Living Like Kings

Perched high atop a hill in the Northern Israeli village of Mi’ilya  were the vestiges of an old castle. For decades families had used the outer towers, building their homes over and inside the walls. But time had long ago taken its toll, and the structure had fallen into such disrepair that it was structurally unsafe. 

Labib Assad (of blessed memory) lived in one of those houses since his childhood. He had many childhood stories to pass down of life in the village. Labib, a policeman, and his wife, Salma, owner of the village gas station, gradually bought up the other existing houses one by one until they owned a large part of the complex. It had been Salma’s dream for years and years to bring to life the existing skeleton. In 2012 the Assafs received a letter telling them the castle needed to be restored or destroyed. It could no longer safely stand on its own with its crumbling walls and arches. There was an existential dilemma. What to do? The cost of a rebuild would be absolutely exorbitant, but this could be their one opportunity to make Salma’s dream come true, while at the same time preserving an important part of the local heritage.

Flash back to the 12th century: Baldwin Bourcq led a Crusade from France to the Holy Land with his cousins Godfrey de Bouillon and Baldwin du Boulogne in 1096. On the way, he became Count of Edessa  (in present-day Turkey), marrying and setting up a fiefdom there. He rode into Jerusalem in 1100, winning many battles, and was crowned King Baldwin II of Jerusalem in 1118, expanding the reach of his empire to as far as Damascus. He was aided by the Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitallers.  King Baldwin had four daughters by his Armenian Christian wife, Morphia. The eldest daughter, Mellisande, became his successor. 

Mellisande married and had a son, Baldwin III, in 1129. He was crowned King Baldwin III of the Crusader State of Jerusalem when he was 14 years old. Eventually wresting power from his mother during a familial civil war, he ceded Jerusalem, Judaea and Samaria to her. Keeping his title, King Baldwin set up his home in the mountains of the Galilee. His reign extended from the Jezreel Valley in the south to Beirut in the north and as far as Damascus in the east. On a mountaintop in Mi’ilya, midway between the coastal cities of Acre and Tyre, with sweeping views to the Mediterranean and the Galilee, he built “Castellum Regis,” the King’s Castle. It would serve as the capital of his Frankish Lordship in the Galilee. It was a massive, walled stone compound with four square guard towers, one at each corner. 

The property was first mentioned in 1166 after the death of Baldwin III in a land transfer to a Jean d’Khayfa (John of Haifa). It was, in turn, sold along with the surrounding houses, gardens and vineyards to Count Jocelyn III, uncle of Baldwin IV in 1179 under the name Castellum Novo. A sizable Byzantine church adjacent to the castle was also part of the property. It all fell to the Muslim conqueror Saladin in 1187 during the Third Crusade. However, in 1192, with the signing of the Treaty of Jaffa by Saladin, Richard the Lionhearted and Phillipe of France, it was returned to the Crusaders, along with the Western Galilee and the city of Acre, six miles to the west. 

By the mid-1200s, the castle had been superseded by the newly-built Starkenberg Castle (Castle Montfort) just three mountaintops away. Starkenberg was built by German Teutonic Knights, who also bought the Castellum Novo property for 7000 silver marks. It was a short-lived investment, as Baybars, the Mamluk Turk known infamously as the “Father of Conquest” swept in and took everything, levying a 25% dhimmi tax on the barley, olives, wheat, dates, figs, goats, and beehives owned by the resident Christians. There are no existing records after that. The castle and its inhabitants were wiped out in the 15th century. Was it the result of the Ottoman invasion? An earthquake? Black Plague brought to the area by the Europeans? It remains a mystery. 

Melkite (Greek Orthodox Catholic) Christians returned to the area in the mid 1700s, with the Assaf, Shufani, Abo-Oksa and Arraf families among the first residents. They rebuilt a little village in and around the old castle, and resurrected a church near the site of the original Crusader era one that had been completely destroyed. Upon digging the foundations for their Ottoman-era houses, they began to uncover treasures from the past – mosaic tiled floors, burial chambers and an underground water reservoir. The finds were covered up, but stories of riches in the ground were passed down through the generations.

Salma Assaf had heard the rumors of hidden treasure from her childhood. She was passionate about history.  When the letter threatening possible demolition was received, Salma and her husband made the decision to restore the houses, starting a project that took over a decade and a half to complete. It was her life’s dream. Unfortunately, Labib passed away in 2012 before seeing the project to its fruition.

When reaching the final stages of restoration of the buildings, on a whim and out of curiosity, the Assaf family decided to put spade to the ground below. Would stories of the past be revealed or were they all just legend? Salma reached out to her neighbor, Rabei Khamisy, Doctor of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. He, too, a lifelong resident of Mi’ilya, had been brought up with these stories from the past. Together they sprang into action. In a short time, something extraordinary came to light: the largest winepresses and two treading floors from the Latin East (the correct term for the Crusader period in the Levant) had been discovered. Further digging  2 meters from the winepresses revealed a stone dome which covered a 6-meter deep Roman period cistern from the first century. The Crusaders had repurposed the ancient cistern to hold barrels of wine for aging in the cool deep cavity below. For Salma, it was a good omen. It was upon this historical foundation that she would build her restaurant, Chateau du Roi, the King’s Castle. Salma enlisted her son, Khalil, a successful accountant, to be the CFO.

The whole project – the restoration of the above-ground building as well as the excavation – were privately funded by the Assaf family. A greatly appreciated contribution of the local community helped finance the shoring up of the crumbling north wall of the castle adjacent to the restaurant.

They worked tirelessly for four years in tandem with the Israeli Antiquities Authority to complete the excavation. Much more treasure was unearthed: ancient coins; the seal of the archbishop of Acre, who also lived there at one time; cooking tools, trenchers, and plates from the Crusader kitchen. As to the buildings above ground (where the restaurant, bar and boutique hotel rooms stand today), architects and contractors carefully conserved much of the traditional structure. The winepresses have been preserved in the basement of Chateau du Roi, and are open for viewing. Plexiglass windows have been thoughtfully and strategically placed in the floor of the restaurant’s main dining room so guests can view the winepresses below.

The restaurant is composed of many spaces, each with stone walls, high arches, balconies accessible by winding staircases, cozy inglenooks and fireplaces. A large outdoor patio offers a sweeping panorama of the picturesque Northern Galilee mountains. Chateau du Roi has the ambiance of the finest European restaurant. No detail is overlooked from the china, silver and crystal on the beautifully set tables to the antiques throughout. 

In the cozy and comfortable pub, a large wooden bar stands along one wall. The room is flanked by niches and pillowed window seats built into the arched windows. Luxurious leather chairs invite a person to relax and cast aside all cares. All the culinary equipment and accoutrements throughout the restaurant including the pizza oven in the bar are of the finest quality imported from Italy. Live jazz and acoustic music is featured regularly. Other dining options include a spacious covered patio courtyard with full service, and private dining niches under the castle’s stone arches. It doesn’t get more romantic than this!

Salma called in an old family friend, Elian Layousse, originally from Mi’ilya, who was working as a chef in Padua, Italy. He was more than happy to oblige and quickly assembled an award-winning team. The menu at this five-star restaurant is a fusion of Northern-Italian and Israeli. The dishes are traditional, yet unique. Everything is prepared from the freshest seasonal ingredients: Golan beef, Mediterranean seafood, homemade pasta, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Elian’s passion for detail is evident in every bite. The wine list is impressive. As an added bonus, Salma is able to provide jobs for many of the locals. The staff is warm and welcoming, and not only is Hebrew spoken, but Arabic, English, French and Italian, so guests should feel at home. It is one of Israel’s top gourmet destinations. 

In addition to the restaurant, the Assafs have opened two guest rooms on the property. Khalil, speaking lovingly about how his mother pampers all the guests as if they were her own family, says she serves “the grandest local breakfast. Wow!” Work has already started on converting the west wing of the castle into seven additional luxury guest rooms and suites. No expense will be spared and the fully-appointed rooms will be a blend of ancient architecture and antiques with top-of-the-line modern conveniences. A stay in the castle will make you feel like as if you were living like kings.

Currently, the Assafs are correlating with the Israel Antiquities Authority to open a museum on site. All of the finds from the excavations, which have been catalogued and stored in the Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University, would be returned so visitors can see the town’s history from Roman times onward. 

In addition to Chateau du Roi, the villagers have begun unearthing treasures on their ownproperties. The Arraf family, for instance, are sitting atop a Byzantine church and adjoining monastery. Beautifully colored geometric mosaic floors are once again coming to light. The recent excavations are exposing a complete Frankish rural settlement in what was once known as the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. 

Today, Mi’ilya has grown to about 750 homes with a population of about 3000. It is one of two exclusively Christian villages in Israel (the other being Fassuta, about 4km to the east). All of the land and the excavations are privately funded by each villager. The Israeli government has commiserated, but has done nothing to help financially. All of the funds for the digs have been raised privately by the village and through donations. Each year during the Christmas season, they hold a Christmas market. The village is festooned with lights and decorations. It is a grand celebration and thousands of people from miles around come to enjoy the festivities. In addition to this religious festival, the municipality holds a social/cultural Spring Festival with musical shows and local products for sale. 

A trip to Mi’ilya is a trip back in time, and a stay at Chateau du Roi will make you feel pampered like royalty. Their website is https://chateauduroi.co/  

In the Footsteps of Elijah

Fresco, Ascent of Elijah, on the wall of Stella Maris

I love that everywhere we go in Israel, there is a biblical or historical site. They are everywhere. For the past month, we have been on the trail of the prophet Elijah. Our balcony overlooks Carmel Ridge, where much of the Biblical story takes place. It’s about 40 minutes from our house, so when friends offered to take us to Mukhraka (‘the place of the fire’ in Arabic) last month, we jumped at the opportunity. They were going for the sweeping panoramas. We were hunting Elijah, Eliyahu in Hebrew.

On the southeastern slope of Mount Carmel, the prophet had his famous showdown with King Ahab and the prophets of the god Baal. In this encounter, described in 1 Kings 18:1-40, Elijah issued a challenge to 450 pagan priests over whose god could make it rain. Before an assembly on the summit of Carmel, he called on the priests to seek fire from Baal to light their sacrifice. When Baal failed to respond to their pleading, Elijah built an altar to the L-rd, pouring mega-gallons of water (this was during an extreme drought!!!!!) on top of his own sacrifice. Immediately, fire from heaven consumed his waterlogged offering. Directly down the steep slope of this mountain runs the Kishon Stream, just as it was written in the Bible attesting to us the fact this was the correct location. Elijah tells his servant to go look out to sea to see if there is any sign of rain. From this spot, one can look far off in the distance to see the Mediterranean(another verification of the site). Soon after, the storm began and Elijah outran the chariot and horses of King Ahab down Mt. Carmel to the Jezreel Valley below. When I was a kid, we used to think Elijah was the fastest man alive because he could outrun Ahab’s chariot. Today, now that I’ve been to Mukhraka, I think he was smart. As we stood atop the mountain looking down, we could not even begin to imagine what it must have been like to drive horses and chariot down a steep, very rocky slope. Avoiding trees. Flash flooding. Mudslides. It must have taken endless hours. So much faster and much more direct to just make one’s way by foot!!

Mukhraka today is a Carmelite monastery open to the public. The gardens are well-kept and peaceful. In the center courtyard a monument to Elijah stands. Inside the small chapel is an altar with 12 stones from the site, just like the 12 stones the prophet erected for his altar on this spot. But the prize is climbing to the rooftop for the panorama. You can see for miles and miles in all directions. In the North, you can see all the way to the mountains of the Lebanese border. To the west is the Mediterranean Sea. To the east, the view encompasses the Jezreel Valley, Mount Tabor, Nazareth and the surrounding areas, and to the South one can see Megiddo, Ceasaria, Netanyahu and all the way to Tel Aviv!!! It’s absolutely breathtaking!!!

