by Rachel Thimangu
Sunday was a day of highs and lows.
We reached the heights of Masada and desert dunes, and broke the surface of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the surface of the Earth.
A few hearty souls — Michael, Alan, Aaron, Lizzie, Vickie and Brett — climbed the stairs and switchback slopes of the Snake Path, under the desert sun, to reach the summit in about 45 minutes. The rest of us took an easy, but crowded, tram ride of less than 3 minutes.
United at the top, we learned the fascinating history of King Herod’s retreat. He built the incredibly expensive fortress atop a large and highly defendable hill, but never set foot there. Instead, it became the site of the last stand by nearly 1,000 Jews at the end of the first Jewish-Roman war in 73-74 CE.
We saw the enormous cisterns that collected and held millions of gallons of water from rains and flash floods, and the remaining walls of food storage rooms as well as a formal palace. We talked about the mass suicide of those Jews when they realized that Roman legions had broken through the fortress’ walls, and knew that the Romans would rape and slaughter them.
It was a final act of self-determination and defiance by the band of Jews who would prove to be the last to rule the land of Israel until 1948. As today’s state of Israel was founded and formed, the story of Masada was held up as a prime example of what it means to be a strong Jew. For about 40 years, the mountaintop was the site of many military ceremonies and Bar Mitzvahs — until the ultra-Orthodox view that suicide should not be condoned or celebrated became the dominant position.
Still, Masada is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year … now including the 2018 Rubinite group.
We next descended to the Dead Sea, taking time to bob in the highly mineralized water. Walk in up to your thighs, sit back, and up pop your feet. Slathered in Dead Sea mud, said to be good for our skin, we posed for pictures and looked around at the astonishing beauty of the blue sea, cloudless sky and red-brown mountains of Israel and Jordan.
We wondered whether our children, or their children, will get the same opportunity given the near-constant depletion of the water reserves that feed the Dead Sea. It is receding at the rate of about a foot per year as surrounding populations wrestle over upstream water supplies.
The day ended with a Jeep ride through the desert, where we heard about the critical importance of water to the Bedouin nomads, who graze their flocks on scrubby desert vegetation and depend on the reserves of hundreds of ancient underground cisterns that still are used today.
Our dinner came at an oasis-like tented camp site. We helped to cook pita bread over an open fire, ate our fill at tables under the stars, and returned to the fireside to talk and digest.
It was another astonishing day in Israel, filled with ups and downs on our path to a greater understanding of this ancient land and our people.