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.

In the Aftermath

I really wanted to write the post I’ve had in reserve for over two weeks now. It’s on the dairies of Northern Israel, with lots of delicious recipes I’ve developed. It’s definitely more fun than writing about the current state of affairs here. But I feel compelled to get the news out: the facts which I am sure you don’t hear outside this country. For some reason they are just not being reported correctly. Or at all, for that matter. And there’s way too much misinformation which is leading to acts of violence against Jewish people. It’s happening at an alarming rate worldwide.

Ten days before Hamas’ opening of the latest war by firing a barrage of rockets at Israel, Yaya Sinwar, the head of the terror organization contacted the Biden Administration with a list of demands to pass on to Netanyahu. They demanded that Israel remove all Jews and security forces from the Temple Mount Complex in Jerusalem. As tensions were heating up during Ramadan, Sinwar demanded that evictions of Arabs from the four homes in question in the Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon haTzaddik neighborhood be cancelled. Also that the annual celebratory flag parade on Jerusalem Day be cancelled as it would be inciting violence. A spokesperson for Hamas stated in Newsweek Magazine that their goal was “to have the Israeli occupation authorities accept our demands or they would face the bombing of Jerusalem.”

To quote the Axios News Agency: “With tensions escalating fast, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had called his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, while Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke to the director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, Alan Ushpiz. The Biden administration had three immediate demands of Israel: stop the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, lower tensions on the Temple Mount and cancel the Flag Day parade.

To appease all sides and deescalate, Netanyahu asked Israel’s Supreme Court to postpone its verdict on the evictions. Jews had already been barred from going on the Temple Mount during the month of Ramadan, but even the Jewish security forces were replaced by Arab Christian, Bedouin, and Druze members. And the parade was re-routed so that it would not pass through the Old City or any part of East Jerusalem.

Did any of this matter one bit? Which side kept up their side of the bargain? And I must say I, as an American Israeli, am so so disappointed in both of the current administrations for bowing to the demands of terrorists.

There have been several falsehoods promulgated by Hamas that have since circulated in the global media. They served their purpose to capture the hearts and emotions of the viewer. We all know pictures speak volumes. It’s just that these were completely false. For the first one: a photo taken in 2013 of Palestinian children staging a funeral was repurposed to seem as if the small child they carried was a casualty of the IDF bombing.

The next photo of a gorgeous young child purportedly killed by the IDF was actually the picture of a 4-year old Russian girl, Sophia. When her mother saw her daughter’s picture splashed across the news, she came forward to say that her daughter was alive and well and living in Moscow. She even submitted a recent picture of Sophia, but most news outlets failed to make the correction. Even the Ayatollah in Iran posted the lie on his official webpage. And outrage was spewed forth against Israel for killing innocent children. Geraldo Rivera???? These libels were another factor fanning the flames of today’s anti-Semitism.

Once again, to debunk the myth of the Israelis launching a genocide of the Palestinian peoples. The Jewish population in majority Arab countries has steadily declined to almost zero since the 1940s. In the past decade, the Arab population in Israel has more than tripled… also in Gaza. Just by looking at official census bureau statistics, you can see there is no genocide of Muslims taking place.

So, where do we stand as of today? Anthony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, is here in Israel currently on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration. He is holding talks with the leaders of Israel and with Mahmoud Abbas, head of the PA/Fatah. He will again proposed a (failed) two-state solution, which comes during a surge in Hamas’ popularity in the West Bank and an extreme decrease in support of the PA. However, Abbas has told Blinken that if he thinks that they would accept any “so-called peaceful solution or renounce any part of Palestine or recognize the Yahoods” then he is sorely mistaken. A recent poll showed 57% of Palestinians are opposed to a two-state solution, and that they would rather support an armed struggle against Israel.

Blinken today pledged to “rally international support to aid Gaza while keeping assistance out of the hands of its militant Hamas rulers. That begins with tackling the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and starting to rebuild…We’re going to be working in partnership with the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority to channel aid there in a manner that does its best to go to the people of Gaza. As we all know in life, there are no guarantees, but we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that this assistance reaches the people who need it most.”