Elijah the prophet was known to hide out in a cave on the Carmel ridge because King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were both seeking out the prophets of G-d to kill them – and for Elijah in particular. This is where the story gets even more interesting. Here in Israel, you will often find different locations for each Bible story. Because the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Protestants, the Jews, the Druze and the Muslims will not worship at the same site together, there are multiple locations (i.e. The Holy Sepulchre vs the Garden Tomb; three sites of Capernaum; three sites for the Sermon on the Mountain; the Western Wall for Jews and the Temple Mount for Muslims, different sites of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary). After researching and asking many people and tour guides, we found four different caves of Elijah. Each religion swears theirs is the correct one. So, here goes-

The Jewish Cave of Elijah is at the very base of Mount Carmel near Bat Galim Beach in Haifa. It’s not terribly well known. To find it, you must go up a flight of steep steps to a person’s private residence. The old stone home is built right atop the entrance to a cave. Finding it is not so easy as it’s not well marked and the cave is behind a large set of wooden double doors. Once inside, there is a divided cavern – one side for the women and one side for men, as prayer is segregated by sexes in Judaism. At the back of this cavern is a smaller chamber in the rock where the Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls are kept. All in all, the cavern is spacious, dimly lit and musty. Could this be the place?

The next Cave of Elijah is a story unto itself. We were equally unprepared for this one. My husband and I heard that there was another cave at the top of the western cliff of Mt Carmel in Haifa, just 140 meters up the hill above the Jewish cave. Literally surrounding the cave is the Roman Catholic Church of Stella Maris, run by the Carmelite order. The Carmelites were founded upon Mount Carmel during the Crusades by hermit monks who lived in caves like the prophet Elijah had done. Many of the monks here were killed by the Muslims in the 1400s, but resettled the mountain in 1631, purchasing the land outright from Emir Jorabay with mediation from the French. They erected the monastery, but were expelled by Al Omar in 1767. Not daunted, the Carmelite monks received patronage from the Turkish Sultan and the French and were allowed to return and expand their building. During Napoleon’s siege of Akko eight miles to the north, the building was converted to a French hospital for the wounded soldiers. In 1821, Abdullah Pasha, the governor of Akko tore down the church, but it was rebuilt in 1836. It became an influential institution to the city of Haifa, attracting a large Arab Christian population. Furthermore, the ‘rediscovery’ of the Holy Land in the late 1880s (Mark Twain) brought more visitors and pilgrims to the area. In 1887, a hostel was built around the cave and church. Many brought their sick who came for the chance the spirit of Elijah would heal them. The large complex of monastery, basilica, lighthouse (which we see from our balcony every night), and surrounding gardens stand to this day.

Before I get back to Elijah, there’s another thread I want to share (that happens all the time here. I’ll go for one story and find three other fascinating ones as well!!). A mysterious, invisible straight line links seven monasteries from Ireland to Israel. They were built independently of one another from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries and are all very far apart from each other, yet all in a line. As the story goes, the archangel Michael fought a great battle in heaven with Lucifer/Satan, eventually hurling him from heaven to earth. It is said that the line of churches follows the path of Michael’s sword, the tip landing in Haifa on Mt Carmel. The first monastery is located on the island of Skellig Michael in Ireland…on to St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, UK…Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France…Sacra di San Michele in Turin, Italy…Monte Santangelo, Italy….Simi Monastery, Greece… and Stella Maris. And all were supposedly built by direct request from an apparition of St. Michael, Archangel.

We made it up the mountain to Stella Maris Church just in time for the Mass. The church was reminiscent of many I’d seen in France or Italy. It was astoundingly beautiful, but strikingly different, because the raised altar was built over top of Elijah’s Cave. The walls were marble imported from Italy, as was the mosaic floor. Stained glass panels told the story of Elijah, and overhead was a stunning cupola with frescoed panels depicting Elijah, King David, other prophets, and Mary. Just beyond the pews were three steps down into the grotto, where pilgrims go to pray and light candles, much as in the Jewish cave. Above the altar was a large statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. Suspended from her hand is a large scapular. Mary, patroness of the Carmelites, gave this scapular to one of the monks in the 1200s. Many Catholic faithful today wear it. A tiny bit like a talit kattan worn by Jewish men or a mezuzah, the scapular is a prayer placard suspended around the neck by cords or fringes. It rests over the heart and between the scapula bones at the back. Of all the Elijah caves we visited, this was certainly the most impressive.

At the southwestern face of the Carmel Ridge is the site that Protestant Christians claim is the true cave of Elijah. There are no fancy churches, no places for prayer or lighting of candles, no holy books or gardens….just a lonely walk to a cave in the side of the mountain. It was roped off and quite inaccessible to humans – except for a couple of creepy life-sized dolls. Were they supposed to be representations of the famous prophet? The site certainly had that desolate feel of a place a hermit would live or a place one would go to seek escape. But those dolls!!! What were the people that put them there thinking???

The last cave of Elijah was not on Mount Carmel at all. It was adjacent to the city in which we live! A five minute drive across the highway and a twenty minute hike on a narrow trail. Located between the Arab towns of Nahef and Deir al Assad, we could see the structure high up in the mountain cliffs. John and I had always wondered what it could be? It looked like an ancient Egyptian temple or some type of mausoleum. It was the Muslim site of Elijah’s cave. In Arabic Elijah is known as “El Khader”. During the Byzantine period the Beit ha Kerem (House of Vineyards) Valley was a major center of Christian monasteries. The caves in the hills were used as burial sites for local Jewish residents and also for the early Hebrew Christians of the Galilee. Monks secluded themselves in these numerous caves as well. When the Muslims invaded the land, they took over many of these sites. They built their own shrine at the entrance to one of the larger caverns for their El Khader. Today, Bedouins still go up to the heights to offer sacrifices of sheep and goats… seeing the remnants of a recent Eid sacrifice near the entrance was just a little weird for us.

2 Kings, chapter 2 recounts the famous Bible story of Elijah being taken bodily to heaven in a whirlwind. He had traveled with his disciple Elisha down to the Judaean desert at the Jordan River crossing. There, Elijah instructed Elisha to wait on the western side of the river and not to take his eyes off him as he crossed over and ascended in the whirlwind when a fiery chariot split the sky (but Elisha’s attention was not diverted!!!) and he saw his mentor go up into the heavens. He then received a double portion of Elijah’s anointing – and his mantle.

Last month, our good friend, Marc, wanted to visit that spot at the Jordan River – to see how high the water was after two years of heavy winter rains. The Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) was still full and feeding the Jordan, which down near the Dead Sea is usually just a slimy trickle a couple inches deep. This year, it was supposed to be freely flowing and quite deep. I was dying to go because not only was it where Elijah was taken up, but it was also the exact spot where the Children of Israel crossed into the Promised Land of Israel at Gilgal (near Jericho)after their forty year desert wanderings – Joshua 3. Once we got down there, I learned it was also the site where John the Baptist was immersing his disciples – and where he immersed Jesus. Also, it marks the spot where the leprous Syrian general Naaman dipped seven times in the river at the directive of Elisha. He was reticent to do something so simple, but was immediately cured of his disease (2 Kings 5). So it was quite the holy place!!!

In the Samarian (Shomron) desert, also known as the West Bank, on the border with Jordan, is Qaser Al-Yahud, also known as ‘the baptismal site.’ It had been completely closed since the 1967 War. Following Jordan’s defeat in the war, and their loss of control of the West Bank, the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat began to launch attacks on Israel from the Jordanian territory. The fighting lasted until Black September in 1970 when the troops of King Hussein routed the Palestinians (being supported by Haze Assad of Syria) into Lebanon. The area they left behind had been heavily mined. The old church that stood at the site is still pockmarked with bullet holes. Over the past decade, the IDF has been working to clear the landmines in the immediate vicinity so the Catholic Church and Franciscan monastery there could be used again. Today, it’s under the protection of the Israeli Parks Service and the Franciscans and can now be used for baptisms…once tourists are allowed back after the pandemic closures.

Because there were so few tourists on the Israeli side, we had a fun time to ourselves. Being careful to stay within the confines of the designated paths, we made our way down to the Jordan River. Unlike the crystal clear waters in the North, the Jordan was quite muddy by the time it reached Qaser al Yahud. The Israeli side was quite sparse, but there were an assortment of beautiful churches on the Jordanian side: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox. There were steps leading down to the river for baptisms, and a large chain dividing line that signified the border between Israel and Jordan. It was crazy being so close to the border!

As I was dipping my foot in (I just HAD to do it!) the murky waters, we heard singing coming from the Jordanian side. English voices! Americans!!!! Escorted by an armed guard, an American Evangelical pastor from California had taken some of his congregation on a pilgrimage. I yelled to them from the Israeli side. He was there to baptize them. How lucky for us to be there to see them!!

In total, he baptized six people. Tears were flowing, songs were being lifted heavenward, and you could just tell it was a moment that would forever be sealed in the hearts of those people. By the time we left, the one armed guard was joined by four other Jordanian military. And so we found ourselves at the last point in Elijah’s earthly life. It had been a most interesting journey for us.

Dairy Days: With Recipes!!!

It amazes me how schizophrenic this place can be. Just last week, people were living in bomb shelters, glued to the news, and praying that the shelling would cease. The next week, everyone is back to business, schools are open, the stores and cafes are full, and it seems life is mostly back to normal, whatever that is anymore. Israelis are a resilient bunch. I can attest to this by the video clip a friend sent me of young Israelis on a Tel Aviv Beach last Sunday morning. The beach was packed. When the sirens went off, they grabbed their towels and ran for the shelters. Ten minutes later, they’re back on the beach until the next siren. Un-be-leeeeeve-able!

I had planned to write this article a few weeks ago before war got in the way. We were just about to celebrate the extremely joyous holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks for the Jews and Pentecost for the Christians. Along with Pesach(Passover/the Feast of Unleavened Bread) and Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) it is one of three pilgrimage festivals. This holiday has its roots in the Bible and can be found in the first five books, the Torah. Starting after Pesach, a counting of the days is made… fifty days (hence the Greek word Pentecost) of the wheat and barley harvest. It marks the time when the Jewish people were obligated to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer thanks for their harvest. In Christian tradition, it commemorates the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples of Jesus (who were also in Jerusalem for Shavuot) and marked the birth of the Church.

Today in Israel the fields are harvested much as they were millennia ago, except with modern farm equipment. Everywhere we travel, we see the fields being reaped and the bundles laying in the fields ready to go to the granaries and mills.

Shavuot goes by several names. Besides being the official beginning of the summer season, it is the Biblical Feast of Firstfruits. At the time of the Temple, besides the grain offerings being brought, the firstborn of the animals were brought, and the firstborn children of that year were brought for a special blessing by the priests. Today, in Israel, the Temple Mount has been replaced by the Al Aqsa Mosque, but the mostly agricultural holiday is still celebrated in grand fashion. People stay up all night reading and studying the Torah, as it also marks the giving of the Law to Moses by G-d on Mount Sinai. It is also a tradition to read the book of Ruth, as that story takes place during the barley harvest.

On the farms and kibbutzim, people dress in white and wear floral wreaths on their heads, men and women alike. There is much singing and dancing, and dads dance around holding their little babies high above their heads. There are parades throughout the towns with tractors and floats piled high with fruits and veggies and fresh flowers and with children holding the baby farm animals they helped raise. It has the feeling of a rural American county fair.

This year, however, things were a bit different. I’d like to share with you a wonderful video clip from Hananya Naftali:

Because the mother sheep, cows and goats have an abundance of milk at this time, Shavuot is also a huge celebration of the dairy industry here. Also, from a Biblical viewpoint, the Torah is compared to mother’s milk, and Israel is the Land of Milk and Honey, so it is a custom to visit local dairies and to eat plenty of dairy products. Cheesecake is ubiquitous here during the Shavuot holiday. Everyone seems to have an opinion on how it should taste, mostly based on where you are from. The heavier, creamier, cold American style topped with fruit; a light and sweet French version; a savory crustless cheesecake served by the Mizrachi Jews of the Middle East; some people even serve it warm! Usually. cheesecake is eaten with breakfast here, as that’s the main dairy meal of the day in Israel. Most Jewish people (those who keep the Kosher dietary laws) do not consume dairy products at the same meal with meat.

