Ein Gedi Botanic Garden

Ein Gedi Botanic Garden
Seek the serenity of a Judean Desert sky in Autumn at the Ein Gedi Botanic Garden

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Pre-Passover at the Zol-Po

"Are we really going then?" Dan sipped his coffee and regarded me with mild interest. It was 8:15 am and we were sitting at our new coffee place in the little shopping center in Arad.
The past three days of Passover cleaning had really done me in. My 14 year old had almost finished the job. And now I had to go shopping for the last big push before the cooking ritual was to begin.
The preferred venue for those Orthodox shoppers who are "in the know" -- and who are willing to brave the bus or who have access to a car -- is the "Zol Po" (Cheap Here) supermarket in Beersheva. It is one of the few places here in the south where I can find meat with the proper kosher supervision, without it costing me the life of my last-born child. I dreaded the trip, knowing how much I had to buy and how little strength I had left to carry it, but I had no choice.
"Yes. I have to drop off my husband's dry cleaning and then we will catch the bus."
"Right. Then I will go to buy my newspaper and meet you at the station.
The trip to Beersheva went smoothly. Zol-Po was another matter.
"What IS this??? Is this a normal way to behave???? DON'T PUT YOUR HANDS ON ME!!"
Pre-Passover gets everyone, and the hareidi man in one of the checkout lines was no exception. We could hear him as we walked into the store, screaming, gesturing wildly, with two shorter, smaller men trying to calm him down. He didn't want to be calmed. I headed down the first aisle. Dan went down the next one.
One hour later with shopping cart piled high, it finally got to me too. The fibromyalgia I had been fighting off caught up with me and I sagged against the cart, feeling totally drained. I knew I had to find a place to sit down, fast.
"Where's Dan?" I muttered. I could not see him anywhere. "Look outside," I told myself. "He probably finished a long time ago and is hanging out reading the paper." Which he was. I congratulated myself for my acumen and asked him to come and help with the cart at the checkout counter. Just as we got there, my legs gave out.
"I need a chair," I told a worker. She pointed to an empty cashier's chair and I gratefully sank down, putting my head on the counter in front of me. The world was spinning and I could not move my body at all. Everything hurt.
"Drink some water," the worker urged. "Here, give her this," the cashier at the next counter said. Someone handed me a cold diet Sprite. "Drink, mamaleh," she urged. "Drink." I drank.
Dan had meanwhile taken control of the checkout situation.
I was miserable, feeling guilty for having dragged him all the way to Beersheva only to have to do my work for me. He ignored me, placidly packing the groceries into the bags. The woman behind him started nagging the cashier. "Can't you move it a little faster?" she demanded, baby carriage up against Dan's legs. "I'm in a hurry."
"This man is almost finished," the cashier soothed her.
"Well, can't you just ring up the rest of his things??"
The cashier gestured to the chaos on her counter. "There is no room to do that yet. These things need to be packed first." Israeli checkout counters are the smallest in the world, serving a population with large families and short tempers. It is not a good combination.
"Just push them over," the woman persisted. The baby gurgled happily.
Now the cashier ignored her, but finally Dan could not.
"I, too had to wait in line. Have some patience," he counseled her.
"Well I am in a VERY big hurry," she snapped back.
"So am I," he replied shortly. And turned his back, sliding me a glance. One corner of his mouth lifted ever so slightly.
I was amazed and, I confess, perversely pleased. Dan never loses it. I envy him that. But today he finally allowed his Israeli side to see the light of day and it was a pleasure to watch. Half the bottle gone, I straightened up slowly and handed it back to the cashier. "Take some more," she said. I shook my head. "Sure?" I nodded. She smiled.
My groceries came to exactly what I had left, minus the paper goods, plastic plates, bowls, "silverware", cups and shredded coconut. Now we had two full shopping carts -- and Dan's contention that he could carry everything vanished suddenly.
"We are never going to be able to get this to the bus," I groaned. "What are we going to do?"
