Monthly Archives: May 2011

Sad but hungry

There are a lot of holidays in Israel. Some are Jewish religious holidays with specific rituals, stories and foods. Others are national Israeli holidays. In the month that I’ve been in Israel so far, there has been quite a few:

  • Pesach – I arrived in Israel for the last day of Pesach, also known as Passover, which matches Easter. Pesach is to commemorate when the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. It is said that when the pharaoh freed the Israelites, they were in such a hurry to leave that they could not wait for their bread dough to rise. Therefore, for the duration of Pesach, only a specific unleavened kind of bread (a wafer, really) called Matzo is sold and eaten in Israel.
  • Yom HaShoah – also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day. A national day of mourning for the many Jewish victims of the Holocaust (Shoah in Hebrew). On the day, there is a big ceremony at the national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, and at 10 am, sirens ring out all across the country for two whole minutes. In those two minutes everything grinds to a halt, as all Israelis stop, stand up and quietly commemorate. I was in a bus going north from Jerusalem when the sirens rang, and the bus just came to a halt in the middle of the highway and everybody got up for a few minutes of silence.
  • Yom Hazikaron – or with its full English title “Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day”. This is another national day of mourning with another 2 minute siren call for silence at 8 PM the evening before (because days begin at sunset according to the Jewish calendar). This remembrance day always takes place the day before the Israeli Independence Day to remind people of the price paid for independence (also, I guess it would be too much of a downer to have the happy day first followed by the sad day).
  • Yom Ha’atzmaut – The Israeli Independence Day, which is a day off with lots of fun, good food, smiles and fireworks. I celebrated both of these days here in Neot Semadar, and even here, in a sort of hippie-ish kibbutz in the middle of the desert, both of these holidays were celebrated with great reverence and joy (respectively).
  • Lag BaOmer – yet another holiday commemorating that some people died a long time ago. I didn’t quite get the story, but it was celebrated with a big bonfire and lots of falafel and watermelon.
  • Shavuot – is not until next week, but it is a holiday that commemorates when God gave the Torah (the ten commandments) to Moses on Mount Sinai. Here, most people are excited about the prospect of getting to eat loads of locally-produced cheese.

So, lots of holidays. As an often-told Jewish joke goes, all Jewish holidays follow the same basic premise: “Somebody tried to kill us; they didn’t succeed; now let’s eat!”

Shabbat in Ne’ot Semadar

Last night was Shabbat eve. Every week on Friday evening, there is a communal celebration. The kibbutzniks put on their best white clothes and gather for a shabbat meal. But before dinner is served, they dance in front of the dining hall.

It is a special sort of dance, developed especially by and for Neot Semadar, expressing their unity and shared creativity – but that is another story.

After the shabbat dance, as the sun sets, all of the tables and chairs are brought from the dining hall outside into the courtyard.

When all the tables are set and people have been seated, the sun has usually already set completely. But before the meal begins, the shabbat kitchen crew (which organises the three shabbat meals: The Friday evening meal, the Saturday breakfast and the Saturday afternoon meal) will sing a song.

And then we finally get to eat! The shabbat eve meal is one of only two weekly occasions where we get fish, as well as the special sweet shabbat bread called Challah.

People’s demeanor change a lot once they put on their Shabbat white. The families sit together for the meal (during the week, children and parents have their meals separately – the children in the Children’s House, the adults in the Dining Hall). The children play and laugh and the adults have a glass or two of the local wine. Everybody are happily relaxed after a long week.

Shabbat is our weekly day off here. Today everybody can sleep in and take time to do things their own way. Well, not everybody. I got up at 5.30 to go and milk the goats. The goats don’t really care if it’s shabbat or not. But the goats and the goat yard is a whole other story, suffice to say that I was done in time for the late breakfast. 


Apricots are called “mishmish” in Hebrew (the wonderfully sounding “mishmishim” is the plural of mishmish), and they’re definitely in season right now. Every day we pick loads and loads of fresh mishmishim. We bring them to the fruit processing plant where they are sorted, steamed and pulped. The pulp will be used for jams and nectar, and the pits will be used for oil.

This week, I’ve been working in the fruit processing plant, and most of the time, it has gone smoothly. Though we did have a minor mishap with the forklift:

(and no, I didn’t drive it).

Working in the date plantation

This week, I’ve been working in the date plantation. The date plantation is very close to the border to Jordan. It takes about 20 minutes by car to go from Ne’ot Semadar to the plantation:

The date palms are typically between 4 and 15 meters tall, so we use a ramp to get up to the dates. The dates aren’t ready for harvest yet, and they won’t be until late August or early September. So right now we’re thinning the date bunches so that the ones we leave on the tree will grow big and sweet.

Here’s my fellow volunteer Souf manning the controls of the ramp. The ramp is specially designed to handle date palms, and can reach up to 18 meters. The date palms grow by half a metre per year, so after 40 years they’ll be too big for the ramp. The plantation is only around 25 years old, so there’s plenty of time left.

This photo gives a better idea of the size of the date palms, as well as of the plantation as a whole.

Kibbutz life

The description of life in Neot Semadar that I was sent when I signed up as a volunteer has proven remarkably accurate.

A big part of my first week here has been to get synchronized with the rhythm of the kibbutz. Because there is such a big focus on community, on communal living and cooperation, we also spend a lot of time together.