Since 2007, the PA has subsidized terrorism with their “Pay for Slay Program.” From a report released in 2019, when the PA publicized its monthly financial expenditures for the first 5 months of that year: the PA paid out an average of over $65million USD per MONTH despite its self-imposed financial crisis .This amounts to an average income for a person convicted of man act of terrorism in prison in Israel of $580/month if he has a 3-5 year sentence. If that person is serving a sentence of over 20 years for killing an Israeli, he receives $3200/month for life. If the terrorist is an Israeli citizen, he gets a $145 bonus (the average Israeli citizen makes an average of $2700/month). I am not making this up…

During the Trump Administration, the US Taylor Force Act was signed in honor of the slain American victim of that name. It halted all aid to the PA if they continued with their Pay For Slay initiative, so they stopped the heinous program. Unfortunately, this policy was reversed in the first hundred days of the Biden-Harris Admin, and has since been reinstitute. As of today, there has been an uptick in Islamic terrorist activity: car ramming, drive-by shootings of 3 Israeli boys at a bus stop; attempted stabbings and just yesterday, a 17 year old Muslim boy from East Jerusalem armed with a knife stabbed two 20 year old soldiers before he was eliminated. This was yesterday’s headline. Welcome to an Israel that your admin has helped promulgate, Mr. Blinken-

In addition, Islamic Jihad and Hamas have vowed not to help its civilian population or rebuild apartments and infrastructure, but to carry on the fight and build up its military capabilities. The photo of the day was that of Yaya Sinwar (great name, I must say) holding up a small child with a rocket launcher. These are the people calling for genocide and much of the world seems to be caught up in following them.

Now is the time to speak up. If you’ve ever said “I’m an honorary Jew” or “I’m with the Jewish people,” now is the time to speak up for Jewish people across the world. If you are Christian, walk with your Jewish friends to synagogue on Friday evening or Saturday morning for protection. If you hear an antiSemitic remark, debunk it. Fight fables with facts. If you are Jewish, attend rallies, politely educate others, join groups supporting Jews and Israel, make Aliyah. If we don’t stand together now, it will soon be too late.

Hopefully, next time, I can go back to writing about happier things-

Mostly Quiet

Two days ago, when I last wrote, we were at war. So much has happened and there are endless café-side opinions and posturing today. For the last two nights – all night long- and into today, late Friday afternoon, IDF jets have been strafing the sky. We’ve had at least 4 info-getting drones up over just our immediate area. And for the person that asked on Wednesday if I was worried or afraid – I had my two big meltdowns since this started. After I realized we had 4 rockets launched over our heads (in my last post, I was able to video one being intercepted about 9 miles from our upstairs balcony), I got a little nervous. It’s late at night, lying in bed, unable to sleep as the red alert app is going off signaling rocket barrages down South, jets racing through the sky to let our neighbors know we are alert and ready for anything, and the flashing white light of a buzzing drone shining through my window that I lost it. For about 20 minutes. I was really apprehensive. OK. I admit. I was scared. And tearful.

This morning we awoke to the news that a ceasefire had been called. A unilateral ceasefire. And Joe Biden was taking the credit. Promising unlimited aid to the Palestinians to rebuild and to help them in any way possible. That the US had denied an arms package to Israel in Congress. And Hamas was celebrating. And the Palestinians were calling it their victory. Candy was being handed out in the Palestinian towns in celebration of their victory. Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said that he had received guarantees from the US mediators that, “the occupation will remove its hand from al Aqsa and Sheik Jarrah.” We still have not gotten back the bodies of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oren Shaul or captive, Avera Mengistu, who have been held in Gaza since 2014.

At the announcement of the truce, there were immediate clashes – in the middle of the night, mind you – at the Damascus Gate outside the holy Old City of Jerusalem. Video was circulated by Palestinian media this morning showing the Islamic militant mobs armed with fireworks, rocks, wood, and sound grenades. The police responded with tear gas. “We have prepared a serious missile attack that will hit Israel from Haifa in North to Ramon Airport in South, ” Khalil al-Hayya, a Hamas senior operative threatened. For some reason thousands of Arab men were already assembled last night at the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. They were waving flags and chanting “Death to all Jews. The soldiers of Allah are victorious. Praise to Allah.” Video showed them throwing bottles at Israeli police who seemed to be standing aside.

All Israel remains on high alert. The reservists are still called up. The Jerusalem District Police have increased their forces and patrol of all neighborhoods. A number of police vehicles have been damaged. There have been reports of unrest in several towns and cities in the West Bank including Nablus, Tayibe, and Jenin. Hizbullah sent their congratulations to Hamas today for what it called a “heroic round, establishing a new set of rules that will pave the way for the next and greatest victory” and for their “heroic and sacrificial effort to restore life to the holy cause of total Jihad.” They are gloating that now “we have showed Israel is as weak as a spider’s web.” Today there was widespread rioting on the Temple Mount again today after Friday prayers, although nothing was done to stop the perpetrators.

