Beer Sheva to Jerusalem

Last week on October 31st, Beer Sheva celebrated 100 years since the capture of the city by the British and ANZAC forces in 1917.  And while the area around Beer Sheva was busy with streets closed, parades, thousands of visitors from Australia and New Zealand, and even a reenactment of the light horsemen’s charge, the event was scarcely remembered in the center of the country.  A one-liner on the hourly news was almost all that the event garnered in the national press.  Soon, on December 11th, we will mark 100 years since the British rule in Jerusalem, which will also be celebrated.light horsemen

Echoing the disconnect between people in the center and in the periphery in Israeli society, the two events are seen as separate.  Jerusalem doesn’t recall the Beer Sheva battle; and Beer Sheva has no idea how victory there led to British rule in Jerusalem.  These two events are, in fact, intrinsically connected.  In The Atlas of Palestine: 1917-1966 by Salman H. Abu-Sitta, the first section of the book on the British Mandate starts thus:

On the evening of October 31, 1917, with overwhelming force, the British army over-ran the small Turkish garrison in the town of Beer Sheba in a surprise attack from the south and east. The attack had been expected from the west. The Turkish flag opposite the mosque was lowered and the Union Jack was raised. Thus ended 1400 years of Arab Islamic rule….   Beer Sheba was the key to Palestine at its southern gate. Palestine now lay open to British occupation.

Interestingly, Abu-Sitta does not even mention Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem.  According to him, only because of the victory at Beer Sheva was the British mandate established.  Beer Sheva was the turning point of the war in the Levant.  After horrific losses in Gallipoli, the disheartened Commonwealth soldiers suffered 2 losses at Gaza.  General Allenby replaced General Murray and breathed fresh air into the battle theater.  His direct attack and victory at Beer Sheva would lead, finally, to conquest of Gaza and then Jaffa.

The possibility of threatening Jerusalem from the east via Hebron and from the west from Jaffa meant that the Ottoman line was stretched thin through mountainous terrain.  Allenby decided to strike from the North and cut off the Jerusalem-Nablus road.  This necessitated continuing on to el-Bireh through Shilta (Shilat), el-Burj (Givat Titura in Modiin), and Beit Ur El Tachta – Rt. 443 of today.

The fighting continued as a back and forth with a decisive battle happening on the plains below el-Burj.  There, the Australian and New Zealand troops joined with the Scots who were stationed there.  December 1, 1917 in the Judean hills was very different from Beer Sheva of October 31, 1917.  Winter had set in and the rain was falling.  (The Scots were still in their short knickers.)  Added to the inclement weather, the British troops faced “storm troopers”, specially chosen and trained by the Germans.  Only by sheer force of will and dedication did the British hold their fire when, “Allah hu achbar” was heard in the dark, cold silence.  They waited until the Turks were at point-blank range and then opened fire.  In the morning light the British troops prevailed and were able to advance up Rt. 443, cutting Turkish access to Jerusalem.

According to HS Gullett, an Australian War correspondent:

Had the enemy seized El Burj, the British would have been deprived of the use of the road leading up from Berfilya (on the western edge of Modiin), and the Beit Nuba (Mevo Horon) – Beit Sira valley would have become untenable. This would have weakened all the pressure towards the Nablus road, and exposed the left flank of the infantry which was making the main advance towards Jerusalem.

The same troops who first captured Beer Sheva were responsible for taking key positions on the road to Jerusalem.  By learning the relationship between events, we can form a more complete picture of the true connectivity of all of the land of Israel – periphery as well as center.

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Bedouins and Tourism

Bedouins of the Negev are an interesting part of the Israeli landscape. Their culture and their way of life make them a curiosity for all who pass the narrow roads of the Negev Highlands.  As we become more dependent on technology, the free existence that we associate with the Bedouin entices us.  The Bedouins moved into the Sinai desert from Arabia.  Trade routes and better pasture lands lured them to the Negev.  Their traditional lifestyle – living in small compounds with their flocks – reflected the desert’s ability to sustain life for small groups and specific lifestyles. bedouin

Until the last 30 years, Bedouin encampments were rarely seen by the casual visitor.  Tribal compounds were far from the main roads.  They were self-sufficient and moved with the flock.  Large life-cycle events, such as weddings, which lasted a week, brought together larger groups of people and kept the traditions alive through an otherwise scattered group.

Some parts of Bedouin culture seem idyllic to modern man. Bedouins don’t tend to have many things, but they are masters of having enough.  Items are praised not necessarily for their intended purpose but instead for their best purpose right now.  These, combined with the perceived simplicity of life, make Bedouin culture interesting to us.  Although I think that few “downsizers” would be willing to live in a Bedouin tent, the idea of fewer possessions, living in the present and focusing on the important things are more than undercurrents in popular quality-of-life philosophy, even if most people don’t come near to fulfilling these goals.

