The Curtain Falls and Rises over the Negev Desert and the Dead Sea

By Lindsay Soberano

This is my third visit to Israel, but this time is different. This time I want to get down to the bottom of things and to understand the political situation to the best of my ability. I am seeking the truth, but as I seek truth in a country that constantly shifts and is run by people with opposing ideologies, I find that my perspective changes on a daily basis. I have a deep love for Israel, but I know she is imperfect. Therefore, I am striving to make peace with that contradiction. I want to know how to defend her. Not just how to, but I want to believe in all that I have to say. Not just because I am a Jew, but because I have reached this conclusion through education. Not simply an education that develops through textbooks, but an education that arises from firsthand experience.

Kaleidoscopic Viewpoints of Israel

My relationship with Israel is like no other country; its rich culture, history and landscape is like a mysterious, complex, wise person who I want to keep on getting to know, but who I will never be able to fully grasp. The first time I came to Israel, I was 18 and on a one-month Canada Israel Experience tour, which was organized by the United Jewish Appeal Federation (UJA). Though the trip was life changing, as I began to identify with my Jewish identity, that fact that I was on a tour meant that I viewed Israel through a limited perspective.

In other words, I did not even know about Palestinian refugees. I did not know about Zionism. I did not know about the British Mandate. I did not know the full extent of the Jewish refugee problem following WWII. I did not know who Theodor Herzl was. I could go on and on. I was only briefly introduced to some of these issues at that time. Hence, that trip could not mentally take me to where I am now. At the time I only saw Israel with my eyes and my heart. I soaked up her landscapes and people, her monuments and historical sites. I saw her shell. I played the tourist.

Don’t get me wrong, the trip was very effective, from a Zionist’s point of view. Those philanthropists who subsidized the program got their money’s worth. I was a textbook example of what seeing Israel could do for a young Jewish girl. I went home dreaming of returning to my homeland, of somehow contributing to Israel. I had stood at the Westerm Wall and felt moved. I actually had a religious awakening. It’s hard to describe now; it was seven years ago, but I began to feel as though I belonged to something larger than myself. I began to understand what it was to feel Jewish. I was remembering where it was I came from. My new experience had changed me, inside and out, so much that I eventually broke up with my non-Jewish boyfriend.

I returned to Israel two years later on another program sponsored through the UJA to teach English to children at Kibbutz Amiad. At that time I began to see Israel in more of an authentic light, because I remained on the kibbutz for a month and had an adopted family. I also spent a few weeks in Jerusalem taking seminars at Aish Hatorah. I finally felt as though I had begun to delve beyond Israel’s surface. I was now a traveler. I even felt as though I had a taste of what it was like to be a resident.

That was four years ago. It took me four years to come back. This was partly because of the rise of the Intifada. Though the more I thought about it, the more I refused to be kept from enjoying Israel and exploring my Jewish heritage. I found myself admiring others who went to Israel regardless of the situation and finally committed to following their lead. I researched various programs in Israel and discovered the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) in Arad. WUJS offers three tracks for university graduates that each include ulpan (Hebrew classes): 1) Arts 2) Peace and Social Justice 3) and Israel and Jewish studies. WUJS also offers assistance to those interested in making Aliyah. I enrolled in WUJS in the Israel and Jewish studies track, where I took classes in Talmud, Israeli Politics, Israeli Film and Literature, and the Media. Every Wednesday we went on a one-day seminar outside of Arad. I experienced seminars on a wealth of topics, such as the Bedouins, Israel’s Independence, Israel and Foreign Affairs, Arts and Culture, and the history of Jerusalem.

I began the semester with a hike through the Negev, but I soon found myself in ulpan amazed at the fact that I was reading and writing in Hebrew, even if it was only at the aleph (beginners) level. Suddenly, Hebrew was no longer esoteric to me. When I walked the streets of Israel I could actually understand some of the words that flew out of the mouths of the passer-byes. Living in a small town allowed me to feel more like a resident than a tourist. The fact that I experienced Israel on a more intimate level was not the only thing that granted me a great sense of satisfaction — other people were now following my lead. Both my mother and my boyfriend made trips to Israel to be with me. It was my mother’s first time and my boyfriend had been on a 10-day birthright trip.

At times I cannot believe how enmeshed I felt, but of course there were those moments of isolation that came with the territory. Though the small town of Arad lent to peace and quiet and inner reflection, sometimes the shear size of it made the city girl in me feel trapped. Once in a while I would get a pang of cabin fever and go for a long walk to the viewpoint, which overlooked the Negev Desert and the Dead Sea. The view was so special and I savoured it every time, reminding myself that I did not have this majestic landscape in Toronto. On clear days, I could see the Dead Sea and the crevices of each mountain. From where I stood the sea was shaped like a peanut and even from this aerial view I could see the hot mist hovering over the water. The desert was still. The silence was sublime. It was as though sound was filtered through cotton balls, so that each sound—the sound of my footsteps, the sound of the wind, the sound of the birds—was intense and raw. The sun would reflect off of the water in beams of starry light.

