Letter from the Negev: Desert Wine

June 5, 2012

In the bible, the desert can be a frightening place.

It is redolent of wilderness and wandering, confusion and lack. The prophet Jeremiah calls it “a land of deserts and of pits… a land of drought and of the shadow of death… a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt.”

Hot and plagued by thirst, the desert was so hostile to human intention that it took the Israelites 40 years to journey a distance they might have traversed in a week.

The desert is akin to the realm of beasts and wild creatures, punishment and desolation. In his book Desert Solitaire, the naturalist Edward Abbey describes the desert as disconsolate, a place where man it utterly alone. He writes: “Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse—its implacable indifference.”

The most frightening thing about the desert is that it does not care for human beings.

And yet, it is also the place where revelation occurs, where holy dwellings such as the Tabernacle are built, where God bestows culinary delight in the form of manna, and where the Children of Israel become the people of Israel.

The land of Israel itself, of course, is full of desert. The Negev, which means “dry” in Hebrew covers the southern part of Israel, accounting for more than half of the country’s land. Once thought uninhabitable, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion retired from politics there, setting up house near the city of Beersheva where today there is a university named for him. “It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested,” Ben-Gurion wrote. He believed the future of Israel depended on the development of the Negev, calling it “one of the Jewish nation’s safehavens.”

The prophet Isaiah prophesied that one day, “the wilderness will be a fruitful field, and the fruitful field will be considered a forest.”

While the Negev cannot exactly be described as a forest, it is a place where new life is germinating. Over the weekend, Tel Aviv University brought a group of six American journalists to the Negev, where, in the midst of 100-plus degree heat, we found an oasis: the Carmey Avdat vineyard. Breaking with the desert’s shades of gray, lush green vines sprouting grapes and fuchia flowers cover the landscape; almond and apricot trees grow beside shrubs of the sharpest, spiciest oregano and sage. It is the work of dreamers, of that same pioneering spirit that transformed untamed land into Tel Aviv.

There is also something magical in the desert quiet. There are no horns, no garbage trucks, none of the constant, battering noises of the city. In the Zin Valley, it is actually possible to hear silence. It is, I think, the holy quiet historian Eric Voegelin was referring to when he wrote: “When the world has become desert, man is at last in the solitude in which he can hear thunderingly the voice of the spirit.”

Sometimes the wilderness is a gateway to something transcendently beautiful. It is quiet enough to hear the prayers of one’s own heart.

It is what I imagine Ben-Gurion envisioned when he lay his hopes for a nation in the sands beneath a sweltering sun. Even then, he knew that Jews could only survive in Israel, indeed in the world, if they could turn desolation into dreamscape, a poverty of resources into a place of promise.

Today the Negev is burgeoning with life. It is home to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which boasts five campuses and teaches students how to cultivate the Negev. It is home to Bedouin communities, sprawling vineyards (that grow more than six varietals of wine) and many others marvels that fructified through imagination, innovation and hard work.

The techniques, both old and new, of preserving water in the desert permit this productivity and possibility. The canal method in particular, which essentially collects rainwater is derivative from the ancient Nabatean culture that thrived by creating agriculture in the desert. It is proof that tradition, as well as modernity, has much to offer.

The desert is a metaphor for Israel itself, containing within it impossible realities and mind-bending miracles.

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