As of this morning, another large caravan of trucks with aid from both Israel and Jordan was headed into Gaza. Two days ago, the aid had to be halted because of rocket fire. Yesterday two Jordanian aid workers trying to bring relief were killed by Hamas rocket fire at the checkpoint. Things are relatively quiet, but very shaky. There’s a lot of rebuilding to be done both in Gaza and here in Israel. Buildings destroyed. Roads and field that have incurred direct hits. Lots of injured. And of course, the psychological trauma. Bur these Israelis are a determined and tough lot.

So what is new? This was the first time over 4500 rockets have been fired into Israel. We’ve seen the accuracy and effectiveness of the Iron Dome and the resilience of the Israeli people. For the first time, Israel has had to deal with insurgents within our own cities, waging a progrom against the Jewish people of Israel, burning synagogues and houses, lynching civilians, torching cars. We’ve seen over 1000 Palestinian sympathizers at the Jordanian and the Syrian borders trying to gain entrance into Israel… and not with good intentions, I’m afraid. We’ve had Iranian drones filled with explosives launched into Israel from Syria and Iraq. We’ve had roque Palestinian missile barrages into the North of Israel from Lebanon. We’ve had Islamic attacks on Christians in towns in the North.

But the most upsetting and egregious war, I believe, is the one being fought on social media. From the celebs and super-models to sports figures, talk-show hosts and even politicians, we’ve heard the call for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. We’ve heard that the fight was disproportional. We’ve heard that Israel was, is, and remains the aggressor. That Israel is a White Supremist, Colonial, Apartheid State. even though the majority of the Israelis are brown people – Sephardic and Mizrachi Jewish refugees, Arabs and Druze, Ethiopian and Ugandan. The most distressing take-away is the complicity of the media to uphold and disseminate such hatred against Jewish people. We’ve been incredulous at the feeds coming in from CNN, NPR, Sky News, and various newspapers. In London, Spain, Paris, Los Angeles and New York City there have been attacks upon Jewish people; parades of Muslim Brotherhood, Black Lives Matter and Palestinian sympathizers marching in the streets and driving in caravans throwing rocks and firecrackers and chanting “Death to Israel. Death to the Jews.” I’ve never seen anything like this uptick in anti-Semitism. It’s terrifying.

For the most part, it seems to be advancing unchecked and without too much opposition. When will it all end? I pray the people of Gaza can somehow get free of the yoke of their Hamas/Islamic Jihad oppressors. I pray that citizens of the world will wake up to the rise in anti-Semitism; that people will stop this inflammatory rhetoric of hatred, especially when they are lacking in facts; that there will be some sort of dialogue leading to a better understanding of each side; and that we will all be able to pick up our lives and start the long, hard process of healing.

I hope we all can enjoy a peaceful Shabbat and quiet weekend…

More on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

It’s been a most difficult week both for my Israeli brothers and sisters and also for the innocent civilians in Gaza. And it’s been an overwhelming week for anyone who has been bombarded with insane disinformation by the mainstream media, social media, and well-intentioned but misinformed celebrities who are not living this nightmare. First of all, I want to thank all those who have written, called, and reached out to check on us, find out our situation and express concern about our well-being and the well-being of those around us. For all those who are praying for an end to the violence. For all those who have requested information. For those who have asked questions (based on what they have been hearing) and for those who have sent us articles and videos. I can’t begin to tell you how much it means to John, Max and me.

I will try to answer as many of the questions as I can with history and facts so you will have a better understanding of what is going on here. First of all – it’s more than extremely complicated. Secondly – I posted an article on Monday, 10 May, when this whole mess exploded (literally). In it, I gave a timeline of events leading up to this “Perfect Storm,” which was the title of my article. Please read that first, if you haven’t already.

So, what’s going on with the Gaza Strip? It’s one of the most frequently asked questions I’ve gotten. Let’s go back to 1993, the time of the Oslow Accords. In a nutshell, after years of violence and territorial disputes between Israel’s Jewish and Arab population, talks were held between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, US President Bill Clinton and Yassar Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority. In 1994, a document was signed to create “a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.” The Palestinian Authority was officially recognized as the leading political party of Judea and Samaria, a huge swath of Israel better known as the West Bank (it actually is a third the size of Israel – please look at a map). The PA was given “wide legislative, executive and judicial powers and responsibility over their own internal security, health, education and social welfare.” Free elections were to be held and a Parliament established.

