The Negev Revisited

Ee-gads! Another week gone by without much blogging. How does that happen? Well Saturday we went to see Eric’s cousins in Kiryat Tivon where we celebrated Eric and Etamar’s joint birthdays (Eric’s was last Wednesday). As usual, the food jut kept coming and I think I ate 3 desserts. Nadav has grown quite a lot since I last saw him. His hair has gotten curly and he’s become much more vocal. Etamar’s sister is pregnant and is due in 9 weeks.  

The weekends sure do fly here. Friday doesn’t feel like the first day of the weekend, especially when everyone is in such a mad rush get ready for Shabbat, which starts between 3-4 pm now. And we’re not even at the shortest day of the year!

 Last week, I was practically assaulted by an older gentleman in the supermarket. As I was making my way out of the store, he was trying to push his way past me. I said in Hebrew ‘excuse me, I’d like to get out,’ but he just kept shoving until he got by. Next time, I’ll just try to back up and let these guys go by. After all, they’ve probably been through a lot and feel like they’ve paid their dues so they can afford to be somewhat pissy. 

Two of our synagogue friends from DC, Rick and Cindy, were in town and on Wednesday night they took Eric, Lizzie (another Ohev Shalom friend who is studying at Pardes) and me out for dinner at our local dairy place Phaaza. It was really great to see them again, and hear how the shul was doing (our rabbi’s wife just gave birth to #5!). They were having a ball taking classes at Pardes and learning Hebrew and were heading to Tel Aviv the next day. They asked us about what it was like to study Talmud and whether studying at Pardes was a spiritual experience, what type of spiritual experiences were had in Jerusalem. We’ll be seeing them in February when the shul comes to Israel.

Going back to the Negev trip…

The Pardes Tiyulim are organized by Rabbi Meir Schweigger, who is also Eric’s Torah teacher. Pardes student Jonathan Draluck, helps Schweigger with legwork of the trip. There are a few other people in charge of other aspects of the trip–Sarah Rubinstein helped make sure we were well fed on the trip, for example. I also can’t forget the bus driver Tzion, who has been working with Schweigger on these trips for quite some time, and who found us both the guide and the place where we ended up staying.

The bus left Pardes at 7:30 am on Tuesday. As we were on our way out of Jerusalem, we picked up our guide, Dan, a self-professed lover of the desert. He told us that he moved south not because of job opportunities but because he loved the desert, and he makes Eilat his home where he teaches. Eric especially liked the guide because he told us lots of things about the geological and ecological history of the region, which fascinates Eric to no end. He also incorporated references to specific places mentioned in the Tanach. Dan often referred to Eric as a ‘Tzaddik’ because Eric asked many questions and knew a fair share of what Dan was talking about. We also liked the guide because of he had a flippant, somewhat sarcastic way of sharing information. As in, ‘as I mentioned this info yesterday while you were sleeping…’

Immediately after we left the green hills of Jerusalem the landscape shifted drastically. The bus which drove us down, down, down into the Dead Sea region which is several hundred meters below sea level. The scenery kept changing as we went. Long gone were the pines and olive trees of Jerusalem. Instead we saw hardy trees and shrubs that could withstand the desert’s severe climate and lack of rainfall. We drove past Jericho and toward the south with the Dead Sea on our right-hand side. You always know you are near the Dead Sea because of the smell of sulfur.

Our first hike would be in the mountains adjoining the Dead Sea, in the area known as the Arava. This was probably the more strenuous of all the hikes since there was some uphill hiking. The scariest part was taking off my shoes and climbing barefoot up these metal rungs drilled into the rock. 

Along this hike and others, Dan would talk about geology and show the different types of plants growing in the region. One thing he mentioned is that the Ibex population has gone down drastically. If I remember correctly, some of it had to do with the drought they were encountering (yes, even a desert can have a drought), but I could be wrong. He also mentioned that because of the drought, some of the plants in the desert weren’t doing so well.

After the 6 hour hike, we drove to a spot near the Dead Sea to daven mincha (afternoon prayers)/take a short walk/use the restrooms. The Dead Sea by the way is shrinking, did you know that? Because the area has seen reduced rainfall, and also because the water that feeds the sea (i.e. from the Kineret and Jordan River) has been diverted for agriculture, this body of water is actually losing water. And it’s creating these huge sink holes that make it dangerous to approach the water.