This year we ventured up to Kibbutz Rosh haNikra, an idyllic village/kibbutz tucked into the foot of the mountain that literally butts up against the Lebanese border. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. In the picture below, you’ll see the kibbutz. At the top of the mountain, you can see the border fence. To live here knowing that just a few yards away is the Hizbullah army with estimates of upwards of 150,000 missiles pointed towards you… it’s just about as interesting as us living a mere 12 miles from the border. Still, life goes on – you can also see the banana plants they grow here (foreground):

We visited the kibbutz on a lazy, early Friday morning. The kibbutz has beautiful vistas of the Mediterranean Sea to the West, and as is typical of kibbutz living, has a central community area with shops, post office, clinic, schools, cafe and community center in the middle with homes radiating outward from the main hub. People were having picnics on the main lawn, there was music streaming out of the coffee house, and Galili Dairy had a cheese tasting, which is why we were here. Standing as a stark reminder were the bomb shelters every few hundred yards. It’s only a 14 second warning to drop everything you are doing and run for cover in the event of an emergency here.

We were here to visit Galili Dairy, owned and operated by the Regev Family. They live in the neighboring farming village of Abirim, raising about 200 goats there. The goats are not allowed to graze in Rosh HaNikra Kibbutz because they are too messy, so the fresh goat milk is trucked into the kibbutz daily. The Regev’s have turned the old community kitchen that was no longer in use into their dairy. Even though, the place is still called a kibbutz, the residents no longer share meals as a community together. Today, there are individual family housing and living units. So the facilities are rented out, a win-win situation for both parties.

TAbout seven years ago, the matriarch, Sarit Regev, took a course in artisanal cheese-making in Provence, France. She came back to Israel, applying what she learned and adding her own regional twists to make some of the best Israeli cheeses on the market.

Galili Dairy offers a wide range of products from yogurt; flavored kefir (liquid yogurt) drinks – think passionfruit, date, blueberry and strawberry; labaneh,the creamy white cheese staple here that’s served at every breakfast; feta, and specialty cheeses. Their bouche with its creamy center is a best seller. My favorites were the Tomme rubbed with the dregs from cabernet barrels and their Tomme with truffles. They offer several Camamberts and Bries, including one with nuts that was just heavenly. The Camembert rubbed with Herbes de Provence was another favorite. There were also two types of Morbier, a hard cheese covered in volcanic ash, which was quite delicious and a cream cheese with mushroom bits – great for spreading on crackers. All cheeses are certified Kosher with a completely organic line as well. They can be found in health food stores as well as TivTams throughout Israel. There is also home delivery available. Again, this is one of the best independent smalls dairies I’ve visited here. Needless to say, we left laden with several varieties of cheese and kefir. Their website (only in Hebrew) is galilee-cheese.com, so for those of you in Israel, you can place your order for delivery directly from the website. They also offer gift baskets and picnic baskets to-go. Take it with you on your mountain hike or to the beach, both of which are a ten minute drive from the kibbutz.

So now for the moments some of you dear readers have been waiting so patiently for: the recipes!!! I’ve been on a quinoa kick here for the past month. This powerhouse of a seed/grain is just loaded with vitamins, minerals, protein, and antioxidants, and is so versatile. The following dairy recipes use quinoa. The first is a cheese puff, that is great as a breakfast or a snack. Take it on a picnic or store it in a freezer bag in your freezer. I made several huge batches, and packed up a box for my son to take back to school. Everyone absolutely loves them – and they are so easy to throw together. The quinoa cooks up in ten minutes, so it’s a quick recipe as well as nutritious.

QUINOA CHEESE PUFFS (makes 6 large muffin-sized or 18 small bite-sized)

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup quinoa cooked in 1 1/2 cup water according to package directions
  • 1 large zucchini, shredded (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 cup Gouda or Tomme cheese, shredded
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves OR 1 TBSP julienned fresh basil leaves

Preheat oven to 350* F/170* C. Grease your muffin tin. Cook the quinoa according to directions on package. In a large mixing bowl, add the zucchini, eggs, baking powder, shredded cheese, spices and quinoa and stir until well combined. Drop by spoonfuls into the wells of the muffin tin. You can top with a bit of shredded cheese. Bake in oven about 18 minutes or until the bites are puffy and golden brown. Remove from oven. Let cool – and try not to eat them all in one sitting!

The next recipe is for quinoa patties, Israeli style. You can either fry them in a few tablespoons of oil or bake them as a healthier alternative. These make a nice side dish or a vegetarian entree paired with a salad and some fresh fruit. They are very tasty, make great leftovers and freeze well, too. I serve them with a dollop of tsatsiki – recipes below:

QUINOA PATTIES AND TSATSIKI ISRAELI-STYLE (makes 6 large patties)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups quinoa, cooked according to package directions
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1 lemon, grated rind, juice squeezed, pips removed
  • 1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, chopped
  • 1 cup cooked greens (spinach, chard, mangold, beet greens or orach)
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper, freshly ground (it does make a difference)
  • 1/2 cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, rough chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, julienned
  • IF NEEDED to firm up a bit, 1/4 cup bread crumbs (Italian seasoned are good)

Combine the above items in a large bowl. the mixture should be think and gloppy and hold together well. If it seems too loose, add some bread crumbs until it comes together. Form patties. Place on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet sprayed with oil. Refrigerate for about an hour before cooking. You can place directly into a preheated to 350* F/170*C oven for about 30 minutes or until nicely browned and releasing a mouth-watering smell. Or you can fry the individual patties in 2-4 TBSP olive oil for a crispier outside. Serve plain, hot or cold or with a dollop of tsatsiki

ISRAELI TSATSIKI DIP

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup goat yogurt or goat labaneh
  • 1 cucumber, chopped, peel and all
  • 2 TBSP fresh dill, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large clove garlic, crushed
  • 2 TBSP fresh chives, chopped
  • Extra virgin olive oil, good quality

In a medium bowl, add the yogurt or labaneh, and the chopped cucumber – no need to peel. Mix together. Add the chopped herbs, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix well. Drizzle over the top with the olive oil. Serve chilled.

The next recipe served my husband and myself as an entire meal. We were so stuffed, there was no need for anything else, and we still had half a squash leftover. We ate the leftovers as a side dish with the next couple dairy meals. I had bought what I thought was a spaghetti squash at the market, but it didn’t act like one when I roasted it. It was some sort of very rich, flavorful and nutty squash – there are just so many different heirloom varieties of gourds here! The end result was still amazing, but I’m calling for a spaghetti squash in this recipe. Butternut would probably work well, too. Also, the word KHOO-moos (spelled humus, is the whole garbanzo bean, not just the spread).

STUFFED SQUASH, MIDDLE EASTERN STYLE

Ingredients:

  • 1 large spaghetti (or butternut squash)
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 4 large cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 cup greens (spinach, chard, beet greens, mangold or orach)
  • 1 medium lemon, rind grated and set aside; squeezed, pips removed
  • 1 can (1 cup) humus (chickpeas), drained
  • 1 tsp dried chili flakes
  • 1 cup crumbled feta or bulgarit cheese

Preheat oven to 400*F/200*C. Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Drizzle some olive oil and sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the top. Place on a foil lined baking sheet, and cover lightly with foil. roast in oven for about a half an hour or until the squash is fork tender. Remove from oven.

Take out the seeds and discard. Remove the pulp, placing it in a large bowl. Keep the squash shells to the side. Fluff up the pulp or break into small pieces using a fork. Meanwhile peel and slice the shallots. Heat a TBSP olive oil in a pan and when oil is shimmery, add the shallot and garlic. When they become translucent, add in the greens and cook over medium heat until just wilted. Stir in the chili flakes. Pour mixture into the bowl with the squash. Add the drained chickpeas and the crumbled cheese bits, Salt and pepper. Mix gently. Spoon the mixture back into the shells of the squash. Reheat in a 350* F/170* C oven for 15 minutes to melt the cheese slightly. You can add a bit of chopped Italian parsley or celery leaf as a garnish-

The last recipe is for a breakfast or dessert cake. We all love coffee cake, but this is a bit different. I wanted something healthier, something that paid homage to the diversity of the people of Israel. The Ashkenaz coffee cake with a streusel topping takes on a new life with some surprising additions. I decided to use the sweet Middle Eastern sesame candy, Halva, and some surprising spice combinations. Because Turkish coffee is a staple here, I added in some of that too. Give it a try and let me know how it turns out. Seriously. I’m really interested in how you like it!

Tamar’s Israeli Coffee Cake (dairy, serves 12)

Ingredients: (Cake)

  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill 1:1 gluten free mix and loved it!!!!)
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 heaping tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 230 grams (1 cup) room temperature butter (it should be very, very soft)
  • 1 cup coconut sugar (you can use white cane sugar, but the coconut sugar is low-glycemic and adds a more “Israeli” taste)
  • 1 cup silan (date syrup) or 1 cup light brown sugar if you can’t find silan
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups (goat) yogurt
  • 1 cup milk (I used fresh goat milk, but you can use regular cow milk)

Ingredients: Streusel for swirl and topping

  • 1 cup chopped walnut pieces
  • 1 cup chopped pecan pieces
  • 2 cups crumbled halva candy
  • 2/3 cup coconut sugar (or light brown sugar)
  • 2 TBSP espresso powder (or Turkish coffee powder with cardamom)
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Baharat Spice Blend…. I use this a lot in many dishes. Here it’s used to flavor ground meat (kabobim) and in veggies and soups; but I use it in baking and also mixed in with my coffee grounds to make a flavorful brew. You’ll need 2 heaping TBSP for this recipe, but save some for other dishes. Baharat is a very common spice here found in Syrian, Lebanese and Turkish dishes. It’s versatile and adds a depth of flavor that is unparalleled.

  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika

First make the streusel by chopping the nuts in a food processor until you have small bits (it should NOT be powdery). In a medium bowl, mix together the nuts, the crumbled halva, coffee powder, sugar, salt and 2 TBSP of the Baharat spice blend. Mix together well. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350*F/170*C. Grease a large pyrex baking pan. Place baking parchment to cover so that the edges overhang the sides of the pan. Grease the parchment with a cooking oil spray. Set aside. Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl. Set aside. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add eggs, one at a time, beating the mixture. Add in the yogurt and the silan, mixing well and scraping down sides of bowl as you go. (I use a hand mixer). Alternately add about a third of the flour mixture, continually beating the batter, and the milk. Then more flour, and more milk. Keep beating until the batter is smooth and thick. Drop the batter by spoonfuls into the parchment lined baking dish. spoon about half the streusel mixture onto the top. Then with a fork or a butter knife, swirl the streusel into the batter. Spoon the rest of the streusel over the batter and spread out to cover. Bake the cake about 40 minutes or until your cake tester comes out clean. Remove and let cool 15 minutes before slicing into squares. My husband puts a small slab of butter on the top, and microwaves his cake for 12 seconds so the butter melts into the streusel. He then sprinkles a little cinnamon sugar on the top. I dollop a spoonful of yogurt over the top of mine for a creamy contrast. It’s so so yummy!

Honey and Wine

Israel is a country that never ceases to surprise us. Last week was khol ha mo’ed, the intermediate days of the Passover holiday. It’s a time for hikes, picnics, barbecues, visits to friends, and tiyuulim, which is basically day-tripping. On the recommendation of a couple friends, John and I decided to visit a fairly local winery. Our friends had been raving about their rosé and white wines, so we set out for Jezreel Winery on the small moshav at Hannaton. Oh my goodness, it was packed!! Every picnic table was taken and all outdoor cafe and bistro seating was occupied. The sommelier told us there would be table service for the tasting of all their wines which included a cheese platter, but the wait could be up to three hours. We decided to return another less crowded week, and instead go somewhere else.

