Sunday, November 9, 2008

Weekend in Paradise

Weekend in Paradise
By Naomi Ragen

I don't know about you, but this election exhausted me, mentally and emotionally. For a while now, friends have been telling me about this unbelievable desert spa, and so I finally gave in and went there for the weekend.

The Ein Gedi Guesthouse is about an hour out of Jerusalem towards the Dead Sea. I always feel a kind of tranquility come over me the moment the car heads into the desert: all those clean, sculptured dunes, all those towering cliffs. It just seems to dwarf any problems I have, because it just seems to dwarf human beings in general. I get this warm feeling that I am an Israelite wandering through the desert just following behind G-d who is leading the way. Being a person who loves green, the Dead Sea has never been my ideal vacation spot.

But as we neared Ein Gedi, I have to say, I felt like I was seeing a mirage in the desert. First, there are those rows and rows of date palms, and the mango orchards, so green amid the bare cliffs and desert waste. But the Kibbutz itself, founded in 1956 by a bunch of crazy twenty-somethings right out of the army, is a miracle. It's a blooming botanic garden with thousands of species from all over the world that leave you breathless with amazement and admiration. It would be a remarkable achievement anywhere inthe world. But growing out of the wasteland that surrounds it on all sides, it is truly an inspiration.

When the founders of Kibbutz Ein Gedi decided to build there kibbutz here, they were surrounded by hostile Arab nations on three sides, and surrounded by a hostile environment on all sides. With an excess of the courage and optimism that the founders of Israel used to build a country, they dug rows in the barren soil, brought in pipes to utilize the artesian well-water that had taken a hundred years to filter down from Jerusalem, and began planting.

To everyone's shock, the earth proved fertile. No, it proved uber-fertile. The bromide and other chemicals in the air; the long hours of sunlight, the mild winters, provided a growing season unmatched anywhere else in the country. Ein Gedi tomatoes and cucumbers and other vegetables filled the markets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and Haifa during the winters when the rest of the country's fields lay infertile. The Six Day War expanded their borders.

Joining the pioneers were new immigrants from all over the world, who simply fell in love with the place. One of them is Daniela Cohen. Originally from Beverly Hills via Vancouver, B.C. Daniela is a still a beautiful woman after forty years working on kibbutz. She was a baby nurse when she landed in Israel at age twenty, having fled the Beverly Hills 90210 lifestyle: "I didn't like the drinking or the drugs, and the sixteen year olds getting brand-new cars. Nothing was real. I wanted to build something and to find real peace."

Ein Gedi was not her first kibbutz, a more centrally located place where she met her Yemenite husband Yehuda, who is in charge of Ein Gedi's date plantations. "When she took me here, I thought she had lost her mind," Yehuda recalls. "It's 45 degrees (centigrade!) in the shade in the summer! But she promised me if I went along, we'd have many children."

She kept her word. They had eight. Daniela lives in a house surrounded bya lush garden and a fountain of rushing water her normally unromantic husband (she says!) gave her as a gift. It's a house full of children's photos, and expressive and beautiful hand-made pottery Daniela does in her spare time. As soon as I got to my lovely room overlooking the majestic pink cliffs, I let out a sigh of relief. It was not in my imagination that I felt calmer already. Ein Gedi is at the lowest point on earth, and thus has a large concentration of oxygen in the air, not to mention bromide, the ingredient in many tranquilizers. With every breath you take, you seem to exhale your cares and worries and inhale peace. Wherever you look, it is a feast for your eyes and your senses. The everblooming trees, including an African baobab, dozens of species of towering palms, myrrh and frankincense bushes, banyan trees, and the spectacular cactus garden.

The sunset over the mountains and the sea, pink turning to red then lavender rivals anything I saw in Hawaii. And if you have the strength (we didn't) follow the path into the mountains to a thundering waterfall.

Israeli pioneers happened upon a spot with a history of Jewish settlement that dates back thousands of years. A whole town has been dug up by archaeologists right near the date palm orchard, including a magnificent synagogue mosaic floor. When they began to dig they found a menorah lying on top of it, which is now in the Israel Museum. Sitting there in front of what was once the Holy Ark, I understood why Jews have come back here. Thisis the place Moses looked at from across the Jordan. It's the place theIsraelites came to from the desert. In this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha, Abraham's nephew Lot talks about Sodom as a "flowering garden." Only since seeing the miracle of Ein Gedi, was it possible to imagine this wasteland as once flowering.

I don't understand why the Guest House in Ein Gedi is such a well-kept secret. I mean, I've lived here for forty years and I never went until now. I'm kicking myself. But you can be sure, I will be back. Often. Not only because it was so beautiful, relaxing and peaceful, but because you have the sense you are seeing a real, live miracle of how the Jews went home and made the desert bloom. No where else in Israel is it more tangible than here. So, I decided not to keep it a secret, but to share it with everyone on my mailing list (especially those who stuck it out with me during the election!) You deserve to know about it! And so do your friends and relatives. Fall and winter are the perfect time to come. And bring your camera. And your bathing suit. And get ready for fabulous spa treatments. You will never, ever forget it. It's like stepping into paradise. And please step into the gift shop and say hi to Daniela for me. Tell her Naomi said to give her a hug. And I give you permission to give her one.


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