Monday, May 31, 2010

Israel's "Jurassic Park"

The Chai Bar Animal Reserve is not a zoo but a biological park dedicated to rescuing and reintroducing endangered desert wildlife and biblical creatures back into the Negev. We wrote about the predator section of Chai Bar in a previous post. But the most thrilling experience at Chai Bar is an auto safari tour into some of the 10,000 acres of the reserve to see its herbivorous animals and ostriches up close.

When we were there in early April the safari tour was at 4:00PM, but you should call to double check because this safari is the best part of Chai Bar. One does not often get to see herds of wild desert animals up close. And the ostriches are perhaps the closest thing on can get to a Jurassic Park experience this side of Stephen Spielberg's movie.

An Oryx in the Chai Bar Reserve (Click for full size image.).

It must have been truly amazing in the days when these animals ran wild in the Negev to see a group like this.

A small herd of adult and baby Oryx together with a female ostrich.

The Addax, while not native to the Negev, is in danger of extinction, so the Chai Bar's efforts at preservation will not result in the release of the animal back into the wild in Israel.

A herd of Addax

The onager, the brown Asian wild ass, can be distinguished by the dark stripe down its back. It has been successfully reintroduced to the Negev and wild herds can be seen in Machtesh Ramon and the surrounding area in the summer. In the winter the herds disperse over large areas.

Onager, the Asian wild ass

But the most bizarre and pre-historic looking of all the animals in the preserve are the ostriches. The ostrich, which cannot fly, is the largest and fastest of birds, able to run at speeds up to 45 mph. It also lays the largest egg of any living bird. It uses its wings to balance and maneuver while running at high speed. The female is a bland grey, but the male is prized for its colorful black and white tipped feathers, and it has a flaming red skin color, all of which make it look like a pre-historic beast when seen in the wild of the Arava Valley.

Female ostrich

Male ostrich

The ostrich's huge two-toed foot (the only bird to have two toes), which looks like it came off a dinosaur, and its propensity to attack automobiles on the safari make for a great "Jurassic Park" experience for the children. Be prepared to roll up your window fast!

The Ostrich's huge, two-toed foot is used to propel itself at high speed and to strike viciously at enemies. You do not want to be on the wrong side of this toe. VERY prehistoric!

A Jurassic Park moment at the Chai Bar Preserve.

The ostrich is a biblical animal, mentioned in the Book of Job by Elihu son of Barachel the Buzzite in his reprimand of Job for doubting the moral order of the universe (Job 39):
13: Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? Or wings and feathers unto the ostrich? 
14: Which leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmeth them in dust, 
15: And forgetteth that the foot may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them. 
16: She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers: her labour is in vain without fear; 
17: Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding. 
18: What time she lifteth up herself on high, she scorneth the horse and his rider.
The ostrich lays its eggs on the ground where they may be trampled. The male also mixes up eggs from different nests, so the mothers do not know which is theirs. ("She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers: her labour is in vain without fear.") And when the male is frightened he will rise suddenly without regard for the eggs which he sometimes sits on and will heedlessly crush them. (Sounds like the perfect national bird for the mythical Palestinian state.)

The ostrich's eye is larger than its brain.

The eye of the ostrich is larger than it's brain, partly giving rise to the thought that they are witless. ("Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding.") But in addition they engage in actions that seem silly and stupid to us. They are attracted to shiny objects, which may be why they "attack" and peck at automobiles on the safari tour. Ostriches will eat just about anything found shiny on the ground, and they have been found to have coins, earrings, jewelry, and even spark plugs in their stomach.

An ostrich attacks a "shiny" car at the Chai Bar Nature Preserve

In ancient times ostriches were hunted down by a group of riders closing-in on the ostrich from all sides. The ostrich would run madly back-and-forth between the riders until, exhausted, it would lay its head on the ground. This is where the expression "burying your head in the sand" comes from during times of trouble, for it looks like the ostrich has done just this as its captors approach. But this may also be a ruse, since the ostrich's most vulnerable body part, the long neck by which it may be captured, is kept out of harm's way. But as soon as the riders close in for the kill the ostrich is up and away using its great speed to out distance them. ("What time she lifteth up herself on high, she scorneth the horse and his rider.")

