Stranded in the desert on Sukkot

The schools’ summer vacation ended just before the beginning of September, but the Jewish calendar doesn’t really allow for any serious studying during the first month of school. The Hebrew month of Tishrei coincides with the September-October season, and is packed with holidays: Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year is on the 1st-2nd of Tishrei. The third of Tishrei is the fast of Gedalyah (but that has no effect on schools). The tenth of Tishrei is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which is spent fasting and praying in synagogues. And finally, the 15th of Tishrei marks the beginning of the Eight-day holiday of Sukkot, which ended today with the holiday of Shmini-Atzeret and Simchat Torah (which are celebrated separately as a two day festival overseas). If you add in weekends, you’ll be left with a total of 13 work days this September. This is why the Israeli version of procrastination is “Acharey Hachagim”- After the holidays. For weeks, this is the excuse for everything. Until then, nothing gets done. So just before “Acharey Hachagim” hits us in full force, I’ve decided to write a post about my adventures over Sukkot.

Sukkot is a Jewish holiday celebrated in memory of God’s protection of the Jewish people in their 40 years of wandering through the desert. The main element of the holiday is living in a Sukkah, a temporary outdoor hut, which is supposed to be reminiscent of the huts that our ancestors lived in and symbolizes our dependence on God. Sukkot is the turning point between summer and autumn, just when the weather becomes totally unpredictable and we have to trust in God that the weather over the holiday will be good. Some observant Jews just eat in the Sukkah, but some also sleep in it.

The second religious element of the holiday is the taking of the “Arba Minim” (four species), an Etrog (which is a bit like a large, bumpy lemon), a Lulav (a date branch), a Hadas (branches of myrtle) and an Arava (branches of willow) and waving them during the morning prayers. They symbolize different parts of the Jewish people, all being equal and held together. I won’t argue with you, this is one of the stranger parts of the Jewish religion.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew with the Arba Minim, during prayers at the Western Wall, Wikipedia.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew with the Arba Minim, during prayers at the Western Wall, Wikipedia.

Many Israelis, even non-observant Jews, celebrate the holiday by going on hiking trips and other vacation-related activities. The first and last days of the holiday are a “Yom Tov”, which is a day on which observant Jews don’t travel or turn electric appliances on and off as well as many other restrictions. The days in between are called “Hol Hamo’ed”, and those are the days in which we can hike.

My wife and I have started a tradition with our good friends A&R: every year, for the past three years, we’ve driven down to Mitzpe Ramon with our Sukkah packed into my father in-law’s car, and spent the first 2-3 days of the holiday there.

We went down last Wednesday, before the beginning of the Holiday (which started on Wednesday night) and built the Sukkah outside the apartment where we were staying. We spent the first day of Sukkot eating (in the Sukkah), resting (indoors), eating some more and spending time with our friends whom we don’t see nearly as often as we’d like to.

Our Sukkah in Mitzpe Ramon

Our Sukkah in Mitzpe Ramon

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On Friday, we planned to see the “Lots cisterns”, a series of water holes in the middle of the desert near Mitzpe Ramon. But while on the dirt path to the beginning of the hike, I accidentally drove over a large rock. Something began dripping out of the bottom of the car, so we turned the car around and tried to decide what to do. Apparently, Mitzpe Ramon is such a small town that it doesn’t have a car garage. The nearest place to fix a car is either Be’er Sheva or Dimona, both of which are about an hour’s drive to the north. But on Friday afternoon, we didn’t expect any car garages to still be open (businesses close early on Fridays before Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath). And even if we were to drive to Be’er Sheva, we had no way of getting back to Mitzpe Ramon in time for Shabbat. So we drove back to the apartment in Mitzpe Ramon.

We spent Shabbat doing more of what we did on Thursday: eating and sleeping. A&R went home after Shabbat and our plan had been for other friends to join us and for us to do some hiking trips in the area on Sunday and Monday, but our car trouble effectively left us stranded in Mitzpe Ramon. We also couldn’t exactly go home by bus with our Sukkah, our dog and our 7 or 8 bags of clothes, food, dishes, bedding, towels, shoes and dog food. Our friends stayed home and we spent Sunday exploring our options as well as the “rock garden” in Mitzpe Ramon.

I know I’ve already posted about Mitzpe Ramon in my post “Mitzpe Ramon and the Makhtesh” (including in explanation of what a Makhtesh is), but here are some cool photos of the “rock garden” and of Mitzpe Ramon.

The "Bereshit" hotel at the edge of the Makhtesh.

The “Bereshit” hotel at the edge of the Makhtesh. The rock garden begins to the east of the hotel and continues for aproximately 2 km.

At the beginning of the sculpture garden is a circle of 10 swings. Sadly, many of the installations in the garden have fallen into disrepair and of the 10 swings, only 4 are intact.

At the beginning of the rock garden is a circle of 10 swings. Sadly, many of the installations in the garden have fallen into disrepair and of the 10 swings, only 4 are intact.

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Wind chimes

Wind chimes

The view of the Makhtesh framed between rocks placed as fallen dominoes. The sculpture garden is spread out along the edge of the Makhtesh and the installations are placed in order to interact with their surroundings.

