A brilliant sun illuminates the crater at midday, makes it look flat, white. Wear a hat, please, and carry water, but not to worry. At this moment, though we don’t feel a thing, the earth is moving and soon the harsh light will soften. Nougat, cream, beige and tan, a rainbow of rich earth colors will reveal themselves below on the floor of this deep impression on the face of our planet.
This is the Ramon Crater in the Negev Desert, forty kilometers long, ten kilometers wide and five hundred meters deep. Mizpeh Ramon, a small town perched at its edge is where we landed from the U.S. in 1993. At that time, observers of nature likened the crater to the surface of the moon. But what can we really know? A few years later when the Mars Rover trundled across that planet, everyone could plainly see that the crater’s terrain looked exactly like the face of Mars.
Sometimes we did feel as though we were living on another planet. What could be more different from life in Boston, Massachusetts? In the fall and spring marvelous cloud formations billowed in a big sky and the sunsets were breathtaking. Each early morning and late afternoon, herds of Nubian ibex wandered along the crater’s cliff walls, camouflaged by their color, the exact shade of the dry desert ground.
Along the edge of this crater is a narrow promenade limned by a low stone wall. When we first came up to this land, Diaspora fresh, whenever I walked here I recalled a similar footpath on an escarpment high above the sea. On one side of that famous “Cliff Walk” in Newport , Rhode Island, is the Atlantic Ocean; on the other, rolling lawns leading to elegant mansions.
In Mizpeh Ramon, far below the path on one side, instead of ocean, is the crater floor in its palette of desert colors. On the other, instead of lush green lawns is a strip of stony Negev desert. Beyond, instead of mansions of the wealthy, stand an assortment of government built apartment blocks. It’s remarkable and rare that ordinary people are privileged to live so close upon an extraordinary panorama.
I, who had never seen the Grand Canyon in person was now living at the edge of a natural wonder.
When we arrived in Mizpeh the air was clean and pure and quiet reigned, as in a dream. The town had a bank and a supermarket, a score of cars and no traffic lights. Necessities such as shoes and eyeglasses were in Beersheva, an hour and a half away by bus. And since there was no self- serve laundry, we were quick to order a washing machine.
Two weeks later at 4:20 a.m. the phone rang. An emergency perhaps?
“Hello, we’re down the road at number 22 – where’s number 36?” A young man’s voice was loud and clear.
“Who are you?”
“Lady, you live at 36? You ordered a washing machine?”
“Well, it’s arrived! Where are you?”
Amazed by this news and still groggy, I somehow managed to make an intelligible reply, thinking to myself: “Hey, it’s the way they do things here. What do I know?”
“Continue down the road along the crater in the direction of the Camel, “ I explained. “It’s the second building on the right.”
“Camel? What camel?”
“I mean Camel Hill – you know, a hill that looks like a camel. Never mind; you can’t see it in the dark. I’ll go stand in the parking lot behind my building. Watch for me.“
I put the phone down gently, groped quietly for my slippers and a coat, unlocked the apartment door, hoping
no one would wake, and shuffled down the stairs. Moments later, as I stood in the dark, a gleaming white panel truck turned in to the empty parking lot, two young men in the cab. The pony-tailed driver clicked off the ignition and his partner flung open the door on the passenger side and stepped down. I thought he was about to slam the door shut.
“Sh…sh…,” I warned. “Everyone here is still sleeping! I thought you were coming early in the morning, not in the middle of the night.”
“Early,” he underlined with his voice, “not in the morning.”
At least that’s what I thought he said.
I shuddered as he slammed the truck’s heavy door shut. The sound resonated in the dark desert silence. A young Israeli delivering appliances. He had close-cropped orange hair and a silver earring in one ear.
The night was clear, the stars like diamonds, and Venus at its winter brightest. He stood there next to the truck and sucked in his breath, pausing for a moment.
“What silence!” he said, glancing across the road to the crater’s edge, the black abyss below.
Then turning quickly to his partner as though they had an important deadline to meet, they began hurriedly to unload the washing machine.
Sixty shekels for the delivery. I had planned to go to the bank when it opened at 8:30 to get the exact amount. Meanwhile, all I had was a hundred shekel bill.
“Sorry, we don’t have any change. Is a tip possible?”
A forty-shekel tip? I had specifically asked the salesman about tipping when I bought the machine. It wasn’t because of the money. I wanted to do the Israeli thing. The salesman had given me an absolute no. Now I felt guilty about not having intended to tip at all. I rummaged around in pockets, purses and drawers and found a surprising amount of change. I handed Pony Tail 72 shekels in coins.
“Here’s all we have. Thank you very much. Any more deliveries in town?”
“Just one.” Orange Hair fingered the coins, counting quickly. They eyed each other and rushed out.
Wide awake now, I pondered the phone conversation with the Tel Aviv delivery service the previous day. Had they said “early,” “early in the morning,” or just “morning?” I had the distinct impression from the dispatcher that the truck would arrive between 9 and l0:30 a.m. I was sure I had asked in my rudimentary Hebrew: “Do you think they’ll arrive before eleven?”
From my own experience and from what I had heard, deliveries always managed to arrive at the last possible moment, certainly long after early had become late and often as hope had dwindled altogether. But what can we really know, I wondered. Was there an important lesson to be discovered here, either in Hebew vocabulary, the fine points of Israeli consumer culture, or just the nature of life?
By now it was 5:15 a.m. and a pale light was beginning to wash the sky. If I went back to sleep, getting up at a reasonable hour would be impossible. Meanwhile, our little dog who mercifully had kept silent the entire time, believed it was on his account I had risen so early, and begged to go out.
That morning on the narrow path along the crater’s edge, I nearly collided with a young man from the local yeshiva. Tallit flying, phylactery firmly affixed to the middle of his forehead, he was racing tothe stone wall which hugs the cliff. A few wispy blush colored cirrus clouds dotted the pale blue sky. A stipe of smoky gray outlined the jagged horizon of mountains on the far side of the crater.
Below lay a monochromatic wash of blue-grays and nougats. I continued past him in the direction Of Camel Hill, the landmark which punctuates the landscape at the edge of town.
In the distance at the base of the Hill I could see a large group of uniformed soldiers standing silently in formation, facing the horizon, waiting for the sunrise. I paused on the path and turned to face east. From our separate vantage points we watched as a patch of sky within the gray stripe begin to glow rosy. Then rapidly, a blip of blazing light appeared – like a brilliant upside down smile.
I couldn’t help staring at it, and as I did, a dagger of light appeared in the air between my eyes. When I looked away, dark purple after images danced in the crater, and above, the sun had become a bright ball of fire.
Now the young yeshiva student, facing Jerusalem, was praying the morning service. I stood on the path, sandwiched between a Jew praying and the Israeli army in formation, ready for all possibilities. Meanwhile, sunlight had transformed the wispy roseate clouds above into pearly white tufts, and the sloe-eyed ibex were beginning to pick their way along the cliff.
I had never intended to be part of this landscape, never intended to cast my lot with Am Yisroel in all of her various forms. Indeed, I had not even visited Israel until past the age, it’s said, that Rabbi Akiva, as an adult, learned to read. Even so, my family had wondrously been gathered in.
And here we were at this moment in time, at home in the wilderness – with a brand new washing machine.
B. Wiesner is a writer, artist, experimentalist — a bricoleur working with words, photography, handmade paper, vegetable papyrus and whatever is at hand in Jerusalem.