Ostrich photo set

The Chai Bar Nature Reserve - definitely worth a trip on its own, but its proximity to Eilat makes it a bonus for a trip there.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Darkness at Noon

A huge Hamsin blew into all of Israel today, covering most of the country in a brownish-yellow haze of Saharan dust. Temperatures rose into the 90s and 100s around the country, with relief expected sometime this evening with falling temperatures. The dust storm made for a dark, hot icky day best spent indoors.

Update: Under cover of the Hamsin's haze terrorists from Gaza tried to penetrate Israel but were stopped by the IDF.

Mitzpe Ramon, barely discernable through the haze of a Saharan-blown dust storm (click for full size image.)

Leopards and Wolves and Foxes (Oh my!) - The Predators of the Chai Bar Nature Preserve

About 40 kilometers north of Eilat on Route 90 lies the remarkable Chai Bar Nature Preserve. This large and open preserve sits in the red heart of the Arava Valley, surrounded by the Red Mountains of Jordan and the sandstone cliffs of the Israeli Negev. It is home to a variety of wild life that used to flourish in Israel and that are mentioned in the Torah.

Descending from the High Desert of the Negev to the Arava Valley, red as the heart of a watermelon, the Red Mountains of Jordan face us on the other side. (Click for full size images.)

The predators, snakes, birds and small creatures are all housed in a glassed-in area that opens to the desert all around, giving a sense of space to the cages while still protecting animals and visitors alike.

The predators are some of the showcase animals of the preserve. Wolves and foxes, nocturnal creatures for the most part, are still found in the desert. The wolves travel in small packs of 3-4 while the foxes are mostly solitary. They can be seen at night by the careful observer at the edges of developed areas in the desert. The wolves and foxes are no fools and want their meal as easy as the next fast-food junky. They hang around farms and garbage dumps looking for an open chicken coop or food waste. If you travel off-road with a four-wheeler and a bright (1 million watt) light, you can see their eyes and ghostly bodies reflected in the beam.

Desert wolves at the Chai Bar Animal Preserve

Blue-eyed, large-eared, bushy-tailed desert fox (Click to see his eyes better)

The prize predator in all of the desert is the leopard. It is hard to believe that an animal so closely associated with the African forest is to be found in the Negev, but Sinai and Israel used to be filled with them. As G-d tells the Israelites in the desert:
28And I will send hornets before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before thee. 29I will not drive them out from before thee in one year; lest the land become desolate, and the beast of the field multiply against thee.  -- (Exodus 23)
 The leopard, top predator in a parched land

It is currently unknown how many wild leopards remain in the Negev, but estimates run around seven. A few years ago one broke into a home in the Kibbutz of Sede Boquer where the owner, who happened to be a naturalist whose expertise was the leopard, threw a blanket over it and managed to wrestle it to the ground while waiting for help. The animal died soon thereafter, as it must have been very sick to even try breaking in to an occupied home. The only place that signs are placed about wild leopards today in Israel is at the Dead Sea, but none have been seen there in years.

Desert leopard (Panthera pardus).
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages... Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. - Shakespeare,"As You Like It"

The leopard is amazingly agile and fast. This one bounded into the bower of the tree in three lithe leaps (he did it faster than you can say it :) first into the notch, second into the bottom of the bower, finally into the bower itself, all in one smooth motion. Well camouflaged, you are dead meat should you walk beneath.

Can you find the leopard in the tree?

In our next post we will write about the safari experience at Chai Bar and Jurassic Park!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Further Adventures of Spot the Dog -- Spot Dodges a Bullet

Spot the Dog came home from the Beer-Sheva Animal Hospital yesterday. He had vomited almost continuously on Shavuot, eventually having dry heaves.  His vet, Dr. Marganit Yaffah, diagnosed an enlarged and partially blocked gall bladder that had to come out if Spot was to survive more than a few weeks. Spot's gall bladder was removed on Monday by a colleague and friend of Dr. Marganit, an Israeli veterinary surgeon who specializes in abdominal surgery. Dr. Marganit didn't tell us that there was a 40% mortality risk from the surgery, which was probably just as well. But that risk mostly applies if there has been leakage into the abdominal cavity or if peritonitis has developed. Fortunately, we caught Spot's condition early, so he had none of these complications.

Spot the Dog recuperates at home from gall bladder surgery. (Click photos for full-size images)

We were surprised at how perky he was at the hospital, and at home he shows almost no ill effects from the surgery and is back to eating and drinking without any problems. The recuperative powers of animals are quite impressive. It looks like Spot the Dog dodged a bullet.

