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Making the desert bloom with florid prose

A writer's retreat revealed how the Negev is so much more than beautiful scenery along the drive to Eilat
Illustrative: Fall daffodils in the Negev Desert (Mel Alexenberg)
Illustrative: Fall daffodils in the Negev Desert (Mel Alexenberg)
(Gahl Pratt-Pardes)

An empty canvas.

That’s what I thought the desert was.

Empty of overcrowding, urban noise, pollution. Empty of congestion, traffic, religious coercion, political upheaval. Unoccupied.

But the Negev, I discovered, is actually full.

It is full of quiescence. Expanses of blue sky stretch out the simplicity of what a day was once, and could be. Still. A mosaic of copper stones, jagged edges, and slopes of golden sand eases the insides. My stomach unclenches. My shoulders drop down lazily, feet loll. Thanks, say my lungs in gratitude. The air is clean.

So is the view. The Negev is full of natural light and indigenous sights. All around, terrain unchartered. Ibex walk the grounds of Midreshet Sde Boker, which is actually called Midreshet Ben Gurion, a field school in the arid Negev. They pay no heed to me or anyone else. Their big task for the day seems to be chewing on grass.

(Amanda Gold)

I chew on the landscape. And on the room it leaves for reflection. My eyes rest on the Zin canyon. All is quiet. A thrush bird, nachliel in Hebrew, pauses to perch on the simple graves of David and Paula Ben-Gurion, where David succeeded in getting his wish to be buried on a cliff overlooking the Zin valley, even though he was initially told it couldn’t be done.  Walk three days and you can reach the Dead Sea, says a local.

The Negev is full of history. The Zin River marked the border of Israel in biblical times. So many biblical stories take place in the desert wilderness, if you think about it. Like the giving of the Ten Commandments.  Treading on rock, I marvel at the tenacity of the halutzim, pioneers who came to the desert. And my eyes wander over to the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, curious about Ben Gurion’s sanctuary of books, and the archives filled with documents and papers filed by people wearing sandals in winter. Pages of history.

“Look at my daughter celebrating Christmas at preschool,” says my friend Jennifer Issakov,  flashing a photo of her smiling  two-year-old. She goes to a preschool in Beer Sheva that is part of the Hagar system, a bilingual preschool that champions coexistence.

To write, I had Gone South. When a notice popped up in a Facebook group about an upcoming Negev Writer’s Retreat, I hurried to apply. Why are you schlepping so far for just 36 hours, quipped my husband. To congregate with compatriots, I replied. My three young children and tempestuous Jerusalem pulled on me as I toyed with sentence and structure of my memoir about an Israeli-Palestinian friendship born through breast cancer. Bring on the quick jaunt to the un-dense. Give me a desk and a view of the cliff, and I’ll ping-ping some of my story’s more challenging scenes.  Perhaps I will attend a workshop or two.

Yet on the morning drive from Beer Sheva to Sde Boker, this olah vatikah, old-timer immigrant, who had made Jerusalem her home more than 25 years ago, sensed the desert’s allure. It was both empty and full. A sworn devotee of the evergreen-and- blue aesthetic of the Great Lakes of her home state of Michigan, I found my heart starting to swell. Making room to love the yellowed land. Which, it turns out, is ever so much more than just beautiful scenery on the drive down to Eilat.

My killer compatriots delivered. I touched on the nuts and bolts of playwriting. Practiced performing lines of my own prose. Drafted an epistolary pummel to my inner demons that reckon my writing unworthy. Tasted the art of self-revision. Workshop after workshop, I was engaged. Each writer, eager to share

A warm sun splashed Friday’s morning hike from the Ein Ovdat/Sde Boker trailhead into Nahal Haverim canyon. I meandered on a path, stepping on stones painted with the desert version of ROYGIBIV. Awash with shades and hues swirling with rust, brown, yellow, mahogany. Little green leaves jut through the rock, despite the absence of rain. The beginning of a seasonal bulb flower. The squill, or in Hebrew, hatzav.

(Adina Kopinsky)

You’re going to find your way.   

Could the slopes and hills of the desert beckon me?

Looks like they already had.

(Adina Kopinsky)
About the Author
Ruth Ebenstein is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian and health/peace activist who loves to laugh a lot--and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered An Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. She is also the author of "All of this country is called Jerusalem": a curricular guide about the contemporary rescue operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and has written two teleplays for children, Follow that Goblin and Follow that Bunny. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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