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Sunday, April 13, 2008

A gang of big tough bikers...

... with folded pink dinner napkins perched daintily on their heads.

Presents an 'interesting' mental image, doesn't it?

This past Shabbat, Zahava and I (and the kids, of course) joined about 40 friends from our neighborhood on what has become an annual tradition; a pre-Passover weekend away at a Field School.

First a little background for the non-Israelis reading along:

Field schools are located all over the country and are often associated with The Society for the Protection of Nature.  In addition to providing a learning environment for undergraduate and graduate students in environmental, wildlife and archaeological disciplines, these schools offer classes and tours to the public. 

Many Field Schools also offer comfortable, albeit rustic, guest accommodations that allow visitors to spend extended stays in close proximity to nature.  This is what we try to do each year.  This year's pre-Pesach trip was to the Field School at Midreshet Sde Boker (near Kibbutz Sde Boker, the former home of David Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister).

Midreshet Sde Boker is set in the heart of the Negev Desert on the edge of a breathtaking canyon that rivals Arizona's Grand Canyon and South Dakota's Badlands for wild, spectacular beauty.  The place houses a wide array of programs including an Environmental High School, an Interdisciplinary Institute, a Desert Research Institute and a Solar Energy Center.

The Guest Houses are centrally located on the campus and enjoy incredible views of the canyons beyond.  There is also a very nicely appointed kosher dining room and a Synagogue that seem to be mostly for visitors. 

When we arrived on Friday, a lecture had been arranged for our group and was given by one of the Field School staff at 'The Snake House'.  This is a small building with enclosures containing live examples of many of the snake species that are indigenous to Israel.  Outside the building they also have enclosures for various animals such as owls, falcons, and foxes that, due to injuries, can't be returned to their natural habitat.

The lecture was fascinating and was perfectly balanced to offer enough descriptive analogies for the kids... and enough 'meat' to keep the grown-ups engaged.

As we were leaving the 'Snake House' and heading back to our rooms to clean up and change for Shabbat, we heard the roar of motorcycles entering the Field School campus and watched as a large 'gang' of bikers rode into the parking lot.

Once I got over the initial shock of the noise in this quiet desert setting, I was fascinated to see that they were riding a collection of classic old bikes including lots of Indians, BSAs and Nortons that were all in pristine condition.  The same could not be said for the riders, however, who all seemed to be showing their mileage to a greater extent than their rides.

The group was made up of older men... mostly approaching or just past retirement age... who wore their gray hair closely cropped, and sported the pot bellies and beefy arms one would expect of the biker set.  But when they got off their bikes I was surprised to hear them conversing in Hebrew. I honestly didn't know that motorcycle culture (especially classic motorcycle culture) had made such deep inroads here in Israel!

If there had been a fleeting worry about this group of bikers being a bit, um, unruly, it was quickly set aside as I watched them turn off their bikes and thoughtfully push them the last dozen yards to the area near their rooms.  In addition, as some of us were admiring the beautiful antiques they'd been riding, they quickly apologized in advance for any noise they might need to make on Shabbat morning when they were planning on leaving to continue their ride.

I, for one, was charmed.

After Friday evening services in the Synagogue, our group went to the dining room for dinner.  We quickly went about making the traditional Kiddush over the wine and washed our hands in preparation for making the Hamotzei blessing on the Challahs. 

But while we were waiting for the last few stragglers in our group to finish washing their hands, the group of bikers - wearing clean t-shirts (sporting various motorcycle logos and mottoes) and bluejeans tucked into dusty engineers boots - filed into the dining-room and sat down around a long table near us.

Again, I was struck by a small tickle of dissonance at seeing these burly old bikers striding confidently into an Israeli Field School dining hall... speaking Hebrew!

But the real eye-opener came a few moments later when one of the bikers opened a bottle of wine, poured himself a full glass and stood up at the head of the table.  As one, the rest of the bikers stood, took the neatly folded pink cloth dinner napkins from their place settings, and perched them carefully on top of their heads as makeshift yarmulkes, while the leader began making Kiddush (the blessing over the wine).

Too often I allow myself to forget that Israel is a very diverse place with Jews of every conceivable stripe and color.  Too frequently we are quick to label and be labeled... and in the process forget that in the Jewish State, Judaism is not simply a binary switch that toggles between secular and religious, but rather a continuum that also covers all the territory in between.

It is not uncommon - especially amongst the older set - to find 'secular' Israelis who know their 'Tanach' (Bible) better than many Yeshiva students... and who can tell you the connection between most places in Israel and our ancient past.  Sadly, as Tanach is increasingly watered down and redacted from secular elementary and high school curriculum, the labels will likely become more apt... and the fuzzy continuum between the secular/religious divide will contain fewer and fewer inhabitants.

