City of Peace: The Pearl of the Galilee

We visited Israel for the first time in 2011, when I was still a homeschooling mom. Because we used a modified Classical curriculum, my children and I immersed ourselves in history, literature, art, philosophy, ancient languages (Hebrew and Latin), and culture. Israel, a land steeped in Biblical, Hellenistic, Jewish, Roman, early Christian, Byzantine, Muslim and Crusader history was a place where my young son and I could actually walk out much of what we had learned in books. For us, it was truly exiting, and I knew we had to somehow be a part of this fantastic place. We first stumbled upon Tzippori in 2011, and wound up moving to a town just 20 minutes to the north. Last winter, my husband, John, and I decided to visit once again. Come with us to one of the most phenomenal archaeological discoveries in the 20th century (right in our back yard!!).

Perched like a bird on top of a high hill in the middle of the Lower Galilee is the city of Tzippori (which means bird in Hebrew). It was first built by Hellenistic (Greek) Jews around 125 BCE, and was chosen for its prime location on the main trade route between Egypt and Damascus, the Via Maris. It was also on the route from Akko on the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee. On several occasions, the city was attacked by marauding bands, and finally Herod Antipas, the great builder, undertook its reconstruction in 37 BCE. He employed many different tradesmen from stonemasons to carpenters and the top artisans of the day to create what the historian Josephus would call “the pearl of the Galilee.” As it is only 3.5 miles (a 45 minute walk) from Nazareth, it is more than probable that Joseph the carpenter and foster-father of Jesus was employed here, as was Jesus himself.

Lower Tzippori, a sprawling city adjacent to modern-day Nazareth, in background

By 4 BCE, the Romans were fully entrenched in the Holy Land. