For Israel’s Negev pioneers, a tough but fulfilling lifestyle
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Desert nomads

For Israel’s Negev pioneers, a tough but fulfilling lifestyle

Conversations with several remarkable individuals about what it takes to live in the remote, spacious, silent south

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Haim Berger, the wolfman and tour guide, in his Ramon Crater 'office' (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Haim Berger, the wolfman and tour guide, in his Ramon Crater 'office' (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

With thousands of locusts swarming through the fields and farms of the Negev, the last week was a stressful one for residents of the desert plain, concerned as they are about their livelihoods, from growing potato crops and grapes to raising goats and caring for bike-riding tourists.

But Golan Cohen, who grows medicinal herbs from the sand-dune hilltops of Be’er Milka, part of the Nitzana region, wasn’t too perturbed.

“We were lucky,” he said. “Only a few came our way, so our fields haven’t suffered any damage.”

It’s a fairly typical response for Cohen, a low-key, former Jerusalemite in a dusty cowboy hat who likes to pour homemade herbal tea for visitors, seating them under the shade of the thatched gazebo on his property. A desert transplant who’s been in love with the region since he was a third-grader, and who regularly hosts tourist and Birthright groups as part of his work, he takes things like locusts and sandstorms in stride.

Cohen is one of a small group of hardy, steadfast Negev residents with whom The Times of Israel spoke recently, on a tour through a region that is physically and philosophically remote from the densely populated, immensely fast-paced life in the heart of the country.

“Nothing is the norm here, but that’s my way, I can’t do it another way,” said Cohen, 37, who has been in the south for 13 years, now with a wife and four children. “The salary at the end of the month isn’t the goal here. We do okay, it’s a modest life, but we’re not missing anything.”

Shirat Hamidbar, or Song of the Desert, is the name of Cohen’s unconventional farm that uses brackish water to grow the desert herbs he sells to other companies and to make his own line of cosmetics. His methods are on the unorthodox side: He also uses an Israeli-designed process for collecting water — a ribbed plastic square that fits around the base of each tree, trapping any dew or rain that falls and slowly feeding it to the tree.

While desert living and farming were always Cohen’s goal, it took him some time to figure out where and what. Having first settled in Mitzpe Ramon, where he met his wife — a dancer at Adama, the local dance school — they found that Mitzpe, the one-street town north of Nitzana, was “a little too urban for us.” From there they went to Ezuz, a far-flung community that is also part of the Nitzana region, but farming land wasn’t easy to come by.

Be’er Milka, a bare, sparsely populated community of just 25 families, which is also part of the Nitzana region, felt right to them, Cohen said.

“There’s a quiet here and space that I can’t get in any other place,” he said. “I appreciate that what I do is pioneering, but I do it for me. I’m doing this to make something from nothing, and that’s my vision going forward.”

The adopted Bedouin

Creating something from nothing is a fairly common concept in this neck of the woods, where one can see stretches of empty land for miles and miles, almost an unknown sight in small, crowded Israel. It’s that sense of space and solitude that seems to draw most of the Negev settlers, as well as the opportunity to do something different, to define what feels like uncharted territory.

Ami Oach ambled around the oversized slab-of-wood dining table, his newborn daughter nestled in his beefy arms. She’s the youngest of Oach’s four children, all of whom were born during the family’s 17 years living in Shivta, an ancient city of Roman and Byzantine ruins that was a caravan stop on the ancient Nabatean Spice Route.

Oach and his wife, Dina, live in the simple house built by American archaeologist H. Colt, the son of the gun manufacturer, back in 1933, when he conducted a dig at Shivta. They are the caretakers of the site, running a restaurant and three-room bed-and-breakfast, serving homemade hummous, shakshouka and breads, as well as full dinners that are cooked in an underground clay oven, similar to the way the Bedouin cook.