According to a Wikipedia entry (yes, I know Wiki is not the end all and be all!) “The Dead Sea level drop has been followed by a groundwater level drop, causing brines that used to occupy underground layers near the shoreline to be flushed out by freshwater. This is believed to be the cause of the recent appearance of large sinkholes along the western shore – incoming freshwater dissolves salt layers, rapidly creating subsurface cavities that subsequently collapse to form these sinkholes” Yuck!

Dan mentioned that two solutions are under consideration: creating a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, or creating a canal from the Med Sea to the Dead Sea. The Red-Dead option doesn’t appeal to Israelis as much as it does to the Jordanians, while the Med-Dead option appeals to Israels and not Jordanians.

Our sleeping quartersBy evening time, the bus took us to our accomodations in Hatzevah, a moshav in the Arava. (don’t ask me about the difference between a moshav and a kibbutz. I do know that moshavim dot the area north of what is called the Arava junction, while kibbutzim are south of this.) Pardes described it as a Bedouin ‘tent,’ but it was a bit more like a converted chicken coop. The owner really did it up quite nicely–the semi-outdoor layout was furnished with rugs, pillows and hammocks. They always had coffee and very sweet tea on hand. Most of the Pardes students slept on pillows and hammocks in the common area, which looked very comfortable, but Eric and I got a room to ourselves (an advantage of being married).  It was an incredible undertaking that they managed to feed our large group with really great meals as well as provide lunch supplies for our hikes over the next few days. I especially loved the breakfasts!

The next day we hiked in the Negev and we noted the difference in how the mountains looked here. Note that there are Negevactually two deserts in Israel: the Negev and the Judean desserts. Dan joked that whenever a geologist asks you a question about this region, just answer with “the Syrian-African Rift Valley.” The rift extends from Turkey to East Africa. How was this area formed, might you ask? According to this Web site: “Movements of plates in the top layers of the Earth’s crust create enormous tension, which sometimes makes long cracks, or faults, in rocks. Continuing tugging movements make blocks of land sink down between roughly parallel sets of faults, forming troughs called rift valleys.”

The place we hiked was called Makhtesh Gadol (see below for what a Machtesh is). Most of the hike was downhill and we had to go down a few ladders and slide down on our butts a few times. The views of the surrounding mountains were glorious and this was probably my favorite hike.  

That evening back at our restplace, we were given a walking tour of the moshav and Eric showed the Pardes Rosh Yeshiva and his wife some of the constellations in the evening sky. Afterwards we with  hung out with Peter, Rachel and Moshe from Pardes, and I munched on an excessive number of Israeli snack foods.

The final hike was in the Makhtesh Ramon, and it was by far the most beautiful one. Before heading off to the hike, though, we went to Sde Boker and visited Ben Gurion’s grave, which overlooks the Makhtesh (not a bad final resting place!). The region reminded me of the Grand Canyon and from left to right you could see nothing but mountains.

According to Jewish Virtual Library, “Makhtesh Ramon is usually referred to as a crater, but it is not an impact crater from a meteorite, it is actually a “makhtesh,” a valley surrounded by steep walls and drained by a single “wadi” (riverbed). It is the world’s largest makhtesh.

Makhtesh Ramon is at the center of two large nature reserves, Har Hanegev and Matzok Hatzinim. Makhtesh Ramon is 25 miles (40 km.) long and 5 miles (9 km.) across at its widest point. Mount Ramon, at the southwest corner of the makhtesh, is the highest peak in the Negev (3,400 feet – 1,037 m.). The name Ramon comes from the Arabic “Ruman” meaning Romans.” Here’s another link: The region is a geologist’s paradise, full of a variety of different rocks including volanic rock. (Note that Maktesh Ramon is much grantdr than Maktesh Gadol–Gadol being the Hebrew word for Big. I think it’s because they found Maktesh Gadol before setting eyes on the other one.)

Our guide said that the region where we hiked was originally an industrial area, but a left-wing environmental minister decided that this area should become a nature preserve. I say good move!

After making a brief stop to look at some Ammonite fossils, we bid adieu to our guide and headed back North. On the way, we stopped at an Aroma cafe where Pardes staff went through great lengths to make sure that everyone had a meal. What a contrast! Here we were at an Israeli mall only a few hours away from Maktesh Ramon. After chomping down on our food, we headed back on the bus and drove home.

Now I am writing this from Jerusalem where it has been raining. My parents are flying in today and I’m looking forward to showing them around. I must admit that I also look forward to getting treated to a few nice meals. 🙂 It’s too bad they have to deal with some rain, but it’s good for us. Catch you later!


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