Thursday, December 30, 2010

Brutus Finds a Home

There are many homeless dogs in Mitzpe Ramon. Some are dumped here by uncaring owners, some beautiful animals, some mutts, all homeless, all looking for food and water. Mitzpe Ramon has no animal control officer or facilities to keep them. They wander the streets looking for handouts, eating garbage. When winter comes, most die of exposure. It's heartbreaking how people can be so cruel to their pets.

One homeless animal that kept coming around our apartment was a dog we called Brutus. He was huge, with giant paws and long legs who could cover a mile in a single stride, even with a game leg. He was a gentle giant. He would come up behind you and nuzzle your hand, never putting it in his mouth. We felt sorry for him and fed and watered him whenever he came around, despite my policy of not feeding homeless animals.

The other day Pam saw Brutus with a collar and leash in the company of people she had never seen before. It turns out they had returned to Mitzpe Ramon after a year abroad. Brutus was their pet who had run away from a family in whose charge they left him shortly after they left Israel. Hooray - Brutus had a home and family.

It turns out that Brutus was actually "Swift", so called because he liked to chew books as a puppy, and the first book he ate was Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels". It was a good name for a dog who could run so fast.

Brutus, aka "Swift", no longer homeless.

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Kodachrome: 1935-2010 RIP

Eastman Kodak Kodachrome 64 FilmsImage via WikipediaToday, Thursday December 30, 2010, the last roll of Kodachrome film will come off the processing machine at Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kansas, marking the end of the longest running color film in history. Kodachrome wasn't just any color film, it was the color transparency film of choice, making slides of incredible color and sharpness that were projected larger than life on screens all over the world for most of the 20th century. National Geographic would never have been National Geographic without this film.

It was my favorite color film for almost 20 years, until I stopped shooting film altogether in favor of digital. Digital was never better, but it was far more convenient. I remember when we moved to Palo Alto, CA in 1984 there was a Kodak film processing lab on Oregon Expressway just a mile from my house. I used to stop in on my way to work to drop off my Kodachrome slides to be developed. I was one of the lucky few who had a Kodachrome processing lab around the corner from my house. The old guys there would talk about film with reverence, all of us oblivious to the digital revolution that would blow film away in just 20 years. I used to experiment with getting the saturation of colors as deep as possible by decreasing the exposure 1/3rd stop in numerous increments. I will never forget the series of slides I took of a red fire hydrant in a California sunset in which the color just gets deeper and deeper as the exposure decreased until it was too low and the film blocked up. That last hydrant was a breathtaking, blazing red.

One thing I will never fully comprehend about this most popular color film of all time is its seemingly impossible origins: it was invented by two Jewish polymaths, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, Jr., who would go on to distinguished careers as American classical musicians, Mannes after studying physics at Harvard and who would become the head of the Mannes Institue of Music, founded by his parents. They invented it in their bathroom after studying color chemistry for many years on their own.

Thank G-d for the Jews.

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Monday, December 27, 2010

We Take Our Driving Tests

After taking two driving "unlearning" lessons we have been deemed fit to take our driving tests. For this a tester comes from Beer-Sheva to drive around with us and test our driving abilities. So, you can get a driver's license in Israel after driving and being tested on the streets of Mitzpe Ramon only, a town without a single traffic light, and then drive anywhere in Israel. Ok. The driving test also does not require that you park the car or drive in reverse. No doubt this is why backing up is the single most dangerous thing you can do in a car in Israel.

Pam takes her test with a teenage girl who is being re-tested after failing her first test. This is after 40 driving lessons, the usual number for a beginning driver. Apparently the tester yelled at the teenager about something, and after the test she is deathly afraid she has failed again. Three strikes and you have to take 40 more driving lessons. This is why they no longer tell you immediately if you have passed or failed the test. People used to pull guns and knives on the testers if they failed the test. I would, too, if I had to take another 40 driving lessons. Pam says she thought the girl drove fine, and didn't see any problems. As it turned out later, the teenager failed. Go know.

My test, like Pam's, was perfunctory. After all, I've been driving for twice the number of years that the tester has been alive. However, I consider it a singular achievement that I got him to tell me to drive faster. That after the driving instructor told me I have a lead foot.

Later that day Chavie was coming back from the market near the Cafeneto and she tells me, Guess what, you passed your driving test and so did Mommy. How did she know? Apparently, the tester had coffee at the 'Neto after he finished testing people and Oren, the manager, asked him if we passed. So, when I got home and Pam said Guess what? I said, We passed our driving tests. She was amazed that I already knew.

