To friends and family,
Here is a brief description of what our lives are like here on Yishuv Alon. Please feel free to forward to anyone you think might be interested. At the same time, please don't hesitate to send us a note, if you would rather not see these reports. We will gladly remove you from our list.
The last report was by Andrea, and this is by Shai.
Yishuv Alon is a settlement of Jews about 20 kilometers from Jerusalem. It is on top of a hill - a 5 minute drive on a narrow windy road, which runs off the main road from Jeruslaem to Jericho, at a point about halfway between the two ancient cities. It is at elevation 800 ft, in comparison to Jerusalem which is about 3000 ft. and the Dead Sea, which at -1300 ft. is the lowest place on earth. It overlooks a "wadi"
(this is a streambed which is dry in the summer months, but wet after a winter rain.) The name of the wadi is Kelt, and it serves as the watershed for a large area of the desert which surrounds us.
The desert climate here is interesting. In the summer months from late April through mid October, there is virtually no rain. This is such a sure thing, that people routinely store things outdoors without fear of any water damage. For example, a good deal of the furniture that eventually was moved into some new contruction nearby, was left outdoors all summer. The temperatures range as the season moves on but at the height of summer the max is typically about 105 F and the low about 85 F. This is a like the temps in Phoenix AZ in the summer. The other 6 months of the year is the time of the rainy season. This means colder and damper days, but there is no "monsoon" season.
The coldest it gets here is the low 40's F, and the typical winter highs are in the low 60's (a lot like the autumn temps in Boston).
The landscape around is steep with many canyons. It is stark! There are virtually no trees and in the summer months the hills are dead brown, and look like large sand dunes rolling in the distance (they are actually filled with dust, rocks and brush). The hills do turn green in the winter season, as the brush and plants bloom. It is possible to plant here with drip irrigation and there are occasional fields of date Palms, and other heat loving crops.
Perhaps the biggest distinction from these hills and those in New England, is that in NE, all the "skin" of most mountains is invisible, being covered with trees except at the highest elevations. Here one can see the mountains so clearly that you feel as though you could just look out the window and start drawing a countour map. One of the exciting things to do here, is walk to a high spot during a big rainstorm, and watch all the streams and rivulets form on the normally dry hills, and merge into larger and larger streams, eventually pouring down into the rushing wadi.
The wadi has some interesting sites. One is a reclusive monestary about 5 kilometers downstream towards the Dead Sea and Jericho. Another is a natural well, fed by an underground stream, that flows all year even in the summer. This well is large and people do swim in it (30 ft. x 10 ft.) and 6 feet high. The interesting thing is that it is a natural "siphon".
The phenomenon is described below, and the explanation for those of you who care follows afterwards.
What happens is that the well, fed from the underground stream, fills up. Then as it reaches a height of about 5 feet, it magically empties out. It then fills up again and repeats this forever. So when it is full,
people jump in and swim, and the kids who can't swim watch enviously. When it empties, the kids who were watching all clamber down and frolic in the now empty well, screeching in delight as the water slowly rises, until they need to climb back out. The whole process takes about 45 minutes for a complete cycle.
The explanation of this phenomenon is easier than it might first appear.
There is an outlet from the well through the stone at the bottom, where the water can continue on its way downstream. The reason the water fills up, is because this outlet is small tunnel through rock which goes out the bottom of the well and then straight upward through the rock to a height of the 5 foot
mark in the well. Hence, the water cannot go anywhere out of the well until this narrow tunnel is completely full of water. (It is the same reason the water in your toilet does not go down, until you fill it up pretty high.) When the water in the well reaches the 5 foot level, the tunnel fills, and the water pours out the other end of the tunnel, thereby emptying the well. The tunnel continues downward through the rock and opens out into a channel at a level lower than the bottom of the well. So the emptying continues until the well is completely dry. (Just as your toilet completely empties).
Anyhow, it is pretty fascinating to watch, and the channel at the other end empties into an old aqueduct which consequently alternates between being empty and rushing with water, to the delight of all the kids hiking in it.
