Adama, Ve Shamayim, Tsil Ha Mayim

I am myself and what is around me, and if I do not save it, it will not save me. — Josέ Ortega y Gasset

Adventures Continued; or, how britney spears is calling me back to America 23/08/2009

Filed under: Arava — tsilhamayim @ 1:12 pm

I said “farewell” to Ketura (but not “so long”, I’ll be back) and am winding up my summer in Israel. Saying goodbye was both challenging and natural- i woke early my last day and went for one last long hike and walk about the Kibbutz, stopping to say goodbye to those I can’t really keep in touch with- the horses, the camels, the cats and the cows. My morning was punctuated by a visit with my favorite family on the kibbutz, my adopted family. Never failing to make me feel welcome, Erez helped me purchase my bus ticket up north (“If I help you, I can make sure you’ll actually leave!” he joked) and I had my goodbyes with the little ones. When I arrived at their house, Maya was mid-temper-tantrum, but after crying it out, she declared it time to dry her tears and carry on with her day. (Though I’m not looking forward to the terrible-twos of my niece, it is comforting to see that hysterics tend to be intense but brief, and smiles and sunshine return just as quickly as the storm clouds arrived in the first place). Maya was sad to hear that I was going on a trip (though seemed excited that I was taking an airplane), and gave me the worlds biggest, messiest, toddler hug- complete with sticky hands and a giant slobbery cottage cheese filled kiss on the cheek.  Yonaton, already an old hat at those that come and go, nonchalantly wished me safe travels, but seemed far more preoccupied with his breakfast and plans of becoming an olympic athlete/ robot builder. At almost five months, Eli simply looked at me and drooled, but I think we had a moment- after all, I am sure he’s already planning his future courtship with Annie, as he has heard so much about this American baby who is 8 pounds lighter and one day older than he.

After one final show down with the sun at the pool– trust me, the sun won; my tan lines are, perhaps, permanent, I headed on my way north. Well, easier said than done I suppose.

Instead of a straight shot to Jerusalem, I ended up taking a bus to Tel Aviv and then a sharut (a shared taxi) from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In the end, my bus ride was fairly uneventful- in Israel the bus stops and picks up as many people as they deem appropriate, which usually translates to people standing in the aisles for long trips across the country. Since I am more of a fan of sitting down on a bus (and, let’s face it, in general) I opted for not flagging down the bus to Jerusalem, and thus ended up with a ticket purchased towards Tel Aviv. Usually people just sit where ever they please- after all, we’re all going to the same place!- but midway through the trip someone came to my seat and informed me that it was theirs. I collected my belongs (which at that point included, for some unfathomable reason, a very large ice cream i purchased at the first rest stop, forgetting that ice cream is not such a storable treat on a bus traveling through the desert) and headed up the aisle to kick someone else out of their seat. My seat was occupied by two boys who had bonded over an apparent mistrust of personal hygiene and a lack of understanding of the concept of personal space. I spent much of the next hour flanked by the BO twins, with one sitting next to me and one standing next to me, breathing calmly through my mouth and hoping a well placed elbow or two might convince them to scatter.

When I arrived in Tel Aviv, I somehow managed to lug my bags through the very large and completely unorganized bus station (–a bus station so over the top that even Erez admitted that he finds it to be an overwhelming place). This would not have been possible without the help of a nice man who at one point grabbed my bags, tossed them over the fence (don’t worry, i was working on getting that direction) and said in an accent so thick it was practically dripping with hummus, “don’t worry! be happy!”.  The ride to Jerusalem brought me within a 15 minute walk of my friend Ari’s house, and with the help of two more Israeli’s, I managed to get my stuff to his apartment. (These Israelis explained that they wanted to help me carry my bags as the Torah says you should help people, and also, carrying my bags proved that they were not women, but in fact MEN. They went on to explain that they were brothers who lived together and also shared a bed, but, i shouldn’t worry, they “did not have the sex” as they were both guys. I was thankful for their help, but after their repeated instances that they were, in fact, not sissies, gay or [other more insulting slurs] I decided to not invite them to meet my friends, and sent them on their merry way).

I am now settled back in Jerusalem and I couldn’t be happier. Perhaps it was the semester I spent here as my first introduction to this backwards, upside down, topsy turvy country, but nothing feels more like ISRAEL, or like home, than Jerusalem. Even with its hustle and bustle, it’s crazy Orthodox population that stares daggers when I dare dance in the street or talk on the phone during Shabbat, the vague smells of urine and the large masses of drunken Americans, I love this city. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I just looked up from my computer and noticed a large group of monks walking past the cafe where I’m sitting. When you’re feeling lost about your own purpose, a large influx of holiness sometimes has a calming effect.

Jerusalem is also home to my favorite rabbinical students. I’ll be here for the next two days visiting with my friend Ari, an old friend from Hillel days and his group of friends. I’ve adopted a few of them as my own friends, and will miss them greatly when I return to the states. Last night we headed to the city center to enjoy some french fries and jazz music at a club where one of their cohorts often performs (jams?). A perfect return to city life, it will be quite hard to pack my things and head onwards again in less than 48 hours. Luckily, in less than a week I’ll be seeing Britney Spears in concert with my former (but forever domesticated partner of my heart) roommate Ellen. And really, for all of it’s grandeur, I’m not sure if even the holy land can compete with the princess of pop.


Today is… 20/08/2009

Filed under: Arava — tsilhamayim @ 10:10 am

my last (official) day in the office….

However, as the Arava EC&T North American Liaison, it is not so long or farewell to the work.


to answer the question… 19/08/2009

Filed under: Arava — tsilhamayim @ 7:34 pm

Yes. I am sad to be leaving. I have felt far more of a community and a purpose here than I do in Boston. Even though I have had a fairly solitary summer, the friends I have made have felt like family. The work I do here feels like momentum, both for the environmental cause and the cause of moving my own life forward.

but… that’s okay. I still have miles to go before I sleep, and a beautiful niece to pick up and dote on, and a very handsome cat to roll around and be upside down with.

The goal now is a simple one- figure out what it was here that felt like home, and create a community in Boston. I needed this summer, and this stark realization of what might be lacking in my life, to figure out where my priorities are… and I can use that knowledge to go back to boston and create a community and a purpose for myself there.

Who’s with me? OPERATION BE HAPPY WHERE YOU ARE STARTS NOW. (I’ll be making t-shirts.)


Today is…

Filed under: Arava — tsilhamayim @ 9:38 am

my second to last day at the office.


Seeking life in the desert, on the desert’s terms 17/08/2009

Filed under: Arava — tsilhamayim @ 2:15 pm

Vine and fig tree: Restoring agriculture in the Holy Land Seeking life in the desert, on the desert’s terms.

 As the global climate becomes more harsh, Elaine Solowey is a botanical pioneer trying to develop ultra-low water crops before it’s too late.

By Yigal Deutscher

From the bus window I read the words: kaved et eema admah. Honor Mother Earth. The large black letters are graffiti scrawl on the wall of an ancient, crumbling stone home, standing solitary where the outskirts of Jerusalem meets the country’s Negev desert. Neem trees native to India proudly pop out of the assembled landscape of Elaine Solowey’s experimental desert orchard. Everything seems to me a dreamscape in the oppressive heat. There is a 15-minute break at the Dead Sea. Bathroom and lunch at the lowest point on Earth. The scent of sulfur from the green body of water becomes a taste, finding its way into my water and avocado/veggie sandwich, residing in my lungs, in my stomach, as my body tries to digest it. The bus moves on. The ground is full of crevices, falling out in places and rising up again, randomly and unexpectedly, at extreme degrees. The desert wears the face of a glacier, resplendent beige replacing icy blue. At other times, the ground is flat, speckled, as if it were the hide of an enormous animal, with blotches of dull dusty green. The bus descends into the Arava Valley. To the east is Jordan, marked by the rugged, towering peaks of the Edom Mountains. To the west, the Israeli desert, rising up to a high plateau.

