Monday, May 17, 2010

A Day in the Negev

You know what I say? If you’re in The Land, and it’s Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of Sukkot or Pesach), and you don’t go on at least one trip to somewhere, anywhere in the country, you might as well be in Poughkeepsie. That’s what I say, and who is going to argue with me?
That said, we had nothing at all planned for this Pesach; (as is often the case, my reporting is one full holiday behind, since Shavuot is almost upon us) at least until Barbara spoke with June (the June of June and Jeff). She had found a JNF tiyul on line; they were going, and did we want to join them? Barbara started to describe the itinerary to me. I cut her off; if June and Jeff are going and you want to go, sign us up. In other words, quit while you’re ahead. Maybe if you tell me where we’re going, I won’t be that interested. This way, worst case scenario, I’ll get out of the house, spend the day with friends, and avoid the perils of a journey to Poughkeepsie. And that’s how Barbara, Natania, and I got to join our friends and a bus load of Anglo-Israelis and State-side tourists on our JNF fun-filled day in the Negev.
It turns out that I was right (no surprise there). If I knew in advance that our first stop was going to be the Israeli Air Force Museum, my level of enthusiasm would have dropped precipitously. The world is filled with museums, ranging in interest from The Louvre or The Smithsonian Institute, down to the Stalin Museum in Volgograd. It ultimately depends on what turns you on, or as the Romans of yore were wont to say, De gustibus non est disputandum. One man’s meat……….. I think you get the idea. I have the fondest memories of an afternoon spent twenty years ago eyeing a collection of antique cars in a Shaker barn in the town of Sandwich on Cape Cod. (In my idiosyncratic scale of things, there are few things as lovely as a 1954 Oldsmobile, turquoise or pastel pink.) I could spend the better part of an hour gazing at a display case of Bakelite radios like the ones that used to grace our kitchen table (c. 1950) on E. 208 in The Bronx. But airplanes as a rule don’t do much for me: something to get on and off as quickly as possible once you’ve gotten where you’re going – just grateful that you arrived in one piece. . But the Israeli Air Force Museum is more than 140 randomly discarded outmoded aircrafts spending their final days at rest on a concrete field on the outskirts of Be’er Sheva. If you walk around and take the time to read the signs, or, in our case, listen to the young lady who was the museum tour guide, you realize that each of these airplanes has an amazing story.
But before you begin the journey down aviation Memory Lane, there is the present and the future to consider (nostalgia is not a big ticket item here in The Land). There is first and foremost an indoor display which includes a mockup of the cockpit of a contemporary Israeli jet fighter, how it is equipped and the incredible protective gear which the airmen are given. We are not even going to discuss the megabucks all this stuff costs or dwell over the disparity whereby private individuals and groups are scrounging up money to provide socks and underwear to the regular combat units. No sir, we are not going to tread – not even tippy toe – over this political landmine, the allocation of never-enough resources. But that’s the raison d’etre of this museum: to make the case for the Air Force as the greatest of its size in the world and its central role in keeping Israel safe and secure, going back to Israel’s Day 1.
Speaking of which, you have to begin with an Avia S-199 (a Czech modified Messerschmitt), the only survivor of the original four planes that together were the Israeli Air Force in 1948, and which shot down two Egyptian planes that had bombed Tel Aviv. It doesn’t look like much by today’s standards, but that plane – together with the men who piloted it – was somehow part of G-d’s plan to bring us back to The Land and keep us here. It’s easy to understand that without this rudimentary defense system, there wouldn’t be much of a Tel Aviv today; the White City would be what city?
In an Aviation Museum, there has to be room for the random and the bizarre. On another row of planes there’s the one that landed itself, a large cargo prop-plane with big wings. On one of its flights, for whatever reason, the pilot was forced to bail out over northern Israel. The air force spent several days combing the area, looking for pieces of the wreckage, until a call was received from a bewildered farmer inquiring as to why there was an IAF plane sitting in the middle of his field. Somehow, this aircraft without a pilot glided down and landed itself with hardly a scratch. Now, this kind of thing can’t happen; but there is that plane, in one piece, to tell the tale.
