Our Man in Damascus: Tracking Eli Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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The Spice Life: Recipes!!!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orange-Cranberry Rice 

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

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

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

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

Easy HomeMade Goat Cheese Loaf Galilee Style

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Ingredients:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potato & Onion Strata

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

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

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Spice Blend for Potatoes: 

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

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

Ingredients:

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

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

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

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

Basic Spiced Chickpeas

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Ingredients:

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

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

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

  Galilean Chickpea Salad

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Ingredients:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hadassah Rose’s Date Logs

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

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

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

 

 

 

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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Tree People

 

The Yair Forest in the Judea Hills, Israel's largest forest

The Yair Forest in the Judea Hills is Israel’s largest forest

Before the settling of the Land of Israel by the Jewish pioneers of the late 1800s-early 1900s, Israel was a vast, uninhabited wasteland of bare mountains and deserts. In 1866, the beloved American author, Mark Twain set out on a trip through Europe and the Holy Land, writing his memoirs of the journey in his famous book, The Innocents Abroad. 

Twain was fed up with the primitiveness of the settlements and roads he encountered: “The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became…There was hardly a tree or a shrub any where. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country”. The statement reflects his general attitude to the ancient land throughout his journey.

I come from a line of Tree People. Before Earth Day, before it was even popular, we planted trees and forests. My mother was sometimes known as ‘The Tree Lady.”  From the 1950s to the 1990s, she took on the job each month of calling up every member of the Jewish community in our small Southern US town. On behalf of the Jewish National Fund, she would read out the list of birthdays, anniversaries, new births, deaths, weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of our community for the month. These were all opportunities to make a small donation and have a tree planted in Israel in that person’s honor or memory. In turn, the recipient would get a lovely certificate of planting with the location of the tree. When I lived in California, I became The Tree Lady for my congregation. For years I did the same, inviting people to plant a tree each month. My sister in Raleigh is also a Tree Lady. And so it goes….

When I moved here, it was no surprise to see much of the country covered in forest – mostly various species of pine, but also deciduous oak and maple and elm and hickory and redbud in the North. It is gorgeous and life-giving. Almost every mountain has been planted, blanketing huge swaths in vibrant hues of green.

From the mirpesset, balcony of our house, we look over acres and acres of JNF planted trees. Favorite pastimes of Israelis are hiking, bicycling and picnicking in the forests. Through many donations, and much hard work, the Land has come alive again. We, too, go hiking and have picnics in these government protected areas. Many a last minute decision to pack up a backpack of food, grab the dog, and jump in the car to get out of the city has resulted in an idyllic adventure. Often we pass random people stopped by the side of the road and setting up folding chairs, tables, food – and hookah and coffee set-ups to have a little relaxation time. Jews, Arab Muslim and Christians, Druze – we’ve passed them all enjoying nature in the forest. The Israeli forests are open and available to all.

Very sadly, there are certain (not all, but enough) Arabs who call themselves the Palestinian Peoples who do not want to see the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. They try to thwart our being here any way possible – and one of the ways they terrorize the people is by setting fire to the forests. Each year, there are massive forest fires in this country set by these Palestinian arsonists (It’s a bit like being back in Southern California during brushfire season).

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However, there are several things that are done here that are not done in the States. Namely, we have excellent forest control. If there are any dead or diseased trees, they are removed immediately to keep the forests healthy and to keep any blight form spreading. This is a necessary preventative measure. It is good stewardship of the Earth and its resources. Healthy forests free of dead and decaying matter are less likely to burn as quickly. Still, the damage is done each year by the arsonists.  When a forest burns, after they are put out, the land is immediately cleared and new trees are replanted. In abundance. (There is also video of Arabs pulling out the trees within a day or two of the Jews’ planting. This happens repeatedly.) But these modern day pioneers and nature lovers prevail, as they are constantly putting in new trees and forests across the entire land.

In the Galilee, we have acres upon acres of olive trees. Fruit orchards line the Hula Valley and Northern Golan. Palm Trees stand proudly in rows that go on for miles in the Jordan Valley and in the desert. Most of these groves and forests are still made possible by the donations to the Jewish National Fund. The Israelis in Judea and Samaria have turned the desert mountains green by bringing in irrigation and planting – trees, bushes, grasses, and crops.

