Walking Four Amot

Tales of transformation from the hiking trails of Israel.

My wife always says that hiking should be the national sport of Israel. People from all backgrounds love hiking and exploring the diversity of this land, from the white sands of the coast to the brown deserts of the south to the green forests of the north. As an avid hiker myself, I can say that it has helped me meet many diverse people, build real connections, and see how the country is continually changing from season to season.
*
I was confident that Meir knew what we were doing. He was only 17, but as a sabra, he had lived in Israel 16 and a half years longer than me. Plus, he was in a pnimia tzvait, a pre-military boarding school, where they presumably taught him some responsibility.

Meir was the younger brother of a girl I was dating. We both wanted to go hiking during Channukah 2017, so we planned this trip together. To be more accurate, he did all the planning; all I did was show up at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem with a bag packed from the list he had sent me. But I did buy us both meat sandwiches at New Deli while we waited for our bus.

The bus took us to a gated community somewhere near the Dead Sea. Meir led me to the camping spot he had picked out from an app. It was a cold dark patch, under a tree and next to some water pipes. We slept on the ground.

We woke up well before dawn, packed our bags, and started our hike. The camping spot was next to the trail, but separated from it by a fence. We backtracked to the entrance, where we were stopped by a guard.

There was a quick exchange; as soon as the guard heard Meir’s Hebrew and my English, he became disinterested and waved us through.

We moved fast to make up time. It was a challenging climb, but I kept up—which made me feel good, as I was almost twice Meir’s age. We made it to the top: as the sun rose slowly over the Jordanian mountains, we wrapped tefillin and prayed facing Jerusalem.

We continued. After five or six hours, we made it to a road. Meir explained that the bus station we needed was at the bottom of the hill, about 10 km away. From this point, we should tremp, hitchhike, to the end.

Unfortunately, no cars were stopping, so we started to walk, trying to flag down every vehicle we saw. Finally, a car with white license plates stopped for us. But as we walked towards it, a car coming from the other direction, with yellow license plates, screeched to a stop. The driver blasted the horn, yelling at us to come to them and not the other car.

Confused, I looked to Meir for guidance. He shrugged, and we walked toward the second car.

As we got in, the passengers continued yelling at us. I didn’t understand what was going on. Eventually, they stopped, and Meir explained why they were so upset. The other car was Palestinian. White license plates mark Palestinian vehicles.
*
I know what it is like to be judged as dangerous based on stereotypes. I can remember countless times in America where it was made clear that I was not considered trustworthy because of the color of my skin.

Now that I have more context of life in Israel, I can imagine what those girls, the driver and passenger of the car with the yellow plates, saw. Two guys with kipot walking towards a Palestinian car recalls the summer of 2014, when three Jewish teenagers were picked up, kidnapped, and murdered. The futile operation to rescue them resulted in the deaths of five Palestinians. A few weeks later, a war broke out, and thousands more died.

Meir has changed a lot. He is now my brother-in-law. He became disenchanted with religion and stopped practicing. For ecological reasons, he gave up all animal products. He served in a combat unit in the army, but when he was offered the chance to go to officer training school, he decided that he was a consciousness objector and quit. He is now serving the country through national service, helping troubled youth get back on track by reconnecting with nature and sustainable farming.

We think very differently about the world, but he is still always happy to go on a hike with me.
*
It didn’t take long after she answered the call before we all realized that there was a problem. From what we could hear, it seemed that the negative Corona test wasn’t acceptable, and that someone had to come to fetch the kid from school. Evan’s wife hung up the phone in frustration and said:

“Someone has to get Mocha.”

“Why? He just had a negative test!” Evan replied

“The test isn’t in the required window.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“I know, but the teacher won’t let him into the classroom.”

“Won’t let him in? Well, where is he?”

“Sitting outside the school by himself.”

Evan looked at me apologetically.

“Look man, I am really sorry. I gotta go get him.”

I’m not bothered at all. It is March 2021, and we’ve all gotten used to COVID changing our plans.

We headed off to his son’s school. Mocha is a great nickname for his kid because of his skin tone.

Evan is a white Canadian Jew, his wife a mix of Indian and Persian Jews, and she gave their children some color. We stopped on the way back and got Mocha a drive-through Corona test. Evan’s wife was very grateful that we took the time to do that before heading off on our hike.

At Nofei Pratt, we found ourselves behind a group of teenage schoolgirls. They all seemed to be in bucket hats, long skirts, and Blundstone boots. A stream slowed their group, so we took a more challenging path that allowed us to pass them.

Soon we reached a group of boys, all of whom had peyot, knit kippahs, and tzitzit swinging as they trekked forward. A member of the group spotted me and did a double-take.

“You know Nissim Black! I saw you in his new video!”

I’m always surprised when this happens. I was in one of his videos, but just in the background. But I guess being the black Jew with dreadlocks makes me a memorable figure.

The kids started singing:

“Chava Nnegiallh, Chava, Chava Nnegiallh”

Evan started to joke about how famous I was. I played along, but argued that I am only a D-List celebrity.

We continued on our way, leapfrogging different groups of boys. Then, suddenly, another boy saw me and yelled out.

“I know you. I saw you on Kan!”

Less surprising. I was the main focus of that news segment. It got a good amount of attention, over half a million views across the platforms of Kan, the national broadcaster, aside from all the people who caught it broadcast live on television.

Evan resumed his jokes, and I conceded that maybe I am a C-List celebrity.

We found an excellent place to overtake the boys, and veered off on a separate path. We got a little lost, but eventually made our way back to the settlement and to our car. It was nice to be isolated and to enjoy time with my friend, who I don’t get out with enough.
*
Nissim and I are the same but different. We are both African Americans with a street past, who eventually found Judaism, became Jews, and moved to Israel.

But we practice our Judaism in different ways, Nissim is ultra-Orthodox while I am modern Orthodox.

We have both experienced difficulties since moving here. His children were denied admission to schools, and I was denied citizenship.

But we are both focused on the positive and using our life experiences to make the world a better place, changing the world through the power of words.

Him through his music, and me through my writing.

I know he enjoys meditating in nature. I should call him up one day, and see if he wants some company on one of those hikes.
*
My wife and I got off the bus. I wasn’t sure where we were, but I figured that she had the situation under control. But I quickly found out that she was just as lost as I was. So we checked Google Maps, found Ein Pratt, and started to walk in its general direction.

It didn’t take long before we were out of the small village where we had found ourselves and in the desert. There were no marked hiking trails, so we followed a rocky dirt road that we hoped would lead to our destination.

The only person we encountered was an Arab man tending to his flock of sheep, who seemed very excited to see me. His excitement only increased when my wife asked him for directions in Arabic.

After a long hike, we arrived at our destination, just in time for the guard to tell us that it was closed to new visitors for the rest of the day. We checked Moovit for directions back to Jerusalem, and started to walk to the bus stop. A group leaving Ein Pratt, heading in the same direction, were excited when they heard us speaking in English, and started a conversation.

The talk was friendly. But once they had us cornered on the bus, one asked us if we were familiar with “scripture.” I had been raised in an evangelical Christian home, and knew what was coming.

My wife, naively, answered yes. The man who asked the question, a younger white male with short blond hair, started to quote Bible passages from memory, asking us what we thought about them. I pulled out my phone to escape the conversation; but my wife engaged, redirecting to the original Hebrew version of the text, which mostly left the young man stumped.

Once it was clear that this was going nowhere, an older Asian man took over the conversation. He told us a heart-wrenching story of how his life had fallen apart, and the emptiness that he had felt until Jesus filled the void.

Finally, we got to our stop, and the entire group stood up to hug us and tell us that we were loved. But the driver cut them short, yelling for us to hurry up.

