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.

Thursday, August 19 - Hottest Day of Summer, So Far

Today must have been the hottest day of the summer so far, with temperatures reaching 101.6F at 3:30PM. I know, I measured it with my Kestrel. The heat was quite oppressive when standing in the sun, but the shade was much more comfortable, if still oven like. Fortunately, humidity in Mitzpe Ramon is quite low, reaching just 20.5% on Thursday. It was quite sultry on the Mediterranean coast with humidity ranging from 75% in Ashdod to 65% in Tel Aviv. Friday's temperatures are forecast to be even hotter: 109F in Be'er-Sheva, 102F in Mitzpe Ramon, and a scorching 116F in Eilat.

101.6F in Mitzpe Ramon on Thursday, August 19

Fortunately, we over did it on air conditioning, having three units in our small apartment. I've gotten so used to it that I can hardly bear going out in the heat of the day.

Air conditioning keeps us cool in the heat of the day.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sunset on a Hot, Hazy Day

Sunset on a hot, hazy day in Mitzpe Ramon. August 15, 2010. (Click for full-size image.)

"The Night of the Shooting Stars"

The night of August 12-13 is always the peak of the Perseids meteor shower. It is a big event in Mitzpe Ramon because our skies are so dark and clear. Thousands of people descend on the area in and around Mitzpe Ramon. The city sponsors a party at the football (soccer) field with music and a free glass of wine for everyone.

The name of this night always reminds me of an Italian movie of the same name (in English), but called The Night of San Lorenzo in the original Italian. Italian folklore has it that on this night all our dreams are fulfilled, perhaps also the source of the English, "wishing upon a star", which is always a falling star. There are so many stars that fall from the sky this night, enough so that all of our wishes and dreams can come true. Unfortunately, I remember being quite depressed by this movie with the charming name, which came out in 1982, because it was about the Germans in Italy in WWII.

However, all of our wishes for a satisfying meteor shower did come true, since it was quite a spectacular sight from Mitzpe Ramon. We counted 62 meteors per hour at the peak between 2:30AM and 3:30AM, and since these are not evenly distributed but cluster together, we enjoyed quite a show. You can read more details about the shower on

The night began in beautiful fashion with the trio of planets - Venus, Mars and Saturn - adding the three-day old crescent moon filled with earth shine to their ballet in the twilight sky.

Mars, Venus, and Saturn with the setting, three-day old crescent Moon on the night of August 12. (Click once, then again, for the full size image.)

The meteor shower started off slowly, with only a handful of meteors appearing each hour up until midnight, when things really started picking up. Most people didn't arrive in town until after midnight, having been told that the peak wouldn't occur until sometime between 2:00AM and 6:00AM. I went to the main traffic circle near the football field around 10:30PM to check out the party and music, but beat a hasty retreat when I saw the cars backed up in every direction as 3,000 people tried to find parking in an area with parking for at most a few hundred.

The city obligingly turns off all of its lights on this night. First the perimeter lights around 10:00PM, and then around midnight all of the street lights and utility lights go off. The city then becomes quite dark, and you can get a good view of the meteor shower even from within its precincts. People were scattered everywhere about town, in tents, on blankets, watching the night sky. It was really a very special feeling.

We did our observing from the parking lot of the Alpaca Farm, and I was amazed that we had it all to ourselves until around 12:30AM. Very few people seem to know about the Alpaca Farm parking lot, a dark, secluded site away from lights and cars, since many had just pulled off the road leading to it and set up their tents by the side of the road. It always amazes me to see Israelis do this, even next to quite busy highways, since it seems neither safe nor desirable to do so, and yet they do. I certainly felt smug with my Mitzpe Ramonian knowledge of all the best places to see a dark sky as I whizzed by them in my car, stirring up dust and noise in every direction.

People seem to be unable to restrain themselves from building fires at night, even if the entire purpose of their retreat to the wilds of the desert is to get a dark sky. There were bonfires built hither and yon, with people sitting around them, singing, playing guitar and roasting food. A small group even did this in the Alpaca Farm parking lot, but they were far from us and their fire was never very big. Then, there was the family with young children next to us who seemed to have some ritual of lighting a candle inside a billowy cotton sack, which filled with hot air and cast bright light all around. Fortunately, this quickly went out and they left us in the dark, for the most part.

I got an angry call from my wife around 3:30AM wanting to know why I wasn't home yet, putting an unceremonious end to the observing of The Mitzpe Ramon Astronomer. I guess she got worried about my being eaten by hyenas. In any case, it put an end to our Night of the Shooting Stars. I hope all of your wishes came true.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tonight is the Night of the Shooting Stars!

The Perseids meteor shower peaks tonight, with 60 meteors visible per hour at very dark and clear sites. The actual peak is projected to be in the early evening tonight, August 12, for observers on the east coast of the US, and between 3:30AM and 6:30AM on August 13 in Israel. But not to worry about the exact time. The entire night of August 12 and morning of August 13 are prime time to view the meteor shower. This is a naked eye event, so no optical aids are required. Find a nice, quiet, dark place, sit in a chair, or better yet, lie down on a camp pad or sleeping bag, and watch the sparks over head.

Because of the pristine, dark skies in Mitzpe Ramon, about 3,000 people make the trek down here to watch the meteor shower. The town puts on a show of music and entertainment at the local football field, where most of the visitors come. Best of all, the Cafeneto is open all night! I am planning to be out, of course, observing and taking photos. It should be quite the excitement. More news tomorrow on this exciting, annual event world wide and in Mitzpe Ramon!

For more information see my post at :

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Where Did All the Posts Go?

