One of my many assignments in the army was patrolling the Arava and the Negev desert from the Dead Sea in the north to the resort town of Eilat in the south, situated at the northern tip of the Red Sea. I loved the desert; I always did. There is something in its vastness, dryness and mysteriousness that have always drawn, enticed and soothed me. Backpacking and riding motorcycles or jeeps in the desert have been a big draw in my life and probably will always be. There were times when we finished our patrol in Eilat. As we arrived, tired and dust-coated from a long, rough day often with searing desert winds, we pointed our jeep straight for the beach. What a joy it was to plunge into the pure, cool, blue waters of the Red Sea. That sensation as I dove deep was a kind of ecstasy.
Then, as a 20 year old, still in the army, I was serving in the occupied Gaza Strip when I found myself, with eight of my soldiers, surrounded by a rapidly advancing, rock throwing crowd of young Gazans. For a split second, I had an out-of-body experience where I saw the scene from high above. In that mystified and astounding instant, I realized the two fateful/calamitous choices I had were to either save our lives by shooting at the young Gazans closing in on us, or to be harmed or even killed by them. Either way lay tragedy. Clearly neither choice seemed right. Thankfully, we were rescued by our troops at the last second; no shots were fired and no one was hurt. At that very moment, I knew that in order not to be confronted with such a situation (which is inherent part of an occupation) ever again, I would have to leave the country I loved, Israel. That day did not come for almost a decade when I went to the US to study.
Thinking back to my growing-up years, and including my military service, I can clearly trace the emergence of my fascination with all kinds of boundaries. A striking early example was when, as a young officer, I served on the remote, barren, but intriguing, Tiran Island, a strategic ‘bare giant rock’ in the Red Sea. My soldiers often referred to me as the “Sheriff of Tiran,” a title they painted on my small wooden ‘home.’ Besides taking care of the basic military duties, I spent much of my time wandering alone around this lifeless speck in the sea with my bare feet, a diving knife strips to my calf and a bathing suit and diving with friendly sharks and huge sea turtles. I found the island to have a profound and complex, spiritual nature. At that time, I was musing about the boundaries between day and night and wondered whether the distinct extreme separation of day and night is an artificial construct created by humans and their ancient cultures, or is it an inherent part of human nature. To satisfy my curiosity – and to the profound dismay of my soldiers – I experimented with inverting day and night by reversing our daily routines and the customary way of life of most humans and many animals living currently on the planet by ordering my soldiers (I was the only officer and highest ranking soldier on the island) to sleep during the day, eat breakfast at sunset, lunch at midnight and dinner at sunrise. While I was quite engrossed by my unorthodox research and the exploration of the nature of Man, I also noticed the resistance and outrage of my soldiers who perceived the experiment as seriously deviant. While not always popular, my questioning ‘common knowledge’ and our immemorial ways of living has been large part of my life story.
After my land-bound military service, I embarked on the life of a sailor aboard a commercial freighter. Joining the Merchant Marine as a cadet, I learned the ways of the sea, the ancient art of navigating by the stars, and the many skills, rites and rituals of seamanship. The ship dropped anchor in such European ports as London and Antwerp – all of them blessedly far from military camps and battlefields! Besides learning the officers’ roles and responsibilities, I found it a most interesting anthropological journey into the life of sailors. On my last trip back to the port of Haifa, a long-simmering, mutual antipathy between the boatswain and me erupted into a ferocious fist fight on an enclosure resembling a boxing ring on the very front deck. As we fought, I had my second out-of-body experience; a part of me seemed to rise up and up to the level of the distant wheelhouse. From there, far below and ahead, I saw these two, tiny figures, like stick figures in a cartoon, ferociously, brutally and meaninglessly fighting each other, with the soft, calm sea around us. It was a singularly odd experience to be simultaneously engaging in the violent, physical fight and also observing the scene from high above, in all its utter senseless stupidity. In that instant, philosophy aside, I realized the two choices I had were to either determinedly defend myself or be thrown overboard, with a good likelihood of drowning. The fight resulted in a broken nose for me and swollen-shut, black eye for him. The senselessness and absurdity of the fight and the out-of-body observing-self stayed with me for a long time. Nonetheless, that sailing experience touched my fate, igniting an abiding interest in the sea which brought me to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where received B.Sc. in chemistry and, more significantly, completed few graduate courses in oceanography, which became my next career.
Over the years, when I have said or done something stupid, someone invariably has replied, “What! Did you hit your head?” Well, yes, actually several times ☺. During my three years of studying in Jerusalem I had the honor of leaving the hospital AMA (Against Medical Advice) several times following emergency hospitalizations, most of which involved motorcycle accidents. I vividly remember one accident when I was coming down from the Mt. Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University on my powerful BMW bike on a Saturday, being knocked backward by a thin, almost invisible, wire that the ultra-orthodox religious Jews (aka. ‘black-hats’) had put across a road that wound down from the Mt. Scopus. The wire, which was strategically placed there to ‘punish’ the ‘non-believers’ who travel on the Sabbath, hit the front of my neck, while the bike continued to go forward, leaving me hanging on the wire by my throat. To this day, I wonder how I survived this accident and how I could leave the hospital against medical advice. (There may be God after all 😃). Similarly, I have been puzzled about how I miraculously survived another accident where I lost my lights on the bike but nevertheless was determined to ride to my ‘not-to-be missed’ basketball practice with my college basketball team. It was dark and rainy and it is no wonder that riding the bike on a narrow, wet road without lights ended up with me being rescued from a deep and flooded ditch by the side of the road at the bottom of one of Jerusalem’s steep slopes. Both incidents, as did some others, ended with AMA departures from the hospital within a few hours of admittance, concussions and all.
