My Journey

In September, 2009, this Canadian boy started a masters program the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, learning about ecology and health, middle-eastern politics and the environment, and how a dire problem may facilitate a region's coming together for the better. This Blog is a record of my head-first dive into this immense world.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

As the New Year Approaches

Yikes!  My last post was on December 12th!  A ton has been going on here, and I've been a little caught up to report on it.  Just to give you a little taste, for my environmental education class I made a trip over to Aqaba one chilly morning to teach a high school class about sustainability.  I ended up being cajoled into staying all day and mostly chatting with the students, since they really just wanted an English speaker to come in and talk to them.  In the end, they offered me a job teaching Biology starting in September!  We had another intense trip over Christmas, this time to Jerusalem.  The trip included Gilo, a "settlement" within the green line, Efrat, a real contested settlement (where we spoke with Rabbi Riskin, a leader in the settlement community), a talk with Ir Amim, an Israeli social justice watchdog, including a trip through Arab East Jerusalem, and finally a trip into a refugee camp in the area.  Needless to say, tensions were a little high and the practice of "compassionate listening we've been working so hard on broke down not a few times.  This was all followed by a well-deserved weekend doing whatever we liked in Jerusalem, and many of us spent Christmas in Bethlehem (imagine!).  Right now I'm working on some projects, but I'll fill in the details as much as I can soon!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

An Angelic Arava Alumnus

Here is a recent article in the Jerusalem Post about Ilana Meallem, maybe the most charismatic and positive person I've ever met.  She graduated from the institute a couple years ago after doing some award-winning research on Bedouin health issues.  She now does an insane amount of work on peace-building and environmental activism - all from her home/peace van.  Her friends call her a techno-Bedouin.  It's inspiring to me that such a person exists, and a bonus that I've met her and am in the same program she went through.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


That's right, it rained!  No dust in the air, the ground soaking wet, and a rainbow to boot!  It smelled so good around here.  But wouldn't you know it, 48 hours later and it's like it never happened.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Arna's Children

The gloves really came off tonight.  First we had our environmental leadership seminar, where we watched a short movie about direct, non-violent action against the felling of old growth forests of Australia - essentially holing up in trees, lying under bulldozers, holding satirical dramatic protests in the streets.  The discussion after this was fairly moderate, mostly centered around the ethics of civil disobedience to accomplish particular goals.

Then came a voluntary viewing of the film "Arna's Children", which follows the lives of a few Palestinian children from the Jenin refugee camp. All of the children were involved in the project of a woman named Arna, who brought an educational program to the camp involving art and theatre.  This part of the movie is truly inspiring, if a little bit disturbing - this woman is incredibly political, but she tries to help these hurt, frustrated, and angry children channel their anger into something beautiful.  Even through her efforts though, their art and their theatre often remains centered around the "resistance", and in one scene, following the demolition of one of the youth's house by the IDF, she encourages them to act out what they would do to a soldier if they saw one.  Slowly, throughout the movie, you see glimpses of what happens to these children - one becomes a suicide bomber, a few are killed in the fighting during the siege of Jenin.  Through conversations with many people in the camp you get a sense of the general attitude of the people - the resistance is ingrained into their very sense of self.

So then we got to talking.  It really surprised me, but many of the Palestinian students were very reluctant to denounce the form of resistance demonstrated by the boys later in their life, even the suicide bombings.  To be sure, they all said explicitly that they were personally against these attacks, but they also said that they could understand the motivation.  For many people, growing up in the culture of martyrdom, this is "the only way"  Many of them have lost friends and family members to the conflict, and to them whether or not a death is "collateral" or not, or whether it was intended or not, they feel that resistance is justified, that if the IDF comes with violence that they have a right to respond with violence.  The Israelis and Americans of course emphasized the fundamental difference in the ethics of what the IDF does (ie minimizing civilian damage, trying to be as precise as possible) and what a suicide bomber does, but of course things on the ground never are as clear cut as that.  All I can say is that for a Canadian boy who's only experience with violence was a playground fight in third grade, I can only superficially understand.  The night ended with hugs and crying, and then we stood in a circle and held hands, and reminded ourselves that we're not here to trip over the past, but to try and build a better future.

Monday, December 7, 2009

More on the way!

Wow, it's been two weeks!  Sorry for those coming to the site and leaving disappointed.  I do assure you though, more is on the way - midterm season is a bit rough no matter where you are :-).

In the meantime, here are an amusing picture from the old city in Bethlehem:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Negev Trip Part 1

Ok, I know you’re dying for Bethlehem. But right now we are on the mid-semester trip to the Negev Highlands, and there’s just too much interesting stuff to share! I packed my roots backpack full with clothes, a sleeping bag for a tent night, schoolbooks and laptop, and of course couldn’t go without my banjo. We packed all 50 of us into a bus and drove about 2 hours north and west to Sde Boqer. This area, according to people who travel from Ketura and the Eilat region, is cool and wet. This means it gets up to 100 (count ‘em) millimeters of rain a year, as opposed to the less than 20 in EIlat. It’s also about 700 meters higher, meaning that you really need a good jacket to be out past sunset in November. Getting there bright and early in the morning, first thing we did was head into the wadis for a hike, and surveyed the open landscapes. Looking out over these almost barren limestone and flint hills stretching to the horizon, wadis crisscrossing the open space, ibex relaxing in the paths, you get the impression of boundless space – Israel isn’t a tiny country after all!

Once we got back though, we got some help from our professors in looking more closely. More than half of the land area of Israel is the Negev in the south, and yet only about 9 percent of the population lives there. For the past number of decades, it has been a government priority to settle people (i.e. Jews, more on that later) into these areas, promoting development and pouring a lot of money into the areas. About 80 percent of the Negev is designated military and is used for training purposes, and another 50 percent or so is nature preserve (the math baffles me too, but strangely there’s a ton of overlap) but much of the rest is open for discussion. If you ask different people, you’ll end with many different answers as to what to do with this land. Some people look at the Negev and say “we need this area to stay open and wild, to be there for hiking, eco-tourism, and nature preserves, but not for settlement!” Settlement looks inefficient here, sprawling and poor. Life expectancies, services, and general qualities of life are indeed lower here. Others will say that this is the best place for settlement, open and awaiting a population who will make this area bloom – as desalination technology gets cheaper, water really needn’t be a limiting factor here, and Israelis are incredible technologically and agriculturally. And indeed, the government has over time funded many settlements, some of refugees and immigrant Jews from poorer parts of the world. They have also been leasing land for “homesteads” to Jews who want to make something of the land. One more thing that there has been plenty of in the Negev, since it is such a wide open space, is dumping and heavy industry – things that wouldn’t fly so well near the bigger centers.