On 13 May, 1994, Israel formally pulled out of much of the area, ceding Jericho to the PA. By the end of the summer, the cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin were completely under the PA control. It also marked the establishment of the terror organization, Hamas, and the beginning of the First Intifada against the Jewish citizens of Israel. It was a bloody summer, and by the end of 1994, 120 Israeli citizens had been murdered by suicide bombers and random attacks at cafes in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem bus stations, on city buses and in malls and grocery stores. Prime Minister Rabin continually called for calm and peace. Israel was completely divided as to whether to continue negotiations, peace talks and withdrawal from its own territory. Each time there was a greater escalation of terror, but negotiations continued.

4 November, 1995 Rabin was assassinated by an angry Israeli man, Yigal Amir, plunging the nation into even greater despair and division. Shimon Peres of the Labor Party stepped in as the next Prime Minister and the peace talks continued with Arafat. Each time, the Palestinian suicide bombers continued to try to derail the peace process. Arafat refused to control the terrorists. So Peres stopped the negotiations.

Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party, was elected by a very narrow margin as the next PM in 1996. Like Peres, he pressed Arafat to act against the suicide bombers, but still Arafat did not do so. Despite all this, Netanyahu continued with the peace process, transferring 80% of the city of Hebron to the PA. The Jews retained control of the small neighborhood surrounding the Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial place of Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. Jewish settlements were established in the West Bank, leading to further conflict.

Skipping ahead to 1999, Ehud Barak succeeds Netanyahu as the next leader of Israel. His first act as Prime minister was to withdraw IDF forces from a small 2-mile-wide strip along Northern Israel that formed a safety barrier against Lebanon. More acts of terror, this time from the North. Then, in 2000, Barak and Arafat met at Camp David with President Clinton. Prime Minister Barak was ready to give up 90% of the West Bank to Palestinian control. Arafat had to agree to recognize Israel as a sovereign Jewish state, but he refused and the Second Intifada began. Over 1000 Israelis were killed in acts of terrorism within four years.

In 2001, Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister of Israel. By now, Arafat had become old and infirm. He was powerless to stop the Islamic terror. In 2004, Sharon ordered construction on a high wall to be built on much of the border between the West Bank and Israel to try to hedge in the terrorists. Checkpoints and IDF guard stations were installed as a deterrent to constant threat of attack. Arafat dies, and Abu Mazen, better known as Mahmoud Abbas, is elected to a four year term as Prime Minister of the PA. He is currently in year 16 of this “four-year term.”

In August of 2005, there is a unilateral evacuation of all Jews living in the Gaza Strip, a 141 square mile strip of land that is bordered by Egypt to the South, the Mediterranean to the West, and Israel to the East and North. 10,000 Jewish residents left, many forcibly evicted from their homes by the Israeli Defense Forces. They left behind their beautiful homes, schools, synagogues, hospitals, parks and irrigated agricultural lands. Newly formed Islamic terrorist group, Hamas, quickly stepped in to vie for control with the PA. Israel gave this land up voluntarily because they thought it would finally bring about peace. The Palestinians immediately set to work destroying all the existing infrastructure. They razed the synagogues, schools and hospitals.

This area, the Gaza Strip, could have been a living paradise with its beautiful beaches, arable lands and existing infrastructure. Instead, it’s been turned into a nightmare of Jihadi terrorism. Hamas, and now the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant arm of Iran, hold the innocent civilians of Gaza hostage to their dictatorial regime. They feed the people a diet of fear of the Jews. It’s so sad, that they have educated their young children to hate and to become soldiers of the Jihad. 63% of their population live in abject poverty. The terrorist organizations have siphoned off the billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to fund building of terror tunnels, procuring of weapons, and lining their own pockets. It is truly tragic. Abbas and the PA, who had official control of the Strip until recently, instituted a program called ‘Pay to Slay’ where families of their ‘martyrs’ (those that have been killed while trying to commit acts of violence against Jews) are given a lifelong pension. Trump cut off funding. Biden re-instituted it. What can I say???? It gave them the green light to continue the terrorism, which picked up in March of this year with car ramming and stabbings.

So, to the woman in CA who expressed concern for the suffering Gazans: YES!!! The poor Gazans ARE suffering. But it is not because of Israel. As I write this now, I’m listening to the morning report online from NPR. I know you mentioned that’s where you get much of your information. Their narrative is very interesting, but not necessarily complete. I’ve been taking notes from their broadcast- and this is a direct quote:

“Israeli attacks on Gaza are become more intense every night, greater than the night before. These strikes are keeping Palestinians up all night terrified. They are not getting any sleep at all. Their water supply is short and they only have about five hours of electricity per day. There is no place for them to go. They have no escape.”