"I wondered when this might occur to you," Dan said. "Other than the meat, we did not need to buy all this here. We could have gone to the Mega store in Arad." (That had been his first choice for this trip, which I had nixed because I could not get my meat, chicken and havdalah candle there.) I reminded him that the prices were 30% cheaper here, and I was buying for 14 people, not two. "Right," he agreed.
We headed to the door, me wondering what to do and Dan drifting ahead unconcerned. "Don't worry. We will just wheel the things over to the bus."
That stopped me in my tracks. "You can't do that." I was appalled. "The carts belong to the store. They will never let you do it."
"I don't think they can stop us," he said calmly.
"Of course they can!!" I could not believe we were having this conversation. "The security guard will stop you. They will kill us and we will not have our groceries." I was exhausted, in a lot of pain and frantic.
"Don't worry," he repeated with quiet confidence. (Dan does everything quietly. I have no idea how.) And he sailed on through the door and just pushed the carriage toward the bus station nearby. As I neared the sidewalk, a young man greeted me warmly. He is a nice guy who accepts spare change from people as they leave the store. For very little indeed, he had always helped me with my packages, unloading the cart and placing them carefully on my arms so I could walk to the bus station in relative comfort.
This time I was in trouble and I knew it. I also knew that perhaps he could help us out. "Can I ask you a favor?" I appealed. "I need to get these things to the bus station and there is no way I can carry it all, and neither can my friend. Can you perhaps come with us and then return the shopping carts for us?"
Big grin. "No problem!" He took the cart from me and started after Dan, who was already way ahead of us. "Why didn't you pack it into boxes?" he asked me. "That would have been easier to take on the bus." It had not occurred to me, of course. There was no way I could carry even one box, let alone four.
He could see I was a novice. "Look," he said patiently. "You pack the groceries into the boxes. You put the boxes into the cart. You take it to the bus station and you load it into the baggage compartment under the bus. (Oh, THAT was what those large doors were for!) Then either you take it back to the store, or someone else does it. That's what I do." He grinned again. "And sometimes I don't." He stopped at a kiosk and grabbed a few boxes. "Take more! Take as many as you want!" the girl at the counter laughed.
"You take the boxes and go to the bus," he ordered. "I will get the groceries and your friend and I will pack them. Then I will put them into the baggage compartment." I went to the bus, arms heaped with boxes. "Thank G-d," I murmured. The bus driver was our friend from the morning run. He leads trips to North America every year and enjoys telling me about them in English. He was the one who helped me carry my six-foot curtain rods onto his bus three days ago. I was relieved to see him hurrying over to me now.
"Do you need help?" He looked concerned.
I wasted no words. "Yes."
He opened the big heavy baggage doors and then emptied my hands. I love this guy.
Meanwhile our friend from Dimona was packing more boxes as Dan handed him the groceries. The friend handed off to our bus driver, who lifted them into the baggage compartment. What a team.
When we got to Arad, our driver wanted to know how we were getting to my house with all those groceries. I told him I would probably have to take a taxi. "Hm. Well, let's see. It's 1:45 now. I do the Number One route at 3:30.... it's a bit of a wait, but...."
I was touched. Here he was in the middle of a work day, worrying about how I would get my groceries home. This really happens only in Arad. I can remember a time when it would have happened almost anywhere in Israel, but in today's hustle-bustle world, only Arad has retained that intimate quality of everyone helping each other get by.
"Thanks," I said. "It'll be okay. My daughter is working as the dispatcher today. I will call her and tell her to send someone over." He looked relieved. He knows I have fibromyalgia and I could see that was on his mind.
Back in the taxi, I asked Dan how he had known we could just walk those shopping carts away from the store like that.
"I saw everyone else doing it," he replied. "No one gave it a thought."