There is one more thing that needs to be taken into account in these discussions, and this is the Bedouin populations that make their homes in Israel’s south. Originally semi-nomadic herders who wouldn’t have considered themselves part of any nationality and wandered across borders readily, since 1948 there is a significant Bedouin population that finds itself as Israeli citizens, caught between an old style of life and a new reality of borders and zoning laws. About 10,000 in 1948, this population is now about 160,000. In the south here there are many settlements of Bedouin unrecognized by the Israeli government because they live in areas that are not zoned as residential areas. As such, they receive no services (water, sanitation, garbage collection, electricity). The majority of the Bedouin have moved to areas recognized by the government and receive these services, but often at the sacrifice of much of their lifestyle – they receive a one-time compensation and perhaps a small house, but there are stories of those people then putting their livestock in the house and living outside in a tent – it’s just ingrained culturally. So many of these people persist here, bringing us to the start of our trip. The trip was really masterfully arranged, quite like a mystery story. The subject was Negev development and one by one we met a whole bunch of witnesses to the story, building up a clearer and clearer picture as we went.

Kornmehl Farms – The first visit on our trip was to an artisanal goat cheese farm, one of the 25 homesteads to be granted to people to further the development of the area. It is owned by a very nice Jewish couple, both graduates of agricultural school, who have had a dream from the beginning to open a farm and work with animals. Once they learned their trade they began looking for land near Jerusalem, but to no avail after about three years. The government finally decided to settle them on a little piece of land, about 200 acres, in the Negev, where they can’t really graze their goat herd. They make their living though, buying in feed, making amazing cheese and selling to markets and restaurants, also running their own small restaurant on the farm. The land authority, though, according to them difficult as always, is trying to make them move, and has only renewed their lease on a yearly basis for the past 8 years. So here we have our first in a pattern – everybody is standing in their own place, with their own goals and dreams, dealing with other people, groups, and institutions in a highly contested area.

Yerucham – The next stop on the trip was to a development town south of the farm, home to about 9,500. This town has existed for about 40 years, and has been heavily subsidized by the government as a settling place for many Jews from non-European countries, especially Arab countries. We first heard from a woman named Leah, who is a very famous social activist living in Yerucham. A teacher by trade, she moved to Yerucham with her husband about 30 years ago essentially to give herself to the development of people less fortunate than her. But in her own words, “that’s not how it worked”. She’s a modern orthodox woman, and has made great strides in women’s rights within that community, as well as being a hub of social organization for the community. Her passion for democracy, human rights, and equality were really inspiring, even if her rhetoric was a little strong and old-school leftist. After speaking with her for an hour and a half, we split up and went for dinner at a couple different houses, collectively the “Culinary Queens of Yerucham”. This is one of Leah’s social programs, organizing women in the community to open their houses for groups passing through, sharing both their food and their stories. The woman who’s house I ate at cam from Morocco looking for a better life, not even knowing where in Israel she would end up. Imagine ending up in the middle of the Negev! But in the end she said that she would do it all over again – her six children are all skilled professionals with families and a good life.

Wadi Na’im - We got up the next morning and drove along the power station road to Wadi Na’im, one of the largest unrecognized Bedouin villages at 6,500 people. It is located about five kilometers from Romat Chovav, an industrial park with a an income of multiple billions of dollars that essentially looks like a caricature of “Big Industry”. They make pesticides and plastics, toxins and chemicals of all different uses, also taking in and processing the toxic waste from all over Israel. Also right next door to Wadi Na’im is a massive power plant, and criss-crossing over your head as you walk through the village are many power lines. After taking a look (and a smell) around the place, we were invited to a big tent for tea and a talk with a representative from the community. The stories we heard were pretty heavy – elevated risk for birth defects, respiratory problems in children, cancer, and so on, all as a result of exposure to the environmental hazards around them. We also hear about their struggle with the government for recognition, and to move to a place where they want to go. It’s a very complicated issue – the Bedouin have always been semi-nomadic, meaning that each tribe had its own patch of land, and migrated within than, but kept mostly to this land. Moving to a new settlement in the midst of other tribes and families poses many problems, but the lands that this group thought would be ok to move to were refused by the government, so they struggle on. The spokeman voiced frustration that out of the 25 homesteads granted to people in that development program, only a single one of them was granted to Bedouin – the rest went to Jews.

Ramat Chovav – Leaving Wadi Na’im, we drove right over to the industrial park, where we listened to a presentation from the man in charge of the environmental issues and monitoring surrounding Romat Chovav. He proceeded to describe all of the different industries residing in the park, and what each of them does. He acknowledged that in the past standards have not been as strict as they are now, but he spent most of his time describing how in the past 3 or 4 years the park has done much to control the airborne and waterborne pollution from the plant, monitoring very closely for many different compounds that could potentially cause health effects. The result of all of this effort (and hundreds of millions of dollars) looked like an almost silenced threat. In case after case the monitoring graphs showed levels dropping to nearly zero for dangerous pollutants. After the presentation, and some pretty skeptical questions, they drove us out into the midst of the park, where we got a whiff of what it is like to work there. The smell of Hydrogen Sulfide (NOT a toxin, we were reminded) was so heavy many people had to go back onto the bus. They’re hoping to reduce the smell also to nearly zero by the end of 2010. A bit overwhelmed and confused, we drove to a park for a big pizza lunch

Interlude – Even in two hours off in a lovely little park, this group can’t seem to avoid a little shaking things up. As we ate our pizza, did our yoga and played our music, our attention was drawn to a group of 30 or so female soldiers doing just about the same about 50 meters off. Even the drums were identical. So it occurred to a few of us to try and bring the soldiers, in full uniform, over to our group for a jam session. This threw many of the Palestinian students, some dressed in hijabs or kefiyehs, into a bit of crisis. The soldiers came over and we indeed began to jam, with drums, guitars, flute, violin, harmonicas, etc. But most of the Palestinians walked off, followed closely by some of the Jewish students trying to persuade them to stay. As we jammed, about 20 meters off arguments were raging, in a very surreal scene. The arguments essentially boiled down to two: From the Palestinian side, seeing people in IDF uniforms just makes them into a symbol, something that they can’t deal with in a person-to-person situation. Remember that as Palestinians they are NOT under Israeli law, but under martial law, and someone in uniform can at any time come to their house in the night and arrest them and hold them with no charge for more than a year. Those soldiers weren’t people, but soldiers. We, however, argued that if they had stayed they would have provided those soldiers with a different experience than they likely ever had before – friendly Palestinians laughing and singing with them. Wouldn’t it make it that much harder to be hard and cold in the territories with that experience ringing in your head? Not only that, but it would give the Palestinians an opportunity to open themselves up to the fact that soldiers on top of being soldiers, really ARE people. We’ll be talking about this one for a while to come.
After that we had a long talk about the disparate information we received that morning, and about who to trust and how you can ever know.

Anyways, that’s it for part 1. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Age of Ahava

No, not Bethlehem yet. But I just found the piece of paper cleaning up my room and thought you might get a kick out of this. When all the masters students went to the international dinner at Sde Boqer, where we'll be spending our second year, we presented a little skit of what life is like at the Arava Institute. We reinforced the stereotype a wee little bit, but it's not that far off :-)

To the tune of Age of Aquarius:

Age of Ahava

When Mohammad hikes with Ya’ara
And Benjamin reads with Fatima
They both are getting filled with grace
The great grace of Love

This is the dawning of the Age of Ahava
The Age of Ahava
Let's go Ketura!
In the Arava!