There was absolutely no mention of what is happening here in Israel. Since exactly this time last week, with a joint effort between Hamas and PIJ, over 3,150 rockets/missiles have been fired at Israel. The barrages have been incessant, 24 hours a day for seven days now. Over 2 million people have been forced into bomb shelters. In those sorties, 463 Hamas rockets have misfired, falling back into Gaza. 21 of these have taken down electrical power lines in the Strip, causing widespread outages to their already limited power. Hamas is so unfortunately creating its own humanitarian disaster. As of Saturday, they shut down the water purification plant in order to siphon off power to their command centers. Densely packed Gazan residential areas are being used as military strongholds, sites for mobile rocket launches (see my Instagram video post @eemahleh), weapons storage facilities and entrance into their underground tunnel network. In the meantime, Israeli civilians have been forced into their bomb shelters. all hours of the day and night.

Why are there more casualties in Gaza than in Israel? There are several reasons. Israel is committed to the protection of its citizens. We have the Iron Dome System, which sends guided missiles up to intercept the Hamas rockets before they reach Israel’s population centers. We have sirens everywhere, blaring as soon as a rocket’s trajectory is known. This warning system alerts Israelis so they have time (sometimes as little as 15-18 seconds) to get into a bomb shelter before impact. Most individual homes and newer apartments have a safe room, with 10-inch thick rebar enforced concrete walls and metal door. All apartments and public buildings are equipped with underground bomb shelters, however, sometimes there’s only enough time to crowd into an internal stairwell. There are public concrete bunkers on many blocks and in parks. In edition, each person with a smart phone has the Red Alert App. Every time a rocket is launched into Israel, an alarm goes off with a buzz, a vibration, and an expected impact range. My phone has been buzzing incessantly 24/7 for the past week. All day. All night. There is not more than a half hour when a new barrage is announced. It’s a hell of a way to live, but thank goodness we have it. It saves lives.

Tragically, as stated previously, Hamas and PIJ are using their civilian population as human shields. Since last Monday, the IDF has struck over 820 terror targets. As of today, there are an unknown number of Palestinian civilian casualties among the estimated 140 deaths. Before the IDF strikes a target, they follow a set protocol: first leaflets are dropped and SMS messages are sent to residents of a building 40 minutes before the strike. It warns people to evacuate the premises due to an imminent attack. Phone calls are made to those inside. See the video where the security guard is called by the IDF 10 minutes before the AP/Al Jazeera building was taken down. There were no casualties. 5 minutes before an IDF bombing of a building, a “knock bomb” is dropped. This blunt metal pipe knocks on the roof to let those inside the attack is forthcoming. Evacuate now.

In the meantime, both countries have been extremely hard hit. This past weekend, despite a 90% success rate, there have been many direct hits on apartments, homes, synagogues and cars. Thankfully, this war has claimed only 11 Israeli lives. I leave you with a post from Israeli soldier:

IDF Cpl. Zoharya, Liaison to Platoon Commander in the Search and Rescue Brigade shares:

“Last night there were sirens and rockets falling everywhere. We were told to put on our gear and be ready in five minutes. We left our bomb shelters and went as fast as we could to a building that was hit in Petach Tikvah.

The cars were exploded and melting. we entered a half-collapsed building and saw tons of broken and shattered glass. Our mission on the ground is to help as many civilians as possible. We went to every single door, to see that everyone managed to get out, and that if they needed help or medical assistance they got it.

I drafted five months ago. I’m 19 years old; I’m actually still training. These past few days we’ve been on call 24/7. You go to eat, and you eat in 10 minutes because you have no idea what’s going to happen.

I think people just don’t understand the situation we’re living in here. However, we are helping people and giving them a sense of safety, and that makes everything worth it. In three hours on the ground we helped them so much.”

One last thing: in answer to the three people who have sent video clips from their pastors and rabbis in America:

No. This is not G-d’s judgement on Israel because Bibi Netanyahu entreated into a contract with Pfizer to have the population vaccinated. No. I do no believe G-d is judging Israel for baseless hatred. You are not living here. Israel now is more unified than ever. Everyone is helping everyone else out. We will hopefully be hosting two families that are caught in the bombings of Ashdod for as long as they need it (where we are, it is quiet). Everyone is praying for everyone else. Parents are making relief boxes and treat packs for the soldiers. Restaurant owners are sending boxes of pizza and sodas to the front. It doesn’t matter whether a person is secular are religious – or what religion, for that matter. The mixed community of Abu Ghosh in the Jerusalem suburbs has been having a Jewish-Arab solidarity and friendship rally. Up here, groups of grandmas are making hand-made dolls to give the children of the south. There is no baseless hatred. No. Netanyahu did not fabricate this mess to hold onto power. That is absolutely ridiculous.

