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The Time A Bedouin Kid Taught Me How To Herd Sheep


Yom Kippur, as most Jews observe it, has just never been my thing.

I understand the concept — to skip food and the fun luxuries of life like electricity in order to focus on how we screwed up in the past year and hopefully, through hunger and near-constant prayer, successfully repent. If that sounds at all sarcastic, it shouldn’t; for many, if not most, Jews, this method works, and come the break fast, they feel they’ve ‘completed’ another quality Yom Kippur. If that floats your boat, so be it. It’s just never done it for me.

I’ve long been a fan of the repenting and the soul searching, sure, but in a different arena, one more suited to such activities for me. Last year, back in Pittsburgh, I spent the day hiking through a park with Tal, writing and discussing the year that we’d just finished, and how the year to come would be different. Surrounded by the reds and oranges and still-green leaves of early fall, the park was the perfect spot for me to have a meaningful Yom Kippur. Plus, we brought really good sandwiches, and you can’t go wrong with sandwiches.

Living in the desert, though, the only reds I see are the sunset over the vast stretches of rocks and sand each night and the occasional sunburn. Still, I knew the landscape of Arad would work perfectly.

For Erev Yom Kippur, I was invited to eat with a friend’s family in Arad. Her grandparents, I found out immediately upon sitting at their table, were among the first 150 or so families to move from Israel’s center to Arad in the 60’s after David Ben Gurion set out on his late-in-life quest for Jews to settle the Negev. This lady was, in so many words, a pioneer — when she moved to Arad it was a pile of stones with really clean air and some good views. She literally watched the city spring up in the desert; she saw each house erected, each new baby born, each street paved — and she still remembers when Arad didn’t exist. Her family, her kids and grandkids, grew up as her city did. Only in a young country like Israel, right?

The meal was fantastic, and my friend’s mother sent me home with a week’s worth of leftovers. Sweet potatoes, chicken, brisket, rice. Not too shabby. From there, we met up with some other Arad 20-somethings to walk into the center of town where, I was assured, things would be hopping. I was a little suspicious — Yom Kippur in the states could be described as a lot of things, ‘boring,’ ‘prayer-overload,’ or even ‘the day when my father coaxes my brother and I to stay another 15 minutes in synagogue as if an extra 15 minutes of listless faux-praying will seal us in the Book of Life,’ but not ‘hopping.’

But as we reached the town center, there it was — hundreds of families strolling in the streets. Not the sidewalks, the streets. That’s an important point, as Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when no one drives, even the totally secular. In this tiny, sleepy town where you’re unlikely to pass more than a dozen people when walking one side to the other, here were hundreds of parents chatting, teens standing in awkward circles as teens are want to do and kids playing on roller skates, bikes and on foot. The Day of Atonement was a party, a party completely missing food and drink.

By midnight, the streets thinned of families and the leftovers were increasingly about 16. Before long, I started to feel like a chaperone at a high school dance, and I knew it was time to go.

I woke up early for Yom Kippur: Daytime Edition and quickly packed my bag — I’d prepped, in my head at least, an all day hike into the desert. I stuffed my small, red bag with a few liters of water, my iPod, some food to battle low blood sugars and my phone and headed out the door by 10, biking to the edge of the city and walking right into a deep, rocky wadi stretching away from Arad.

Forty-five minutes and two giant desert hills later, I was descending into another rocky valley to my destination: a small cave in the side of a huge, steep valley that I’d spotted on one of my runs through the desert. Not such a cave, so to speak, but a big indent in the rock wall, big and deep enough for me to spread out and lay down on the perfectly-sized, bench-shaped rock inside.

After a few minutes of prep, I was all set for Yom Kippur: my iPod headphones loud enough that I had a makeshift stereo filling my cave with the Grateful Dead, a crisp, fresh apple in my mouth, a shirt laid over the rock to minimize how much desert dirt covered my body and enough shade that I quickly stopped sweating. And the view? Perfect — my sightline shot over the desert for what seemed like miles, endless miles, away from the city with no civilization in sight.

Aside from the flies (when an Israeli fly decide they want to bother you, they make it their life’s mission), I was totally at peace — the desert, the shade, Jerry Garcia’s guitar rolling through a 1977 concert recording — and slowly, I fell asleep.

The flies woke me up, of course. Sleeping on the bus, in my apartment, or in a cave in the desert, they always do. But it was just as well; 3 p.m. marked time to head home. I carefully climbed back up to the wadi’s ledge and began heading around it’s huge, open mouth when, staring down, away from Arad, I spotted a tent. And what looked like a tractor.

Naturally, I wanted to check it out, and down the hill I hiked. The closer I got, the more obvious it became: this was a Bedouin tent, probably set up for the day or the week by a sheep herder, one of the many who roam the lands around Arad on donkeys. I was a hundred yards away from the tent when I heard, echoing from somewhere, “Bo! Bo!”