Not all of the planes were originally Israeli. Some were trophies, enemy planes brought down in combat. There were at least two that were flown to Israel by Arab pilots defecting from their own air forces, incredible stories of derring-do in their own right. As I said, each aircraft in this outdoor museum has a reason for being there. By far the most popular plane was the Boeing 707 which people were lining up to board. Back then, that would be July 4, 1976, this very plane was used to ferry the freed hostages from Entebbe back to safety. And if that wasn’t enough, for an encore performance, this very plane then was used to ferry our brethren out of Ethiopia in one of the airlifts out of there. Close your eyes and try to imagine either one of these ventures and what it must have been like: a cabin filled with desperate people, jammed together; probably no flight attendants going around offering pillows and serving soft drinks. This plane is now used as a mini-theater, and there we were, sitting quite comfortably, watching a film to promote the IAF.
Andy why not promote the IAF? Isn’t that what this world of ours is all about: letting people know who you are and what you’re doing? That’s certainly what the JNF has in mind when it arranges these trips: to show the folks (some of whom – not us – might have the do-re-mi to contribute big time) where and how the money which is raised in The States is being spent. And a lot of it is being spent on a massive effort to get folks to live in The Negev (as well as in the Galil).
Now none of this is new. It was obvious back in the days of Ben-Gurion that it would be important to populate an area that was at least half of Israel’s land mass, and it’s been kind of a dream ever since. In the more down-to-earth world of lines and arguments in which most of us are forced – reluctantly – to reside, there is something called the National Planning and Building Council which developed a master plan to encourage the decentralization of the Israeli population precisely into areas like The Negev, and this by 2020. What I’m going to tell you next will probably shock, shock you, but I can’t help that. While cities like Petach Tikva, Rishon Letzion, and Rehovot have already reached their projected growth target for the next ten or twenty years, Be’er Sheva, as of 2007, was going backwards, losing population. Right now, less than ten percent of our population lives in this enormous – for us – land mass.
A point to remember is that this is not the 1950’s when some government official could dump planes full of Moroccans into out of the way areas like Beit Shean and then forget about them. Nowadays, it will take more than a laminated plan replete with charts and illustrations sitting on some official’s desk to get people to go somewhere. Into the breach, filling the void are established groups like the JNF and smaller organizations, including the Or Movement, a group I had never heard of before.
Our tour bus circled through an older part of Be’er Sheva, the kind of area that you can find in lots of communities, a place which, with just a little push in either direction, can either decay into a slum with vacant storefronts and poorly tended buildings, or can be revived into something really nice, cheerful bustling streets with interesting stores. In short, a perfect place for the Or Movement’s regional visitors center! If we had come a week or two later, this office, made from two adjoining buildings, would be open and ready for business. But as we stood in front, we could see guys carrying in computers, and as we toured the facility we could see the finishing touches that needed to be done. We had the opportunity to meet with Ophir Fisher (a relative of the cantor and recording star, Dudu Fisher) one of the founders of this organization, who had come to the sobering conclusion a few years back that either Jews settle the Negev or the 200,000 Jews living in Be’er Sheva could one day be surrounded by a growing Bedouin population. Ophir stood in front of the building as workmen were going in and out and he offered up his vision for the future of this city and this region, with a projected influx of several hundred thousand people over the next decade. The linchpin of his plan is this Center as an place to bring people who want to find out about the region and to provide prospective residents with services (like Nefesh B’Nefesh does), helping them get information about employment, housing, schools, and transportation.
Several weeks after our trip, I clipped out an article from the Jerusalem Post about a similar attempt at urban renewal, which was entitled “Pushing for a better tomorrow in 8,000-year-old Lod,” which reported on an event held by the Lod Community Foundation “to help showcase the city’s promise and raise support for the various initiatives taking place there” in a community best known for poverty, crime, and drug trafficking. Avishay Braverman, who is a government minister and ought to know about these things, said in his address that “If you wait for the government you will wait a long time. If you take the initiative you will carry the government on your shoulders.” I thought that remark was perfect, and it describes better and more succinctly than I could ever put it, the mindset of Fisher and his colleagues. If you have a good idea and you begin to implement it, you can push the government into providing assistance. (Much like Nefesh B’Nefesh got the Jewish Agency to improve its efforts regarding aliyah from the West.)