Such is life in Mitzpe Ramon.

Happy Trails to you. (Click for full size.)

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Fighting Lymphoma - An Update on Spot the Dog

Ever since his diagnosis of lymphoma in September, Spot the Dog has been going to the Be'er-Sheva Animal Hospital for chemotherapy. He is on the multi-drug protocol where his initial treatment was a different drug weekly for 8 weeks, followed by biweekly treatments for six months. He also takes prednisone daily with his lunch of challah and dog food.

His appetite, always big, has become huge and he eats enough table food at each meal for a healthy adult and then consumes 3-4 cups of dog food per day on top of that! So, I finally found a way to get Spot's vet to stop making me feel guilty about over feeding him and his over weight problem.

"Ok," says Dr. Marganit, "I'm not going to fight with you over a dying dog." :)

Fortunately he has not had any serious side effects from his treatments, no nausea or vomiting. His body hair has gotten a bit thin and the hair over his rump isn't growing back well since his haircut in October, but other than that his side effects appear minimal.

For his chemotherapy a small catheter is inserted into a vein in his leg into which his medecine is injected. His biggest problem is that he has old veins which are very small and hard to use, so sometimes he has to get punctured in each leg during a treatment to find a vein that will work. Dr. Marganit, his great vet, has to use a needle made for a kitten, his veins are so small! But she always manages to make it work.

Dr. Marganit and team prepare Spot the Dog for his chemotherapy. (Click for full size image.)

When he was first diagnosed he was very sick, sleeping all the day, high fever, anemia. Since his treatment began, his blood work is back to normal, although there are still nasties circulating in it. Now he is more like his old self, although he refuses to go on walks. He was even frolicking a bit the other day. He still sleeps alot, but now he is much more alert and engaged, especially at meal time. He doesn't like to be touched and petted much any more, and Donny is the only person he will let do that.

Yair is still on the outs with Spot, and sometimes when he doesn't think we're looking, he will try to give him a kick. Spot just moves away. Spot's external lymph nodes were very swollen when he first began his therapy, and now all but one have returned to normal. But just this week, that remaining swollen gland has shrunk alot, so we are quite encouraged by his response to his treatment.

Spot the Dog says "Arf" to all of his friends who send wishes for good health and a speedy recovery.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Driver's Unlearning Lessons

Having conquered the Israeli bureaucracy and gotten all of our paper work in order, we were now in a position to take our driving lessons before taking our driving test to get our Israeli driver's license. Or I should call them diver's unlearning lesson. This where you unlearn all of the (bad?) driving habits you developed over 45+ years of driving and learn to drive like an 18 year old teenager from Pasadena.

I remember a conversation with a Russian guard at the Ace hardware store in Beer-Sheva, where he confided in us that he was taking driving lessons. How many have you had, I asked. 40, he answered! Whoa. With all these driving lessons you'd think Israelis would be pretty good drivers. And of course they're not. Russians with driver's licenses from the former Soviet Union are regraded with special skepticism, apparently because Russians bought their licenses from corrupt government officials and never really learned to drive. I suppose NATO never had anything to fear from all those tanks pointed at Western Europe because the drivers never could have gotten them there.

In any case, one of the main things that driver ed emphasizes is using your blinker for even the slightest maneuver. This is especially ironic because if there's one thing Israeli drivers never use it is the turn signal on their car. You can be standing at an intersection with a baby carriage and the car turing will no more give you a signal than Israel will ever give the Palis an inch of Jerusalem. This must just be Jewish stiff-neckedness as a challenge to the constant badgering of their driving instructor to use that signal.

Our driving instructor is Iris, and she is very nice. Apparently we are a shoe-in to pass our test after just two lessons each! Now here's something different - in Israel the tester comes to you to give you your test. This means that you can get a driver's license if you know how to drive in Mitzpe Ramon, a town without a single traffic signal, and you can then drive in Tel Aviv, a town with worse traffic than Manhattan. Go figure. See you on the road, and don't wait for me to signal a turn.

Pam behind the wheel with her driving instructor Iris next to her. Every learner's car has that "Lamed" on top to warn everyone that a student driver is behind the wheel. What does it stand for? Lumox? Lamdan (Learner)? Probably that.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

As Cold as a Two Sweater Dog in Mitzpe Ramon

It was cold enough on Monday, after the weekend's fierce dust storm, for Goldie to dress in her two pullovers. It may not have been as cold as a three dog night, but it was as cold as a two sweater dog.