The view of the Makhtesh framed between rocks placed as fallen dominoes. The rock garden is spread out along the edge of the Makhtesh and the installations are placed in order to interact with their surroundings.

The "Bereshit" hotel on the edge of the cliff and the road to Eilat going down into the Makhtesh.

The “Bereshit” hotel on the edge of the cliff and the road to Eilat going down into the Makhtesh.

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A Hatsav. In Israeli kindergartens, when learning about the seasons of the year, one of the signs of autumn is the flowering of the Hatzav.

A Hatsav. In Israeli kindergartens, when learning about the seasons of the year, children learn that one of the signs of autumn is the flowering of the Hatzav. The Hatzav is a bulb that sprouts up all over the country at the end of the summer.

A power line going down into the Makhtesh.

A power line going down into the Makhtesh.

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Luna, following the yellow brick road.

Our dog, Luna, following the yellow brick road.

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A truck from a nearby construction site dumped some dirt and the wind whipped it up into a small 'tornado'.

A truck from a nearby construction site dumped some dirt and the wind whipped it up into a small ‘tornado’.

Another Hatzav.

Another Hatzav.

View of the Makhtesh

View of the Makhtesh

The nicer rooms in the hotel on the cliff have individual pools. The downside: nosy hikers can walk by and take pictures...

The nicer rooms in the hotel on the cliff have individual pools. The downside: nosy hikers can walk by and take pictures…

The Mitzpe Ramon visitors' center

The Mitzpe Ramon visitors’ center

Outside the visitors' center, we ran into a herd of ibex. The ibex roam freely in Mitzpe Ramon and are not afraid of humans.

Outside the visitors’ center, we ran into a herd of ibex. The ibex roam freely in Mitzpe Ramon and are not afraid to come close to humans.

A stupid kid chased them away...

A stupid kid chased them away…

We caught this elderly male ibex in the act of reading Ram Oren's "Ashram". When he saw us coming, he promptly tore off the page he was reading (the end of chapter 38) and ate it...

We caught this elderly male ibex in the act of reading Ram Oren’s “Ashram” (on the floor on the left). When he saw us coming, he promptly tore off the page he was reading (the end of chapter 38) and ate it…

Savoring the words

Savoring the words

The ibex leaves the scene, through the streets of Mitzpe Ramon

The ibex leaves the scene, through the streets of Mitzpe Ramon

We had the car towed to Jerusalem on Monday morning, adding finality to our feeling of being stranded in the desert town of Mitzpe Ramon. I found it somewhat fitting to the spirit of Sukkot.

Later on that day, my parents came to rescue us in their own car. I made a wonderful pasta sauce out of the leftover vegetables that we had (onions, mushrooms, beet, Jerusalem artichoke and goat cheese) and we ate it in the Sukkah.

Later in the day, we drove through the Large Makhtesh to Ein Yorke’am (Yorke’am spring), where there is water in other seasons, just not this one. The plant life in the area is quite green, despite being in the middle of the desert, but the actual water couldn’t be found. We also couldn’t find the ancient Byzantine outpost which is supposed to be right next to where we parked the car.

Colored sands in the Large Makhtesh (Makhtesh Gadol)

Colored sands in the Large Makhtesh (Makhtesh Gadol)

Ancient Byzantine steps lead down to Ein Yorke'am

Ancient Byzantine steps lead down to Ein Yorke’am

The greenery speaks of an abundance of water, but at the end of the summer, the water itself is nowhere to be found.

The greenery speaks of an abundance of water, but at the end of the summer, the water itself is nowhere to be found.

The riverbed at Ein Yorke'am

The riverbed at Ein Yorke’am

Searching for the elusive ancient Byzantine outpost.

Searching for the elusive ancient Byzantine outpost.

On Tuesday, we finally packed up the Sukkah and all the rest of our gear and headed home. We decided that since we’d seen the Large Makhtesh (Makhtesh Gadol) and the Ramon Makhtesh (Makhtesh Ramon), we should complete our trip with a quick visit to the Small Makhtesh (Makhtesh Katan). There are only seven Makhteshim in the world, five of which are in Israel. The three mentioned in this post are the three largest.

The Sukkah is loaded onto the "rescue car".

The Sukkah is loaded onto the “rescue car”.

This magnificent rock jutting out of the ground is part of the outer wall of the Small Makhtesh.

This magnificent rock jutting out of the ground is part of the outer wall of the Small Makhtesh.

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Luna, in the Makhtesh

Luna, in the Makhtesh

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The walls of the Makhtesh, through the boughs of a flowering Acacia tree.

The walls of the Makhtesh, through the boughs of a flowering Acacia tree.

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Luna, on the way home, being cute.

Luna, on the way home, being cute.

On Wednesday, the last day of “Hol Hamo’ed”, we went with a friend to see “The art of the brick” Lego exhibition in Tel-Aviv, which has been showing for the past few months and is scheduled to close this Saturday. I’m a Lego junky, and I enjoyed it very much. The exhibition is made up of the works of Nathan Sawaya, as well as a section of Lego robotics, built by school kids. Here’s a taste.

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The largest sculpture in the exhibition, with over 80 thousand bricks.

The largest sculpture in the exhibition, with over 80 thousand bricks.

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