More to Come, or So I Promised

More to come; I’m just getting started. Does that sound like sort-of-a-promise to you? That perhaps I haven’t exhausted the topic? It does to me; and I should know because I’m the one who wrote it. I concluded a recent article on Beersheba, Nor Any Drop to Drink, by saying just that. Then I began my most recent article, What Do You Do When You’re All Alone?, which took me f-o-r-e-v-e-r to write. Now it’s a few weeks later and my memory groweth cold and fades away like morning dew. Usually, Barbara takes reasonable notes during the AACI study trips, so I have something to jog my memory, but this time she didn’t. Not only that, but the few bits of information I had put together are not much help. Still, I will carry on, as the song goes, On a wing and a prayer, trying to reconstruct enough of what we witnessed and share it with you, my small but discerning audience.

Part of the blur in my brain relates to the singularity of the trip’s focus. As with most of the AACI’s study trips, there is a heavy emphasis on social action, whereby we meet with individuals and groups that are trying to make life better for folks in their community. All of this is inspiring, but it’s easy to lump everything together into one humongous Tikun Olam blob – as in, I can’t remember who said what and who’s doing what.

Elizabeth Homans acquainted us with the efforts of Be’er-Sova, an organization of ‘community conscious volunteers,’ who have provided food before, during, and after the pandemic to locals in need. Yonatan Kischinovsky, the founder of the derecheretz mechina program, spoke about their activity, which ‘provides the lower strata of Israeli society with upward social mobility through programs which develop individual responsibility at significant life junctures.’ (Straight off their website. Talk about using too many words and not saying very much at the same time, but that phraseology seems to be typical tikkun-olam-ese.)

And then there was the ever-so-ebullient Megan from eretzir, which is taking social activism to a new level. Instead of having its own activities, this organization exists to enable you to run yours. They will wade through the paperwork and slog through the bureaucratic obstacles, the ones that might throw you for a loop or stop you dead in your tracks.

One of the programs they work with in Beersheba is a local project to grow vegetables in small plots donated by the municipality. Here you can see a bunch of us doing some weeding. (OK, others were weeding, and I was photographing them hard at work.)

We did a lot of wandering hither and yon throughout the city. By the third day, I realized that where we were – the Artists House, a place where locals could exhibit their work –was right around the corner from the Gateway to the Negev Center, where we had been the first day. The point being, that most of what’s happening in Beersheba is going on in the older part of town. (However, I did not see – although I was looking – a coffee house serving specialty coffee. This is a serious problem.)

The older part of Beersheba, that’s where our friends Michael and Tehilla started out when they left Ma’ale Adumim, (I can’t say for ‘greener pastures’; that would be a ridiculous way describe any place in the Negev). They made a few friends; they found a synagogue they liked. There was only one problem: old apartments don’t have safe rooms. When the sirens go off – as they do from time to time – you have to get your tukus in gear and head down the block lickety-split to the nearest communal bomb shelter. I hate to say it, but the Hesslers best lickety-splitting days are behind them. When it was time for them to purchase an apartment of their own, they felt the need to move to one of the newer neighborhoods where the apartments all have safe rooms.

Not only had we not seen their new apartment, we hadn’t even seen them since they moved away several years ago. Too far for a casual day trip on an Egged bus for them to come up or for us to go down. But there we were; our hotel was down the block from the Clalit facility that Michael uses, so they knew exactly where we were staying. We were invited to the Hessler residence for a house tour, with dinner thrown in at no extra cost. We played hooky from the first evening’s program, hailed a cab, and there we were, fifteen minutes away.

One of Michael’s frustrations in Ma’ale Adumim was living in a rental apartment that needed a lot of work. When you have spent your formative years doing various kinds of construction and you know exactly what has to be done, but it’s not yours to do it, that’s f-r-u-s-t-r-a-t-i-o-n, my friends. Now that he’s happily retired and has the time, the energy, and the permission to do whatever he wants, that’s h-a-p-p-i-n-e-s-s.

There we were, in their four-bedroom apartment eight or ten stories up, with a great view of the surrounding areas from their small merpeset. One of the rooms functions as a safe room, and Misha the dog knows where to go whenever the sirens go off. This is not a super-deluxe apartment in a super-swanky neighborhood, but it’s a vast improvement from where they had been, and it will certainly do.

If you want really deluxe apartments high up in the sky, they have plenty of those as well. Stand in the middle of the Beersheba River Park, a green oasis that used to be a garbage dump (with a thirty-acre lake filled with recycled water) and look over there, you’ll see the mini-city that’s going up as we speak. (Unlike the tall buildings across the way from us in Ma’ale Adumim that show no signs of being built any time soon. Unlike the luxury high-rises in Jerusalem that have been built but are, for all intents and purposes, bereft of occupants.)

The park, the new buildings going up, the let’s-get-things-done, I’m-glad-I’m-here attitude of the folks we spoke with, all explain of why this metropolis is doing a lot better than some other places we could name (as in Tzfat or Tiberias), which, ten or twenty years down the road, will still be as not-so-nice as they are now – despite having a lot of potential.

