When I meet Beny at the Dead Sea commune, it’s clear he’s in his element. His place to sleep and the fire pit have been expertly crafted. He is draped in a green robe and while Tamar, my daughter Etta and I are completely filthy ten minutes after our arrival, Beny looks as if he’s just showered.
Our guide to the commune splits his time between the Dead Sea and Jerusalem where is both a tour guide and M.A. student in Biblical Studies. He shows us the sinkholes that started to appear a couple of years ago along with the sinking sea level, the fresh water springs that he and the other commune members bathe in, and introduces us to some of the other residents. In the evening he cooks a risotto on the open fire, he washes the vegetables and the plates with sand and pours water from the springs over the ingredients. Then he lights candles, that he places in empty plastic bottles. The sun slowly goes down, we drink red wine out of a bottle, eat the best risotto I’ve ever had, and speak of the comfort of living out in nature, a daily life without money and why some who come here never want to leave.
How did the commune develop?
A lot of people who stay here come to be alone. There are very different people who often have nothing in common. Some of them are friends, some dislike each other. The beauty of this place is it’s diversity and richness off different characters and life stories, that sometimes intertwine and sometimes not. People who consciously chose to leave their previous life to live on the beach, people that feel lost and are trying to find themselves. The population is constantly changing like the Dead Sea, new springs appear, new streams and gorges are formed every month.
What brought you here?
What led me here was a fascination with people that live on the margins of society. I see myself as a person that lives on the fringe of normative social behaviour and every time I visit the beach I am reminded of that.
"The beauty of this place is it's diversity and richness off different characters and life stories... People who consciously chose to leave their previous life to live on the beach."
What was so fascinating? That it was different? That it was possible to live so differently?
I decided to see, ‘How long can I live like this?’ For example, the way people treat the fire is very interesting. Today, for many, a fire is something you put potatoes and marshmallows or just put a lot of wood to see it burn. That’s how most of the people react to fire, as a toy, as something you can’t really use. Here, fire is your main tool. It burns for long hours and you make tea or coffee, breakfast and supper, some light to make the nights nicer, but you never burn it for fun. All the comfort comes from the fire. In fact, I just noticed that in Russian, ‘the home fire place’ is an old word for ‘comfort’.
How would you describe your life at the Dead Sea and your life in Jerusalem? What’s the main difference?
This is actually a funny question because there is nothing in common. I have goals that I am trying to achieve in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem I am in a constant race, I eat my meals with anxiety and usually feel the burden of life there is overwhelming.
"All the comfort comes from the fire. In fact, I just noticed that in Russian, 'the home fire place' is an old word for 'comfort'."
But when you are at the Dead Sea, you don’t feel this burden?
In the Dead Sea, nothing of this exists. The main hardship on the beach is the strange and at times difficult relationships with the other ‘citizens’. The relationships are sometimes hard, and because there is not much to do but talk, all the emotions are sharpened, only after you leave for a while you realise how stupid the fights are.
Do you think that people at the Dead Sea experience their relationships in a more special way than in the city?
Yes. Totally. At the Dead Sea there are no rules. Most of the time you are naked. Of course people still wear masks, but they are so different from the ones that we are used to. For example: you just come to a place of some stranger and without any invitation, you just sit with him for a whole day talking about stuff, usually very private stuff.
Can you explain this more… Do you think we are wear different masks in an urban surrounding than when we are in nature?
Here, people’s first reactions to you are very welcoming and warm. They make you feel that you belong before they know you. Just the fact that you are living together with them on the beach makes you friends. This feeling of immediate acceptance is what attracts me most to these people. But after that, they can tell you in the face very bluntly and hard what they think of you.
How has living here changed you?
My socialising skills got so much better. I can talk about myself now, but I felt that in the city everybody is judging me and trying to see me through a certain frame. I was working so hard to find a place. A place where I can feel more comfortable.
"Here, people's first reactions to you are very welcoming and warm. They make you feel that you belong before they know you."
What is so comfortable about this place to you?
Here, you only think of the pleasures of life: Your greatest challenge is how to make the perfect meal. I like to sit in the dirt, I love its smell, and the smell of fire that is caught in the clothes. I enjoy working with the objects that surround me to make my stay in the nature as comfortable as possible. Every time I return to the city I am reminded how I am disturbed and irritated by urban comfort. I hate restaurants, shops, and watching people walk in clean clothes. I am irritated by people that care about clean hands and are afraid of dirt and insects. Living in nature feels like the greatest comfort.
"I like to sit in the dirt, I love its smell, and the smell of fire that is caught in the clothes... Living in nature feels like the greatest comfort."