So it was with great excitement that I signed up my boyfriend and I for a night of succah camping in the Negev.
Succahs are temporary huts, described in the book of Leviticus as a symbolic wilderness shelter after the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt.
In Oman, we had camped in the desert in Bedouin-style dwellings and the concept seemed similar enough: the orange-yellow sand, tall cliffs, the desert’s immense silence and the calm of sleeping under a star-laden night sky. I thought I knew what we were getting into.
In some ways, Succah in the Desert (an eco-camp in the High Negev Desert south of Beersheva ) was exactly what I had hoped to share with my boyfriend about my childhood. In other ways, I was terribly off-base.
The first sign that things were going to be different couldn’t have been more clearly spelt out. We were driving on the older highway toward the desert camp and came across a sign saying “Slow, dust clouds and tanks ahead.”
Dust clouds – check, we were in the desert. But tanks? I had never seen them in countries at peace in the Middle East. My boyfriend and I looked at each other baffled. Within five minutes of driving, we started screaming, “Oh my God!” Rolling less than 100 metres away from us was an army tank. The driver was either new at it, or intentionally driving in circles. We had clearly stumbled into a training zone of the Israeli Defence Forces and saw many more troops.
We turned off the highway onto an unpaved road for a bone-shaking 2.5 kilometres, and eventually rounded into the only settlement in sight.
The scene was quite pastoral. A giant white dog came over to assess us and determined we were friendly. A donkey brayed. A large thatched succah sat in the centre of the valley and eight smaller ones of various sizes spread out in a circle.
horse was being tended by a man in blue overalls. That man was our host, Ari Dror. He and his wife, Chem, have run Succah in the Desert for more than 17 years.
“This is our way of living,” Chem told us. “This is our official address out here in the desert.”
We’re shown to our succah, one of the smaller ones that’s just right for a couple: Outside it looks as if the succah hugs the ground (my six-foot-tall boyfriend has to hunch to avoid hitting the thatched roof).