Ketura, Ketura — Part 1

Some things, you can bet the mortgage are going to happen one after another – the way night follows day and day follows night. If the AACI has scheduled another study trip (#184), you KNOW it going to leave from in front of the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem promptly at 8AM, and the first stop will of necessity be the Elvis Diner outside of Abu Gosh, where members of the group can buy coffee in Elvis mugs and take advantage of the rest rooms.

It was there that I sidled up to our tour guide and inquired if he knew Barbara and Richard Levine. What kind of a question is that? Why would Bill Slott, who lives in a kibbutz 50 kilometers from Eilat, know our friends, who, as everyone knows, live atop a mountain in the Galil? Because of his shirt, that’s why.

If you’re wearing a 2015 Jacob’s Ladder t-shirt, there is only one way you got it. Not on Amazon, not in any clothing store in a mall, not second hand on eBay or in an estate sale. Unless you stole it, you got it by being at the folk festival in Ginosar that year, and it goes without saying that our friends were there, because they are ALWAYS there. After all, they are the co-founders and sole proprietors of the Hoity-toity Club (Membership by invitation only. Look for them under the hanging toilet bowl seat.) Bill did not recognize the name, although I’m convinced he would have recognized their faces if I could have shown him a photo. But what was his connection to this acclaimed folk music festival? Turns out that our guide has his own bluegrass group, the Arava Riders, and they have performed at Jacob’s Ladder, probably with Barbara and Richard in the audience.  It’s a small world after all…

It might seem somewhat out-of-the-box to be cultivating bluegrass out there in the Negev, but that’s Ketura for you. (BTW, the name is pronounced KtUra, with k-t as one sound.) This kibbutz is definitely an outlier – and not just by being in a location where no sane person would want to live.  Almost all of the kibbutzim in Israel have been ‘privatized,’ but not Ketura.  Most of them are homogeneous culturally and religiously, but not Ketura. Few of them have institutes of higher learning on their premises, but Ketura does. Usually, when an AACI Study Trip stays at a kibbutz, it’s simply because the place is convenient to the places and sites we’re going to be visit, but it’s not the real destination. We just sleep and eat some of our meals there. But this time, we were not just staying at Ketura, we would be spending a fair amount of time learning about what they do. So it’s not your run-of-the-mill in-the-box kibbutz.

Ketura (remember, KtUra) was founded right after the Yom Kippur War by members of Young Judea, an American youth group. No surprise, a lot of the idealist pioneers flamed out and were replaced by other idealistic pioneers, who themselves flamed out…. You get the idea. When it’s 45°C on a day in August (that’s 113°F), without a bit of shade in sight, your resolve might melt along with your shoes. But enough idealistic youth stayed around to make a go of it (or as their website explains, ‘…a more stable lifestyle was created.’ Don’t you just love it!) Part of their idealism meant retaining the original socialist kibbutz model (or as their website puts it, an ‘income-sharing community with a communal dining hall.’) Not something for everybody, but everybody does have something.

A number of years ago (which means I don’t know exactly when) the kibbutz phased out its dairy industry and went all out into producing solar energy. That might seem like a ‘duh-moment,’ given the amount of sunlight flooding the Israeli desert, but, believe it or not, the world’s leader in producing solar energy has been Germany (at least, that’s what we were told). But now, they’re growing solar panels in this barren part of the world the way they grown corn in Iowa – enough energy to power most of Eilat.

What makes this kibbutz especially special is the presence of the Arava Institute. We would learn more about what they do down there once we arrived, but before that happened…

There once was a group of Nabateans. That’s not the first line of a badly composed limerick but an historical fact. The Nabateans came out of the Arabian sand dunes and, having realized that they were living in the path of the most lucrative commercial venture of the day, The Spice Route, and figuring out that they were the best equipped to guide travelers through the desert, took full advantage. Their first ploy was to make sure that nobody planted a tree or built a house; that way, they would keep outsiders from figuring out where the elusive water was hidden within all the sand.  Later on, they took a different and more conventional approach, building fortresses to consolidate their control, the most celebrated one being Petra (where some of our group would travel the next day).

But after picking up a few more passengers at a train station in Beersheba, all of us would soon arrive –– at Avdat, the Nabatean site we could visit without crossing a border and having to go through passport control. True, the Israeli version of all-things Nabatean is not as impressive as its Jordanian counterpart, but still, it all that remains of a civilization that vanished abruptly around the time of the Muslim conquest of the region.

After a stop for a less-than-gevaldig felafel for lunch at a dismal mini-mall in Mitzpe Ramon, we got back on the bus, which made its way down into the Arava. To be honest, I was kind of hazy as to where and what exactly that is. Is it simply another way to say the Negev? (Which is what I had always assumed.) Actually, the Arava is one specific part of our southern desert, the sliver of land on our side of the Jordan River. You might call it a neighborhood, the way Mosholu Parkway is a specific part of The Bronx and Klei Shir is one area in Ma’ale Adumim. If you want to be technical, where we were heading was in the Southern Arava, the area between Mitzpe Ramon and Eilat (as opposed to the Central Arava, the area south of the Dead Sea,) Barbara and I had come this way before on the few times we traveled to Eilat, so I knew what to expect. The road would start to wind its way down and down until it reached the valley and headed south to Ketura.

And then we arrived in the middle of the afternoon, pretty much on schedule. Time to make our way off the bus, locate our luggage, and find our way to our rooms. Being virtual travelers, you are not required to check-in. Just stay where you are and get ready for the next installment.

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