Beer-Sheva Animal Hospital

Coming out of the hospital we encountered a sheep that had lost its way, with no Abu BoPeep in sight. The hospital is situated all alone on a hill near Tel Sheva, the real original site of the biblical Beer-Sheva, surrounded by acres and acres of fields empty of everything except wild flowers. Tel Sheva itself is just visible from the hospital in the distance.

The Beer-Sheva Animal Hospital at the top of a hill surrounded by fields and wadis.

In the early spring the fields are full of beautiful wild flowers with large blooms, but latter in the season those wild flowers give way to weedy wild flowers which still have their own rugged beauty.

Early spring wild flowers surround the animal hospital

Late Spring weedy flowers surround the animal hospital, seen in the distance at the top of the hill.

The hospital was originally built in 1973, according to a man I talked to at the CafeNeto this week. At one time research on veterinary health was conducted there, but I do not know if that continues today. Although some of the buildings are starting to show their age, especially the outdoor pens that are no longer used, the building is well maintained. The staff is extremely pleasant and helpful, and almost all of them speak English, some fluently, including Dr. Marganit herself. If you need anything more than routine veterinary care in the south of Israel, this is the place to go.

Beer-Sheva Veterinary Hospital on Google Earth

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Shmuel - The Chabad Kohen of Mitzpe Ramon

This week's Torah reading, Naso, contains the commandment for the Kohanim to bless the Children of Israel with the beautiful Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24–26):

May Hashem (G-d) bless you and guard you;
May Hashem make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you;
May Hashem lift up his face onto you and give you peace .
If you go to shul to pray with a minyan in Israel, the thing that comes as the biggest surprise is that the Kohanim duchan, recite the Priestly Blessing, every day, twice a day. Having grown up outside of Israel, where the Kohanim only recite the Priestly Blessing during the Sholosh Regalim and High Holidays - especially festive occasions - , it still brings me up short and excites me to hear it recited every day.

Some shul communities are fortunate to have many Kohanim. In Englewood, NJ, the shul we went to had  dozens, seemingly half the shul was Kohanim, a very strange and rare occurrence. Some small shuls can't even count a single Kohen, unfortunate since the Priestly Blessing can only be recited by one of the descendants of Aaron, the first Kohen. More likely, a small shul has a single Kohen.

Shmuel haKohen of Mitzpe Ramon Chabad

Our Chabad shul in Mitzpe Ramon has Shmuel haKohen. At least this is the name I know him by, although I'm sure he has a proper last name. I believe he is originally from North Africa, whether Morocco or Algeria, I don't know. Shmuel haKohen has a kindly but serious look about him and likes to tease the children in shul. He ritually washes his hands before the first Priestly Blessing on Shabbat, and after that is careful not to touch anyone directly with his hands, shielding them with his Tallit when he shakes hands and says "Shabbat Shalom". Others, in turn, shield there hands with their own Tallis when shaking his hand, resulting in a double layer of protection.

I don't know if it is this or the seriousness with which he recites the Blessing or perhaps just the fact that we are in Israel, but when you are in his presence and he duchans, you really feel as if G-d has blessed you through him. Yasher Koach, Shmuel haKohen!

My view of Shmuel haKohen as he duchans.

Daniel Pipes' Peace Plan for Israel

"My peace plan is simple: Israel defeats its enemies."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Spot the Dog is Sick

Spot the Dog took ill on Erev Shavuot. He got a very upset tummy, such as he has never had before, and threw up all night and day during the holiday, until his poor tummy was empty and then he had the dry heaves. We took him to see his vet in Beer-Sheva on Thursday at the Beer-Sheva Veterinary Hospital at the Tel Sheva junction.

All the trees and bougainvillea were in bloom in the city, making for a colorful sight. The animal hospital stands outside Beer-Sheva at the top of a hill near open fields about a mile from Tel Sheva, the archeological site that marks the real ancient location of Beer-Sheva, not the tourist trap concocted in the Old City. It is a very pretty and bucolic place.

Spot sees Dr. Marganit (Daisy) Yaffa there. Dr. Marganit is a younger, tom-boyish version of Sigourney Weaver with her brunette hair pulled back in a no-nonsense pony-tail, green eyes, and sun-flecked complexion. She is also the best vet Spot has ever had. Spot has been here alot since we came to Israel, because he had an ulcerated cornea that Dr. Marganit had to operate on. Sometimes I can't tell if he's really sick or is just suffering from M√ľnchausen syndrome by proxy.

