A Crack in the Earth: A Journey up Israel's Rift Valley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
I remember standing atop Masada many summers ago as a wide-eyed sixteen year-old with seventy other wide-eyed sixteen year olds as our guide reminded yet again that the rocks dotting the landscape before us were not ordinary rocks. These rocks tell a story, he insisted, in a manner that other rocks in other places do not. He wanted us to believe that these rocks convey a unique story, an altogether biblical story, a story of perseverance, a story of generations, a story of survival and yearning and hope. Caught between his accent and my own limited attention span (as opposed to between a rock and a hard place), I likely failed to appreciate the breadth of his point, even at Masada, Israel’s rock par excellence.
Perhaps he is a better guide or perhaps I am a more attentive learner now, all of these years later, but Haim Watzman’s A Crack in the Earth, speaks to a great extent to the point that my guide addressed from the top of Masada once upon a time. Presumably a text that provides readers with an informed geological survey of a politically charged land, this book is in the end a compelling though admirably subtle analysis not only of modern Israel and Israelis, but the ways in which Israel and Israelis are and forever have been so intimately tied to the ground on which they live.
We learn for instance that the on-going existence of the Jordan River, long an element of religious and political significance, depends on the ways in which both Israelis and Jordanians contribute to it. In one motion, then, Watzman demonstrates not only how the Jordan itself functions, but the very way in which human partnership above and around the river so greatly matters. Indeed, this book is less about the objects and natural elements that are clearly of such interest to Watzman and more about the interaction that takes place as a result of and for the sake of these objects.
Much of this is to say that what Watzman is doing is telling a story. His protagonist, if he has one, is the Rift Valley, “a crack in the earth’s crust that begins where the Indian Ocean’s waters mix with those of the Gulf of Aden.” This rift has influenced the human narrative for centuries, linking prehistoric Africa to soon-to-be colonized Asia and Europe. Watzman inevitably focuses most specifically on the ever charged section between the Red Sea and the mountains to the north in Syria. While Watzman, an observant Jew and resident of Israel, is in a position to explain the rift in decidedly religious or would-be miraculous terms, reverting to the language of kabbalists and midrashic minds before him, instead he presents a depiction that once and again blends a religious telling and a clear scientific telling.
This story is no doubt his story. He respects the religion of science as he respects the religion of Abraham. “I’m religious,” he notes, “but I’m also a man of science.” It is this narrative that defies pre-packaged definitions and dire over simplification, the account which allows for both certainty and uncertainty, movement and a certain degree of stagnation, that so attracts Watzman and, in the end, the reader. As Watzman notes: “I doubt theories that reduce human behavior to a few simple physical and psychological instincts. The people I know, anyway, are too unpredictable to be explained away so easily“ Perhaps it is his understanding of the ever unsettling predilection to “explain away,” explain away the Palestinian, the Israeli, the observant, the liberal, the conservative, the American, the devout, or the increasingly partisan language the modern day world is learning to speak, which leads Watzman to grant each of us the literal building blocks to think anew of our shared beginnings.
While the geologist will not be disappointed by A Crack in the Earth, nor will the sociologist, anthropologist, theologian, or historian. Watzman, with the most nuanced of turns, brings his readers from the multihued and ever changing grounds of Israel to the multihued and ever changing peoples of Israel. The Judaic covenant after all speaks to the eternal relationship between three specific forces: a God, a Land, and a People. Watzman, a twenty-five year resident of the northern part of the Rift Valley and an Orthodox Jew, would likely be most drawn to the first two elements of this equation, but it seems that he is most fascinated by the people, his people. While at Rachel the Poet’s tomb, he seems more taken by the tomb and a group of students visiting it than he is by the Sea of Galilee before him: “The boys fan out through the cemetery despite their teacher’s attempt to herd them behind the gate…The three young teachers, earnest young men with short black beards, call out, ‘Stay with Yossi he’ll show us around.’”
Watzman’s expression is thus in keeping with that of the Book of Leviticus, which also urges and takes interest in and seeks out a “holy people.” For Watzman the people are the sacred landscape, we learn, even more so than the sea and the mountains are the sacred landscape. And if the rocks, whether they be limestone or granite, whether they be the gravestones of a cemetery in the north or the rock that is Masada in the south, if any of it will have a story, it will be Yossi’s providing it and Watzman’s providing it and our collective providing of it. The challenge of course is not in attempting to harmonize these stories per se, but in allowing for multiple stories, multi-layered stories, even competing stories.
Benjamin David, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College, is the assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai in Roslyn Heights, New York. He is a co-founder of RunningRabbis.com, a non-profit initiative helping Jewish youth to lead healthier lives.