Netivot: Looking to be a serious contender

The pioneering mentality is still very much a part of the identity of all inhabitants of Netivot.

Artist Michael Elkayam working in his studio, with his latest work (photo credit: ANNA NAGEL)
Artist Michael Elkayam working in his studio, with his latest work
(photo credit: ANNA NAGEL)
Netivot, a sweltering city and a pilgrimage site that thousands flock to each year, is known for its traditional, spiritual foundation. Netivot, though, wants to be a multifaceted, bustling location brimming with culture and modernity, a serious contender among the other big cities in Israel.
It has gained nationwide stature mainly as the home and now grave of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, fondly dubbed the Baba Sali, a renowned Jewish mystic. The city’s roots are unusual in that the original settlers were deeply religious, traditional immigrants from North Africa, mainly Morocco and Tunisia.
Yet the Netivot of today sports malls, sleek high-rises interspersed with bare stretches of desert, charming redroofed homes, a music conservatory, and a detailed plan to build a park in the center of the city. On its 60th anniversary, Netivot’s cultural attractions cause one to wonder how the Netivot of yesteryear – a transit camp in the center of an arid expanse of desert – was transformed into the sprawling, leafy city it is today.
“My grandfather was an artist who lived here. My brother is an artist; my daughter is an artist. I use my art to connect to my roots, where I come from.
My Moroccan and my Jewish heritage are both felt most strongly here, in Netivot,” says Michael Elkayam.
Elkayam, an artist, is also a pioneer in a city of pioneers. Much like the city of Netivot, he is trying to connect something ancient and profound to something fresh and modern.
“My pieces have motifs that tie the Jewish people to this ancient tradition,” explained Elkayam. “Symbols of hope and peace... bright colors.”
For being in the middle of the desert, Elkayam’s work, surprisingly, is not the only colorful spot. Walking through the city, I pass walls painted with bright murals, flowering scarlet and fuchsia hedges and gently swaying palm trees.
A welcome blast of air conditioning hits me as I walk into the Aroma Café in the center of Netivot and note the striking diversity of the other coffee-drinkers: Ethiopian immigrants, a veteran Israeli couple, two religious women – one holding a gurgling, chubby baby – and a small cluster of people speaking rapid- fire Russian.
This Aroma seems to be a microcosm of the city. Netivot has 35,000 inhabitants of all different stripes and colors.
Though the religious community is no longer the majority, streets named after famous rabbis reveal that the traditional backbone is still evident.
“We want to be known for more than the Baba Sali,” explains Benny Cohen, the municipal spokesperson for Netivot.
“But this foundation is still very important to who we are.”
The Baba Sali’s grave is surprisingly active in the middle of a sweltering Tuesday afternoon. A family dressed in white crowds into the small hallway area, singing and dancing in a circle around a bashful child of three who is getting his first haircut in a ceremony known as an upsherin.
A water tower gracefully emerges from a landscape of gently rolling hills near the entrance of the town. For as long as most people have known it, it was just that – a water tower. Netivot is changing, however, and so is the water tower.
Several years ago, the community came together to paint a mural symbolizing the diversity in Netivot, weaving its past into its present. The water tower became a community mural, replete with digital art that children can access with any smartphone to learn more about the history of Netivot.
“We wanted something that would be able to bring us all together and bring our history into the present for the young people here,” explained Alisa Dadon, the parks coordinator in Netivot.
And in fact, the community initiative is striking in Netivot; programs span the spectrum. There are more than just a few movers and shakers in the community; rather, every person here is a leader in his or her own way.
Rachel Azoulay, one of the founders of a cooking group that is designed to help women from all over the area employ their cooking expertise in a catering business, describes the thought behind this mission.
“We wanted to do something that would bring women together and help us learn from each other,” she explains.
“Food is a way to do this.”
Azoulay brought out dish after dish to a table already covered with sumptuous food: Moroccan salmon with stewed peppers and chickpeas, melt-in-your-mouth lamb, succulent meatballs, and fragrant couscous were only a few of the dishes that transported the table to ancient Casablanca or Tunis.
The pioneering mentality is still very much a part of the identity of all inhabitants of Netivot.
“When we have an idea or when we see that something needs to get done, we go for it ourselves,” said Nathan Rubin later that day at the Azoulay home over a table groaning with food.
Rubin, who serves as director of youth services and education for the Municipality of Netivot, explains: “The pioneers who first came here came to nothing. They thought they would be settled in Jerusalem, but instead were placed here,” and gesturing expansively, continues, “it was the middle of the desert; they had little to no supplies. And they managed to turn it into this.”
Though Netivot is a place that has struggled with unemployment and missile attacks from Gaza in the past, a place that is stigmatized as a one-trickpony town, in fact, on its 60th anniversary, Netivot’s journey reveals a compelling narrative of sheer willpower and a poignant refusal to stop expanding and believing in itself.
Netivot is the place where mysticism lives next door to modernity, the place where people of different backgrounds come together to share food and culture, the place where people strive and Women pray at the gravesite of the Baba Sali. thrive in the heat of the desert.