God’s sculpture garden, that’s what it’s been called, which is an imaginative and somewhat fanciful way of describing the results of wind and water erosion. There are rock formations similar to what is found at Timna in the American west (think of the landscapes in the westerns you watched in your youth), but no one thought to associate anything in Arizona with King Solomon. Of course, the second king of Israel had nothing to do with the copper mines found all the way in the south of Israel. Maybe the pharaohs; maybe even before the pharaohs. The best guess by the archaeologists digging and rummaging around the area is that there was mining going on starting some 6,000 years ago, which, when you think about it, is peanuts in geological time. How many eons before that was this entire area, what is now the Negev, at the bottom of an ocean? So what’s a few thousand years between friends?
Barbara and I had been to this national park before, so we weren’t expecting to see anything different this Wed. morning when the AACI bus left Ketura at 8AM. OK, next to the visitors center there’s a new theater with a new movie, the kind of ten-minute job – with the narration in whatever language you want – designed to impress the tourists who are going to see it. Otherwise, the park at Timna has the same rock formations that were there the last time we visited. Still, if you are part of the been-there-done-that coterie, you’re missing out. That would be like saying you’ve had more than enough good food and drink in your lifetime or too much friendship to go around.
But for those who are not sufficiently impressed with a view of God’s glories, imaginatively titled Spiral Hill, The Mushroom, The Arches, Solomon’s Pillars, and Hathor’s Temple, ’Timna Park offers a variety of activities for groups at special prices. From day trips to the park sites, guided sunset and lantern tours, indulging meals, overnight stays in shared tents, social evening and exclusive parties.’ Plus hiking and bike trails, not to mention the artificial lake smack dab in the middle of the park. But I don’t go much for gilding the lilies. For me, what nature has provided is more than enough to impress me.
The group spent several hours walking and gawking, and then it was time to head back to the kibbutz for another lecture, ‘Energy, Water, Food – Can they be linked?’ by Dr. Tali Zohar. If you answered Yes to this question, you get a small prize. A better question would be how are they linked? And for this, the PowerPoint presentation contained a number of charts and graphs. Except that I don’t relate well to charts and graphs beyond the most simple ones. Let’s just say that the Arava Institute is focused on how to grow crops in less-than-ideal conditions, and the research on how that works was what Dr. Zohar was explaining – and leave it at that.
We don’t need no stinkin’ rabbis…
Which brings us to Thurs., the last day of Study Trip #184, and we were off to Kibbutz Yotvata, the ‘first modern settlers in the Arava.’ That’s where we met Benjie, who took us around and explained a lot of things I hadn’t known. There are a number of kibbutzim in the area straddling the border with Jordan, all there by design, but Yotvata was the first, started officially in 1957. Each of these kibbutzim has its own ideology and idiosyncrasies. Ketura is ‘pluralistic,’ having some loose connection to the American Young Judea movement. Lotan, visited by a previous Study Trip, is an ‘Eco-Jewish intentional, collective community with a deep commitment to environmental protection.’ Yotvata? Let’s describe it – and its spokesman – as a kibbutz with an attitude: We don’t need no stinkin’ rabbis.
Except they do – at least for their milk and dairy products, which are their main source of income, which are now all mehadrin. Otherwise, not a chance.
Speaking about ‘not a chance’…… We had asked Bill Slott if any of the children of Ketura members came back to the kibbutz after their army service or whatever. Not really, he said. Most of them need to get away, to see the wide world, and that’s understandable. But at Yotvata, the kibbutz with an attitude? Children of members have no more right to live there than any random dude or dudette from the outside. You wanna join the kibbutz? There’s a two-year trial period when you live on the kibbutz and get scrutinized, and then you have to be voted in by everybody. OK, then. I guess they’re kind of fussy.
But enough of this chatter (and if you ever want someone to chatter away, then Benjy, with his gift of gab, is your man). Let’s see what’s happening on the kibbutz, starting with the donkeys and the date palms. We had seen this partnership years ago at another kibbutz. You have palm trees growing in rows, and between the rows if you don’t do anything, you’ll have the healthiest crop of weeds imaginable. There are other ways to do weed control, but the simplest one is to bring in a bunch of ruminants and let them eat their way through the palm grove. Talk about sustainable agriculture, and you don’t need charts, graphs, or flow charts to do it. Our bus stopped at the date palms, and, sure enough, the donkeys came by to check us out. (Don’t pet them, warned Benjy, they bite.)