It was a beautiful day, the winter storms over, and every hill and roadside field was awash in a rainbow of floral colors. A great day for a ride. We were minutes away from another favorite haunt: the tiny moshav of Alonei haGalil (Galilee Oaks). On the road to my favorite antiques shop, I remember seeing a small, hand-painted sign for another local winery. And this is where the story gets good. We pulled off the single lane ‘main road’ onto a little dirt path and there it was! It had a very familiar fell to it: homey and reminiscent of my childhood in the southern United States. Under a large spreading oak tree was a log cabin! More like an old tobacco curing shack, the the of which used to dot the fields of rural Virginia/North Carolina. Not something one would expect to find in the lower Galilee of Israel. It was the tasting room of Meshek Ofir Wines.

As soon as we entered, I knew right then and there I’d found my new Happy Place. The tasting room was warm, cozy and inviting, and the young sommeliers spoke both English and Hebrew fluently. Besides a nice selection of wine, it was also the tasting room for all their local honey. Tamar, our hostess for the morning, ushered to a porch table under the oak canopy and brought us a flight of six wines to try – all generous amounts – and a gorgeous cheese platter featuring a selection of local goat cheeses, labaneh, pestos, tapenade, fresh veggies, nuts, dates, and because it was Passover, matzah.

There were only two other couples there. Meshek Ofir is a tiny, family-run business that is not well known yet. Their wines are not sold in stores, and they do not market widely. Anyway, as we were enjoying this delightful picnic, a beautiful young woman joined us ( I had mentioned I wanted to find out more about the history of this place for a possible article). Adva is the daughter of the owners. And she began the only-in-Israel story of her family, their history, and the log cabin.

Tzvika Ofir came from a family of beekeepers at Hogla, a small farming kibbutz between Hadera and Netanya. After his IDF service, he met Hadas, a lovely woman from another agricultural moshav. They fell in love and got married. After traveling the world for a year, they returned to Israel and made a home at a newly-started moshav, Alonei haGalil. The newlyweds started beekeeping in 1984 with a few hives from his father, Yishai, getting their own license to be honey farmers (which is now a closed profession here0. It’s one of Tzvika’s passions, and is a win-win endeavor for the farmer as well as the beekeeper. He gets up at 4 a.m. to care for the hives: he now has over 800, collecting the honey and moving the bee boxes to different locations throughout Israel. He smokes out the bees to keep them drowsy and transports the hives in his truck to different fields and orchards. His bees are the pollinators for the different plants, and depending on the flower, the honeybees produce different flavors of the liquid gold.

It’s now the end of citrus season, and soon the mango and avocado trees will be in full bloom. Tzvika’s honeybees produce the most amazing honeys I’ve ever heard of – besides clover and meadow flower, there is sunflower, pumpkin, watermelon, forest fruits, carob, squash blossom, and cotton blossom honey. All are organic and unique to the area, different in color, viscosity and taste – and all are absolutely delicious! And that jujube (Christ’s Thorns Bush) honey is hands down the most different and the best honey I’ve tasted. So I bought a couple jars. They are all so reasonably priced. But I’m skipping ahead….

Having apiaries was Tzvika Ofir’s main love and means of financial stability, but he wanted something new. In 1986 he began to deepen his roots, planting his first vineyard the day Adva was born. Shortly thereafter, two sons and another daughter arrived on the scene. As the family grew, so did the vineyards. Tzvika’s grapes were sold to larger wineries like Recanati, Kassel and other more famous Israeli wineries. The vintners absolutely loved the high quality of his grapes. after ten years, what started as a hobby, took on a new life as he decided to try his hand at making his own wines.

In 1999, Yiftachel Winery was established, bring the story full circle. You see, in this exact area in Israel, archaeologists have uncovered ancient Jewish settlements and villages, each with winepresses, dating from the first century, BCE. Taking on a professional vintner, Kobi Toch, and studying viticulture himself, Tzvika now produces 10,000 bottles a year under his own label (at first Yiftachel Wines, now Meshek Ofir). It is truly a boutique family winery. All four children, now grown, work in the fields with the vines and the bees, and also in the production and marketing end.

All of the wines we tasted were surprisingly good. Adva explained to us that the Sangiovese grape was native to the Jezreel Valley here in Israel. The Romans loved it so much (going back 2000 years), that they took vines back to the Chianti region of Italy, but it was originally an ancient Israeli plant, that grows well here. It’s a big, jammy wine, with a full body and fruity nose. Redolent of chocolate, cherry, and oak, we bought several bottles. Their unique “Marselan” wine is a red blend of Cabernet and Grenache. Aged in American oak barrels, it has a nose of berries, plum, and hints of sage. This is a lighter wine with a nice finish. It pairs perfectly with cheeses and lighter fare like pasta, and makes an excellent sitting-on-the-porch sipping wine. We bought several more of these. John and I sampled the Rosanne ’20, a grassy, citrusy, medium dry white. Also as part of the flight were their Shiraz ’16 and Merlot ’14. But for us, the star of the show was “Deep.” a dark, deep, full-bodied red. the nose has hints of violets!!!! With a rich mouth of berry and cherry and no unpleasant tannic aftertaste. This smooth wine pairs with meats and heartier foods, and it was, by far, our favorite. An amazing wine at a great price. So we bought a case-

Now, about that cabin: Adva was happy to tell us the wild story. It was, in fact, a transplant here. It’s named “Biktat Alan” or Alan’s Cabin. Alan Radley, a nice Jewish boy from the Shenandoah mountains of Virginia, came over to Israel as a Lone Soldier in 1973. He fought during the Yom Kippur War, and afterwards lived on a kibbutz where he made friends with Tzvika Ofir. Besides his love of Israel, he loved building log cabins. Upon his return to the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, he bought an old circa 1840 tobacco shack from a Scottish woman. It was in terrible disrepair, but had potential. Radley had it disassembled and the wood shipped to Israel in 1992. The logs were stored at Tzvika’s meshek (farm). After sitting there idle for a decade, Tzvika offered to buy it from Alan and build the visitor center. He contacted Radley, and for the price of a plane ticket and room and board at the moshav, Alan flew out. With the help of Tzvika and two other friends, had the main frame put together in one day. The logs are all locked together without nails just like Lincoln Logs. By 2004, the panels had been mudded in, windows added, roof put up and an oak plank floor installed. And almost as if it was planned – in Hebrew, alon translates to oak tree. So this oak cabin now sits in Galilee Oaks – thanks to Alan.

Tzvika Ofir, left, sitting with two friends & Alan Radley, right

Everything about this place is a labor of love. Aside from the great atmosphere, excellent service, and top-quality products, their prices are more than reasonable. It’s truly a small family business without pretension. Unlike many of the chi-chi boutique wineries here, Meshek Ofir is a gem and a real bargain. Plus, they offer club membership with a 10% discount on each case. Every Thursday evening Alonei haGalil hosts a local farmer’s market/shuk. The farmers bring their produce fresh-picked from the fields, all organic. There are also artisan cheeses from dairies in the North and artisanal breads as well. Before all the pandemic craziness, Ofir Family Farms hosted regular festivals throughout the year celebrating both the honey and the wine with live music on their sprawling grounds under the oak trees. Hopefully, these fun events will resume later in the summer. Until then, we just can’t wait to return.

Time for a Bit of Fun!!

Oh my goodness! Between elections, lockdowns, Green Passports, ankle bracelets for quarantines, and the news cycle in general – it’s time for a bit of fun. Actually, as a semi-new immigrant in a foreign land, there’s lots that can make you completely crazy – or absolutely uproarious. We choose to take the “let’s just laugh at it all and make fun of everything” route. So – let’s go!!

Let’s start with driving. Israeli style. Hold on to your seatbelts, because the lines on the roads (Israeli’s say “lane” for line and “line” for lane, so THAT’s always confusing!) – those lanes/lines painted in the middle and on the sides – well, they are put there as a subtle suggestion. We live way up North, in the perifery, where many of the highways are still one-lane in each direction. So imagine driving on this two-lane road, winding your way up a mountain. And you get behind a very large truck hauling a tank. Yes. A ginormous army tank. No biggie. Common occurrence. It’s very slow, but it gives you a chance to take in the scenery.

The cars behind you start honking like mad. This too, is a very common occurrence. Israelis talk with their horns: whether it’s to tell you that the light is about to turn green; to speed up because ‘I’m in my line/lane getting ktsat impatient’; or just to say shalom – the horn is there for communication. All the time. So the car behind that’s honking decides he’s had enough and creates a third line/lane right down the middle. The tank pulls waaaaay over to the side. You’re plotzing as you watch the oncoming car get waaaaaaay over without slowing down, and the new middle line/lane takes shape. Yikes!!!

So last week, for some weird reason (I think John did a California Roll instead of coming to a full stop), a cop pulled us over. Of course, at this point we are very nice and speak only English. Despite the policeman’s attempt at communicating in Hebrew, we understand NOTHING (wink, wink). So he switches to very broken English. And it happened again: “You need for me lessons,” he says. “Why do we need lessons? What’s wrong?” John asks. “You give for me lessons.” I’m trying really hard not to crack up. John responds, “I took lessons already.” “No. Your lessons. I not took your lessons.Take from me your lessons.” At this point, I interject -“OH!!! You must mean license!!!! Honey, the policeman wants your LICENSE.” He says, “Yes. Yes. Your lie-sense.” After minutes of back and forth, it’s pretty obvious he’s getting nowhere and lets us off the hook. Still – you had to be there. The whole thing was a complete comedy routine.

Parking: if you thought the rest of the Western world was bad in their parking abilities, then you’ve never been to the MidEast. Welcome. There are never enough parking spaces. This country was designed for only a few cars. Small cars. Miniature cars. So parking over the lanes/lines is just a thing. You’ll see cars half-on/half-off the sidewalks. You’ll see cars parked in places one would never dream of parking anywhere else. A few weeks ago, I went to the supermarket. And when I came out, this was my predicament. I had no idea who the wiseguy was (notice he pulled his side mirror in, a sign he does this shtick regularly). All I could do was shout “Un-be LEEEVE-able!!” five times – and take a picture. (I just notice: I am on the lane/line. Oops)

So I climbed around the other side. Speaking of climbing on/out, I’ve never before been to a country where the following happens: I’m driving on the highway…..the big one, Kveesh Shesh…. the one with three lines/lanes in each direction. And there’s a bus right in front of me that decides it’s time to slow down and then stop right in the middle of line/lane one. And a bunch of Ultra-Orthodox Jews hop off the bus. A whole bunch. Why? Because it’s time for afternoon prayers. And when it’s time, it’s time. So they hop off the bus and line/leyn (sorry, if you’re Jewish – pun intended) up on the side of the road, and in back of the bus, and whip out their prayerbooks and start to sway back and forth in prayer. With cars speeding by in lines/lanes two and three. Then they get back on the bus, as the cars behind me create a fourth line/lane, and drive around the bus blocking up traffic. It’s actually kinda fun to watch. Then there’s the Muslim contingents who stop, whip out their prayer rugs and pray on the side of the road. And it’s not at all uncommon to see the Arab contingent parked on the side of the road, taking a break under a tree. Because when it’s time for coffee and hookah…. they whip out their plastic lawn chairs, bring out the porto-hookah and mini camp stove to make Turkish coffee and take a break. Would I lie to you???