The interest in Bedouin culture and its philosophy echo in tourism.  The manager of a Bedouin tent experience outside of Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev Highlands said that in the past 15 years he has seen a change in tourists who come to the desert.  Fifteen years ago, the desert was about pushing the limits of extreme activities.  How far can you push yourself, your bike, your jeep, to get the biggest adrenaline rush?  Today, people are still hiking, biding and jeeping, but those activities have become simply the means.  The tourist uses those means in order to fulfill the goal – arriving at far removed places to just get away from it all. Bedouins are perceived to fill that end goal; they are seen as the ultimate “get away from it all” people.  Part of the allure of the Bedouins and why people are willing to take part of their vacation to spend with them is to connect with their lifestyle – free, unattached and authentic – a departure from the tourists’ everyday stresses.

There are many sites associated with the Bedouin and many ways to explore Israel’s friendly desert, from tea in a Bedouin tent to the newly developed Negev Highland Trail.  On your next trip to Israel, consider taking some time to connect to the Bedouin culture – not just to learn, but to experience.

Worms to Words

Silk is one of the most desirable fabrics. Ever since the Chinese discovered the strength, sheen and malleability of silk threads in the 4th millennium B.C.E. silk has been the textile of privilege. Although silk is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible, finds from ancient times are scarce. Organic materials break down with time and do not survive for archaeologists to find them.  The drier regions of Israel, however, have an ideal climate for the survival of organic finds.

During Byzantine times, with prosperity in the Negev and open trade routes, there are a few surviving fragments. Christian pilgrims traveling to holy sites from Egypt brought silk fragments to Nitzana where 4 fragments of this rare cloth were found. In Avdat, the Nabatean Byzantine city, one fragment was found dating from before the destruction of the city in 636 C.E. This fragment’s pattern was discernible and resembles patterns of tunics found in Egypt from this same time period. Nahal Omer in the Arava Valley yielded 3 silk fragments from among 250 textiles found there from the 7th-8th century C.E. The location of the spice route from Petra to Gaza led to the opulence of these locations and the existence of people who had the means to acquire silk garments.

qarantal silkThere is another place in Israel where silk has been found which is not associated with the spice route – Qarantal, above Jericho. In Cave 38 beneath Qarantal fortress (today known as the Mount of Precipice), were found 800 textile fragments from the 9th-13th century C.E. Many of them are compound silk fragments – silk woven in with other less expensive threads. All of these 800 fragments were used and most were from repaired garments.

Who was storing old clothes in a cave above Jericho? In antiquity, clothing was used and patched until it was beyond repair, and only then discarded. Researchers believe that this was not a giant trash heap but rather a horde of raw materials for another purpose. During this time, new technology came to the Middle East. A cheap substitute for parchment or papyrus was available. Developed and streamlined in China in the 2nd century C.E., paper-making made its way on the trade routes. Using wood pulp for paper would only be invented in 1843, and ancient paper production was from fabrics. Quality paper would be made from quality textiles, like silk, which could provide durable fibers.

Writing started circulating on this paper. Silk, which started as a product of worms, became at the end of their journey, substrate for words.  Worms to words.

The Making of a Zionist

I recently attended the screening of a movie which highlighted an interview in English with David BenGurion.  Interwoven with the interview are video clips and narration about BenGurion’s life.  It runs like a Tuesdays with Morrie for the quintessential Israeli leader.  One of the interesting assertions that BenGurion makes is that he was never a Zionist until he moved to the Negev kibbutz of Sde Boker after retiring from public life in 1963.  The man who declared the Independence of the Jewish State and masterminded the Independence War; the man who led the fledgling nation through the early years and settled Jewish immigrants.  This man claims that none of those activities were an expression of his Zionism.ben gurion sde boker

We need to ask two main questions:

  1. How does BenGurion define Zionism?
  2. What about the Negev brings out the Zionism in him?

Zionism, according to BenGurion, is the re-creation of the Jews in their land.  Re-creation implies that there was a destruction or loss.  Indeed, the Jewish people were created and had an independent state 2000 years ago; that state was lost and destroyed by the Romans; now the Jewish political entity is being re-created.

We know how important the Negev is in BenGurion’s vision of the success of the Jewish State.

“It is in the Negev that the people of Israel will be tested – For only with a united effort of a volunteering people and a planning and implementing State will we accomplish the great mission of populating the wilderness and bringing it to flourish.  This effort will determine the fate of the State of Israel and the standing of our people in the history of mankind.”

This describes Ben Gurion’s theory of Zionism for the Jewish people as a collective, but not for one individual – David BenGurion.

How does moving to the Negev  re-create David BenGurion?  When BenGurion was a young man, he moved to the land of Israel. Here he holed up in Sejera with the likes of Alex Zaid. He learned farming, although not so successfully, and worked the land. This had been his childhood dream – BenGurion created himself.

