Dreams of our Fathers

Our ideals lead to dreams and actions, but not always to actualization.  Israel Beck was born in Bardichev, Ukraine in 1797.  He moved to Israel and settled in Tzfat in 1831 where he opened a printing business. His medical books were picked up by the Egyptian ruler, Ibrahim Pasha, who was suffering from a high fever.

After the Tzfat earthquake in 1837 destroyed Israel Beck’s printing press, and in appreciation for his books, the Pasha gave Beck his blessing to found a Jewish farming community on Jabal al-Jarmaq, Mt. Meron.  This was the first Jewish settlement founded by Jewish immigrants in the Land of Israel in modern times. The new agricultural settlement attracted a group of about 15 Jewish families..

Unfortunately, Ibrahim Pasha, Israel Beck’s friend, fell out of power, and the renewed Ottoman leadership did not allow for the Jewish community of Jarmaq to continue.  Like today’s tragedy with the families of Amona, it was government and narrow interest groups which were the end of Jarmaq’s Jewish community. Hurvat Beck on Mount Meron

Israel Beck moved with his family to Jerusalem in 1841. He writes recalling Jarmaq:

“There were in the village, gardens and orchards, but now there is nothing but forest and large rocks…I built houses in which to live, I made gardens and planted fields, and within the year, satisfied myself with the grain of the land.  In the second year, I had cows and flocks, 6 sheep and 6 goats, horses and donkeys, and with God’s help, I observed the sabbatical year in detail.  Also all the commandments of the land, I observed in a heightened way.  My house was open wide and God’s blessing was on all the works of the house and the field, even though this is not a place of planting because of the numerous rocks.  Even so, I worked hard and God was my helpmate.  Numerous difficult factors came upon us in 1839 because of the terrible war between the Turkish sultan and the Egyptian Pasha, which, because of them, forced me to leave this pleasant village and go to Jerusalem.”

His children and grandchildren, however, raised listening to their father and grandfather, received his Living Will and continued Israel Beck’s mission to rebuild the land.  His son, Nissan Beck, famous for the Tiferet Israel synagogue in Jerusalem, also built the first Hasidic community outside the Old City of Jerusalem, Batei Nissan Beck, near Damascus Gate.  Israel Beck’s grandson, Shimon Rokach, was among the founders of Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish neighborhood outside of Jaffa.

Israel Beck never moved from within the Old City once he arrived, and lived out his days in Jerusalem.  His settlement on Mt. Meron stands until today a ruin and a monument to his dream.  His contribution can be best expressed not by that heap of rubble but by his dream. Building the Land of Israel lay beyond the grasp of Israel Beck, yet it was achieved through those who sat at his feet and understood their role in continuing his dream.


Leaving Home

Archaeology is, in many ways, the guide book for leaving home. As the song reminds me, “There must be 50 ways to leave your lover,” so too, there are many ways that people left their homes. A unique example has been examined for the past 2 years by archaeologists studying Shivta in southern Israel.

Although we have pottery evidence from the 1st century C.E. of a Nabatean Spice Route town, the earliest buildings in Shivta date to the 4th century C.E.  This era saw the transition of the Roman Empire from pagan beliefs to Christianity (what we call today the Byzantine Empire).  Under the Byzantines, Shivta grows into an agricultural city and a stop for pilgrims on their way to St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Peninsula
Some things changed in this formerly thriving Negev town between the 7th and 9th centuries C.E.  We don’t know whether it was plague, earthquake, climate change (an earlier climate change in the Negev is here), conquest or internal changes, but during those 300 years, Shivta went from a bustling city to an empty ruin.

During the 7th century C.E., the city begins this change and many areas were abandoned.  Those optimistic residents cannot believe that the hardships which are forcing them from their homes will be long-lived.  They block off the entry ways to their homes, with the hopes that when times get better, they will be able to return, reclaim and reoccupy them.  Not every home is abandoned at once and there is no mass exodus.  The decision to leave is one that is made on a family level.  We can only imagine the enormity of abandoning one’s home for an uncertain future.

What were the pressures affecting each family’s decision?
How did they justify their decision to their friends and neighbors?
What drove their hope for return?
How did the families who stayed behind feel about their neighborhood emptying out?