*

This event was my wife’s first encounter with Christian missionaries. Her first reaction was that they reminded her of Chabadnikim.

I disagreed adamantly, because I didn’t like missionaries but I loved Chabadniks. But she stuck to her guns, explaining that they were all loving people who have dedicated their lives to helping others do what they believed as G-d’s will.

Over the years, I have become more accepting of Christians, and even have some friends who, instead of working to convert Jews, are building positive bridges between the communities. For example, my friend Bishop Glenn Plummer, considered a top ally to Israel by the Israel Allies Foundation, and who now lives with his wife in Mevaseret Zion.

One of these days, I should take him out on a hike and show him more of this beautiful country.
*
As I got off the train in Tel Aviv, I phoned Ohad, my brother-in-law. We exchanged live locations on WhatsApp, and he confirmed he will arrive in a few minutes. After we found each other, I throw my bag in the trunk, and we started driving north.

Neither of us had got much sleep. Fortunately, we were in his work car, which meant that only he was insured to drive it. So I snatched an extra few hours of sleep on the long drive up north.

We arrived, made coffee, and wrapped tefillin before starting on our way. Immediately, I started sipping water from the hose hanging over my shoulder. I drank fast, and soon had to pee. One of the things I love about hiking in remote areas is being able to pee as often and wherever I want.

The day got very hot, and at some point, Ohad mentioned that he still hadn’t peed, despite drinking a ton of water. I told him to drink more water and asked if he was sweating. I am, he answered. There was plenty of sweat, just no urine.

Soon he started to slow down, complaining about the heat. I wondered whether he had had enough salt, but we had both forgotten to bring our usual snack of sunflower seeds with us. I figured that we should at least cool him off. Dousing my handkerchief with water, I told him to cool his wrist, neck, and forehead. He declined, and trudged on.

Before long, he asked to stop. Again, I suggested that he try my handkerchief, and he finally gave in. It helped for a while, but soon he slowed down again. I started to think about how terrible it would be if I had to carry him out.

Eventually, we made it to our planned endpoint. That morning, we had discussed the possibility of going further, but it was clear that 26 km was enough for us today. Ohad told me that we should cross the road and order a taxi.

We sat on a bench, and Ohad rested his head in his hands. I tried to wave down a tremp, someone to give us a lift, at the same time ordering a cab on Gett Taxi. I didn’t succeed with either. When Ohad’s strength returned, he checked his phone and realized that we were on the wrong side of the road, and so we crossed back over.

Eventually, a taxi stopped. Because it was a highway, it took the driver a while to stop. Rather than waiting for us to reach him, he shifted into reverse and returned to us. He got out, opened the trunk, and helped us with our bags.

He was a friendly guy. He told us that he was on the way to drop off a bookbag that a young woman had left in the cab. It had her laptop in it, which she needed ASAP. She lived near Tel Aviv.

We talked about where we were from. Ohad told him about living in a settlement close to Ariel, very far past the Green Line. The driver told us about living in an Arab village. We all got along and had a good time.

At some point, it came out that my wife and Ohad’s are sisters. The driver figured out that we aren’t technically related, and said that it’s great that we still are so close.

Eventually, we reached a place that resembled the park we had set out from. But Ohad was positive that it was not the right place. He brought up Waze on his phone and handed it to the driver, who started following the new directions.

The instructions took us 10 minutes down the road, told us to make a U-turn, and brought us right back to the same place.

As the driver pulled into the lot and turned off the meter, we made fun of Ohad. The driver then insisted on driving us to our car. The final bill was 83 shekels; I gave him a hundred and fifty and asked for thirty shekels change. He told me that I made a mistake, and tried to give me the fifty back in addition to change.

I explained that it was a tip, and he lightened up further. He got out and helped us move the bags from his car into Ohad’s.
*
This land is the birthplace of many different people, and home to many others.

If we can all be honest, kind, and hardworking, maybe we can find a way that is better than simply co-existing.

We can become friends and work together to create a better place for all of us to share.

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