As the leader of the bikers finished saying kiddush, and the group sat down to a traditional Shabbat dinner, I turned to Zahava and said, "I think that has to be the holiest kiddush I've ever heard". 

It wasn't that it was fancy or flashy, mind you.  The leader didn't chant the kiddush particularly beautifully and the listeners didn't seem particularly moved when they answered 'amen'.  It was the very 'matter-of-factness' of the kiddush that struck me as wonderful. 

It was Friday night, and the most natural thing for these old Israeli Bikers to be doing before tucking into their dinner was to stand up, place a pink dinner napkin respectfully on their heads (in place of a kippah) and listen to one of their members make a proper kiddush.

It reminded me (once again) how essential it is that the Jewish state remain true to her Zionist roots.  Because if anyone takes the time to consider why we Jews are here in this small corner of the world... they'd have to admit to themselves that we are bound together by far more than divides us.

Posted by David Bogner on April 13, 2008 | Permalink


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Thank you for this wonderful Israeli moment. Le'Havdil, I can recall looking out an office window soon after I made aliyah. A car approaching a red light got too close to the one in front of it. Both driver got out and started a shouting match. Eventually, one driver when to get a pry-bar out of his trunk. The other quickly got into his car and drove away.

What struck me was that both drivers were Jewish! When we arrive in Israel, we stop being "that weird group of unusual people" and become a nation of weird people. For better or worse, we are in this together.

Please keep reporting on these moments. They represent one of the best parts of living in Israel.

Posted by: Elliot Jaffe | Apr 13, 2008 3:28:58 PM

Did they sing "Shalom Aleichem Malachei Hagehinnom"?

Posted by: Simon | Apr 13, 2008 3:37:48 PM

This is one of those "only in Israel" stories that keep us "classical Zionists" idealistic.

Thanks for sharing!

Posted by: Rivka with a capital A | Apr 13, 2008 3:42:16 PM

That story is why I made aliya.

I posted on my blog a while ago about the Israeli show "Hisardut"--based on "Survivor", where a bunch of Israelis are playing the survival game on a (supposedly) deserted island. While the show is as far from "reality" as it can be, what touched me was the uniquely Jewish moments, such as one team deciding to make Kiddush on Friday night, and one player getting a special gift from home, his tefilin, and how moved he was to be able to put them on.

G-d, I just love this country.

Posted by: Baila | Apr 13, 2008 5:00:04 PM

It is a great story for many reasons. At the moment what I like best is that it is a positive, upbeat and happy tale.

You can never have too many of those.

Posted by: Jack | Apr 13, 2008 5:41:56 PM

Well, I think the funniest thing is that of all the colors of the rainbow that the napkins could have been, they were pink. Talk about a "damn if it wasn't shabbos I'd take a picture" moment"!

Posted by: Marsha in Stamford | Apr 13, 2008 5:47:22 PM

Ha...showing their mileage to a greater extent than their rides...sported the pot bellies and beefy arms.... Bikers round the world seem to be cut from the same cloth. As I'm married to one, I speak with some authority.

And Chuck would be horrified to know that I'm reporting his plans for today: he and his fellow club members are heading north of Los Angeles to see the poppies, which are all in full bloom right now. Bikers on a horticultural tour :).

So yes, bikers come in all shapes and sizes, and have interests that would surprise anyone.

Posted by: beth | Apr 13, 2008 8:16:27 PM

What a wonderful story. Needs a tissue alert, though.

Posted by: Rahel | Apr 13, 2008 9:21:18 PM

"Only in Israel" I love it!

Posted by: Sara K | Apr 13, 2008 9:31:07 PM

The other day, I was at an outdoor cafe in Netanya (I was still in denial that I need to get ready for Pesach) and the kids and I watched as two young men, accompanied by two scantily clad women, proceeded to share a kippa as they ate. Truly, they passed it back and forth while they took turns eating. Someone needs to start an "Only in Israel" blog for these stories!

Posted by: Rachel | Apr 13, 2008 10:42:13 PM

sign me up for the Treppenwitz "One People Tour"!

Posted by: zalman | Apr 13, 2008 10:48:48 PM

Loved the story. It reminded me of when I was waiting for Yaeli in a cafe in Tel Aviv. A guy on a scooter rode past wearing a helmet with a broom glued to it (the brush part, not the handle). He looked for all the world like a cockatoo out shopping!
Trep, please consider publishing some of your posts in book form. Not everyone looks at blogs, and your stories are just too good not to be in print.