I could end right now with some feel-good sentiments, but there are two more places I feel compelled (compelled!) to write about, the first being the Joe Alon Center for Bedouin Heritage. And the first question anyone would ask about the center is what was the connection between Col. Yosef Alon, one of the founders of the Israeli Air Force, who was murdered in The States while serving as an attaché, and Bedouin culture? The answer seems to be: not much, but who cares?

What I was hoping to get at this museum was an overview of all things Bedouin: their origins, their connection to the Negev, their challenges and opportunities in modern day Israel. What we did get was an explanation in standard pidgin English from Ibrahim, who is authentically Bedouin. What he thought we needed to learn about was the etiquette observed when a stranger enters a Bedouin tent. Of course, the visitor is offered refreshments and hospitality and a prescribed ritual for conversation – the latter being very different from how Israelis conduct themselves.

For example. Ibrahim, in discussing some of the changes in Bedouin life, mentioned that the infant mortality rate in their communities has gone down from two out of three (that’s not a typo) to one in a hundred or a thousand (I don’t remember which). Which prompted Aliza (have I mentioned our excellent guide Aliza Avshalom?) to interrupt him quite abruptly and ask, isn’t that good, isn’t that important, so what’s the problem?

From my front row seat, I could see the look of dismay on Ibrahim’s face. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not in his ‘tent.’ He reminded Aliza of the ‘rules’ Bedouin style. There shouldn’t be any signs of disagreement between a host and a guest, certainly not at the beginning. (You see the vast difference between our two cultures.) But he had to say something. He alluded to the fact that there are still unresolved issues, (You think!) but he didn’t elaborate. Of course, I had hoped that he would say what was on his mind; we might even learn something.

What Ibrahim was willing to talk about are some of the changes to his society brought about willy-nilly by modernity. My father had a camel; I have a car. He has a house, but he prefers to sleep outside in his tent where he can hear the sounds around him. His house is too quiet – like a tomb; it makes him uncomfortable to sleep inside at night. Where do his kids prefer to sleep? That he didn’t say.

There were other questions we didn’t get to ask, like how many Bedouins today have cars instead of camels or have real houses to live in instead of the shanties we see on the side of the roads here in the Land? We got a glimpse into the life and times of the modern-day Bedouin, but that’s about all. Time was getting short; we had other places to go. Yes, there are times when the scheduling of these tiyulim can be frustrating; that’s part of the tradeoff.

Let’s proceed to the final activity on our schedule, visiting the SodaStream factory. A question for you: when you hear mention of this company, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? For many, it would be the BDS movement and the company’s relocation from Mishor Adumim (down the road from us) to the Negev – especially these days. Think Ben & Jerry’s.

Debbie, the young lady who took us around the plant, was quick to set us straight. The SodaStream management had been working on the move for several years before it happened. Their business model, making the various parts of the machines in different places and sending them to Mishor Adumim to be assembled, was costly and inefficient. Better to build a huge facility to do all the manufacturing, assembling, and shipping in one place. The BDS business was the least of their concerns. (SodaStream is now owned by PepsiCo, and nobody’s about to boycott them.) The only people who were negatively affected were the employees, particularly the Arab workers who for many months were denied work permits by the Israeli government to travel down to the Negev. (That’ll show ‘em!) Even today, there are workers who make the long journey from Azariah (across the wadi from us) to work for SodaStream.

I have on my desk a half-liter SodaStream bottle, which I got as a memento of our visit, with the following written on the back: Made by Jews and Arabs working side-by-side in Peace and Harmony. Jews and Arabs? Peace and harmony? Are we in Israel? Of course, you could say that’s it’s a self-selecting crowd who works there, as in people who are willing to work with others in peace and harmony, and you’d be right. Still, with a little effort, you could muck it up. But they try not to. Everyone is treated with a certain amount of respect, and the employees get along. Why not? They’re working together, doing the same job day after day, shift after shift, exchanging small talk about their families and whatever else comes to mind, sharing the same food at the company cafeteria. (For visitors, 35NIS buys a full lunch either meat or dairy.)

One of the other points in SodaStream’s favor – which Debbie was perfectly happy to mention – was the environmental benefit of their reusable bottles. Now one could inquire, what about the syrups you sell; aren’t they, shall we say, not the healthiest things to drink? But that would have been decidedly unfriendly, and who wants to be labeled a troublemaker?

And what about the plant itself? We did get a tour, and while it might be seen as a good place to visit, I wouldn’t want to work there. Much of the plant is automated, as you would expect, but there are lots of opportunities if tedious, monotonous activities are your cup of tea. You can take a SodaStream machine, stuff it into a carton, and place that on a conveyer belt. Then ‘rinse and repeat.’ Do this, taking into consideration breaks and meals, for twelve hours. (The employees prefer a four-day, twelve-hour work week with two days off to an equivalent five-day work week.) I could not (could not!) handle this, but I imagine the employees are made of sterner stuff. Or else, they have no choice. I guess you do what you have to do. But I’ll try to remember what it’s like to keep doing the same thing over and over again next time I have to do something unexciting – like emptying the dishwasher or moving the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer. Some of us have it tough.

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