Mud made me stay in Israel

By Matt Rees, June 20, 2014
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I cancelled my plans to quit Israel last week. Not for the first time. I came here intending to stay three months. This week I'll mark my 19th year in Jerusalem.

My wife and I had planned to take the kids off to her native New York this month, to live in a leafy suburb by the Hudson River with all the predictability and convenience of American life.

At the last minute we changed our minds. My lackadaisical attitude toward planning may have had something to do with that. But it was also because Israel exerts an entirely unexpected pull on me as a creative artist.

I've written fiction since I was a kid in Wales. But I only found the material to make it work in Jerusalem.

Israelis seem more open to alternative therapies

At first that was through the compelling stories of people living under extreme circumstances. During the intifada I wrote about Israelis and Palestinians as correspondent for the US magazine Time. Listening to them - feeling along with them - gave me a lesson in how to write fiction. Only when you get inside the head and heart of a character can you write a good novel, and the best way to learn to do that is to sit with people who desperately need to open up their traumatised souls and be understood.

From that material I wrote my crime novels about Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef. The Bethlehem Murders won the Crime Writers Association award for a first novel. The subsequent books won prizes in the US and France.

But I didn't stay here to write. I could have done that anywhere, as I already had the material for the books. I considered living in Tuscany to write my novels about the intifada without the tensions and annoyances of life in Israel.

It seemed like an easy decision. I'm not Jewish and, though my wife is, she assumed Italy would offer certain compensations for missing out on kosher supermarkets and excellent hummus.

Yet we didn't go. Because of Israel's thriving culture of alternative health and spirituality.

Behind the superficial news coverage of "the conflict," journalists miss out on the openness with which so many Israelis embrace what to Brits would seem very airy-fairy concepts of the soul and uncomfortably candid emotionality.

My first exposure to this side of Israel was through Dr Dina Wyshogrod, who runs mindfulness meditation courses in Jerusalem to help cope with the stresses of life in an occasionally dangerous place.

Then I found Chaya Bracha Adelson, who narrates her fabulous classes at Flow Power Yoga with talk about a connection between spirit and body that would be embarrassingly New Age back home-even to a yogi.

Israel seems to have the power to bring out a softer side in people.

Yes, I wrote "softer"-not what you expect from Israelis, I know. Friends who immigrated from London, and whom I expect back home would've scoffed at alternative medicine, swore that their acupuncturist was the only one who could cure their migraines.

My acupuncturist Ilana took me along to a workshop in "family constellations."

It's a Zulu technique for resolving difficulties in our current life that emerge because of things that happened to our ancestors. It's practised around the world, but in Israel it's a phenomenon. I rarely have had to explain what it is to an Israeli. In the UK I'm yet to meet anyone who's heard of it.

And then there was Emile, who cured my son's pneumonia by massaging his jaw.

An osteopath and healer in Jerusalem, Emile realised that when I dropped the boy on his chin it created an obstruction to his natural breathing and consequently a lung infection that was resistant to antibiotics (and to treatment by the kind of doctors who wear white coats and don't listen to you.)

Emile also got rid of a cyst on my baby's anus by telling me to rub it with Ahava Dead Sea mud facial scrub. Turns out it's a miracle cure.

Now that I think of it, maybe the mud is another unconventional reason for me to stay in Israel.

Matt Rees is an award-winning novelist who lives in Jerusalem. He blogs and podcasts at mattrees.net

    Last updated: 12:45pm, June 20 2014