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Galilee Diary: Night Music

Galilee Diary: Night Music

There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal; but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice.

-I Kings 19:11-12

Our bedroom window overlooks the Hilazon Valley, a view that includes natural Mediterranean scrub vegetation and Jewish National Fund forests on the slopes, olive trees filling the valley bottom, and the village of Sha'ab on the other side. The familiar night music wafting up to our window includes the muezzin of the mosque in Sha'ab, the howling of the jackals that live on the slopes, the distant but insistent barking of a dog, the metallic thunder of an empty dump truck returning home on the rutted dirt road through the valley. Toward dawn, there are roosters crowing, a donkey braying, the muezzin again, and a cacophony of birdsong: busy warbling and chirping, rhythmic cooing, the occasional caw – and, every few months, a woodpecker playing percussion.

One night last spring, I became aware of a new sound, a soft, monotonic beeping, at a regular interval of several seconds. It seemed to come from nearby, and I was sure it was a malfunction in our neighbor's alarm system (like when your smoke alarm needs a new battery). But then it stopped, and started again later, and the source seemed to have moved.

Consultation with the family zoologist yielded the information that the sound was most likely the call of the scops owl, a very small (6-8 inches) owl that breeds in southern Europe and around the Mediterranean.

The gentle, regular call became a familiar feature of our nighttime environment. One neighbor even claimed to have sighted the owl (we somehow always thought there was only one). The sound ceased in the fall – scops owls winter in central Africa – but the beeping returned this spring, and one night we even heard the distinct two-note sequence of a courting pair. Now, in summer, we hear long sequences of single-note calls every night, from just after dark until the wee hours. We never seem to hear more than one owl at a time, but walking around the moshav, we can hear the call coming from different locations, so we assume there is more than one in the area.

Israel is a noisy place with a harsh climate. It sits at the uneasy meeting place of continents and of regions of geopolitical and cultural influence. It has experienced a lot of wars in a short history (also in a long history), and tank transporters are as common on the highway as new car transporters are in the United States. News about Israel appears almost every day on the front pages of newspapers around the world, often in ways that make us uncomfortable (not to mention the discomfort felt by those of us who live here when we read our own newspapers).  Political discourse is coarse and strident, because everyone is a victim. Life here can wear you down.

I guess that's why we are so enthusiastic about the tiny new settler in our neighborhood, the owl. There is something comforting about leaning out the window in the dark and picking up the familiar, unhurried, rhythmic, soft beep that says, "Slow down, calm down, keep things in perspective; there is a world beyond Sheldon and Bibi, beyond Iran and BDS, beyond occupation and Hamas, beyond income inequality, beyond religious gender discrimination."

In fact, there is great beauty here in the small ways that tourists and journalists often miss, beauties that you discover only in the familiar routines of daily life within the landscape, in the nuanced transition of the seasons, in the quiet of the night – if you listen patiently.

Perhaps that's what the owl comes to teach us – to listen patiently. But, of course, the owl does not come to teach us anything. He is just doing what he knows how to do, based on his instincts and what his parents taught him.

Just like us.

Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein, the author of Galilee Diary: Reflections on Daily Life in Israel, grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first cohort of the NFTY-EIE program in 1962. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1975, and received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in modern Jewish history, while a Jerusalem Fellow. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee. Until his retirement, he served as executive director of The Galilee Foundation for Value Education, a seminar center that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence, and as director of the Israel Rabbinical Program of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.


Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein
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