I pulled a quick 360, looking for the voice. Found it — one hill over, in the middle of a huge pack of sheep and goats, was a man calling to me, “Come! Come!” My mind quickly ran through the possibilities: just walk away; walk towards him and be greeted by a very angry Bedouin; or walk towards him and be greeted by a brand new friend. The first option seemed boring, the second seemed unlikely; I hoped for number three. But then I noticed a change in movement — the man wasn’t calling to me, he was running towards me, down a steep hill and away from his flock. Option one suddenly became a non-option and I hoped for the best.

As he ran closer, I slowly walked to meet him. He was a kid, just a kid, walking the desert with dozens of animals, and now he was right in front of me.

“Allo!”

This is a good start, I thought.

He followed that understandable introduction with, “(Twenty seconds of lightning fast Arabic).”

This could be tricky.

“Ani midabare raq Ivrit, v’lo tov,” I spoke in barely half-decent Hebrew.

“Ah, beseder,” he responded. My boy didn’t know any English whatsoever, but he knew some Hebrew. “Bo im ani v’holech l’mayim.”

That was enough of an invitation for me, and we walked together back towards his flock. And then there I was, walking the desert alongside a boy who I slowly learned: was 15; lived in a nearby village; was a Bedouin and walked his father’s flock a few times a week; spoke just a bit more Hebrew than me; appreciated the rock’n’roll I played him, but not as much as he loved the Bedouin trance music he played me; wished for me to come with him towards the well, where his sheep and goats would drink; shared with me the thought that goat testicles are incredibly hilarious, and unbelievably large.

Beyond the obvious intrigue that I held towards my new hangout buddy, I was also proud of myself: I was able to converse, in Hebrew, with an Israeli. Disregard the fact that this Israeli was a Bedouin Arab and didn’t speak more than very basic Hebrew — I was having a Hebrew conversation with an Israeli! Way to go me. Pats on the back, handshakes or monetary donations are much appreciated. Checks made to J. Jacobs.

After an hour, we were deep in side a wadi and headed towards a well, and by well, I mean a deep, dark hole in the desert floor with several hoses sucking out water and spitting it into a rusty, white bathtub. Thing was, another flock of sheep beat us to it. My new Bedouin friend introduced me to his Bedouin friend, whose flock was gulping up the water and bah-ing listlessly. Unlike my boy, Bedouin number 2 spoke no Hebrew whatsoever. His name sounded something like ‘Bri-Ane,’ so naturally I asked if his name was Brian, and he shot me a stare blanker than a piece of white computer paper.

The two sheepherders spoke for a few moments, their heads rapidly turning between each other and the herds of goat and sheep. I quickly discerned that they were discussing tactics, the practicality of shifting one entire herd around the other in the narrow wadi floor.

The conversation over, my young friend ran up a hill and quickly disappeared, his voice then calling to his sheep either “Bo! Bo!” or “Ayayayayay.” That left Bedouin of No Hebrew, about 80 sheep and goats and me, meaning none of the 82 of us could communicate whatsoever.

The Bedouin motioned for me to join him standing between the two herds and I gladly obliged; until then, I’d been petting sheep and staring in disbelief at goat balls. With a series of no-word motions, here’s what Bri-Ane taught me: the best way to keep the herds separate was to use loud noises, including ones like “Hey! HEY!” and “Yah, yah, yah, yah!” and rocks, which we were to pick up and throw at any animals trying to cross the invisible barrier between the groups.

So we went to work, my Bedouin friend calling to his flock from behind a hill somewhere, and No-Hebrew and I shouting at sheep and chucking fist-sized rocks at misbehaving goats and ornery sheep. As an amateur, and someone raised with the phrase ‘animal cruelty’ in my vocabulary, my rocks were merely tossed gently towards the poor, ignorant animals; the professional, on the other hand, treated each animal like a catcher’s mitt, jettisoning dusty rocks at loudly bah-ing livestock. I think he got some satisfaction out of each target he hit, and the resulting, utterly shocked “BAH-AH-AH.” But maybe that’s just part of the job. Ten minutes later, flock one and flock two had successfully untangled themselves; No Hebrew gave me a thumbs up and waved, then said his only English word of the day, “Bye!” My 15-year-old buddy’s flock was drinking water from the tub, pushing each other out of the way for a probably warm sip like, well, animals. And I realized it was time to go. “Aich ani holech l’Arad?” I asked, wondering which direction would take me back home the quickest.

He laughed and shook his head.

“L’mallah,” he said, pointing to the sky. Up.

It wasn’t really until that moment that I realized my walk with the Bedouin had snaked into such a deep wadi, it’s walls shooting up on either side of us. But the dude was probably right, and short of retracing my steps for the next 2 hours, I had to get home the way he suggested. So I shook his hand, said my goodbyes (to the teen and the sheep and goats) and set off trekking up the steep side.

The kid was right, too — the only direction I needed was ‘up.’ When I’d climbed to the top of the valley’s edge and up to the peak of the connecting hill, there it was: Arad in the not-so-distant distance. I began the walk home, the sun just starting to set in the late afternoon, and made it back before the break fast.

And that’s how a Bedouin taught me how to herd sheep.