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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Sabra Dreams

April 13, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

I was pleased to note the other day that the pads of the sabra plant in our yard are covered with buds that look like tiny clusters of purplish spikes.

When the pioneers of Shorashim came to this hillside in 1985, most of them envisioned the future of the community as a model high-tech commune, bringing together Zionist idealism, American pluralism, and sophisticated technological know-how to generate happiness and prosperity. There was a small minority, however, who were not swept away by dreams of the electronic jackpot, but were attracted by the classic Zionist ideal of working the land. Despite the small and rocky plot assigned to Shorashim, they nurtured the old dream of agricultural productivity as a means of livelihood, personal fulfillment, and bonding to the Land of Israel. And so, after some consultation with agronomists, they received permission to plant the flat surface of the Shorashim ridge with a few fields of sabra cacti.

The prickly pear cactus was imported to the Middle East in the 19th century from its native territory of southwestern North America. Based on the medieval Arabic term for the aloe plant, tsaber , the local Arabs called the fast-growing import, useful as a living fence (with nasty spines), tsaber ; this was taken into Hebrew as tsabar ; in colloquial Hebrew and Arabic, the plant is referred to as tsabras or sabra . The forbidding stands of thorny sabras quickly became a major feature of the landscape, marking the boundaries of rural Arab villages. Today, the hedges often remain and thrive even in places where the villages have been destroyed and/or abandoned. During the summer, bright flowers sprout from the edges of the leaf-pads, becoming dark-red oblong fruits about the size of a medium pear, protruding from the pad like fingers of a hand. While you can buy them in fruit markets, most people buy them from Arab boys on the street, who harvest them using a tin can nailed to a long stick and then wear plastic gloves to hold them while cutting off the prickly skin. They are the consistency of a peach, sweet, and full of hard little seeds.

There are a few ironies in the fact that the sabra, an import grown mainly by Arabs, came to serve as the symbol and colloquial name for the native born Jewish Israeli, based on the image of the “New Jew:” prickly and forbidding on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside. Or, at least, that’s how we wanted to see ourselves.

The sabras planted in the fields of Shorashim were a new variety, bred to be spineless or almost so (is there another irony here?). Fields were plowed and planted, and irrigation lines laid. However, within a few years it became clear that the match of variety, soil, and other conditions was not a good one, and the cost of caring for the plants would never be recovered in the income from the fruit. The water was turned off and the fields abandoned. The cacti are still there, but seem to have grown very slowly if at all, and are in many places completely overgrown with wild raspberries and other shrubs and weeds.

Shortly after we moved to Shorashim, about ten years ago, I snapped off a pad from one of the abandoned sabras and laid it on the ground in our garden. It rooted, and a new plant began to grow out of it. Today it is a dense mass of pads about ten feet high; and has given rise to a number of offspring in the farther reaches of our yard, when a certain family member has insisted that I break off pads that are encroaching on the territory of neigboring rose and hibiscus bushes. I find the growth of the sabra fascinating to watch, and it is probably my favorite of the plants in our garden. Each spring, little magenta buds pop up along the upper edges of the pads. There seems to be no pattern or system -- some pads will sprout one bud, some six, some none. Most of these turn out to be new pads, but a few will become flowers -- last year we harvested half a dozen delicious fruits. And so it goes from year to year -- exponentially, I suppose -- so that our yard is dominated by this weird plant -- trunk/branches/leaves all in one. Mexican friends tell me that the pads are delicious as a vegetable. That is my next project...


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