It was a damn good year, 2005. A couple of major interviews at Silver Bullet and countless mentions in the comics media and blogosphere making the effort well worthwhile. The Beat, The Pulse, Past Masters, The Great Curve, Fanboy Rampage, Newsarama, Scream if You Want It, Lying in the Gutters, Pen-Elayne, All the Rage, Millarword, Adelaide, Mighty Mini-Con and Neilalien were a few that helped spread the word and keep the spark alive in 2005.
Flaming Sword, The Comic Book Creators' Guild, The Comic Book Creator's Party and The New Comic Book of Life have become familiar ideas to many industry pros and fans. From the buzz they helped generate, you'd think I'm sitting on a high profile project coming to a comics shop near you. Except for some sketches, however, a Superhero poster and a couple of ideas for sketchbooks, it was all as virtual as the CGI spaceships in Babylon 5. The big projects at Flaming Sword come to a halt but the comics community gets a fair helping of an ambitious vision for a new kingdom coming. No complaints. That's all I really wanted from the effort, at this stage anyway.
It all comes down on my 50th birthday in early October. Elana presses me to start looking for a job that can generate some income for the family now that the unemployment benefits have ended. She knows I have plans to be on the road by the spring of 2006 and we have a Bar-Mitzvah celebration to prepare for our son Daniel in mid January. I tell her I need to be out in the desert again to think things through and she agrees to a 40 day period which would still give us enough time to prepare the Bar-Mitzvah. Last time I did this I promised myself not make such 40 day plans again because I always miss by a day or two.
"What the hell" I think to myself. "I'll try counting more dilligently this time."
I pack a carrying bag with some basic necessities for the trip - rice, beans, coffee, tea, sugar, cakes, canned goods and a carton of cigarettes. They're not for me, I can make this trip without them. I'm heading to a desert area by the Dead Sea, populated by a community that prefers I don't come empty handed. Haven't visited my friends there for almost a year and I'm anxious to be out in the open spaces again.
I'm Hitchhiking there. An hour ride from Jerusalem takes about 25 hours to traverse. Thumbing a ride has become a nightmare in this country, everyone's afraid of everyone - especially if you're a long haired freak that looks too old for the Rainbow movement youth that frequent this road. Somewhere along the way I spend the night on the desert dunes off the side of the road and finally reach my destination by the next morning.
The area is called Metzukei Dargot, "The Stepped Cliffs" in English. About 10 kilometers south of the northern tip of the Dead Sea. There's a new army checkpoint at the spot that leads down to the beach area about 300 meters below, a few kilometers away from Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The terrain is characterized by steep cliffs all the way down to the beach. The cliffs look like a giant staircase sculpted into the rocks and sand, most likely created by the dropping water levels over thousands of years. Looking at the forested beach area from above, it's impossible to see the thriving community of nature dwellers that have lived there for years.
Modern day Esseans is what they really are. The area is under the army's jurisdiction, so the Parks Authority stays off their backs. The army turns a blind eye to the community's presence and even helps by bringing water and provisions from time to time. I make my way down the winding stepped path and arrive, 25 minutes later, at the forest area off the beach.
My first stop is at Shalom's Zoola. Shalom is about my age, a disgruntled escapee from the industrialized madness he once lived in. In his youth he traveled through Africa and studied tribal drumming techniques there. He later became a thriving cartoonist and illustrator in Tel-Aviv until Yitzhak Rabin was murdered there in 1995, after which he decided to put his life on the line in protest of where the country was heading. He left everything and began living on the Tel-Aviv beach, drumming the days and nights away and gathering crowds that sympathized with his message. Several months later, the local authorities forbade him to stay on the beach so he headed out to the Dead Sea and built a Zoola at the feet of the Stepped Cliffs. There are more than 30 such Zoolas here with semi-permanent dwellers today, all following in the footsteps of Shalom, the artist-drummer from Tel-Aviv.
A Zoola is Hebrew slang for the improvised living quarters of the nature dwellers. It's usually built within a cleared area of the forest, about the size of a living room, covered by a sheet of plastic that keeps the rain away. Somewhat unnecessary because it only sprinkles once or twice a year by the Dead Sea. Something about the Dead Sea keeps the area warm and rain free throughout the Winter. The Summer is usually too hot here, so the nature dwellers move up north to their Zoolas by the Sea of Galilee. When it begins to get cold there, they come back to the Dead Sea.