We love our land. We are proud of our country. As a whole, Israelis are very green, taking care of the Earth and encouraging her bounty. We know how important it is to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and go Forest Bathing, a now-popular term that was coined here. There are usually (not this year due to COVID) myriad nature camps for kids during the summer months. After high-school, gap year programs include forestry service – before army service the kids spend the year clearing trails, setting up picnic areas, cleaning the parks, planting trees, and caring for green space.

Today, I invite YOU, dear Reader, to go to the JNF website, use.jnf.org

or at Treesfortheholyland.com because trees are a living memorial. Thank you!

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Driving home from a picnic in the Misgav Forest

Day of Remembrance: Quarantine 2020

A few minutes ago the two minute Memorial Day siren resounded throughout all of Israel. This year there were few cars pulling over to the sides of the roads and highways. Even fewer people on the streets or in shops standing at attention in silent, heartfelt prayer and remembrance of a loved one who was a victim of terror or who gave his or her life in defense of this country. We are still in lockdown, unable to go more than 100 meters outside our homes except to get food or medicine or to go to the clinic. Last night, the Yom haZikaron siren blared out, signaling the start of this twenty four hour period. As the national anthem, HaTikvah, The Hope, played from televisions and loud speakers, all of Israel stood on balconies of apartments and homes singing the words. We were separate yet unified.

Our collective mourning both diminishes and intensifies the pain we hold. The pain of our loss – the loss of another’s beloved as well as our own – is shared. We are all one united family. Israel is so small that most of us know someone killed by an act of baseless hatred or during a war. We share in each other’s grief, and knowing that, somehow diminishes the sharp heartstab. We are not in this alone. Yet to see such a vast sea of humanity beside me, the grief is intensified. So many who gave up their lives to defend the ideals of this country so that we could all live here together as free citizens, shapers of our own destiny.

Six years ago, we sat in the Los Angeles offices of the Jewish Agency for our first pre-Aliyah (immigration) interview. It was the day after Lone Soldier, Max Steinberg from the neighboring city of Tarzana, was killed in Gaza. We attended our Nefesh B’Nefesh-sponsored introduction to Aliyah evening with Max’s mother and sister. He had just left California to serve in the IDF. They went to the synagogue I had attended when I first moved to the Valley, and Max Steinberg was the same age as one of my daughters. We decided to make Aliyah in his honor, despite the fact a war was raging in the South. Every Memorial Day, I say a prayer for Max Steinberg (z”l) and his family.

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This year, we decided to do something different, yet altogether meaningful. I went to the website Honorisraelsfallen.com to “adopt” a fallen soldier and his family. The minute I saw the photo of Ari Gavin, his big eyes and bright smile, I just knew he was the one I was to commemorate. Ari was born in 1972 to parents who had just emigrated from the United States. He was a humble genius, athletic, outgoing, deeply spiritual and concerned for his fellow man. Ari served in the IDF in the elite Paratroopers brigade. Immediately after service, he married Zehavit, his high school sweetheart. They served in the foreign relations division in both Latvia and Italy, where their first child was born. Upon returning home to Israel, Ari enrolled in Haifa University to study (and then teach classes in) Computer Science and Advanced Mathematics – while simultaneously working as a security guard for the Ministry of Defense at night to support his growing family. By the time Ari graduated (with highest honors), he was the father of three small children. Ari Gavin was a born leader, generous to a fault – one time he gave away half his paycheck to a man he saw scrounging for food in a trash can – devoted husband and father. While on reserve duty in the Golan Heights, he was killed on May 20, 2003.

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We will continue to remember his service by doing mitzvot, acts of charity and kindness, and prayers in his memory. I am trying to contact his family as well –

Also this past week, I felt the loss of a very good friend of mine. Noga was a beautiful Israeli/American woman. Born in Israel, she moved to California with her family when she was in middle-school, returning to her homeland for army service (voluntarily as a Lone Soldier). She returned to California – her dad was a university professor – and married an Israeli guy she happened to meet at Stanford. They decided to return to Israel to raise their son, and I met Noga when I first moved here. She overheard John and me speaking English in a cafe. At once, we began talking about California life, Aliyah, and family and we became fast friends. Two years later, we found out Noga was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Together we celebrated life, discussed deeply spiritual things, relished her young son’s innate ability to create amazing works of art, and believed for G-d’s healing power against all natural hope. Last year as John began his chemo, we went to her bedside at the Italian Hospital in Haifa to say our goodbyes. We laughed a lot. We cried some. We prayed.

