Ecological Wonders for a New Year

We are about to celebrate the new year here in Israel in the middle of January. And it’s not January 1. You see, in Israel, according to the Jewish Biblical calendar, there are actually four new years – ways of marking the passage of time. Are you thoroughly confused yet??? The spiritual new year, Rosh HaShannah, comes on 1 Tishrei, a Hebrew month usually falling in September. It is commemorated by going to synagogue and praying for G-d’s blessings as we turn fully to Him. Then there’s 1 Nissan which falls in the springtime, and corresponds with the exodus from Egypt and the Passover. The first day of the month of Elul, in late summer is a new year for animals (pre-dating St. Francis by milennia) and was the time for the ancient tithing of livestock. Lastly, the 15th day of the month of Sh’vat is the new year for trees! You read that correctly: a new year’s day for trees!

Next week marks our holiday of ”tu b’Sh’vat,” in the middle of winter, the middle of our rainy season. The ground has softened, the sap has begun to rise, and the fruits are just bursting forth in their nascent stages. We celebrate the festival by eating different fruits indigenous to the Land of Israel and by planting trees. Lots of trees! And bulbs! Children are out of school and you can see groups of people everywhere with shovels, on their knees, digging holes, planting precious trees…in the most unlikely of places, too! You see, here in Israel, most people are very environmentally conscious and very much lovers of nature.

Still, it was a huge surprise for us to see what is happening in the desert during our trip to the South last month. We spent three days in the Negev, and were astounded by the modern-day ecological and sustainable miracles that Israeli ingenuity is doing there – projects that can effect the entire world for the good! About an hour’s drive south of the Dead Sea, in the Arava part of the Negev (Jordan rift valley on the eastrn border) is an area called the Badlands. That’s exactly what it looks like- an uninhabitable sandy wasteland. A land where movies have been filmed because it looks like it’s from another planet!

We were butted up against the eastern border of Israel, driving along the Peace Route. This border was created on 1 September, 1922, when the British Mandate separated Transjordan from Israel. The border in the Arava is in the center of the lowlands formed by the Syrio-African rift, a deep crevice in the earth’s crust starting in Turkey and ending in Mozambique in Africa. This rift valley was formed eons ago by the movement of the edges of two tectonic plates. On 26 October, 1944, a peace treaty between the Kingdom of Jordan and Israel was signed. Ironically, for a Peace Route, much of the area is barbed wired off because of mines which were planted by the PLO in the 1960s.

Still, the landscape was stunning. The red sandstone mountains of Edom in Jordan to the east and the white mountains of the Negev to the west frame the valley. Our first stop was Moshav Hatzeva, founded in 1965 as a farming outpost protected by the IDF. Today this agricultural community extends over 1,500 acres. Yes. In the desert! Israel is farming productively in the middle of the desert! Food is now grown here, supplying not only Israel, but also for export to other countries in the Mideast, Africa and Europe. KKL-JNF (the Jewish National Fund) built the Hatseva Reservoir which receives floodwaters that flow in the winter. Using this huge reservoir as well as desalinated and gray water, the desert is able to bloom.

John and I stopped at the Peace Pavilion, a joint US-Australian project that overlooks the moshav. From the plateau, a sea of green and what looked like water (actually the sun’s reflection on the white tent rows) stretched for miles below. We were surprised and filled with pride to see the marker adjacent to the pavilion: the funds for the development of this vast irrigation project was funded by the generosity of the Los Angeles Jewish communities. Way to go, Angelenos! All those water certificates sent as Bar Mitzvah and birthday gifts and for memorials for loved ones went here. Our dollars in action!

We just HAD to drive down to the valley floor to get a closer look. Rows and rows of beige canvas tents and white plastic greenhouses greeted us. Some were empty, awaiting new seedlings. Others were filled with all sorts of herbs, fruits and vegetables in various stages of growth. We saw cucumbers, tomatoes and beans growing vertically to conserve space. There were scores of varieties of eggplants. Strawberries hung suspended from what appeared to be white plastic gutters. Hands of bananas hung ripening in huge bunches from squat trees. Citrus fruits were nearly bursting from the branches of tented citrus groves. And the date palms! These farmers were even growing corn. In the sand! Vegetables that typically grow in the heat of summer thrive here in winter.

The farmers here use a variety of agricultural techniques. Drip irrigation, the main way of irrigation, delivers specified amounts of water directly to the root system of the plant through carefully placed hoses. Watering is also carried out hydroponically. Here the roots grow in long tubes which carry recycled and recirculated water. There are also misting systems sending microdroplets to the plants during the hottest times of day. Most is computerized to fit timed requirements. Tents not only provide needed shade, but prevent rapid evaporation due to both blistering sun and driving winds. It’s a grand experiment with equally grand results providing nutritious food to many areas in the world that would go without. Such ingenuity! And it’s all sustainable! Earth friendly!

From Moshav Hatzeva we drove to Ein Yahav, another desert farming community that is absolutely thriving! It takes a certain sort of person to live out here in the middle of nowhere, so to speak. But this date-producing moshav is growing and prospering in every way. New neighborhoods of single-family homes and duplexes (large single-family homes with a shared wall) are being built. There are neighborhood restaurants, a pub, grocery stores, clinics, post office and a new strip mall with cafes and glideria (we Israelis love our glida, or ice cream!), toy store and handcrafts shop. We saw the community synagogue, parks, neighborhood swimming pool, rec center and schools. A thriving community made from dates where children of all ages roam free, and every family drives around in little golf carts!

Not missing an opportunity to experience the local color, I went to the shopping center. i had the best glida, a soft goatmilk ice cream sprinkled with fresh cantaloupe and halvah and drizzled with techineh. Can you say Paradise? The store selling local handcrafts got me next. With an eye-catching display of soaps (CAMEL MILK soap! Hey we are in the desert!), desert-sage sticks, desert plant teas, dates, and ceramics, I gladly emptied my wallet. The prices were very friendly and quality amazing. All the people we met were friendly and all spoke English. And of course we went into the date store and bought a couple boxes of dates and a bottle of silan date honey so we could celebrate Tu b”Shvat and the wonders in the Israeli desert.

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