No shoes – no work

My first stop is the orchard of Elaine Solowey. I arrive in sandals, ready to thrust them aside and sink my bare feet into the sandy earth. This foolishness is quickly apparent. “Where are your working boots and gloves?” is the immediate greeting received after hello. My first morning with Elaine was spent transplanting a variety of cactuses from one bed to another, making room for a significant enlargement of the compost pile, now that her community, Kibbutz Ketura, is separating food wastes, sending them her way. We used a tractor to pull out the plants, with a thick rope tied around the base of the stalks. It took four people to carry each one. We had some problems with a spiny, 300-pound, 5-foot tall stenocereus thurberi (Organ pipe cactus) from Mexico. As we struggled, Elaine explained. “The plant produces fruit with intense medicinal properties, dilating the blood vessels and cooling off body temperature at a rapid speed. No one wants to experiment with this stuff. The fruit is closely related to peyote, just without the hallucinogenic side effects.” I asked if the plant’s native region was similar to the Negev Desert. She glared at me as if I were a complete idiot. “Their climates have nothing in common. That’s the point — to test their adaptability.” By this time the marks on my hands resembled the stigmata. My eyes darted everywhere at once like a child lost in a supermarket. Everything about this orchard is intimidating: the fact that Elaine refers to every plant by its Latin name; the fact that her land is 100 dunam (25 acres) but seems impossibly larger. Or maybe it’s just Elaine herself, and her glares, like the one I got — like a smack in the face — for not knowing about the stenocereus thurberi. Admittedly, she classifies herself as an acquired taste, “like whiskey and oysters.”

California refugee Elaine grew up in Modesto, California, a granddaughter and niece to farmers on every side of the family. She thinks back to her school years and cringes. “In those days everyone was shooting up in the bathroom and the worst insult you could give anyone was to call them a farmer.” No one around her grew organic; “the spray planes dominated the air, as many as there were birds.”

Her weekends were spent at her family’s orchards, where she picked cherries, almonds, and peaches. When she came to Israel, it was to help with apple orchards in the north. “We were constantly getting shelled by the Syrians.” Sleeping in damp bomb shelters every night did two things to here — gave her pneumonia and turned her into a Zionist. “I headed south looking for a drier climate and a place to work with trees.” The desert became her home.

Each day spent with Elaine brought new curiosities. “Why do you ask such shallow questions?” she asks me. That glare again, every time I inquired about her past. What I came to realize in my week with Elaine is that this woman is a scientist with a mission, not just a farmer. Her work is driven not by fluffy romantic notions but by a sense of practical urgency. We talked about modern agriculture and her words were glazed with bitter animosity. Farming lacks needed respect, skills, and resources; it is an art that has been co-opted by a corrupt science. Rural communities are disintegrating; urban centers swell while advertising a false sense of security and abundance. The poor of the world are left with even poorer soil quality or no land at all. Top soils are being blown away. The desert is slowly spreading across the Earth. “The well-being of the world depends on agricultural stability and health. No one seems to understand this,” she says. Her main worry concerns biodiversity – or, rather, the lack of it — in industrialized farming. What initiated the original shift from collection to cultivation were the foods that were easy to harvest, easy to process. “Today, we are dealing with the same small food possibilities, confined to a menu designed in the Stone Age. Crops are being lost all the time as the general consensus is to plant the same megacrops, all with genetic uniformity.” And the simpler we get, the more vulnerable we are. She refers to the epidemic that hit the corn fields of the United States in the 1970s. “Modern man is the most helpless creature on the planet.” And it all sounds quite depressing. 

