The Israeli Coming-of-Age Challenge

Eyal Ben Leah |
25/08/2020

The Amiaz Plateau at Full Moon

Photograph: Eyal Ben Leah

When I sat down to write about the extraordinary experience we went through, I tried to remember the first time the subject arose. It could have been the steamy summer nights combined with the Corona routine that led to long evenings of heart-to-heart talks between myself and my friend David, when the idea came up of us wanting to have an Israeli coming-of-age ceremony. Our little ones had grown up and reached the age of Bar Mitzvah (coming-of-age) and, in our eyes, it seemed strange that Israelis like us have no ceremony or challenge confirming the fact that boys are turning into men. After all, most nations have a coming-of-age tradition, such as that of Spartan children who would be sent into the forest for three days without clothes or food, and those who returned were accepted as warriors… What are we lacking, us Israelis? Everyone knows that we have the IDF and our commandos are the very best, and it’s enough to mention the word “Mossad” in Hebrew anywhere in the world to win admiration, and also 8200 and Intel and Waze – all of that we achieved, and yet we don’t have a coming-of-age ceremony? David then reminded me that we do actually have the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, and that it’s an even more ancient tradition than anyone else’s and it’s still going on… For a moment we almost discarded the idea, but something was missing. The Jewish ritual is indeed meaningful and moving, and symbolizes that the child will now be responsible for his actions, which is all well and good, but we are also Israelis, we’re not suckers. We want to see that our kids are indeed responsible for their actions because, if the truth be known, David and I have been friends for many years, we live in close proximity to each other out of choice, and we also have children of similar ages, so we have common mileage and we think alike on many subjects. So here, too, we ended up agreeing to create the “Israeli Coming-of-Age Challenge”. We defined it as encompassing values that attest to one’s maturity, such as planning, precision, responsibility, courage, endurance and a central consciousness value. Furthermore, it must be adapted to 2020 because, with all due respect to the people of Sparta, Congo or the Amazons, our kids know these values mainly from their daily dealings with the latest video consoles, while seated on state-of-the-art sofas, munching the latest snacks packed with sodium… which is salt.                                                                                           

After weighing up all the elements, we reached an unequivocal decision… on the weekend, we’ll embark on a full-moon experience in the Dead Sea Land, Amiaz Plateau, Nahal Pratzim and Mount Sodom.

20:00 – Chapter One – We’re Off!

Friday, we’re done loading up the car and saying goodbye to our wives, who actually looked pretty happy at the prospect of a rare Friday night alone. We attributed this to the excess hours, all under the same roof, that the Corona routine has forced upon us. We set off, excited about the experience awaiting us. Gilad and Itai leapt exuberantly onto the back seat, completely unaware of what lay ahead. For them, this was just another nature trip that the parents were dragging them on. The drive to the Sodom descents passed very quickly, thanks to the new roads, and when we started the famous downward slalom, the kids finally lifted their eyes from their cellphone screens in wonder and asked, “What – are we going to the desert?!” “But it’s almost dark!”, they yelled. We pointed to the full moon that was already hanging in the sky and answered, “Full moon tonight guys – it’s not dark at all!”

Photograph: Eyal Ben Leah

We arrived at the gas station at Neve Zohar on Route 90 and went inside to get organized. The entrance to the station, with its hustle and bustle of jeeps and groups of riders, made it surprisingly clear to us that the Judean Desert is full of life on a full-moon night. We found a quiet corner, David started preparing the coffee and I pulled out a topographical map. I cleared my throat from excess pathos and asked the children to put aside their cell phones for a moment because I had something important to tell them. I handed them the map and informed them that they were about to go through the Israeli Coming-of-Age Challenge. “On the map in front of you…”, I continued with a network of priorities and marked the route… “Your responsibility is to lead us safely around the entire circular route, completely by yourselves.” Their jovial facial expressions turned into astonishment mixed with trepidation. “What d’ya mean on our own?!”, they asked in unison. “That means you have to plan the course, to remember carefully where the turnings are, to see if there are any ups or downs along the trail, what to be careful of and most importantly – to believe in yourselves and that you will be able to handle the challenge. We trust you”, was my reply. “But what does “alone” mean?”, Gilad insisted, and searched his father’s eyes for an answer. “Alone means that we will be walking behind you, but we will be mute, unable to speak, and you will have to cope”, David answered, summing up the matter. He handed them a pair of headband flashlights and added, “We’ll meet at the end of the trail – if we get there”. He hid a smile as he stirred the coffee in the finjan. David and I drank leisurely and served the boys coffee for the first time in their lives, even though they didn’t like the gesture as they found the taste bitter. We whispered between ourselves and let the children plan the trip, which took place with agonizing seriousness that succeeded in surprising us.