The parallels in the modern world are plentiful.  Whether you think about Syria or inner-city Detroit, decisions made by individuals to abandon their residences or to remain in an increasingly hostile area are some of the hardest to make.

Shivta survives Islamification in the 8th century  but after about 100 years, whatever forces started the decline and the compounding forces of a collapsing city, claim the last residents.  Shivta is filled with boarded up houses and hangs out its “closed for business” sign in the 9th century C.E., never to return.

There are many ways to leave home; but here, in Shivta, is a haunting example of a heartrending way – leaving begrudging and with an unrealized hope for return.  Today, Shivta remains one of the most remote national parks in Israel; its isolated location only compounds the questions surrounding her flourishing life and spiraling demise.

Nearby sites:

  • Ramat Negev Desert Agro-Research Center
  • Ramat Negev Winery
  • Ben Gurion’s Tomb

Second Pressing

I always enjoyed learning how things work.  Especially things we take for granted.  There is that great TV show that takes us inside factories to see how things work.  When I took a 9 week cross country (US) trip with my family, we loved factory tours to see how they make all kinds of things from whistles to bears.  We also loved industry – our visit to the Hoover Dam was one of the highlights.

So it should be no surprise that even ancient “factories” catch my eye.  I love learning how things were made and how technologies improved, but usually didn’t really change all that much.
ramat hanadiv 1
I was out with a friend hiking in one of my favorite spots to go – Ramat HaNadiv Nature Reserve.  Ramat HaNadiv is located just south of Zichron Yaacov and is on the very southern tip of the Carmel Mountain.  Here, overlooking the agricultural fields, the fish ponds and the power plant, was built a farm, named by archeologists Hurvat Akev.  This farm dated from the Second Temple period and had a major renovation in the Byzantine era.  It was a massive compound with a guard tower, places for animals, mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths), cisterns, and an extensive agricultural center.

Today, we may look at this place and understand why people would want to live here – it is beautiful and has a gorgeous view.  But you need more than beautiful vistas to make an area desirable, especially in the past.  So, why is this farm here?  How could it be so successful to support such a large infrastructure?
ramat hanadiv 2
The answer can be found in the compound’s yard.  In a relatively small area, there is a threshing floor, a wine press and an olive press.  That’s like having 3 different factories all within your home!  These three – wheat, grapes, and olives – are the most important crops of the Levant.  It is very unusual to have so much different technology concentrated in one farm as the technologies are all different.

Wheat needs a high degree of processing before it becomes edible.  The wheat needs to be harvested and then winnowed.  This is usually done near the fields as so much of the wheat stalk is waste.

Olives were generally harvested in the fields and brought to a central processing facility.  Olives travel well so you don’t need to worry about them spoiling on the way and almost all of the olives were used, with the waste providing great organic fertilizer.

Grapes, like wheat, were harvested and processed in the fields.  But grapes were processed in the fields not because of the large percentage of waste, but because grapes are fragile and transporting them can interfere with the fermentation process.

We saw a Byzantine wine press with a depression which held a screw (this was the new technology of the day – increasing torque through use of a screw).  I have seen many screws used for olive oil production but was unfamiliar with screws in wine production.

In olive oil production, the entire olive is crushed with a crushing stone.  About 25% of the oil in olives comes from the pit; crushing the pit helps to release the oil.  Then the “olive mash” is transferred to mesh baskets.  The first olive juice which flows freely from this mash is the highest quality oil (virgin olive oil), with lesser quality oils released relative to the force squeezing the olive mash.

With wine, seems there is a similar process.  Grapes are picked and crushed with feet so as not to crush the pits/seeds.  Crushed pits/seeds in grapes make for bitter wine and feet are much gentler on the crushing process.  The juice which runs off from this crushing makes for higher quality wine.

This is not the end, however.  Because during the Byzantine era (4th-7th century C.E.) wine was drunk like water (literally), they wanted to extract the maximum product from the grapes.  The mash which was left on the crushing floor was gathered and put into an underground pit in the center of the crushing floor.  This pit was usually not so large – only about 3 feet deep – and had a channel which led to the collection pit.  Then, a screw was inserted which pressed down on a piece of wood or stone to press this grape mash.  This is what was called the “second pressing” and was used to make lower quality wine.

