The Remains in a Day

Another post that was aging gracefully – unpublished – in my computer.

In a number of conversations with random friends during the week before we went, the topic of our next tiyul was raised, as in: “Where are you going this time?” The answer I repeated was, more or less, “We’re going to the archaeological site in Beit Shean and then to some kibbutz whose name I don’t remember where they do something interesting with agriculture.

Beit Shean: that was supposed to be the hook, the reason we were attracted in the first place. Not the modern-day Beit Shean, a development town with little going for it, one of the out-of-the-way places where Ben Gurion dumped many of the refugees from North Africa who fled to Israel in the early 1950’s. The one you hurriedly pass through on your way north or south through the Jordan Valley. The tiyul was to the other Beit Shean, the Beit Shean within Beit Shean, the national park that contains what remains of several thousand years of civilization, most importantly, the excavations of the Roman city named Scythopolis. That Beit Shean!

Not only was there going to be a tiyul to the park, it would be led by our favorite tour guide, Ezra Rosenfeld of tanachtiyulim. We had learned the hard way why you absolutely, positively must have the best guide possible if you want to go anywhere. A month or so before, we had been on a tiyul – in the same general area – with a different guide, which by general consent was a disaster. He took us to the wrong places to see migratory birds, and he somehow must have been absent from the tour guiding course when they discussed such Tour Guiding 101 basics as scheduling plenty of rest room stops (lots of older people on these tours) and making sure that everyone on the tour is within earshot before you start giving your spiel. Plus……limit the politics (even those matters I agree with). I don’t need to hear why Israel should have sovereignty over the east bank of the Jordan River. (in a word, gevalt…) So Barbara and I were more than happy to be back with someone we know and trust.

However, it was touch and go whether Ezra’s tiyul was going to go off as scheduled; there was a seeming epidemic of family members being hospitalized. Three couples at the last minute had to back out to deal with ailing relatives. One couple had just flown here from The States and was planning to join Ezra’s tiyul as part of their vacation. Instead, they got off one plane at Ben-Gurion airport and, upon learning that one of their mothers had been hospitalized, got right back on the next available flight back to The States. So Ezra was left scrambling. He wound up renting a van and driving it himself, with just enough customers to make the trip worthwhile. That’s how we wound up at Sde Eliyahu, the kibbutz I had never heard of.

Once there, we were turned over to Sarah, a resident of the kibbutz and herself a licensed tour guide, who took us around and told us everything there was to know about where she lived: its history, its philosophy, and why anybody should be interested in what they do.

Start at the beginning. The kibbutz was founded in the 1930’s by teenagers who had managed to escape Nazi Germany. (There was one older person, a guy in his 20’s!) The Eliyahu in the kibbutz name is for Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher, a 19th century German Zionist (not the name the kids wanted, but even then, the Jewish Agency was telling people what to do). The kibbutz was founded as a religious socialist enterprise; it remains a religious socialist enterprise (to me, “religious socialist” is an oxymoron, but nobody asked my opinion). The members still decide things communally at weekly meetings, everyone eats together in the dining hall, everyone gets the same stipend for living expenses, and you couldn’t have a TV in your living quarters until the collective finally voted for everyone to have one.

The kibbutz was established as an agricultural enterprise, and it remains so today.

(Close your eyes for a minute and imagine the equivalent of a shul meeting with a dining hall full of Yekke religious socialists trying to decide what additional steps they should take to make the kibbutz profitable – the same questions every other kibbutz had to deal with over the decades. “No, chaverim, we came here to work the land, not to make watches or furniture. We must stick to agriculture.” Thunderous applause.)

Over the years, people from elsewhere joined the kibbutz. One such was a certain Mario, who had an aptitude for growing things. After some additional training off the kibbutz, he was put in charge of the agriculture at Sde Eliyahu. There we were, with Sarah, standing in Mario’s field (although Mario, still alive, has ceded much of the responsibility to his son). Over the years, Mario, being a cut above average, began to realize something: he was fighting Mother Nature and he was losing. He was spraying his fields with copious quantities of pesticides, but, sooner or later, the bugs that were eating his crops would become resistant to whatever he was spraying. It wasn’t doing the soil any good; it wasn’t doing the water any good; it wasn’t doing anybody any good – except maybe the companies making the pesticides. That’s when Mario began investigating organic methods of agriculture, and what they do today is what makes this kibbutz so special.