Photograph: Eyal Ben Leah

When they felt ready, we continued on our way and, right in front of the Dead Sea factories, was a clear sign showing: “Amiaz Plateau, Mount Sodom”, signaling us to turn right into the area we were heading for, and we began driving on the red-marked path that winds alongside Mount Sodom until we reached Amiaz Plateau’s night parking lot. Here, it’s important to note that, from the night parking lot, you must continue right until reaching the other Amiaz parking lot, a few hundred meters away.

Photograph: Eyal Ben Leah

23:00 – Chapter Two – Beginning of the Trip from Amiaz Plateau to Nahal Pratzim

We parked the car and started getting ready for our walk: a backpack of water bottles, finely-tuned cameras, headband-flashlights, our GoPro which hadn’t yet become acclimatized to the darkness, and the two kids, who seemed a little lost. Clutching the map, they looked around, confused. So, we gathered together, all holding the map, with our flashlights trained on its center. David showed them how to decipher the map, hinting that they should look for the right entrance to the wadi. They began running around for a few minutes until they found the entrance that was actually right in front of them, beneath a sign as clear as the sun, on a full moon night. We entered Nahal Pratzim and within a few minutes the cliff walls began to rise alongside us, as if in an attempt to impress us by their sheer height.  We asked the children to turn off the flashlights so they could see the moonlight that bathed us completely in its fascinating lunar glow. The children moved decisively into the gorge and we crawled slowly behind them.  As we continued on our way, we noticed from afar that they had stopped and were looking intensely at the map. We approached slowly and heard them talking between themselves about not finding the descent into the flour cave. The minutes ticked by and we had to intervene and ask them the reason for the delay – after all, the flour cave was closed and was not a part of our route. They answered confidently, that finding the point was important for them in getting their bearings around the route. David and I smiled in covert satisfaction and continued on our way on the planned path. The gorge continued to deepen between the formations of interesting marlstone that evoked from us shrieks of amazement, accompanied by photographs of images taken at endless angles. The combination of a circular moon hanging overhead, lighting up this ancient landscape, managed to excite us all – both large and small.

The paths split again, from red to green markings, and our plan was to turn right along the green path and rise with it in a ring-like manner, to reach the Amiaz Plateau. The boys looked up towards the steep incline with shining eyes and our silence confirmed what they already knew – they had found the path of ascension and it looked so inviting to them that they pounced on the upward trail and disappeared immediately inside the narrow ravine that whisked up white powdery clouds as the boys helped each other scramble up. Within minutes, they found themselves up on the plateau, whistling admiringly. We joined them at a slower pace, in respect of our age, and took part in the admiring cries – the Amiaz Pleateau from this side, suddenly seemed enormous in size!

Photograph: Eyal Ben Leah

A flat surface of land spreading from the foot of Mount Sodom to the horizon, seemed to be taken directly from an old cinematic film and we recalled that the old folks had told us that this place was used by the Air Force as a landing and takeoff strip during the 1948 battles and now we could understand why. For a moment we all lost orientation because of the sudden change in the view, but with the help of the map, plus the fact that we could see the car-park from afar, and Mount Sodom standing beside us, we were able to get back on track, and the children began to lead us along a wide trail that also serves the vehicles heading towards the mountain. The long moonlit walk and the silent wind that caressed our faces, caused us to begin a fascinating conversation about Sodom’s biblical story. In fact, there was no avoiding it – the extremely arid landscape that enveloped us on all sides and the asymmetrical rock formations naturally led us to remember Abraham’s brother Lot, who decided to settle in Sodom which was then considered a fertile place full of water. Even so, everyone knew that its residents were completely immoral, dishonorable and shameless, but that didn’t stop Lot from choosing the place and pitching his tent there. The story made us look around us and think that Lot’s choice wasn’t so smart. Still, David showed us pictures on Google, of fish fossils found on the spot – proof that the area was once, indeed, very fertile and rich.