A whole year passed and Noga bravely clung to life as she entered into bio-immunotherapy clinical trials to treat this type of cancer. Both John and I tried to see Noga whenever we could. We were supposed to visit her at her parents’ apartment (they had returned to live in Israel years ago) when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Israel entered into quarantine. Her mom, Aliza called us last week. Noga had passed away, and the funeral was held privately. Only her immediate family present. The seven day mourning period, shiva, would be observed without guests, without the prayer-support of ten men from the community, without anyone. We are bereaved – I am beside myself, yet life goes on.

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Tonight, the national period of mourning will end and we will enter into Israeli Independence Day. In a matter of minutes we are to go from saddness to joy. Usually there are fireworks and live concerts in every city. Tonight all will be on live-feed social media. The air force flyovers are still expected to take place tomorrow, so we will watch from the rooftop. Picnics at the beach and in the parks will be substituted by individual cook-outs on our balconies and patios. We look forward to the summer when we can have barbecues with friends and to next year when we can celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut in Jerusalem feeding Lone Soldiers and enjoying the festivities there. We live – hopeful – in anticipation of better, peaceful days ahead.

 

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Tu b’Shvat Tiyyuul

Yesterday the sun broke through in all its shining glory after months and months of cold, rainy weather. We knew it was going to be short-lived as more was forecast for later this week. John and I dropped our son off at work, and decided to take full advantage of the respite from nasty weather. We drove to the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, to see the increase in water level after the past decade of drought conditions. It did not disappoint.

Just south of Tiberias, we pulled off at our favorite beach. What was once a sweeping expanse of brush, rocks and sand was now completely under water. It even came up to the stone embankment where the picnic tables and campsites were. The stone steps were partially under water. You just have to see!

We’ve been following the rising of the Kinneret water levels over the internet each day, but wanted to actually see the measuring stick at Yardenit (there is also one in Tiberias).This is where the Sea of Galilee flows out to form the Jordan River to the South. Right across the street, I was struck by groups of white-robed masses in the water. It looked like the scene from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” I had to get closer. Christian pilgrims from all over the world come here to be baptized in the Jordan (this is NOT the place where Jesus was immersed. That’s 70 miles downstream in the Samarian desert near Jericho). Anyway, there they were, taking full advantage of the sunny weather doing full immersions. It reminded me of a sort of mass mikveh, the Jewish ritual immersion.

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Pulling into Kibbutz Kinneret to turn around and go home, I saw the sign: Kinneret Dates Factory Story. This was turning into a real tiyuul, which is the Hebrew word for day-trip or field-trip. And just in time for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat, which will be celebrated from sunset February 9 – sunset February 10this year.

When I was growing up in America, this minor holiday was relegated to the ‘back 40.’ We didn’t celebrate it much at all. All I knew was that it was a type of Jewish Arbor Day. My mother, the designated “Tree Lady” of our synagogue would call up the congregants to ask them to order trees to be planted in the State of Israel. That was about it. Tu b’Shvat has grown in popularity in Jewish communities throughout the world, but here in Israel, it has been and still is celebrated as an agricultural and ecological holiday with much rejoicing.

In Hebrew, letters and numbers are interchangeable, so “tu” are the Hebrew letters ‘tet’ and ‘vav’ (adding up to 16), and Shvat is the name of the Hebrew month – so Tu b’Shvat means Shvat 16. The holiday is not found in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), but in the Talmud – the oral explanations of the Law. It’s basically the New Year for trees, or the time which trees are planted. There are both physical and spiritual levels to this holiday. Planting trees in the middle of winter is a sign of hope and a way of re-greening the planet. It has connotations of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and there are ties to the spiritual Tree of Life.