Mudbuilding and conservation
Fighting desertification
Ecology without borders
Dialogue instead of mortars
Environmental peace supporters
Make this drought of progress shorter
Ahava! In Arava!

When we learn to have respect for all
Human beings, plant and animal
Then Peace will guide the planet
And Love will fill the world

This is the dawning of the Age of Ahava
The Age of Ahava
Let's go Ketra!
In the Arava!

Grey water and solar panels
Lots of hippies, some wear flannel
Dance the dovka dance the hora
Save the fauna and flora
Let us listen to Al Gora
Or we’ll end up like gamorrah
Ahava! In Ketura!
Ahava! In Ketura!

Let the rain come, Let the flood come in
The flood come in
Let the rain come, Let the flood come in
The flood come in
Let the rain come, Let the flood come in
The flood come in
Let the rain come, Let the flood come in
The flood come in
Let the rain come, Let the flood come in

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Importance of Urban Agriculture

As some funny men used to say, and now for something completely different!

I will definitely be writing about Bethlehem, but it'll take some time and I want it to be good. And in the mean time, here's a little piece I wrote for the Ben Nobleman Orchard site that they didn't end up needing. So why waste a good little bit of writing?

If Jeff Rubin is correct in his recent book “Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller”, then the Ben Nobleman Orchard, currently Toronto’s only community orchard, won’t be so for long. The reason is actually quite simple: the industrialization and globalization of food production of the past fifty years has increased the amount of energy used to produce every calorie of food on your plate. This rise in the energy intensity of our food has occurred in almost every aspect of the food system, from farm to plate; fossil fuels are now the lifeblood of the system that feeds us. First, there is the natural gas converted into synthetic fertilizer and the diesel that runs the massive farm machinery. Then there’s the bunker fuel that runs the shipping (or worse, the jet fuel that flies chilled vegetables around the world). Trucking to the supermarket, driving to the supermarket, even the plastic packaging that the food comes in depends on fossil fuel feedstocks. While there are many social and ecological impacts of this method of food production and consumption which provide reasons for diversifying our methods, the most important reason is a purely economic one: Peak Oil. According to Jeff Rubin, the lifeblood of our food system is getting inexorably scarcer:
“In a world of dwindling oil supplies and steadily mounting demand around the world, there is no such thing as cheap oil. Oil might be less expensive in the middle of a recession, but it will never be cheap again”
This is not going to happen overnight, but the gist is that oil prices are going to become both higher and more volatile in the near future. This will translate directly into significantly higher prices for foods that have a significant fossil fuel input. The farther food has traveled, and the greater diesel and synthetic fertilizer input needed in its production, the greater the price increase at the superstore. This is not a theoretical assumption: the $147 a barrel oil prices facing the world in the summer of 2008 were a large part of the doubling or even tripling of the global prices of staples like rice, wheat, and corn. In this sense, urban agriculture is not just a social or ecological issue (though these are important reasons for community urban agriculture), but a food security issue.
As an example, FoodShare Ontario recently conducted a survey of the distance food had travelled at both a Supermarket and a Farmer’s Market. The supermarket food had travelled an average of 5,364 kilometres from farm to market, while the farmer’s market food had travelled a mere 101. The energy intensity of food can also be expressed in terms of the number of calories used to produce each kilogram of a specific food item. Some estimates show that nearly 2,000 kcal of energy are needed to get each kilogram of frozen fruit to the table. Breakfast cereal is nearly 15,000 kcal, and chocolate is a whopping 18,000 kcal. The wonderful thing about community gardens and community orchards is that those numbers are virtually zero. From an economic standpoint, it just makes sense to increase urban food production, especially in underutilized areas like parks and lawns.
Not only is the problem not merely a theoretical one, but the urban agriculture solution has already manifested itself on the world stage. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90’s, Cuba was left high and dry. Stifled by the US trade embargo, it had relied on vast support from the Soviets in terms of subsidized fossil fuels, machinery, and farm inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. With the end of this support, caloric intake in Cuba more than halved almost overnight. It was like Peak Oil in fast motion. But with intensive research into organic solutions to pests and fertilizer shortages and the blossoming of 2,730 urban gardens and 4,347 larger gardens on the outskirts of cities, most municipalities now produce upwards of 30 percent of their own food. Havana now produces more than half a million tons of food every year.
The benefits of urban agriculture aren’t limited to food security. Projects like community orchards are the epitome of the adage “think globally, act locally”. They help to strengthen the resilience of neighbourhoods and give neighbours a reason to get to know one another. They provide a way for urban dwellers to connect to the natural world and the soil, and also provide the health benefits of active lifestyles and added nutrition from the healthy food grown. They’re also a lot of fun!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bait Jala

So, today I'm off to Bethlehem to visit with the family of one of my new friends here. I will be crossing the checkpoints into the West Bank, and maybe by next week I'll be able to bring some personal experience to PELS. I will fill you in on the trip upon my return.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

It Gets Cold There?

All those in the audience who are currently living in temperate climates, please excuse the following comment:  It is getting cold here!  Seriously though, I know that 20-25 during the day and 8-10 at night is a wimpy November, but it just kind of settled down upon us here.  One day it was blistering hot and I could sleep, *ahem*, in my birthday suit, and then there were three days of crazy clouds and even crazier winds, and then….desert winter!  Extreme climate I guess.
So it has now become clear to all of us that the Institute is not, as one of our profs put it, a “schluff off to Israel for six months kind of program.”  There’s some serious work going on here.  The work is a lot of reading, quizzes, and papers, but many projects too, and the projects are largely hands on.  For Environmental Anthropology, our job is to do a mini ethnographic study, picking a little micro-culture of the Kibbutz – my group will be the Volunteers who serve food in the kitchen.  For Environmental Education we develop five lesson plans, and then the prof actually hooks us up with an appropriate class in the area to carry out one of the lessons.  One slight issue I’m having with the program so far is that the year at the Arava is essentially the same year as someone going through their undergrad – same classes, lots of introduction to ______ - but as a masters student we take it at the “masters” level.  This essentially means harder assignments and exams.  We also TA a class (environmental ethics for me, very enjoyable actually), and so when it comes down to getting to work on our masters projects, time is a bit of an issue!  It’s tough when you want to be experiencing everything to its fullest (e.g. there’s a mountain expedition going for a few hours, work in the garden, a little self-run workshop), and you know that you should really stay in the room and work…C’est la Vie d’etudient master.  Pardon my French, I barely knew it to begin with :-).
     That’s not to say we don’t get to have any fun.  We went hiking on one of the crazy cloud and wind days about a week ago, and I thought it’d be nice to have some pictures of the area up:

Here is the start of our hike, climbing through an ever narrowing Wadi up into the hills

A very cool rock formation - the geology here is pretty much naked

Sun and Shadow are a recurring theme in the desert

Just when you thought nothing could grow out of this stuff.  Actually, this is in a Wadi bottom, "where the life

Ummmm......Little help?