Of course an enterprising young man recently built a small restaurant along the side this well and is doing a nice business.
The hills near us are barren with the exception of 2-3 settlements that can be seen on nearby hills, and one small tourist spot called Genesis Land, where people come to ride camels and see the view as it looked to the characters in Genesis, and learn a little history and geography.
Otherwise the landscape is littered with Bedouin tents which seem to stay put more permanently than was the norm for the ancient heritage. They live a life that is very strange for a modern western person. Their culture however is slowly disappearing as the next generation goes to school(walking 5-6 miles each way through the desert) and learns to read, write and make a living in the modern society that surrounds them. They live outdoors with no plumbing, electricity or shelter outside of their makeshift tents, which are more like canopies than tents. They seem very busy just tending sheep, getting water and food and living.
There is of course the seedier greedier element of this society too, who hang out looking for parked cars, and stealing stereos. If they had only known that I had survived 7 years in New York City without a stolen stereo, perhaps they might have left mine alone as professional courtesy to the masters of car stereo theft.
The homes in Alon are modest by American standards, but represent fulfilled dreams for the people here who are happy to get out of the city where they could barely afford a crowded
apartment. Here they can build a two story 1800 sq ft. home with many rooms. The homes are built of stone because wood is scarce. The techniques in building are noticeably different than
in New England. Sand is the "subfloor" for Ceramic or stone tiles, which is the standard flooring material. Mortar is poured over the sand and tiles cemented down. There is no central heating though many people have space heaters for the damp cool season. TV's, VCR's, commercial washers are all standard, but not everyone has a dryer. The air is so dry that people just hang their laundry out to dry, which it does in a matter of minutes. Air conditioners are common, but desert coolers are also frequently seen as cheaper and more politically correct substitutes. (Desert coolers simply blow air over water soaked reeds, and the immediate evaporation due to the dry air, cools the air. Just as you feel cold after leaving the shower when an unexpected open window blows wind at your water covered body.) They do not cool as well as AC's and neither do the humidify!
Cars are a necessity and everyone has one, some families have two. The car is needed to get on and off the Yishuv. It is hardly necessary to drive on the Yishuv itself. Right now we have half a car (it's in the shop).
Many of the families here are living a dream. They have a home, good friends, a beautiful setting, and a great environment in which to raise to their children. The yishuv (literally settlement) consists of:
50 homes - many under construction to add more space or a 2nd floor.
50 caravans - These are small trailer sized homes used to house people who are waiting for there real homes to be built. As new homes are built, these people move out, and new prospective yishuv members
move into the vacated caravans.
Synagogue - A double sized caravan used for communal prayers, holiday celebrations and club meetings.
Central Office - doubles as a post office, where people pick up mail.
Makolet - This is a small general store where people can buy all their daily needs from brooms to ice cream to vegetables. For more serious shopping, a car to the city is necessary.
Gan - This is a building used as a preschool and kindergarten. The Second floor doubles as a social hall. It is larger than the synagogue and is used for dances, parties and the like.
That's it -- No banks, supermarkets, hardware stores, restaurants, coffee shops, or 24 hour stores.
Cash is hardly used! Everyone has an account at the Makolet which they pay at the end of the month. Charges for water, electricity, rent on caravans, and schools are automatically withdrawn from each family's bank account. It is normal for an account to be overdrawn. Sooner or later it all evens out.
There are 50 more homes being built on the next hill in the distance. It is a yishuv "debate" on how large the yishuv should be allowed to grow. There are currently 100 families and a plan for at least 50 more. The model for Yishuv Alon is the settlement on the hill 1.3 miles away and 300 feet higher called Kfar Adumim. It has 250 families and boasts the local grade school as well as a pizza place and a larger Makolet.
One must apply to join the Yishuv in a way that one might apply to join a fraternity in college. There are interviews and trial periods (no hazing) and final approval by vote. The Yishuv has a "Secretary" who is elected and acts as the Mayor. He moderates the Yishuv meetings, and helps resolve disputes, which range from complaints of someone having a messy yard, to someone fencing off land that is not their's to fence off. There is no real structure to the government or meetings and disputes are handled in an ad hoc way.