Dressed for the cold, Goldie wears her two pullovers and still needs to sit in Chaim's lap to stay warm.
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Monday, December 13, 2010

When All Else Fails, Call in the Screaming Men

I woke up this morning to no water in the apartment. In fact no one had any water in our apartment building. It turns out that a big leak had sprung up in the building's water main, and the city had come by to shut off the water. Expecting them to return any minute to fix it, we waited.

When no returned for several hours we knew we were going to be in another finger pointing episode with the city and the Amidar over whose responsibility it was to fix it. The Amidar is like Israel's Section 8 Housing Authority. They own two of the apartments in our building; the rest are privately owned. So, when anything goes wrong in the building, the city says it's Amidar's responsibility to fix it and the Amidar says its the city's responsibility to fix it. That way it works out perfectly for everyone, except the aggrieved parties, because it's nobody's responsibility to fix it.

Only this time, it was going to be more complicated because it turns out that the leak was after the building's water meter, which meant it was the responsibility of the Amidar AND the apartment owners to repair, not the city. In any case, there ensued a round robin of finger pointing via the telephone between the Amidar, the city, and us over who was going to fix the broken pipe. Of course, we knew nothing about fixing the pipe or about getting a contractor (the dreaded "kablan", in Hebrew), which the Amidar insisted we do.

I hitch a ride to town in Gavriel's electric cart to confront the powers that be. (Imaginary music playing is the Wicked Witch of the East's theme from "The Wizard of Oz".)

Taking matters into our own hands three of us men - Gavriel, a Black Hebrew, the Old Russian Guy Upstairs, and me, the Amerikai - went storming over to City Hall (if you can call it that in Mitzpe Ramon) to deal mano-a-mano with the powers that be. We went into the Mayor's office where a secretary of obvious importance, and known to Gavriel, listened sympathetically to out tale.

So, she gets on the phone and calls Chava at Amidar, and the finger pointing starts again. Now a very well dressed woman in form-fitting blue jeans and designer leather jacket walks in and hears our tale of woe, which now includes how many children and babies live in the building, who will have no water. This really stirs the sympathies of all and with one phone call she orders the city water workers into action after saying they will work out the billing later, which is what we had been asking them to do all along.

The lady in the form-fitting jeans was the Mayor's assistant, as Gavriel told me latter, and she had cut the Gordian Knot of bureaucratic finger pointing with her phone call. This is called "protexia" in Israel, and is what you need to get anything done. The screaming doesn't help at all.

By the time we returned to the building, the water crew was already at work, giving the lie to the other bureaucratic commonplace, "It's too late in the day to find anyone to do the work." When the secretary told us this, the Old Russian Man just put his foot down and said, "We need water today," and refused to budge until assent was given. PROTEXIA!

The back hoe digs in delicately. (Click for full size.)

The leak is found at the coupling. All of this while the worst dust storm of the year was blowing, working in water with bare hands at freezing wind chill. Thank you!

Fixing the broken water main. A three man crew of Russians who knew all of the Russians in our apartment building did the work.

Let there be water! And there was water.
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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Dust Storm Ends the Drought - For Now

A dust storm swept into Mitzpe Ramon on Saturday, bringing rain and snow to the Israeli heartland and mountains. This ended the drought we had been suffering from that began in September.

There was no rain in Mitzpe Ramon, but plenty of dust. We swept the floor of our apartment building entrance three times in two days before I took this picture this afternoon:

Look what the wind blew in! (Click for full size image.)

As of Sunday, December 12 at 1:30PM the weather was cold and getting colder; the wind was strong and getting stronger:

Temp: 45 F
Wind Chill: 35 F
Avg. Winds: 20 MPH
Gusts: 34 MPH

On the way to town, I captured this view of the storm and howling wind.

The storm was forecast to begin dissipating on Monday around noon.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

"If all else fails, try crying."

This has to be the best advice we got from our Nefesh b'Nefesh advisor: "We're all one big family, and we hate to see each other in pain," she said. This was her final word on how to handle the infamous Israeli Bureaucracy.

So last Thursday we were at the Israeli DMV in Beer-Sheva to finally get our application for our Israeli driver's licenses. No, wait it's more complicated than that...but you knew that already.