That is, literally, winter blowing in

Sun and shadow again - one one side, summer, on the other, winter.

And now, a moment that may shock you all.  Parents with small children please use discretion (not really):





Back with more soon!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Encounter Point

Yesterday we had our third PELS session, and watched the movie encounter point, then had a discussion with two of the people featured in the documentary.  If you have time to look into it, please do - it's a very important look into the peace and reconciliation movements on both sides of the line.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Up and Down, Side to Side

I apologize for the delay, this past week has been an incredibly interesting one, with not much time for a breath! Classes have rolled along, and people have settled into the rhythm of the place. In other words, the honeymoon period is nearing its end, and no longer is there an urgency to stay out in the quad until all hours so as not to miss a thing. We remember that school involves work, and so reading groups and discussion groups spring up alongside the gardening committees. It feels like a bit of a shame, turning summer camp back into school, but that, after all, is what we are here for! To become the environmental leaders of our generation, we’ve got to learn. But those first days have really paid off. I think everyone feels as if they’ve gotten to know everyone else enough to sit down next to them in the Kibbutz cafeteria and have a good conversation, or greet them with a warm smile/high five/big hug (depending on the cultural background and comfort level).

But wait, you probably ask, this all seems too easy. Can co-existence really be as simple as throwing everyone together and doing a few ice breakers? The answer is, of course, no. This is a really special place, set aside from all other influences in the middle of the desert. The second thing is that until one night this week there had been no explicit talking about the conflict, and where everyone stood in it. This is not only a natural thing for us to do, but is by design in the program. It is incredibly important for us to develop our personal relationships before we start talking about these things. An altercation caused by an emotional disagreement with someone you have just met can lead to a permanent rift, while the same thing with someone you have already become close with often leads to becoming even closer. This, at least, is the story that keeps coming back to us from former students here.

And so, at PELS last Sunday, we spent the entire three hours going over the principles of compassionate listening and laying out guidelines for talking about sensitive issues, and then talking about conflict mediation theory. I could see that to many of us it felt like going to a workshop on how to build a bookshelf and getting a lecture on the basic theories of geometry and physics. “Let’s get down to it! Let’s scuffle and hammer this thing out!” This opinion was voiced by a couple of people present – why are we dealing with such abstract things! We’ve talked about conflict for three hours and not a single word about the Middle East. The answer given these people was simple – “Patience. We’ll get to that soon enough, as you will as a matter of course. For now we must learn how to talk about these things, before we can actually do it.” And sure enough, they were right – but first to Jerusalem!

My parents were in town this week hiking with the One Family Fund to raise money for victims of terrorism. If anyone who gave them money is reading this, thank you for sending my parents to me! I got to go up to Jerusalem last weekend and stay with them, taking part in the One Family Fund activities. This included a five hour guided tour of the old city, lots of good food, and getting to meet some great people. We also spent a fair bit of time with some family friends who are in Israel for a year, living in Jerusalem. Getting an insight into what it’s like to be a liberal North American in the midst of such an intense place was interesting.  Jerusalem is beautiful, endlessly fascinating, but undeniably heavy.

Here is a view of the sunrise on a hike with my parents, taken over the gulf of Eilat with Jordan in the distance.

And here, of course, is ha Horim Sheli!

But here’s the thing that made my week so interesting: You go to Jerusalem, and you can see it all from a single vantage point. You see the old city, and beyond that, the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, still almost entirely separate from the Jewish areas even though Israel officially annexed them. You look into the distance and you can see that beyond such and such a point is the West Bank. You realize that THIS is what the entire ruckus is about, right here. As the tour guide pointed out, according to a mixture of biblical and secular history, the mount where the dome of the rock stands was the place where Abraham would have sacrificed Isaac/Ishmael, then the place of the first temple, then the second temple, the seat of the Jewish Empire, then conquered by Muslims, Christian Crusaders, Muslims again, and so on and on. This is disputed territory. Even within religions the different sects muscle each other around the real estate.

I then went for dinner with my parents, and a number of speakers were telling their heart-wrenching stories about losing their children to terrorism. There is something entirely intractable about this kind of loss and pain – something that can never be reconciled with politics. You can only weep. Coming home from the dinner at around midnight, I came across the first circle in the quad explicitly discussing the conflict. This was prompted by watching the movie Bil’in Habibti, about the protests at the separation barrier that have happened every week since 2005 in the village of Bil’in in the West Bank. This is probably the most egregious case of Israel simply using the barrier to expropriate land for settlements, uprooting olive trees, and disregarding the Palestinian residents. The result has been the formation of a non-violence resistance movement at Bil’in. I mostly sat and listened as people poured their hearts into the discussion, and I watched as a number of people applied the and explicitly talked about the stuff we learned at PELS.

Anyway, it is now the weekend, time for relaxing and catching up. I’ve been very busy this week, and need to catch up on some readings – about how to store excess renewable energy production for future use, about ancient agriculture in the desiccated Uvda Valley, about Health Impact Assessments, and about mycorrhiza! Am I overwhelmed? Yes :-). Am I having fun? You bet's a story I wanted to fit in but couldn't find a place for:
In a cab ride recently, the driver asked me if I didn't go into the army in Canada.  I said no.  He looked shocked - why not? he demanded.  Very few people do, I answered, it's not a big army.  He tried to understand, and just shook his head.  .

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

There's School and there's Learning

Orientation is over, and the real work around here has begun. Our first class was on Sunday, an uncredited compulsory class called Peace Building and Environmental Leadership Seminar (PELS) - it is classes like this that attracted me to the Arava Institute in the first place. PELS is a class that everyone takes, and its goal is to bring everyone together to develop skills like mediation, conflict resolution, compassionate listening, and so on, and also to provide an open and controlled space for students to confront the “conflict”. I have heard that this class often dissolves into tears, shouting, and frustrations, only to be followed further by resolutions, hugs, and singing. So far, however, none of this has materialized, and the atmosphere around here has been incredibly relaxed. Everyone wants to learn everyone else’s language, and concern for environmental issues does a very good job of bringing everyone together to learn. But we’ve only all been here for a few days, so we’ll see how things go
In the first PELS class, the major activity that we ran was an identity card swap, where we all put our cards and passports in the middle and spent some time examining each other’s official identity. We talked about how we each feel about them, whether we identify with the body that issued us the cards, and how we feel about being identified with it by other people. I, of course, am extremely grateful to have my Canadian passport. Though I’m a little frustrated with the Federal government and Canadian politics (especially the government’s dragging of its feet over climate change –!), I identify strongly as Canadian and am proud to be a Canadian. I am also grateful for the way I am treated abroad as a Canadian. I don’t think that I would have trouble going anywhere with this identity. The Israelis, on the other hand, were more ambivalent not so much about being proud to be Israeli, but about how the world receives them. Apparently, just as Americans travelling abroad say that they’re Canadian to avoid hassle, Israelis claim to be Italian! Also, with an Israeli passport many countries are off limits (as they are for me with an Israeli Visa and stamp in my passport). The Palestinians also did not feel ambivalent about being Palestinian, but have a different experience with their identity cards than even the Jordanian citizens have with their passports. While having an ID card means the right to travel within the territories, it also means subjection to the huge number of checkpoints dotting the West Bank, and often (but not usually), subjection to hassle, wasted time, and humiliation.
Yesterday I went to my first classes, Archaeology/Human Ecology and Alternative Energy Policy and Management. I’m enrolled in a bit of a mish-mash of environmental classes, since after all I’m completing the environmental studies specialization of the BGU masters. The other courses I’m taking are Environmental Anthropology, Environmental Education, and Eco-Health. The classes are taught in English, and so it is sometimes a bit of a challenge to keep everyone on the same page, especially since everyone is at a different stage in their education. A large number of the Arab students have first degrees in engineering, and others in biology or chemistry, and they’re studying thermodynamics next to people who haven’t taken science in 5 years. The classes are very lively though, with a lot of discussion, sometimes heated (for those of you who know Israelis, this shouldn’t surprise you). There’s a lot getting off the ground in student life from gardening to Arabic and Hebrew lessons and English writing tutoring to hiking and music. Everyone’s still in flux and getting adjusted to being back in school, but we should settle into some sort of rhythm pretty soon.
The sun is shining and the birds are just beginning to migrate south to Africa from Europe through the corridor of the Arava Valley. The days are getting shorter and the nights slightly cooler, though I haven’t used a blanket since I arrived. Also, my parents are coming into Israel this weekend for a brief charity walk with One Family Fund. Yay!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Music and Laughter