Monday, April 18, 2005

Goldy and Zalmy, two of my kids, are here with one of the Raiton boys from Telz Stone in a shot from December 2004. They are examining a rotem tree (scrubby desert pine) which grows in the desert. Posted by Hello

This is a view from a Roman tollbooth guarding a Byzantine highway from Arad to the Dead Sea. This shot was taken in December 2004; who would think that barely two months later, it would be sprouting with greenery and a month after that, bursting with color from hundreds of different delicate flowers! The place is called Tzuk Tamrur, and it is located on the road that winds down to the Dead Sea from Arad. It's about fifteen minutes away from my house. Posted by Hello


Ah, Arad. Everyone has a story here.
"Did you forget about me?" asked a voice plaintively. My cell phone practically vibrated with pathos as I was riding home on the bus from Beersheva.
"Of course not!" I quickly replied, having NO idea who it was.
"This is (garble garble) from the curtain store. You need to pick up the curtain rods. I have no room for them here." The heavy Russian accent blurred his name, but I remembered him. Naftali had come with me to the little square of stores near the souk so I could get curtain rods. The house has been looking a little naked lately, and it is time to remedy that.
The man at the store was an old Russian man -- 80, to be exact -- a survivor of the Holocaust and some horrible family traumas as well, which he proceeded to share with us, tears in his eyes. He was angry at Naftali for praising men who learn Torah all day, rather than work at regular jobs. (Naftali recently survived an attempt on his life so he has been leaning toward the holy side of late.)
"My grandmother of blessed memory, worked till her nose dropped off." He pantomimed the action for us. "Her husband, my grandfather, sat there and learned Torah, never worked a day in his life, never earned a single piaster of his own, never ate even one crumb of bread he earned himself. My grandmother raised 14 children and worked till she died. Her husband sat there. And learned. And learned." The tears threatened to rush.
"G-d forgive me, but I do not forgive him. Not now, not ever. What he did to my grandmother was unforgiveable. And her son, my father, remembered it all. When he grew up, he worked very hard to support us all, my mother too. He was a great man."
Naftali tried to cut in, but fortunately, the man ignored him. I was relieved; I wanted to kick him to make him shut up. He had no idea what he was about to mess with here, and I had no way to explain it to him -- even if I could have gotten him to understand, which I wasn't sure I could.
"When I grew up and got married, I also worked. I started this store and worked all my life to support my family too. That is how it should be. A man should support his family, not make his wife work so hard%

Thursday, April 14, 2005


We could hear the shrill accusation across the furniture store where Dan and I were shopping for his new apartment.
"I SAID YOU ARE ALL PIGS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" The woman was in a rage, pointing her finger and screaming at the store manager as we sat together discussing the details of our transaction. "YOUR MOTHER WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO MARRY YOU OFF!!!"
Her voice sent scribbles up my spine. I wanted to get in her face. Only Jews curse like this. No, wait. That is not entirely true. Bedouin Arabs also do.
The manager ignored her as she continued to rant and rave, epithets flying as we walked toward the back of the store to examine another sofa. Rabbi Lipsker, the Chief Rabbi of Arad, was standing with another man, talking quietly throughout all the noise. I greeted him warmly – his brother Eli had been my adopted big brother when I was in college, my life in total chaos and my brain spinning with conflict. Eli had helped me straighten my life out.
"How are you, Rabbi Lipsker?" I said politely. "I want to push this woman’s face in."
He lifted his hands in a majestic gesture of tolerance. "What can you do? She is not well." The store manager nodded. Barely a minute before, he had told me the same. "We can’t lock her up, after all," he had said. "She is ill, poor woman. You are new to Arad. You will get to know her. She wanders around the town, stopping into our store, the banks, the supermarket."
I turned to Dan. "This is how you know we are living in a Jewish country. Consider this situation, and play it in New York. Or London if you like," I added, mindful of Dan’s loyalties.
"She would certainly have been put away in either city," he agreed.
We looked at another sofa and a children’s bedroom set.
The woman continued to spew curses at people in the store. She aimed a particularly nasty one at the Russian sales lady, who tried to shoo her out of the store quietly. No dice. And I got the feeling that if the manager had not been there, the sales lady would not have been nearly as gentle in her remonstrances. The Soviets did not teach tolerance.
We went back to the front of the store, Dan to get his checkbook and me to look at a catalogue of children’s bedroom sets. The woman had planted herself defiantly on an easy chair, glaring at everyone and daring the manager to throw her out.
It was that last that suddenly brought me to my senses. Something really was wrong, something so sad and terrible that this woman did not want to live. I felt bad for wanting to beat her up. "What kind of a social worker are you?" I berated myself. "Where is your compassion?" I promised myself to do better next time. I was hoping there would not be a next time.
By the time Dan got back, I was thoroughly chastened. He had no idea what had subdued me. The woman was still there, albeit somewhat quieter. Another couple of rounds, one more screaming match with the Russian sales lady, a final stern reminder from the manager, and at last she had enough. Tossing her head, she swept out of the store, threats trailing into the wind.
The manager smiled. The Russian sales lady went back to her customers. Dan and I looked at each other, then got up to go.
Just another day in the south of Israel.