Historically, in the 1500s, in the northern Israeli town of Tsfat, the great Rabbi Isaac Luria (the same guy who wrote the Shabbat hymn, Lecha Dodi) put together a Tu b’Shvat seder (ordered feast) in which different fruits or nuts are eaten along with 4 cups of wine. There is a beautifully arranged Seder plate with raisins, almonds, pistachios, dried figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, and other fruits and nuts. There are special blessings: thanks and praise for G-d’s creation: over His sustenance through the year; for the winds and rain; for the fruits (or nuts) of the tree. After the prayers, nuts and fruit with a hard/inedible shell (klipa) and a soft interior is eaten – the almonds or pistachios; the oranges, pomegranates or bananas. Then one says the blessing over wine and drinks a small amount of red wine. Next, fruits with a soft exterior and hard center is eaten (olives, dates, apricots, persimmons, avocado) followed by a dark pink rosé wine. Next, fruits are consumed which can be eaten whole: figs, pears, berries, apples. And a light pink rosé wine is sipped. After that, the celebrants eat something made with wheat or barley: bread, crackers, or a pulse. Then comes the sips of white wine. All of this is interspersed with spiritual readings from the Scriptures and explanations on how one is to ascend from the purely physical to the emotional to the intellectual to the spiritual. Thank you Rabbi Luria. There are several interesting Tu b’Shvat seder guides on the internet, each with different highlights.

So – we found ourselves in the Land of Fruits and Nuts – literally. The factory store of Kibbutz Kinneret Dates. I visited the Garden of Eden and I can’t wait to go back! In typical Israeli fashion, the first thing we did upon entering was to see a movie on the history of this particular kibbutz and on the date palm. The date palm is one of the seven species of plants indigenous to Israel (dates, figs, wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, olives) and mentioned in the Bible. By the end of the Ottoman Empire and the desolation of the land by both neglect and destruction, every single date palm had disappeared in this land.

In 1908, Kibbutz Kinneret was founded and a pioneer named Ze’ev Ben Zion traveled to Iraq to bring back a truckload of palms – and Jewish refugees who were being persecuted by the Islamists. Both the palm shoots and the new immigrants thrived in their new land, so Ben Zion went out again to bring back 1000 new baby palms – and more refugees. Uri Stoner, from Kibbutz Kinneret, researched and developed different hybrids as well as novel uses for dates. In 1933, the kibbutz factory was founded and a multinational exporting of Israeli dates and date products had begun.

The factory store here has products unique to Israel…and all can be sampled generously. There are friendly (English-speaking)kibbutzniks available to explain all of the products. The date is nature’s candy. Naturally sweet and high in fiber, it gives a quick energy boost, yet is very low on the glycemic index. Minerals and compounds in the date are said to increase fertility and help pregnant women to have easier deliveries. They are very high in antioxidants and can help reduce blood pressure. Dates help maintain bone mass because they are high in calcium and magnesium as well as selenium. They are also rich in iron and fluorine – and essential fatty acids that actually help with hunger-control an weight loss. Yippeeee!!! So for a ‘normal’ person, eating 5-9 dates a day is healthy – more for late term pregnant women (dates are reputed to induce labor).

Who knew there were so many different varieties, flavors and textures among different species of dates? Most people are familiar with the Deglet-Noor and Medjool varieties, as those are the top exports, BUT:

Some are sweet and sticky: the Amari are moist and taste like caramel; the Deri are intense and flavorful- almost like a shot of espresso; the Amari, drier, but packing a sugar punch; our favorite, Hadrawi were soft and flavorful, not too sugary, but like butterscotch. We bought 3 boxes of dates.

And the products available!!!! My favorite date product is silan (see’ lahn), a date syrup/honey. I don’t know if it’s available in the US, but I use it in place of other sweeteners now – in cooking and baking, in teas and smoothies. There are different types of date spreads, date candies, date butters, and here, they are all available for sampling. And the prices here are some of the best I’ve seen in the country-

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In addition to date products, there were other products, all organic and made right here in the Galilee. There was carob syrup (which I also use in place of molasses), tehinehs (sesame butter) – so I bought 2 huge jars. I use tehnineh extensively now, including tehnineh and silan on rice crackers. Olive oil, locally produced, bee products, herbs and spices – all from this area.

Add to this the cosmetics line, Shivat, made from the seven species, and I was in absolute heaven!!! We really had a lot of fun, but armed with a couple bags full of goodies and a new cookbook (yay!!!), I couldn’t wait to get home and start cooking. So – now for the recipes!

The easiest is the tehnineh spread with silan. Tehineh is much richer in calcium and fiber and lower in sugar than peanut butter, and it is non-allergenic.

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This sesame seed paste is also mixed with the juice of one lemon and a spoon of silan for a lovely salad dressing for chopped cucumbers and tomatoes or for a mixed cabbage and carrot slaw with chopped green onions and walnuts and chopped dates.