In today’s wine world, where we have clean drinking water (something not to be taken for granted), there is less of a need to get every little drop out of a grape.  With modern equipment, very often the yield on second pressings is low, and is deemed not financially profitable.  First pressings, or better yet, “free run” wines, however can demand a higher price and are generally higher in quality.  Just like they did 2000 years ago.

The past and present meet – over a glass of wine.

Next time you are are in Israel and up for a glass of wine, or a tour through ancient wine installations, let’s do that together.  Cheers!

A Broken Pot

Today, Israel and the Jewish people lost a great leader, Rav Ovadia Yosef.

Rav Ovadia was a child prodigy, publishing his first commentary on the Bible at age 9.  He could have stayed in the study halls and closed himself in the Orthodox Jewish world, but he set out to make the world a better place.

He was a pioneer in championing the rights of marginalized populations.  He started at home, with the Sefardi Jewish population (Jews from Arab lands), setting up yeshivot (Jewish religious academies) for them, and going on to establish Shas, a political party to give them a voice in Israeli governance.

But Rav Ovadia was not content to simply push for rights for his natural constituency.  He went on to provide Jewish answers to issues faced by other populations.  He found Jewish answers for widows who lost their husbands in the Yom Kippur War; to Jewish populations in Russia and Ethiopia to reclaim their roots; to Israeli farmers who wanted to follow Jewish law without losing their livelihood.

He spoke his mind, even when it went against his own Sefardi constituency, the religious or political right, or the Israeli government.  He weighed issues from afresh, and seemingly changed his stance when conditions changed.

Today, as I watched his faithful pray for his recovery, I was reminded of a story of another great Rabbi, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.  Rabbi Yehuda lived in Beit Shearim for most of his life.  However, when his health started to fade, he moved to Tzippori, the “Big City”, where there were better doctors.  He lived there for quite some time, heading the Rabbinical court and leading the Jewish population which lived in that mixed city.  He, too, like Rav Ovadia, had to deal with the issues of modernity and finding a Jewish way through modern issues.

His illness finally caught up with him in Tzippori where, by that time, he had a large following of students.  As Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi lay in his home in Tzippori suffering from his illness, his students stood outside of his house praying for his recovery.  (I imagine it must have looked like some of the pictures today taken outside of the room of Rav Ovadia.)  Inside the house, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s maid was attending to him.  She saw how he suffered and how his soul longed to be free of his body.  She understood, however, that G-d would not take Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi away from his praying students.  The maid ascended to the roof above the second story with a ceramic pot.  She took the pot and threw it to the ground.  You can imagine the loud sound the pot made as it shattered.  The students, not knowing what was going on, gasped at hearing the noise from the pot.  In that moment, no one was praying, and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi took his last breath.  His soul was freed from the suffering of his body.

Today, Rav Ovadia’s soul has been freed from his physical existance.  The Jewish people has lost a great leader.

Next time you are in Israel, visit Tzippori and pay tribute to great Jewish leaders from the past, the challenges they faced and the legacies they left behind.

May the remembrance of righteous people be a blessing for us all.


“To whom it may concern,

Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Study Program – Invitation to public meetings”

Thus read my invitation to presentation of findings on the 6 year study on the proposed Red-Dead canal.  As I have a special love for the Dead Sea and a fascination with all different kinds of topics associated with it, I wanted to hear what the World Bank has to say about this potential solution for the dropping water level.

Here are some of the interesting things I learned at this summary meeting.

The World Bank is interested in this project for three reasons.

dead sea hotels from dredging1.  To Save the Dead Sea

2.  To desalinate water and generate electricity for local governments

3.  To provide a symbol of peace in the region.

The Study is not funded by the World Bank, however.  The World Bank provides management and coordination but the funding came from 8 different countries.  It looked at whether the Red-Dead is feasible, as well as its effects on the environment, alternatives, and modelling of both the Red Sea environment and the Dead Sea environment.

Where does the idea come from?  The Dead Sea is in trouble.  The inflow to the Dead Sea, once 1.3 billion m3/year has now dwindled to about 100,000 m3/year.  This has led to the dramatic drop in the level of the Dead Sea and threats to the environment around it.  The idea of the Red-Dead is to transfer water from the Red Sea in the area of Eilat and Akaba to the Dead Sea.  The drop in elevation from sea level to 427 m below sea level would power hydroelectric plants.  Somewhere along the way, some of the transferred water would undergo desalination and be piped to population centers (mostly in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority), where the need for water is great.

