Israel’s Starry, Starry Night

The first time I visited Israel in 1979, Sadat and Begin signed the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The announcement came over the radio while I sat on the ground near lush grapefruit trees and drank coffee poured from a thermos, on break from picking the yellow fruit. The Israelis who listened to the news with me responded with weary skepticism, “We’ll see what this means.”

The first time my daughter visited Israel on our family trip this February, Egypt was again taking a momentous step as the people of Egypt forced out Mubarak and demanded greater freedom. The Israelis we met along the way again expressed skepticism, “We’ll see how this plays out.”

And while the calls of democracy that began in Tunisia and Egypt and spread to Libya suggested a seeming realignment of longheld stars, during our stay in Eilat, in the south of Israel, my husband, daughter and I, along with a group of other families, saw the Israeli night sky in its full array of comforting constellations, the stars in place in their trusted positions.

A friend had organized the trip through Dark Sky Safari with guide Eitan Schwartz who brought his telescope to a site outside the mountains of Eilat. He spread out blankets so we we could lie down and see the sky. He also brought a powerful, green laser pointer that traced a direct line to the stars in their patterns. 

There blinked Orion, the Big Dipper, Dog Star, and the Pleiades. But this being Israel, the stars did not remain the province of sailors or Greek myth for long before a reference to Jews and Judaism surfaced.

“People have told me not to point at the stars on the boardwalk of Eilat because it’s bad luck,” he said. “And that comes from descendants of Conversos during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. If seen gesturing to the night sky, they would be labeled as Jews seeking the first three stars signifying the end of Shabbat and sentenced to death.”

Then Eitan paused. “I hope to show you Saturn tonight.”

But clouds stayed over the part of the sky where Saturn would appear.

“I just saw a shooting star,” my husband said.

A few minutes later a friend said, “I saw one, too!”

I lay on the blankets, my jacket pulled tight to keep out the chill, and watched more stars come into focus as my eyes adjusted. Our sky visit was coming to a close, we’d have to forgo any more forays into space. I stood. Slowly, we began to drift toward the waiting car that would take us back to our rooms.

“Wait! There’s Saturn,” Eitan called. With deft movements, he maneuvered the telescope into position. “Come see.”

And one by one, we walked back and climbed the short ladder to look into the lens. Saturn glowed in full view, complete with its trademark ring.  The clouds had parted to bring the cosmos close, the possibilities of the universe within reach in the Middle East.

–Bonnie Beth Chernin