Category Archives: Israel and Palestine

Mishmishim

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

Taking off

Today, I’m heading out. For the next three months, I’ll be travelling and living in the Middle East. Most of the time in Israel and Palestine. Through the Israeli WWOOF network, I’ve arranged to stay at the kibbutz Neot Semadar in southern Israel. Through my stay I hope to experience communal kibbutz life, learn a lot about organic agriculture and sustainable building practices, and explore a wholly different climate and culture. Further along, I’ll be exploring Israel and Palestine, in part to try and make sense of the strained political situation and the religious and cultural importance that so many people place upon this relatively small area.

This sabbatical is primarily a means to activate my wanderlust, which has been growing for the past couple of years. But it is also a means for me to get away from my old everyday life. In the past few months, my long-time girlfriend and I have broken up, and I have moved out of the commune where we have lived for the past two and half years. It feels like I’m starting over. But I still don’t know what that means.

Taking off like this is an opportunity for me to review my life and figure out what’s important to me, and how I want my life to be in the longer run. It sounds big. And I guess it feels big, too. But I take some comfort in the fact that even long journeys can be reduced to just putting one foot in front of the other. Moving forward doesn’t have to be more difficult than that.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

A floating orange tree in Jaffa.