Monthly Archives: June 2011

Views of Haifa

I left Jordan. From Eilat I got on an express bus for Haifa in northern Israel. A six-hour cross-country journey.

This is Haifa. Israel’s third-biggest city, its biggest port, and home to a ridiculously big grain silo (the big grey building on the harbour). Apparently, this silo contains enough grain to keep all of Israel supplied for a full year in case the country is cut off from the rest of the world. It is a good example of the somewhat paranoid mindset that characterizes Israeli public policy. (though, as they say: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get you)

This is also Haifa. Home to the Baha’i gardens and the shrine of the Bab – a holy site for the Baha’i faith which around 5 million faithful around the world.

The gardens, which consist of 18 terraces – 9 below and 9 above the shrine – on the side of Mt Carmel, are meticulously trimmed and watered by 700 believers. The grass is of golf green quality. Everything is just right. And though the perfect symmetry of the gardens look nice at a distance, up close it’s kind of boring.

Instead of the Baha’i gardens, I found the nearby Ursula Malbin sculpture garden to be much more to my liking: not as tidy, but with much more life and character – especially through lovely and poetic sculptures such as this

I also liked this sculpted gate that I came across in the German Colony district of Haifa: it consists of two figures bending over, meeting in a kiss. I love the effect of looking up at the sculpture and into the blue sky above at the same time.

Jordan, Petra and the Red Sea

Last week, I went to Jordan for a few days. Mostly to visit Petra, the ancient Nabatean capital city hidden in the mountains. It is a spectacular sight, and the 2-kilometre walk through the narrow gorge called the Siq is like entering another world.

The Siq ends at the mausoleum of a Nabatean king carved beautifully out of the sandstone wall. It is easily recognised by Indiana Jones aficionados (such as me) as the temple that housed the holy grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

It’s hard to capture in one photo but Petra is huge. This is the view from the most remote carved mausoleum, known as the monastery, towards the centre of Petra:

It’s hard to tell in the photo but the rock wall in the distance is also lined with similar carved mausoleums (mausolei?).

Here’s another attempt to capture the grandness of Petra:

This is taken from atop the mountain above the centre of Petra. This is known as The High Place of Sacrifice, where the Nabatean high priests conducted the sacrificial rites. Down below, you can see the ruins of the city (all the houses were devastated by several huge earthquakes between 300 and 600 AD, eventually leading to the abandonment of the city). In the distance is the narrow gorge that leads to the monastery mausoleum.

These are the stairs that lead to the High Place of Sacrifice in Petra. Like most of the remnants of the city, the steps have been carved directly from the living rock

After two days of exploring Petra, I went to Aqaba, the main Jordanian town on the Red Sea to spend a day snorkelling in the coral reefs. Though most of the corals had died, there were plenty of weird, multi-coloured tropical fish to see. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take any photos under water, so here’s the red sea sunset instead.

(also: how can be called the Red Sea when it is so very blue?)

Israel’s Grand Canyon

So, I have left Neot Semadar behind to explore the rest of Israel. First stop along the way was a brief visit to the Maktesh Ramon, the huge canyon in the Negev desert. It’s like the Grand Canyon of Israel. As the guidebook says, it is the one place where Israel feels huge:

The Maktesh Ramon is really big, so to illustrate its size, I’ve tried to take a photo of the road to Eilat which winds its way down along the side of the canyon before continuing south across the desert:

A very brief primer on Hebrew

I haven’t been doing too well learning much Hebrew so far. The fact that the words are written and read from right to left, and that the letters aren’t latin makes it kind of hard to get started. Especially since it isn’t the primary focus of my trip. But I have managed to pick up a few words:

Shalom – literally: Peace, but is mostly used in the meaning “Good day”

Tov – good

Boker tov – good morning

Layla tov – good night

Ma Nismah – What’s up?

Ken – yes

Lo – No

Beseder – Literally: In order, but mostly used to say “All okay” or “All right”

Balagan – Mess. Can be used in a lot of fun ways: “You’re in bit of a balagan” or “It’s a balagan, but we’ll clean it up tomorrow.”

Yoffi – Great

Bevakasha – Can be used to mean both “Please” and “You’re welcome”.

Boi – Come! (that’s just about the only word of Hebrew that the goats understand)

Nachron – True, often used in the sense “precisely” or “I agree”

Sababa – Cool, groovy, all good.

Achla – cool.