Coming back to my room, it is now one o’clock in the morning. I don’t want to go to bed yet; there are still people hanging out in the quad and I don’t want to miss a minute of this special time when everyone is still settling in, figuring each other out, and high off of just arriving to begin the program. I feel though that if I don’t go to bed soon I will fall asleep in the grass. So just to give you a brief glimpse of how things look around here, here is a brief tour around the tiny quad outside of the Arava Institute Dorms. There are a few people gathered around a guitar, played by a lanky Israeli hippie who’s trying desperately to get out of the army reserves – they are singing Hebrew songs, almost all of which gravitate around A minor, C, and G. I join in here and there on another guitar or my harmonica, sometimes trying to sing along. I take the lead and play moondance, and Gabe, an 18 year old American kid from Cleveland, rips on the Sax. A little further down from us on the grass a few Americans are laughing and chatting with some Israelis and a Palestinian or two. Gabe and I spend about 45 minutes taking a Capoeira lesson from one of the Israelis who has just returned from Brazil – it is one of the fundamental differences between Americans and Israelis that they get down to business with school only after 2-3 years in the army, maybe one of community service, and then big year-long trips around the world to India, South America, East Asia, the US. Most of the Israelis in the program are 22-24, and have never gone to any post-secondary schooling before. Their life experience, however, is incredible. After drinking about a litre of water and cooling off on the grass I head over to the area where the Arab students have set up a couple hookahs and are laughing and talking away in Arabic. The circle is dotted with Americans and Israelis, but the conversation is mostly in Arabic – for the Arabic students the day today was full of choosing classes, registration, filling out forms, and all that other administration stuff that is the necessary evil of running an institution, all in a language that even the most advanced of them are not thinking in yet. How exhausting! The conversation often turns to asking each other how to say certain words and phrases in each other’s respective language, laughing as we try to pronounce the words. Over a little bit, Wa’ad and Yasmiin are trying to teach a few Israelis some Arabic dancing.

Music is coming from all around and the soft sounds of chatter and laughter pervade the space. Everyone is incredibly welcoming to each other, a hopeful sign for the months ahead. Getting to know one another and getting a sense of where we are all coming from will be very important once we start talking politics, as in the compulsory non-credit course called Peace-building and Environmental Leadership seminar, or PELS. This is where we get down to the dirty business of talking about why things are not always as pleasant as they are behind the scenes, out of context in a magical no-man’s-land such as the Arava Institute. I don’t know where the quote is from, but I remember it well: If you stand beside a person at the bus stop for ten minutes and say nothing, you may not ever think about him or her again. But speak for one minute, find out about their children, their job, some music they like, and you may just feel willing to jump out in front of that bus to save their life. Yell at them for an hour about your differences of opinion, and you may become friends for life – this is how the Arava Institute supposedly works. Anyway, I’m going to sleep – will be in touch soon.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


It is really pretty interesting that in my last post I mused about how near and yet so far Israel and Jordan are from each other, specifically Eilat and Aqaba which literally share a small stretch of coastline.  Well, on a spur of the moment plan, a few of decided to spend our last couple days before school started on a whirlwind trip across the border to Aqaba and up to Petra, staying the night first on the beach in Eilat and then in a Bedouin tent.  To get the theatrics over now, here is the view from the main siq in Petra, walking down a stone path with 50 meter stone walls around you, imagining the endless stream of caravans from the east carrying spices and eastern goods to trade.  Getting to the end, the most miraculous wonder of Petra, build by Nabateans about 300 BC, is the Treasury, a near immaculately preserved facade 50 meters tall.  It is largely this iconic image that won Petra membership among the new seven wonders of the world. Pictured below is the Treasury in all its glory:

So how did this trip come about?  Well, in honor of Juliette's (one of the volunteers) departure to Tel Aviv and the beginning of school for the Arava Institute students, we decided to take a little trip.  Juliette, who knows about 6 languages, had met a Venezuelan woman on the bus from Tel Aviv to Ketura, and struck
up a conversation in spanish.  It turned out that this woman knew some Bedouin around the Petra area, who hooked us up with a car, a tour of Petra, and a place to sleep in Wadi Musa, the modern town built up around Petra.  They were some of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and even invited us to their family home in Wadi Musa, but more on that later.  The whole trip from start to finish probably cost only 150 canadian, and that’s including bus, car, food, tour, and accommodations.  Not Bad!  The following pictures are a little photo essay about the trip.

The first night we spent on a beach in Eilat, camping out on a pier looking back on the city.  Camping is much more relaxed in Eilat than it would be in, say, Florida.  This is a picture looking into Jordan from our camping spot at sunrise.
   In the morning we had to cross the Jordanian border, which cost us about 25 dollars canadian.  The change in atmosphere between Eilat and Aqaba was more drastic than between Toronto and Tel Aviv.  You could feel it in the air.  Especially striking was the shot of one of the members of the Jordanian Royal Family with the flag waving in the background.  It was then that we really felt we had entered not just a new country, but a whole new culture.  On the drive up from Aqaba to Petra we got lost, and had to ask a Bedouin man, his family at his side, where to go.  This was the only good picture we got of them before they ran from the camera.  Here is a picture of Ibrahim, our tour guide through Petra.  He was brilliant in many aspects, like physically knowing the place like the back of his hand and taking us through much less travelled areas, but the history we were likely to get from him was not exactly textbook.  At one point he suggested that if I had trouble believing him I should go read the sign to find out what the "government" said about the place.Here are some pictures from our Bedouin experience.  One of the massive delicious dinner they made us, one of the outside of their house in Wadi Musa, one of the view from their house over Wadi Musa, and one of Gabe playing on the floor with one of their nieces, who's 5 months old.  They were lovely people, open and hospitable, and very lively.Finally, here is a very picturesque Bedouin with the Jordanian Desert in the background.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Eilat is an incredibly interesting place, different from anywhere I’ve ever been. I’d like to compare it to places in Florida, in the sense that there are big, majestic hotels everywhere, the majority of the people around are on vacation, and there are big malls, movie theaters, and boardwalks where the shopping is great if that’s your thing. The beaches, too, are fantastic, though a bit rocky, and packed with people. It was a holiday when we went, so tons of Israelis from all over the north were flocking down to Eilat do their shopping, relaxing, and snorkeling – come to think of it, Eilat is essentially all of Florida collapsed into a tiny area about 1/10,000 the size. It serves the same function – that of the vacation/resort spot in the south, but in the form of a city that is home to maybe 50,000 people. So we did what everyone else does when they go to Eilat – hit the beach!