Madame Model

It was the flash of color I caught in the corner of my eye.
She was just out of range and moving closer, like the East Coast hurricanes that come up the coast each autumn. As she came into view I gazed with the childish fascination that has always been my Achilles heel.
Long, smoothly muscled thighs blessed with no cellulite graced a six-foot frame that rivaled The Mod Squad itself, but it was the item below that had drawn my attention.
Tall, tall boots, shocking bubblegum pink patent leather delicately enslaved by two fake diamond ropes criss-crossing the top of her feet took my breath away. The boots went over the top of the knee cap, with big tin buckles locking the ankles and 4-inch silver spike heels that guarded her tinsel soles. They screamed at me.
The rest of the ensemble wasn’t much different. A white spandex version of the "little black dress" hugged her body. "At least her underwear is covered", I muttered, "but I definitely would NOT wear such a garment with that kind of an ass" – you know, the small-and-skinny-but-sort-of-droopy kind. A short jeans jacket at least partially hid the plunging neckline (why do they call it a NECK line when it so clearly isn’t?). A loud cotton-candy colored chiffon scarf hung over that.
"Makeup and hair courtesy of The Rocky Horror Picture Show", I muttered again.
Short, spiky black-dyed hair with its gel sparkling under the mall lights framed her face. Large hooded eyes were made larger with blue-black eyeshadow and heavy black eyeliner and mascara and the lines of her face were made almost gaunt thanks to muddy blush (rouge, my mother called it). It was clear that this young woman had never had the benefit of modern-day orthodontics in childhood; the narrow jaw did nothing to enhance her long white teeth, not quite contained in the black-lined lips stained purple.
Dan had not even noticed until I pointed her out to him. With restrained amusement, he asked politely if that was what I had been staring at. I could not believe that he had totally missed it.
"She looks like she is trying to be a model," I said. "Maybe she is? Or maybe just a wannabe," I added, a little crestfallen.
"More likely the latter," Dan commented. He is the master of understatement, an Israeli who spent his adolescence and adulthood in England. He was trained by the best. You can tell.
We were sitting at a café in the Negev Mall in Beersheva, sipping coffee and congratulating ourselves and each other on the salad and salmon we had chosen in deference to our new diet. I love people-watching and Thursday had been no exception. As we shared our pains and our pleasures while giving our agonized feet a break, I had been recounting with relish the deal I had just cut on a purchase in the Bedouin market. The vendor (a Bedouin, naturally) had started at 100 NIS on a feenjon that was definitely not worth the price, but one that I liked.
"So I started to walk away," I was telling Dan (who had gracefully excused himself when I began to haggle and silently drifted away from that embarrassing American woman), "and the guy called me back. He came down to 90, which was ridiculous. I told him 50. He refused and said I had no idea what a valuable article this was, a "real" Bedouin coffee pot. I laughed. And told him that I lived in Drijet (a so-far "unrecognized" Bedouin village in the south of Israel). Of course he did not believe me, but chuckled and said he knew a lot of people there. So I chuckled too, and asked him if he knew the Abu Hamad family and if so, which one. Suddenly his eyes changed in some imperceptible way and he brought the price much closer, to 65. Of course I still refused and insisted on the 50, and said so in Arabic. That must have been the clincher, because he immediately came down to 50. ("yahLAH! Because you are ONE OF US!") I had such fun!!"
Dan had just asked what my husband Sinai would say to my new purchase. "Oh, he won’t even know for a while," I said airily. "He will kill me for spending money when we are so broke, especially this close to Pesach. I will just ditch it in the closet and then put it in the kitchen when he is not around. He will never notice it, trust me."
Madame Model was giving her escort a run for his money, literally. A good six inches shorter, he was nonetheless broad-shouldered and muscular, the breadth of his chest emphasized by the heavy India cotton v-neck pullover. He feigned interest in every piece of jewelry she examined – and she examined them all, in each of the three stores ringing the cafe.
I could not for the life of me take my eyes off that scene, my gaze returning to the glitter every few minutes. Dan was vastly amused, pointing out mildly that there was nothing very special about this young woman; she certainly was not beautiful in any way, certainly not in face and not even in form.
Poor Dan. I was obsessed. "Are you STILL thinking about those boots?" he finally asked with some incredulity. He just did not understand my childish nature so I decided to explain it to him.
"Look," I told him, "I have always loved glitter, even as a little girl. This is just a more grown-up version of it. I know it is gaudy... " my voice trailed off at his expression, a funny mixture of amusement and disbelief.
"Tacky, more to the point," he murmured.
"Alright already." I was still involved in watching the jewelry expedition. A saleslady was giving it her all, miming her client fastening the necklace at her throat, gesturing with bracelet in hand and talking up a storm. Said client did not appear impressed, bending to pick up a pair of earrings with apparent disinterest. A few minutes later, they were out and heading for the next display case, this time checking out the fancy watches.
"You are REALLY very taken with this woman, aren’t you?" Dan said in distaste. It was palpable, in fact, and I did my best to rein it in. "Yes. But I will behave now." I smiled at him. It was time to go anyway. We still had to shop for a sofa for Dan’s new apartment and still had to be back in time to actually sign the lease.
We headed toward the mall entrance, droopy ass and bubblegum boots gone but not forgotten – at least by me.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Hey, that's me! Posted by Hello