But other days the desert changed right before my eyes, with the setting sun, or the reflection of the drifting clouds. On cloudy days, the Dead Sea was barely visible, and the mountains would change colour. The clouds passed over the mountains so effortlessly, almost painting or sculpting the way the peaks appeared. When I went for evening walks, as the sun set, it was as though a curtain fell over the Dead Sea, waiting to be lifted at the dawn of a new day. However, the desert changed as swiftly as Israel’s political situation. The desert also changed as swiftly as my viewpoint of Israel changed. It transformed from ugly to beautiful and from beautiful to ugly right before my eyes.

The lack of entertainment in Arad was not the only thing that made those difficult days hard to contend with. There were those days when I would have to wait in a long line at the bank, only to be told I could not cash my cheque because the computers were down. (This happened endless amounts of times, but eventually I learned that if I went for a short stroll, then by the time I returned the computers would be up again.) I swear they always saw me coming. Being in Israel was not always a bowl of cherries. I mean I was in a different culture. I was susceptible to culture shock, especially when people practically breathed down my neck while I was in line—if there even was a line.

I will never forget the time I ordered a Caesar Salad. In all honesty, I think Caesar would have had a conniption. The salad was a shame to its namesake. The dish consisted of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and almond shavings, topped with a thousand island dressing. Do not get me wrong, it was fresh and tasty, but it just wasn’t a Caesar salad; it was an impostor. It was an orange Caesar salad without bite. There wasn’t a single crouton, or even anything that looked remotely like it. I eventually learned how to go with the tide. I had to learn how to be extremely flexible. Things are not planned in Israel the way they are planned in North America. Things are more fluid here.

Most days I would take in my surroundings and be thankful for being here. I felt safer just knowing that I was in a small town rather than living in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Some days I thought Arad was the most beautiful place. Where else can you wake up in the morning and say that you are in the middle of the desert? The view from my window was endless desert mountains. I learned to love the desert, or so I thought. Other days I looked at her in disgust. Other days the desert was such a hindrance. The wind would howl and make my windows shake. Some days I couldn’t even have the pleasure of fresh air, because if I opened my windows the hot air and the mucky desert dust would blow in. The desert did not only change as fast as Israel’s political landscape, but it was as volatile as Israel’s political situation.

I would also look at all of Arad’s immigrants and wonder if I was even in Israel. I sometimes felt as though I was in Russia or America (the Hebrews spoke mostly in American English accents). There were those days when I felt as though I was on the outside looking in. All I wanted was to be with someone who truly knew me. There were days when I was forced to live in a sort of solitude. Then again, whenever I felt isolated someone extended a hand, and though I came to expect talkativeness from Israelis, sometimes it still came as a surprise. Sometimes I still had to work on peeling off all those layers that came from living in a big city and from bundling up in the cold winters.

While I was in Israel I could not help but realize that even the views I hold of her were surely destined to change in the future. Because when I looked back at the limited perspectives I had on Israel, I knew that this time was not any different. There was still a lot of discovering to do. However, what I did know was that for a 25-year-old Jewish Canadian woman, I had discovered a lot about Israel. I know that nothing is black and white. I just hope that others can adopt this technique when passing judgment on Israel, because too many people have a skewed image about who she is. Too many people judge her, before trying to get to know her. I feel bad for Israel. She deserves more friends after all that she has been through. She should not have to be the outcast. She should not have to be ganged up on. Maybe I can help those people see her as a human. Maybe I can show people her beauty and courage and magic.

Last night, a fellow WUJS student told me a story by Rav Kook’s son. It was about a young beautiful woman arranged to be married to a rich but vile man. She did not agree to marriage but she agreed to meet him. When he saw her, however, he was rather displeased and walked out before even talking to her. Did he fail to see her beauty or did she decide that he was unworthy of seeing her beauty? Similarly, do those who fail to see Israel’s beauty reject her, or does she reject them

Biography

Lindsay Soberano holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing from Concordia University and a Masters degree in English from the University of Toronto. She has had numerous articles and poems published in Canadian publications, such as The Jewish Tribune, Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine, Canadian Woman Studies Journal, and most recently, Yalla Journal, which is a compilation of writing by Jewish and Arab writers that promotes dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She continues to pursue a career in writing, while also pursuing a career as a high school English and Drama teacher.