Coming of Age in the Judean Hills

by Moshe Dann (July 2012)

“Hi, Abba.” My 24-year old step-son, Yonatan (“Yonch”) calls me. “I'm living in Maale Rechavam now. Want to visit?”

Delighted by the invitation, I was also apprehensive. We had drifted apart after his mother and I divorced a dozen years ago. After he'd graduated high school and joined the army I'd heard from him occasionally, hesitantly. Short conversations usually ended abruptly, his need for a relationship dangling on a string between us, a tightrope, my longing for him, for the closeness that I'd nurtured during the decade that I'd raised him and his two older brothers. It was another life. They were young children when I'd married his mother, an Israeli widow. We had all grown up together, in a way, a family for a while – but not enough. How could Yonch and I reconnect? Who was he now, after long absences, the phone that didn't ring, memories in photographs stuck on my refrigerator door? Could I re-enter his life, even briefly? Could we nurture that spark that had bound us together?   

“Maale who?” I respond. An Israeli tour guide familiar with the country, I was rattled by my ignorance. “Where? What?” I stuttered. Young people had begun to settle hilltops in isolated places, or build extensions close to well- established communities. The names honored victims of terrorist attacks, their work unfinished, memorial candles of earth and stone.  

“It was named after Rechavam Zeevi,” he explained. Zeevi, a member of Knesset, was gunned down by Palestinian terrorists in a Jerusalem hotel in 2001. Known as “Gandhi” for a show in which he dressed up as the Indian leader, he was far from that image. A leader of the right-wing Moledet party, he was a staunch nationalist who believed in a firm response to Arab terrorism and transfer of Arabs to their homeland in Jordan, or resettlement in the countries where they had resided for generations. A radical plan when first proposed, it became more widely accepted as prospects for “the peace process” and a “two-state solution” diminished.  

“It's east of Tekoah,” Yonatan added. “Come.” Tall, thin, his voice carried an enthusiasm that I had rarely heard in him.

He had been floundering after finishing his army service, most of it in Hebron where he was Col. Dror Weinberg's driver and assistant. Shortly after he completed his army service, Weinberg, an outstanding IDF commander and a dozen other soldiers and security personnel were murdered in an ambush in Hebron one Friday night. It was difficult for Yonatan to get over the incident, to forgive himself for not having been there to help — perhaps for surviving.

The drive south from Jerusalem through Gush Etzion was familiar. Jewish communities of Efrat, Elazar, Alon Shvut and Neve Daniel are flourishing and expanding. Driving east, I pass Herodian, a towering hilltop retreat built by King Herod at the end of the Second Temple period (where some archeologists believe Herod was buried) and through the tiny Arab village of Tukwa, named for the Biblical site of the prophet Amos' home town, Tekoa. A few kids on the side of the road watch my car as I pass; I watch for stone-throwers, or worse.

The Jewish community of Tekoa stands out, their red rooftops sparkling in the sun, home to nearly 500 hundred families, including several adjacent hilltops where scores of young families live in “caravans,” simple pre-fabs, and others in multi-story stone houses. In the spring of 2001, Arabs murdered 14-year old Koby Mandell and his friend, Yosef Ish-Ran in a cave nearby, smashing their heads and smearing their blood on the walls.     

The road winds east, towards the desert. Passing the sprawling Jewish community of Nokdim, established 35 years ago and home to 400 families, I can't find Yonch. Lost, I call his cell phone and after a few minutes he appears, his eyes shining from his dark Yemenite face, guiding me off the main road past a small army base and the community of Kfar Eldad. Composed of seventy or so families, many non-religious, new immigrants with little means from the FSU and religious families who wanted to be out in the open, close to the land, it's a strange and warm mix of cultures and life styles. The narrow dirt road snakes along the edge of the Judean desert, stark barren hills and deep canyons that stretch down to the Dead Sea.

Amos, the prophet/shepherd from Tekoa, preached here during the reign of Uzziyya, king of Yehuda, 2800 years ago. “The Lord will roar from Zion, and shout from Jerusalem, the pastures of shepherds shall mourn…I will send fire upon Moav…” Suddenly, ahead of me the flaming red mountains of Moav, in what is now Jordan erupt on the horizon.  

“And I (The Lord) will bring back my people from their captivity and they shall build the cities that were wasted and plant vineyards…” A group of shacks and caravans, a vineyard and orchard are nestled against the hillside. I've arrived.

Climbing up a hilltop overlooking a wadi (riverbed), we watch the late afternoon sun cast long shadows across the harsh, rugged landscape. “You can see the Dead Sea from here,” he points into the distance. Squinting, I can make out a tiny piece of azure below. Dark brown granite rocks punch defiantly out of the parched ground around us. Desolate, without a trace of vegetation, I imagine what it might have been like thousands of years ago, when Jewish shepherds roamed these hills.

“Listen,” he says. Utter silence embraces us, its passivity shattering sound. “Maybe once this was full of trees and pastures,” Yonch says, though it's hard to believe in such barren wilderness. “At night there are deer all over here; I can see their eyes.” Far from city lights, the desert night sharpens details, living things emerging from hiding places in the search for food, the need to survive. 

“I'll plant trees,” he shows me a dozen holes he’d dug and saplings ready to be planted. “And maybe I'll have a vineyard, too.” He motions with his hand towards a flat area between the hills where winter rains have left earth washed down from the hills. Among the other caravans, a makeshift tool shed, his new friends, one young couple already married and another soon to be, he's home.

“And maybe I'll find a wife,” he says shyly, scuffing his feet on a rock.

I thought of myself, at his age, floundering, unsure of myself, stumbling in my need to prove myself, a desperate need to be independent, hungry for new experiences and unable to settle down. A family, I thought, a cool desert wind brushing against us. A good woman. Children. A family.      

Well, yes. Why not? And why not here, rooted amidst vast open spaces? I hugged him proudly, unable to hold back a sigh of jealousy and admiration, feeling his lean body taking hold of life, the marrow of anticipation that grounds us in the world. 

What a beginning in this land so close to God.      


The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.        

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