In any case, this time Spot was really sick, although when we first arrived Dr. Marganit thought he was just suffering from "Garbageitis", the intestinal illness dogs sometimes get from picking up random scraps of food from off the ground. A blood test showed that some of his liver enzymes were 1000x higher than normal. An ultrasound scan of his tummy showed that his gall bladder, already somewhat enlarged in an earlier visit, was grossly distended with some kind of mucosy substance partially blocking the bile duct. Surgery to remove the gall bladder was called for if Spot is to survive. So, Dr. Marganit called a friend who is a specialist doggy abdominal surgeon. He is scheduled to remove Spot's gall bladder next Wednesday.

Spot's earlier ultrasound with enlarged gall bladder (center shadow)
Spot's ultrasound from Thursday, showing a grossly distended gall bladder (large, dark shadow in center).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Father's Account - How a Family of Six was Nearly Murdered by a Terrorist Attack as "Proximity Talks" Begin

The Palestinians' culture of jihad, blood and death sucks its strength from our feebleness. The statistics clearly show that whenever 'peace' talks began, the curve of Jewish death and bereavement rose steeply. Identification, understanding and empathy – perceived as manifestations of enlightenment in Western culture – are seen by Muslim culture as proof of weakness and flaccidity, and invite another violent outburst. And thus did Oslo beget the Intifada, and so did the retreat from Lebanon and the Disengagement lead to the Second Lebanon War and to the flareup in Gaza, and so, tragically, is the government of Israel now preparing the next explosion. -- by Yehudah Yifrach, Amona; Arutz Sheva News
You might also be interested in Israel Plans Concessions, PA Plans Offensive

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Quote of The Day - Summing Up Obama (So Far) by David Soloway

...It may not be out of place to suggest that we are now afflicted with the worst possible president at the worst possible time, with Iran darting toward the nuclear finish line, the Palestinians as intransigent as ever, the Russians moving back into the Caucasus region, negotiating with Venezuela and solidifying ties with Iran, Syria and Turkey, terrorism (oops—“man-made disasters”) on the rise and U.S. citizens increasingly at the mercy of the jihadists, China holding massive quantities of American Treasury notes, Obama considering ruinous cap-and-trade legislation at a time when the AGW consensus is collapsing, the American debt estimated to hit 100% of GDP in 2011 and its unfunded entitlement liabilities totaling over $US 100 trillion, leading to the prospect of monetary collapse. 
--by David Soloway,

You might also be interested in: Obama, the Fool's Tool

Monday, May 17, 2010

Coming into the Country

Descending toward the east from the high desert of Mitzpe Ramon the Aravah Valley is one of the most striking geographical features we encounter. Also called the Jordan Rift Valley, it is a continuation of the Great African Rift Valley that begins 5000 miles south in northern Tanzania and is responsible for monumental geological features such as Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Great African Rift Valley system starting just below the red pin (Mt. Kilimanjaro) and running over 5000 miles north to the Aravah Valley between Israel and Jordan

I have always loved the sound of the name "Great African Rift Valley". It was discovered by British explorer and geologist John Walter Gregory on an expedition in 1892-3. Although now considered to be a number of related faults, rather than a single entity, the Great African Rift Valley conjures up far away mysterious places where wild animals call dangerously and the earth can swallow you up without a trace.

In Gonwonda land did Lawd decree
A great and steamy Tethys sea;
Where Jibjubs burbled and the Plythes did play
All throughout a Paleolithic day.

As the Arabian Plate pulls away from the African Plate, and the Indian Plate collides with both, the Great African Rift Valley and the Aravah Valley are formed.

Tectonics of the Great African Rift Valley and the Aravah Valley

Where the Great African Rift Valley enters the Middle East it becomes the Jordan Rift Valley, and farther north the Jordan River Valley itself. It is actually a fault in the earth's crust caused by the separation of the Arabian Plate from the African Plate as the Arabian Plate moves away, pulling to the northeast. Nowhere is this fault so prominent as where it runs between Jordan and Israel in the south, starting at Eilat from whence it runs north, becoming the depression that forms the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, and continuing north as the Jordan River Valley, The Sea of Galilee, eventually petering out in Northern Syria as the Bekaa Valley, home to various terrorists and other thugs. It is responsible for much of the geography and hence politics of the Middle East.

One encounters it all of a sudden, descending the serpentine road of the high desert, when the Aravah Valley suddenly heaves into view.