 Conditions in Israel’s desert do not support conventional agriculture. The climate brings extreme heat in the summer months, from April until September. The ground is rich in minerals and, therefore, is a salty planting base. It is completely dry except for the short winter months. When the heavens do occasionally break and rains fall, the waters run along a landscape with hardly any vegetation, supported by a soil that is not very porous. Before percolating into the ground, the waters have absorbed all available minerals and have become highly saline. Most of the communities living here have decided to challenge the situation given them by establishing an alternative climate. Rows and rows of hoop houses, perfect in their vertical and horizontal components, stand like self-contained plastic cities. Salt-tolerant date palms have been embraced as the overwhelming cash crop; plantations sprawl across the desert, green anomalies against beige undulations. Elaine is not interested in any of this. Her orchard is grounds for experimentation, where her prophesy of The Second Domestication is slowly playing itself out. There are 500 types of trees (20 of which are endangered), five ancient grains, and 50 cactus species. They are all indigenous to the wilds of Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. The plants arrive by mail or by hand delivery from collectors, exchangers, traders, and other like-minded folks from around the globe. Seeking desert compatibles “These crops have all been ignored by agribusiness, because they are not considered important enough to ‘own.’ No corporate giant has ‘improved’ them. No research organization has claimed them. There is no fee for their use.” They are poor man’s gold in Elaine’s eyes. What they all have in common in the capability to be compatible with desert conditions. If they are to adapt successfully, they all must become drought resistant and salt tolerant. In particular, Elaine is interested in perennials that are non-invasive, require low tillage to establish or maintain, and have high overall value as food, medicine, or timber. “These crops have all been ignored by agribusiness, because they are not considered important enough to ‘own.’ No corporate giant has ‘improved’ them. No research organization has claimed them. There is no fee for their use.” They will serve as a source of livelihood for those left on the periphery by the development of modern agriculture. They will be traded through grassroots community efforts, passed along from one family member to the next. They will be grown in backyards and front yards as a homegrown source of empowerment and nourishment. But before all this, the successful crops fit Israel perfectly well. A prediction believed by many is that the continuous over-pumping and wasteful usage of freshwater resources will wipe out the Israeli people sooner than any Palestinian conflict. For example, the citrus tree, popular in Israeli agriculture, demands 60 to 65 cubic meters of water per year. The pitaya, a sweet cactus fruit of deep purple or brilliant pink, native to Central America but adapted by Elaine, only requires half a cubic meter all year. “There are cats that drink more than that.” Monitors track plant functions The process is orderly and exact. Germplasms arrive and are grown in a quarantine site, mutually protecting the plant and host region from exotic insects. After one year, the trees of the same species are transplanted into the orchard with varying amounts of compost and mulch, a test of fertilizer needs and damage susceptibility. Faster-growing species are planted to shade slower-growing species. A windmill generates enough electricity to run a PhyTech monitoring system. Leaf temperature, sap flow, stem diameter, soil moisture, soil temperature, total radiation, wind speed, air temperature, and evaporation rate is measured for each tree until fruits appear. Drip irrigation is necessay in desert farming. Water from a sprinkler systems will evaportate before the plant can absorb it. Drip irrigation piping snake along the base of the trees, meeting and overlapping in geometric patterns. In the heat of the desert, evaporation is faster than absorption; watering by sprinkler would leave mineral residue on the leaves. Rows of thickly planted tamarisk trees act as windbreaks, a crucial component due to the powerful winds and sandstorms that come with each change of season. These trees aid in pest management as well. The tamarisks absorb salt into its leaves, which fall to create a protective barrier against pests. The tree is also a host for many beneficial insects. The Mediterranean fruit fly is the main pest of the area, attacking all fruits in the region except those with a hard shell. “We just have to take necessary precautions. Compost correctly so the flies aren’t attracted. Don’t allow fallen fruits to rot on the ground. We have traps with pheromones that lead them to poison. Sterile males are released.” The insect is taken so seriously by farmers in the area that the regional agricultural counsel mails out a scorecard every week sharing the numbers caught and killed. I have gotten lost in this orchard many times. In these wanderings, I have been introduced to a heady mixture of plants that I have never before seen. The neem has been used for thousands of years in India, its bark, seeds, and leaves collected for medicinal and pest repellant usages; the marula of South Africa produces a sweet fruit that can be fermented into wine, liquor and beer; the argania, native to Morocco, has been respected for its high quality oil since the 12th century; the fruit of the mustard caper is collected by Egyptian Bedouins and processed into jelly. There are grains, as well. Quinoa, finger millet, and kiwicha, of the amaranth family, are highly nutritious and rich in protein. The exotic landscape before me spreads out like an agricultural dreamscape; this listing is so incomplete I consider wiping it out. Riding with an ancient warrior Every morning I find space in the wagon of a tractor, amongst irrigation piping, hoes, clippers, and a mess of other miscellaneous objects, for the short ride to the orchard. Sardar, Elaine’s assistant, originally from Turkey, drives the tractor. Sitting with me is Chana, a regular volunteer who must be at least 80 years old. She looks like an ancient warrior with her pruning shears and Buddy Holly glasses. We arrive. They vanish, absorbed in their own responsibilities. Alone and in need of direction, I wait for Elaine, who is walking. Today, we are busy with a part of the orchard I have not yet seen. Besides cacti, grains, and trees, there are also 100 medicinal species. They are native to Israel’s Negev, grown for the Natural Medicines Unit of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. “There was this doctor working with skin cancers. He would come by, fill up his VW beetle with my aloe vera plants and drive off.” Elaine is not sure what ever came of it but her name must have stuck with the hospital personnel. She was contacted again to work on their Tibetan medicine research team. Tibetan Medicine is an ancient system of medical preparations based on plant substances. Her gripe with Western medicine reminds me of the Phish song, “Sand.” “You can heal the symptoms and not affect the cause; it’s kind of like trying to heal a gunshot wound with gauze.” Elaine receives specific orders from the hospital; her job is to locate and cultivate them. Many of the plants are found in the wild, in one wadi or another. These are the main water channels in the desert, where the flashfloods flow and the only vegetation is found. A tree for the Dalai Lama She tells me a story. “One day a car drove up to the orchard and asked me to get in, the Dalai Lama wants to see me. I was shocked. He had come to Israel to inaugurate the project. I grabbed a pitaya from the tree and ended up giving it to him as a present.” Her features soften and she savors the moment. She has nothing against the Dalai Lama. Elaine collects seeds from one of the over 500 plants species that grow in her orchard.