The members of the Yishuv are not bound together in socialist values as on a kibbutz or a moshav, but more like a subdivision or private development, or coop in the states.
The kids wander around freely on the Yishuv. Everyone knows everyone else, and there is virtually no crime.
The kids go to school by a bus that picks them up at 7:30 AM. It is a fancy Mercedes bus (no yellow school busses here!) The ride is maybe 5 minutes up a very steep and windy road. The walk along a path that parallels the road is breathtaking with views of the wadi and 750 foot dropoffs. It takes about 1/2 hour to walk the 1.3 miles.
The children have 5 sessions a day in addition to a morning snack at 10 AM, and recess. School is 6 days a week. Sunday here is just called "first day". Friday, sabbath eve is a short day. Saturday, Sabbath is off.
They have a regular teacher, and many specialists. The Regular subjects include Bible, Reading and Writing (Hebrew and English), Math, Science and Social Studies. Specialty subjects are Sports, Art, Music, Computers, Electronics!, and Health. The daily schedule is a mix of these subjects.
The yearly schedule runs according tothe Jewish holidays, with the large vacations being at High Holidays and at Passover. The weekends are Friday and Saturday. There is no Christmas or Thanksgiving break. One of the things I enjoy most here is that I do not need to consciously keep track of two different cultural schedules.
The school is a public school. The public schools here are either "religious" or "secular". But the school here is a new model of "mixed". This is highly unusual in a country which is polarized more and more on religious lines. Hence when the kids study "Bible", the religious track does it from a "way of life" point of view, while the secular track does it from an historical perspective. It is a super model for tolerance and unity. It gives hope for the future of this country where the religious and secular will more and more need to work together to solve difficult problems of national interest.
Of course, even the secular here are far better educated in Hebrew, and Jewish culture than the vast majority of US Jews. After all, the national language is Hebrew, the national history book is the Bible, and the national holidays are the same as those observed by the most severely religious.
The children return from school at about 1-2 PM, at which time they go home for lunch, homework and quiet time. It is a country wide custom for kids to stay indoors quietly during the afternoon hours 2-4. At 4 PM are various clubs and extracurricular stuff. These are sports, music, dance, art, English, karate etc.
Our kids are fitting in very well. They seem to understand the difficulty of their task, and are willing to be patient and try hard. Zosh still doesn't know what is being said in class, but he loves recess and hasn't once come home complaining. We are very proudof both him and Yair. Yair has learned that his teacher yells at the boys who through rocks, so he doesn't throw them! That never stopped him in the US- so we are getting a deal.
The adults schedules vary with their careers and priorities. There are parents that are housekeepers and child raisers for the most part. There are also scientists, businessman, mechanics, merchants, artists and scholars.
My schedule for example is up at 6AM for morning prayers. In the spirit of unity in a small place, the prayers are done in one of two style(ashkenaz or sefard) depending on who is leading. This is very unusual. But I love it, because I am able to study a whole new collection of tropes, melodies and songs.
There is no snobbery about who leads. I was asked to read Torah the first day we arrived, since someone here knew that I was qualified.
Over to the Makolet for some milk and supplies, and back home to wake up the kids. Get the kids to the bus stop for school and Gan by 7:30 AM. Then either
Home or to the university to work until 1 or 4, depending on the day. Then there are errands and/or picking up the kids. Evening is spent working again. The kids get to play on the computer from 6 - 7:30 PM. Then they go to sleep, and I work until 10.
We go off the Yishuv at least twice a week to shop and see plenty of old friends and family.
I have found a Bridge club in Jerusalem. It turns out I am among the top few Go players in the country! That says something about the poor state of Go here. The university has been generous with their support for email and library use etc. The National Science Foundation awarded me a grant for my research on RALBAG, which in the end was better than the Fulbright which I did not
succeed in getting. All is well.