Yalla – Usually “Right, then!” or “Let’s go!” but can be used in a wide range of different ways to indicate that you’re ready or that you’re tired of waiting. A typical example of this would happen regularly after breakfast when the goat yard team would sit together and discuss the day’s work. Often a fairly long 5-10 minute discussion of the particulars of feeding, herding and fixing things in the yard. And the end of the discussion, somebody would say “Yalla!” and everybody would get up, ready to go to work, satisfied with the result of the discussion. Except me, who hadn’t understood a word – except “yalla”.

As a small, interesting sidenote, the last three words on this list are all Arabic words that have been adopted into Hebrew.

Herding goats (and other animals)

A while back, I promised to tell a bit more about my work at the goat yard here at Ne’ot Semadar.

So this is what it looks like at the milking area of the Dir, which is the Hebrew word for goat yard.

The goats come into the milking area, stick their head into the trough, and activate a lock mechanism that prevents them from leaving until we’ve had time to milk them. So they’re stuck with their heads in the feed and their butts facing the world.

I get to look at a lot of goat butts these days, as I’m quite a few shifts milking and feeding the goats.

The Neot Semadar goat herd consists of 240 lactating female goats, 10 fully grown male goats, 60 small female goats and 5 small male goats.

The grown female goats are milked in the morning from around 5.45 and in the evening from around 16.30. Each goat produces around 2.5 litres of milk a day on average, so the daily total is around 600 litres.

All of that milk is taken to the local dairy to be turned into yoghurt, lassi, various kinds of cheeses and ice cream. Some is also just skimmed for use in the coffee or the kids’ cereal.

One of the best things about working with the goats is taking them out to pasture. Here the young female goats, the nigmalot, are grazing quietly around 7.30 am. And while they eat, you get to sit and contemplate, enjoying the morning as much as they do.

Some of the goats have more personality than others. And this one is especially outgoing. This is Nerchama (the ch is pronounced as in German like a throat clearing noise, not as the “ch” in “chair.”). It is a Hebrew name that means “consolation” or “comfort”.

Nerchama is one of the biggest, and thus one of the hungriest goats in the herd. This means that she will come back into the milking area when other goats are coming out to have seconds. On this photo she is in her favourite pose: Waiting for the gate to the milking area to open so that she can run in and snatch a few leftovers. 

She is quite strong, and usually the best tactic for getting her out of the milking area is to pull her by the ears, which, as you can see, are already quite long.

There are ten male goats that are kept separate from the rest of the herd, and for good reason. They only have one thing on their mind. Having seen male goats up close I understand fully why the devil is commonly depicted as half-goat half-man.

With their big horns, their long beards and their eyes with weird elongated pupils they look decidedly other-worldly up close. They are like the incarnation of the archetypical male features: They swagger, they butt horns and fight, they exude a heavy, sweet musk. In short, they are the incarnation of the desire to procreate. Some of them even come up and rub themselves against against us when we take them out to pasture.

As Isaac, who is one of the people in charge of the goat yard, says, the males are hot right now. And the time is close: Within a couple of weeks, they will start the mating.

Another interesting character of the goat yard is the goose. It follows the herd around everywhere. To the point where popular imagination has it that it is goose that thinks it is a goat. Here it is seen drinking from the goats’ water trough:

Story has it that there used to be two geese, and they would always make violent racket in the yard, annoying everybody who worked there. One day, one of the geese disappeared. Only a few days later was it discovered that it had – literally – fallen into a ditch and died. It was a hole dug for some irrigation piping, and it had been unable to climb up. The goat yard volunteers, rather cynically, rejoiced.

Yet another strange resident around the goat yard is this desert antilope. The kibbutzniks found it years ago lying injured close to the kibbutz, and they brought it in and took care of it. And it has been part of the herd ever since.

The goats mostly ignore it, and it just sort of does its own thing most of the time. But it is often around when there’s food to be had. Here it is joining in while the male goats are eating.

 One annoyance that comes with the territory in the Dir is the flies. The combination of warm goatshit and lots of fresh milk attracts a lot of flies. Apparently, they also like the warmth of the electrical kettle:

The military presence

Being in such a peaceful and harmonic place as Neot Semadar, it would be easy to forget that you’re in a country that has been at war with its neighbours once almost every decade since the 1940s.

But because Israel is such a small country, even Neot Semadar is not very far away from reality. Just north of the kibbutz, on the other side of the Turtle Mountain, the Israeli military has a big training ground for tank warfare. And every other day or so, you can hear the not so distant booming of guns and the rattle of machine gun fire from across the ridge, reminding you that the army, and the threat of war, is still there.