My kids love Zarifi. They especially love her "khobez" -- Bedouin pita bread. I learned how to make it and bake that first week I stayed in the village, and throwing a twig on the coals was all I needed to do to make that fire mine. When my family came to Israel to live, we spent our first month living with Zarifi, her husband Younis (my first Bedouin friend), two of their kids (the others were already married) and various assorted grandchildren. Goldy and Zalmy, pictured here with Zarifi and breakfast on the move, learned how to get up at the crack of dawn to ensure they got their fair share. Posted by Hello

My Bedouin sister Zarifi in a moment of reflection. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Dust Storm

A couple of days ago the sky blocked the sun, transforming it into a faint white disk hanging weakly above the hills. The air was caramel-colored and the wind whipped around our yard, knocking over lawn chairs, children... anything unanchored, basically.
Our dog Sussi had enough sense to lay low, only her nose raised, eyes squinting with cautious curiosity.
"It's a summer wind," my ten year old explained, shouting above the roar of the dry gale. The boy from across the street nodded agreement with my 7 and 8 year olds following suit. "It means that this is the first day of summer," he added.
I have always thought of dust storms as transitory events that happen only in the Midwestern Plains in the U.S. An hour or two, no more -- but not here in the vortex of the universe.
Like everything else in Israel, this storm was more intense, lasted longer and felt like an ancient memory welling up from my soul, one that reminding me of the trek from Egypt to the thunder of the Ten Commandments.
The storm lasted all day long and into the night, covering leaves and flowers with a dusty, flour-like coat. Greenhorn that I am, I found it fascinating, its cool wind outweighing the bother of the sand. So like a fool I left my bedroom windows open, all of them, screens rattling, storm howling and the dog silent in the face of its fury. I fell asleep to its music, in fact -- only to awaken an hour later because it was difficult to breathe.
Belatedly I remembered Zarifi, my Bedouin sister, closing the metal shutters regardless of the temperature outside when the dust storms raged through the village. Too warm inside? Live with it, baby. The alternative was my current ability to breathe freely as she well knew, not to mention the film now gracing the walls, floor and furniture in our house.
I tend to learn the hard way and it sometimes takes a while till the lesson sinks in.
My husband, on the other hand, is smarter. He got up and closed the windows.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Running For The Bus