Here are Gabe, Adi, and Phil in the chairs with Abra walking behind them.  You can see that the beach is not the kindest to tender feet.

It was a tiny beach, incredibly rocky and maybe only 100 meters long, but we could barely find a chair to plop ourselves down in. It didn’t take us long to discover why so many people came here though – you could see the reefs and shimmering colorful fish through the crystal clear water morphing to aquamarine and royal blue as your eye moved out to sea. We rented some snorkels and swam out to see the reefs off the shore, and I have to say it made me, for a short time, wish that I had chosen to study marine rather than terrestrial biology and ecology. I have an affinity for the outlandish and strange, and diving down to get a closer look at the bright purple corals with schools of tiny blue fish hovering around them, I really felt like an adventurer discovering new and wonderful life forms. At least twenty kinds of fish hung out around the reefs, all of them with their own unique and beautiful patterning and personality. And thinking about the movie sharkwater, which is probably the most powerful and gripping enviro-doc I’ve ever seen, the one thing that I wanted to see the most in the world and the least in the world at the same time was a shark. Readers may be relieved to know that the biggest fish I saw was this guy, about a foot long and eating bread out of a misguided tourist’s hand:

Probably the most interesting thing about Eilat was its proximity to Egypt on the one side, Jordan on the other, and even Saudi Arabia a little ways down the eastern gulf coast. Eilat and Aqaba are so very close in terms of distance, probably a 20 minute walk! Look the other way and you can see Sinai mountains, and you can even see Saudi Arabia down the Jordan coast, though it’s a little hazier. Since 1979 and 1994 Israel has had a peace with Egypt and Jordan respectively, but the remnants of the animosity are still visible in many places, such as the layers of rusting barbed wire surrounding our Kibbutz. I can only image how one might have felt standing in Eilat in 1977, before any peace treaties, and looking out at three countries that would have been happier if you didn’t exist, two of which having attacked your country only four years earlier. Here’s a google map of the area, so you can get a better idea:

Later that night, after walking the long boardwalk lined with cheap clothes and trinket sellers with a few bigger name stores spotting the walk, we caught wind of the first ever beer festival in Eilat. After receiving directions from a falafel seller, about five of us made it over there, drank some really nice international beers, and listened to a couple of Israeli cover bands. A couple of the guys in our group knew the Israeli covers, though I didn’t, but even I knew what was coming when they broke out into the opening riff for Kryptonite by 3 Doors Down. Hearing that song with an Israeli accent may be one of the things that has endeared me to this country the most so far. We finally caught the 1 o’clock bus back to the Kibbutz, a 35 minute ride, and collapsed into our beds.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Experimental Orchard

So the last few days I have been a little bit sick, starting with a little sore throat and spreading to my nose to the point where I feel like a magician pulling an endless kerchief out of my sleeve, only it’s mucus…from my nose…ok, bad image, but that’s how it feels. Why so sick in such a salubrious, hot, dry place you may ask? Well I haven’t been sleeping that much, and have been having a great time!  Those two things are by no means purely incidental. Two major events have dominated the scene since I last posted, so I’m going to take this post to fill you in on them. The first was the tour of the institute’s center for sustainable agriculture, and the second was yesterday’s trip to Eilat, my first trip off the Kibbutz (other than hiking in the little hills out back) since I got here almost two weeks ago.

Two days ago, Elaine Solowey, who will be my supervisor here at the Arava Institute, took us all out on a tour of the experimental orchard she founded about 25 years ago and which houses some unbelievable desert specimens from around the world. But collection is not the main agenda with her orchard – she is aiming to be a part of what she would call the second domestication. Agriculture began about 13,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, and had independent foundings in a few other parts of the world like China and MesoAmerica. Through selection of seeds, farmers thousands of years ago domesticated essentially every single food that is eaten on a large scale today. But over the past fifty years, crop diversity, both species and genetic, has been rapidly declining as seed sales have conglomerated into fewer and fewer hands, and the demands of an international market for consistency lead to the same seeds and methods being practiced all over the world. Some put the number at about 2 percent a year. The concept of socio-ecological resilience is based around diversity and functional redundancy, and as those things decline, a system like the global food system is much more vulnerable to shocks.

A Marula Tree, native to Southern Africa, is one of the fruit trees that Elaine has successfully bred a couple lines of for high yield and big, juicy fruit.  It's related to the mango, but you just have to bite into the fruit, tear a hole in the skin, and suck out the delicious juice.  They're making it into brandy and fruit juice on the Kibbutz.

So Elaine is busy collecting wild desert plants with useful properties and attempting to domesticate them. As she says, she loves plants that “rejoice to be in the desert”, and most of the crops she’s working on use as much water in a year as the date palms next door use in a week, and need almost no pesticides or fertilizers. Her major success stories are four wild plants that she has selected over a few generations to the point where they can be planted commercially – one of which will be central to my life for the next two years: the Argan. This tree is endemic to about 100 million acres in Morrocco (now, due to deforestation and land use change, this is down to about 50 million), and is central to the lives of the people who live in the Argan forest. They use the tree for the oil contained in the nut of the fruit (which is also its trade value), but since the tree can remain green through periods where almost everything has gone dormant it can also provide much needed fodder for animals and shade when there’s nothing else around. It a beautiful tree with a very, very deep root system that flourishes in the driest of conditions and provides a very high quality oil, good fodder for animals, and extremely good wood when coppiced – Amazing! Looking around the experimental orchard, you’re struck by just how much valuable diversity and potential surrounds you.

This is a pitaya, the fruit of a cactus that Elaine has had success growing on the orchard and adapting to the extreme desert climate.  The varieties she's developed are now off to other growers.
A couple interesting side notes about Elaine for those interested: One is that she was in the news a lot a couple years ago because of her central involvement in the germination of an ancient date seed recovered in an excavation of Herod’s Temple! The seedling, named Methuselah (I would have voted for Rip Van Winkle :-), is now a couple years old and growing strong. We may have right here at the Institute the re-animation of the ancient Judean date palm, thought to be functionally extinct. Another fantastic story arose from a project of hers consisting of growing Tibetan medicinal herbs to help preserve some very rare specimens. It just so happened that when the Dalai Lama was in Israel, he caught wind of the project and had to see it himself. There is a wonderful picture of Elaine and the Dalai Lama arm in arm holding a Pitaya.