During his years in public service, he lost that direct connection with the land. It was a loss for a greater good – the Jewish people needed a leader. Only after he leaves public life can he re-create himself and return to his personal connection to the land. Where does this transformation happen? Naturally in the Negev. 

“It is in the Negev that the youth will be tested – its pioneer strength, vigor of spirit, and creative and conquering initiative.  Will it take advantage of the greatest, and most precious and rarest opportunity in the history of the entire nation – to create anew and to be fully immersed in creative enterprises, which necessitate infusion of the special and most wondrous properties locked and hidden in the recesses of the soul of each human being, the properties of creative valor which gain control of nature’s strongholds, and fashion the destiny of a people and its country.”

BenGurion re-creates himself, returning to the ideals of working the land which he espoused as a youth.

Many groups I take to the Negev desert experience the renewal which comes from being alone in the desert. Especially there you can strip off the trappings and become as bare as the surroundings. You can connect with your core, the driving ideals which steered you when you were young, and re-create yourself.

There, you can be a true Zionist, BenGurion style.

Take Out the Trash, Please

As much as anything else, the production of trash marks human lives.  What we dump in the trash tells quite a lot about who we are and what our lives are like.  Digging through trash from the past gives us a snapshot into ancient life. trash

This last year, excavations have been targeted not at the random items left behind in the ancient sites of Halutza and Shivta, but rather at organized dumps from the past.  These Negev strongholds had central areas for dumping trash which were located at the edge of town. Within these dumps, exist archaeological layers.  If we look at the heydays of these cities, late Roman through Byzantine eras, we see an abundance of trash, as one would expect in a large, sophisticated society.  Especially interesting is the appearance of different pottery types and sources.

The trash during the late Roman through the early Byzantine era (until 450 C.E.) included pottery from the area of Aqaba (Eilat) on the the Red Sea.  There was a special kind of pottery produced there for storing rations for the 10th Roman Legion which was stationed on the Red Sea.

As the Byzantine period continues, we see this Aqaba pottery disappearing when the 10th Legion disperses.  In its place, Gaza ware comes onto the scene.  This type of pottery which was imported from the Mediterranean coast  was very common for storing wine.   Gaza ware was found in the trash heap during the Middle and Late Byzantine periods but not afterwards during the Moslem period, when wine was forbidden according to Islamic law.

Over half of the pottery from the Byzantine period in Halutza was Gaza ware.  Looking around today at the parched landscape, one may incorrectly think that they needed to import pottery because there was no local production.  Byzantine Halutza, however, had its own pottery factory.  Gaza ware was of superior quality and the wealthy Negev cities could afford to have the best storage for their wine.

This wealth is evident by the remains of foodstuffs found in the trash.  The Halutza populace was eating fish from the Red Sea and mollusks from the Mediterranean, attesting to the high socioeconomic level of Middle and Late Byzantine Halutza and Shivta.

At the end of the Byzantine era, for reasons which are as yet unconfirmed, the Negev cities become slowly depopulated.  During their slow demise, the people living in Halutza and Shivta stop taking their trash to the dump.  In my mind I think about the decline in Detroit.  When a population moves out and becomes impoverished, their trash accumulates nearer to their homes.  We find that in Shivta, the residents of this slowly failing city start dumping their trash in their neighbors’ abandoned homes and cease to use the municipal dump.  Turns out  what is thrown out and where it is deposited can say something about history.  We are creating an archaeological record when we tell our kids, “Please, take out the trash.”

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
shivta
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

Chalcolithic Climate Changes

Climate change is a hot topic today.  How is man impacting his environment and what can we expect in the future if the current trends continue?   Deep in the heart of the Negev comes evidence of another climatic change from pre-historic times.

The Chalcolithic era lasts from about 5500-3300 B.C.E. in the area of Israel today.  Chalcolithic means copper/stone and marks the transition between the technology of the stone age and that of the bronze age.  During Chalcolithic times there were many settlements in places which today are considered the fringe of civilization.  The Negev region is one of them.  In June 2016 as part of road works extending Rt. 6 to Shoket Junction, there was a discovery of a Chalcolithic settlement in a region which today has less than 200 mm of rain per year.  That little amount of rain is not even enough to support wheat, and so could not provide a community’s food needs.  The dig in this location uncovered a Chalcolithic agricultural settlement as indicated by its grain storage pits which existed through all 4 layers of settlement.   If it was an agricultural settlement, this is a sign that at that time there was more rainfall than there is today.

