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(photo credit: YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO)
If you were looking for a prototype for the perfect Israeli earth mother, Chava Dagan, 34, would be a good place to start.
"I'm an alternative kind of person," Dagan says. "Whatever it is, I want the alternative."
In a way, that mindset contributed to her decision to visit Israel and then to stay and make aliya during Rosh Hashana in 1996. "I'd never been to Israel before, and I was curious," she says.
In practice, Dagan's "alternative" compulsion flows through everything she does. She's not only a talented "do-it-myself" seamstress, knitter, painter, crafter and all-around handywoman who obviously embraces alternative health care, diets and homeopathy, but she pushes well beyond that. Dagan gave birth to her three children at home and now home-schools them in a classroom she designed herself. She tends a huge organic garden, three horses and newly-acquired goats, intended for a cheese-making venture as soon as they have a kid.
During Hanukka, her health food store - Tevet - had its grand opening in this sparsely-populated agricultural region that's never before seen such a thing. And of course the Dagan home is not only strictly kosher, organic, vegan and wheat-free, but Dagan herself, for years, has eaten only raw food. In her spare time, Dagan's a community activist, educating people about a local chemical plant. She also wrote a book, published in 2004 in both English and Hebrew. Mother's Pearls: The Revival of Parenthood is an inspirational how-to and resource text on natural parenting and natural living.
And to think it all began in Sri Lanka.
"I was born in Philadelphia but moved to San Diego when I was just a year old," Dagan says. "I grew up knowing nothing at all about Judaism. Originally, my family came from Russia, and for my parents, Judaism was just not part of their lives.
"Neither my brother nor I had bat/bar mitzvas, and for Pessah, my mother would bake a big loaf of bread. They weren't angry or hostile toward Judaism, they just didn't know. I went to college, got a BA in psychology from the University of Oregon and then joined the Peace Corps. That's where everything started to come together for me. In terms of how much I learned and grew, those two years were the best of my life. It was phenomenal."
Conditions in Sri Lanka were primitive, and Dagan received the traditional Peace Corps treatment. "They pretty much drive you out into the jungle, drop you off, and say, 'See you in two years,'" she says. "I built my own mud hut, killed maybe 50 snakes, several cobras, because they kept coming in through the cracks looking for a warm place to sleep - like my bed. I was part of an agricultural team, and we tried to teach the natives something about growing food. The most important part, though, was just living with them, exchanging cultures. At the end of the two years, we'd succeeded in bringing electricity into the village. That meant they could refrigerate their milk and sell it, which in turn meant that roads were built. It changed their lives."
But it was Dagan's life that changed the most. "I was in Sri Lanka when [Yitzhak] Rabin was shot," she says. "Everyone was asking me about it, because they knew I was Jewish. But I didn't know anything, not even who he was. All of this started to change when my grandparents began mailing me all kinds of Jewish materials - inspirational books, Shabbat candle holders and even a Torah. I had plenty of time to think and to read. In Sri Lanka I discovered God and Judaism."
"I came home from Sri Lanka, suffered culture shock and stayed around my parents' home for just a few days. I was restless, so I took off in my truck and traveled all over the US. Finally I decided to check out Israel. The plan was just to visit Israel, not to stay."
"I started working at several horse ranches," Dagan says. "At one of them, I met my husband Shalom, who's from the center of the country. We got married and bought a big house in the center, one that had an equally big mortgage. It was horrible. We were both miserable. We started looking for something more rural and more progressive, and finally found Moshav Dekel in the Southwest Negev. We just fell in love with the whole community."
The home the Dagans found was affordable because it was a foreclosure. It has a finished first floor, but the second floor remains just cement blocks and a roof. "Maybe someday we'll complete it, and rent it out," Dagan says.
With four bedrooms and a bright, open kitchen, the home is a living art form. Everything is painted or tiled in warm Mediterranean colors, and walls are embellished with mosaics, colorful paintings and weavings. The real attraction is the outdoor area which houses all the animals, the garden, an under-construction swimming pool, the separate "Learning Room" which serves as the school house, and all the craft projects too large to bring indoors.
"The baby - 18-month-old Negev - and I get up before the sun at 4:30 or 5," Dagan says. "The other two - Isaiah, seven, and Keinaan, five - get up around 5:30, with my husband. First we go out and feed all the animals, then have breakfast. My husband goes off to work, and the children and I go to the Learning Room and start with lots of reading, books on all kinds of things. In the afternoons, we do projects - hammering, building, making things or working in the garden, where they plant and then pick their own vegetables and berries. Living like we do, we don't need a schedule. In the evenings, Shalom comes home for dinner, and then we read or I work on some craft project."
"When we first met, Shalom spoke only English to me. I started ulpan twice, but felt I was wasting time, so I dropped out. I really started learning when I had the children. They learned, and I did, too. I'm fluent for everyday life. I didn't translate my own book - that would have been beyond me."
Living expenses are relatively low in the Negev, and Shalom Dagan owns his own business, a trucking and auto transport operation, in which he works long hours. With Chava's new store opening, additional expenses were incurred, but they have high hopes for the business, not only that it will be financially successful, but that it will also become a community center, a place where lectures and classes can take place, artists and other craftsmen can congregate.
"Everybody knows me," Chava says, laughing. "These are small moshavim, and we know each other. That said, we're out of the normal social loop in many ways. Since our kids are not in school, we don't have school friends, any of us. We're just very different people, with a totally different outlook on life than most others. That's something else that I hope will grow out of the store. We can meet other people who think like we do. I know they're there - we just haven't had a place to meet."
"Thanks to my grandparents who kept me supplied with good books while I was in Sri Lanka, I became religious. We keep Shabbat, we're kosher. There is a synagogue here, although it rarely gets a minyan. They used to call my husband to come, but even when he went, they still didn't have a minyan. Maybe with the influx of new people coming that will grow, too."
"The big thing was to open the store. That should be the start of many things. When I first came here three years ago, I was overflowing with plans. I was going to teach gymnastics, aerobics and dance - and then I discovered they didn't want what I had to offer. I was too new, still an outsider. But now I've been here awhile - I'm not a newcomer anymore. I hope some of our ideas will catch on, and that the things we're doing here can benefit the whole area."
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