiation in the negev in order to identify promising locations for new solar power stations. The speaker provided us with a lot of statistics that I have since forgotten with regard to how much energy different devices produce in comparison to the average energy used per household, etc. The Ben Gurion research facility also has the world's largest solar tracking dish, which is 400 sq.m. in area and capable of concentrating the sun's rays up to 10,000 times.

After a lunch break, we drove to Makhtesh Ramon for a hike. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Negev desert was covered by an ocean. At the bottom was sand, followed by a layer of limestone formed from the bones of sea creatures. Slowly, the sea started receding, leaving behind a hill which was slowly flattened by water and wind. Approximately five million years ago, during the earthquake known as the Syrian-African rift, rivers changed their courses and began carving out the inside of the crater known as mackhtesh ramon. Once the layer of limestone eroded, the sandstone, which was softer, fell away at a much faster rate than the surrounding limestone walls, which gradually grew taller. At the bottom of the crater, more ancient rock was exposed - the oldest exposed rock in the crater is 200 million years old. Our guide showed us fossils of ammonites, an extinct group of marine animals that once lived in the makhtesh. The hike we went on was short but quite challenging, and the view was terrific.

After the hike, we drove to the Bedouin tent where we spent the night. We listened as a performer played Bedouin instruments and told us stories, had a filling dinner of salads, rice, and potatoes, and sang songs and played games around a campfire. We slept in sleeping bags on the tent floor and rose early to go on another hike.

One group went to Har Shlomo for a more difficult hike, but we decided to go to the easier hike at Timna Valley Park. We watched a high-tech video chronicling the history of the national park, which is located about 30 km north of Eilat. The park includes what are believed to be the oldest copper mines in the world. Archaologists once belived that they were mined by King Solomon, but they are now knoen to have been worked by Egyptians and Mideans, as well as Romans, Nabateans, and Ummayids. The park is also noted for its natural sandstone formations, including "mushrooms" - protruding rocks in which the bottom area has been worn away by particles lifted by the wind, to create a mushroom-like appearance (hence the name). We were amused by large signs pointing to "mushroom and a half" and other silly names. The hike was relatively easy, the weather was mild, and we had a great time walking, chatting, and enjoying lunch by a man-made lake.

Our next stop was Kibbutz Yahel, a Reform Kibbutz in the Aravah Valley, where we stayed for the next several nights. The kibbutz was founded in 1976 by young people from the US, Israel and around the world who identified with progressive Judaism. They make decisions based on religious knowledge and communal ideals. In the harsh desert climate they have created profitable agricultural operations - they grow their own dates, pomelos, peppers, and other produce, and they also have a flourishing dairy farm. We drove to the pamelo fields where we heard stories about cooperation and friendships that the kibbutz has formed accross the Jordan-Israel border (which the pomelo field is directly next to) over the years. We picked our own pomelos and returned to the visitors area of the kibbutz (they have a desert tourism branch were we stayed in very pleasant suites separated by grassy fields).

The next day we took a tour of Kibbutz Lotan, a Reform Kibbutz that was founded in 1983 by 20 Israeli and 20 American youths. It espouses values of sustainable living and creative ecology, and sees itself as an educator and leader in areas such as permaculture, sustainable architecture, and recycling. We went on a tour of the facilities and made seed balls that we are meant to take with us and throw (Johnny-appleseed fashion) in places that we think could use a little more plant life. We also listened to a talk about Israel's need for progressive Jews to make aliyah - the talk provided heated discussion on the bus ride that followed.

At the Coral Reef in Eilat several people went snorkeling, though the water was a bit too cold for me and we sat on the beach, read, and chatted with friends. The Eilat coral reef is the northern part of the Red Sea's 4500 km of coral reefs, and the most northern one in the world.

We returned to Kibbutz Yahel in time for Shabbat, and after we heard a short talk about the role of the Israeli rabbinical student who serves Kibbutz Yahel, several HUC students led a beautiful, music-filled service. After dinner, one of the HUC teachers led a small group in singing zmirot (songs) with gusto. One song after the other, we went through most of our shared repetoire until the head of the dining hall told us that we had to leave the building and we milled around the picnic tables as we continued to sing. We ended the evening playing board games with friends.

On Shabbat morning we walked to a nachal (Hebrew)/wadi (Arabic) - a dry riverbed that contains rain once or twice a year during heavy rains. We held services under a tree in the middle of the desert, and during the time when there might usually be a sermon we were given time to wander off on our own and explore the surroundings. Following the service, some of us chose to go the long way home, climbing up into the hills before spotting the kibbutz and making our way back down.

In the afternoon, we took a tour of the kibbutz's dairy farm. Although Israel is known as the land of milk and honey, those terms originally referred to goat milk and date honey. Nevertheless, Israel is a leader in the modern dairy industry. They produce milk from a cow that is a cross between the German Holstein and a cow native to the Middle East, allowing the cow to withstand the high temperatures. Apparently the cows produce more milk because they are milked three times a day rather than twice, the food is brought to them so they don't waste energy finding it, they eat alfalfa (Arabic for the best food for cows) rather than grass, as well as because of the low altitude. Israeli companies have developed manufactured “high-tech” computer based management systems and dairy equipment, which are sold worldwide. These include pedometers that track the activity of the cows so that on the one day in the month when they are jittery the farmer knows that the cow is in heat, and on days when they are less active the farmer knows that they might be sick. We learned, actually, quite a lot about cows as one of the teachers in Daniel's program holds a masters in dairy farming (from Rutgers!) which he obtained for a previous career as a kibbutznik.

After a quick snack with some members of the kibbutz, we set off on the road for home. It was a terrific, relaxing, warm, and pleasant trip, and we can hardly believe that in a week from today we'll be flying away for another adventure - this time to Moscow!

PS: I posted pictures from the trip online, and you can see them here.


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