Why do we even want an Israeli driver's license? We already have New Jersey driver's licenses that serve us perfectly well. So, it's like this: you can't buy a car in Israel without an Israeli driver's license. Why is this? Like all unfathomable bureaucratic rules it goes back to the Russians. Before the influx of over a million Russian Olim in the '90s and '00s, you didn't need an Israeli drivers license to buy a car. Somehow the Russians, ever expert at exploiting the bureaucracy, managed to buy cars without any license at all, a loop hole the government was only too happy to plug with more bureaucracy.

Ok, so now we need a driver's license. To begin this process you need an application. You get this application at the optometry shop (not where you were thinking, was it?), where you also must get an eye exam to certify that you can see. (Perhaps there were many blind Russians buying cars, but who knows.) The eye exam is very perfuctory, but it is performed by a certified optometrist (usually Russian), who duly fills out, signs and stamps the form. The form itself is provided by the optometry shop, printed on security paper with your photo embossed thereon. All very official looking. Now, you can't go to any old optometrist shop to do this. Apparently there is a chain of optometry shops, at least in Beer-Sheva, that has a monopoly on this market. I can't remember the name, but that's where you must go.

Now, you must take the form to the local Cupat Cholim (your medical HMO), where you will leave the form over night so your physician can check off a few dozen boxes certifying that you are healthy enough to drive. There is a charge for this service, but oh wait, they forgot to mention when you dropped off your form that the first time is free, so no charge for us! Your family physician then signs and stamps his signature with his official government seal. (Hold this thought.)

So, now and only now, you can, as a previously licensed driver and new Oleh, take a single driving lesson that will allow you to just take the driver's, and not the written portion, of the state driving test. No wait, you can't do that yet. It turns out that now you must take your form to the DMV where they must fill out, sign and stamp their portion of the form that certifies that you, as new Oleh with a valid driver's license, are exempt from taking the written portion of the driving test.

This brings us to last Thursday, where we were waiting for our number 137 to be called, while they were at number 48 when we walked in.

We wait for our number 137 to be called.

Ninety minutes later our number is called, and we hustle up to the window where the clerk tells us that she will not be able to sign the form since our doctor forgot to stamp his signature with his official government seal. (Remember that thought I told you to hold in your mind?)

At this point I start screaming, being a charter member of the "When all else fails, scream at them" school. Pam, remembering the advice of our Nefesh b'Nefesh advisor, starts crying and begging, "Please, please there must be something you can do to help us." Visibly moved, the clerk behind the counter starts asking, "Why are you crying, why are you crying." She agrees to let us talk to her supervisor.

A surprisingly short time later we are talking to the supervisor who flatly says there is nothing she can do for us, the law is the law. I, of course, start screaming at her, taking her photo to post on the "Bureaucrats Wall of Shame" here, while Pam starts crying and blubbering explaining how hard it is for us to get to Beer-Sheva, how far we must come from Mizpe Ramon, please help us, yadayadayada. "Why are you crying, why are you crying?" the supervisor asks. She leaves the room and comes back in a few moments. "Ok, we have a compromise. We will fill out the form so you can take the driver's lesson and driver's test, you will get your doctor to stamp his signature, and when your driving instructor brings it in, we will put the official stamp on it." 


We still have not taken our driving lesson and test, so we still have no driver's license. But it is scheduled for tomorrow. Slowly, slowly, step by step, inch by inch, the redemption comes.

As we left the DMV office Pam said, I remembered what our Nefesh b'Nefesh advisor said, 'When all else fails, try crying.' And it worked. 'We are all one family and we hate to see each other in pain.'

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What happened to the posts?

I blame Pam for this. Never teach your wife about "The Facebook", if you only have one computer at home. She has been monopolizing it for 2 months. Well...not entirely. I've been spending alot of time posting at our sister site, which deals with many of my adventures starting my astronomy tour business and happenings in the sky around Mitzpe Ramon. Give it a try. It's not as daunting as it sounds. :)

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Monday, September 20, 2010

The Bedouin Stole our Sukkahs!!

First our Internet; then our balls; then our balloons; now our sukkahs! The Hesder Yeshiva in Mitzpe Ramon runs a sukkah gemach where individuals can come and borrow a sukkah for the holiday. Since many people live in apartments, like us, there is no room to store a sukkah from year-to-year, so this is a great service.