We walk through the garden armed with plastic baggies for collecting seeds. Before we descend like monkeys picking off ticks from their companions, she points out the plants. I can recall a few. There is pulicaria, an herb that she says will be the prime treatment for asthma one day. Artemisia, a plant that has the potential to replace antibiotics. Achillea, which might be applicable in the treatment of skin cancer. Elaine has high confidence in her predictions. The salty condition of the desert does wonders to the plants. As a defense mechanism, essential oils are concentrated and the plant becomes more potent than any of the same species growing elsewhere. The teas prove it. “Farming didn’t go sour yesterday. This has been a process that began years ago and is just recently starting to snowball. We spray until we need to spray double until we must create plants that can absorb what would otherwise be lethal doses of chemicals.” We separate and collect. The domestication process cannot focus specifically on the nicest looking plants. The goal is not an end product uniform in size, taste, texture, and color. Rather, it is to retain the wild qualities of the plant- its hardiness and disease resistance. “They are still so genetically diverse and flexible,” she says, and it begins to sink even further what potential I am surrounded by. As we label and add to her seed bank, I realize how the logic behind Western medicine seems to fit perfectly with the way modern agriculture is developing. Farming didn’t go sour yesterday. This has been a process that began years ago and is just recently starting to snowball. We spray until we need to spray double until we must create plants that can absorb what would otherwise be lethal doses of chemicals. We are creating supposed solutions without ever addressing the problem. Elaine refers to the science of genetic modification as genetic imperialism, “playing God without Godly wisdom.” Scientists are stubborn “I am scared to think of the new symptoms which are soon to descend upon us,” she admits. “The scientists behind GM know it’s all a load of bulls–t. But scientists are the most stubborn people in the world. They will never admit to their mistakes.” She speaks as a scientist herself. Her basic research on desert plants is “harder than it has to be.” Her main funding right now comes from a US-supported Middle East Regional Cooperation Program. It involves working simultaneously with a sister site in Morocco, testing and trading 10 tree species. “Everyone expects results immediately. In the natural, answers come more slowly. It can take three generations, twenty years to see if a tree can be properly domesticated.” The American grant comes as an enormous money bag, divided over three years. “What I really need is little moneys over a long period of time.” The orchard must grow; its space cannot contain this woman’s energy, overflowing into her lunch and dinner, into her writing and teaching and dreaming. I drown in it, a raw and contagious force, the brutal honesty and creative powers of an agricultural resurrection.