By this time, we had gotten back in the van and were now standing in the midst of a grove of date palm trees watching a herd of nature’s finest weed killers in action. The kibbutz provides them with water (and occasional slices of bread!). Otherwise they are on their own, munching to their hearts content.

An occasional slice of bread…

Back in the van to drive past the “factories,” the large facilities in which they grow insects, of all things. Most people are somewhat aware of role of bumblebees in pollination; those you definitely want.  But that’s just for starters. The BIG question is how do you get rid of the bugs you don’t want, especially if you’re reluctant to spray the bejeezus out of them? Fortunately, there are some more subtle ways to eliminate the varmints. Supposing they can’t reproduce? One thing the kibbutz produces is sterile male fruit flies. That’ll certainly help keep the fruit fly population down.

But there’s something even more dramatic. You see, it really is a bug eat bug world. For every insect that’s munching away at the farmers’ crops, there another one that’s delighted to make a meal out of the insect that’s destroying your livelihood. All you have to do is identify the bad bug eaters and grow them. And that’s what they do at Sde Eliyahu: grow huge quantities of bumble bees, sterile male fruit flies, and all manner of other useful insects and sell them far and wide. Just in case any of us weren’t convinced, we were ushered into a room to see a short promotional film about the kibbutz’s activities.

Of course, there’s more to Sde Eliyahu than bugs, donkeys, and lots of crops. There’s an Ulpan program and a school for kids throughout the region. The place is well planned and beautifully landscaped – as is the norm on kibbutzim throughout The Land. A little Gan Eden, and a throwback to bygone days when the members themselves were the ones who did all the work, and kibbutzim were not just “gated communities,” as Sarah put it.

Speaking of bygone days, we were finally off to the ruins at Beit Shean, arriving much later than we had anticipated. (In Ezra’s scrambling to make a go of the trip, he hadn’t had time to think about planning for a mid-day meal. Usually, we just brown bag it, and we can assuage our hunger fairly quickly. But this time, we all sat down for a meal at the little restaurant and gift shop on the kibbutz, which took some time for all of us to be served and enjoy our modest meal.)

I figured we were on the late side arriving at Beit Shean when I realized that most of the school groups were preparing to leave. Lots of Arab kids running around. They weren’t going to be taken to anyplace remotely Jewish, but an ancient Roman site – what could be wrong with that?

A photo op at Beit Shean

Like most archaeological digs (funding being what it is), only the most important buildings get excavated: the stadiums, the amphitheaters, the bath houses, the main street (Cardo), and, here in Beit Shean, the public latrine – used by both sexes at the same time. Something is better than nothing, but one can only imagine the surprises in store if the diggers could just keep going! I keep reading news reports about how “they” are uncovering Mayan cities long buried amidst the jungles in Mexico (I know: it is politically correct to refer to them nowadays as “rain forests,” but I’m an old guy.) The sheer size of what has been found has forced archaeologists to revisit some of their ideas about the size and scope of Mayan culture. Maybe there’s more to learn about the Roman colonization of The Holy Land – let alone all the other civilizations still covered up in this enormous tel.

The sun was beginning to set on this Thursday afternoon in late November (Thanksgiving in The States), and the park would soon be closing. I was trying my darndest to get my imagination working to make sense of what was in front of us: buildings in various stages of disintegration at best, a glorious collection of rubble at worst. There were people there back then, all doing stuff and going about their business. There were real streets and real buildings. Try to imagine what was going on… Maybe if we had more time……… But as it was, we were heading back to the bus. Each of Ezra’s tours has a start time and an end time when the bus is scheduled to return to Jerusalem. And you can count on a Rosenfeld to keep to that schedule. The good news is that we now have an excuse to go back when we can look around in a more leisurely fashion.

So that was our journey: a modern-day kibbutz in the process of remaining a kibbutz – with all that entails – and a tantalizing glimpse of the actual remains of some long-gone civilizations, all a few kilometers apart in the Jordan valley.

There is more to the story. Safely back in Ma’ale Adumim, I began to reconsider my long-standing ambivalence to organic products and started to order from Ben Rosenberg, who operates an organic farm near Beit Shemesh. But that is another topic, one for another time.


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