The two days of the festival went by like most festivals do because we always spend them at home. Metar is a place to be visited on these days by family and friends who never otherwise would venture down south, or at the best stop off on their way to the Dead Sea or Eilat. The lack of visitors will be particularly noticeable during the Succot festival. But the streets were even quieter than usual, with the exception of small groups of people wending their way in and out of houses where Rosh Hashana Tefilot (prayer services) were held, or those who came out of their houses to hear the blowing of the Shofar which took place at 5.30 in the afternoon throughout the community. Those who normally attend services but did not do so this year because they are keeping away from even the slightest contact or proximity with other people, as well as many others who would not normally attend a prayer service, came out to listen to the sounds of the Shofar being blown. Strange, but probably more people heard the shofar in the country this year than at any time in its history and I would not be surprised if this now turns into an annual event, even when life gets back to normal.
The occasional police car drove around the streets during the day but there was nothing to report and it was not clear what exactly they expected to find. There were no unlawful gatherings, there was not, to the best of my knowledge, people who came for the festival and decided to drive home afterwards – excepting those of course who were going to their legitimate workplace. Metar remained as quiet as it always is at any weekend and any festival and I don’t recall a single car passing my house for the entirety of the two days.
The adults reverted to a favourite Shabbat pastime of scrabble and Rummycub. It is a great way for Israeli additions to the family to improve their English language skills and to learn about the odd quirks of English – as contrasted with American – spellings. Seen through the eyes of people for whom English is not their mother tongue, even the ex brits, like myself, have to admit that we certainly have some odd spellings and pronounciations. All those words with an “ough”, “ou”, the “c” or the “s”, the “z” or the “s”, “re” or “er” (centre or center), the silent consonants and the other oddities, just adds confusion for people who are crunching their teeth trying to learn the language. But in a fit of imperial culturalism which has not left us since we arrived from the UK forty years ago, we continue to believe that this is the “correct” way to spell and to pronounce the global language. The scrabble game becomes a place where language is contested, new words are learnt, and linguistic skills are fine tuned.
The Ashkenazi – Sephardi (Mizrachi) mix is evident around the Rosh Hashana table. Growing up in a religious household in the UK, we would have the traditional apple and honey (a sweet year) and at least one new fruit, at the evening meals. On rare occasions, someone would have brought the head of a fish to remind us that this is the beginning of the new year. But now we are inundated with a long list of “simanim”, signs for the coming year, each characterised by a different fruit or vegetable. The “simanim” vary between good things for us (we should have health, prosperity and happiness), and bad things for our enemies (they should be destroyed) and with a lot of virus free wishes thrown in this year to reflect the realities of the world we are living in.
In the afternoon of the second day, people congregate in or near, but again careful to maintain distance and only with masks, a house which boasts a small swimming pool, where it has become an annual event to perform the Tashlich ceremony, casting one’s sins in the water. The custom is strange in its own right and in my family, with its strong Lithuanian Rabbinical heritage and following some of the customs of the Vilna Gaon (the Gr’a), we did not observe the Tashlich ceremony while growing up. Wherever it is practiced throughout the world it has become one of those social occasions where people meet and chat, but since this was completely forbidden during the lockdown, it attracted fewer people. The idea in principle is that sins are thrown into flowing water, such as a river or the sea, but given Metar’s location, lacking either of these natural attributes, it is a swimming pool (and as an alternative, some fish tanks) which has become the local version – excepting those people who are very particular as to how they perform the rite, and will wait for the days after Rosh Hashana when they can travel to a real river or sea and perform the ceremony there. The idea that one can clean away all of last years wrong doings and start out with a clean slate is a once in the year equivalent of going to Confessions by Catholics, but they don’t have to carry the weight of a years’ accumulated sins. Which is the better version, I am not sure.
The festival is over and households have to replenish their emptying fridges and freezers. Those who get up early are first in line at the single supermarket and the bakery, but too early for some of the shelves to be replenished. Those that stay in bed a bit later because their school or workplace has been shut down, find themselves in a more crowded shopping center, probably far too many people for adequately observing the social distance and mask regulations. In a community like Metar, with its one supermarket, prices – which anyway are higher than in the many supermarkets of Beer Sheva – often shoot up under lockdown and curfew situations. It is a monopolistic position which the lockdown has made even worse, and for all those not going to work, and not not being allowed to travel the fifteen kilometres to Beer Sheva, it means that price of a regular weekly shop will be more than usual.
Since the onset of Covid 19, many Metar residents have discovered an alternative shopping source, a supermarket of the Machsaney Hashuk chain at a place called Metarim, just a few kilometers north of Metar itself. It is a short drive on an empty road and there are only ever a few people shopping there – as much of the work is based on deliveries to the surrounding dispersed communities in the South Hebron Hills region. There are however two problems with shopping there. Just like the Metar supermarket, lacking any immediate competition, it is expensive. But you can argue that an extra 30-40 shekel on your checkout is worth the emptiness and social distancing of the place, a small extra price to pay for health. The other problem, for some people at least, is the fact that it is on the other side of the Green Line, inside the west Bank, and there are many people who will not travel beyond the crossing point in the Separation fence, either for ideological reasons, or out of fear for their physical safety – which are groundless given the fact that no other community – Jewish or Palestinian – is passed on the short drive. There are many, however, who have sacrificed the last two principles since the onset of corona, due to the feeling that this is the least likely supermarket anywhere in the region where one will get infected with the virus. Lockdown has put an end to even this alternative, although it would be highly unlikely for the police to patrol this empty road, with the main traffic here being that of the Palestinians who cross each morning and evening in and out of the West Bank for reasons of employment – much of which has also been curtailed during the latest round of lockdown.
The southernmost crossing point between the West Bank and Israel is no more than a kilometre from expanding edge of the community. Metar’s municipal jurisdiction is the Green Line separating the West Bank from Israel. The area between the last houses and the separation fence and patrol road which runs along the entire route of the fence, is afforested, so that no land remains vacant or available for what may be perceived as political squatting in a contested region. On the picture which heads this daily diary, the distant view, beyond the last houses of Metar, is inside the West Bank.
The drive from Metar to Jerusalem via the West Bank is but seventy kilometres, while the drive via Highway 6 and then Highway 1 – the main highway to Jerusalem – is almost double the distance, 120 kilometers. But the majority of Metar’s population have never driven on the West Bank route – the world stops for them at this point. The Separation fence is the point where, formany of them, the world on the other side becomes invisible. For those who do travel this way, the route may be more scenic, but the roads are narrower and bendier and – despite some major road improvements in recent years – in a worse condition than the main highways, so that the actual time taken to get from Metar to Jerusalem, traffic snarl ups allowing, is not that much different whichever of the two routes are chosen.
But geopolitical realities are such that even in our mundane world of shopping, visiting friends and relatives, the routes we choose to take are conditioned by other factors. Lockdown has only changed this to the effect that we are not travelling anywhere, not to the supermarket and not for family visits. Some people are under the impression that travelling on the West Bank route (Road 60) will avoid police and army checks for people breaking the lockdown regulations, in the same way they believe you can speed in the West Bank because you will not be stopped by non existent Israeli traffic cops, but whether it is a risk worth taking, remains to be seen.