Beyond the orchard, past Elaine’s home and the kibbutz, is a trail that climbs up the plateau. I have never reached the top. Long before that, my senses are overwhelmed by the view surrounding me. The mountains of Jordan have become red and purple. Israel is lost in shadow. The air is sandy and the sun seems one-dimensional, taped to the sky by a loving child. Everything below seems solitary, silent, in awe of grand surroundings. The land below is far from desolate. The desert is full of life. There is a clear language contained in it all, the earth whispering to those sensitive enough to discern it. It makes the desert a livable, even comfortable place. It is something Elaine understands very well.

Yigal Deutscher is a freelance writer. He is also a Permaculture activist and a religious Jew exploring time and space for connections between the earth and Jewish spirituality. Readers may contact him at


When I leave the desert…. 16/08/2009

Filed under: Arava — tsilhamayim @ 4:14 pm

When I leave the desert I will miss saying things like, “oh, its 104 degrees out, but it only feels like 101.”


You are here; or, remembering where you hung your hat 12/08/2009

Filed under: Arava — tsilhamayim @ 4:46 pm

The past 24 hours have been an exercise in flourishing within fatigue. Sometimes I wish we could function more like a computer, where a screen saver could take over and save some battery life, offering a bit of a break to the operating system. I suppose that’s where day dreaming comes into play, and if there’s one thing I can speak to with any authority it’s the necessity of the wandering mind.

Lately I’ve come back time and time again to the maps show in old movies, the type that demonstrate the travels of the hero. Usually depicted with a thick red line, bouncing from place to place, we see the globe spin and the touch down in a new location. Visualizing my location is not so much an opportunity for mindfulness as it is a way of approaching the surreal of being so far away from home. The large flashing arrow and neon “You Are Here” sign sometimes knock the wind right out of me, but if they weren’t there I’m pretty sure I’d find a way to walk around with blinders, concentrating on the negatives and the mundane instead of the awe.

One of my first mornings at Ketura I decided I wanted to walk through the date orchards here at the kibbutz. I was warned not to veer off the path, and not to walk over any sand that had a raked path. Why? Because I’d be too close to the Jordanian border.  I’d be so close, in fact, that there would be a good chance that an Israeli solider might track me back to the Kibbutz based on shoe prints just to ensure that there was no suspect reason for my wanderings in the desert. That conversation was a giant, flashing, bold YOU ARE HERE.

Within the last few days I’ve spent Shabbat in Jerusalem, enjoyed havdallah overlooking the old city, met amazing new people, tried new foods, visited friends from yesteryears (both recent and more yester) watched the waves of the Mediterranean, walked along the shores from the sleepy old city of Yafo to the busily city of Tel Aviv, and enjoyed (well, mostly enjoyed) a four hour bus ride through the desert and past the Dead Sea. I’m back now to my desert home, with the red mountains of Jordan right across the road.  I breathed a sense of relief when the bus driver pulled up to our gate. “Back to the grind”, I thought, followed quickly by the looming pit in the stomach that usually accompanies the realization that there’s a pile of work to be done.

“YOU ARE HERE”, reminded the screensaver of my wandering mind. “Half a world away from where you usually hang your hat, another home”, read the map’s legend. Our minds wander, and we travel through our imagination. It’s easy to forget the big picture. It’s easy to dwell in the anxiety. Take a moment to shut things down, and focus on where you are. Trust me. It’s worth it.