There’s one picture I just refuse to take. Something that totally drives me mishuggah. The men. Yup. The Middle Eastern men. They have this thing about stopping the car to jump out and walk over to the side of the road. They then proceed to whip out… well, you can only guess. ALL THE TIME!!!!! Watch the Seinfeld ‘Uromysetisis’ episode. It’s absolutely ubiquitous here. Un-be-leeeeeeve-able! And while we’re on driving, the road signs can be quite amusing. For one thing: Hebrew uses completely different letters than English, so all the English words are merely transliterations which can be spelled many different ways – like Tsfat/Zefat/Tzfat/Safed or Akko/Aco/Acre. Can be a bit confusing for the uninformed. And the Hebrew signs! This one, for the city of Bnei Brak, an extremely ultra-Orthodox place, announces that the entire freeway ramp leading into the city is blocked off from Friday afternoon- Saturday night because you ain’t gonna drive in this town on Shabbat – or holidays. So we’re just gonna shut it all down. So there!

This is a cool one: the place on the road sign reads “Ma’aynei HaYeshua” which means Springs of Salvation.

Religion here is a pretty thing. Taken quite seriously. So to see semis on the freeway with “Ayn ode milvado” in Hebrew, which means “There’s no other but Him” on the mudflaps is actually nicer than the naked girl on the flaps of American trucks. Yes, I’ve seen Scripture verses on the windows, verses that remind me to refrain from gossip “Lo lishon harah” which is a good thing for me to keep in mind. The city buses will even have Scripture and Shabbat or holiday greetings. Speaking of Shabbat, check out this guy. He reminds us “Keeping the Sabbath is a source of blessings.” Also nice.

This one is seriously funny. We see it in the Golan and it cracks us up every single time. It tells us not to enter the military training ground. Live fire. Feathers???? Obviously, someone needs spellcheck! Oh, and the deer – it’s not a hunting area. It’s the symbol of the Northern Command. No animals harmed here.

We don’t live too far away from the Jordan River. For the Christian tourists, it’s a holy place reserved for baptisms. For the Jewish contingent, it’s a great place to go river rafting and canoeing. There’s this great place for canoeing called Rob Roy. But their logo is a bit of a mixed metaphor. It’s the Jordan. Right? The JORDAN!!! And their logo features a Native American, because we all know Native Americans travel exclusively by canoe. And Rob Roy??? A Scottish highwayman who lived in the 1600s? I just don’t know about that one…

Back to driving with another example of terrible Israeli drivers. We had to follow this guy and snap a photo. What makes it so uproarious is that it’s the test car for someone who is trying to get their driver’s lessons. He was backing into a parking spot and totally hit a pole and tore off the back bumper, crumpling up the trunk. We think he needs more license!

O.K.This next one’s pretty funny. They built a new home here in Karmi’el. A beautiful, expensive, multi-million shekel home. But the builder made a very big mistake. He didn’t measure the owner’s car before he built the garage, which is just a few centimeters too short for the intended vehicle. Gotta get a photo of this one!

The next one is cute: in the neighborhood near ours, the women obviously take pride in their bus stop. For Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, they decorate it with a bamboo stalk roof, and palm branches and decorations. They have a light-up menorah and hanging decorations at Chanukah. Here it is in the summertime with framed prints of artwork. Community beautification. I love it!

I think the same group of ladies who decorate the bus stop are the ones who take care of the cats. Let me back up. In Israel, we don’t have squirrels roaming all over the place. We have cats. Feral cats. Lots of them. They are absolutely everywhere. Maybe that’s why we don’t have huge rodent problems…or squirrels? So these ladies (I’ve never actually caught them in the act, and I think all the old ladies in Israel do this…) leave out food for the cats. On paper plates. In foil pans. In empty plastic ice cream containers. Cans of cat food. Handfulls of kibble. Huge pieces of schnitzel, potatoes, green beans, couscous. Fish tails. Fish heads. Meatballs. Seriously. Go for a walk after dinner on a Friday night, and see what the kitties are feasting on. Not only that, but in the more upscale neighborhood, there are special kitty feeding stations for cats of privilege.

Heaven forbid, anyone should ever go hungry here! With all the Jewish mothers around…. and the cathouses. Yup you read that one correctly. Cat Houses. They are set up in the winter. Everywhere. In the parks. Under bushes. Behind rocks. With blankets. And pillows. And. of course, food. So they stay dry and warm. Everywhere. Because heaven forbid, a kitty should not be cold and wet. I kid you not. This is the WEIRDEST place!!!! We love it!!!!

Grocery shopping is always an adventure here, too. For one thing, to get the agahLAH, grocery cart, you have to put a coin in the slot to unchain it. It took a very long time, and a continually upset husband, for me to realize that the “nickel,” the five shekel coin that’s the same size as a US nickel…. (well it’s actually worth about $1.50) needs to be retrieved from the slot at the end of the shopping trip. And you never know what you’ll find at the store here. We’re always on the lookout for hard-to-come-by American imports, and like the typical freiers that we are, have been known to pay $12 for a box of Poptarts (I never ate them in the States, but hey…. nostalgia kicks in) or $9 for a teeny can of albacore tuna. And when you see that product (Brillo, mandarin oranges in a can, Brianna’s salad dressing, molasses, Crisco), you buy it all, because you’ve learned it’s a fluke and you’ll never see it again. Then there’s the fake news of American products which are usually made in Lithuania or Botswana or Upper Korindia. Beware!!

Some things are really fun. Like the Bazooka flavored milk. Israelis love Bazooka. Gum. Milk. Ice cream. Bazooka cakes. We have hot dog buns imprinted with fun slogans like “Summer’s here” and “Time for some Fun.” And the ever-interesting Russian cans of ???? The CIF jug is always my favorite. I have absolutely no idea what it is: laundry or dishwasher detergent? Floor cleaner? Windows? Toilets? Radiator fluid? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s the yellow jug below. But what makes this ultra hysterical (and I mean HYSTERICAL) for us is that Hebrew name. Hebrew is a language with no vowels. Your guess is as good as mine. Plus the letter “P” is also an “F” except when it’s at the beginning of the word, in which case it’s a “P” except for weird exceptions. So when we see that bright yellow jug, we ALWAYS shake our heads and say “Pants steak?????” But if you look closely, it actually reads “Fantastic!” as is fahn-TAH-steeeek. Every. Single. Time. Pants steak. Gotta love it!

Another fun thing you won’t see too often outside of Israel is this: An every day sight here:

It actually makes us feel really safe knowing there are always soldiers around (he’s probably an American lone soldier. He has a jar of Skippy. Maybe I should invite him over for Shabbat dinner?) I also took a picture of the t-shirt another gentleman in the next line/lane was wearing. He wasn’t American. I have this sneaking suspicion…

OR this one: 2021- the year spelling turned deadly –

We really haven’t gone to restaurants for over a year now, but here are a couple mis-spells to make you scratch your head:

If anyone knows what pettrejane is, please let us know. In the meantime, al snarkiness intent ended. The small salad is exactly as it sounds. Just that. A small salad. And don’t you dare ask for dressing!

What a Year It’s Been!

So long 2020!! Hello 2021! What a year it’s been for all of us!!! Pandemics. Quarantines and lockdowns. Face diapers. Isolation. Election fatigue. Fake news. We’ve all been through it. But, I prefer to look on the bright side. It’s not been ALL that bad. I even bought a 2021 calendar (probably my most wasted purchase of 2020 was my past years’ calendar).

Our first lockdown happened during the coldest, rainiest winter/spring I have experienced since moving to Israel, so being unable to roam the country freely wasn’t a huge sacrifice. There were books I read that had been stacked up beside my bed. Movies and shows to catch up on. Virtual museum tours and operas and Broadway shows. A few of our favorite musicians gave regular concerts via Facebook and Instagram Live. Such a treat! We watched friends in Tel Aviv spreading cheer through group serenades from their apartment balconies. That was fun. And our local mayor made sure to have the “fun wagon” blaring out music and inspirational messages from a loudspeaker as it slowly wound its way through every city street once a month. Things could be worse. At least people in Israel were not hoarding toilet paper – that was HYSTERICAL, Americans!!!! Thanks for the laughs, memes and jokes about that one!

Many of us started making our own bread and fermenting pickles and cooking up elaborate gourmet meals with the items we found in our fridges and pantries. Cooking classes. Crafts classes. Book clubs. We were never big drinkers, but a friend of a friend gave a free online professional bartending course, which was a blast! Later in the spring, backyard/balcony gardening became the rage. It became the Year of Zoom. Thank goodness we were living in 2020 instead of 10 years ago! Yes. Celebrating all those spring holidays over Zoom was a bit weird, but it was an adventure…. at least at the outset. Through the course of the year, we attended virtual Passover seders, virtual weddings, and virtual classes of all kinds. We longed for more ‘human’ interaction.

Six weeks to turn the corner turned into six months plus of marathon. We were “allowed out” on a limited basis this summer, so I was able to get in a few tiyuulim, or field trips. We celebrated my husband’s being cancer-free. What a celebration and a gift that is!!! We’ve learned that each day is precious and not to be taken for granted. We’ve grown closer to our children. Four are back in University, so John and I spent a lot of time editing papers. We really do need to be presented with honorary degrees at the time of their graduations. In a few weeks, we will be blessed with another grandbaby…. she’ll be joining the new gen of “Quaranteens” in a dozen years. Hopefully, we’ll be able to travel back to the States in 2021!

Our international airport has been pretty much closed to tourists and visitors since early March. It’s been surreally quiet without all the tourists and pilgrims. John and I have been able to go to holy sites in Jerusalem and be the only ones there – the Western Wall was strange with cubicles set up so there would be limited contact between those praying. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was completely desolate: no long lines and craning necks. The vendors lining the shuk (bazaar) are shuttered or emptied with occasional old men sitting outside their stalls playing chess or smoking on their hookah pipes. I must say, my heart breaks for all those who make a living off the tourist industry here: hotels, restaurants, bus drivers, tour guides, vendors. These lockdowns (we’re in the middle of our third, presently!!!) are beginning to take their toll on livelihoods and peoples’ patience everywhere.

And just as in the United States, people are showing signs of election fatigue – we’re in a similar situation here. Our “unity government” has been anything but. We are now facing our fourth election in just under two years! We, too, have had protests and marches – thankfully without the rioting and violence that has happened in the US. But we HAVE seen diplomacy at its best with the Abraham Accords. Who, even five years ago, would have thought any type of peace in the Middle East would be possible, much less a reality? This year, Israel has signed peace treaties and cooperation agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Bhutan, and Sudan. At least five other countries are ‘in the wings’ towards normalization of ties. That’s a miracle!!! Is a trip to Dubai on the list for us in 2021?

We have no clue what this next year has in store for any of us. I will keep writing my blog – spoiler alert: a lot more new (and ethnic recipes!) and quite a few archaeological and historic sites will be among my 2021 posts. I’ll share new towns we’ve visited; unique artwork; and hopefully some interviews with our diverse population (new immigrants; a nearby Arab farming community that has been using ancient techniques and growing heritage produce for hundreds of years in the same tiny valley; artisanal foods; local crafts). It should be quite the year.

Until then, I’ll be deleting much of my social media and game apps as of 1 January. They have become waaaaay too much of a black hole sucking up time. I WILL be keeping my Instagram platform. You can follow me there @eemahleh. You’ll be able to see my beautiful pictures of the Holy Land and all that we’re doing here. And if you want to keep in touch personally, just leave a comment after the blog – I’ll give you my email and personal contact info.

My prayer for 2021 is that all of this COVID-related lifestyle and concern will be a thing of the past. That we can all put aside baseless hatred for those who are different from ourselves in any way. That more people, groups and countries will put down their swords and pick up their plowshares. That we will be able to travel the world freely again. For an end to political wrangling. For health, for happiness, for peace and prosperity and freedom to reign supreme. Here’s to seeking out the True, the Beautiful, the Positive and for living each day to the fullest in Love, Respect, and Holiness. Happy Sylvester for those in Israel! Happy New Year to All!!!

Just Donut Tempt Me!!!

