I knew travelling through Israel would make me nostalgic for my childhood. I grew up in Oman, a small country on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and the desert was very much a part of our lives.
So it was with great excitement that I signed up my boyfriend and I for a night of succah camping in the Negev.
Succahs are temporary huts, described in the book of Leviticus as a symbolic wilderness shelter after the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt.
In Oman, we had camped in the desert in Bedouin-style dwellings and the concept seemed similar enough: the orange-yellow sand, tall cliffs, the desert’s immense silence and the calm of sleeping under a star-laden night sky. I thought I knew what we were getting into.
In some ways, Succah in the Desert (an eco-camp in the High Negev Desert south of Beersheva ) was exactly what I had hoped to share with my boyfriend about my childhood. In other ways, I was terribly off-base.
The first sign that things were going to be different couldn’t have been more clearly spelt out. We were driving on the older highway toward the desert camp and came across a sign saying “Slow, dust clouds and tanks ahead.”
Dust clouds – check, we were in the desert. But tanks? I had never seen them in countries at peace in the Middle East. My boyfriend and I looked at each other baffled. Within five minutes of driving, we started screaming, “Oh my God!” Rolling less than 100 metres away from us was an army tank. The driver was either new at it, or intentionally driving in circles. We had clearly stumbled into a training zone of the Israeli Defence Forces and saw many more troops.
We turned off the highway onto an unpaved road for a bone-shaking 2.5 kilometres, and eventually rounded into the only settlement in sight.
The scene was quite pastoral. A giant white dog came over to assess us and determined we were friendly. A donkey brayed. A large thatched succah sat in the centre of the valley and eight smaller ones of various sizes spread out in a circle.
A horse was being tended by a man in blue overalls. That man was our host, Ari Dror. He and his wife, Chem, have run Succah in the Desert for more than 17 years.
“This is our way of living,” Chem told us. “This is our official address out here in the desert.”
We’re shown to our succah, one of the smaller ones that’s just right for a couple: Outside it looks as if the succah hugs the ground (my six-foot-tall boyfriend has to hunch to avoid hitting the thatched roof).
Inside, lit by solar-powered lamps, are bright colourful mats that line the floor; a mattress is tucked into the corner with bed spreads that remind me of Bedouin camps. A Jewish bible sits next to a table, with a jug filled with water drawn from a well and an assortment of teas. Our new cozy home is about a five-minute walk up a small hill from the toilet and shower building and another succah which acts as a common eating area.
While the Drors invite couples to explore their Jewish spirituality on their sojourn, all religions are welcome. The keyword here is spiritual calm and meditation.
I feel at home and we settle in – reading books, having quiet conversations and taking romantic walks to watch the sun as it sets, and casting a warm orange glow over the entire valley.
As night approaches, the dinner gong sounds and we look forward to our first meal. But that’s another unexpected change. To me, desert camping is synonymous with hummus and pita, perhaps some falafel or lamb. At Succah in the Desert, it’s vegetarian only.
We’re ravenous – in spite of hardly exerting ourselves – and the food looks amazing. We dig into a thick lentil soup, breads, cheeses and yogurts, and other vegetables I could not identify. Dessert is an assortment of homemade cakes and Turkish coffee.
The camp can house up to 20 people a night, and can squeeze in up to 40 on special occasions. It is is especially popular on Sabbath. But since we came midweek, it’s just us, the Drors, another young Israeli couple and the volunteers.
Two to four volunteers run the day-to-day operations, looking after the campers and cook the meals served in the central succah.
As the crickets start chirping, the Drors and their volunteers retire for the night, but we stay and chat with the young couple for hours on end.
It was one of the most interesting conversations we had on our two-week trip. Their thoughts on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the mandatory military service, the high cost of living in Israel, and in turn we shared our own stories about Canada.
When the yawns came too often to ignore – perhaps around 10 p.m.; time didn’t really matter in the desert – we walked back to our succahs.
All of a sudden, we jumped out of our skins. A firecracker exploded somewhere. No, it was the military again, practice shooting into the night. And then we heard the roar of a fighter jet streak across the night sky.
The shattering of the quiet of our retreat was only momentary. Yet travel in Israel requires a mental switch in terms of what counts as normal, and we had been there for almost a week with a constant military presence everywhere. You’ve got to keep your wits about you, too: Perhaps we were just desensitized, but I have also never been in another country that demands you not deviate from a hiking trail because of adjacent army-firing training zones. (Read: hiking in the Golan Heights.)
Several times during our stay we were woken by our succah shaking in the night winds. Minor dust storms were razing up the land and when I peered out of the small window, all I could see was sand. The cliffs and the valley had all disappeared.
But morning came, the dust settled and we had another splendid meal at the communal succah.
My boyfriend was impressed by it all. “This was your childhood? That’s so cool,” he said. And it was. We bonded over a small piece of my history and were sorry to leave the peace and calm of the camp. There is really nothing like this elsewhere in Israel.
“The modern world can be so rushed, no?” our host Chem said. “It’s hard to find time for yourself and to connect with your family, to connect with the land and your past.”
Rates for Succah in the Desert start at about $100 a night. For more information, visit succah.co.il/en.