By the time you’re up to your 98th trip to a foreign country, that country’s really not foreign anymore.
Robert Levine of Teaneck, a still-practicing lawyer and accountant who is somewhere in his eighties — he’d rather not specify exactly where — has been to Israel 97 times so far. His first trip was in 1951; he didn’t go again for 17 years, until 1968, and since then he’s been making up for lost time.
Mr. Levine’s an inveterate joiner, but it’s fair to say that among the many organizations to which he’s given parts of his heart, the Jewish National Fund has the largest share.
He’s going back to Israel in July, and this time he hopes to take other people with him, on a tour where he can share with them stories of the places he loves the most, while standing — or sitting, or eating, or drinking — in those places.
“I have fallen in love with the desert,” Mr. Levine said. Most particularly, he’s in love with the Arava, the desolate, arid, remote, starkly beautiful area in Israel’s southwest.
“Two stories,” said Mr. Levine, in what is safely a prelude to at least three or four of them. “Twenty-five, 30 years ago, there was a problem. Karen Kayemet” — that’s the Jewish National Fund’s name in Israel, Karen Kayemet l’Yisrael — “said that we have a big problem.
“Ben-Gurion had said that people had to move to the desert, that if we do not conquer the desert, we will not keep Israel. There were army bases there, but no one was living there, and how could we claim this land without anyone living on it?
“So he invited people to move there, to the Arava, south of the Dead Sea, north of Eilat, near the Jordanian border.”
The sandy, salty land had no natural resources, but the plan was to import farmers, and that they would grow turkeys. “The land wasn’t good for agriculture, but a turkey coop could be built anywhere,” Mr. Levine said. So coops were built and turkeys were trucked in.
What to do?
“There were a lot of people, including many from New Jersey, who gave money to figure this out,” he said. The problem was all the salt in the sand; after studying the problem, scientists decided “that if we flood the sand, the salt will do one of two things. Either it will rise to the top, and we can skim it off, or it will sink down with the water to below the plant line.” They desalinated the land, and then the farmers they’d brought in could grow crops there.”
Robert Levine and his wife, Helen, were among the donors who helped make that possible; many of the donors to JNF also were generous, thanks to the Levines’ prompting and modeling.
Some of Mr. Levine’s stories are about Israeli history; others are more personal.
Over the course of his visits to the Arava, he developed a friendship with Marietta Gotfield, who had been born in Finland, met a man, fell in love, converted to Judaism, married, lived in Tel Aviv, heard Ben-Gurion’s call to move to the Arava, moved to the Arava, had four sons, and ran a successful vegetable farm there until she died just a few years ago. “She was a charming woman,” Mr. Levine said. Although he’d been in close touch with Marietta he had met her sons only as babies, but now one of them is a farmer on the moshav where he grew up.
On one of his recent trips to Israel, Bob and Helen Levine spent the day with Marietta’s son, who grows dates. “He came to meet us, with his wife and twin 9-year-old sons,” Mr. Levine said. “He took me in his truck to pick dates.” As it turns out, dates grow high off the ground; you need a cherry-picker to harvest them. “It was really super,” Mr. Levine added.
At the end of a long day, the group went to Marietta’s grave, where her tombstone is complemented by a slab of concrete with a map of Israel engraved into it. “I said kaddish for her there, and her son had candles in his truck, and his kids lit them,” Mr. Levine said. “It was closure for me.”
Another Arava story involves the mayor. The area is fairly big but it is sparsely populated, so it does not have much political power. “The Knesset doesn’t care much about it,” so its residents often fend for themselves, Mr. Levine said.
About 20 or so years ago, the JNF decided to establish a small residential community there. “The scenery is so beautiful,” Mr. Levine said. “People can come there to retire, or to write, or to do research.” It’s aimed not only at retirees but also at artists and scholars on sabbatical, he said. “Everyone laughed at the idea. They wondered who would go there. But it’s oversubscribed — it’s an amazing success story.” The town’s called Zuqim, and it is flourishing. “It’s just gorgeous, and you have a gorgeous view of the sunset over Jordan.”
The Arava holds other wonders, human-made as well as natural, he added. “There is a fish farm in the middle of the desert. They’re growing fish in the desert.” And the wife of the mayor of Aravah “is a scientist working at Beer Sheva University to find a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease. That’s what’s going on here, in the middle of the desert.
“These people who live here — they are giants. I want to make these giants visible.”
He remembers it — not only the Arava, but the entire country — as it once was — “It was impossible to go to the Western Wall of the Old City, or to any other part of the Old City,” he said. “The best you could do was to climb up to the bell tower of the Church of Notre Dame, which was on the Israeli side of the border, and look over no man’s land — over the stone city wall, near the Damascus Gate, into a small part of the Old City. That was exactly what I did in 1951. We talked about the Kotel, we saw old pictures of the Kotel, but that was it!”
Mr. Levine hopes to lead a group of travelers to see the Arava as he knows it in late June; he plans on staying in bed and breakfast places instead of hotels, and introducing the visitors to his friends throughout the region, as well as to the work of the Jewish National Fund. The trip will be nonprofit — the goal is to show Mr. Levine’s Israel, as it has changed and grown and adapted over its life as a country.
To learn more about his trip, call Mr. Levine at (917) 587-3687.