Again, thank you for your readership, support and prayer. In my next post, I will outline ways to help. In the meantime, you have my permission to share this post.

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.
IMG_0839
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!!!! 

 

 

 

Art Over Hate

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We had heard about the graffiti wall on the Northern border of Israel with Lebanon, but had been unable to located it in day trips past. So it was with great anticipation when we drove up there with Israeli friends a few weeks ago. The world seems to have exploded in bouts of rage and rioting and baseless hatred and division over the past few weeks. This wall is most definitely a ray of hope.

Despite the fact that the Hezbollah terror group is strongly entrenched directly on the other side, with hundred of thousands of missiles (thank you, Iran!!!) pointed at us, we actually felt quite safe traveling up to Moshav Shetula. The moshav (small community – this one of about 250 people) was founded shortly after the 1967 War by a group of brave individuals forming the front lines of defense. As one man told us, “Someone has to do it. And we are here to live fruitful, quiet lives.” In fact the Hebrew word ‘shetula’ means planted firmly with roots going deep. It is a beautiful place, perched atop the mountains with spectacular views. The families earn their living mostly through farming and raising chickens, both for the eggs and the meat. Many of the residents are Kurdish Jews, who managed to escape before things got really bad. For them, just the ability to live in freedom in the land of Israel is an honor and a blessing.

In 2017, after several breaches in the security fence, and the finding of Hezbollah terror tunnels that were dug underground into Israel for the purposes of kidnapping and killing Israeli citizens, a reinforced cement wall was built along the border. Soon after, artists – Israeli graffiti artists; school children; non-profit organizations and artists from around the world were invited to decorate it. The theme: Art Over Hate/Love Conquers All. It is an amazingly beautiful sight!!! Full of bright colors, love and hope.

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The above paintings are entitled  “Planting the Tree of Life: Shetula” and “Come Together Right Now Over Love.” The vibrant colors express a vision of hope and peace for Jews and Arabs, looking towards a brighter future when all people can live in harmony. We are not there yet, but perhaps one day soon….

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The next grouping is an homage to the people of the moshav who raise chickens. Whimsicality reigns with these three pieces of art. Honest work to feed the country’s people – noble indeed. May they enjoy many peaceful years up there raising the chickens!

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I absolutely love this one. It’s a painting of Montfort Castle, just a few miles to the south. For a story on the mystery of this Crusader ruin, read my last blog post. The olives grow all over the Upper Galilee, and are one of the crops the people of Moshav Shetula grow. The olive branches are symbols of holiness (the holy oil used to light the menorah and to anoint priests and kings in Biblical times) and of peace. The blue in the background is a special color used here on roofs, gates, doors, and the tombs of holy saints. It has its roots in thousands of years of superstition and is thought to ward off demons from entering.

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In the next grouping, the top painting was done by the children of the moshav. Grapes (grown in the little village), olives, and a heart shaped swimming pool to cool off on those sweltering summer days. A child’s vision of a good world. The bird in the next photo is a Bee-eater, indigenous to the area and quite necessary for pollinating the fruit trees and flowers. He’s bitten his apple into the shape of a heart (Love and Beauty Conquer All). In the next illustration, a dove of peace flies an olive branch to a young girl. And the last in this set is a whimsical depiction of colorful elephants. Check out the baby, holding a lit candle to be a light in the darkness. These illustrations are all about happiness. There is no negativity, no hate here. It’s simply wonderful!!!

Of course, there are the typical graffiti tags and pictures. What would a graffiti wall be without those??? The portraits of the two men were done by Solomon Souza, who is most widely known for his painted murals at the Mechane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem  – as well as several album cover designs.

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Something every soldiers looks forward to – there is actually a phone app counting down the days – is that momentous day they get to cut their choger, (pronounced khō-GAIR) which is their active military duty ID card. And here is a piece of art celebrating that:

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Of course, being in the Holy Land, there is the Bible Verse from Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” This is an English translation from a youth group, B’nei Akiva. I think their English skills need a little help, but the sentiment is there.

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My favorite remains the explosive colors and message of hope and love below:

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O.K. I lied. It’s the blue owl. He’s called the Mona Lisa Owl, because his eyes follow you as you walk along the road. But if you look carefully at his pupils, you can see the reflection of the local mountains, opposite him.