I’ve been a really, really good girl this entire Chanukah season. I’ve looked, I’ve ogled, I’ve photographed, but I haven’t touched a single donut!!! Until just now. You see, it’s the last bit of Chanukah here in Israel. And the main holiday food is sufganyot (soof-gahn-YOTE), or the filled donut. And my wonderful husband just came back from his errands around town with a Chanukah present: the purple box! Roladin sufganyot!

But first, before I reveal the surprise, let me backtrack. The sufganyot make their appearance right after the Sukkot holiday, typically in October. The ones in the supermarkets are typically more like a dense bread than their light, fluffy and sweet American cousins. Instead of exploding with jelly, they have maybe a scant teaspoon of filling… and frankly, we never shared the excitement over this humble pastry…. until last year, that is.

You see, over the past couple years, Israel has taken the art of the donut to an entirely new level. It’s become a high art form here, culinarily speaking. No longer content with the meager teaspoon of overly sweet, fake raspberry jam, pastry chefs have become more and more creative with flavors like coffee cream, strawberry shortcake, bananas foster, German chocolate, pistachio cream, birthday cake and lemon meringue.

The photos at top left and right are from the Roladin bakery chain. They have their game down. The donuts are light and airy, just the right foundation for the fillings…and toppings…and add-ons. I like that many have squirt tubes filled with chocolate, caramel, coffee, jellies, butters, and creams so you can squeeze in the amount of deliciousness you want inside your pastry. Some donuts are a mere platform for the bananas and caramel custard (bananas foster); chocolate ganache and marshmallows, topped with a layer of donut and finished off with caramel sauce (S’mores); whipped cream, fresh raspberries topped with a French macaron.

Feeling a bit more adventurous? Head to Tel Aviv, where sufganyah artistry reaches its crazy peak. In the picture below are three interesting examples: a tad more exotic, from Lehamim Bakery. The first uses etrog, the fragrant citron used on Sukkot. The inside is filled with a citrus custard and bits of citron. Then comes pomegranate, with pomegranate cream, topped with pomegranate arils – more sour than the expected sugar explosion. And a tropical passionfruit-mango version. Simple, and high quality, with a nod to the local produce. I understand their marzipan filled version is to-die-for. They are open 24 hours a day, literally to satisfy your donut dreams.

Boutique Central, with locations throughout the Tel Aviv area offers baked donuts, which are a bit more healthy??? than the normally fried version. Shemo Bakery also has baked sufganyot. Cafe Soho sells vegan varieties – egg and dairy free. With all natural fillings like almond butter and jelly, and tehine and silan (date syrup). They color their dough with beet, carrot and spinach juice (I understand it just imparts color, not taste). I’m really intrigued by the halvah variety, since this sesame paste/ honey candy is my absolute favorite. To have it as the filling for a donut sounds like heaven.

You see, it’s customary to feast on fried foods during the eight days of Chanukah. Mainly because we celebrate the miracle of the oil to light the ancient golden menorah/lampstand in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was only supposed to last one day, but miraculously burned for eight days until new, pure olive oil could be brought in from the Galilee. So the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent make latkes, fried potato pancakes topped with applesauce or sour cream – which are out of this world. The Moroccan Jews eat svenj, a light puffy donut ball which uses goat yogurt as its rising agent (must say, these have become my favorite). Mizrachi Jews from the Middle East eat falafel, fried meats, and jachnoon, a dense rolled-up bread like pastry that is deep fried and covered in a sticky, sugary rose-water syrup.

Shall we go up to Jerusalem, where the Temple was rededicated over 2000 years ago and the Chanukah party is still raging? This year, I’ve heard that the latest fad is the “Abu Dhabi Donut.” The normalization of relations with UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Bhutan and other Muslim countries is our modern-day miracle. Who would have thought peace in the MidEast could ever be a possibility? To honor this new friendship, one bakery, Cafe Kadosh, has been inspired to create a date-filled confection, lightly dusted with sugar and topped with date cream and currants, sultanas, coconut and gold leaf. The dates were shipped to Israel by the local UAE Jewish community. Donuts in Israel usually sell for anywhere from $2.50-5.00 a piece depending upon where in the country you buy them (Tel Aviv – Jerusalem is always much more expensive than the periphery). The Abu Dhabi version goes for 22 shekel, which is about $6.75. And Cafe Kadosh is hard-pressed to keep up with the demand!

More creative varieties I’ve seen this year include plum-cinnamon; apple-vanilla-brandy; and brioche, which I understand is akin to the American “cronut.” The larger cities offer gluten free confections; children’s varieties topped with miniature toy “prizes” and gold foil-wrapped Chanukah gelt (chocolate coins); and one hipster Tel Aviv cafe is selling dognuts …. yup. You read that correctly. Donuts specifically made for your fur-baby in flavors like carrot cream cheese and peanut butter pretzel. There’s something for everyone.

So, what was in my special Chanukah box? Six melt-in-your-mouth balls of deliciousness. We had cookies and cream (Oreo topped); French kiss (raspberry cream with a raspberry syrup syringe, topped with Chambord glaze and a macaron; dark chocolate caramel (can’t wait to try!!); blueberries and whipped cream with a shot of vanilla syrup (I split this one with John. It was as if an angel from heaven floated down and dropped it into my mouth. Another Chanukah miracle??); mocha – also delicious – filled with a coffee cream, topped with dark chocolate ganache and crunchy amaretti; and one other which is white and mysterious that I shall save for breakfast tomorrow. Who can diet during Chanukah? I did my best! I was so good, but then temptation overtook. The diet will have to wait until New Year’s.

To all my readers celebrating Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza and the New Year, keep safe, keep the faith, be healthy, be happy, be holy. Spread love and light. And may 2021 shape up to be far better than the past year. Oy to the world!!!!

Our Chanukah Adventure!

My husband John as Indiana Jones!

The entrance to the burial cave of Channah and her seven sons in Tsfat

Living in Israel has given us a unique opportunity to see the history I had only read about in the Scriptures, in history and story books. Educational, amazing, extremely fun, and sometimes filled with adventure, this is something we definitely do not take for granted!! It was with great excitement when I found out that part of the story of Chanukah took place ‘right in our own backyard.’ As soon as I heard this from my Partner in Torah, Malky, I knew my husband and I had to set off and see for ourselves.

Chanukah is the Holiday of the Rededication of the Temple, also known as the Festival of Lights. It celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrio-Greeks around 150 B.C. The small, ragtag Jewish army defeated one of the mightiest armies in the world against all odds. When the band of Maccabees reached Jerusalem, which had been overtaken by the Greeks (who outlawed Jewish life and prayer), they found the Holy (Second) Temple vandalized. Statues of Greek gods had been placed where the altar once stood; pigs were running through the Temple complex; the gold and silver ritual objects had been stolen as were the Torah scrolls and the beautiful curtain separating the Holy Sanctuary from the rest of the structure. After cleaning out the area, the Maccabees found only one cruze of oil to light the menorah (candelabra). It was only enough to last for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days until new pure, kosher olive oil could be brought in from the Galilee. The Temple was rededicated on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev and we still celebrate this holiday for eight days.

I had grown up hearing the story of Chanukah. It was only when I was an older teenager that I learned this story is not to be found in the Jewish Scriptures: it is a Midrashic/Talmudic story, written down much later from oral tradition. Much later, in my forties, I discovered the books of First and Second Macabees were part of the Catholic Bible in the apocryphal accounts. What a pleasant surprise to read the stories of Judah Maccabees and his brothers! The action-packed battle scenes against the ruthless General Gorgias! The decrees against the Jews by the evil Antiochus Epiphanes! More battles! The cleansing of the Temple! More battles!!! And the heart-wrenching story of Channah and her seven sons found in 2 Macabees, Chapter 7.

Even though much of the action took place in Judea in Central Israel around the city of Modi’in, the story of the martyrdom of Channah happened in Tsfat/Safed, about 20 minutes from us. Channah, a widow had seven sons. They were Torah-observant Jews who were captured by the Syrio-Greeks and made into a public display of conquest in order to subjugate the rest of the Jewish population in the area. The first son was ordered to eat pork in violation of the commandment to refrain from unclean animals. When he refused, his tongue was cut out. Then his hands and feet. He would not recant his faith. His mother urged him to remain true to G-d throughout the ordeal, until he was finally brutally murdered. The next brother was ordered to bow down to idols. He was encouraged in the faith by his mother and brothers, and upon refusing the command, was flayed alive. This continued through the seventh brother who had seen all of his siblings horribly tortured and murdered. The king offered to give him pardon, make him rich and powerful, a Friend of the Royal Court if only he would recant his faith. When he refused, he too, was brutally drawn and quartered. Channah who remained stalwart through all of this was the last to be martyred. They are interred in the Tsfat Cemetery… and I had to go find their graves!

Sunday morning, we drove up to this city perched high atop a mountain. Finding the cemetery was the easy part. It’s huge, with thousands of years of history. Many, many famous rabbis, Torah scholars, and righteous people are buried here. The older, more important graves are marked in a mystical azure color, the color of the heavens. The oldest graves, from Biblical times, are at the top of the mountain and along the sides of the mountainside in deep caves channeled into the stone. There are graves on top of graves, so finding this one in particular seemed a daunting feat. Luckily, as we stopped to ask some seminary girls if they knew of the story or where the tombs were, they pointed behind us. We were standing right in front of their burial chamber!! “Never coincidences in Israel – only from G-d” is a saying here.

Fortunately for us, the entrance to the chamber was crudely marked, but to get there we had to scramble over the wall, up the mountain, over other graves, and stoop amazingly low to get inside. It was totally worth it! Once inside the low, but roomy kever, it was obviously a well-frequented burial site. The more observant Jews here make pilgrimages to the graves of “tsaddikkim” or saints. They light candles in their memory and pray in the merit of their glorious ancestors. To pray at the grave of a holy one gives that prayer an extra lift or boost, an intercession of sorts (this is where the Catholic practice of intercession of saints and lighting candles at graves of holy ones originates, I’m convinced). Prayer slips with requests are folded and left at these sites, much like at the stones of the Western Wall. We prayed here to have the fortitude to remain true and faithful to G-d despite what we see happening in the world around us today. It is a true testimony to the importance of religious liberty!!! Still – to have the story actually come to life like this!!!! It’s not just legend! These were real people!!!! And this discovery was also a huge faith-builder.

After that adventure, we made the thirty minute drive down the mountain to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, to a little town called Migdal (famous for the Gospel story of Mary the Magdalene). Driving along the Western shore of Lake Kinneret as we know it here, you are literally faced with one of the most breathtaking landscapes: Mount Arbel and the Horns of Hittin. There are centuries of history in these few acres of land. The heights proved a strategic site militarily for many armies, as well as a prime hideout as it was hard to reach. SalahDin defeated the Crusaders here in the last battle for the Holy Land. The Romans used it as a stronghold from which to route the Jews living in the Galilee. Arbel had a very bloody history. The Hashmonean Jews, a group established by Judah Maccabee’s brother, Shimon, moved with his armies into these mountain cliffs, from which they fought the Selucid invaders to Israel. Remnants from the battles – entire families – lived here for years, as recorded in Maccabees and the writings of Mattityahu ben Yosef (aka Josephus Flavius). So from here, the Chanukah story had its continuation, as did our ‘field trip.’

We drove around the side of the mountain into the Wadi called the Valley of the Doves. Wow!!!! We had driven by this road regularly for five years, but never made the turn. What a surprise! Now a National Park, intrepid hikers can hike the steep paths to the cave dwellings/hideouts on the Western face of Arbel and the fortress at the peak of the mountain across the valley. It was way too late, and we were not in shape to make the climb. I understand there is a back way to travel by car to the top of Arbel, which we hope to make another time. Still, to see where the Hashmoneans hid out and fought off the Syrio-Greeks….

Unfortunately, we are entering into another COVID curfew and lockdown – a lovely Chanukah present. We had hoped to visit Modi’in to see the battlefields and the graves of Mattityahu and his sons, Judah and the Maccabees. Usually there are many tours and family activities held there during the holiday. We will have to wait until next year for that adventure.

