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Thirty Minutes at the Dead Sea: No Girls Allowed

While living in Arad for the next few months, I’ll head down once a week to Kibbutz Keturah, a gorgeous, small kibbutz tucked quite literally at the base of a row of desert mountains scraping up towards an endlessly blue sky. Twelve of our chanichim/students/kids/whatever we call them will spend this semester working on kibbutz, and I’m the madrich lucky enough to trek down and say hi once a week, basically making sure they’re showing up to work on time and haven’t drank themselves to death.

Without a car, it’s bus or bust, so I head out of Arad to one of two connection stops: either the major city and religious relic Beer Sheva, or the hotel zone of the Dead Sea. They’ve both got their perks — 40 minutes between buses in a big city, or a half hour on the beach. This week, I chose the latter, and on my way back from Ketura I found myself with 30 minutes to kill on a day so hot I was sure my skin would begin to melt off. It didn’t, thankfully.

After a two hour ride from Ketura, I woke up just in time to see my favorite road sign in Israel: an arrow pointing down towards the Dead Sea, emblazoned with only a question mark, as in, “Something is down there, but we’re, well… we’re not sure what it is.” No text, just a question mark. Let’s move on. I stepped off the bus and into the thick, salty air of Ein Bokek, the strip of luxury hotels along the southern half of the sea. I walked towards the beach, but some construction (of… large umbrellas, I’d guess?) kept me off the salty sand.

Finally, an opening. I’d found what looked like the entrance to a private section of the beach. Wearing the same sweaty, grossly dirty t-shirt I had on the night prior, I halted just for a moment. What if this was the 100 yards or so of the beach where Israel’s richest come to sunbathe, and here I am dirty as hell and sweating through my already-twice-sweat-through shirt? Then a pair of Israeli guys walked by and made a joke about washing their balls in the sea and I immediately remembered this isn’t exactly a formal country. I walked through the stained wood entry way and onto the beach.

It took exactly 2 seconds to realize where I was: not a private beach, but a religious beach. A long, tall wooden wall jutted down the sand and 10 yards into the water — a mechizah to separate the men’s side from the women’s side. The sand was giving me third degree foot burns, so I broke into an awkward jog down the beach to reach a spot of shade under an umbrella, took my shirt off and looked into the water.

I guess Monday wasn’t peak season for the Hasidic crowd; it was me, a man of at least 85 standing near the water and one other man with a beard and payes (curled sidelocks) floating on his back and waving to me to come talk. His name was Shmuley, he was from Jerusalem and he was on vacation, staying in Arad but floating in the Dead Sea for the day. That’s about as far as my Sunday school Hebrew could take me. Which was made slightly less apparent when our stilted conversation was cut short by — gasp! — women, poking their heads around the mechizah and singing along to the Mizrahi pop music blaring from the speakers overhead. Shmuley sprung into action, quickly exiting the warm water and speaking with the nearest lifeguard, who promptly announced through a loudspeaker that said nashim, or women, must remain on their side of the barrier for the sake of modesty. And return to their side they did, quietly.

Shmuley and I didn’t have too much more to say to each other and I had a bus to catch. But my interest was piqued, as it tends to be when I have run in encounters with Israel’s very religious residents. Religion doesn’t govern life here the way it does in, say, Saudi Arabia, but it does permeate into every corner of how we live, what we do and where we do it. If you’re lost at this point, religious law in Judaism preaches separation of the sexes in prayer, many social events and, yep, the beach, so as to (so goes the explanation of a religious co-worker of mine) protect the sanctity of marriage in that real connection between the sexes is elevated if relegated to only a married couple.

The jury is out on my thoughts on that one, but the sense of atmospheric religion has touched me a bit. I’ve been keeping totally kosher since I got here, and I’m a man who likes my burgers topped with beautifully melted cheddar. I didn’t expect religion at the beach, but that was silly ignorance. Of course it was there, because, of course, religious people were there. Now this isn’t to say religious law is the final say everywhere — take a walk through Tel Aviv on Friday night and the streets won’t whisper ‘peaceful Shabbat.’

When I make my 30 minute stop at Ein Bokek next week, I’m not sure I’ll seek out those dark wooden entry gates. I think instead I’ll sit in the air conditioned lobby of the Leonardo Plaza hotel. The Dead Sea has its charms, sure, but after a visit or two, so does a cold Coke.

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