Within the living quarters of a Zoola, there are usually a few boxes hanging from the trees which contain whaterver food provisions the dwellers have. They hang from the trees to keep them away from the mongeese that prowl the area looking for food. Fascinating cat-size animals that live in harmony with the nature dwellers who feed them with whatever scraps and leftovers they have. Each Zoola has a few sheet covered sponge mattresses placed around a central camp fire that keeps everyone warm at night - and where all the cooking is done. Aside from that, one might find some bed sheets or blankets pretending to be living room walls, giving the Zoola a more intimate home environment. No elecricity, no radios, televisions, computers or internet can be found in a Zoola. Just the bare necessities of a trouble free life in nature's bosom. That's all there is to a Zoola.
I first met Shalom there 3 years ago on my first excursion into the Judea Desert. We cultivated a special friendship, being the oldest among a more youthful community. I helped out by cutting down dead dried trees for the camp fire wood he used - and washing some plates and pots after the dinners he cooked for the community. He invited me to room with him in his Zoola for the week I spent there and we passed some time talking about the state of affairs in Israel and the world.
"So, you want to do a Jesus thing in Israel" he'd say to me. "You can get a lot of support in the country today, but the religious communities will crucify you."
"Not if I can get the Pope to do it first." I'd answer.
I've since visited Shalom from time to time, bringing whatever provisions I could. Small payback for the hospitality and friendship. The last time I saw him was when I returned from New York last year, short haired and clean shaven.
"What happened to you?" He said upon seeing me. "Funny looking Jesus, you are."
I told him about The Comic Book Creator's Party and reveal my mad plan to set America on fire through the comics industry.
"That's an interesting plan," he said. "but you still have a lot of groundwork to do from here."
"All in due time." I answered.
Now, a year later, I'm at Shalom's Zoola again. He expanded and spread out in all directions to accomodate the growing activity he hosts there, namely being the hub of the beach area where most of the community spends its afternoons and evenings. Camp fire songs to the background of guitars, drums and flutes over the hot dinners he serves everyone, just like he's done every day since he's been here.
"Hey Michael, just in time." Shalom says upon seeing me. "We're out of everything. Whaddaya got?"
I lay the carrying bag next to him and he wastes no time pulling out the cakes, tea and sugar. He then breaks off some branches and twigs from his wood supply and throws them into the coals of the camp fire, fills a pot with water and drops a couple of Lipton tea bags into it from the box I brought him.
"How's The Comic Book Creators' Party coming along?" He asks, handing me a cup of hot tea.
"It's been a busy year. I've done as much as I can over the internet." I answer him. "It's time to get down to the groundwork we need to do from here."
"So that means you'll stick around this time?"
"Not yet." I tell him. "I'll be here for a few weeks, but I have to help out with my son's Bar-Mitzvah. I'll try to come back soon afterwards."
"You can stay here for a while but maybe you should build a Zoola for yourself."
"I'd rather just float around actually, I'm not here to settle down you know." I take a sip of tea. "I'm thinking of walking from here to the Sea of Galilee in the Spring - picking up anyone on the way who wants to come along."
"I've had similar thoughts." Shalom tells me. "Things are pretty tough in Israel now. A lot of people will come along if they'd feel it was a worthwhile movement."
"All we need is one CNN or BBC report and we'll have a lot of comics creators supporting us" I promise him. "From there, It'll only be a matter of time till it reaches Hollywood. A pop-culture revolution in America."
"Have a piece of cake." Shalom says.
I spend the next 6 weeks floating around the Zoolas by the Dead Sea, talking it up about walking to the Sea of Galilee in the Spring. There's some scoffing and snickering but I fend it all off with some background about the 25 year investment I've made into this project through the comics industry. The comics add an unexpected light-heartedness to an otherwise serious and intense proposition.
Natan, Ittamar, Ittai and Urik become enthused supporters of the idea and help spread the word, convincing others that it's a worthwhile notion. When the time comes, I bid everyone farewell and head back home.
"You're a day late." Elana says when I return. "You left 41 days ago."
"You're not supposed to count the first day." I tell her. "That's a traveling day..."
"...I counted very dilligently this time."