The day starts at 5.45, when we have the morning meeting in the communal dining room. Up towards 90 adults sit together in silence, nursing a cup of tea, slowly waking up, thinking, meditating, doing their own thing. The meeting ends when someone quietly says “Boker Tov” – which means “good morning” in Hebrew – around 6.05. People slowly get up, and go about with their activities for the day.

All tasks are organized on the daily work sheet, so you don’t decide what kind of work you’ll be doing (though it is organised based on abilities, expertise and interests), and you can request to be given certain kinds of work by the work sheet manager.

My first week has been in the kitchen. Almost all new volunteers start out in the kitchen, as there is a never-ending need for people to do the dishes and chop vegetables for the three daily communal meals. I’ve been in the kitchen from 6.05 to around 16.00 or 17.00 most days so far. The weekend is Friday and Saturday, with Friday being a half-day of work, and Saturday being completely free of duties (though, the goats still have to be milked and fed, of course).

From next week on, I hope to get on with a wider range of different tasks, weeding, picking fruit, cutting date palms, milking the goats and what have you. I’ll try to take some photos once I do, because taking photos of the kitchen isn’t as much fun.

I’m still trying to get used to getting up at 05.30 six days a week. But then it’s important to remember to notice the good things about getting up early – such as enjoying the sunrise:

Welcome to Ne’ot Semadar

The Grand view of Ne’ot Semadar – the kibbutz I’m staying at for the next month or more. It’s pronounced “neh-OHT smeDAR”. Roughly translated, Ne’ot Semadar means “Beautiful Blossoms” in Hebrew. Interestingly enough, the oasis is man-made. Everything there, including the two lakes (!!!) are dependent on miles of irrigation piping and water drawn from the nearby desalination plant.

The kibbutz started in 1989, taking over from an older, defunct kibbutz called Shizzafon that fell apart a couple of years previously.

I took the previous photo with the grand overview of the kibbutz from the top of the local hill, called the Turtle Mountain. Hopefully, this photo can help explain the name.

We’re only allowed to climb the mountain on Shabbat, as there’s an army training ground just on the other side, where the local tank brigade have their practice during the week, and you can hear the guns booming from time to time. But like everywhere else around here, they don’t work on Saturdays.

Here is a a description of Ne’ot Semadar intended for volunteers inquiring from abroad:

Neot Semadar is a small secular kibbutz, located 60 km north of Eilat, in the middle of the desert.

It is based on organic agriculture that includes vineyards, olive groves, deciduous trees – apricot, nectarine, peach, plum, pear, apple and almonds, and a large date plantation. Goats are raised for milk that is processed to cheese, yogurt, etc., There is a Winery roducing red and white wines from the grapes, and a fruit processing plant producing juices, nectars, jams and dried fruit.

These products and the Arts and Crafts are sold on a roadside restaurant-shop.

There are up to 200 people (including children and volunteers) living together and there is a small local school for the children.

The working day begins at around 6 in the morning and end at 16 in the evening in the winter, and during the hot summer season we start earlier, have 4-5 hours of siesta and then continue till 19:00.

There is a worksheet prepared by the work manager for all the people in Neot Semadar, each day anew, according to the necessities of the hour. You may be working in the kitchen, milking goats or picking olives, serving in our restaurant or building with stones, sometimes doing many different things during the working day.

Room and board is provided. There are usually 2 persons in a modest apartment, same sex only (except couples, of course).

The food is vegetarian, with fish twice a week. We eat what is served on the table.

It is a kind of quiet life, with no facilities of entertainment. One is asked to wear decent clothes, no piercing, and to be quiet during meals. Any cellular phones are asked to be left and used in one’s room.

At the centre of Neot Semadar is the Arts Centre, a huge, wonky building that took seven years to build! Inside, there are workshops for ceramics, textiles, painting and more. But I do get the impression that the people here enjoyed building the Centre more than they enjoy using it. Most of all, it is a monument to the creativity, collaboration and consensus decision making processes of the kibbutzniks.

A detail view of the courtyard inside the Neot Semadar Arts Centre.

Another view from the top of Turtle Mountain. This really shows the difference between the desert and the oasis. And you can see the red mountains of Jordan in the distance (those are the mountains where the fabled lost city of Petra is located).

Nazarene delights

This is the entrance to the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth where I stayed for two nights. The door is only 140 cm, so you have to bow down to enter (to show respect to God and to the lord of the house).

The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. It is said to be built on the site where the virgin Mary was told that she was pregnant with the son of God by the arch-angel Gabriel.

There are so many churches in Israel. It seems that any place mentioned more than fleetingly in the New Testament has had a church built upon it. And they seem to have a penchant for odd names as well. The Church of Annunciation. The Church of the Nativity. The Church of Transfiguration. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church of the Ascension. And so on and so forth.

A selection of the spices at the amazing El Babour spice mill in Nazareth (the name is an Arab pronounciation of the English word “Vapor”, as the mill was one of the first steam-powered mills in the Middle East. At one point, all of the spices in the Galilee were processed here.

The many faces of Jerusalem

I’ve been in Israel for a week now. I’ve spent that week exploring Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and Jerusalem. I haven’t felt like blogging yet, and besides, I haven’t brought a computer so I can’t spend a long time composing thoughtful blog posts. But I have taken quite a few photos. Here’s a few of the many faces of Jerusalem:

The old city of Jerusalem. Including the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall.

Mayday in J’lem (Friday the 29th of April)

Orthodox Jewish posters in Jerusalem: please wear modest clothes.

Banksy graffiti in Bethlehem, the West Bank