But there are other ruminants on this kibbutz. Whereas Ketura sold off its herd of cows to finance its investment in solar energy, Yotvata is into dairy big time. They have lots of cows, and, together with what they process from neighboring kibbutzim, they provide the majority of milk for dairy products throughout The Land. That I didn’t know.
You know what else I didn’t know? Even though the Arava is in The Land, it’s actually not in the land; whereas Ma’ale Adumim is technically not in The Land even though it is in the land. Everyone (?) agrees that the Arava is part of the sovereign State of Israel; however, when the ancient lines of demarcation were established, say for shmitta, the Arava was not included. That means that the good folks in B’nei Brak could buy potatoes that were grown here during the last shmittah cycle and place them without the slightest concern in their cholent. We, on the other hand, situated a Little Bit East of Jerusalem, are part of Biblical Israel and thus subject to the rules of shmitta, but are we residing in what is now considered The Land? Depends on whom you ask.
Benjy did what he was told to do: give us a quick tour of the kibbutz and get us back on the bus in time for our final activity. But we had to (had to!) stop at their store before we left. Back in the day, parched travelers making the long trek to Eilat, would stop at the kibbutz, and one old-timer would sit by the side of the road and sell them chocolate milk and ice cream to tide them over during the last lap of their arduous journey. Today, you can still get chocolate milk, ice cream, and so much more at their mega-store – even though the trip to Eilat on today’s roads takes less than half an hour. (One of our party, holding a fancy bar of chocolate, stopped me and asked for my opinion, whether the item in question was pareve. How should I know, you’re the one holding the package, looking at the label. Instead of answering, I mentioned that he could get the same chocolate in Jerusalem at a much better price. I only want to know if it’s pareve, said he. Whereupon I walked away. I was just trying to give him a word to the wise.)
Wherein I wax poetic about a palm tree
They were hidden in the rubble several layers down in the remains of the fortress at Masada, a few lonely, scattered date palm seeds. How long were they there? Say 2,000 years until they were uncovered during the archaeological digs at that site in the 1960’s. What were the odds that you could do anything with these seeds except stare at them? Nonetheless, a few of the seeds were handed over in 2005 to Dr. Sarah Sallon, founder and director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at Hadassah Hospital, to use as part of her research. She in turn gave them to Dr. Elaine Soloway of the Arava Institute, who has a bit of experience getting plants to grow in extreme desert conditions. And there we were, back at Kibbutz Ketura, for our final activity, listening to Dr. Soloway talk about the life and times of Methusalah, the date palm tree. Somehow, this lonely little seed made it – despite being abandoned, ignored for two millennia under the remains of a fortress long since destroyed. You gottta love a survivor, and there it was ….. Methusalah in its enclosure, having been planted there in 2011, several years after it had spouted back to life.
Spurred on by this incredible find, archaeologists continued to look for other seeds in excavations in the Judean desserts, and, yes, they located other seeds, some of which germinated. Welcomed to today’s world, Hannah, Judith, Adam, Boaz, Uriel, and Jonah! In 2020, Hannah was pollinated by Methusalah, and voilà, the first Judean dates in 2000 years (as the sign says). If anybody every asks you what are the most expensive dates in the world, now you know the answer!
We had lunch at the kibbutz, boarded the bus, and returned to Jerusalem. So what did I learn on this, the AACI Study Trip #184? (Otherwise, what’s the point?) A lot of us think of the Negev, and specifically the Arava, as ‘Drive-thru Country’ (Israel’s equivalent of America’s ‘Fly-over Country’), where ‘nobody’ lives and nothing is happening. And then you stop awhile and pay attention, and there’s something going on. If you asked the average Israeli (assuming there is such a person) where the white liquid comes from that’s used in their Tnuva butter and Strauss ice cream, chances are the answer wouldn’t be ‘from Benjy’s kibbutz.’ And if you asked that same average Israeli to think ahead (a dubious proposition at best) and imagine where most of the energy for the family’s air-conditioning unit would be coming from a few years in the future, the answer probably wouldn’t be from the solar panels by the side of the road down to Eilat.
So it’s crazy to live down there and nothing can grow in the heat and the sand, but a few folks do and they do a lot with what they have. And God bless them, every one.
(Just so you know, the next installments of this blog will most likely appear in February, when Barbara and I [God willing] return from Egypt, the trip we almost got to go on last year.)