For several years before we took the plunge and made aliyah, I remember seeing advertisements from the American version of the JNF about Blueprint Negev, their plans to develop the region. The rest of our tour was to show off three of their projects in various stages of completion. One of them, more or less a blueprint for future endeavors, is Givot Bar (wild hills),a fledgling community, one of several under construction, now home to a few dozen families. What’s the recipe? Create a plan, get some a commitment for some land, prepare the infrastructure for a town, start building nice, affordable housing, get a few dozen families with the pioneer spirit to move in, and in a few years there will be 200 families in a well-planned community with parks, schools, and synagogues, a train-ride away from Tel Aviv. It’s not that difficult if you do it right. Repeat the formula a few times, and you have something.
It’s probably easier to create something from nothing than if you’re dealing with an existing city like Be’er Sheva, one which is seen as a ”stagnant backwater, culturally and geographically isolated from modern Israel….” (that’s from the JNF brochure). The reference to backwater is particularly apt because running through the city from east to west is Nahal Be’er Sheva, in fact a river for a few days of the year when it is filled with water from the flash floods that occur during the winter rains. The rest of the year it was, de facto, a dumping ground for unwanted stuff, a dreary place that any sensible person would try to avoid. Never mind that this area includes the ancient well route where the patriarch Avraham walked. Well, what do you do? You clean up the garbage and you start building a park. You plant thousands of trees; JNF is good at that! You build nature paths, gardens, the whole nine yards. Now people want to be there. Suddenly, the area becomes HOT. As we rode by on our bus, we could see high rise apartments, recently built or under construction. We traveled on a street with several commercial malls. All of them faced away from the river; except the new one just being built. That one will be looking towards the new park. The rest of the plan will follow by degrees: a botanical gardens, hotels, an amphitheater. You know, none of this is, using the well-worn expression, rocket science. It just takes some thought, a lot of effort and a considerable amount of money.
Speaking of ‘considerable,’ we had been on the road for quite a while, and by then most of us had worked up a considerable appetite ( you are free to admire my graceful segue to a new topic). The high point for me of any trip is of course lunch. Lots of times on these trips we all brown bag it, but who wants to bring along a bag of broken matzohs? – it was Pesach, after all. Our tiyul included lunch, and so our bus brought us to a restaurant in one of the aforementioned malls for a Kosher LePesach meal. The large establishment was crowded with families off for the holiday; our group was ushered upstairs to a private dining room where we were served a delicious meal. To be more precise, we were served half a meal. Folks, here in The Land, except for certain high-end places that cater to Western tourists, almost every restaurant open for Pesach will offer a Sephardic menu. ‘Kitniyot’ is not an issue. (I feel confident that if you went around and asked the diners heaping rice on their matzohs what the term ‘gebrochts’ meant, you would get some fantastic answers: “a dread disease?”; “a German football team?”; “part of New York City?”) Anyway, they served portions of carefully censored items to our busload of Ashkenazim. You needn’t feel sorry for us; we still had plenty to eat. And then we were back on the bus, back to the new riverfront park in downtown Be’er Sheva for a festival!!! Not just A festival, but the first annual Chol Hamoed festival.
I’ve been to these kinds of events before; they’re usually meant for kids. The usual stuff: face painting, places to jump up and down or to climb through. But that’s a good thing here in The Land, which, if nothing else, is child-friendly. We spent an hour or so wandering around through the various activities, taking time to check out the old bridge (Ottoman?) which is still standing. The young man in a Theodore Hertzl t-shirt who was taking us around told us that they expected, on this first day of the festival, about 20,000 visitors. People were obviously having a good time; they would go home and tell their friends, and there might be 40,000 people there the next day, many of them non-locals traveling to Be’er Sheva just for the festival, including the people who would come just for the evening’s concert.. The year before, there was no festival, no concert, no one there. A few years before, all there had been where we were standing were broken mattresses, tires, parts from abandoned cars, and the like. It’s not too much to hope that with all this effort by the combination of the JNF and the Or Movement– with the Israeli government limping along – there will be a renaissance here in historic Be’er Sheva and the region surrounding.
