Galilee Diary: Red Tide
We come to our Homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted, to strike our roots deep into its life-giving substances, and to stretch out our branches in the sustaining and creating air and sunlight of the Homeland... We, who have been torn away from nature, who have lost the savor of natural living – if we desire life, we must establish a new relationship with nature; we must open a new account with it.
– A.D. Gordon (1856-1922), spiritual leader of the pioneers of the Second Aliyah
We are experiencing the worst drought in almost a century (so far), and one feels guilty enjoying week after week of sunny, pleasant weather during what is supposed to be the rainy season. However, the wild flowers seem not to get it, and their breathtaking display appears, to the untrained eye, to be unaffected by the lack of rain. The season is at its peak now, and the fields and mountainsides and even highway median strips are painted with swaths of bright yellow, and clouds of pale pink/purple, and dots and whole patches of bright red. Everyone knows of a place where the flowers are the "most amazing," and people plan weekend excursions to find the opportunity to remind themselves that the Land of Israel is, despite all the difficulties and conflicts and ambivalences we endure in living here, endowed with great natural beauty, which can help get you through the rough spots. However, wildflowers have a symbolic significance in Israeli culture, beyond simple esthetic enjoyment.
By the time Zionism came along, most European Jews were city dwellers; for various historical reasons, not many were farmers. The Jews were perceived by others – and perceived themselves, as luftmenschen, "air people," not rooted in the soil of the lands in which they lived, and thus alien and unnatural. Early on, Zionism adopted as one of its goals not just the return of the Jewish people to its land, but their return to a natural, organic connection to the soil, climate, flora and fauna of that land. In this way Zionism was part of the romantic nationalism that was "in the air" in Europe at that time. Indeed, the earliest editions of the pedagogical journal of the Jewish Teachers' Association in Palestine in the early 1900s contained translations of German articles on how to teach "homeland studies." Over the years, the emphasis on learning the geography and nature of the land grew less intense, but did not fade away. When our children were in high school we often spent spring Shabbat afternoons traipsing around our local mountainside with them, helping them prepare for their exams on wildflower identification – not a subject that had been part of the AP biology curriculum at my suburban Chicago high school.
There's something very attractive and comfortable in this fascination with the land, and with the feeling that connection to the landscape is not just political, but somehow spiritual (as long as we don't lose track of the danger of mixing the political with the spiritual, and of making the land into an idol), and that deep knowledge of the land should be an important part of Israeli identity (shared by both Jews and Arabs).
I have to admit that I feel a certain failure as a Zionist, in my continued inability to distinguish among the three bright red wildflowers that carpet the fields in winter. Any Israeli third grader can identify kalaniyot (anemone), nuriot (ranunculus), and pereg (poppy), which bloom in overlapping succession in late winter. All are the same shade of red, the same size, and grow in the same surroundings. Their leaves, petals, and other structural details are definitely different, but though many tour guides have explained the differences to me on hikes over the years, this remains a bit of Israeli identity that, I guess, will forever define me as a new immigrant. But I love them all the same.