Photograph: Eyal Ben Leah

24:00 – Chapter Three – Mount Sodom; the Ascent to the Top of the Mountain

An hour’s walk ended quickly and we reached the paths of Mount Sodom where we saw a small sign directing us to turn right, up the mountain towards Mt. Sodom’s lookout point. The children set off in a rush of youth along the trail climbing to the top of the mountain, while David and I lingered behind amidst a lively discussion of admiration for the kids. We noticed that, suddenly, they didn’t seem so much like children anymore, and their alert cooperation and intelligence made us realize that consuming so much digital content might not necessarily make them any less smart.

Photograph: Eyal Ben Leah

The climb ended and we met the boys almost at the top of the mountain at a sharp bend to the right of the path, where there was a small sign directing us left, on the red-marked path, onto the top of the mountain that extends from west to east. That’s the correct entrance and the guys had managed to overcome classic potential confusion because the trail leads to another vantage point, but we wanted to get to the first one – the one you can’t get to by car. We climbed up the little mound and reached the highest point of the Sodom mountain ridge. Opposite us, the Dead Sea shimmered in moonlight and to our right, the lights of Jordan covered the Edom Mountains like a bright blanket. Behind us was the sprawling Amiaz Plateau and we stood at the top of a small hill, at the peak of Mount Sodom, next to a stake with a red mark on it.

00:30 – Chapter Four – the Coming-of-Age Ceremony

We sat in a circle on the ground and passed a bottle of water between us. A great sense of satisfaction was evident in all of us, as seen in our excitement and broad smiles. David and I pulled two small cardboard boxes out of our backpack, and held them in our hands. We told the guys that we were proud to inform them that they had met the Israeli Coming-of-Age Challenge perfectly, that we appreciated their seriousness and exuberance, their responsibility and mutual assistance, that we were really proud of them and that inside the box was a clue to an important message that we would like them to take with them on their life’s journey. The guys opened the boxes and pulled out two little clay jugs. We asked them if they could think why we had chosen the jugs as a symbol of an important motif that we wanted them to learn from this entire experience. They didn’t hurry to answer but consulted between themselves in whispers and then looked up at us and both answered with complete confidence “Don’t look at the pitcher, but at what’s inside it!”. Then they continued to explain to us, while we choked on our emotions and a certain sense of pride, that they understood the message, and they totally thought the same way themselves… it’s important to remember in life that it’s worth choosing things or people according to what/who they are, and not just because of the way they look.

We pulled a black felt-tip pen out of our bag and proposed that they write their names on the jugs and that we’d tie them there to the stake that marked the paths, in everlasting memory. We think that, on that day, we founded the Israeli Coming-of-Age Ceremony.

01:00 – Conclusion – Walk Back to the Car and Night Parking Lot

Photograph: Eyal Ben Leah

We tied the jugs to the stake at the top of the mountain and started making our way back. The way back was supposed to be just as long as the way in but, as always in life, we found that the return journey went faster, for some reason. We crossed the Amiaz Plateau swiftly, as if we hadn’t walked all night and hadn’t been awake since yesterday! Perhaps it was because of the excitement, or the anticipation of the tasty spread awaiting us at the night parking lot, as is befitting at the end of every trip. We reached the car quickly and drove it over to the adjacent night parking lot.

The fact that we were all boys made it much easier for us to cope with the sanitary conditions, even though, at the end of such an experience, we were a little sorry that we hadn’t brought the entire family along. Nevertheless, in the night parking lot on the Amiaz Plateau, there is no bathroom or anything like that and we had to manage. David quickly set up a tent so that we could stretch out our legs for a while, after which we quickly arranged a succulent hamburger dinner to finish the trip. The thought that we had intended to pack up camp at sunrise, made us aware that we had only about two hours left before the sun would come up and begin beating down on us with all its strength. However, we didn’t pass up David’s sweet herbal tea – a perfect end to a perfect experience!

 

 Photograph: Eyal Ben Leah

Photograph: Eyal Ben Leah