As part of me being an oceanographer, I was also a deep-sea diver where I regularly dove the spectacular coral reef in the warm and clear waters (up to 300 feet visibility) amid brilliantly colored fish, turtles and eels. I also dove with sharks in Ras Muhammad off the tip of Sinai next to beautiful and rarely visited or touched coral reef. But most thrilling and risky was adventure-diving (with the standard of air mixture of 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen) the Blue Hole, also known as “The World’s Most Dangerous Dive Site” with the nickname “Diver’s Cemetery” with a depth of over 200 feet (60 meter)! It is estimated that it claimed the lives of 130 to 200 divers in recent years, primarily due to Nitrogen Narcosis.
As I move through this map of my life, motorcycles appear again and again. I was introduced to motorcycles by my father and found riding them not only fun and exciting, but also a cross-generational continuity with my father. I have carried on this tradition with my sons and nephew whom I introduced to the love of riding bikes – a passion we all still share. Back then, in the Sinai, I rode my motorcycle (BMW 1954) which, as always, gave me a sense of boundless freedom and exhilaration.
Sailing in my one-person sailboat on the Red Sea, negotiating the water and wind while gliding on the surface of the sea was another multiple boundary experience. Towing my small sailboat behind my heavy motorcycle, carrying my diving gear on the back of my bike, and parking on the reef, was a superb way to reach remote and exquisite diving and sailing places.
From England, I took a ferry to Holland. On board, I met a young British woman who offered me some ‘real’ English tea on the upper deck of the ferry. We spent the next couple of weeks in the swirl of beautiful, intriguing Amsterdam with its burgeoning, multicolored sub-cultures. It was there that I got a tattoo from a one-legged tattoo artist in a tattoo shop in the famous and infamous Red Light District. Tattoos are very common today, but in 1977, they were still quite rarely seen and, because of an ancient biblical proscription, a very un-Jewish, un-Israeli to do.
My spirit soared during the era when I worked by the Sea of Galilee and the view from my home took in the magical Jordan River Valley. Daily, I made the gorgeous commute to work in Kinneret on my huge, old, classic BMW bike. I was excited to be doing research on ways to promote a huge protein resource from fresh water fish ponds to feed humans all over the planet. I routinely cooled off by swimming in the Sea of Galilee, which added to a delightful way of being. As in many other periods in my life, I felt unbound and free to live, explore, wonder, love, create, imagine and, of course, risk. It was a Friday afternoon when I picked Ganit, my niece (11) and Tal, my nephew (5) at the local tiny airport to bring them up the hill to my Rosh Pina home for the weekend. The fact that I needed to bring both of them to my home on my bike inevitably led to the ‘only’ solution where Ganit sat behind me on the standard passenger seat and Tal, enthusiastically, sat in-front of me, on the prime available seat… the motorcycle’s gas tank. As we were heading slowly up the hill on the curved road toward Rosh Pina, we suddenly saw in the distance a police car slowly zigzagging its way downhill towards us. As was discussed in the ‘pre-ride orientation’ of needing to ‘hide from police’ protocol, Tal leaped off the gas tank into the thorny-prickly-thick bushes on the side of the road where, scratched with some light bleeding, he hid perfectly until the police car went by. The image of Tal jumping from the gas tank into the thorny bushes and being picked up scratched and with some bleeding, yet proud to complete our ride home, has stayed in our collective memories for many years to come.
It was 1978 and I was conducting fish pond research at a lab by the Sea of Galilee. The lab was situated in a uniquely historical and spiritually potent locale. Just a quarter mile to the south was a monument marking the sacred place where Jesus healed Magdalena and Magdalena, according to some, graciously reciprocated and, in her own ‘Magdalena way,’ ‘healed’ Jesus. A quarter mile to the north was the location where Jesus walked on the water and miraculously multiplied two fish and five loaves of barley bread into enough to satisfy 5,000 people with twelve baskets remaining. This is when I met a bright and creative woman, Jean, in Jerusalem and we embarked on a few months of intense, creative and often hilariously creative letter writing (it was 1978, before e-mails and texts). After a few months Jean moved in with me in the gorgeous historic village of Rosh Pina. I was still magically and mysteriously drawn to East Africa. I knew that when I could no longer run my fish pond experiments in the winter when the water temperature in the experimental ponds would dip below 70°F, I would be heading back to East Africa for the summer there. Creative Jean, who could write a good story of any interesting life event, made a habit of coming down to my experimental ponds with a thermometer in hand every few days, precisely and systematically detecting how many degrees were left for our relationships. She regularly announced, in a sad yet sweetly accepting or even romantic tone, “I have 2 degrees left before my relationship with Ofer is over” or “My love with Ofer has barely half a degree left.”