April 21, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Sunday, April 21, 2002

Dear family and friends,

Right now I still feel refreshed from spending a few days in the desert, a few days without news in places where fiddling with the radio often brings more static than news, where the war and the terror feel a world away. Call it escapism if you want, but we all need a dose now and then.

This weekend we had a relative visiting from overseas (yes, we do still get one or two of those!) so we decided to take her down south to spend the weekend in the desert town of Mitzpe Ramon. Located in the Negev Highlands, one of the highest regions of Israel, this little town is perched dramatically on a cliff about 1000 feet above the Ramon Crater, the largest geological crater in the world.

We drove down Thursday night. The journey was smooth, save for a massive traffic jam at the entrance to Be'er Sheva, the last big city we passed, where a police checkpoint had slowed traffic to a snail's pace while each vehicle was inspected. After Be'er Sheva there were few vehicles on the road, and we could enjoy the eerie desert landscape illuminated in the car's headlights.

We last visited Mitzpe Ramon in December and fell in love with the place. We'd visited the area several times before, but only as a waystation on our drive south, never staying more than half a day there. Spending a Shabbat in Mitzpe Ramon we came to appreciate its small town charm.

At first glance it may look like a drab collection of concrete structures in the middle of pristine desert, but in the town itself you see that the buildings have character to them, the streets are nicely lined with ornamental fig and olive trees and many of the buildings have well cared for gardens, the balconies bright with overflowing flower boxes and gaily flapping laundry. The crater edge setting almost feels unreal, like an over the top Hollywood backdrop.

On Friday we drove around the region, visiting the highland national park just north of the town, as well as exploring the crater floor itself, past ancient ruins, weird geological phenomena and several springs.

If your image of desert is monotonous yellow sand, think again. All around us the rocks ranged from palest lemon to an almost black dark red. Here and there mineral deposits created patches of sherbet yellows and pinks, or coppery green. In one spot we saw a hill covered in angular brown stones, rather like wood chips.

Last time we visited, in December, the winter had just set in. The desert in winter bears a hint of the miraculous: the inconsistency of thunderheads over the arid landscape, the contradiction of a greening desert. Flash floods leave behind unexpected lakes in every valley, lasting just long enough to support clusters of trees. The little rainfall that reaches this normally parched earth is enough to bring the first shoots of a green revolution that will transform large stretches of bleak lowlands and sheltered hillsides into pastures by mid-winter.

The desert is a key image in Jewish tradition, symbolising the bleakness of exile, or the ascetic purifying experience transforming us from downtrodden slaves to a free people. The desert in winter promises Israel's redemption, illustrating the otherwise fantastical words of the prophet Isaiah: "I will make the wilderness into a lake and an arid land into a source of water. In the desert I will place cedars, acacias, myrtle and olive trees; in the barren plains I will place cypress, elms and box tree."

Now in April, the transformation is at its peak. Green bushes and little flowers line the sides of the road and the valley beds. Here and there an incongruously green tree grows in the middle of barren desert. In many places the desert flowers form carpets of purples, pinks, whites and yellows. I guess daisies and deserts don't usually go together, but we saw plenty. In highland areas we came across meadows of wild grasses, including wheat, growing in the middle of nowhere, vast patches of green and softness in the otherwise harsh yellow landscape.

Throughout the region the local wildlife was making the most of the brief period of abundance. This time I remembered my binoculars and had a field day, spotting several species I'd never seen before, save in books.

Every tree, bush and meadow was full of songbirds, shy but noisy little warblers, drab but beautifully voiced larks and exotic looking bee-eaters, with their eye catching green and blue plumage. Some of the most striking desert birds, the dazzling black and white wheatears, were everywhere, perched prominently on rocks and road signs in even the bleakest areas.

Agile, arrow shaped swifts and martins skimmed low over the ground, occasionally "buzzing" our car, before pulling up at the last moment. Overhead soared the ravens, and the occasional larger bird of prey, a few buzzards and once an eagle.

Aside from lots of ibex, a common local wild mountain goat, we also saw a couple of onagers, a small, donkey like wild horse, reintroduced to the Negev by Israeli conservationists, half a century after it was driven to extinction throughout the Middle East. Now a sizeable herd roams the Mitzpe Ramon area.

Much of what we learnt about Mitzpe Ramon was thanks to a local rabbi and his wife whom we met by chance on our December visit. He is the principal of the local yeshiva high school, well known for its special environmental studies track, attracting students from across the country to learn in this remote location.

They insisted on giving us a little tour of the town, saying that we must go and look at the crater by moonlight. Eventually we reached a boat-shaped viewing platform jutting out over the crater. All around the rugged scenery was bathed in a silvery light, and the moon was so bright that we could make out details on the crater floor, nearly one thousand feet below us.

This visit, the moon was a thick crescent, the stars magnificent in the dark desert sky as we made our way back from the town's little Ashkenazi synagogue Friday night. The simple concrete and stone structure looks quite plain from the outside. The sanctuary itself has a lovely high vaulted ceiling, and at the front, the aron kodesh, the ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept, is of a most unusual design made from beaten copper. Despite the modern building, it has the feeling of a cosy old synagogue in Jerusalem or Safed.

Shabbat afternoon we went for a walk along the promenade which skims the crater rim. It is one of the most stunning Shabbat walks I've been on. A promenade along the cliff's edge gives the false impression of a seaside atmosphere - you half expect to hear the crashing of waves.

Reaching a camel shaped lookout point we joined a family of Bedouin and a group of local teenagers enjoying the view. The tranquillity was intoxicating, each of us mesmerised by the scale of the crater, in awe of the grandeur of creation, the serenity almost as tangible as the rocks themselves.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.