Turquoise and target practice

Jewish self-defense in the Arizona desert with Wolf Tours, a desert-exploration workshop.

dune buggy 88 224 (photo credit: MASADA SIEGAL)
dune buggy 88 224
(photo credit: MASADA SIEGAL)
The semi-automatic was too heavy for me to hold it and stand simultaneously, so I found myself sprawled, instead, on the desert floor, peering through the gun's sights, wondering what in heaven's name I had gotten myself into. Squinting my eyes and aiming, I locked onto the trigger and pulled, surprising myself with the sound. The gun, which had been nestled in my armpit, sent shudders down my body. Acrid dust danced madly around me and empty popping sounds echoed in the distance. I looked up to see if I had hit my target. No such luck. "Are you focusing?" A voice barked at me from overhead. It had to be Zev. "Do it again - this time three successive shots in a row." Again I aimed and released, breaking the quiet with my bullets. Pop. Bang. Boom. Zev leaned over again, more gently. "I don't mean to be too tough on you," he said, "but I think the Jewish people are the most targeted people on the planet. So it's my desire to see my people learn to defend themselves." He patted my shoulder and stepped back. Thanks, I thought. As long as there's no pressure or anything. Zev, otherwise known as Zev Nadler, is the founder of Desert Wolf Tours, an Arizona-based desert-exploration workshop that combines touring, teaching and tearing it up in Tomcars, $22,000 Israeli-developed all-terrain vehicles. Visitors also learn how to use firearms - hence the semi-automatic lodged in my arms. (Think Mission Impossible meets Jurassic Park.) Nadler, a Michigan native who was denied entrance into the IDF because of blindness in one eye, sees it as his mission to teach American Jews how to protect themselves. And, even though the tour attracts diverse participants - from high-level business executives on team-building outings to tourists at the nearby Scottsdale resorts - the Jewish groups get the inside scoop on Nadler, a peace-loving but gun-toting Kabbalistic warrior, unafraid to say what he thinks about Israel and its neighbors. Three hours into my latest adventure, we had been building up to this part - the gun part - and I was more than ready. After all, I come from a family of fighters. My maternal grandfather fought in Israel's War of Independence and my paternal grandfather, who fought for Germany during World War I, was awarded an Iron Cross for bravery - a rarity for anyone, let alone a Jew. My parents both served as well - my mother in Israel, my father in the States. So shooting off a couple of rounds in the desert seemed almost like a family hazing exercise. And, with nothing else to amuse myself that particular Thursday in May, I thought it could be fun. Like going to a rifle range, only without all the rules. Turns out, I wasn't too far off. The tour began around 10 a.m., when Zev offhandedly tossed me the keys to the Tomcar. I got into the driver's seat, noted the arsenal of ammo in the trunk and wondered more than casually if triple-checking its security was enough. Don't worry, I told myself, they're not loaded. Still, I noticed I was gripping the steering wheel a little harder. But there was Zev, of course, smiling as though nothing were wrong. "It drives like a regular car," he said, grinning broadly. "You'll be fine." Right. I can't imagine why I had ever thought differently. Zev then handed out bandanas to cover our faces against the desert dust, and I felt like the star in some Hollywood western, my posse of cowboys sitting awkwardly around me. Beside me sat Zev, the man of the hour, wearing jeans, a military-style vest and a baseball cap, looking half nature, half rabbi. Behind me was Greg, another visitor. The three of us buckled our seat belts, I said a quick prayer for our lives and we took off. The Sonoran Desert is breathtakingly beautiful. Filled with colonies of saguaros (tall cacti with many arms) and crisp blue skies, it was the kind of thing you could look at forever without getting bored. We drove for a while at around 30 km/h, Zev indicating when I should speed up or slow down and me rather shocked by how simple it was to maneuver this thing. We passed over rocky crevices and dried-up rivers, driving slightly sideways at times - but I was enjoying myself. This is good, I thought. See? I can handle anything. Our first stop was a turquoise mine. Inactive, of course - no canaries here - but visitors are free to dig around outside of it and collect whatever treasures they chance upon. And I'll admit it: While the adventurous side of me was in high gear, guns and all, the girly side was ecstatic. (After all, turquoise is a girl's best friend, right?) I picked through the rocks with my hands and found a few bits, quickly stuffing them in my back pocket. Zev couldn't help but laugh. "Come on," he said, waving me over. "We have lots more to do today." He was right. Mining trip over, Zev took us to a ghost town called Gillette, directly outside of which lies Soldier Fort. As we climbed toward it, Zev asked me if I wanted to make a blessing over the desert landscape. Without waiting for my response, he started chanting in Hebrew. It shouldn't have surprised me; it turns out Zev studies Kabbala at the fort, too. "I watch my video classes from Bnei Baruch [a Kabbala center] right over here," he said, pointing at a ledge overlooking the valley. "It's a beautiful place to get closer to Hashem [God]." I could see why. We were standing in a postcard. Quiet winds slapped our faces, and around us, for miles on each side, sand and rock mixed with low-lying cactus plants and shocking bursts of red, yellow and orange flowers. In the distance were hazy bluish mountains. It was easy to feel inspired and at peace here. Which was why, as Zev jolted us out of our reverie and whisked us off to the next part of our journey, I was a little sad. How could we go off and practice shooting now? But Zev was like a little boy, excited to pull out the M-4A3. "It's like learning CPR," he said, referring to self-defense. "You hope you never have to use it, but it's a good thing to know." I agreed - after all, why else was I here? - and nervously listened to his instructions on how not to kill myself or anyone else in the vicinity. Around us I could see thousands of bullet casings littering the desert floor. Apparently this was some unofficially designated spot for target practice. I picked out a spot for myself behind the parked Tomcar, having no desire to be anyone's missed target. Pretty soon, people around me were beaming with excitement. And then it was my turn. I have to confess: While I may like imagining I'm a super strong and sexy secret agent, trying it out with the Glock 17 Zev handed me was quite another matter. The Glock 17 is a 9 mm. handgun, grayish and black and powerful, but much lighter than I'd expected. Truth be told, it looked like a toy. I took it gingerly and began to shoot - surprised at how comfortable it felt in my hands. Soon I was grinning at myself. Hey! I thought. I can do this! Next stop, NYPD Blue. But as I fiddled with my headset and aimed again at my target, I found my mind wandering. What would it be like to hold one of these every day and not to know, in the back of your mind, that this is only a trip, a desert tour with an end in sight and a hot shower to make it all go away? Was this a taste of how it felt to be in the army? Holding power like this in your hands and knowing that a country's freedom depends on you? And, if we all were able to learn this - self-defense, that is - would things be different? Might Europe's Jews have been able to protect themselves and thereby avoid the death camps? Ask any Israeli about the importance of self-defense, and he'll wonder how you can even ask the question. History and victory are always on the side of knowledge and power. I couldn't help but give Zev a mental nod: Self-defense is too important to consider it a luxury. I may not be an expert - may not ever come close, in fact - but now at least I know how to use a gun. And, what's more, I'm not afraid of doing so. It's like Zev says: "I wish there were no guns in the world, but until there are no guns, I want to know how to use one - and teach everyone I love how to use them." www.desertwolftours.com.