Oach has more than a little of a Bedouin about him, having run away to the desert when he was still a teenager in urban Petah Tikva, and lived with a Bedouin hamula for a time. To this day, he spends time every couple of months with his Bedouin family, getting away “from everything,” he said with a smile, which is punctuated by a rotting front tooth. Even in his everyday life, far away from his extended family and the rest of the country, he needs that downtime.

“You’d be surprised how much time you have to spend dealing with bureaucratic issues,” said Oach, referring to the local authority, which is in charge of sites such as Shivta, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Ramat Negev Regional Council — the largest in the country, responsible for the Negev region — is “very involved” with places like Shivta or Ezuz, said Raz Arbel, director of the council’s tourism and partnership department, as well as with the larger, more industrial farms that develop clustered grape tomatoes and new kinds of lettuce greens. “We’re not allowing anyone to just come in and build a hotel with a lot of money. We’re into humble, simple places like Shivta,” he said. “The idea is not to change the desert.”

Arbel is another long-time desert lover, brought up in the south by a father who heeded David Ben-Gurion’s call to help settle the Negev. He grew up in his father’s fields in Lachish, as well as in the Sinai desert, where his father would spend several days each month testing crops. He then went to study at Midreshet Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker, Ben-Gurion’s desert home, and got hooked on life in the sand dunes.

“When I first came here at 16, the whole community was around 50 families and it was a long drive from Beersheba — an hour-and-a-half ride,” he said. “But there’ve been dramatic changes. Now we’re more than 5,500 families (in the Ramat Negev Council area), the roads are better and so are the cars.”

Now the Negev has 1 million visitors each year, including 300,000 tourists from abroad. That’s a significant change, said Arbel; until five or six years ago, around 90% of the visitors to the Negev were Israelis. With the advent of the Birthright program for Diaspora youngsters, and other Jewish visitors looking for a different kind of Israel experience, “the numbers have changed,” he said.

“What characterizes this area — and what hasn’t been ruined — is that the people who come here and build projects are still pioneers,” Arbel enthused. “We’re in a very big region, and most people just drive through on Route 40 (which runs from Kfar Saba to just north of Eilat) and don’t veer off the road. Those who stop find that the people who live here have time for them. They’re not pressured, they’re calm, there’s the peacefulness of the desert and it’s a quality feeling. We’re off the grid.”

Still, with slightly more than 4 million dunams of land (nearly one million acres) settled by 15,000 people in 14 communities — including kibbutzim, moshavim, villages and farms, where inhabitants derive 90% of their income from farming — the Ramat Negev area offers a “crazy” amount of space, said Arbel, and no shortage of opportunity.

Marketing Mitzpe

Mitzpe Ramon is considered the center of Negev tourism, assembled as a base camp for the workers who initially built Route 40 to Eilat, and it is now becoming the slowly developing tourism center for the south. With the addition of luxury hotel Beresheet, built by Israeli hotel empire Isrotel nearly two years ago, Mitzpe is experiencing a paradigm shift in character, explained Arbel, which is visible in the increased number of visitors to the region.

“Until Beresheet was built, the local authority in Mitzpe didn’t think that tourism could be the platform for the area,” Arbel continued.

The plan is to have a total of 3,000 hotel rooms in Mitzpe within 15 years, with 4,000 hotel rooms in the entire region, not including hostels or B&Bs, but rather the type of simple but ample hotel rooms offered by the kibbutz hotel at Mashabei Sade, he said.

“Our goal is to leave the open space for everyone to enjoy,” enthused Arbel, “but it’s important to us that inside the communities will be the tourism centers.”

Sa’ar and Hadass Badash are part of that tourism push within Mitzpe, a young couple of “refugees” from the north, as they call themselves, who were looking for something more meaningful and ideological in their move south.

They opened Hadasa’ar, a combination cafe, health food store, wine shop and community cooperative nearly a year ago, and have found themselves becoming an information resource for the growing tourism trade — from IDF units serving in the area to tourists stopping in for a quick coffee and bite. They’re still struggling for cash flow, but feel certain that they made the right choice in coming here.

