Here’s a stumper for you: think of a place where you’d never ever want to live, and…… you can’t imagine why anybody else would want to live there – but…… you’re truly glad that somebody is living there. Are you ready for my answer: The Jordan Valley – not that far from where we are, a little bit east of Yerushalayim. And that’s where Shelley Brinn (along with tour guide Susie ben-David) was taking us on a Thursday when it was supposed to rain, but we caught a break, and it didn’t.
I’ve been there before. You leave Ma’ale Adumim and continue east on route 1 (the road that was originally planned to connect Tel Aviv to Amman, but reality got in the way), and when you get to the junction near Jericho, instead of heading south to Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea, you hang a left and head up route 90. Unless you need a pit stop, you can keep going right through Beit She’an (where almost sixty years ago, The Ben Gurion government dumped refugees from North Africa, and which has never recovered) up to Tiberias (where you can get some really fine restaurants, but you wouldn’t want to stay there either if you have any sense). From the southern end of the Kinneret, you can either head up to the Golan Heights or, in the other direction, head over to Tzvat and most of the Galil. But those are other excursions. We weren’t going that far; just a one day trip, about twenty of us, packed into four cars. There were quite a few people in our group whom I knew, just not anyone in the car to which I was assigned. The other two passengers were furriners, visiting from The States for a few weeks. Somehow they had managed to hook up with Shelley for a previous private tiyul and were coming back for more. I hate to say it (well, not really) but, if Anglos in general stand out in a crowd of Israelis, tourists stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. No matter how many times they’ve been here before, their frame of reference is simply different from those of us who have lived here more than six months. That’s just the way it is.
Anyway, back to the point I think I was trying to make when I started. We stopped at a number of places – including the spot where Christian pilgrims come to baptize themselves
and Mount Sartaba
(mentioned in the MIshna as one of the points used to signal the arrival of the new moon) – but I’d like to focus on just one, The Oren Farm, which is located, if you’re interested, smack dab in the middle of moshav Netiv Hagdud. There we would meet the two proprietors, Chaim Oren, who does the farming, and his wife, Silvi, who runs the visitors center/gift shop.
Chaim is an agronomist extraordinaire, having mastered the art of growing things in this less-than-hospitable area, and he now teaches others what he has learned and consults with interested parties in The States. He is a stubborn man and funny as well, both traits pretty much a requirement to keep doing what he’s doing – growing crops where almost nothing would grow on its own. Because the entire Jordan Valley was at one time covered with salt water, the soil is still saline, filled with active chalk (whatever that is!). Date palms will grow under these conditions, although there weren’t many of those around when the Orens started working the land. It is also EXTREMELY hot there in the summer (think Arizona). As Chaim explained, given the conditions at hand, you need a lot of water for irrigation, and, as we all know, there ain’t a lot of that in those parts. There is always the temptation to use waste water for this purpose (think India), and some of the imported fruits and vegetables, which are not subject to the rigorous inspection required of products grown in Israel (we do get some things right!) can be hazardous to your health.
After a lot of toil and trial and error, figuring out what would grow and what they could sell for a profit (not flowers), the Orens have settled on table grapes, figs, medjoul dates, and argan.
One of the joys of waking up each and every day is the prospect that you might actually learn something new. Here I am, almost seventy-six years old (but who’s counting?), and I had never heard of argan. So to get a lesson on this exotic plant, we went into the visitors center for Silvi to preside over a short film presentation. If you want to get a more in depth understanding of why this plant is so valued, just click here. Suffice it to say, we’re talking about a small tree that is native to Morocco. The fruit of this tree has a thick peel that covers a fleshy pulp that surrounds a nut that contains a few kernels. You have to dry the fruit, remove the pulp, extract the nut, crack the nut to extract the kernels, and press the kernels to release an oil. (Are you still with me?) What’s the point of all this work? This oil, whether you drink a spoonful or you rub it on you skin, has amazing therapeutic qualities. At least that’s what we were told.
Right behind where we were sitting was the “sales department,” a counter behind which was a supply of argan products produced by the Orens. Ouch! They weren’t kidding; everything was expensive. A container the size of a standard olive oil bottle was several hundred shekels. What should I do? I wanted to purchase something to give it a try. We were told that they can’t produce enough of the oil to make it available in stores. If I wanted to get some, I would have to purchase it then and there. Decisions, decisions……..
Process of elimination. The hair products we probably don’t need. The large bottles? More than I want to spend on a trial. How about a small spritzer? The one ounce size is 85 NIS. That seemed about right. Give it to Barbara for her itchy skin.
We were given the opportunity to try out some of the oil. Squirt a drop or two on the back of one hand and rub it over the back of your other hand. See if there’s any difference in the softness of your skin. Done: a slight tingling sensation, but maybe I’m just imagining.
