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.
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