On a moonless night in the Negev desert town of Mitzpeh Ramon, Ira “Star Man” Machefsky drives visitors to a desolate plateau where he has set up a telescope and chairs.
Good pairs of binoculars rest on the chairs. A cooler holds hot-water bottles to take the chill out of the two-hour nighttime stargazing tour.
Until he moved to Israel during Chanukah 2009, this lifelong amateur astronomer had been living a very different life. In 1998, Mr. Machefsky, his wife, and their daughter had moved to Englewood from Palo Alto, Calif., so he could join a venture capital firm in Manhattan. He had been raised in Memphis, Tenn., and graduated from the University of Chicago.
|Ira Machefsky at his telescope. Courtesy Ira Machefsky|
“We kids would go out and play and spend time in the evening looking at the sky,” said Mr. Machefsky, who is now 66 years old. “One night I saw a shooting star crossing the sky, very bright and yellow. It was like seeing a woman and falling in love at first sight. I was totally obsessed.”
While he was in high school, he built his own telescope. “These days, it’s easier to buy one than to build one,” he said, although the telescope he uses for his sky tours was imported into Israel with no small amount of bureaucratic hassle and expense.
“Welcome to tonight’s Dark Skies of Mitzpeh Ramon,” Mr. Machefsky begins, shooting a green laser light into the horizon.
It’s the same Milky Way, whether you observe it from Englewood or from Israel. But the lack of light or air pollution, plus the nearly 3,000-foot altitude, make for a crystal-clear view of the ionized hydrogen and interstellar dust that make up our home galaxy, its billions of stars formed from the fusion of hydrogen into helium.
“That’s a thermonuclear reaction; that’s what makes hydrogen bombs go off,” Mr. Machefsky said. “So stars are basically huge thermonuclear weapons that God put in the sky, going off continuously.”
Mr. Machefsky explained that the names of the constellations come from Greek mythology by way of the Romans, handed down through the Arabs and then back to the Roman West during the Renaissance.
“That’s why we see mostly Greek mythological figures with Latin names, such as Cygnus the swan,” Mr. Machefsky said. “Then the Arabs renamed most of the stars,” he added, pointing out Deneb, the Arabic word for tail (“zanav” in Hebrew). Renaissance astronomers named stars using the Greek alphabet and the genitive case of the Latin name, yielding stars such as Alpha Cygni.
A close-up look through the telescope provides a spectacular shot of Jupiter and its four moons. Mr. Machefsky calls the view from this plateau “nature’s own planetarium.”
Ira and Pamela Machefsky probably would not have claimed this piece of heaven if not for their only child, Chavie, now 28. Chavie Machefsky Fuchs graduated from Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, came to Israel for her gap year, and stayed. She married Donny Fuchs and moved to Mitzpeh Ramon, which would be like any other dusty Negev locale if not for its geological jewel: the world’s largest natural crater. Because of the Machtesh Ramon crater and the wildlife that inhabit it, a booming tourism industry flourishes in Mitzpeh Ramon, an hour’s drive south of Beersheva.
“Chavie and Donny are here for ideological reasons, to populate the desert in the tradition of Ben-Gurion, and they love the severe beauty of the landscape and the wildlife,” Mr. Machefsky said.
He and Pamela decided to retire to Mitzpeh Ramon, population 5,000, where they can watch their three grandchildren feeding wild ibex in the yard. Few American immigrants choose to settle in the Negev, but he seems to thrive on the Israeli frontier.
“Where’s the sushi?” he said with a laugh. “Really, it’s not such a big shock. In Englewood, we lived in a large house and paid outrageous mortgage and taxes. Now we live in a little apartment on the ground floor. It’s more comfortable; I can take it easy and do what I like.”
He did not expect to turn his hobby into a business, but the opportunity was ripe ““ especially with the recent opening of the Beresheet resort overlooking the crater, and Chez Eugene, a swanky boutique hotel. These have attracted a greater number of English-speaking tourists, who can afford little extras like a nighttime star tour for NIS 150 per person – that’s about $42.
And anyway, as Mr. Machefsky describes on astronomyisrael.com, Mitzpeh Ramon boasts “the clearest, darkest skies in the country.” Tel Aviv University built its research observatory here, the only one of its kind in the Middle East.
“When one of our friends heard we were moving to Mitzpeh Ramon, he said it’s a great place for astronomy,” Mr. Machefsky said. “I was really intrigued. It occurred to me nobody was taking advantage of the beautiful skies here to do something for [English-speaking] tourists. Like many things in my life, it was an accident – or you could call it divine providence.”
Rather than make his wife “an astronomy widow,” he jokes, he set himself up in business and advertises at all the hotels. He does not work on Friday nights or holiday evenings.
You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.