This last one is the Argan, which will be my intellectual darling for the next two years.  In the tree are goats (yes, goats).  There is a special breed of goats in Morrocco that climbs the trees looking for tender shoots amongst the sharp thorns, and the ripe fruit containing the precious nut.  In accounts dating back to the 17th century, a common experience is related about the fruit.  Upon cutting it open, you are met with an incredibly delectable, almost cloying smell.  Then you bite into the fruit and its taste makes you a little naseous.  I have to say, this is entirely true.
So what exactly will I be doing? People with aversions to science talk may want to stop reading now ;-). I will be examining the soil around the roots of the Argan to see what sort of creatures are symbiotic (literally, living together) with the tree roots. It is known that this tree is very mycorrhizal dependent, meaning that it grows much better when it has fungi infecting its roots. Here infecting is the technical term, and doesn’t mean they’re pathological, but the fungi really does penetrate the root cells. These fungi extend the surface area of the root system sometimes by as much as an order of magnitude, scavenging for scarce nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous in exchange for carbohydrates that the tree makes through photosynthesis. Since the trees are growing very well, and Elaine never inoculated them with any commercial strains of mycorrhiza, I want to figure out if they’ve recruited any little friends native to the soil here, and if so who they are. I’m pretty excited about it: symbioses are one of the most fascinating aspects of biology – and a potential way forward in thinking about sustainability.

So that’s a little taste of where I am and what I’ll be thinking about, I mean, besides navigating an explicitly multi-ethnic and very political living situation and program. Countdown till worlds collide: 8 days.


p.s.  I guess Eilat will have to wait for next time.  Oops.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A few thousand words

So I thought that I may be yammering on and on, without even giving you a picture to orient yourselves!  So this entry will be short on words, big on images.

This is a picture of, from left:
Me, Becca (volunteer), Liz (volunteer), Philip (Australian), Adi, Lauren, and Bennie Mac
We are at the top of the "mountain of electricity" where the power lines come in, overlooking the Arava Valley and the Kibbutz

This is a picture of the Kibbutz from a little lower.  You can see the date orchards accross the highway, and where the trees end in the background is essentially where Jordan starts.  The mountains you can see are Jordanian.

Here is a picture of a bunch of us in a Wadi (dry river bed) during one of our hikes.

Here is a picture of me touching a very sharp, thorny Acacia tree, some of which are green the whole year round despite the fact that they receive maybe three paltry days of rain a year.

Having a little fun, a few of us decided to decorate Adi's (orange shirt) door for his birthday today.  From left to right we are Benjamin Morgan, Me, Adi, Gabe (top) and Phil (bottom)

On a hike yesterday we got to see a rare and beautiful sight - a flower in full bloom in the desert - this one is a desert caper.

And finally, here's me having a little fun on my slackline around the pool area.  Don't worry mom, I'm wearing sunscreen.

It's a pretty good life around here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Down on the Kibbutz

So, if you’ve been following along you must be wondering just what I’ve been doing in the five days I’ve been on the Kibbutz (aside from drinking and dancing with the volunteers and the Garin). Let me give you a little run-down of how things have been working around here. The Kibbutz is called Kibbutz Ketura, and it’s about fifty miles north of Eilat, which is right on the Gulf of Aqaba. We went on a hike up a steep trail just outside the Kibbutz the other evening, and as the lights came on down the coast you could see Eilat blending into the Jordanian city of Aqaba, which is about twice as big. The Jordanian border is extremely close to the Kibbutz – so close that a few days ago my friend Adi and I walked out of the Kibbutz, across the highway, through the date orchard, along the windbreak of the experimental orchard, and in about ten minutes we hit a sign saying STOP! BORDER AHEAD! Though Jordan and Israel have a peace, Israel is incredibly strict about wandering through the border. People say that they have seen Israeli soldiers come to the Kibbutz looking for the person who left their size 11 New Balance footprint on the other side! It was funny to hear the student life coordinator, on hearing that we were going for a walk outside the Kibbutz, say not “have fun!” but “Don’t go to Jordan!” In an earlier post I wrote about how small Israel seemed. Now I can feel it firsthand.

There are a number of different groups of people living together on the Kibbutz, which leads to some interesting dynamics. Firstly, there are the Kibbutznicks themselves, largely American Jews who have made aliyah. From what I have heard, many of the Kibbutz children don’t stay on the kibbutz for their adult life, and so much of the new population is new American blood rather than legacies. Ketura is one of the few Kibbutzim to have stuck with the real socialist ideology of the original Kibbutz movement, and so all income and all work is shared. However, one interesting deviation from the original ideology is that at some point, the Kibbutz decided that to make a profit on the date orchard, they needed to actually hire laborers rather than relying purely on Kibbutz labor and volunteers. So another contingent of the Kibbutz is about ten or fifteen Thai workers who come over for a year or two to work for relatively cheap, and then return to Thailand rich. Apparently they speak Thai, a little Hebrew, and almost no English. There are a few different means of income for Ketura, mainly dairy, dates, a really cool algae operation, and a few small businesses including a small cake company. They’re looking to expand and diversify though, getting into solar as well. Siemens has funded about 40 percent of a small solar project that’s hopefully a first step into a solar economy, so we can see firsthand how the Kibbutzim have to keep evolving to get by and thrive. I haven’t gotten to speak with many of the Kibbutzniks yet, but life on Ketura seems pretty relaxed and low key (for Israel anyway!), with few pretensions.

Secondly, there are the volunteers, mostly Jews but also some non-Jews, who come from around the world and take free room and board in exchange for doing work around the Kibbutz. For the most part these are kids taking a gap year either after high school or somewhere in their undergrad, out and about in the world “finding themselves” or just having a good time. There’s a group of eight Australian guys who are travelling together after high school, a number of Aussie girls, a few Americans, a couple Brits, one Scottish girl, a South African guy, and even a girl who lives at…Bathurst and Sheppard! Into this category I’m going to slip the people who are just here to visit the Kibbutz, which makes a little income on tourism as well.

Thirdly, there are the Garin, Israelis just out of high school who are doing a year of community service work before entering the army. I haven’t spent a lot of time with them, but from the interactions I have had, they seem like really solid, joyful kids a few years younger than me. They’ve got the Israeli energy and slight cheekiness I’ve been noticing all around Israel thus far.

Lastly, there’s the Machon, or Arava Institute. While the Institute finds its home on Ketura, and some faculty are also Kibbutzniks (about 13 out of 140 members work at the Machon), there is a slight uneasiness in the relationship. This is only natural when you think of a group of about 150 Kibbutzniks and their families living on a small patch of green in the middle of the Desert. The place is pretty enclosed and isolated and Kibbutz life is good and simple, but also hard. When you’re on the Kibbutz, everything is taken care of, from three meals a day to laundry service to child care, swimming pool, playgrounds and playing fields. But as one of the founding members said tonight, after all of this is paid for by the Kibbutz, the division of funds to members according to their needs leaves everyone feeling a little cash poor. So if you’re going to be a real member, and commit to the socialism, you’re going to feel pretty territorial about your stuff. Now throw into the mix about 20 volunteers, a bunch of Garin, and then about 50 undergrad and masters students from around the region and the world! I haven’t seen it first hand, but it should be interesting.