The Number 5 bus from the Central Bus Station to Ben Gurion University in Beersheva was at the bus stop and I was still 100 feet away. I made a run for it; in Arad, the driver would have seen me and STOPPED TO LET ME ON. Not so this time.
In Beersheva, where the local Metropol bus drivers have been on strike for months now, protesting their minimum wage salaries with no benefits, drivers who ARE working have become hardened to humanity.
It is an unusual behavior for Israeli bus drivers, who are known for their friendly and accommodating attitude. Or maybe it's just the Egged drivers who are that way, I don't know. I have never ridden with another company until I started working in Beersheva.
I really needed to catch that bus, and I was irritated that the driver was looking right at me and still planning to drive right by. So I stepped out in front of the bus. I figured, if I block him, he will be forced to stop. And if he has to stop, he has to let me on.
It was a power struggle, but he finally gave in because I behaved like an Israeli. I wouldn't give up and I didn't give in. At last the door opened. "Next time I might just run you over, no matter what you do," he greeted me sourly.
"I don't understand you," I replied with some asperity of my own. "I am RIGHT THERE, literally a few feet away, you have barely pulled away from the curb, and you can't even stop like a mentsch to let me on? What IS this??!!!"
He then explained that the bus is really run by a computer which effectively locks the doors once he has closed them after the last passenger boards. There is a seven-second delay programmed before it will reopen so the driver can't just stop to let anyone on...
Uh huh. Interesting buses this company uses, I said. But it still did not explain his hard-boiled attitude, and I told him so.
"Look," he said. "I am working 12 hour days just to make a minimal salary, one that any cleaning lady can make. (I could relate to that; my husband is in the same boat, but he travels almost an hour each way to and from work.) "The guys who are on strike, they haven't worked for months. I don't know how they are living. But I can't afford to do that. It has been almost two years since I have had a job. They hired me because the regular driver is on strike. My family is desperate."
I didn't want to point out that some people would call him a scab -- but a moment later, I didn't have to. "You wouldn't believe some of the things people say to me," he added sadly. "An old lady spit at me, another cursed me out. Even kids. Teens now are not what we were. I would never have dared to speak to an adult, much less a stranger, the way these kids so casually do today, without even a flicker of conscience." I agreed with him there. I had seen it for myself on the same bus the week before. The kids were absolute pigs, nasty too.
"After a while," he continued, "you don't trust anyone and you don't like anyone either. You just want to get through the day and go to sleep and forget it all. That is what this country has come to. That is what we have been driven to."
I was shocked and saddened. True, I had seen some of this myself; but I never expected to hear it so bluntly from a bus driver. Now I knew something was seriously, badly wrong here.
"This can't last," I said. "There is an anger, a sense of hopelessness and a loss of focus and ideals, that is killing this country. Something has got to give."
"Hope it's soon," he said. "Don't know where we will be if it doesn't." When we got to the university, I quietly wished him well. He smiled, the first one I had seen on the trip. "Have a nice day," he said.
I was glad to get home to Arad, where the bus driver still stops when he sees me running, regardless of where in the street I am -- where my kids can still get on the bus if they don't have the fare, and are told by the driver to have their mom drop by the bus station later to pay for the trip.
In Arad, the drivers are friendly and regardless of how bad things get, they can always find some kind of word of hope to tell you, to let you know that in the long run, it's all in G-d's Hands anyway. And He is big enough to handle it.
Nice to be back in Arad.