Sounds good?  Maybe.

What the study found, however, is that this plan is costly ($10.6 billion) with 20% of the cost going towards transfer of desalinated water to consumers.  It does not generate any electricity to the grid as all electricity would be expended powering the desalination plants.

Although the technical extraction of water from the Red Sea was evaluated and a possible plan with the smallest environmental footprint was suggested, the effects of transferring a large quantity of sea water to the Dead Sea are unknown.

There are other plans.  The Med-Dead (Mediterranean-Dead Sea pipeline), and restoring the Lower Jordan by a combination of purchasing water from another country (Turkey), desalination, and conservation are the two main contenders.

We could also do nothing.  If we do nothing, the level of the Dead Sea will continue to drop.  At some point, the chemical plants will probably stop pumping, as the cost of pumping will rise as the water level in the northern basin drops (the chemical plants are in the southern basin).  The level of the Dead Sea will stabilize at 550 m below sea level – a full 120 m below the level of today.  We have no idea what kind of damage will be caused by such a dramatic decrease or if the Dead Sea and the environment around it will ever be able to recover.  It could be that endemic species become extinct; that sinkholes threaten population/vacation centers; that industries which provide significant income to both Israel and Jordan are forced to close.

Restoring the Dead Sea is inexonerably linked to tackling water issues in the area in general.  The Dead Sea level continues to drop because we are pulling too much water out of the system.  This is the real challenge, not only to our immediate area but to the entire region.  In Syria where there is a problem with allocating water to agriculture, much of the rural population left their farms and went to the cities.  The resultant strain on city resources is one of the causes of the revolt and bloodshed happening right now in Syria.

“To whom it may concern,”

Solving the crisis in the Dead Sea concerns each and every one of us.  What are you doing for the Dead Sea today?

Do You Diguette?

I went to the Negev yesterday with a few colleagues and I got into a discussion with Shany about the JNF (Jewish National Fund) plantings we saw.  I contended that the technique for planting the rows of trees was called “Liman”; she called them “Terrasot” (pl. for terraces in Hebrew).  Shany said that “Liman” is a term only used for planting trees in bowls – depressions in the ground made to preserve water in the center of the bowl.  According to her, these lines of piled up soil on the sides of the hills were terraces, similar to the terraces we see throughout the central mountain range.

Up until this point, I thought I understood Negev agricultural terminology; and, I was so convinced that I was right, I decided to do a bit of research to find out if both the desert farming technique using “bowls” and the technique of building up lines of soil on hillsides were both called “Limans” or if one was a Liman and the other a simple terrace.

This research took me into another question I have been wanting to tackle which was posed by Leah from my Tour Guide class.  She asked what was the name and the purpose of the rock piles we see all over the Negev.

I like to remind people who are traveling with me that despite appearances, Israel has plenty of natural resources.  We have water, sun, access to other places, trees, land – and all this was sufficient for supporting rich societies here ONLY because people knew how to manage them.  Ecology may be a 21st century idea for the rest of the world, but here in Israel ecology has been a necessity since the dawn of civilization.

So, too, in the Negev, an area which received less that 200 mm rainfall a year (in some places much less).  In antiquity, the people living in this desert climate figured out how to harvest water during the bleak winter rains, channel it to fields and grow wheat, barley, wine, olives, figs, etc.  It may take a lot of engineering and a lot of land, but it is possible.  Around the area of Avdat, approximately 25 acres of land were needed to collect enough water for 1 acre of crops.

One technique used by ancient peoples was the Liman.  A Liman is a depressed area surrounded by low hillocks.  The water falling on these hillocks flows into the center of the “bowl”.  This technique was initially used by the JNF  for planting large trees to provide shade.  You can see many JNF Limans on the road down to Beer Sheva. Most of the Limans planted in the Negev today are populated by Eucalyptus trees as they grow quickly.
Another technique is the Diguette.  Diguettes are small mounds built along a line on a slope.  Trees can then be planted uphill from each of these lines.  The mounds help to catch the water flowing down the hill and give it a longer exposure to the plant, decreasing run-off.  In Hebrew they may be called “Terraces” but actually they have a special name/function when they are in a desert climate. Diguettes are used around the world in arid areas, including Africa, and boost the ability of an area to produce crops thereby saving lives today.  The JNF uses Diguettes today to plant indigenous species and it is the main technique used in the Yatir forest project.

