Had I visited Zikhron Ya’akov on my pilot trip, this just might have been where we would have settled. For those of you in California, it reminds me of a cross between Santa Barbara and Arroyo Grande, two of our favorite get-away spots. Located on a mountaintop just south of Haifa, with sweeping panoramas of the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and forests and fields to the east, Zikhron Ya’akov (“Remembrance of Jacob”) has quite a history.
The first place to visit on a trip to this sleepy town is the First Aliya Museum. Zikhron is one of the original three planned communities built by the first wave of immigrants to Israel from Romania and Russia in the 1880s. The sweeping mesa and surrounding fields were bought from the Ottoman Turks in the area in 1880. The pioneers who settled here had tremendous difficulties in tilling the poor, rocky soil and with ongoing battles with malaria from the swampland below, and from the surrounding tribal Arab communities. By the end of the first couple years, many had left (for America), leaving behind only about 100 people. In 1882, well known British philanthropist, Baron Rothschild, offered to underwrite the settlers, most of whom knew nothing about farming, in exchange for all rights to their property. He brought in experts in agriculture, architecture, urban development and industry to oversee the pioneers – to build their town and teach them how to farm. Because architects were brought in from France, the older part of the city has a charming, Old World feel. Each family was assigned a plot of land, taught a trade, and given a salary. Many of the overseers were unfamiliar with the harsh climate of the MidEast, so plans to start a perfume industry, or to cultivate the lands with European vegetables went bust. Several of the overseers were corrupt, living rather luxurious lives at the expense of the poor immigrants. Most were dictatorial. One of the founding fathers of Zikhron, Moshe Ahronson, stood up to Rothschild, and suggested he let the farmers grow plants indigenous to the area: olives, pomegranates, grapes, figs, dates. Eventually, the baron released the land back to the farmers and fired the overseers. In 1885, he started Israel’s first winery, Carmel Winery, which is another great visit.
One of the first “modern” synagogues to be built in Israel (by Rothschild) is the beautiful Ohel Ya’akov, in memory of Baron de Rothschild’s father, Jacob. It is very European in style with an impressive white marble ark, chandeliers, and dark blue ceiling painted with tiny golden stars. Since its construction in 1886, the synagogue has been in use daily for worship services. It remains a primary tourist spot, too.
Despite all the baron’s financial help, the pioneers lived in a lawless land. They were surrounded by Arab villages and Bedouin camps, who would stage regular thieving forays into the town. Fields both here and throughout the Galilee had to be guarded against the marauders day and night for they would steal crops and then burn the fields. This led to the establishment of the HaShomer, or Jewish patrol guards. Each person would take his turn on regular rotation to patrol the area.
History continues to be revealed in visiting the Nili museum. During the first World War, Sarah and Aaron Ahronson (children of Moshe) and a few of their teenage friends formed an amateur spy ring. They developed an elaborate code, and would send messages about the Turkish armies in the area to the British forces by trained passenger pigeons. Unfortunately, one of the birds was caught by an Ottoman Turk, the code was cracked, and the teenagers were arrested. Poor Sarah was brutally tortured over a four day period, but none of the youth would give up any info. The Turks were going to execute Sarah, but she convinced the guard at the local jail to let her go home first to shower, change, and say goodbye to her family. While in her bedroom, she shot herself with a pistol rather than fall back into enemy hands. Eventually, the rest of the youth were released – without giving away secrets.
We spent the late morning strolling the the quaint downtown area, lined with cafes, gas street lamps, artisan and artists’ shops, and boutiques. I must say, the shopping here is mighty fine. I felt like I was back in the States with the selection of fashion boutiques, vintage shops, and food choices. However, most of the wares were Hebrew, with lots of great quality Judaica items. My two favorite stores on HaMayesodim St) are Anecdota and Yetzira Mekomit -right next to each other. Anecdota reminded me of a Carpenteria or Santa Barbara beachy/vintage/gift shop – with lots of quality housewares, Israeli arts and crafts, gorgeous jewelry – and to beat everything a welcoming walk-up snack/drink counter right up front. Just like the old downtown drugstores from the 50’s-60’s in the U.S. And the owners and staff were so absolutely friendly! It’s near impossible to find courteous service in this country – and all my purchases were meticulously gift wrapped at no extra charge (my girls’ birthday presents). Yetzira next door was pure fun! The highest quality local arts and crafts I’ve seen in a long while: glass, ceramics, leather, wood, clothing. Not inexpensive, but total eye-candy!
After lunch at an Italian cafe, we made our way to Beit Hatotchan, the IDF artillery museum. John, especially loved seeing the static displays of vintage Israeli tanks, jeeps, and large artillery in a beautiful open-air park setting.
There is still so much to see and do in this town, from local theatre, concerts of all types from Classical to jazz and folk – and of course the local wineries by the dozens. We took a nice drive through some of the neighborhoods, all well-kept – and saw lots of new construction, mostly upscale condos and apartments. This town has seen its population quadruple in the past 15 years, and there is quite a large Anglo (speaking) contingent. We ended our day by visiting the 5- star resort hotel, the Elma Arts Complex. The grounds of this modern structure are sweeping- it sits on the side of the mountain with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean, the fish farms below, and Caesaria, a 15 minute drive south. The Elma is not only a hotel, but the halls are lined with modern art, all museum worthy. There is an adjoining spa, and a phenomenal performing arts hall featuring world-class acts (We saw my favorite, Idan Raichel in a solo acoustic performance here last August).
Because it’s only about an hour’s drive from Karmi’el, Zikhron Ya’acov is a place that we’ll be frequenting a lot. So, be prepared for some winery tours in my upcoming blogs. This is such an amazing country for its small size. There’s never a lack of exciting new things to see and explore! I’m glad that you could come along with us….