“All things are mortal but the Jew,” Mark Twain once marveled. “What,” he wondered, “is the secret of his immortality?”
The answer, I’m happy to say, is sweeter than you think. And it is blossoming on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava region, 40 minutes north of Eilat. Yes, the New York Times just broke the story of the children of Methuselah and Hannah, biblical date trees (that didn’t meet on JDate) with some impressive history and something to teach at this perilous time as a lead up to the Jewish New Year.
Times reporter Isabel Kershner has been to Ketura before and in her article on the budding solar industry in Israel back in 2012 dubbed me “Captain Sunshine.” Actually, she quoted Dr. Elaine Solowey calling me Captain Sunshine. “Anyone who beats the government bureaucracy is a superhero,” said Dr. Solowey, a renowned authority on desert agriculture. And since then I’ve been wearing a ring with a 2,000 year old coin minted in the temple in Jerusalem with an insignia of the sun, fighting the fossil fuel lobby and working with partners to achieve, finally, the redemptive 100% solar daytime goal for Eilat and the Arava.
Dr. Solowey, along with her partner in bringing ancient history alive, Dr. Sarah Sallon from Hadassah Hospital, are the heroes of the day. Or actually the millenium. Back in 2005, Dr. Sallon got hold of some ancient date seeds found at Masada, the last stand of the Jews against the conquering Romans. The seeds were from the Judean Palm, a variety that is extinct. Could they resurrect these ancient seeds in this, the Third Jewish Commonwealth?
A year after Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress, in Basel, Twain published “Concerning the Jews” in Harper’s Magazine. “The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone,” observed the essayist, but not the Jew. “All other forces pass, but he remains.”
The place where I go to recharge is Ketura, a kibbutz founded by fellow members of my youth group, Young Judaea, during a lull in the fighting amidst the Yom Kippur War. While a nation was in shock from the surprise attack and the heavy losses, a group of American 20-somethings planted themselves in the third most extreme desert in the world with the hopes of establishing a blossoming community. The kibbutz became famous when, in 2005, Steven Erlanger also of the Times, reported that the first 2,000 year old Masada seed sprouted and was named Methuselah. Methuselah, to the disappointment of Drs. Solowey and Sallon, was male and would not produce any ancient dates.
Undaunted, the researchers continued to push the boundaries of science and our spiritual imaginations and revived more ancient seeds. And just as El Al flight 971 was on its way back from its historic peace mission in the United Arab Emirates, Drs. Solowey and Sallon sat me down at a table of the hotel lobby on Ketura with a questionnaire and a date. I was given “Sample #1” to evaluate, the first insider-outsider to taste the fruit of reviving Jewish history and pride. (They, of course, tried some earlier).
What is the blessing for a moment like this? What does a moment like this really represent? And why was I crying holding this date?
It turns out that the mother plant, appropriately named Hannah, the biblical figure who prayed in the ancient temple in Jerusalem for a child, who became the prophet Samuel, has a secret history of her own pre-dating the father from Masada. Her DNA is Iraqi. Six hundred years before Masada fell to the Romans, Emperor Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Zion from Babylonia, apparently carrying dates and seeds with them.
The DNA of the date in my hand encompasses both exiles from the land of Israel, about to be consumed 2,000 years later on a kibbutz – the birthplace of the solar industry in Israel and Africa – and in the sovereign State of Israel.
We blessed the creator of the universe for the fruit of the trees.
We blessed the creator of the universe for bringing us to his special time, shehechiyanu.
And then Mike Solowey, a founder of the kibbutz who is married to Elaine, recited the line from Psalm 92, “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree.”
Our tears could have sprouted another dormant seed.
The date, a bit leathery at first taste, is a hybrid of the soft Medjoul and the solid Dekel Noor. And then – wait for it – a soft lingering taste of honey, not silan, but bee honey flavor. A perfect way to get ready to welcome a New Year. And, for a moment, with all that historic spiritual energy flowing through me, I felt more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The world feels so bleak lately. Politics and Corona have chipped away at the spirit of optimism and possibilities in many places, including Israel. And yet. Two generations after the ancient Israelites were crushed by the Babylonian destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem, they returned to the land, dates in hand, to fulfill the prophecy of Ezra and Nehemia. Masada, the location of a mass suicide 2,000 years ago, is today the site where their descendants returned to fly an Israeli flag.
Those ancient seeds have a story to tell and a message to deliver. Hope can spring eternal if nurtured, even against great odds. That is the challenge of our generation. Mark Twain, the secret of the immortality of the Jews is our ability to preserve and nurture hope, which is also our national anthem and our gift to the world.
Shana Tova & Shazam!