Catchment farms were used in natural stream beds.  Various dams were built along the stream bed.  The rain which fell on the surrounding hills flowed naturally into the stream bed, where the crops were. The water which overflowed each step of this terraced structure flowed to the step below, controlling the amount of water in each step and holding the water in the farmed area for a longer amount of time.

The rock piles my friend Leah asked about are an interesting phenomena in the Negev.  They are called by the local population Tolilat al-Anev (Grape Mounds).  In the 1830’s when these were first described by 2 British surveyors/explorers/botanists/geologists, it was assumed that these mounds were used in ancient times for growing grapes.  On further inspection, not only were there no grapevine remnants found in any of the areas, but also there were no adjacent wine presses.  There still is no definitive explanation for these mounds, but there are a few theories.  One is that the  clearing of the rocks into mounds allowed for more erosion of the soil on the slopes.  This soil was washed to the
valleys and mixed along the way with organic material to make a richer soil in the valleys.

The mounds are not only found on the slopes of hills, but also in relatively flat areas.  This leads to another hypothesis that the rocks randomly strewn about impinged upon the rainwater’s path to a central point.  Gathering the rocks in mounds meant that there was more free and clear smooth ground to draw the water to that central collection area.

Turns out that I was only partially right about Limans.  Shany was correct that Liman is a very specific term and not a general one. Thanks to Shany and Leah for piquing my curiosity and pushing me to learn more about agriculture in the Negev!

Do you Diguette?  I DO!

Zevitan Hike

This week school will start for Gideon and Hill.  We spent last week squeezing the last bits out of summer while trying to prepare for the upcoming year.  As part of that effort, we went hiking in the Golan – something that was missing from our summer until last week. In previous summers and vacations throughout the years, we have hiked most of the more popular hikes in the area, and last week we repeated one of the good hikes – Upper Nahal Zevitan.

What makes it a good hike?

First of all, it needs water, preferably enough water in which to swim.  Nahal Zevitan and its continuation in Nahal Meshushim have pools surrounded by the black hexagons which characterize this stream system.  The pools are cool and deep – I could not stand up even at the edge of the pool at which we stopped to swim.  The stepped hexagonal prisms provide a “diving board” up to 12 feet above the surface of the pool.  Everyone had a chance to jump into the cool water, and most did.  About 4 million years ago, Golan volcanoes covered the limestone crust with igneous basalt.  This basalt cracked due mostly to tectonic activity as the Golan lies on the upper end of the active Dead Sea Fault System.  The Zevitan Stream lies on a major surface fault and so the canyons are very steep.  Water erosion carves narrow canyons through the basalt.  When these canyons fill with water, very deep, narrow pools form.

Secondly, a good hike requires a bit of nature.  Our first foray into the Zevitan system a few years ago led to our first experience with Sabra (Prickly Pear) fruit.  Boaz convinced us that we could safely pick, peel and eat a sabra right from the cactus with only a pocket knife and a bandana.  Anyone who has tried this knows that this is almost impossible.  But the fruit looks so alluring, so juicy, so wonderfully edible that you can’t help but try.  After picking prickers out of peoples hands, arms, lips, tongues, we realized that we should leave the sabra-picking to trained professionals (or at least those with leather gloves).  The Golan is also populated by rock hyraxes which you can often see along this trail.  And the views.  The views through the crevasses toward the Sea of Galilee were exquisite.  The winding stream bed, which gives Nahal Zevitan its name, covered in low trees and bushes and yellow grasses framed the blue water in the distance from the sea – just beautiful.

The third factor in a good hike is a bit of history.  We walked for a bit in an aqueduct.  The issue of water has been a major factor in the development of history in Israel.  Here, in the Golan, the control of water is key.  In 1964, the National Water Carrier opened, pumping water from the Sea of Galilee as far south as the Northern Negev.  As a response,  Syria and Lebanon started plans for a Diversionary Canal which would take water from the headwaters of the Jordan and carry them to the Yarmuk Stream bypassing Israel. The tensions which resulted, and the tank and artillery exchanges which took place between 1964 and 1966 provide a backdrop for one of the causes of the Six Day War in 1967.  Even in ancient times, control of the water meant that you could water your fields and your animals.  In this part of the world, water is connected to survival and prosperity.  It appeared to us that the aqueduct in which we walked was modern, being lined with cement, possibly to bring water to a nearby Syrian farm, whose remains we came across later in the hike.

