Today we awoke at the crack of dawn...literally. Breakfast was served at 6:30; it was an assortment of fresh cheeses and breads, jelly, eggs, cereal, and the like. We watched the sunrise as we ate, illuminating the clear desert sky into vivid colors of blue. After breakfast, we headed down to where the camels were kept and paired off, since there were two seats per camel. After putting on our helmets, we hopped onto the camels' backs. Mati and I were partners, and I took the back. The camel lurched its rear end upwards (where we sat), and then picked its head and neck up afterwards. The camels were tied together, and Freddy, my camel, reluctantly brought up the rear. The camel ride was definitely one to remember. Though only around 20 minutes in total, it was one of the most fun experiences. Freddy was unhappy that he was the caboose of the train, so he decided that he would continuously nudge Jesse Alloy, who was in front of me. They became fast friends. Jesse's camel decided to gobble up a huge mouthful of slop and dirt from the ground, and make hilariously gross chewing motions and noises.
After the camel ride, we embarked on our journey west. The bus ride took about an hour and a half, on which a group of us played Liar's Poker and a group of us played Heads Up (similar to charades). We passed through much of the Negev, the views of which were surprisingly beautiful. Arid, but hilly and rocky, desert surrounded us in all directions. We traveled snaking roads that climbed the hills, and barely saw any other cars, because let's face it, who else would be driving at 8:00 in the morning through a barren desert? All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we turned a corner and BAM! the Dead Sea came into view. It was breathtaking. The blue color of the sea contrasted with the tan sand, against a backdrop of Jordanian mountains. On the way to the Dead Sea, we stopped at the bottom of a mountain: Masada (מץדה). We took the easy, short way up the mountain on the Roman Ramp. We hiked it in only 15-20 minutes. We came to the top of the fortress and it opened up to a large area. It was honestly unbelievable that this place had been inhabited thousands of years ago by Jews who fled from the Romans. The abbreviated version of the tragedy of Masada is this: Herod the King built the original palace on top of the mountain as a safe haven where he could flee, if and when the Jews rose up against him. He died, the Romans eventually took over, and drove out the Jews. However, a group of zealous Jews, called the Sicarii, opposed the Roman rule and were forced up the mountain as the Romans pursued them. The Romans laid siege to the mountain for over a year with the best legions they had, yet the mighty Sicarii staved them off until their gate was eventually burned down. Seeing their end was in sight, the Sicarii decided that being captured by the Romans was a fate worse than death. Thus, the 960 Sicarii killed each other with their sicae (small daggers) in a mass suicide as a last noble move. It was said that even the Romans were in awe of the Sicarii's bravery.
Hearing about the history of Masada as we stood atop the mountain, gazing at where our noble, brave ancestors had once dwelled, filled me with a sense of pride for my people. Our people had held off the most powerful army in the world with strength and courage. At the top, we also got to gaze at one of the most *beautiful* views I've ever seen in my life: the Negev ending at the Dead Sea, and the Dead Sea ending at the base of a Jordanian mountain range. We took a zillion pictures, and then headed down the other side of the mountain on the Snake Path. The name was aptly given, as the path was the most curvy, rocky path ever. The sun beat down on us as we trekked down the mountain, but the heat was refreshing, since the last week had been brisk, rather chilly weather.
After making it to the bottom, we got on the bus and made our way to the International Beach at the Dead Sea. Our group split in two: one group ate first and the other went swimming in the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth (1400 feet below sea level) and one of the Seven Wonders of the natural world. If the Snake Path at Masada was aptly named, the Dead Sea is even more aptly named, since it is nearly impossible for anything to live there. Though, some microscopic life forms have recently been found near the bottom of the sea. The salt content is astonishing. Beaches were lined with salt near the water instead of sand, and the bottom of the sea is pure salt. I put a drop on my tongue to taste, and quickly realized why Chelly told us not to, haha. Its 34.2% salinity was certainly noticeable. We walked into the icy sea and reluctantly sat down to embrace the cold water. It was truly remarkable that one can just float there (due to the salt). We kicked our feet up and could've floated there for ages. The craziest part was when I tried to stand up. I stood completely straight, and my feet didn't touch the bottom, nor did I even start to sink at all. I just floated there. It is said that masses heavier than cars can even float in the Dead Sea. It is hard to describe the feeling of just floating in water that you know you should be sinking in. After we had had our fair share of floating, we quickly rinsed off, ate a fast lunch (or snacks), and got back on the bus to head to Ashkelon. The bus ride took about an hour or so, and on the way we slept and played Heads Up again. We checked into the Holiday Inn in Ashkelon, and took the most wonderfully cleansing showers ever. The Holiday Inn is certainly the nicest off all the hotels we've stayed at. Balconies overlook the Mediterranean Sea (now we are at 0 feet above sea level haha), and the hotel itself is just very clean and elegant. We lit the Shabbat candles and made our way to the beach (about a 1-2 minute walk), where we spent the time reflecting and meditating on our week and what it means to rest.
As we pondered this, we got to watch the sunset over the Mediterranean, creating gorgeous color schemes in the sky. Reds lined the horizon, and gradually turned into the dark navy and black of night. The moon shone brightly against the perfectly clear sky. The sunset provided a beautiful background for our naming ceremony, a time when anyone could select a new Hebrew name for themselves, in addition to the one they may had already been given at birth. It is said that we all have three names: one given to us at birth, one that our friends call us, and one that we give ourselves. We talked about how Jacob had wrestled with an angel in biblical times, and ultimately was shown the blessing of knowing his own name. Four of us participated in the ceremony, and the rest of us cheered them on. Afterwards, we had time before dinner to relax, so a group of us hung out downstairs in the lobby. Some chatted and some played a game called Secret Stalin, one of the most intense games of persuasion and wit I have ever played. We had also played this late last night in the Bedouin tent. Then, we had dinner at the hotel, where we ate from a really delicious buffet. It included fish, chicken, multiple kinds of beef, every Israeli or Mediterranean salad possible, rice, couscous, a salad bar, and a large dessert bar. One of the most refreshing parts of Israel, for me, is the fact that I never have to question whether or not I can eat the meat; there is never pork or shellfish, since everything is kosher. We ended the night at the oneg upstairs, where we played games and ate snacks. Halava, gummies, and dried fruit were passed around. We played a game called Look Up (led by Tallulah), Telephone (led by Ally) and Bang (led by Saskia). It was immensely fun—in part because I won Bang in an epic showdown against Aviv, our security guard. The rest of the night was on our own, and tonight we have the luxury of sleeping in tomorrow morning since it is Shabbat. After a long day of fun and excitement, the 10th day of our trip has come to an end, and I, for one, am exhausted. I can't wait to see what the next two days have in store for us!
The Brody Jewish Center, Hillel at the University of Virginia, is the focal point in a renaissance of Jewish life for the 1,800 Jewish students on Grounds.