And Joseph went after his brethren, and found them in Dotan.(Genesis 37:17)
This is a personal interest story about a 10-K race. Ostensibly an ordinary race that is located in the West Bank settler village of Dotan turns out to be a discovery of brotherhood unlike any other, built out of respect and love, where brothers and the Givati Brigade will always watch each other’s back.
The other day, I was in Khadera, waiting for a bus to make me to an ordinary race in a place called Mevo Dotan. Also waiting, sitting next to me were three soldiers. They were young, but had a tough look and they all wore a battle ribbon on their chests. I saw from their shoulder patch that they belonged to the Givati Brigade, an elite battle-hardened infantry unit. Maybe this race was going to be not so ordinary.
I had signed up for a 10 kilometer race, about 6 ¼ miles. Ostensibly, no big deal, but it turned out for me to be a big deal, on a couple of different levels. I’m an experienced runner. I probably started jogging or running back in 1982 when I was living in Southfield, Michigan. And I have been doing that ever since…5-K’s, 10-K’s and all of the way up to half marathons, my limit.
One of the things that made this race different was the setting: we started from the village of Mevo Dotan which is located in the northern Shomron or if you will, Samaria or if you are of another mindset – the West Bank, and according to the Oslo Accords II of 1995, Area C of the disputed territories.
Area C comprises about 60 percent of the West Bank and is entirely under Israeli control. But in and amongst Area C are the Palestinian Areas A and B. Area A is completely controlled by the Palestinian Authority and is verboten to Israelis. When you leave the confines of Mevo Dotan this is the kind of warning sign one sees; for a newcomer to the Territories it is chilling.
Mevo Dotan sits on top of a hill top. About 300 people live there, maybe 60 families, religious and secular. Because of this mix of customs and traditions it was interesting to see how the community worked out an area of Halacha, Jewish Law in regard to their swimming pool.
I arrived early and it was hot, approaching 90 degrees, so I was directed to the swimming pool to take a dip in the pool. However, when I got there, I was told that entrance to the pool for me would have to wait another two hours because now the pool was reserved only for women, no mixed gender swimming until then.
Disappointed but undeterred, I asked at the concession stand if they sell any beer. “Sure, a half liter of Heinekens for 15 shekels”, said the manager. I’m easy; that’s a very good price, about four dollars for an imported ice cold 17 ounce can and plastic cup and some sliced pickles…anything to maintain my moisture balance and stay hydrated. That’s very important.
About two hours before race time I went back to the village center and saw that the small, no frills synagogue had been opened. I went inside. It was lovely; it was welcoming; it was “haymish” as they say in Yiddish. I picked up a prayer book and davened Minchah, the afternoon prayer… what a glorious feeling.
Like I said, I’ve been to many races. One of the very best for me is a 5 mile race in Brooklyn hosted by a boy’s Catholic high school. I love that race, but no Minchah there, and no Minchah anywhere else other than in Israel in this beautiful little shul in northern Samaria, a place considered illegal by the world community except for us Israeli Jews.
There were about 350 participants in the race, most of whom were soldiers. Many races are begun with the bang of a starter’s pistol. What would they do here I wondered? Then I’m thinking, silly boy, if this group hears a gunshot everyone will dive for cover.
When it comes to races, I have a peculiar superstition, which I do not ordinarily share with others, but with you I will make an exception. When you sign up for a race you are given a bib with a race number that serves as your ID. I always try to make my race number into a lucky number, sort of like a good luck charm or a talisman. There is a Jewish mystical way of doing this that has to do with transforming the numbers into words that may have a special meaning. My bib number was the numeral “2”.
At first I was stymied and did not know what to make of it. Then it came to me: In Hebrew the numeral 2 is the equivalent to the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the letter “bais”. The first sentence in the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, starts with the letter bais, “In the Beginning…” This was a definite winner and a good omen for what surely was to come. In any event it put a smile on my face.
The race was scheduled to begin at 6:15 PM, but for some reason close to the scheduled start we were told that there would be a one hour delay. This delay was not a good thing for the assembled runners. For one thing, before the start of a race your adrenaline starts going, and our bodies would have to be revved up again. And then there was the consideration of running in complete darkness, an issue for the slower runners like me.
In the interim we gathered in small groups, schmoozing or for the more young and zealous, doing calisthenics and stretching to burn off some of that nervous prestart energy and tension. One of the runners looked at my bib number and commented: “I see that you are sheini (numeral 2), but where is rishon (numeral 1)?” I told him that I didn’t know, but pointed to shlishi (numeral 3) who was a short distance away. He kept looking at my number and said: “Ah, the letter bais as in the start of the Book of Genesis. It is a lucky number. Mazel tov. This blew me away. Here I was with a perfect stranger, who without batting an eye made the same calculation as I had done. Then it dawned on me; I’m in Israel with a bunch of other Jews, and we are not perfect strangers; we are brothers.
By now it was towards dusk and a little bit cooler, and time to gather at the starting line. The race manager without further adieu wished us luck, and off we go, racing through the village, mothers and children wishing us luck with words of encouragement. At 75 years of age, I was the oldest and pretty close the slowest of all the runners. It only took a couple of minutes to find myself at the back of the pack which had quickly disappeared from view.
We ran through the village gate with the imposing warning sign on to a two lane road, running in a westward direction to another settlement village called Hermesh where the race will end. Midway between the starting point here at Mevo Dotan lay the small Arab village of Imreihah. There were water stops at two kilometer intervals, protected by the IDF. And always behind the pack you hear the rumbling of Land Rover size military vehicles, another layer of protection.
For the majority of the race I was running mostly myself kind of eerie, sometimes with a couple of other stragglers as the sun set and evening was fast approaching. At every water stop there were well wishers; “Kol kavod”; all honor they cried. I would take the proffered cup of water, rinse my parched mouth and pour the remainder over my head; the heat was sucking me dry. Would I finish the race or would the race finish me?
Now it was night and there was oncoming traffic, sparse to be sure, but oncoming nevertheless. Because of the shoulder’s unevenness I never left the road despite the traffic. Once I stumbled on a reflector that marked the edge of the road, but luckily regained my balance…damm this darkness.
We reached the Arab village of Imreihah. Here there were hills, and they were a killer. I had not trained for hills, shame on you idiot, protested my aching thighs. The architecture was distinctly different as was the donkey droppings. Here there were no well wishers urging us on. But sullen faces, wishing we were gone, and not to happy to see the military escort…life in the Territories. The reaction of oncoming traffic was also different. At Imreihah cars sporting distinctive Palestinian blue and white license plates pulled over and stopped, not because of me, but because of the firepower behind me.
At one point I passed a dozen or so soldiers in full battle dress who gave words of encouragement. Boy, did that sound good. But in retrospect, I should have been giving them words of encouragement. I don’t know what they were doing out there, but it was not to take a pleasant stroll in the park.
The race concluded at Hermesh. I was elated. There was plenty of water, popsicles and apples. I was drenched in my own perspiration and sucked down a couple of bottles of water in short order. For two more hours my mouth was dry and I kept on drinking. On the train ride back to Nahariya, my home, I got to thinking: Joseph went to Dotan to find his brothers, and that is just what I did. I also found my brothers and more in Dotan…Baruch Hashem.