So far life here has been pretty smooth and relaxed. We’ve been swimming in the pool, hiking in the desert, playing football with the Aussies and Garin, playing music at night, and basically finding our footing and getting adjusted to life here have been our main activities. Now that the holidays are over and the Kibbutz schedule is back to normal we’re doing an Ulpan for most of the mornings. The students who’ve arrived so far are mostly American, with a token appearance from the commonwealth in my person and an Aussie named Philip. We come from diverse backgrounds, from California to Omaha to New York to North Carolina, from Day School to totally secular, and from right out of high school to beginning a masters degree. The diversity will only increase from here.

So there’s the set-up so far, in brief. I’ll keep you posted as things heat up!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Night 2 / Re-run

It is very late, even though the time change gave us an extra hour tonight.  We used it to keep the Kibbutz pub open an extra hour and dance.  The Machon (Arava students), the volunteers, and the Garin (pre-army civil service Israelis) all danced together until we were forced to shut down around 1:30, and, still awake, I come writing to you.  But I am tired, so as a cop out, though a fitting one, I am going to post one of my letters from the farm from last summer.  The stars are gorgeous here, and they made me feel like I did one night on the farm:

Out here on the farm, you can really see the stars. Not one or two of the most persistent ones, breaking through the glowing haze of the human hive, but pretty much the whole deal, milky way and all. And yes, they do make you feel small. It’s not for nothing that God promised Abraham that his descendants would be like the sand and the stars. Long ago it was clear to most people that the stars, the planets, the sun and the moon were god-like. They encircled the earth on which people lived and which was the center of the universe, cared dearly about and greatly affected world affairs, could be placated with gifts and pleas. For most ancient people the passing of the sun, moon, and planets through different constellations of the “fixed” stars bore portentous information about the ages and epochs of the world and what they would bring. Many viewed the drama of earth as a very brief sequence, a flash of five or six thousand years which would end in apocalypse, and possibly rebirth.

Today the stars are largely silent. They do not speak our language, but the language of radio telescopes, pulsing electromagnetic radiation by which we can, across the gulf of light years and ages, decipher their chemical make-up, their stage of “life,” and much more. The drama of the stars is breathtaking – gigantic supernovas, multiple star systems in intricate dances, black holes ripping space-time – but is the same sort of drama as the moving of continents, the buckling up of mountains, and the advance of glaciers. There is less tragedy in the death of a star that in that of a butterfly. I look at the stars and long so much for there to be something else out there capable of speaking to us in our language. Maybe someone out there can help us, give us some wisdom. Things would be so much easier if we could, like those ancients, read the answers to our questions in the stars. But maybe the vastness of space, that great physical emptiness of things like us, can serve as the same sort of abyss as the one that I talked about last week. If The Answer cannot be divinely inspired or sent from outer space, that leaves things to us. On the one hand, this is quite a responsibility. On the other hand, it is incredibly liberating.

But where to start? We have access today to the great works of almost every tradition on earth, from the Upanishads to the Tanach to Plato to Lao Tzu to the Tibetan Book of the dead. There must have been more books written in the last fifty years than in the whole rest of the 5,000 years since the written word and maybe 50,000 since the art of storytelling emerged. I love wandering in used book stores. Some people need dope fixes, I need my browsing fix. My latest read, by Ryscard Kapuscinski, is called Travels with Herodotus, and is an autobiography of a man who spent time covering events all over the world for 50 years. He describes the conundrum of feeling incredibly small in the face of this expanse of humanity, yet somehow wanting to understand it: “It was a kind of malady, a dangerous weakness, because I also realized that these civilizations are so enormous, so rich, complex and varied, that getting to know even a fragment of one of them would require devoting one’s whole life to the enterprise.” I would add that the same goes for any single person, present or past. In fact, the longer I spend on this planet the more I realize that getting to know even myself feels like standing before the stars.

I used to feel as though if I read enough, learned enough, gathered all the relevant information, then I could really make a final decision on things, then I would know who I was and what I wanted. I would have it all figured out. But like that old hydra, you bite into one question and two grow back in its place. Read one book and three more seem necessary. Wouldn’t it be great to know the story of everyone on the subway car with you? One instinct at this junction is to throw in the towel and say that since we can’t know everything we shouldn’t bother trying. But instead of wanting to understand it all like I did before, I think I've slowly shifted towards wanting to be a part of it all. It's better to be happy with the one book that I'm reading, the one person I'm talking to, the one course I'm taking in life, than to be sad about the millions of books I'm not reading, the billions of people I'm not talking to, and the infinite courses I'm not taking in life. I think I’m growing to love my smallness more and more.
So, there it is.  This experience is pretty overwhelming, but I'm loving it.

Friday, September 25, 2009


I’m on my way to Jerusalem, and the sun is setting over the parched hills on the horizon. The flight wasn’t nearly as long as I had imagined – only 10 hours. Most people would be frankly relieved by this, but I was actually disappointed. I love being in transit, having a good chunk of time between places where I can step back from my life and think about it from a new perspective. This is also why I really do love taking the train rather than flying (it’s for the environment too, but I suppose I could be doing it grudgingly). I was telling the woman next to me on the plane why I was disappointed to only have ten hours, six of them asleep, and went on to tell her about how wonderful my two and a half day train ride from Toronto to Green River , Utah was. She said: You don’t have children. I have six. I don’t like my trips to be longer than they have to be. Touché.

And now the sun has set over the hills, and the Orthodox man sitting in the seat next to me is moving effortlessly back and forth between his prayer book and his cell-phone. I’ve received help from no fewer than three smiling faces in the hour I’ve been on the ground: A gentle elderly man who chased me down because I dropped my swim goggles from my bag, the Russian about my age who held my hand through getting a bus ticket and getting on the right bus, the 14 year old girl who let me use her cell phone (which had a topless picture of Eminem as the background). I’m getting excited to start learning Hebrew through immersion rather than just my Rosetta Stone, though I’m happy to see that I can pick words and phrases up here and there already. Since I picked up the Arabic alphabet before I left, I can now at least sound out all three versions of the messages at the airport. Meaning is the tricky part.

And now it is dark, and I’m on my way to one of the oldest cities on Earth, where people weep in the streets for what they believe happened there thousands of years ago. I’m glad that after my travels I’ll be met at the station by a friendly face. I struck a deal with the people at the Arava that since nothing was really going to happen in the ten hours between 1:00 am and 11:00 am, I could meet up with my friend Daniel in Jerusalem and stay with him for the night, taking the early bus out of Jerusalem in the morning. Then, at 11:00, I start my new life here. But until then, it’s kind of nice to still be in transit for a while.