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So, there are a few other things I’d like to point out before we leave the art wall. Every few meters there was an indentation of sorts in the wall which looked out over the real electrified border fence. Several military bases are stationed within a mile of each other guarding the border. Our friend, Gabi, was able to explain just what we were looking at. There are cameras all over the place. Every square inch is under IDF observation 24/7. An extra security fence was in the process of being built around the moshav, a necessity and fact of life as to increased threat. IDF patrol vehicles and UNFIL jeeps (United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon) also passed us frequently. Exactly what good they do is hotly debated. And a gentleman who had just picked the most delicious nectarines from the local orchard stopped to give us handfuls on his way to market. That’s typical Israel.

What type of people would build homes, places to raise young children in a place like this? What does the community look like? The homes were all very nice and well-manicured with flowers and an abundance of green everywhere. There was a synagogue, community sports facilities, little general store and post office, swimming pool, amphitheater, basketball courts – typical of every single moshav I’ve visited throughout Israel. Every block had the instant emergency warning system and underground bomb shelter, may they never have to be used. Adjacent to some houses were farms, groves and gardens, with lots and lots of chicken coops on the Southern outskirts of the village. There is also a restaurant on the moshav serving authentic (Kosher) Kurdish dishes….

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As we were leaving, we were stopped at the front gate by the police, border patrol, and civilian guard from the area. There had been a “security breach.” The main exit road was blocked to deal with it. We still felt safe as there were other cars stopped and no-one was panicked in the least. We were told to turn our cars around and leave through the back gates. No biggie. Later we were to find out that three Sudanese men attempted to sneak into Israel and had been apprehended.

We pray for the peace and safety of this land and for art to rule over hate.

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Mysteries of Antiquity

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Montfort Castle (in mid-ground) perched on a mountaintop, overlooking the Mediterranean

There are few things Israelis (both native-born and immigrants) love more than a tiyuul (TEE-ool), a day-trip, tour or hike. We had hiked up to Montfort Castle, six miles south of the Lebanese border, twice before – from different angles and with different tour-guide friends. Each time we got a different view of the majestic ruins of this Crusader fortress – and each time we got a different story. Each story was fascinating and mysterious, full of romance and military moves. And each had elements of historical truth and fact; but all three stories varied wildly.

How does one piece together truth from ruined antiquities? Each person telling the stories of the past has his or her own bias and own historical interests and specialties. Add to that a host of unsolved murders, ghost stories and tales of hauntings that have crept into the retellings, and you have quite the mix to sort out. Such is the case with Montfort Castle. The first time we made the hike was four years ago, with Shabtai, an Israeli who loved history and loved a good yarn. It was a beautiful spring day, in the times before COVID, when the trails were jam-packed with hikers of all ages. Those intrepid Israelis: babies and musical instruments on their backs, navigating the steep mountain trails like the Israeli deer one can see on the cliffs.

Shabtai had told us about this Crusader Fortress, one of several built during the 12th century by the Christian conquerors of the Holy Land – Christians bent on establishing an enduring presence in Terra Sancta. These Europeans traveled to Israel – some for religious pilgrimage; some for adventure, fame and fortune; some for conquest – to rid the land of infidels, Muslim and Jew alike; some to set up missions and colonize the area for the Church. On a steep ridgeline in the center of a wadi overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, eight miles northeast of the ancient Akko port, these French Crusader knights decided to build a fortress. It was hidden from plain view, but afforded excellent views from all directions. It was the perfect and most strategic spot for a military installation. And because it was so hidden it was the perfect location to store hidden treasure – everything from Biblical antiquities from the Second Temple in Jerusalem (think of the movies, National Treasure or Indiana Jones) to plunders of gold and silver artifacts from the Muslim sheiks to religious relics of various saints. It was all stored and buried there or in caves in close proximity to the fortress. I remember the tale he told of a handsome Christian knight who fell in love with a local Galilean Jewish girl, both young and beautiful. It went against religious practices for either of them to marry each other. As the story goes, they had a secret rendezvous at the castle on a moonlit night and fling themselves over the parapet into the cavernous wadi below rather than to live apart. Their ghosts still linger as mists on the walls on nights with a full moon.

Our friend, Shabtai, is a grand story teller. We could listen to him all day, but have learned to take much of what he says with a few grains of salt. About 45% is actual historical fact, the rest….well, it makes us want to research the true histories of the land. I’ve learned to check my old history books (from the days of homeschooling) and look for first-hand documentation, if it can be found. The histories of Josephus Flavius, the Scriptures – a working knowledge of both Tanach and New Testament are important in this land; diaries and letters from ancient Romans, Jewish rabbis and European Crusaders; old maps; and speaking with archaeologists and historians are all part of putting together the puzzle pieces.

