Category Archives: Israel and Palestine

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:

Sunday

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.

Monday

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.

Tuesday

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.

Wednesday

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

Dinner: Soup, hummus, salad and herb bread.

Thursday

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

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

Friday

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.

Saturday

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. 

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.