The final stop on our JNF tour would be, once again for us, Sderot. One could easily start the following train of thought: If it would take a considerable effort to start new communities in the Negev, more to revitalize Be’er Sheva, an ancient city dripping with history, the gateway to the Negev, the home of Soroka Hospital and Ben Gurion University of the Negev – in short, a place with a lot going for it – what about Sderot? What does Sderot have going for it? Not too much. OK, it is by default the largest community in the western Negev and people from the region go there to do their shopping. And it does have that wonderful hesder yeshivah which we visited a while ago. And Sapir College is nearby, and there are a few factories. But that’s about it. Sderot was always a place to dump new immigrants, who had little say in the matter. Perhaps its biggest tourist attraction is the kassam ‘museum,’ the repository for a sample of the missiles sent their way by the friendly folks in Gaza. Perhaps someday there will be a project for artists of all kinds to go there and turn each of the hundreds of public bomb shelters, one by every bus stop, into an outdoor gallery of sorts, a major tourist attraction. But not yet, sad to say.
Unlike at the festival in Be’er Sheva, or unlike on any day in Ma’ale Adumim, you do not see the children of Sderot – and there are many of them – at play on the streets or in the parks. There is a fifteen second rule, and while that might sound like a regulation in a basketball game, here it is deadly serious, with the emphasis on ‘deadly.’ From the time one hears the alert siren, there are only fifteen seconds to get into a shelter; that’s the time before the kassam which has been detected will land somewhere and, on a ‘good’ day for the Arabs, explode. One of the miseries of growing up here is that you always have to know where the nearest shelter is and calculate how long it would take to get there. So kids are usually inside and that does not mean enjoying the comforts and the recreational facilities of an American home.
The JNF just built the Sderot Indoor Recreation Center, the largest of its kind in Israel. The work was done in ten months (itself a miracle in Israel, where very little gets done on time) at a cost of five million dollars. Talk about money well-spent, money used to change people’s lives BIG TIME. Here you have it. This big blue building, planned and run by the community, is its own ‘festival’ every day. For a nominal fee (and no child is ever turned away for lack of it), kids can always go there to bounce and climb, to hang out, to use the computers (donated by local businesses); and in an emergency, everyone is a few seconds from a safe room. But this day, because it was the Pesach vacation, there was a special treat, a theater group performing for hundreds of children and their parents (You thought there wouldn’t be a stage for music and plays???!!!) There’s one thing they almost had. Someone thought to put a merry-go-round smack-dab in the middle of the largest area. But then, somebody else asked, how long would it take for this apparatus to come to a stop if there were a ‘situation’? Twenty one seconds. Scratch that idea. Maybe this is not ‘normal,’ but, as the saying goes, when you have a lemon, make lemonade. We left the big blue building, passing the concession selling kosher for Pesach pizza which looked dangerously like the real thing.
All that was left of our adventure was the ride home. Me being me, I couldn’t help but needle my friend a little bit. “Jeff, that would be the perfect job for you.” He understood what I was getting at because he was the one who had told us about the regulations here in The Land. Every official tiyul has to have a licensed tour guide, and every bus or car used for a tour likewise has to be licensed. So even though the entire narration during our trip was done by Ariel from the JNF, they had to hire an official tour guide who in total must have contributed a hundred words of his own. Easiest day’s pay he ever made! And they do these trips as often as once a week. As soon as Jeff finishes his tour guide course, he should apply to be an official guide for the JNF! In case you didn’t realize it, there is no course, official or otherwise, to be an Israeli blogger. People like me just have to wing it. Oh, there is one requirement: you can’t be an Israeli blogger unless you’re living here in The Land. Sorry about that, but a rule is a rule.


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