I've been working on a new blog for my new business in Mitzpe Ramon, star tours of the night sky from Israel's Darkest and Clearest Skies, Mitzpe Ramon. We will use the beautiful night sky of Mitzpe Ramon as our natural planetarium, including basic education about the night sky, constellations, bright stars and notable nightly sky sights. As soon as I find the eyepieces for my telescopes, we will also offer telescope observations and visual astronomy education. At some point we will be adding astrophotography as well.

Mitzpe Ramon is home to Israel's largest research observatory, The Wise Observatory, testament to the quality of the night sky here.

I don't think anyone gives night sky tours anywhere in Israel, and Mitzpe Ramon is the perfect place for it. In addition, it gives me a way to put to use my 30 years as an amateur astronomer, and further justify my bringing 5 telescopes from the US to Israel, which should make my wife stop being mad at me for this one thing, anyway.

The new site and sky tour service is called Astronomy Israel. We have ideas for expanding this beyond astronomy, too, so stay tuned. I invite everyone to subscribe to this new blog, since I will be splitting my time writing there as well as on this blog.

Oh yes, I should mention 20% discount for friends, although I have no idea as yet what the price will be.

Here is a photo of the Milky Way from Mitzpe Ramon, looking toward the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpio. We are looking into the center of the Milky Way here, from our home in the Orion spiral arm, 3/4s of the way to the edge.

The summer Milky Way from Mitzpe Ramon. The "Teapot" asterism in Sagittarius is prominent, together with the constellation Scorpio to its right. Below the "Teapot" is Corona Australius, the Southern Crown. Where do you want to go today? (Click for full size image.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"The King is in the Field; The Fish Are Bibbering in the Yam..."

A long time ago, in a place far, far away known as Palo Alto, I was sleeping in my bed in the not-so-early morning of Rosh Chodesh Elul, which, by the way, begins tonight, Monday August 9th. I awoke to find a Lubavitch Chassid standing beside me, in full Shabbat dress, kapote, gartel, black fedora, white shirt, black dress pants, looking at me asleep in bed. It was my self-declared Mashpiah, Rabbi Yossi Silberstein, also a diamond dealer and survivor of Hodgkins Disease, which had brought him to Palo Alto for treatment in the first place.

He was looking at me in astonishment. "Issi," he said with his distinctive Yiddish accent, "the King is in the field; the fish are bibbering in the yam; and you are asleep in bed. Get up!" And so I did. To go to shul that first Elul morning.

Rabbi Silberstein, z"l, was lost to us many years ago, too too early. There is no one to wake me up anymore with his unique admonishment for the month of Elul. Nevertheless, the King is still in the field; the fish still bibber in the Yam at his approach; the Day of Judgement is around the corner. Let us wake to take advantage of this gift.

I Am Nearly Eaten By Hyenas

I was out this evening photographing this summer's celestial trio of Venus, Saturn and Mars in the western night sky of Mitzpe Ramon. The three planets have been making quite a showing this August in the evening sky just after sunset, and I wanted to capture their changing nightly positions in the splendidly dark and clear skies of the desert.

I have photographed them from within the town, from the promontory where the visitor center is at the edge of the crater, and this evening I decided to go to the Alpaca Farm and capture the planets among the hills and mountains of the high desert. I got some excellent photos which I think show off Mitzpe Ramon as an excellent stop for amateur astronomers, not surprising since Israel's largest research observatory is located in the mountains here, just outside of town.

Venus, Mars and Saturn as seen in the night sky above Mitzpe Ramon (Click for full size image.)

On the way back home, my car's lights picked up three animals skulking in the wadi about 200 yards from where I had been photographing. One animal went off to the right by itself, while the other two turned left and crossed the road in front of me, about a distance of 20 yards. At first I thought they were a pack of wolves, not uncommon in this area, especially near a farm where they can prey on farm animals and human garbage. But then I saw the pairs' striped bodies, hunched backs, trumpet-shaped ears and big barred teeth and realized I had happened upon a pack of hyenas.

Were they hunting me? Striped Hyenas are mostly solitary and eat carrion, although they are occasionally known to eat farm animals and wild boar. It is unusual to see a group of two, although they will sometimes travel in family packs. Had I happened on a family? Many predators can be found around the farms in the desert. They like easy, fast food as much as we do.

In any case, a mad hyena can be a frightful site, although these guys just ambled on over the hills after our encounter.

Striped Hyena in the mood for a fight (Source: Wikipedia)
I think in the future I will bring someone with me when I go to the Alpaca Farm at night.

Monday, August 2, 2010

We Have A Power Failure

Last night there was a big power failure in Mitzpe Ramon. Around 4:00 AM there were explosions on the power grid, as power transformers exploded around town. According to local folks, this was a result of the unusually high humidity we've been having the last few days, which soaked the dust in the transformers and turned their innards into a mud bath, causing them to short out. According to Hanny at the CafeNeto, the high tension lines are even sprayed with water by helicopters every 3 months or so to wash the dust off and keep them from exploding, too.

Our power was out for about two hours, but the rest of town was not so lucky. The town center, where most of the services including food are located, was without power until after noon, sending all the hungry tourists and locals to the CafeNeto to eat, the only food service that still had power in town.

I walked around town during the black out. The air was quite unpleasant, heavy with humidity and even a light fog covering the ground. It also remained quite warm after sunset, with little breeze to dispel the sullen air. It had been overcast the previous day, unusual for this time of year, and everywhere in Israel temperatures and humidity were way above normal. It seems that every building in town has an alarm that sounds when there is a power failure, and then there are the generators that start-up in critical facilities as electrical backup when the power fails. What a racket everything made. I couldn't get back to sleep until after 8:00!

Sunset after an overcast, hot and humid day in Mitzpe Ramon.

At least we have our air conditioning to keep us cool - as long as the power works.
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