Along the road going north from Neot Semadar, the army has posted very solid warning signs such as these to keep people from entering their training ground.

This means that we can’t go hiking in the desert around the kibbutz because of the danger of being blown to bits by random gun fire. Except on Shabbat, when the soldiers rest. So we can go for short half-day excursions into the wild.

The kibbutz menu

One question that that my Danish relatives will be certain to ask me when I get home is “How was the food?”

In Neot Semadar, that question is remarkably easy to answer because we get the same food every week. That is to say: The weekly menu is the same. So without further ado, let me present the weekly menu:


Breakfast: Make-your-own-salat from salad, cabbage, tomato, peeled cucumber, lentil sprouts, carrot, onion, parsley, lemon, olives, white cheese, tahina, boiled eggs, olive oil, salt and pepper. Whole grain bread, white bread and apricot jam as needed.

Lunch: Wok dish with tofu and rice, salad, tahina and white bread.

Dinner: Soup, potato salad, salad, tahina and white bread.


Breakfast: Actually, breakfast is the same as described above every day of the week.

Lunch: Stuffed bell peppers with salsa, salad, hummus and white bread.

Dinner: Soup, cous cous, salad and white bread.


Lunch: White beans in tomato sauce, white and full grain rice, steamed vegetables, salad, tahina and white bread.

Dinner: Soup, baba ganoush, salad and white bread.


Lunch: Breaded fish, mashed potatoes, salsa, salad, tahina and white bread.

Dinner: Soup, hummus, salad and herb bread.


Lunch: Ratatouille, rice with lentils, salad, tahina and white bread.

Dinner: Soup, taboulleh, halloumi or cream cheese, salad and white bread.


Lunch: Spaghetti in tomato sauce, egg-lentil puree, carrot salad and white bread.

Dinner: Fried or steamed fish with sauce (four different variants), rice, salad, tahina and challah. Fruit for dessert.


Breakfast: As above, except there’s omelet instead of boiled eggs, toasted bread and yoghurt lassi!

Afternoon meal: Leek quiche, rice, leftover spaghetti and carrot salad, salad, tahina and white bread.

You’ll notice that there’s tahina served with almost every meal. Israelis eat tahina with everything. The typical tahina sauce served here is made as follows:

Mix tahini with water 1:1. Stir well to make the sauce even and smooth. Add salt, lemon juice and garlic to taste. 

And it’s good with almost everything: On toast with apricot jam, as a dressing for your salad, with your rice, as a dipping for bread… Try it out!

The breakfast table

Nadav and Sharon’s wedding

Last week was pretty busy not only because of Shavuot, but also because of the wedding. On Thursday, Nadav and Sharon wed in Ne’ot Semadar, and there was a big old celebration with 200 people, lots of food, lots of singing and lots of dancing, as you can see from the photo.

It was a communal wedding with everyone in the kibbutz being involved in the preparations. The chief wedding planner works with Nadav in the dairy, and several other key organisers works with Sharon in the kitchen. It seems that these organisers were more involved in making everything happen than the bride and groom themselves.

Everybody in the kibbutz also performs songs or speeches on the night to celebrate the newly-weds. It is a communal expression of creativity as everybody appears to be able to either play and instrument or sing beautifully around here.

The communal aspect of the wedding is also underlined by the fact that everybody gets up for work as usual at 6 am the following morning. There are still goats to milk and milk to pasteurize and fruits to pick – as well as a wedding party to clean up after.

Did I mention that it was an alcohol-free party? Apart from a very weak welcome punch, there was no alcohol at all at the wedding. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realised how long it is since I’ve been to a big celebration or party with no alcohol. Something to think about when you consider Danish alcohol culture.

Celebrating Shavuot

Yesterday, the celebration of Shavuot – the Jewish holiday celebrating when God handed down the ten commandments on Mount Sinai – began. It is also a harvest festival, and so, this installation was put up in the lobby of the dining hall. It is, of course, a quotation from the old testament, deutoronomy 8:8 :

It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey.

Part of the Shavuot tradition is the ceremonial picking, beating and separating the wheat from the chaff.

This is the picking.

This is the beating.

This is the separation, where all of the beaten wheat is thrown into the air repeatedly.

But, as usual with Jewish holidays, the best part of Shavuot was the food. It is also known as the cheese festival, and as such it was a rare opportunity to sample all of the different kinds of goat’s milk cheeses that are produced here at Neot Semadar’s own dairy. Verrry good.