Nor Any Drop to Drink


When you were in Israel in 1980, did you write any articles about your trip? You were there for five weeks, after all. I’ll bet Israel was very different then, and it would be fun to compare and contrast what you experienced then and what we can see today. Well, no and yes. Forty years ago, there were writers publishing books about their travels, but nobody was doing what we’re doing today. There were no platforms like WordPress to create blogs, there was no internet to send out these articles, and since only a handful of obsessives even had a computer to get the articles – had they been written – there would have been almost no one to read them.

Even so, I deeply regret not taking extensive notes as to where we went, where we stayed, where we ate, because I sure don’t remember much of it. Back then I was doing my recording with a single-lens reflex camera and dozens of rolls of black and white film (carefully packed in x-ray resistant pouches). I have some great photographs to show, but I’m a bit sketchy as to where and when I took some of them. But I sure remember the Bedouin market in Beer Sheva. In fact, that’s all I remember about ‘The Gateway to the Negev,’ Bedouins (mostly men) and sheep. There wasn’t much else of note in town back then, and the few times we’ve been back since, the town seemed half-asleep.

Bedouin Market, Beer Sheva, 1980

Now you’re saying to yourself, I know what’s coming next. You were probably there recently – probably on an organized tiyul, say with the AACI – and….. In fact, some of you could probably write the next paragraph for me. It’s well known that my readership, while small, is very discerning, and yes, that’s exactly what will follow in a few thousand well-chosen words (and maybe a picture or two).

We begin with an email from Jeff Rothenberg, who organizes the study trips for the AACI, which Barbara forwarded to me. There will be a trip to Beer Sheva June 7-10. It goes without saying that she wanted to go. We haven’t been there in a long time; we haven’t been anywhere in a long time. No point thinking of excuses why not; we’re going, and that’s that. Sure enough, we were up at the crack of dawn, charged a hefty fee for a taxi to the Inbal Hotel, hustled into Bus #2, and off we went, stopping at the Elvis Cafe along the way, and then on our way.

You do learn things that come as a complete surprise – as in, who knew? I always assumed that today’s Beer Sheva, like its counterparts, Tzfat and Tiberias, started out as an ancient city. It’s mentioned in the Bible, after all. But that’s probably what we know as Tel Beer Sheva, a short distance away, the remains of a city that existed thousands of years ago. Today’s Beer Sheva? That was founded by the Ottoman Turks during the last days of their empire, in a futile attempt to maintain their foothold in Palestine. The first two buildings, a government office and an impressive mosque, are still standing, both turned into art galleries. The old city? Younger than some of the places we owned in New Jersey.

Now I Get It

I’m sure I have said this before, but it’s worth repeating. There are things it’s hard to truly understand from far away – Torah being one example. You’re a child in a Jewish day school in northern New Jersey, and you’re being taught the stories from Bereishit. There’s Abraham digging wells; there’s the dispute with Avimelech about who owns the wells; later, there’s Isaac re-digging his father’s wells. Like a lot of these stories, you have to wonder why this is so important. What’s the big deal with the wells? When that same child, years later, is standing at the tel, perhaps climbing down and up the many steps to the bottom of the cistern, then the story begins to make sense. And if the young person gets to the ANZAC Memorial Center to learn about the battle for Beer Sheva, then it really makes sense.

The museum serves as a testament to the buckaroos (and their horses) from Australia and New Zealand who fought in our part of the world with the British forces during W.W. I. These lads assumed that they’d be back home safe and sound in no time flat, and that this would be their best chance to see something of the world. Little did they know what they were getting into!

We were given a brief explanation of what went on by Colin, an Aussie by birth, who volunteers at the museum. Starting out in Egypt, the ANZAC forces were sent to capture Gaza – which, according to Colin they would have done if it weren’t for the incompetence of the general in charge. After the second effort – which proved to be a disaster – General Murray was recalled and replaced by a guy you may have heard of, named Allenby.

The next campaign was to capture Beer Sheva, which would require all manner of subterfuge, like convincing the Turks and their German allies that Gaza was still the target. The whole thing was crazy, moving the Light Brigades through the desert for thirty hours with minimal supplies. The objective was simple: capture the wells at Beer Sheva before nightfall. And if they didn’t? The horses, who hadn’t had any water for the entire trip, would die, and then the men would die. (If you’re interested, you might want to check out the Australian movie, The Light Horseman, which dramatizes these events.) They did somehow succeed, and, if you watch the movie, the horses did finally get something to drink.

That’s the point. Without water in the desert, you will soon die a very unpleasant death – you and all around you. So if someone tries to steal your well, it’s not like stealing your backpack or your car. What that person is saying basically is, Beat it, you can’t live here. Click; now I understand. The deal between Abraham and Avimelech described near the end of Vayera was not just a casual swap of livestock, which it might seem to an understandably perplexed young student at a Jewish day school in northern New Jersey.

(Speaking of which, I just learned that the new Israeli prime minister spent several happy years at the Yavneh Academy, the alma mater of both of our daughters. And one of Naftali Bennett’s teachers, Sara Ancselovitz, was still there years later for Natania. If Ms. Ancselovitz is still with us, I’m sure she’s feeling proud – of both of them.)

More to come; I’m just getting started.

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