So, where does the gemach store its sukkahs? In a shed in the industrial part of town which they share with some Bedouin. Can you see where this is going? When the gemach went to look for its sukkahs this year, they were all gone -- metal frames, plastic siding, bamboo schach and all. Absconded with by the Jawas. They had to buy all new sukkahs. At least we have a really nice one this year. :-)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Living with Lymphoma - a Guest Post by Spot the Dog

On Erev Rosh Hashanah it was suspected, and just before Erev Yom Kippur it was confirmed - I have lymphoma. Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph nodes. Untreated it usually results in death in dogs within two months. With chemotherapy, I could live another 12-18 months.

I went to Dr. Marganit at the Beer-Sheva Animal Hospital, feeling very sick. I had been sleeping most of the day for almost a month, lost my appetite, and as it turned out had a high fever.  She found that my eyes had started to get cataracts, and my lymph nodes were terribly swollen all over my body. She said that the inflammation from fighting the disease can give dogs cataracts, and all my symptoms were classic for lymphoma. She took needle biopsies of my lymph nodes and sent them off to the pathologist. She confirmed the diagnosis.

There was alot of crying in the vet's office and at home afterward. But I don't hold any truck with such sentimentality and move away from the crying people as soon as I can. One of my favorite movies is The Barefoot Contessa, and I have adopted Maria Vargas' (Ava Gardner) family motto as my own: "Que sera, sera." "Whatever will be, will be." Stoicism befits a dog's life.

There is chemotherapy available to prolong the life of a dog with lymphoma. Now don't mock. I know that almost every treatment available for humans is available for a dog, from brain surgery to ligament surgery. Heck, I just had my gall bladder removed a few months ago. But a fatal disease, that is a different matter. Dog chemo is just meant to comfortably prolong the life of a dog. It doesn't aim for remission. That would make me too sick, and I do know that in the Great Chain of Being I am just an instrumentality, a means to an end, not an end-in-itself, having the dignity of man, as my favorite philosopher Immanuel Kant put it. It would not do to make me terribly sick to seek a cure.

But I do have a certain animal dignity, and the Torah prohibits causing T'sar Ba'alei Chaim, unnecessary pain to living creatures. But there is an expense to chemo, although much less in Israel than in the US, and a commitment to a long round trip from Mitzpe Ramon to Beer-Sheva every week for many weeks. And the chance of side-effects.

I knew these thoughts were going through master's mind. Would he be keeping me alive selfishly for himself, or would it also benefit me? Or perhaps he just wants to be done with an old dog?

I looked him in the eye during Rosh Hashanah and pleaded silently, "I want to live." This was my silent Shofar sounding for the Holiday, too sick as I was to blow with him as usual during Elul. Is this not the cry that every Jewish heart utters silently on Rosh Hashanah. We look to our Master as the Shofar, inarticulate as a dog's beseeching eye cries, "I want to live", in answer to "Who shall live and who shall die".

He heeded my look, and my chemotherapy began on the Tuesday before Yom Kippur. And as we read yesterday on Yom Kippur, "The preeminence of man over beast is naught, for all is vanity." (Ecclesiastes, 3:19).

That's my point of view, and you are welcome to it.

Head-butting Ibex of Mitzpe Ramon

I was walking to the Crater Shul for Minchah on Erev Yom Kippur. Approaching the door, which backs up to a large park near the crater's edge, I encountered a herd of mostly young Ibex, tensely gathered together over what looked like some delectable treat on the ground. Several young males were contesting for it, as a sage veteran looked on, when all of a sudden the elder of two young Ibex started head-butting the younger away from the treat which he claimed for himself, apparently with the approval of the elder looking on. It is amazing to see how quickly the head butts come, just as it is amazing to see how quickly the Ibex can disappear up or down a vertical wall.

Two young male Ibex fight over a tasty morsel on Erev Yom Kippur

The Ibex scattered as yeshiva boys appeared for Mincha.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Bedouin stole my Balloons

First it was my Internet; then it was my balls; now it's my balloons. My gas balloons, that is, otherwise known as propane tanks on "King of the Hill". Each house or apartment in Mitzpe Ramon has a local source of gas for cooking in the form of two propane tanks. The second backs up the first when it's empty. Then you call the gas man and he replaces the empty so that you have a full backup.

Everyone chains their two tanks together and then usually to the wall of the house. Some people even have metal cages to protect their tanks. Protect them from what? Bedouin theft. A pair of smaller tanks with propane costs about 560 nis, or $150.  I kept meaning to chain mine but never got around to it. Eventually I forgot about it, thinking stories of stollen balloons were just an urban legend.

