January 16, 2014

Biblical Jordan Valley

Tu B’Shvat higiya,” the children sing. The 15th of the Hebrew month Shevat has arrived. In Israel, this is cause for celebration. Why? It is the birthday of the trees. I do not know of other nations who give trees a birthday, and would love to hear about this if anyone knows, but I certainly feel this is further proof of a Jewish sensitivity to and connection with nature.

Israeli children take the day off school and head out to plant trees in valleys, along mountain slopes and across fields from north to south. Adults also need an outing and with a blue sky and warm sunshine, we had the perfect ingredients for a tiyul

We signed up for an outing to the Bikat Jarden, the Jordan Valley, and  boarded our bus in Ra’anana, soon joining a convoy of busses loaded with people from all over Israel. We were all here to see the beauty of the Jordan Valley and learn about its importance to Israel.

The Jordan Valley is a narrow strip of land stretches for 70 kilometers from the Dead Sea northward to Beit Shean and in some parts, it is a mere five kilometers wide. It borders Jordan on the east side with the Hills of Gilead rising above, while the soaring Samarian Hills perch on the west.

I have never visited this part of Israel and since it has been in the news lately, becoming a point of contention in the recent peace talks, we felt it was important to understand the full story. We passed an army checkpoint to pass before entering this area, then sailed along Highway 90, which travels all the way to Kiryat Shmona at Israel’s northern tip. Abbas wants full control of these lands without any Jewish military presence. However, I  soon understood that Israel must indeed control this land so no weapons are brought in from Jordan. If this were to happen, the entire country, from Haifa to Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and Jerusalem, would be under mortal threat.

Leaving Jerusalem behind, it immediately felt as if we had entered biblical times. Young boys herded goats across scraggy slopes. Sheep sipped from an ancient watering hole. Date palms stoically stood in perfect formation, while swallows dipped and spun across an aqua sky. 

Looking around, it was a desert scape that could compete with any Lawrence of Arabia setting. Yet it also looked like a moonscape with craters pocking the land like mini gremlins. I saw a boy herding a large gangly pack of camels home and gawked like a pathetic tourist from Ra'anana, shouting out "Look. Camels!"

There are 4,500 Jews in the Jordan Valley. They live in 21 settlements, most of which were started after 1967. Today, the majority of residents are dedicated farmers who grow prized medjoul dates, grapes carefully grown under nets, peppers, eggplants and herbs.

Our guide took out his iPhone and read to us from his “Tanach elektroni.” This is where the Jews entered Israel after wandering for 40 years in the desert, he explained. And where  Jacob returned to the land after working for Laban.

Our bus headed up a rough, narrow path, around hairpin curves, then up and up again to the lookout of Sartaba. Here, around 70 BCE, The Hasmonean Dynasty built a fortress atop the peak of Sartaba. And here, on the conical peak, fires were stoked at the siting of the new moon, broadcasting the new month from mountaintops to Jews as far as Babylonia and Tsfat.

And then, in the true spirit of Tu B’Shavat, we all had the opportunity to plant a tree. I love to feel the soil in my fingers and was touched by the words of our guide who encouraged us to put our roots into the land. I fingered the sapling and marveled at its roots, then placed it into the warm earth, patting it down firmly.

As I walked back to the bus, I heard a woman proudly say “Natati.” I then realized that the word for ‘I planted’ and ‘I gave’ sound exactly the same in Hebrew. (Although the spelling is different.) Today we all planted, gave and received, returning home with a new found love and appreciation for our land, every precious centimeter of it.

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