It’s a long and winding road to the Yishuv (settlement) Ateret, a collection of houses on top of a hill in the heartland of Israel.
I know because I lived there for many years, and even now as I write these memoirs, I keenly remember the incredible beauty, the proximity to Hashem, and the eventual loneliness.
I am borne away to a windswept memory of a long ago Shabbes: “Isn’t this place wonderful” I breathed to my sister visiting from Jerusalem, stretching my arms and inhaling deeply, feeling the invigoration of the crisp mountain air.
“Well, I think it’s a bit primitive actually!” she responded. In mid stretch I looked at her incredulously. Primitive? This remote mountain top, with its 60 houses crowing the ridge of the mountain around us? Completely surrounded by soaring mountains and quintessential Arab villages, the beauty was breathtaking. But primitive? I couldn’t understand her.
I was plummeted back in time: 23 years old and about to be married. My fiancé and I were young and ideological. We wanted to build up the land of Israel. Our inquiries led us to Ateret – a settlement nestled in the mountain range about an hour north of Jerusalem. The Yishuv was small, only 35 families, but with big plans for the future. It was built on top of a mountain, with a mind-blowing 360 degree view of mountains and rural villages.
It was love at first sight.
There was something in the air that gripped us. Something magical and intangible. Our sub-conscious selves knew that we would live there before we had even made a cognizant decision. Even the name of the Yishuv – Ateret, which is a crown of glory, had an enchanting sound and connotation. I was reminded of Yishayahu 62:3: “You shall be a crown of glory in the Hand of Hashem”. We did indeed feel glorious and close to God standing there – as if we were sitting in the crown of Hashem’s splendor in Eretz Yisrael.
Coming down to earth we found ourselves attracted by the jolly laughter of the residents. These settlers were the salt of the earth – decent, hard working people, with a love for the land and a passion for Torah and Mitzvot.
We moved to the Yishuv a week after our wedding. We were given a cement-block house with 4 rooms, ridiculously large just for us. From our windows we could see forested mountains. We were thrilled with our good luck. The damp walls and leaking roof were irrelevant. We were cozy, in love and ever so happy. We loved having guests and despite the distance people loved coming to us too. It seems we were a bit of a novelty, don’t ask me why.
In the summer months when the rest of Israel baked in the sweltering heat, the breeze on the mountain top was fresh and invigorating.
On a clear day you could see the Shalom towers in Tel Aviv and the power station in Hadera.
When our first winter came, one of the coldest and wettest Israel has ever known, we bought an old kerosene stove heater with a huge indoor chimney which radiated heat throughout out little house. We were enchanted by the changes outside: The rain blanketed the mountains in green, creating endless carpets of wild flowers everywhere you looked. Driving on the roads, it became common place to see waterfalls gushing down the mountain sides.
I experienced my first real snow and finally knew what it felt like to throw a snowball and to make snow angels. The pristine white swathed the roads, making them impassible. No snow ploughs out in the middle of nowhere, and so were thrilled to have to spend days at home living like the olden days: since the water froze in the pipes we had to melt snow to drink and wash with. Since the electricity was out we had to bury our frozen meat and other perishables in a pile of snow outside the front door. The army even sent a helicopter with supplies. It was a great adventure!
After a year in our first house we could only enter two rooms; the other two were so full of mould, damp and peeling walls as to be unusable. We decided it was time to become the owners of our very own home. The white house with the red roof on the very edge of the Yishuv had been marked by us months earlier. With an incredible thrill we performed the mitzvah of purchasing a home in Eretz Yisrael. It was ours (not to mention the bank!).
How we loved that house; it was well built, but more importantly also had a view from every window.
We stamped our individuality by painting the front door purple and adding Ndebele designs around the windows.
At the time I worked in Holon, a city approximately 40 km from Ateret. Without a car, and relying solely on hitchhiking (only from other Jews living in the area of course) it could take up to two hours to get to work. Looking back I cannot actually believe that I did it every day for about two years, until we bought ourselves a car. At the time it was nothing. I was so filled with love for the land and gratitude for being there that I hardly felt it. Waiting for a ride all I could see were mountains, forests, wild flowers, stones of Eretz Yisrael, and I was filled with a thrill of happiness that is indescribable.
The one thing in Ateret that I could not reconcile myself to was the wind. On particularly blustery days the wind almost had a life of its own, howling around our house, moaning and shrieking like a live thing. Living at the edge of the mountain, we were never surprised to see objects, particularly garden chairs and tables, flying past as the wind threw objects in its wake. In fact, when it got really windy it became dangerous for little kids to walk around and they had to be carried in order to avoid the danger of them being literally blown away.
My favorite windy memoir was one such gusty night when our friend Gershon drove to a meeting taking place in the community hall. He left his car unlocked – there were no thieves on the Yishuv – with the engine running and lights on as he was only “popping in” for a minute. As Gershon exited the hall his shouts of consternation broke up the meeting immediately. We all ran out to hear Gershon yelling that his car had disappeared. An immediate search was initiated on the upshot that someone had probably moved it as a joke, however the car was nowhere to be found. Then the possibility that it had been stolen was suggested but the two watchmen at the gate had definitely not seen a car with Gershon’s description.
It was very strange. Standing outside the community hall everyone put forth their opinion as to the location of the missing car. All of a sudden there was a shout, and a general pointing in the direction of the edge of the mountain, where a faint light could be seen. We rushed over and we saw Gershon’s car! It seems that the wind had pushed it backwards right over the edge of the mountain, and it had gotten stuck on a ledge. An army jeep, much advice and gales of laughter later, the car was rescued and Gershon drove home, the butt of a joke that lasted many years.
Unfortunately over the years people stopped leaving their cars and front doors unlocked as we realized that we were not immune to burglary and worse from our not-so-friendly Arab neighbors.
Over the years the Yishuv expanded and grew smaller as families came and went. At the end of seven and a half years, and after a large turn-over, there were only 40 families living there. Believe it or not we had no friends left. For many varied reasons they had all left. Our acquaintances now were wonderful Israelis with whom we had nothing in common. The majority was older than us, and the others were young students, their heads in their studies and no time to socialize.
Despite the beauty we were lonely, and we desperately felt the need for a “chevra” (group of friends). The decision to leave was gut-wrenching. Not just to leave the scenic, country home we were so attached to, but to leave the community was terribly hard. On any small Yishuv the departure of a “chaver” (a fully fledged member) is a blow. Our family was “normal” and well-liked. It would be hard to lose us, but we had to put ourselves first and do what was best for our family. And so it was that this chapter in our lives closed, and we moved on. I will never forget that beautiful place and my love for the mountain top has not abated all this time. Living in those mountains created in me awe, a passion for beauty, and a tremendous appreciation for living in the heartland of my forefathers.
It’s a long and winding road to Ateret.
I know because I lived there once. My life is still unfolding slowly, my story not yet done, yet one thing is for sure – my weltanschauung is directly affected by those windswept memories of a collection of houses on top of a hill in the heartland of Israel.
- Mandy Gaziel has a degree in English Literature and Judaica. She has worked in the biotech and pharmaceutical quality management world for over 20 years, and enjoys writing in her spare time. Mandy lives with her special family opposite some rolling hills in Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel.