Saturday, April 19, 2003


I was invited to Pesach (~the Jewish Passover) dinner (called Seder) by Efrat. Efrat lives in Arad, a small town at the edge of Israel. It's also on the edge of the syrian-african rift valley, perked on a series of valleys and hills. Arad is situated at the confluence of three biogeographic zones: the Negev desert to the south, the judean desert to the north and the Judean plains to the west and the flora and fauna reflect this. I've been to Arad around 4 times before, but i never really went around town till this time. Arad is one of the few towns in israel thats been constructed in a more or less planned manner and is still aesthetic and pleasing to live in. I mean, Beer sheva, though it received some sort of european prize for being the "best" planned city etc, is still ugly. I had a couple of hours to spare before the seder began and so i thought i would just walk around. Efrat's house can almost be considered typical of the neighbourhood. With its pleasent design and craftwork, an immaculate lawn and an abundance of plants, its really an oasis in the truest sense of the term. -kannigey habba-. It is situated at the very edge of Arad: look out through the window and you see rolling hills all the way to Jordan. You can even sense that the dead sea is somewhere in that direction. I went to a few neighbourhoods around Efrat's place. All of them were characterized by clean fastidiously well kept houses. I think the average arad resident is extremely houseproud. The lawns are well maintained, there are always some garden ornaments scattered around the ,well, garden. One guy even had a huge medieval looking wooden wagon installed, but most of the others made do with statues and wind sculptures. Oh yes, they all had dogs which barked at me. Dont know if that means something. Anyway, i kept walking roads at random, and once ended up in a dead end- where a wooden bench invited me to sit and gather my breath as i stared at the panorama in front of me. The air was so still: even to me (ie Sede boqer is still enough on any average day, but this being Pesach and all, it was extra quiet).

I finally wound my way to the city center and as i saw the shops of the commercial sector realised what was missing: there are no small shops. Its not a walker friendly town. But to clarify: its very nice to recreational walkers: you can go for hours on extremely pleasent winding roads abundantly littered with cool benches and shady seats, but if you want to pop over to the neighbouhood coffee shop- well you need a car. Its a car based city; and not even bicycles are much fun because there are enough ups and downs to keep you tired. I spoke to Efrat about it and she said that while it was true that the roads are inconvenient to get from point to point, but as kids they always took shortcuts through the valleys. Which seems pretty reasonable. But i suppose its only the car-less who do this. I reached the center and stopped for a coffee and as it was getting late, I headed back.

Pesach is celebrated to remind the Jews of the flight from Egypt, to escape the tyranny of the Pharoah. This festival is really special to the Jews because it was the first time they came together as a nation. Last year, Efrat had given me an english "Haggadah", the prayer book that everyone reads from on seder night so i could follow the ceremony. Efrat's father was presiding over the ceremony and read most of the story. Tthe ceremony is targeted towards children and some parts of it are acted out by the youngest one in the family. Pesach ceremonially renacts the time the israelites spent wandering in the wilderness before they found the promised land, and so the food, the drink everything is supremely charged with symbolic meaning. For example: baking bread is forbidden for Pesach and so the eating of "matzot" -unleavened bread is to symbolize the fact that the fleeing israelites did not eat baked bread. I wont relate all the details but you can read about it here.Anyway, the ceremony breaks off midway for dinner and then resumes after all is eaten and the afikoman (a piece of matzot that had been previously hidden in order to be found by the youngest one in the family. The ceremony cannot proceed till the afikoman has been found and so it effectively guarantees the participation of the young ones) is found. The ceremony ended with songs, that were so repetitive and rhyming that i remembered them from last year. We finished at around 1pm and i had eaten so much i crashed almost instantly into sleep; something which is becoming really hard for me to do these days.

The next day we (Efrat and me) went travelling. The first place we stopped at was to see see some irises near Tel Arad. The season was almost over, but there were still a few dark beauties poking their heads into the sun. Next we went to this place called Horvat Airon? i think. It was settlement from the time of the Jerusalem wall, but largely abandoned even by the tourist agencies. I cant blame them; Israel is filled with archeological sites-you cant dig anywhere without hitting somebody's ex-roof. The settlement consisted largely of a series of fenced plots of land under which there were caves. The caves were very cool, if smelly, and the floor was damp. We looked into a few caves and then headed on towards Sussiya.

Sussiya is another archeological settlement but it was pretty large and i think it was a substantial city in its day. I found it very hard to get information about this in english so i have only a vague idea about its chronology (i found the link just now :). But the site is very impressive. Sussiya covers around three hills and again its dominated by a series of caves and dwelling holes--hobbit like, but not as cute. There is a large synagogue with still intact mosaics depicting patterns and scenes from the bible.

Its something to stand on a viewpoint and see acres of crumbling rocks stretching ahead of you. Spring has begun here now, and so there were lots of flowers spilling all over the ancient stones. very idylllic and occasional shepherds with sheep wandered by to add that final touch of pastoral paradise. Of course it was hard to ignore the fact that the view from sussiya also included a glimpse of the peripheries of Hebron, an Arab city that is inside the Green Line (i.e Occupied territories, ie occupied by Israel since 1967). We wandered all around the settlement which was marked by another curious feature: it looked like it had been abandoned by the tourist people as well. Signs were scarce and scanty in explanation, we'd enter some cave-dwelling only to come upon works in progress. I think that due to the holiday there was nobody around and maybe they were doing a renovation or something.

Efrat's parents and family joined us later and walked around as well. They accompanied us to what i consider the best part of the settlement--a series of tunnels leading away from the synagogue to the surrounding hillside. We tried to find the connection between the two but the tunnels are truly labyrinths and with surprising twsists that lead you back to the same place. It was amazing. The one torch we had was too meagre for everybody and after a couple of hours of stumbling in the dark (well almost) we returned to the surface and the suddenly brilliant light. It was quite crazy and strange.

After lunch, we (E and me) continued on towards Har Amassa (Mt Amassa) which offers a panoramic view of the entire landscape. This mountain (well, hill really, its only 800m high above sea level, but the view is still impressive) looks over both the judean desert and the plains , so you could actually see a beautiful gradation from green to brown, with the city of Arad showing its spires in the distance. Mt Amassa is also at the edge of the Yatir forest. The previous sentence is carefully worded like this because the forest is planted by the Jewish National Fund. They planted 3 million pine trees in 30000 acres of land and consequently it is the largest forest in israel. I am not so much of a purist to object to this: it IS pleasant to walk amidst trees even if they be man made. There was a kibbutz near the top of the montain: where Efrat swears she'll make her home. We stayed there watching the shadows creep across the land, and soon it was dusk. The day had fled past me. We went back to arad then,and i ate a hurried meal before boarding the bus back home. Watching the night reveal pools of light around every curve: settlements dotting the desert landscape. Reminding me of the beautiful book of poems that was Efrat's gift to me for pesach: Yehuda Amichai's series of poems celebrating the Negev.