“When I lecture to soldiers, I talk about why people move here, the delicate connection between individual choice and something that’s more social, communal,” said Badash. “It’s not the same for everybody, but if you zoom out and look at those who choose to come, you can see a thread that binds them together.”

Badash, a tall, rangy 36-year-old who often has a scruff of beard on his face and wears socks with his sandals, possesses an intense spirit that is apparent whether he’s sitting still, rolling a cigarette, or talking about his plans for Mizpe.

He likes to tell the story of their move four years ago, when the mover was finishing up and handed Badash his business card.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘Why are you giving this to me? I don’t need it now.'”

“He said to me, ‘Take it, because half of the people I move here move back six months later.’”

This kind of change isn’t easy, reflected Badash. “It forces us to do things out of our comfort zone. And whoever chooses to do this, to move here, already has a common language with whoever’s here. It’s a passion for something more ideological — could be Zionist, or fulfillment of a dream — but it’s easier for us to share ideas because we all share that passion.”

Gazing at the stars

That’s certainly true of Ira Machefsky, a 66-year-old high-tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist originally from Memphis, Tennessee by way of Palo Alto, California and then New Jersey, who, with his wife, Pam, followed their only daughter when she made aliya and moved with her young family to Mizpe.

“It didn’t feel like a crazy thing to do,” said Machefsky, a short, white-haired Santa Claus of a man in a kippah, chuckling in hindsight and remembering that their Nefesh b’Nefesh immigration file got flagged because they were “doing something outrageous” in moving to the Negev. “It felt exciting.”

Now three years into their aliya, the Machefskys are settled in to their cramped apartment in one of Mizpe’s older buildings, but still wowed by the “incredibly beautiful” scenery, the vistas, the Ramon crater in their “backyard,” the ibex that occasionally wander through town.

The access to nature is awe-inspiring, added Machefsky, but the region is “incredibly isolated,” he said, far from the most basic things. “You can’t buy a pair of shoes in Mizpe Ramon, you can’t cut your hair, you can’t get an X-ray.  We’re all very far away from everything, and that’s the downside of being remote.”

“The crater is our office,” added Haim Berger, a licensed tour guide and PhD in animal behavior and ecology who spends his days guiding tourists through the Ramon craters and lives in Sde Boker with his family. With his sidekick, Moshiko, another Israeli Bedouin wanna-be, they spent each spring guiding Israelis through authentic tours of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and track wolves and other predators in their spare time. “We have to take care when we show this area to visitors,” he said, “offering them the right insights and perceptions.”

That’s particularly true now that Beresheet has made the area more of a tourist destination. Machefsky is still surprised by that change, since he didn’t think one hotel could make that much of a difference. But it has, and it’s a major shift for him as well, with his star-gazing business. A lifelong star lover, Machefsky hung out his stargazing shingle when he moved to Mizpe, and has been conducting nighttime tours of the sky ever since, turning his lifelong hobby into a profession.

He’s concerned about the advent of too much tourism to the area, the proliferation of hotels that will light up the dark sky that is a Mizpe Ramon asset; dark skies can even be “certified” as such by various organizations, making the town a site for star tourism.

“It’s a hard thing to balance, development and keeping things pristine,” said Machefsky. “I love the things I do here; it would be impossible to do them anywhere else. I don’t want to be in venture capital; I want to be doing this.”

That deep, driven desire to be doing something very specific, following a path that only leads to this particular region, is what drives many of those who live here. They seek what is unique about the desert; the intense seasons, marked by sandstorms and beating sun, following what intrigued the ancient people who settled and traveled through here. It is a place like no other, and while the tourists come and go, they get to live in this place permanently, enduring and imbibing the region and its spirit.

“We all live in this quiet, this silence,” said Badash, the creative entrepreneur. “It’s not easy to hear your dilemmas, your difficulties. There’s no white noise here. But if you can do it, you’re making a rare commitment. You don’t come to places like this for your career. Anyone who chose to come here is looking for something slightly different.”

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