               SWEET POTATOES WITH SILAN (parve/vegan)  serves 6

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 large sweet potatoes
  • 4 tsp olive oil
  • 3 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 4 Tbsp silan date syrup
  • 4 tsp sweet asian chili sauce
  • juice of a freshly squeezed lemon
  • a dash of chili flakes
  • 2 green onions, chopped finely
  • a sprinkling of coarse sea salt

Wrap and roast the sweet potatoes in a 200*C/400*F oven for about an hour. Mix all the ingredients of the sauce (minus the sea salt) with an immersion blender. Score the hot potato and pour the sauce over top. Sprinkle generously with the coarse sea salt.

FREEKEH STUFFED ONIONS (pareve/vegan) serves 6-8

 

This can be eaten as a hearty lunch or served as a side dish for a Shabbat dinner. Its roots are typically Middle Eastern, most likely Egyptian. Freekeh is a type of durum wheat that is roasted to bring out its nutty flavor. The word is actually Arabic for “rubbed” as the grains are rubbed before roasting. As freekeh might be difficult to find outside this area, bulgur or spelt can be substituted. You can also use brown basmati rice for this one. Because it is pareve (neither milk nor meat) it makes a great accompaniment to any main course.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 2-3 whole large white onions
  • 2-3 whole large red/purple onions
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup freaked, bulgur, spelt, farro, or brown rice
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 1 1/2 cups mixed green herbs cut finely (parsley, mint, cilantro, green onion, dill)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 cup silan date syrup
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped dates
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Prepare the stuffing: Heat olive oil and grain in a saucepan and fry until hot. Do not burn. Add boiling water and salt, Stir well and cover. Lower flame to simmer for 30 minutes. Then turn off heat and let sit for 15 more minutes. Gently fluff and fold in mixed herbs and cumin seeds, silan and fruit.

As the stuffing is cooking, peel the onions and slice the tops off. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Wrap in foil and roast about 20 minutes in a 200*C/400*F oven – until soft.  Let cool until able to handle comfortably. Remove the inner part of the onion with your fingers, pulling gently. There should be 2-3 layers of the outer shell left. Chop up the onion that was extracted and add to the stuffing mixture.

Fill each onion with the stuffing mixture. Place in a baking dish greased with olive oil. Sprinkle the onions with salt and pepper. If there is any juice from stuffing mix left behind, pour over onions. Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake at !70*C/350*F for about 20 minutes. Remove foil so onions can brown and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Serve hot.

                 GLAZED BUTTERNUT SQUASH (parve/vegan)  serves  6

Another great recipe – especially for fall/winter. It calls for butternut squash, but you can use any gourd, or a combination thereof and it will be delicious. I especially like seeing smaller pieces of different varieties of gourds for a gorgeous and colorful platter. This is a tasty side dish, but also can be hearty enough as an entree served with a hearty bread and a side salad.  Also, this is an amazing Pesach recipe (one which I plan to use at my Passover seder this year)-

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 6 gourds (butternut squash), halved, seeds removed
  • 3 tsp olive oil
  • salt and black pepper
  • ground cinnamon
  • 3 Tbsp silan
  • 2 sheets of matzah
  • 2 more tsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 190*C/375*F. Drizzle gourd halves with olive oil and silan , and sprinkle with salt, pepper and ground cinnamon. Roast for 40 minutes. Can cover with foil lightly, if it starts to brown too much.

For crumbly topping: heat a frying pan with the olive oil. Add the matzah pieces and cook over a medium flame, stirring constantly to glaze and brown. Add garlic , salt and pepper and a  small amount of cinnamon at the very end. Remove from flame, and add the chopped parsley.

Arrange the hot gourd pieces on a platter and spoon the crumble over top. Drizzle with more silan and serve hot.

AMAZING I CAN’T STOP EATING PUFFED RICE SNACKS!                                                  (                                                    (vegan/pareve)  

I made these yesterday and we just can’t stop sneaking them. Really rich, and decadent, yet I tell myself they’re healthy because of the tehnineh, silan. cocoa super-food combo. It makes me feel better about pigging out. But. seriously who can resist? I’m not paying $7 to $9 for a small box of Kelloggs Rice Crispies ….. when I CAN find them here! So we found a pretty lame puffy rice flakes for a substitute. I highly recommend the Rice Crispies if they are available in your area- just sayin.They can be formed into bite sized balls or put in a wax-paper lined baking dish and cut into squares. I did both. The best part is that they are super easy to make and require no baking or refrigeration.