The valley itself is wide and flat, as much as 5 miles wide at its greatest width, and very red in color, with sharp, soaring peaks of basalt rising in three tiers to 5000 feet on the Jordan side (Arabian Plate), and lower, softer, terrace-eroded cliffs of sandstone on the Israeli side (African Plate). As one drives down Israel's Route 90 towards Eilat, the mountains on the Jordanian side become more sheer and ever  higher, while the sandstone cliffs on the Israeli side become milder. The Thethys Ocean once covered this area some 220 million years ago. The Valley disappears into the sea when one reaches Eilat Bay, but the mountains continue to soar up until out of sight of land.

The Red Mountains in Jordan, forming the eastern boundary of the Aravah Valley

The terrain on each side of the fault is quite different, perhaps because of the fact that each belongs to a different tectonic plate with a different history.

Cliffs on the Israeli side of the Aravah Valley, forming the western boundary

Topography of the Aravah Valley, just north of Eilat

Pesach at the Orchid Hotel - Eilat

Since we are in the last 30 hour countdown to Shavuot, which is the Atzeret (conclusion) to Pesach, let us return to our Pesach holiday stay at the Orchid Hotel in Eilat. The Orchid seems to be just about everyone's favorite hotel in Eilat. It is outside the main hotel and tourist strips in the city, so it is relatively quiet and isolated. It is located on Coral Beach in Eilat Bay, which has the most phantasmagorical coral and tropical fish you can imagine. The Eilat Oceanarium is directly across the road, giving a fish-eye view of the splendors in the water for those who do not wish to swim, snorkel or scuba dive, all of which services are just a short distance from the hotel.

Panoramic view from the Orchid Hotel of the Oceanarium, Eilat Bay, and the Red Mountains in Jordan beyond (click for full size images)

The hotel's architecture is based  on a contemporary Thai theme with separate Thai houses built in to the side of  one of Eilat's mountains.  Each "house" has a gabled and thatched ceiling with a large bunk area above the main room, accessible via a ladder, and includes another double bed. There is also a balcony off each house, which is more useful in the winter than the summer when temperatures top 100 degrees F.

Panoramic view of the Orchid Hotel in Eilat, built into the side of a mountain

Each house has its own balcony

The grounds are heavily landscaped with palms and exotic flowers, giving a great deal of privacy and sense of isolation to each of the houses.

Landscaping adds to the privacy of each "house"

Koi ponds enhance the Asian theme

Access to the the houses is either up long flights of stairs or a very steep cobble-stone road. To accomodate guests who do not wish to walk (many) the hotel runs small motorized carts for passengers and luggage, called "tuk-tuks", that continuously or on demand travel up the steep mountain road. It's really not as difficult as it sounds, and the tuk-tuks make it a joy ride.

The cobble stone road to the houses

One odd thing about the Thai-theme was the Buddhist effigies all around the hotel, including in the rooms. This seemed to be taking authenticity a bit far for a Jewish hotel, and some people covered the little Buddhist cupids in their rooms with towels or pillow slips.

Buddhist effigy by the swimming pool

Buddha cupids in each room

Our Pesach tour was organized by Rabbi Stewart Weiss and his wife from the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana. Rabbi Weiss hosts Pesach annually at this hotel. All of the participants were anglo-speaking, many from the UK and other parts of the former British Empire, so all of the divrei Torah and talks were in English. Rabbi Weiss has a unique combination of erudition and modesty that make his divrei Torah a joy to listen to. He also hosts kosher tours to various locations around the world throughout the year. Wish I had more time and money to participate in those. His next one is in October to Ireland.

Rabbi Stewart Weiss

Rabbi Weiss' wife (right)

The hotel provided an inspirational place for us to hold services, on a covered balcony overlooking Eilat Bay and the Red Mountains in Jordan. On Sheviei shel Pesach (the seventh and in Israel last day of Pesach), when the Jews crossed the Red Sea, Rabbi Weiss led a group to the Oceanarium at night where they recited Shirat Yam Suf (The Song of the Red Sea).

Our shul at the Orchid Hotel

View from our shul

Davening during Chol Ha'Moed

There was a large, sunny and airy dining room, also with a gabled roof, together with seating outdoors by the pool, for all meals. As is usual with 5-star Israeli hotels, the food was outstanding, plentiful and kosher with many varieties of fish, meat, vegetables and deserts served at each meal.

Dining room at the Orchid Hotel

This was a Pesach to remember and definitely a place to return to many times.

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