Posted by: Noa | Apr 13, 2008 11:02:47 PM

On Thursday I was on the way to Chamat Gader in Teveriyah with my plugah, and as we passed the checkpoint in the Jordan Valley to go to Beit Shean, a group of bikers passed by and I also thought to myself, there are Israeli bikers? No way. I even wondered maybe they're American, no way there are Israeli bikers, they looked just like American ones! Cool to know I was wrong.

Posted by: Tonny | Apr 14, 2008 12:39:07 AM

One of my "only-in-Israel" moments from my yeshiva days in Jerusalem (early-to-mid '80's) was seeing a motorcycle roaring through the streets of Geulah. Seated on the hog was a chusid wearing a helmet, payos flying in the wind. Oh, yes - there was also a little side-cart which contained a rebbetzin, hanging on for dear life!

Will wonders never cease.

Posted by: psachya | Apr 14, 2008 5:42:48 AM

Wonderful post about the bond that unites you as a people! The only statement of yours I take exception to is your calling Israel "this small corner of the world".

I know it's just a trite phrase that you've employed for the noble purpose of avoiding boasting. But speaking as an outsider I say, "If there is any spot that cannot be called a 'small corner of the world', it's Israel."

Israel is the focal point of modern geopolitics and the crossroads of ancient history. (Heck, even the English word "orient" derives its meaning from the ancient practice of aligning maps of the Mediterranean such that the east [toward Jerusalem] was at the top.) Israel (historically, culturally and geographically) is the hub of the world.

Posted by: Bob | Apr 14, 2008 6:44:36 AM

This "Judaism as normal" is one of the reasons I moved here!

Posted by: Gila | Apr 14, 2008 7:33:09 AM

Hi David,

do not be too pessimistic about the future of Tanakh education in Israel. Our kids are attending a semi-privat school where the Jewish subjects are emphasized and "religious" and "secular" families interact as equals. The "Meitarim" system has schools and kindergardens all over the country and R. Melchior, its spiritual father, has submitted a bill for joint education passing the first reading in the Knesseth


Posted by: Ruth | Apr 14, 2008 2:20:02 PM

Hi David,

do not be too pessimistic about the future of Tanakh education in Israel. Our kids are attending a semi-privat school where the Jewish subjects are emphasized and "religious" and "secular" families interact as equals. The "Meitarim" system has schools and kindergardens all over the country and R. Melchior, its spiritual father, has submitted a bill for joint education passing the first reading in the Knesseth


Posted by: Ruth | Apr 14, 2008 2:25:52 PM

Hi David,
I had a similar experience at Midreshet Sde Boker about 10 years ago or so....Went there for shabbat, and went on a tiyul with abunch of the madrichim who worked at the Field School, and was shocked when, after a gorgeous day of hiking thru the desert and finally sitting down to make some tea (on our little propane sotve, on shabbat), one of the girls pulled out her Tanach from her backpack, confirmed with her friends what parsha it was that week, and then proceeded to read/summarize the parsha out loud to the group, as we sat in the setting sun (it was winter), drinking apple tea and munching our assortment of tchuparim....
Even though those kids weren't "shomer shabbos" that experience was one of the ones that made me become so!

Posted by: Lisa Zlotnick | Apr 14, 2008 4:39:26 PM

but like you wrote, the bikers were of an older crowd. my (admittedly foreign) impression is that the masorati (with a lower-case mem) is a thing of the past. i know a number of older israelis who are like the ones that have described here--somewhat knowledgeable of tanakh, jewish traditions, etc. none of their children, however, have any such knowledge or observance.

Posted by: Lion of Zion | Apr 15, 2008 12:55:01 AM

David: This past Sukkot when I visited Herodian, there was a group of 50 "burly" bikers there as well (which I found rather an amazing site)....after visiting Herodian, they went to one of the outposts near Nokdim for goat cheese and to support the outpost.

I found that really shocking...but was glad my kids were able to see it with their own eyes :)

Posted by: Jameel @ The Muqata | Apr 17, 2008 12:28:12 PM

This reminds me of the time I was at the nail parlor. At the next table was a young blond thing wearing a very skimpy tank top, her midrif showing and a very short skirt. She had a fresh burn on her upper arm and the nail lady asked her what happened. She explained that she had moved too close to the hot water kettle that she had left on for Shabbat... I reminded myself once again not to judge people by their external appearance. What a tendency we Jews have to label our fellow Jews.

Posted by: Ruchie | Apr 22, 2008 10:59:16 PM

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