The last major factor in a good hike is a bit of challenge.  The beginning was filled with climbing over rocks and through pricker bushes.  My feet got totally bruised and reinforced that it really was time for new hiking boots.  Next time we do this one, we will dedicate more time to it and climb down to the base of the waterfall and continue on to the Sea of Galilee.  I like that – the plan for “next time” and how we can improve our experience and push just a little farther.  It is one of the things I like most about hiking with this group of friends.  We will be there for each other and there will be a “next time”.  The walk from the overlook of the waterfall back to the Yehudiya parking lot was, quite honestly, a bit boring, with the biggest challenge being how long it would take to hitchhike from the parking lot back to the car.  My hitchhiking karma bank must be doing o.k. – it only took Gavi and I five minutes to get a hitch.  After another 15 minutes of walking on the road, we were back to the car.

It was a fitting hike for the end of summer, with all the factors of a “good hike”.

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

Last week I took a group to hike in Lower Nahal Og.  I had done the hike about 4-5 years ago when I started hiking with Yossie.  The hike is in one of the dry (or mostly dry) stream beds which leads from the Judean desert to the Dead Sea and, as such, descends for its entire length.  Along the path, as the chalk gives way to dolomite and the canyon becomes narrow and steep, and in order to continue to descend, you must navigate a series of three ladders.

“Ladders” in hikes in Israel are not what you may think of as ladders in other parts of the world.  “Ladders” here consist of metal u’s,  the width of 2 fists, which are stuck in the sides of rocks allowing you to descend/climb otherwise sheer rock faces.  The three ladders on the Lower Nahal Og hike are 4, 7, and 10 meters high (10 meters is higher than my house!).  You ease yourself over the cliff and carefully climb from rung to rung, often coached by those who have descended before you.  At points it sounds like a Twister game as shouts of “move your left foot a little to the right!” guide descent of one hiker after the next.

The hike starts in the Central Judean desert on the Plain of Hyrcania.  This is the driest part of the Judean desert – there is no residual moisture from the Judean hills to the west and are no springs of the Eastern Judean desert/Dead Sea valley.  It is a great hike for noticing the changing geology and plant life.

But besides nature, there is a historical human footprint in the area.  Despite the existence of a more heavily traveled road to the north in the area of Nahal Prat connecting Jericho to Jerusalem, there was also a secondary road which went along Nahal Og.

Why were there two parallel roads so close to each other?  The answer lies in a product which has fueled world politics and science, exploration and cuisine.  SUGAR!

In today’s world, we take sugar for granted, but it wasn’t always so.  Sugar domestication started about 10,000 years ago in the South Pacific – at approximately the same time as wheat was domesticated here in Israel.  The first sugar addicts chewed the sugar cane stalks to achieve their sugar high.  Later, the stalks were ground and soaked with the resultant liquid left to dry, leaving the sugary residue behind.

Meanwhile, in Israel, sweetness in food was obtained by adding honey (dvash) to foods.  “Dvash” in the Bible almost always (with the exception of the story of Shimshon’s riddle to the people of Timna) refers to sweetener derived from fruits such as dates.  When the Bible is speaking of Israel as a “Land Flowing with Milk and Honey”, it is speaking about fruit honey and not honey from bees or other plants. This meaning is preserved in Arabic where “Dibis” refers to sweetener made from any fruit.