*****OK, not as an affront to anybody but you hear the most amazing things living here. This is a true(?) story about John the Baptist. In the New Testament, John the Baptizer is a radical hermit preaching about the importance of being a B’aal Tshuva (repentant sinner who comes back to G-d) and performing ritual immersions/mikveh in the Jordan River. He announces the coming of the Moshiach, the Messiah. Anyway, in art he’s always pictured wearing a rough camel hair tunic tied with a thick rope. This ascetic is famed for his diet of eating locusts and honey. But it was a MISTRANSLATION from the Hebrew to Greek to Latin to the English of the King James Bible in the early 1700’s. The honey was most likely a date syrup like silan. And the carob tree (kheeroov) was also known as the locust bean in England. The ground carob beans are similar to cocoa powder, but much higher in protein and in antioxidants. Instead of eating yucky insects like a madman, John was actually consuming a fudgy, delicious superfood paste. Sorry to burst your bubbles, but I found it fascinating!

For those Christians who celebrate the feast days of favorite saints, this is a great recipe to make with young kids in honor of John the Baptizer. For my Jewish friends, it’s a lovely treat for Tu b’Shvat.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 1/2 cup tehineh
  • 1/2 cup silan
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup carob powder or cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips, melted in the microwave
  • 4 tsp silan
  • 3 cups crisped rice cereal
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped almonds (optional) or ground coconut

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Grease your hands with a little canola or coconut oil. Form about a tablespoon of the mixture into golfball sized balls. Or spread out in a wax-paper lined baking dish. Let set for a half hour, if you can resist the temptation to eat before then. Cut the chocolate rice mix into brownie-sized bars. Enjoy!!!!

 

 

 

 

Truth & Lies

Once again, I’m writing a politically charged article that I had not planned to write. But what I have to say needs attention as history is repeating itself, albeit in a different arena.

One of the many reasons we moved to Israel (and there are many) was the fact that it provided us a much more affordable launching pad to travel to Europe. We always dreamed of traveling, and have been able to take advantage of low-cost airfare and shortened travel times.

John and I just returned from two glorious weeks in the Czech Republic. For our last day’s excursion, we arose very early to make the hour train ride from Prague to Terezinstadt, one of the 633 European Nazi concentration camps. We knew it would be a most difficult day.

In 1780, the Hapsburg emperor, Josef II had a fortified town built as a deterrent to Prussian attacks. Surrounded by high walls and moat, the lovely island of a village was continually inhabited until 1941, when a truly diabolical plan was hatched.

There needed to be a spin put on the Nazi’s true program of liquidating the Jewish population of Europe. A different face to show the world. A kinder, gentler, human face. A mask for what was truly happening. A concentration camp “showplace” so to speak, to prove to the International Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies that anything they might have heard about the unethical, inhumane treatment of “undesirables” was just rumor. Terezinstadt became the perfect place for their propaganda machine.

The town was emptied of its Bohemian residents, which once numbered about 5,000 people. Apartment buildings were turned into dormitories for over 500,000 Jews over the next three years. But this was no ordinary camp. For most, it was a sorting place on the way to the death camps in the East. For a select few of the most elite… artists, composers, writers, doctors, professors – and children – it served a different purpose. While most people suffered and died from malnutrition, disease, cruelty, a select few thousand were chosen to be the faces of Nazi propaganda.

Away from the crematoria, the fierce guard dogs, the machine-gunned sentries, the brick walls and iron bars, was a lovely village. Lush gardens filled with fresh vegetables tended by the Jews in their model village(which actually served the Gestapo…the Jews were forbidden to eat from the plots they tended upon threat of being shot if discovered). There were cafés, theaters, a symphony orchestra, choirs, and happy Jewish families, well-dressed, well-fed, well-cared-for. A large town square provided for ample fresh air, exercise, picnics and outdoor concerts. All a lie. The inmates were only allowed out of doors when visitors came. It was a cruel ruse. A mere facade. An act.

From this part of the town, propaganda films were made. Fake documentaries to hide the truth of atrocities being committed just a few hundred meters away. Films like “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City” and”GhettoTheresienstadt. “For three all-too-short years, these chosen few (many were children) had a temporary reprieve as humanitarian agencies were paraded through this “typical” camp.