Andrea is busy learning Hebrew and taking care of the kids. There is a lot of work involved in settling in here, most of which she has done. This includes insurance, schools for the kids, home supplies, social plans and many other things. She may work as an audiologist part time in a few weeks.
The people here love it. Their kids are free and happy. They have homes, dreams, good friends and peace of mind.
I left the most unpleasant for last.
There was a recent poll here in the big newspaper asking people what they would personally wish for if they had 3 wishes. The number one wish was Peace. The number two was Health. The next ten related to money(having more). The list continued down to number 50, which was a wish for better weather forecasting!
The point is that "peace" is on everyone's mind. No one wants their
loved ones lost in a war, or worse, killed as a result of some fanatic's way of expressing his/her rage. Of course the issues in this part of the world are complex and the emotions deep.
Suffice it to point out that daily life here goes on with the fears neatly tucked away in the back of people's minds. There is an army guard which staffs the entry to the Yishuv. He operates a heavy sliding gate to allow cars to enter and leave. There are hundreds of "routine" blocks on the main road, where cars slow down at various "imaginary" borders for a quick eyeball check by army members. There are now three official designated areas inside Israel: "A" means under complete control of Palestinians. "B" means joint control. "C" means Israeli control. These areas are disjoint from the so called "green line" or the pre-67 borders. On the newest maps. "C" areas are white, "B" yellow, and "A" greyish. Our Yishuv is in a "C" area but in an area that outside the "green line". The blocks on the roads tend to be at borders
between white and yellow areas, and within some white areas on busy roads leading from yellow or grey areas.
Jews for the most part do not enter the "A" areas which tend to be the major Arab city centers like Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron and Gaza. However, yellow "B" areas are passed through often on route to other "C" areas. There are many new roads that were built with the intention of allowing people to drive around or by the "A" and "B" areas. It is all very confusing and subject to change at any moment due to new negotiations.
The T-Shirt on the Yishuv sports "Yishuv Alon Eretz Mirdafim". Translation: Settlement of Alon - Land of the Chases.
This is a reference to the 5-10 year period after 1967 when Israel was plagued by Palestinian terrorists, who entered over the Jordan River, and hid in the local caves and canyons of the desert, where the army "chased" them back over the border. Long ago the border was secured by advanced surveillance techniques which has rendered the old "Eretz Mirdafim" somewhat like "the wild west" in the USA.
The local laborers who build the houses here are 100% Palestinian. They are young and old, skilled and unskilled. Most are pleasant, waving hi, saying shalom. Many speak Hebrew. Still relationships with them are as strained as many interracial relationships still are in the US. Even the least hateful among the people has a deep mistrust of the other side, and polite hellos and offers of cold drinks to hot workers is usually the extent of any actual relationship.
Depending on intelligence reports, there are occasional "Seger"s (Closures or blockades), which means that no Palestinian may enter a Jewish settlement for any reason. Often this hurts both the workers and those who are waiting for their homes to be built. This sometimes results in the odd scene where a Jew leaving the settlement sees the Arab worker who has been building his home for the last 2 months, stopped at the gate and being sent home. There is a tense but friendly trading of waves hello and the mutually sympathetic comment of "sorry, it only takes one".
Nevertheless, as I said, the overall daily activities move along oblivious to the fears, dangers, hopes, hatred, fanatics and pressures.
Israel in General
In general, the country has not changed as much as I had expected. Perhaps this is because I had so many reports of high change! In any case, my old office in Tel Aviv U is still the same. Many of my old walking routes look identical. The bike shop I worked at in Jerusalem is still there. One of the partners went into the furniture business. The other still runs the place. Students also seem similar to their predecessors 15 years earlier. The main change in 15 years (since I worked here last in the University) is:
Higher Standard of Living - This is widespread. Better retail, franchises, cars and appliances. Larger supermarkets with more variety. Better quality merchandise all around. More and better roads.
Two things which have not changed at all:
There is still the preoccupation with security and economic prosperity.
There is still a great gap between the "religious" and the "secular".