Terra Incognita: ‘Mayanot’ nation

Over the past two decades, an interesting subculture around springs has grown here and has been primarily developed by religious Zionist youth.

By
May 26, 2010 15:50
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KKL oasis top. (photo credit: KKL)

One of the most interesting subcultures within Israeli society consists of people who spend their free time hiking to, discovering, cleaning up and relaxing at the hundreds of springs (mayanot) scattered throughout the countryside. This mayanot culture consists of people of all ages and backgrounds, but is primarily made up of young men and women from a national-religious (those modern Orthodox Jews who wear the crocheted kippot) persuasion. One Facebook group devoted to mayanot has more than 18,000 members.

Strictly speaking, a spring is anywhere that water flows to the surface of the earth from below. In the land of Israel, springs have historically been connected to settlement, especially in places where water is scarce, such as the Negev. It is not a surprise that they appear in the Bible. Isaac met Rebecca by a spring. God promised the people of Israel a land “of springs and underground water coming forth in the valley and mountain.” David wrote in Psalms of the Lord who “turned the hard rocks into springs of water.” The New Testament records that John the Baptist was born in the village of Ein Kerem, named after the spring there.

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During the British Mandate, famous springs were a subject of newspaper articles. The Palestine Post included numerous discussions of the beauty of Wadi Kelt east of Jerusalem, and descriptions of the “the secret of Ein es-Shifa” – the only spring to exist inside the Old City walls.

HOWEVER THE subculture that has grown over the past 20 years around mayanot, especially in the hilly central part of the country, has primarily been developed by religious Zionist youth. It has led to the rediscovery and renovation of dozens of springs by environmentally conscious people who enjoy finding obscure untrammeled spaces where they can make a cup of coffee on their gazia and meet new friends. It has also spurred the publication of several books for those who want to see as many springs as possible (Azriel Yehezkel’s Mayanot Bahar and Moshe Kosta’s El Hamayan). The culture has also appeared in the hit TV series Srugim.

Springs are ubiquitous, but are most common in the central highlands. They are rare in the Negev, but the ones that do exist are quite large. In the area around Jerusalem, there are more than 57 well-known springs. Most have been altered in some way by man over the years, such as Ein Kubi, Ein Hemed and Ein Meta, which had buildings built over or near them during the Roman or Crusader periods. A series of mayanot near the Arab Christian village of Aboud, over which Muslims and Christians have some sort of dispute, has been turned into swimming pools and admission is charged. Over the years many springs have disappeared due to development or changes in underground water flows, and some have been rediscovered and renovated, such as Ein Kef near Khirbet Al Luz.

BUT THE mayanot subculture has not been without its controversies, conflicts and politicizations. When Raja Shehadeh, scion of a Christian Arab Jaffa (now Ramallah based) family, published Palestinian Walks in 2007, he was attempting to reclaim a “vanished landscape” for Palestinians. His book prompted rave reviews in the Guardian and the Economist, the latter of which wrote angrily: “It is something of an irony that a land whose timeless beauty has survived basically unchanged since biblical times is being transformed by a people who base their claim to it on biblical history.”

However, Shehadeh’s narrative admits to numerous peaceful encounters with “settlers” at springs, no matter how much he wants the reader to believe otherwise. Upon witnessing a Jewish woman praying at a mayan he writes: “It was a flattering sight: Here was someone who appreciated my land so much.”

This coexistence story at a spring reminds one of the coexistence meetings that take place at Ein Hania near the Jerusalem railroad along the Green Line.

In 2005 Gili Sofer, a journalist, claimed that Wadi Kelt, whose nature reserve receives more than 60,000 visitors a year, was going to be “physically destroyed” by the building of the security barrier – a claim that turned out to be untrue. Politics hasn’t only intruded at Wadi Kelt. At Nabi Saleh a weekly demonstration has begun against the supposed “annexation” of a spring by Jews from Halamish. Around four months ago Israeli anti-Israel activists and “internationals” from Europe showed up in the Arab village of Nabi Saleh and began agitating. It is not clear what sparked the controversy. According to someone familiar with the situation, the spring had often been shared by local Jews and Arabs until outsiders arrived and began protesting.

Another strange story concerns the spring of Ein al-Habis, located inside the gates of the St. John in the Desert Monastery near Jerusalem. Gil Zohar, writing in the Toronto Times, claimed this “most serene holy place” was ruined when “fanatic” Jews began to invade the monastery grounds, women bathed “immodestly” in bikinis and men wearing kippot went on a “mini-pogrom” and vandalized the site. The improbable story is apparently exaggerated, or the writer got the details confused.


The springs themselves are not free from overregulation by the government. Rumors abound that the middle section of Wadi Kelt will soon have an entrance fee attached (the upper portion already does). At Ein Avdat National Park in the Negev, swimming is forbidden. The logic behind the restriction is that a pool exists containing an ecosystem that might be harmed by human “chemicals.”

That seems like nonsense considering it is people who erected a small dam in front of the spring in the first place to create the pool.

Despite some controversy here and there, the mayanot subculture is one of Israel’s finest modern expressions of man’s communing with the landscape. It represents a continuation of the Jewish return to the land, and it is a culture that attracts not only fine individuals but also the best sort of behavior, such as respect for the environment, cleaning up after oneself and meeting strangers who share a similar interest.

The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.


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