In the meantime, I shall leave you a tidbits: I had always heard that the word Maccabee was somehow related to the word “hammer.” That Judah and his brothers hammered the Greeks. Instead, Maccabee (not the family’s true surname) comes from the Hebrew Scripture, “Mi camokha b’aalim Ad-nai,” translated “Who is like unto G-d?” The Hebrew letters mem, coof, bet, aleph were emblazoned on their banners, in essence proclaiming the battle was the L-rd’s, the strength of the Israelites came from G-d. Hence the acronym and the nickname Maccabee.

Because of the miracle of the oil, it is customary to eat fried foods at this time. So you’ll find me eating crispy, fried, golden delicious levivot/latkes/ potato cakes and getting my sufganiot fix for the year (filled donuts which take this Israeli delicacy to an entirely new art form).

Our Man in Damascus: Tracking Eli Cohen

I had heard the story of Eli Cohen and of his heroic contribution to the security of Israel when I was a young teen. He was one of those larger than life characters for me in modern Israeli history. This past winter we watched the Netflix series, The Spy, with Sacha Baron Cohen in the starring role. It did not disappoint! Action-packed and suspenseful, after seeing the story I couldn’t wait to get out and follow the Eli Cohen Trail to see some of the places where it all took place.

Eli Cohen was born in 1924 in Alexandria, Egypt to Syrian Jewish parents. In 1947, his family made Aliyah to Israel leaving Eli behind to assist the Jewish community in Egypt and to help with Zionist activities, a perilous venture at the time. When it became too dangerous for him to stay in Egypt, he emigrated to Israel ten years after his family.  Eli met and married Nadia in 1959 and they started a family in the idyllic coastal town of Bat Yam where he worked as an accountant.
Eli Cohen was a striking man with an aristocratic swagger: swarthy, tall, very handsome and very intelligent. Besides speaking flawless Hebrew and Arabic, he was fluent in Spanish, French and English. Cohen was recruited by the Israeli Military Intelligence (Mossad), trained for two years, and then sent to establish a new “fake” life in Buenos Aires, Argentina where he posed as a wealthy Syrian businessman, Kamel Amin Thaabet. While in South America, ‘Thaabet’ cultivated friendships with the rich: tycoons, politicians, diplomats, military leaders. His wife, Nadia (still in Bat Yam) only knew that her husband was working oversees for a defense company.

He relocated to Damascus, Syria in 1963, where he moved into a most lavish penthouse apartment directly across the street from the Syrian army headquarters. He was the wealthy Syrian expat, returned home, throwing lavish parties with all the most important Syrian high society in attendance- and lots of alcohol and beautiful women. Kamel Thaabet was loved by all the top leaders, who never suspected him of being a spy until the very end. He was generous in giving out advice and loans. He passed on vital information to Israel through radio telegraphing and during business trips to Europe where he would have secret rendezvous with his handlers and would also be able to see Nadia for a week at a time.

In 1964, he relayed info to the Mossad about a Syrian plot to steal Israel’s water from its source in the Upper Golan mountains. The IDF would be able to bomb the Syrian equipment, halting the diversion of their main water supply. Thaabet made frequent trips with Syrian generals to the Golan Heights. The Syrian army had command of the most strategic spot militarily. Ramat haGolan overlooks the entire Hula Valley just north of the Sea of Galilee. This incredibly fertile land is one of the most productive of Israel’s agricultural areas. From the Heights, the Syrian army positioned snipers to continually shoot down on the farmers working their land. They would often shell the kibbutzim on the other side of the Jordan River. This was a regular occurrence that spanned decades.

Feigning sympathy for those poor Syrian soldiers baking in the intense summer heat, Thaabet bought hundreds of imported eucalyptus trees to be planted at each of the outposts. It would provide much needed shade and would also pinpoint the exact location of the embedded troops for the IDF. Even smarter, Thaabet/Cohen, planted one tree for each platoon stationed up there. A large grove would signal a larger battalion and bunker locations and the largest clump of trees signaled the headquarters. Just brilliant! He also told the Syrians that the shade would provide cover for the afternoon reflection of the sun on their telescope/binocular lenses. They had no reason to doubt his altruistic overtures. The Eli Cohen eucalyptus trees proved to be a vital part of Israeli defense and can be seen dotting the mountain plateau today.

A few weeks ago we decided to drive the Eli Cohen Trail in the lower and upper Heights with the company of two other couples. Our native Israeli friends are history buffs well acquainted with the area and Eli’s story, so picnic in tow, it made for another perfect day. Our first start was the old checkpoint separating the Lower Golan from the Upper Golan. There was an abandoned building that served as the Officers’ Club -a place Thaabet frequented to get the latest military info.

Traveling the wild grassy plains of the windswept barren Golan is always an adventure for me. In many places there are still minefields planted by Syria before the Six Day War. The IDF is working to clear them out now, field by field. Fortunately the minefields are all well mapped out and marked with barbed wire and warning signs. Military bases dot the landscape, and frequently you can watch tanks and soldiers in training. Surreal is a grand word to describe the Golan. Besides the many army bases, it is a place where the cattle roam (Angus ranches and real cowboys on horseback!!!) and the antelope, wild boar, and wolves play. It’s a countryside patchworked with fruit orchards, vineyards, wineries, and Druze villages. Ancient ruins are scattered among the basalt rocks and on high cliffs just east of the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee.

Our next stop was a small Syrian outpost, mostly a bulwark of rocks and trenches – but with great views to the valley floor below. Today there is a modern sculpture of Eli looking out in all directions. The face that points towards the Galilee is the only one with an open mouth and large smile.
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We drove north a few kilometers until we reached Tel Facher, once the main outpost of the Syrian command in the Heights. This is where having Gabi as a guide was an optimal experience. He explained that the Arabic armies were closely allied with the Nazis during World War II. Both nations were united in their hatred of the Jews and of the Jewish Homeland. As the Jews drained the Upper Galilee swampland, and worked the land in the 1930s and 40s, the Germans helped their Syrian compatriots to enforce their bunkers. The Nazis were experts at reinforcing the concrete with basalt… basalt from the Golan was shipped by Syria to Europe to help the Nazis build their underground shelters. Basalt is one of the strongest naturally occurring rocks, making the bunkers bomb resistant. Gabi explained that the Syrian officers would lock their soldiers in the bunkers at night so they would not desert. Because of the impermeable bunkers and the information relayed to the IDF by Cohen, the only way to effectively capture these troops during the Six Day War was through hand-to-hand combat.

Knowing this, the IDF specially outfitted the tank treads on their Merkava and Sherman tanks. They were modified from tanks with spring suspensions to tanks with hydraulics enabling maximum torque so their suspensions would not be torn up when hitting the basalt rock and concrete bunkers. Syrian tanks -were Russian built with suspensions too low to the ground. It tore up the tanks, rendering them useless. Abandoned Russian tanks still dot the landscape.

 

At the pinnacle of the hill/outlook at Tel Facher is a monument to all the troops that fell in this battle of the Six Day War. It’s quite sobering to read the names and ages of the fallen IDF soldiers. Today, it’s a site where army groups and school groups come for a lesson in Israeli history. My son’s military base was right up the road from Tel Facher, and he was in one of the groups that visited the site.

From there, we drove up to Israel’s border with Syria. Har Bental is a high mountain outlook with sweeping vistas overlooking the border wall, Syria and Quneitra. Visitors here can have a lovely meal at Coffee Annan and walk around the old IDF outpost listening to a prerecorded commentary in English. You can explore the trenches dug by the Syrian troops and walk through the IDF bunkers, now abandoned. In years past, we used to hear the sound of artillery coming from Syria, as rebel factions were shooting at each other. Today it is eerily quiet and oddly safe since the most recent Syrian Civil War has moved out of the area. Today it also serves as a UNDOF outlook and was the perfect place to spread out our lunch. There are numerous picnic tables dotting the area.

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Just below Har Bental is what the IDF kids call the “Russian Hospital,” even though it is not Russian and was never a hospital. It was the office complex for the Syrian army. A grand building in its day, with a majestic, sweeping staircase, the building was host to grand parties, diplomatic meetings, and military planning. It was a place very familiar to Thaabet – he frequented this building many times, gaining access to Syrian military secrets. Today it is a bombed out, gutted shell, covered in some beautiful graffiti. I walked the halls taking pictures and imagining Eli Cohen confidently  striding beside me.

 

Because the Syrian high-ups knew there was a leak in their intelligence, and that it was coming out of Damascus, they launched an all out effort to locate the source… never suspecting Eli Cohen/Kamel Thaabet. Radio silence was imposed – the electricity cut block by block each night in order to find the spy. Radio transmission to Israel was intercepted as Cohen tapped out his message. They knew it came from his apartment complex, but couldn’t charge him as a spy – to save face. Cohen was brought in to the ‘Russian Hospital’ for interrogation – under intense torture. He was brought to trial in Damascus. Cohen was not afforded a defense attorney. He was convicted on illegal entry into the Syrian headquarters without permission. A mandatory death sentence was imposed on anyone who entered the secure area under false pretenses. That’s  what they got him on: being a civilian in a military area. Israels’s most effective spy was hung publically in the Damascus town square May 18,1965, the photos sent to Israel. His body was never returned, and supposedly no one knows where it is. His wife, Nadia, has made several attempts, along with the Israeli government, to have his body released, all unsuccessfully.

Not far from Bental, near the Syrian border, a monument has been erected to his memory. It is a representation of his wife and three small children looking out across the now-peaceful plain towards Damascus waiting for Eli to return. It’s a bit surreal to know that Damascus is a mere 36 miles from this spot.

Eli Cohen was the quintessential Israeli. He was dedicated and loyal to his beloved country, to the point of sacrificing his own life. His work was beyond dangerous. Even though he dearly loved his wife and children, and was fully aware that at any moment his cover could be blown, his desire to serve his country was his overriding motivation. The intelligence he transmitted  was invaluable. He successfully infiltrated the highest levels of the Syrian military and government, providing Israel with the most important detailed information. People. Places. Numbers Strategies. Cohen’s information would enable the IDF to capture the Heights from Syria and be victorious in the Six Day War.

I do not regret what I did and if I do regret anything, it is what I could not accomplish.”  -the last words of our man in Damascus, Eli Cohen

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The Spice Life: Recipes!!!!!

After our months of lockdown, opening my home/cage and setting me free has been an incredible experience. To take a friend, get in the car and start driving to a brand new location – WOW!!! There are just so many places to discover here in the Galilee region of Israel’s North!!! A few weeks ago, I decided to take a trip to Bethlehem. No, not THAT Bethlehem! The other one. Bet Lechem haGlilit – the Galilean Bethlehem. Are you totally confused yet? Just wait…

In the Jezreel Valley of the Lower Galilee, about 15 miles east of Haifa and 6 miles northwest of Nazareth is a sleepy little blip on the map, Bethlehem of the Galil. Because it is within an easy morning’s walk to Nazareth, one Israeli archaeologist is convinced that THIS is actually the birthplace of Jesus. After all, why would Mary and Joseph walk almost 75 miles over mountains and through deserts when she was in her ninth month? It kind of destroys the whole narrative found in the Gospels, but this is Israel, and there are a myriad of opinions on everything.

It did exist in antiquity and there was a Byzantine community that was established here in the 3rd century. After that, there came the Crusaders, as seen from the architectural ruins and structures built atop them. It was later re-settled by the Mamaluks and then Muslims from the Ottoman Empire, but was deserted by the late 1700s. In the 1800’s German Templars settled in Bethlehem haGlilit as well as several other places in Israel. Their distinctive architectural style – the stone houses with wooden shutters – can be seen in the photos below. In the 1930’s the Israeli/German Templars aligned wholeheartedly with the Nazi party. YES!!! We had Nazis living in Israel. How ironic is THAT??? In 1941, the British, who controlled Palestine, deported them as enemy aliens to Australia. Weirdness abounds here.