Now it just so happens that I had a nasty scratch on the back of my right hand. A month or so ago, Pooms, our older nervous-mervous cat, had swiped at me. She does that when she gets upset. Anyway, the scratch was still there, at least two inches long, not going away. The morning after I had dabbed the argan oil on my hand, I realized that the scratch was first starting to heal. A week later, the scratch isn’t completely gone, but almost. Maybe if you swallow a tablespoon a day as Silvi recommended, your cholesterol level would start to go down. Too late! I should have bought a gallon.
As we crowded around the sales desk, I noticed another woman helping out. She spoke real good English, obviously born and bred in New York City. That was Shulamit. She and her husband had arrived in The Land many moons ago, and both of them are employed by the Jordan Valley Regional Council. She was there as their representative to hand out some material and give us a briefing on the Valley and the Council.
As we all know, Israel gained control of this area following the Six Day War in 1967. The government immediately realized that it had better get some folks living there real quick, or their victory wouldn’t amount to much.. By February of 1968, there was the beginning of the first community, Mechola, followed by others, one by one, until there are now twenty one yishuvim and moshavim all along route 90 on the way to Beit She’an. And all of them in some way or another grow something as their main source of income. Of course they’ve also had do battle with our enemies, and near the end of our day’s journey, we got a glimpse of a monument on a hilltop to the hundreds of soldiers and civilians who died protecting lives and property.
I sat patiently through Shulamit’s presentation, in which she described the pragmatic relationship between the Jewish and Arab population of the area. When she was done, I had one immediate question: if you need to get a liter of milk or a thing of shampoo, where do you have to go? The answer, pretty much, was: quite a distance. As far as I can figure, the largest community in this cluster is Ma’ale Ephraim, with a population a little over 1,000. Beit She’an is over 17,000, but, as I said, that’s not a place to linger in if you can avoid it. I can’t imagine what you’d have to do if you needed emergency medical treatment.
After the presentation was officially over and people were heading back to the cars, I went back and asked the two women another question, something to the effect of: Are you worried that the Israeli government might give away this area to a future “Palestinian” state? They both conceded the possibility, but wisely pointed out that their best option was to go about their business and continue doing what they are doing now. I guess that philosophy would apply to lots of folks living in places prone to floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like. But, unlike the people who insist on living in the face of imminent natural catastrophes, the same reason that motivated the Israeli government to settle people in the Jordan Valley fifty years ago still applies today.
So there you have it. People living smack dab in the middle of nowhere, where you really have to bust your butt to make anything grow (and there isn’t much else you can do to make a living except provide services to the people who are growing something), where hundreds of people have died fighting for the privilege of living there, and you have no assurance that your own government, in a fit of madness, might not turn around and give away the piece of land you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. Did I mention BDS? These twerps can’t stop the million and billion dollar deals that the Israeli government and companies are making every week, but they can effectively prevent Israeli table grapes from being sold in Europe; so now to add to everything else, you have to worry about finding a market for the crops you’ve worked so hard to grow.
Why would you want to live there? Why would anyone want to live there? And yet people do. Not only that, but it seems that many of the children of the people who live there – who you would think would disappear as soon as they are able to – have decided to return. Schools that have been closed for years are being reopened because the children of the children need a place to learn. Go figure.
When we left from Ma’ale Adumim, the driver of our car mentioned that his wife had died fairly recently, and he was trying to figure out what to do next with his life. Nothing much I could do except express my sympathy. As we were heading back at the end of our trip, he mentioned some of the things his wife had been involved with, and then………click. I asked him his wife’s name. Of course I knew her. She had been involved in efforts to have Israelis and Arabs sit down and talk to each other, bringing Arabs from neighboring communities into her home in Ma’ale Adumim – something for which she was roundly criticized by a lot of people. Being the contrarian that I am, I defended her right to do that. Hey, if someone wants to fly a kite in a hurricane, let him knock himself out for all I care. It’s not my time and effort that’s being wasted. I only wish that she were alive today, so I could ask her about something we learned on our trip.
It seems that a mayor of one of the twenty-one communities in the Jordan Valley, wanting to do something about the garbage that always piled up in the Arab towns along route 90, made an offer he thought could not be refused. He offered to provide large garbage disposal units to one of the Arab towns, and the Israelis would be responsible for collecting the trash – all at no charge. This worked for all of three days, when the Israeli mayor got a phone call from his Arab counterpart. The Israelis would have to remove the trash cans; he had been told they couldn’t be used in an Arab town. Better the townspeople should have to wade knee-deep in garbage than to accept aid from the Israelis. So my question to the now-deceased peace activist would be: If we can’t agree on collecting garbage, what can we agree on – and with whom? I know Leah can’t answer me, but maybe somebody else can.