Various techniques of protecting gas balloons. Israel was the first country to invent the lead balloon.

Returning from shul on the first Selichot night, I wanted to make a cup of tea, but there was no gas. I reassured myself that we must have gone through a balloon with all the cooking for Rosh Hashanah, but in the back of my mind there was this nagging doubt. When I went out to check the next day I found this:

The Bedouin absconded with my balloons on Selichot night.

It was hard enough to get the gas man to come before Rosh Hashanah, not to mention the expense of replacing the balloons. Now they look like this:

My gas balloons, restored to life and tethered. I don't know why two are harder to steal than one, unless the thief is working solo. Two are quite heavy and awkward to lift.

I had the Rosh Hashanah Gas Balloon Blues.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Don't Feed the Ibex

Everyone knows you're not supposed to feed wild animals. It makes them become dependent on human hand outs, the food may disagree with them and sicken them, and food packaging may get stuck in their gut and kill them. Still, people feed the Ibex and they have become dependent on it. Even if they don't eat from people's hands they frequent the many garbage bins in Mitzpe Ramon, looking for a fast meal. So attractive is human food waste to wild animals that the best places to see porcupines, fox, wolves and hyenas is around a garbage dump or garbage bin. In fact, when we went on a night time desert tour to find wild animals we spent almost all of our time around Kibbutz vineyards, hen houses, and food dumps. Even wild animals appreciate an easy meal.

The Ibex are fed regularly by humans in Mitzpe Ramon. Sometimes you will see a car laden with spoiled vegetables stop by the Machtesh and cartons of vegetables will be thrown out which they greedily devour. I have been stopped by traffic jams in Mitzpe Ramon caused by a herd of Ibex queuing up to eat vegetable handouts. And tourists and locals alike tempt them with bread to bring them close for hand feeding and viewing. One of the dangers here is that they will swallow plastic packaging which will cause an intestinal blockage, killing the animal.

Now that it's August the Ibex have come to town where they are frequently fed by children and others.

Neighborhood children feed Ibex potatoes.

I even got into the game, bringing out some over ripe peaches for the Ibex to enjoy.

An Ibex enjoys a peach.

An old male Ibex enjoys an apple.

It's hard to believe these creatures can climb a vertical wall in a flash.

The Ibex Days of August

Sirius, the Dog Star, makes August known as the month of the Dog Days. the Dog Days of August, thought the ancients, were so hot because the Dog Star, Sirius, the brightest in the heavens, shone in the day time sky together with the sun from morning until evening. During these hot days in the desert the Ibex come into town, seeking shade and pasture from the grass that grows in the irrigated parks. They can usually be seen under the trees along Nachal Arod, which is the Machtesh perimeter road in Mitzpe Ramon. I call these the Ibex Days of August in Mitzpe Ramon.

A male Ibex takes in the summer day near the crater's edge. (As always, click for a larger image.)

I never tire of seeing these animals with their majestic wildness and nimbleness.

An older male basks in the shade. Note his beard.

Young female Ibex sleep the day away. Note the cloven hooves. The Ibex is kosher, and an endangered protected animal in Israel.

A young male Ibex.

A female with her young male kid.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Suleiman, a Bedouin of Mitzpe Ramon

This is Suleiman, a Bedouin of Mitzpe Ramon. Suleiman can neither read nor write, but he has a Bedouin hospitality tent in Nachal Nafha where he serves tourists. He also has a house in Mitzpe Ramon, and other tents around the area. Literacy is not necessary to be a good businessman. He says he is a widower, but Chaim says he has wives in his other tents. He is looking for another wife and is willing to give five good camels for the right one, just in case you're interested. He uses the pen in his pocket to sign his name and is very proud of the fact that he doesn't have to sign with his fingerprint. The large clip in his pocket is used to hold his medical prescriptions. Suleiman suffers from diabetes and comes to the medical clinic in Mitzpe Ramon every day for treatment. 

Suleiman, a Bedouin of Mitzpe Ramon. (As always, click for full size image.)

As you can see, he is a chain smoker. His white beard is tobacco stained from smoking the cigarettes he rolls himself using tobacco he grows by his tent. His was the most fragrant tobacco I have ever smelled. I can still relish the smell of the second hand smoke that surrounds him. I hate the smell of commercial cigarette smoke, a light acrid odor that feels like a rasp in the chest. Suleiman's was quite different; a rich, deep, robust smell of fragrant tobacco that makes you want to share one with him. Fortunately, I was able to resist, not having smoked for the last 30 years. A great cigarette commercial would be 30 seconds of just watching him smoke his hand rolled cigarettes. Where is Don Draper when you really need him?