However, from within the walls of Terezin, something else amazing was happening. The children were organized and taught by artists such as Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. They wrote stories and poems and published their own little weekly newspaper. They created art. With the help of composers Viktor Ullman, Patel Haas and Hans Krasa, they staged magnificent plays. The most famous is an original children’s operetta, Brundibar, about a mean organ grinder(Hitler) persecuting helpless children in a dystopian land. With the help of brave woodland animals, they chase the organ grinder away. It was performed over 50 times for the Nazi officers and their special guests, although no one seemed to catch on to its symbolism. Still, the weekly artistic performances gave the Jews an outlet for their misery and proved a temporary diversion.

After the SS and Gestapo sat to have their portraits drawn by rather famous artists of the day, another type of art was being produced…. and hidden away for posterity. These were the true sights of what life was like within the camp. As under cover of darkness, trains of human cargo would come and go; more people added to the pre-existing crowded conditions; death ruled, and crematoria destroyed the reality of human life snuffed out prematurely, the truth was being painfully recorded.

After the Jewish inhabitants served their purpose, they were sent on to the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen. Thousands crowded into boxcars standing room only, deprived of water, food and bathroom facilities for days at a time. Many of whom died in transit. Soon, World War II would be over, only to be replaced by the Communist regime. Terezin would be reinhabited by local population.

Even though the camp serves as a memorial to the atrocities of man’s inhumanity to man, today there are stark and surreal inconsistencies. Local villagers now inhabit many of the town’s dormitories that once housed The Jewish population. Laced curtained windows look out across the street from old abandoned barracks once crammed with the suffering. Who in their right mind could live here? What could they think? How can you raise a healthy young family with reminders of torture, suffering and death directly across the street?

It’s an indescribable juxtaposition. The most inconceivable absurdity was the antique bazaar, set up in an unused, dilapidated dormitory building. Today it sells old furniture, housewares, vintage clothing – and leftover remnants from the Nazi and Communist regimes. For me, it was just too much to bear.

It was a bone-chilling winter day. Bleak. Strangely silent except for my muffled sobs as we walked the desolate streets haunted by memories of the past. The train ride back home was equally painful, punctuated by the deafening squeals of the metal wheels of the train as it pulled into Prague Station. John and I just needed time to decompress. To find something a bit more uplifting.

We returned to the comfort of our warm hotel room and turned on the television to watch the Winter Olympics from South Korea. We don’t have television in our home in Israel ( by choice), so this was a real treat. Or so we thought.

About fifteen minutes into the pageantry and festivities, the camera turned to a lovely young woman and a bevy of her smiling, clapping, red-outfitted entourage. This was none other than North Korean Kim Jung Un’s sister, second in command and Minister of Propaganda!!! This, a head of an absolutely evil, totalitarian regime, was being hailed by the commentators as a diplomat, an ambassador of peace and goodwill!!! After the day’s outing, we could hardly believe what we were seeing. “How radiant and happy they are! So cute! Look at her smile!” This was the same story being peddled to the ignorant masses around the world. The personification of an Evil Empire bent on the destruction of man disguised as innocence and congeniality. Obviously, the propaganda was having its desired effect. I could only think of the starving millions in North Korea, the defectors, the over 150,000 “political” prisoners – and of Otto Warmbier, the young Jewish student who made a class trip to North Korea. He was imprisoned for taking down a poster as a souvenir of his time there, brutally tortured, then shipped back to the States many months later, comatose. His last few days were spent in a US hospital, never regaining consciousness…. just one example of the cruelty of this regime. Were his parents watching this mockery- and what could they think? As the American reporters fawned over Kim Yo Jung and bashed Vice President Pence as a nefarious sort, we recalled a subtitle from the Terezin documentary:

We are, ironically, about a week away from the Jewish holiday of Purim. A time when we celebrate the bravery of Queen Esther and her heroic saving of the Jewish people from destruction. It was during the captivity of Israel in what is now present day Iraq/Iran. A decree had gone out under the evil Haman, the king’s vizier, for all the Jews to be killed. His plan was thwarted by a fearless and outspoken woman, who drew the king’s attention to the diabolical scheme ( which would mean her ultimate death as well). This was a favorite play of the Terezinstadt Jews, performed numerous times as a source of hope and reminder of eventual justice. We need more people today, willing to call attention to the TRUE injustices of the world – at what reality truly exists. We can no longer gloss over the twisted and evil and downplay the good. Or we will be doomed to replay the same tragedies.

If you have been touched by this article in any way, please share this post. The world needs to see the hidden truths.