In a small studio on top of “Hill 851,” several kilometers outside of the Jewish community of Itamar in the Shomron, Batya Erdstein is shaping the future.
“I love knowing I am taking the clay – dead and cold, and I am manipulating it and firing it,” Erdstein told Breaking Israel News. “It almost turns alive when it comes out of the kiln, and it makes people happy and brings beauty to the world.”
Through her pottery, she said, “I can imprint my ideas on the world and share the beauty of the Land of Israel, of what is growing outside my windows, according to the seasons and the Jewish holidays.”
For Erdstein, a trained nurse who fell into a career as an artist 10 years ago when her husband purchased her a pottery wheel, ceramics are spiritual and holy.
On a windy afternoon, sitting in her colorful studio high above most of the rest of Israel, Erdstein looked out her windows to the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea and masses of rolling hills and valleys.
“Hashem formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being,” she said, quoting from Genesis 2:7, which tells the story of how God created people.
“When God created man, he took the earth (adam, in Hebrew) and blew into it a soul,” she said. “When I am working on the wheel, in my own very small way, I am blowing or infusing some type of spirit into the clay. I always try to be conscious of my thoughts when I am on the wheel, and the energy and the hopes that I have for the piece I am creating.
“I try to be conscious that I am doing God’s work, and using this earth, blowing light into it, to make people happy.”
Erdstein, whose first name is translated as “daughter of God,” opened her studio four years ago when her family moved to the hilltop. She said much of her pottery is practical – she likes to creates vases, bowls, plates and candlesticks – but each piece has some spiritual element, as well.
“Whether it is the color that reminds me of the ocean, or the olive tree pressed onto some of the pieces that reminds people of the land of Israel, or the pomegranates that celebrate the Jewish New Year, I want people who buy these products to feel connected to Israel and the Jewish people,” said Erdstein. “I really want them to feel connected to God – that is the ultimate.”
A small serving platter sits by the window. Painted on it are two trees. And on their branches are tiny, colorful birds. It is an image of the prophecies coming alive at her doorstep.
“When I came here, there were no birds,” Erdstein explained. “The wind is so fierce here that few trees could stand. But we started planting. Then, one morning, I thought I heard the song of birds. I looked out my window and they were there, all of a sudden, sitting perched on the trees we had planted.
“I just remember letting out a sigh,” she said. “We are coming back. We are re-awakening God’s land.”
But life for Erdstein has not always been easy.
She grew up in California “like a regular California girl,” with her Yemenite mother and Danish father. At 17, she felt her soul was suffocating. On her own, she decided to explore her Jewish roots in the land of Israel. Within days, she recalled, “I fell in love with Israel and the land.”
Erdstein said she believes that her Jewish forefathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – called to her in the States, begged her to “Wake up! This is not what life is about.”
For her first years in Israel, she learned Torah in Jerusalem. Then, she met her soulmate, Baruch (which means blessing in Hebrew), and they married. Today, she is the mother of six children, ages 4 to 22.
The couple spent most of their married life in the mystical city of Safed, until four years ago, Erdstein had another calling. This time, God told her to move to the biblical heartland and build her home and ceramics studio in hills of the Shomron.
“I did not consciously say I want to be here,” said Erdstein. “I feel like God brought me here.”
When she broke ground on her studio, she immediately received a notice from the government to halt, that it would dismantle her building. However, Erdstein and her husband ripped up the notice and continued on.
They likewise started planting trees.
“The climate here is wild,” Erdstein told Breaking Israel News. “There is a fierce wind and it’s cold. The soil is packed with rocks and thorns.”
Erdstein took a permaculture class so she could learn to better utilize the patterns and resilient features observed in the area’s natural ecosystem, rather than fight against it.
“God gave this land to us, and it is not for us to take pictures of its beauty or capture it for the movies,” she said. “We are supposed to connect with it, to get our hands dirty. I am here, taking and using the gift that God gave me.”
She is also helping to protect the State of Israel. She said that by being on this hilltop, the Israeli army has a reason to patrol in her area, giving the army better lookout points and generally increasing security for all residents of the Shomron.
“I am sure out being around has stopped death,” said Erdstein.
Though there have been a number of incidents in her area, including a 2011 terror attack that was so bloody it was later coined the “Itamar massacre.”
On March 11, 2001, an Arab extremist attacked a Jewish family in their home, murdering five members – Ruth Fogel (35), Udi Fogel (36), Hadas (3 months), Yoav (11), Elad (4) – while they were asleep in their beds.
“It can get intense,” said Erdstein. “Sometimes I am scared.”
But she said since moving to the Shomron she lives with purpose.
“We love it and we are willing to work hard to accomplish something big in this time of redemption and this time of the ingathering of the nations back to Israel,” she said. “There is a teaching that the more you give to someone, the more you love them.
“That is how I feel in this place,” she continued, “The more we plant trees, develop the land, tell people about the prophecies being fulfilled here, the more it grows on us. The peace is awesome. It’s beautiful.”
Erdstein hosts groups of tourists in her studio and sells her pottery online. She encourages visitors of all faiths to come and be overwhelmed by God’s Torah and His land. She said the Torah teaches that God will bless those who bless Israel.
“We are here to manifest God’s prophecy of the Jews coming back to the land,” she said. “It is for our children and our grandchildren, but it is also for the children and grandchildren of the whole world.
“This place should be filled with trees, with life,” said Erdstein. “I used to say I would die to live here. Now I say, ‘I live to live here.’”