Rolling your own in Mitzpe Ramon

Suleiman has been to Mecca on the Hajj and was very impressed with the honesty of the Meccans. No doors are locked anywhere, not in homes, not on cars, and your wallet is safe even if you leave it on the street. Why is this? Because, he says, they'll cut your arm off if they catch you stealing in Mecca. Just the same, I think I'll be staying home.

Suleiman is almost never seen without his signature, hand-rolled cigarette made with home grown tobacco.

Suleiman misses the old days before the Russians came ("They're not Jewish"), before there were Black Hebrews in the Negev, and before the PA and Hamas were on the scene ("They just stir up trouble between the Bedouins and the Jews"). Right now he has another job guarding the equipment being used to create a dam and large lake in Machtesh Ramon at the site of an old mineral mine. His philosophy of life is based on respect: resect for yourself and respect for others. No need to ever steal anything, just ask instead.

There is a stately dignity to Suleiman, something perhaps every true primitive has, and a likeability that could explain the Arabist biases of the British Foreign Office which once ruled over these lands. Unfortunately, his modern compatriots are not cut from the same cloth, and probably neither were the old ones either.

Suleiman's card, in case you are in need of some Bedouin hospitality while in the Mitzpe Ramon area.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How Do You Do Tashlich in the Desert?

This has to be one of the most famous klutz kashes (fool's questions) that yeshiva boys pepper their rebbes with. Tashlich, performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, is a ceremony of visiting a body of flowing water and symbolically casting away one's sins into it by, variously, throwing bread, shaking out one's pockets, or shaking out the fringes of one's talit katan. The one thing about it is that it requires a flowing body of water. So, the first thing boys question their rebbes about is how is it to be done in the desert?

I hadn't thought about this question in a long time until I woke up on Rosh Hashanah this year and remembered I now lived in a desert. The question was no longer so academic. When we lived in the States large bodies of flowing water were easy to find. We would usually go to some channeled creek, or in Englewood, a wild creek in someone's backyard, or the creeks that freely flowed through town and through the parks. This was always a convivial, communal and social event where you would meet friends and acquaintances walking to one or another creek for Tashlich. I do seem to remember one friend from Morocco who said they did Tashlich in that desert country over a flowing stream of water from a hose. This seemed like a pretty lame method, over a pathetic stream of water that petered out after a few yards.

I took some consolation over the fact that you can do Tashlich until Hoshanah Rabba, thinking we might find time to go to the Mediterranean. But, no, I knew that was unlikely in the next few weeks. Then it occurred to me that I could just cast my sins into the abyss of the Machtesh, with Nachal Ramon, the river bed that drains the Machtesh, in full view from the Bird's Nest Overlook. But that river was completely dry this time of year, although thinking back to the winter I could remember it as a rumpled, silver band easily visible as it snaked through the Machtesh.

Tashlich traditions require a flowing body of water. Chabad requires a flowing body of water with fish, whose eyes are perpetually open, symbolizing the all-seeing Eye of G-d. A few people at the Crater Shul said they always used the Machtesh, as I had imagined, and so I was heading off to the Overlook to perform Tashlich after Mincha on the first day. As I turned to leave shul a large crowd had gathered at the entrance where a flight of stairs descends to the bathroom. As I struggled to get past I heard the sound of water streaming from below. Someone had turned on the faucets in the bathroom, opened the door, and men were gathered around the stairs saying Tashlich. I don't know if anyone threw a gold fish down the sink. My sins disappeared into the chasm of Machtesh Ramon and its dry river bed.

Tashlich site in the Crater Shul.

A comprehensive commentary on the practice of Tashlich can be found here.

Monday, August 23, 2010

People of Mitzpe Ramon: Tomer - The Bob Dylan of Mitzpe Ramon

We ran into Tomer and his cute daughter at the Klalit medical center in Mitzpe Ramon today. We were waiting to see Dr. Yossi, but he is worth waiting for. Tomer is a musician. He sings, plays the guitar and the harmonica. Bob Dylan is a favorite of his, and he showed us a video on this phone that he had made doing a cover of a Bob Dylan song. It was pretty good. His father-in-law is the mashgiach at the Pundak Ramon (Ramon inn), our favorite place to eat in town, so he is a good person to know.