Back to Sugar Cane….  Sugar (from sugar cane) became the main sweetener in India, finally making its way to the Arab world.  With the Moslem conquest of the Land of Israel, came also the taste for sugar from canes.  The Moslem conquerors soon discovered that the reeds around what is today Einot Tzukim were suitable for the production of cane sugar.  The plant requires both lots of water and lots of sunlight – both  available in abundance in the Dead Sea area.  It also can tolerate a relatively high level of salinity in its water source, leading it to take over areas closer to the Dead Sea where other plants could not survive.  The Moslem conquerors brought their engineering know-how and made the extraction of cane sugar more efficient and profitable.  They needed to bring their crop to the closest large market (Jerusalem) and also to service the Byzantine monks in the Judean desertand both Muslim and Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.  This is the famed Sugar Route which passes through Nahal Og, joins the monastery of St. Euthymius, to El Azaria and into Jerusalem.  With the coming of the Crusaders, sugar was introduced to the West.  The Europeans were crazy about the sweetener and from the beginning of the Crusader era, sugar refineries were present in Israel, not only for local consumption but for exporting to the markets of Europe.  These industrial installations required a mill, an aqueduct, hearths, and many ceramic pots for storing the resultant sugar powder and the molasses byproduct.   (These installations have been found by archaeologists around areas where sugar cane is grown, including along the Sugar Route.)  At the time of the Crusaders, sugar was just as expensive in the European markets as the spices which were brought from Yemen, such as cinnamon and cardamon.

When the Crusaders were kicked out of the Levant by the Mamelukes, the supply of sugar was now in the hands of the not-so-friendly Arabs who jacked up the prices.  As always, these market pressures forced people to become creative.  Sugar from beets, which are readily grown in Northern European climates replaced cane sugar.  This inferior product, however, was soon supplemented by sugar cane introduced, grown and processed in the New World.

As in Ramle with the development and export of the Gothic arch, in the Judean desert, we walk in the footsteps of history.  A fortuitous confluence of Eastern foods, the development of engineering which allowed for production on a mass scale and the opening of European markets led to the introduction of one of the staples of the modern Western diet.    And no matter what you think of sugar, it definitely  has clutched the stomachs of most of the people on the planet.

Please Pass the Eggplant

Eggplants have been a part of the diet in Israel for a long time, but they are not indigenous to this part of the world.  Rather, like the Prickly Pear (Sabras), they are immigrants.  The first mention of cultivated eggplant is from the 1st century BCE in China.  Eggplants clearly made it into the national psyche there as, traditionally, Chinese brides had to supply 12 recipes for eggplants in order to enter into a marriage.  Travelers brought the eggplant west with them on their way back from the Orient, and eggplants made it to European markets during the middle ages.

The first eggplants seen in the West were small and white.  Thus, Europeans called them egg-plants.  These small, white vegetables/fruits were bitter.  Selective breeding led to larger, and increasingly more purple plants which were less bitter.  It is these eggplants that we most often see on grocery shelves.

Because eggplants grow well in warm climates, the Mediterranean basin soon became a comfortable new home for the plant.  In particular, Turkey, long a cross-road for different cultures, took to the plant;  currently today, Turkey produces 19% of the world’s eggplants.  The common dish Baba Ganoush is Arabic for “a spoiling, cuddly father” – a good name for the inside pulp of this fruit/vegetable.  Only after a bit of cooking, the flesh of the eggplant breaks down and turns into a mush.

To peel or not to peel, that is the question?

The skin of the eggplant, in contrast to the mushy flesh, is resilient, tough, and (in most cases) purple.  Many who cook eggplant would prefer to remove the skin – it does contribute to the bitter taste which sometimes accompanies eggplants.  New studies, however, suggest that just like for most other fruits/vegetables, an inordinate amount of the vitamins and minerals are located in or just beneath the skin.  In particular, nasunin (what makes eggplants purple in the first place) has many benefits.  The benefit to the plant is that nasunin protects the fruit from the harmful rays of the sun acting as eggplant sunscreen.

For people, nasunin is an anti-oxidant.  Anti-oxidants are important to neutralize free radicals and thus are anti-aging nutrients.  (As my birthday is coming up next month, please pass me some more of that spicy eggplant salad!)  Nasunin inhibits free radicals at their source, by binding with Iron.

Think of chemicals in your body as children in a nursery school with toys.  Each child is happily playing with his/her toy.  Then, all of a sudden, one boy’s ball rolls under the fence.  He is unhappy, and goes to take some other child’s toy.  The second child then becomes unhappy, and steals someone else’s.  This continues over and over until the nursery school is in disarray.  Eventually, with all those unhappy children, something gets broken.

Some anti-oxidants are like teachers who  go around the nursery school, trying to give each child a new toy.  Sometimes this works and sometimes the child just wants their old toy back.  Nasunin, though, is like a string which attaches each toy to the appropriate child, thus preventing free radicals, lost and stolen toys, and general disarray.  Free radicals are very damaging for the nervous system (all those crying, miserable children running around the nursery school can give you a headache), so stopping them at the source protects your brain.

