The Dying Sea
BY JAY REISS
The first time I left the United States was with my sister on a trip to the Middle East—Israel—the ‘Holy Land.’ Israel is constantly recruiting Jews from around the world to move there. For many Jews who make aliyah (moving ‘back’ to Israel) the birthright program is their first step. While I am grateful to have toured Israel and seen some of the most sacred and contested land in human history, I am not planning to move anytime soon. There is so much that could be said about my time in Israel, so many conflicting thoughts and feelings that could be discussed. But if there were one day that could encapsulate both the beauty and desolation that comprises Israel, it would be the day we visited the Dead Sea.
Israel was the first desert I ever visited. In the days leading up to the Dead Sea, I thought I had seen all that the desert had to offer. There was low-lying shrubbery, chalky-tan dust, direct sunlight, dry air, porous rock, and glow-in-the-dark scorpions that thankfully remained in the dark. But the land around the Dead Sea was different. There was far less plant life, and far more rolling dunes of sand that eventually broke into canyon walls and cliff faces.
We planned to start the day by watching the sunrise atop Mount Masada, an ancient fortress on a mountain overlooking the Dead Sea. The story of Mount Masada is grim or inspirational, depending on how religious you are feeling. Around one thousand people committed suicide so that they would not be captured by the Romans. At least the sunrise was peaceful.
We arrived only ten or fifteen minutes before the sun was scheduled to break the horizon, so naturally we ran up the mountain in ten minutes. The Romans had built most of the path we used. We watched the sun peak its light over the distant mountains as we sat quietly on a stone tower among the ruins. You could not look at the sunrise directly for too long—for obvious reasons—but it painted the sky the most beautiful shades of red, purple, and orange. Our tour guide played pan flute music from his portable speaker.
The sun was welcome only for about the first twenty minutes. After that we began dousing ourselves in sunscreen to prepare for our hike back down the mountain. While our run up the western side of Masada was short, our hike down the eastern side would take around forty-five minutes. We were excited to swim in the Dead Sea and to stop swimming in sunscreen.
Hiking down Mount Masada makes you think about three things. The first is how weak your legs are after walking down hundreds of stone steps. The second is shade. You never truly appreciate shade until you walk through desert in direct sunlight. Growing up in New England only made me vaguely aware of the mercy shade could offer. New England’s heat is generally humid, so the air sticks to you and is uncomfortable no matter where you are. In Israel the air is extremely dry. This makes for a more comfortable heat, until you start noticing the sun’s rays more adeptly. That is when you start looking for shade.
There is no shade on the eastern side of Masada in the morning.
The third thing you think about on the descent from Masada is water. I save this for last because of how important water is to Israel. The country is proud of its innovations in the irrigation and storage of water. We found our first water in Israel at a waterfall.
In the Golan Heights, there is a waterfall tucked in a little ravine and hidden by overhanging trees and plant life. The trail leading to it had a fairly steep drop off to one side and a minefield on the other. Little yellow signs warned of the potential landmines that had been left behind by past wars. The trail sloped down into the ravine until finally turning into bridges that were nailed into rock walls. Water rushed over the dark and protruding rocks while we walked over the water. Traveling the arid hills and low-lying shrubbery, one might never realize a beautiful waterfall and stream cut deep across the land. The water did not want to be found.
But Israel is not brimming with secret water. The water system of modern day Israel has taken a toll on the land, and that is what I learned on our way down Mount Masada and the bus ride to the Dead Sea. Due to a combination of water redirection, mineral extraction, and the lack of rainfall, the Dead Sea is ironically dying. The sea has a salt and mineral content of 34 percent. For comparison, the Ocean is a little less than 4 percent salt. This prevents anything larger than some microorganisms from living in the water, thus giving the sea its name. It is probably best that there are no fish in that water, lest they have to see their sea disappear. It is truly a unique place on Earth, but we are destroying it for water and profit.
Factories line the shore of the Dead Sea to extract the precious minerals in the water. They claim the minerals and salts work wonders on skin. These businesses have even sectioned off parts of the sea with land bridges, as can be seen with a quick search on Google Maps.
Our tour guide gave us some important information on the ride to the beach. The obvious information was that we would float in the water. The high salinity means humans are less dense than the water, thus making us more buoyant. A not-so-obvious tip was to not urinate or pass gas in the Dead Sea. Apparently both actions lead to water finding a way back into one’s body—and the salt hurts. You also cannot shave before swimming, nor put your head underwater for this same reason. There would be too many holes for the water to explore.
To get to the beach where we would swim, we had to pass through a store. A salesman told us about mud creams and mineral pastes we could buy before going in the water. I thought it was odd that they sold products stolen from the Dead Sea to people who were about to go swimming in it. My sister and I did not buy anything. Instead I lathered on sunscreen and went to the water.
Many of us wore our sandals into the Dead Sea so that our feet would not get cut on the crystalline froth that lined the shore and seabed. The Dead Sea feels less like water and more like oil. Walking into the water, you eventually reach a point where it becomes hard to put your foot down, and before you know it your feet flip out from underneath you. The trick is to fall onto your back, rather than face-planting. The Dead Sea gave me a slight ab workout as I hunched my neck forward, making sure not to submerge my ears.
Despite the commercialized skin products and knowledge that we were swimming in one of Earth’s natural wonders that humans were destroying, the experience was truly amazing. This had been the most adventurous trip of my life and floating in the green waters of the Dead Sea, surrounded by desert, was the most beautifully foreign experience I had ever had. Thinking about the Dead Sea feels more like a dream than an actual memory, and it might have felt that way in the moment too if it were not for one thing; Every ten to fifteen minutes a low thundering began to sweep across the water. Everyone would stop what they were doing and look up just in time to witness Israeli fighter jets shoot overhead, roaming up and down the border.
The duality between beauty and desolation, which I believe Israel to be, was revealed in this moment. There is tremendous hate and love. There is desert and oasis. There is peace and fighting. There is great prosperity and suffering. There is destruction of a land that is worshipped by its destroyers. The extent to which humans like something—anything—is often proportional to how much we end up changing that very thing. The Dead Sea is a natural wonder, but it is just as naturally inhospitable. It is a body of water we cannot pretend is meant for us, so we kill it little by little, lest we remember that this land does not want us.