Not only grain pits were found but also water cisterns for catching flood waters from Nahal Hebron were found at the site.  During one period the entire site was covered by a layer of loess from Nahal Hebron indicating a much wetter climate where alluvial material to a depth of 1-1.5 m was deposited over the site.  After this period, the cisterns got even larger necessitating steps.  Buildings during this time were made of mud bricks, just like those found from the same time period at Tel Sheva; mud bricks can only be made if there is abundant water.  However, during the latest settlement period, the cisterns were filled in and the settlement drastically shrunk in size.

What led to the collapse of this settlement and others like it in the Negev during the Chalcolithic time?  Does the filling in of the cisterns show a lack of water?  And if the climate changed and caused the abandonment of the settlement, what caused the change? Besides learning about the past, studying these climate changes can help us to understand what may happen if we experience a drastic climate change as perhaps the people of ancient Shoket junction did. negev-water

Nearby sites:
  • Tel Beer Sheva National Park
  • Yatir forest
  • Lakia Bedouin crafts

2% Cave Men

Israel has always been a bridge between cultures.  Its unique location between Europe, Africa and Asia positioned it at the center of transportation and exchange of goods and ideas.  This function goes way back to prehistory.  In the last few years, paleo-archaeological sites in the Negev are reaching back into time to uncover a colossal meeting between Neanderthals and homo sapiens (modern man).

Scientists believe that Neanderthals were being forced out of Europe because of environmental changes.  At the same time, sub-Saharan African homo sapiens were spreading out and heading north.  The exact route of these journeys is hard to determine exactly.  The only remains that were found in the Negev to date are their technologies so its hard to create a narrative of their meeting.  Genetics today shows that 2% of non-sub-Saharan human DNA comes from Neanderthals, so there must have been some sort of contact.

flintThe Negev would have been a rich source of flint for spear heads for early man.  Today, even the casual visitor comes across areas of concentrations of flint shards on the ground.  Careful examination of the technology involved in forming spear heads and their shape provides a clue into what this meeting between Neanderthals and Modern Man looked like in the Negev and whether it occurred here at all.  A recent archaeological dig in Boker Tachtit, within the National Park of Ein Avdat, aims to look into this past.  At the site are 4 layers of human settlement between 55,600 and 42,850 years ago.  The results are still being examined at Weizmann Institute in Rechovot.  Next time you are hiking in the Negev and you come across a seam of flint, look for shaped stones and wonder whether this was shaped by a Neanderthal, a homo sapiens, or like most of us, someone who has some of both.

Related Sites:

  • Ein Avdat
  • Ein Ekev
  • Weizmann House and Institute

Complex

I am back from my Winter Birthright trip with OU-92, my first winter trip.  The closing ceremony was rushed and I didn’t really have a chance to share with the group some of the thoughts I had about our experience together.  I want first and foremost to thank my wonderful staff.  Rachamim, Vera, DJ, Tehilla, Rabbi Zalman, and Rabbi K cared, listened, and contributed.  A staff that works together can make a good trip into a GREAT trip and you all truly did.
OU-92 Erev Shabbat Roof
Looking back on my Birthright experience this winter with OU-92, the word that kept coming into mind was

Complex.

The first factor which led to the complexity of the trip was the weather.  And, although, we got quite lucky with the weather, it did eventually catch up with us.  In Birthright, I expect changes in the timing due to unforeseen events; with this trip, however, the changes were due to inclement weather.  How could you cancel Mt. Hertzl?  How do you make a coherent day in Tel Aviv when you can’t do almost anything outside? Sandstorm on Masada, surging waves at the Tel Aviv Port, heavy rains at the Bedouin tent….

Complex.

That complexity came out in the stories the participants gave about their lives.  Stories about decisions they made that were not easy, about family situations that are far from comfortable, about loss.  Life is not so simple.

Complex.

And then there is the natural complexity of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel trying to grapple with the Religion of Israel. These three factors trying to fit together to form a coherent whole.  Many times vying with each other, many times coming to loggerheads, many times in beautiful harmony.  The people on the street who said the entire project is too hard for them; the soldiers who said that they are willing to fight for trying to build the puzzle that is Israel; the little gains that you can see if you look hard enough.  Transforming the desert into wonderful peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes.  Providing work for handicapped adults.  Energizing a whole theater with Jewish pride.  Connecting us to our past through stones and stories.  Showing us beauty through waterfalls and endless vistas.

Complex.

At the end, however, the largest complexity dwells in the individual.  How each and every one of us weaves the story of our ancestors into our present day existence and decides how it will influence our future is the most complex task of all.

I look forward to hearing about how you, the participants of OU-92, take on this complex project and carry the experiences we shared here in Israel into your futures.

‘Cause we are

We are shining stars

We are invincible

We are who we are

On our darkest day

When we’re miles away

So we’ll come

We will find our way home

 

If you’re lost and alone

Or you’re sinking like a stone

Carry on

May your past be the sound

Of your feet upon the ground

Carry on.

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.
limans
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!