Why Beer Sheva isn’t Zichron Yaakov

The roiling waters are clear as glass as we swim in the sea below Zichron Yaakov. Later, we hike and jog back up to that white city on a hill, we shower the salt from our skin, and as the sun vanishes over the ocean horizon, we head out in search of dinner.

The streets are quiet and tree-lined, and each yard is planted with flowers. There are no dumpsters overflowing with garbage and rangy cats, as there are in Beer Sheva. Parents speak gently to their children in Hebrew as they push them down the streets in their strollers. Signs over businesses and historical sites reference the Baron Rothchild, the original founder and patron of this town, a hundred or so years ago.

My friend keeps asking, why couldn’t Beer Sheva be more like Zichron?

Because, I think, of the quiet current of money and privilege that run through this town. Can’t you feel it, smell it, taste it, behind the well-paved streets, the collected garbage, the pretty single-family homes, all surrounded by vineyards on a bluff above the mediterranean?

Beer Sheva, like the river named after it, is made from what washes up when it has nowhere left to go, and it peters out here. The Beer Sheva river was running two weeks ago, a muddy slurry of whatever garbage and pollution has collected between the Hebron hills and here. It never reaches the sea.

A Bedouin man once told me the Bedouin like to say that the strongest tribes chose the wildness of the desert, and the weaker ones settled in the fertile valleys, but he believed the opposite was true: the most vulnerably tribes were pushed into the wastelands, the harshest places.

That’s still what’s happening. Waves after waves of Jewish immigrants were settled here when they had no resources to go elsewhere. First the Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, then later the immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia.

Beer Sheva, and the Negev, is the story of Nanu, who cleans floors at the hospital, and proudly moved her family from the absorption center by the railroad tracks, to schuna tet, a newer neighborhood. She insists on washing the mugs I used for tea and coffee working late on my Autism research project, even though that’s not her job. She lost half of her family on the long march from Ethiopia to Sudan to come here.

It’s the story of Sara and Jazi, and their daughters, how their grandfather was exiled to Jordan in 1948 by the Israelis and never allowed to return. It’s the story of how their family has worked to improve the education in their village, culminating in many students coming in on Saturdays, their only free day, for extra english lessons.

It’s the story of a medical resident stumbling through her morning report after a sleepless night, her headscarf pinned tightly over her scrubs, struggling with the Hebrew words that usually flow so easily, and it’s the story of her Russian and American attending physicians, carefully listening to the story of an old woman admitted to the hospital for pneumonia.

This place grows on you.

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