March 13, 2015

Jews wandering the desert

"It's us or them," says Netanyahu.
Election fever is at a pitch here in Israel. Enormous photos of candidates’ faces stare us down from billboards at every intersection. 
The highway is lined with their messages, some threatening doom and gloom, others insulting competing candidates.
For me, the polls predict a grim, terrifying future. Since Israel geographically sits in the world’s most dangerous hotspot, her future is never viewed as bright and cheery. 
But if there were to be a weak government at the helm, I would become gripped by a fear like never before.
Heard Herzog had this photoshopped to look like the 'Marlboro Man.'
Yet this is the life I chose, and despite the potential horror looming ahead, living here is quite amazing. So when the going gets tough, this Israeli goes hiking.
I have seriously hiked the northern part of Israel, following the Israel Trail (Shvil Israel) south from Har Hermon on the Syrian border, all the way to the outskirts of Jerusalem. 
I have hiked trails in the Golan, where flowering oleander borders lush streams, and dipped in cool, snow-fed falls.
Our most recent hikes have been completely different. We changed direction and have headed south to the desert. 
Late February is the optimal time to hike the desert. The rains are petering off (although the desert receives little rainfall, it can be hit by occasional and very dangerous flash floods, water run off from the rains further north) and the temperatures are cooler.
We drove down to Eilat to join a group called Nifgashim B’Shvil Israel (Israel trail Encounters). This organization, formed as a living memorial of a fallen soldier called Avi, walks the country from south to north every year. 
Sergeant Avi Ofner z”l was among 73 soldiers tragically killed in a helicopter accident in 1997. In his memory, his mother Raya and her husband organize these annual hikes so Israelis from diverse backgrounds can meet, dialogue, bond and learn from each other.
We did not know what to expect and arrived at the departure point late and unprepared (like usual). We assumed the group would be running behind like every other group in Israel. Not this one; it was run like a tight ship. That much I could tell already.
With the sparkling Red Sea on one side, and the reddish craggy Eilat mountains on the other, a large group of people stood in a circle, respectfully quiet. 
We heard poems, read out the names of the fallen soldiers to whom this day’s hike was dedicated, heard a song on a guitar. We were told the rules of the trail and each received a plastic baggy with instructions on how to keep the environment clean as we walked.
Looking around, I noticed the crowd was either in their mid 20s (just out of the army) or retired (late 60s). They stood calmly were all perfectly outfitted with back packs, hiking poles, hats and boots.  They were fit looking, all outdoorsy types. 
Meanwhile, my husband had his head buried in the truck of our car, ripping open our duffle bugs, frantically searching for boots and hiking socks, trying to assemble our lunches, filling our shluckers with water. My daughter had no hat. I could not find my poles. Suncreen? Who knows where it could be. BandAids? Dunno. Ouch. Our lunch was well, forget it.
The group said Tefillat HaDerech the wayfarers’ prayer, and started to walk single file up into the mountains. I had my husband’s hiking poles and was pushed along, urged to keep with the group. Amir did not know I had the poles and dug deeper into the trunk. I shuffled along, trying to call him. 
Here we are at the foot of the trail and we are already behind and creating a nuisance. Finally Amir emerges. He is flustered, pole less and angry when he sees his poles dangling in my hands.
We take a deep breath, get into the queue of hikers and leave civilization behind, entering the desert world. With each step, we felt calmer, quieter. The path was steep and within an hour of climbing, the port of Eilat was a glistening dot on the horizon.
Finally at the top, I wanted to sit and have a snack, enjoy the view, contemplate where my two feet had taken me. I was with Beth, a friend from Ra’anana, and we could not find our gang, the English-speakings, our security blanket.
People were sitting on the ground in small groups, papers in their hands and were animatedly talking together. A woman saw Beth and I and waved to us, asking us to come sit for ma’agal time (circle time). 
We were asked to introduce ourselves and explain why we were on this hike and what our personal goals were. In Hebrew? Me? Share? The consummate introvert? I stammered a weak unintelligent response, took a rock, buried my head and scratched at the dirt.
An older woman with a bright flower in her hair white curly hair, dressed in tight, hot pink shorts and striped tights, took out a gas burner and simmered a tea. She started talking about reconnecting to the land as she picked dried mint from a ziplock bag. 
She passed a steaming cup around and each participant politely passed it along until the cup reached the flower woman who sent it off. Full circle.
The Hebrew conversation got deeper and I heard the word Maslow, now assuming they were talking about the hierarchy of needs. I would be out of my depths even if this were in English. 

The flower lady said something about us not meeting the needs of our Arab neighbors and an ex-soldier girl became suddenly animated. 
The conversation was hotter than the tea but respectful. We were, after all, sharing. I was relieved when the ma’agal broke up and became a straight line as we hiked further into the wilderness. I guess I can relate to looking at the toes of my boots better than to a group of sharing strangers.

I will continue our hiking tale after the Israel elections. With electoral instability on the way, I may have to take to the trail full time for some solace and firm ground.

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