Tomer with his daughter

We urged him to talk to the hotels about doing music gigs. They are always looking for entertainment for guests. Here's hoping he will. I enjoyed his playing very much.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Yehoshua - The Bottle Collector of Mitzpe Ramon

Yehoshua is the bottle collector of Mitzpe Ramon. In the Soviet Union he was a mathematician; here he is a bottle recycler. But he hasn't left his old profession completely behind. He is still working on a system to beat the Israeli Lottery.

You can see Yehoshua most days, as he hurries from place to place. He has to be the fastest walker in Mitzpe Ramon. He carries a bottle collecting device of his own fashioning, an aluminum stick with a spiral at the end that snags bottles and cans from the garbage and ground. One of the more unsavory things about Mitzpe Ramon is the amount of garbage, bottles and cans that tourists and residents throw in the street. There are plenty of garbage cans around, but in that respect Israel is still a third world country. It is especially unfortunate in a beautiful natural area like Mitzpe Ramon and its crater. So, it's good to have a bottle collector around who can act as a scavenger for all the rest of the inconsiderate ones.

Not long ago, Yehoshua was mugged by a pair of Black Hebrews wearing ski masks. Bottle collecting, after all, is an all cash business. He ripped their masks off and was later able to identify them to the police. They now sit in jail. The amount of money stolen has gone up and up with each retelling of the tale, but only part of it was recovered, of that we can be sure.

One of the things Herzl longed for in his Zionist dreams was an Israel where Jews could be all things and not confined to their shtetl professions. And that he got in the mathematician who is the bottle collector of Mitzpe Ramon.

The Bottle Collector of Mitzpe Ramon

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Ibex Return to Mitzpe Ramon

It's not that they ever left, but August seems to be the month when herds of Ibex invade town, stuffing themselves with garbage and as much grass as they can find. You usually have to go to the Machtesh to see Ibex, but I remember last year when we were house hunting in Mitzpe Ramon, that there were an unusually large number of them in town. Then after we arrived in December, not so many until this month.

Ibex gorge themselves at garbage bins and on available grass

The males usually flock separately from the females and young, but on this day we saw them together. However, the males kept their distance, herding together on the edge of the female and young pack.

Alpha males keep watch over females and young. They stood very still and motionless for quite a few minutes while I took this photo. (Click for full-size image.)

I love watching the Ibex graze so near. They are so peaceful and graceful.

Ibex graze in a park in Mitzpe Ramon

These two were just outside our door.

Young male Ibex

Young female Ibex with collar and transmitter

When they've eaten their fill or get frightened they head back to the safety of the crater's edge.

Fred Comes A'Callin'

A few weeks ago our friend Fred O'Englewood paid us a visit in Mitzpe Ramon. We met him in Be'er Sheva and drove the rest of the way to Mitzpe Ramon. Our first stop was the Cafeneto, of course, after which we repaired to the Pundak Ramon (Ramon Inn Hotel) for a seat at our favorite table and a light lunch.

Fred examines the menu at the Pundak Ramon

The dairy menu in the lobby cafe is quite delightful, and there is an excellent view from the Pundak Ramon's high perch across town to the rim of the crater.

Waiting for lunch at the Pundak Ramon

Rebecca O'Sunnybrook Farm also joined us for lunch as we kid around waiting for our it to be served.

After lunch I gave Fred the deluxe tour of Mitzpe Ramon. We went to the Wise Observatory up the mountain behind town, a place not many people get to see. Why? I think most don't know it's there and even if they do, they don't know quite how to get there.

Fred at the Wise Observatory in Mitzpe Ramon

It was a windy day, evident from our next stop at Camel Lookout, a high promontory at the lip of the crater that resembles a camel journeying across the sands. 

At Camel Lookout on a very windy day

You can judge for yourself how windy it was from this video. I have since lost most of my daily complement of kippot due to the wind and night time astronomy adventures in Mitzpe Ramon.

The wind almost blows us into the Machtesh by Camel Lookout (Har Gamal)

Fred did get to meet Puxtahawney Phil while he was here, but his stay was much too short. Originally planning to stay the night, he skeedadled back after just a few hours here. Come back soon, sooner, and soonest, as Chavie used to say.

Puxtahawney Phil, frightened by his shadow, heads back to his lair for another 6 weeks.
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