The other benefit nasunin gives to the body is that is curbs growth of new blood vessels.  What could be good about that?  Well, generally, we have all the blood vessels we need.  When does the body generate lots of new blood vessels?  That occurs when we develop growths.  These growths need an increased blood supply to thrive and so our bodies produce new blood vessels.   Some growths are cancerous – so by curbing formation of new blood vessels, eggplants are part of a program for slowing cancer.

So much good stuff in eggplant skin.  Next time you cook eggplant – KEEP THE SKIN ON!

(Thanks to Moshe for piquing my curiosity.)

Beautiful Be’eri Badlands

Maybe because I grew up some years in South Dakota, I am attracted to places which call themselves “Badlands”.  A few weeks ago on a Friday when my kids didn’t have school, I convinced my 13 year old, my 17 year old and a 13 year old friend to come with me to see flowers in the Badlands of Be’eri.  As I was preparing for the trip, I had to try to think what would make a flower hike interesting to a bunch of teenage boys.  Of course, every trip with me is fun, and my kids love being on the trail and joking around, but they also like a bit of challenge.  Often this challenge comes in map reading, climbing down dry waterfalls, reaching the top of some peak, or following wild boar tracks.  If the day is not challenging enough, I get it from them – they make fun of me and say that they will make sure to remember this hike for when I am “more mature”.  So flowers, teenage boys, badlands.  Hmm.

I have been trying to go to see the flowers in the area of Be’eri for a few years.  Because Be’eri is located in the Western Negev, the area comes within firing range for rockets fired from Gaza.  Unfortunately, for the past several years, rockets have been fired during the one month each year when the flowers are blooming in this section of almost desert – making a visit there unwise.  This year, the coast was clear (at least until the afternoon of the day we were there) and so I made the trip.

For every new flower we could identify from the flower books, either Tal, Gideon or Avi wrote the name of the flower on a whiteboard I had brought, and then took a picture.  They liked the whiteboard and soon took to drawing funny pictures about things they saw.  They took turns taking pictures, drawing pictures, holding the book.  Since the hike was not so challenging, they were able to draw and walk with ease, and looking up the flowers in a book was like an exercise in the “Where’s Waldo” sense.

We left early, to get there before the crowds, and parked the car.  I told them that despite the fact that we seemed to be on the edge of a random wheat field,  by the time we returned to the car several hours later, there would be many cars parked by mine.  They, of course, didn’t believe me.  Who believes their mother?  We started on the path which took us straight into the badlands of Be’eri.

What exactly gives a place the description “badlands”?  Here, in the Western Negev, winds blew sand particles in from the Sahara.  When these particles hit the damp air along the Mediterranean coast, they became heavy and deposited in the Western Negev.  There they mixed with clay to form loess.  Because of the clay content in the soil, rain that falls does not absorb into it, but rather rushes into the nehalim (streams) and creates flash floods.  The sudden surge of water causes erosion of the loess in low lying areas.  It is these flash floods which form the uneven terrain called “badlands”.  (Besides Be’eri, badlands can be found in Israel in the area of Ruchama.)

Because of the nature of  loess soil, it is the ideal environment for burrowing.  Animals, from single-cell organisms to voles, make their homes in the loess.  Over time, the death of these animals in the soil adds to the organic content of loess.  This, combined with the clay content,  makes loess great for growing grains – and we saw wheat and barley growing in plenty on our trip.  When we took time to examine the soil and I explained how it was formed and how important loess is to world nutrition (25% of the world’s caloric intake is from grains), they realized that “loess is more”.

As we took the long, somewhat boring route back to the car, we passed (and were passed by) tens of people riding bikes.  The terrain there, except the area within the badlands, is relatively flat; and on a beautiful spring day, it must have been a joy to bike.  As we got closer to the car, we decided to make a bet on how many cars would be parked near mine.  The kids all wanted to bet zero.  Who would have parked near us on the edge of the wheat field?  I bet four.  As we rounded the final bend, we saw not zero, not four, but nine cars with mine!  It was a popular spot and we were happy that we came early before the crowds.

A stop on the way home for ice cream (every trip ends with ice cream) made for 3 very happy teenage boys, and one happy mother!  I finally made it to the Be’eri badlands to see the flowers!