The next time, we hiked up the wadi following the Katziv Stream. It was an early autumn hike, and the stream bed had long dried up. Avigail, our guide for this one, gave us a history lesson that seemed much more factual than our first introduction. Archaelogical excavations had revealed this was once the site of an ancient Roman fortress, as coins and Roman spear tips had been found in situ. After the Romans, the Muslim invasions of Israel swept down from the North and the East in the 700s-800s. French Crusaders first conquered the Holy Land from the Islamists in 1099. As a reward, large swaths of Israel, were gifted by the Roman Catholic Church and the Crowns of Europe to royal families. This whole northern area was given to the DeMille family of France to settle and farm. They built a castle atop this mountain and planted vines for the cultivation of wine. In the late 1100s, SalahDin, the Kurdish Muslim general, took the land and the castle from the French settlers upon his brutal retaking of the land. Enter the English and French together, who vanquished SalahDin under Richard the Lionheart. These Crusaders resettled the coast of Israel from Jaffa to Caesaria and Akko, their new capital(also known as Acre). The land where the DeMille estate was located was sold to the Knights of the Teutonic Order (Germans).

There was a great rivalry between the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller over Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Akko. Who would have control over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the holy sites and the strategic sites? The Teutonic Knights were formed as a German military order of the Holy Roman Empire to secure territory and aid pilgrims from Europe traveling to the Holy Land. They gained control of Akko, but moved to the abandoned Montfort Estate in 1229, fortifying the property with outer and inner walls and guard towers. The Teutonic Knights added a second story as well as magnificent archives and a treasury, renaming it Castel Starkenberg. In 1266, the fortress was overtaken by the Mamaluks (Muslim mercenaries from Egypt who were first enslaved by the Sunnis, but proved to be an excellent asset for their military and engineering prowess). Sultan, Baybars conquered much of the territory of the Northern Galilee, including Montfort. A siege ensued. The Crusaders were forced out and the much of the remote mountain fortress was razed. Fortunately, the Teutonic Knights were able to take the contents of the great library and the most of the treasury with them as they fled back to the Germanic territories in Europe in 1271.

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Last week was another beautiful week in the Northwest Galilee. We planned a tiyuul with friends to some of the border villages and to Park Goren, a JNF sponsored park. Goren is gorgeous!!! It reminds me a tiny bit of Yosemite with spectacular views of cliffs and canyons. It’s a favorite place for hikes, picnics and campouts. Fortunately for us, the area was rather deserted and very peaceful. This time, John and I looked over the wadi to the mountain ridge opposite for the most spectacular view of Montfort Castle (see above). People are able to take the steep, almost vertical, steps to the bottom of the wadi (to the Katziv Stream/Nahal Kziv). From there it is an hour or two hike up to the ruins.

This trip found us in the company of an amateur military historian and fascinating story teller. He explained to us that Montfort is the site of one of the greatest military mysteries of all times. The way Avi tells it, during the Second Crusade, the French wanted to establish a hidden and strategic military outpost. As soon as they saw the ridge of the Beautiful Mountain, they knew they had found their spot. It was perfect for defense: an arrow shot right into the wadi below, a rolling stone down the cliff, the high ground easily kept. From Montfort, one could watch for invading armies sweeping down from the North in what is now Lebanon. It was the perfect site for an ambush! They would also have a fairly unobstructed view down the wadi to the coast. It was decided at once to start the massive building project at any and all expense. Slave labor was recruited from both the remaining Jewish population and the Bedouins that lived in the area. Three years spent hewing massive rock and constructing the fortress, many lives lost in the process. It was only during the third year of the great building campaign that the French decided to send their scouts further up the wadi. These Crusaders had been waiting in vain for an imminent attack from the North for all those years but none had come. It didn’t take the scouts long to return. Not four miles to the north, the twisting path of the wadi became a dead end, completely blocked by the mountains, cut off at the pass!

Now why would the French build without first thoroughly scouting out the land in all directions? Who would give the orders and who would procure funds from the Pope and the French monarch? Who would release the fortune required to undertake such an endeavor? Avi says it is one of the unsolved military mysteries of all time. After the tragic discovery, he informed us that it remained a type of resort for retired military generals – that they could finish up their tours of duty with mountain breezes and gorgeous vistas without fear of enemy invasion.

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As for us, it was a great tale, but will stick with Avigail’s more factual rendition.

We did learn that with advance permission, you can spend the night camping out at Montfort Castle. It is a popular spot for school trips and summer camps (although not this summer). The stream below is known for its natural beauty as well as a great shady walk for families on hot days. In the spring, the entire hillsides are covered in wildflowers. And there is a stable in the village of Hila which offers horseback rides both to the castle and  through the wadi. All in all, it makes for a beautiful day trip – take your pick on the stories.

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