“The Other Bethlehem” is now an agricultural community of mostly Jewish families, but there are lots of Muslim and Druze residing in the area. Famous for its herb and spice farms, it’s home to Lavido Cosmetics Factory and store (we never made it as far as Lavido) and Derech HaTavlinim, The Spice Way – the largest spice store I’ve ever seen. This is unlike any other shuk or spice place I’ve ever been, and the next time we have guests from abroad, I’ll include this on our “go to” list. The intensity of colors!!! And smells!!!! So let’s go visit!!!

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Let’s start with rice spice, which is incredibly popular here. Variations of rice spice are sold from burlap bags and cardboard boxes at every supermarket here. I’ve always been intrigued, but never knew how to use them. So I bought several blends and took them apart for you to be able to make at home. Recipes to follow. But who knew there were so many different ways of making rice? That each ethnicity here has a favorite blend and particular recipe?

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The simple white blend in the above photo has a mixture of dried white onions, currants, golden raisins, sliced roasted almonds and sea salt. I love that they have instructions (in Hebrew) for many of the blends. This one, you add a handful to jasmine or white Persian rice as it cooks and then sprinkle some on top for crunch. The blend to the above left is a Mexican seasoning with crushed bell pepper, chile, cumin, salt, died onions, dried garlic, pepitas and crushed dried tomato powder.

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As you can see, this is unbelievable, and I was in culinary heaven!! Thank goodness, most of the blends are inexpensive, and I bought small amounts of several just to try. There are Asian blends, blends with dried lentils, assorted nuts, all kinds of interesting ingredients. There is a special blend for cooking in red rice. Once mixed in your own kitchen lab, it can be stored in a tightly sealed glass jar for about six months. Sprinkle it over freshly cooked red rice and mix well. Add some to the top for extra crunch. It uses:                              1/2 cup dried onions                                                                                    1/4 cup dried minced garlic                                                                       1/4 cup toasted pine nuts                                                                           1/3 cup roasted, salted pecan bits                                                                1 tsp sea salt or Kosher salt                                                                           1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper

Here is one blend I took apart and has now become a favorite. It’s sweet and mild enough to add a nice flavor. Great served with chicken or salmon.

Orange-Cranberry Rice 

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The spice blend for this is as follows. It can be stored for up to six months in an airtight jar.

  • 1 cup dried onions
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup cranberries
  • 2 Tbsp minced, dried, red bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup orange peel, diced
  • 1 tsp sea salt, coarse, or Kosher salt (Maldon is great)

Use this with a long grain, white rice. For every cup of rice I use 2 1/4 cups water and a handful of the above seasoning blend as it cooks. You can add a squeeze of fresh orange juice. This is so absolutely delicious, and adds just the right amount of fancy.

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There were dozens of za’taar blends: Druze, Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, and more. Each ethnicity having their own version. It’s made of hyssop, a thyme/oregano type woody herb that is indigenous to the MidEast, salt, and sesames with many variations. Usually, it is spread over humus, or fresh dairy products, sprinkled on Israeli salads (think tiny cucumbers and tomatoes chopped very small), and served in Druze flatbread sandwiches filled with Labaneh, a wildly popular sour cream cheese.

Easy HomeMade Goat Cheese Loaf Galilee Style

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Ingredients:

  • 1 liter fresh goat milk (Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, Whole Foods)
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp nigella seeds (ketzach) or (back) sesame seeds
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • za’taar

Pour the goat milk into a glass or ceramic mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice. Let sit for an hour until curds begin to form. Strain the curdled milk (you can save the leftover whey water for pickling vegetables – that’s how it’s done here) in a finely meshed colander. Add the seeds and salt. You can also add 2-3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh herbs and garlic at this point OR 1 tsp za’taar. It’s optional, but wonderful. Mix together with a wooden spoon. Place the cheese curds into a large cheesecloth folded/doubled over. Tie the ends of the cloth onto a wooden spoon and hang on the faucet over the kitchen sink. This allows all the liquid to drain out, taking 3-4 hours. Unfold the cheesecloth and dump the cheese ball, which can be formed into a ball or loaf with well-oiled hands, onto a plate or shallow bowl. Refrigerate for an hour to firm and chill. Serve with olive oil and za’taar sprinkled on top. This is typically a breakfast food here, served with pita, olives, and chopped veggies. Very Galilean.

At The Spice Way, there was an entire row of different fish spices. With Lake Kinneret (sea of Galilee) only a twenty minute drive, fresh fish is quite popular here. Denis, Amnon, St Peter’s Fish, Trout are all found in abundance in the Kinneret. Ordering the fish at a restaurant, it comes to the table completely whole (skin, bones, head and tail) smothered in spices, piping hot off the grill. It’s an experience. Anyway there were so many different spices just for fish:

And of course, there were bulk dried herbs, dried fruits, and combinations of herbs and fruits to make tea infusions. A huge grinding machine for crushing sesame seeds to make techineh. Dried lemons and limes, crushed dried flowers (for Middle Eastern culinary delights), preserved citrus in huge jars; preserved fruits and veggies; grains and pulses; olives of all kinds; freshly pressed oils – the list seems endless.

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I’ve never seen so many pepper blends: powders and crushes – so many shades of orange and red. Hungarian paprika; tomato, chile and bell pepper blends; smoked and sweet paprikas; hot peppers; sweet peppers; Italian, Spanish, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Middle Eastern. Craaziness! (no filter used to enhance- these are the absolute gorgeous colors!!)

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There were several bowls of spice and herb blends just for different potato dishes. I bought a few and went home to experiment. This is the best recipe I came up with after “dissecting” the ingredients of one particular sack.

Potato & Onion Strata

I made this dish three times. I wanted to snap a photo, but every time my husband or son had carved more than half for themselves. Finally….

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First let’s start with this mixture of deliciousness – stores in glass jar for up to six months nicely – if it lasts more than a week or two. The blend cam be sprinkled on mashed potatoes or loaded baked potatoes. Put a little dish out at your next do-it-yourself potato bar.

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Spice Blend for Potatoes: 

  • 1/2 cup coarse sea salt or Kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup dried/roasted garlic pieces
  • 1/4 cup dried/roasted whole garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup dried onion flakes
  •  1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 2 Tbsp dried rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp oregano, optional
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp dehydrated, minced tomato (sun dried), optional

For the strata, I used a quiche dish, but you can use any style baking dish.

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup Extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced paper thin (I use my mandolin)
  • 3-4 large yellow or brown-skinned potatoes, peeled and sliced thin
  • 1/4 cup potato spice blend
  • 3 large eggs, beaten

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Preheat oven to 200*C/400*F. Grease your baking dish with the olive oil. Arrange the thinly sliced potatoes concentrically or in overlapping rows on the bottom. Add a layer of the onions. Sprinkle with the olive oil and the spice blend. Add another later alternating potatoes and onions, oil and spice. Do this as many times as you can until the layers are almost at the top of the dish. Pour the beaten egg over the top, very slowly, to allow it all to seep into the cracks. sprinkle more spice blend on top. Place on foil lined baking sheet and bake in oven about 15 minutes until the top browns. Cover with foil to prevent burning and bake an additional 20 minutes. Uncover dish and let brown about 3 more minutes. Don’t let it burn. Remove from oven and let set, about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

This next recipe is very Middle Eastern. I hate to claim it as Israeli, because, once again, there are so many variations based on ethnicity. It starts with a spiced chickpea which can be roasted and eaten as a low-cal, healthy snack.  It can be served uncooked, mixed into a salad(think veggies, quinoa or cooked bulgar wheat). The Egyptians use it as a stuffing for hollowed out baked onions, peppers, and squashed. Yemenites use it to stuff a chicken before baking. Some people blend it up to make a humus. Quite versatile.

This uses sumac, a red berry from the sumac bush which grows in this area. The berries are died and ground into a powder. It’s a bit coarse and has a tart, almost lemony taste that cannot be duplicated. It can be found in many grocery and specialty stores outside the Middle East. It is ubiquitous here – a staple ingredient in fattoush salads.

Basic Spiced Chickpeas

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Ingredients:

  • 2 14 oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp ground sumac
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne powder
  • 1 tsp sea salt or Kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin

Preheat oven to 170*C/3608F. Heat the oil one medium high heat in a medium sized pot for about a minute. When hot, add the spices and reduce heat too low. Cook, stirring until fragrance is released, about 2 minutes. Add the chickpeas and stir to coat.Turn out onto Silpat covered or greased parchment covered baking sheet. Spread out so chickpeas cover the pan in a single layer. Bake for about 10 minutes.

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These are great eaten as a snack, cold, as is. The peas turn out slightly crunchy, but have a soft center. You can add the chickpeas to a Galilean salad.

  Galilean Chickpea Salad

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup spiced chickpeas (see recipe above)
  • 1 cucumber, diced finely
  • 1 large tomato, diced finely
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small red onion, diced
  • 1/3 cup parsley, chopped
  • 1/3 cup mint, chopped
  • 1/3 cup celery leaves, chopped, optional
  • 1 lemon
  • Drizzle olive oil
  • sea salt, to taste

Combine the chopped veggies in a large bowl. Add the chickpeas and mix. Squeeze lemon using a strainer to catch pips. Add juice to chickpea mixture. Drizzle with olive oil. Add the chopped parsley and mint (and celery leaves). Stir to combine. May add sea salt to taste. Serve cold.

Another option to the above salad is to add a cup of cooked quinoa, and here in Israel, cooked freekeh(a grain) or burgil(a cracked wheat)  is also a popular variation. If you are serving a dairy dish, crumbled feta cheese can also be added.

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The above picture is one of the more ‘interesting’ blends. Ras-el-Hanut translates from the Arabic loosely to mean specialty of the store. Each spice shop has their own unique blend, and, once again, it varied widely depending upon ethnicity. This one contains cardamom, ground roses (really!!!), ground lavender, cinnamon, cloves, and dried ground raisins.  The little sign at the bottom instructs us to add it to a kilo (2.2 pounds) of ground beef along with chopped onion and chopped cuzbara (cilantro) and salt. Mix gently until combined and form into small logs (kabobim) and grill. Or form into balls and simmer in a tomato sauce.

Now for a healthy dessert. A couple days after we visited the spice superstore, my travel buddy, Hadassah Rose, surprised me with a lovely gift –

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She made a wonderful sweet, but not too sweet, healthy date roll chock full of goodies like nuts and dried fruit and mini dark chocolate chips. We finished it off in no time. Using many of the ingredients she bought that day, Hadassah gladly shared her recipe. A couple days later she brought over another adorably wrapped log, this time filled with dried pineapple, mango, papaya and coconut. Oh my L-rd!!!!

Hadassah Rose’s Date Logs

  • 100 grams coconut oil (1/2 cup)
  • 400 grams pitted dates (medjool) (1 1/2 cup, well packed)
  • 1 cup desiccated coconut or 1 cup almond flour
  • 3 Tbsp almond butter or techineh (tahini)
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 cup almonds
  • 1 cup dried fruit (apricots, cherries, cranberries or tropical), chopped
  • 1 cup chopped nuts (hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts)
  • 1/2 cup seeds (sunflower, pecan or toasted sesames)
  • 1/2 cup chopped pistachios
  • extra coconut, fruit or nuts to decorate

Process first five ingredients in a to a smooth, thick paste. Transfer to bowl. Mix in fruits and nuts, with oiled/gloved hands (this is sticky!!!) Smash down in parchment lined (coconut oiled) pan. Refrigerate until hard, 2-3 hours. Cut into squares; or with oiled/gloved hands, roll into log or balls. Can decorate by rolling in coconut or nuts. Wrap in parchment. Keep in fridge until ready to eat.

Perhaps this will inspire you to experiment with creating your own unique combination of herbs and spices. If you are ever out here, I’m certainly game for a return trip to ‘the other Bethlehem’ to visit Derech haTavlinim!!!!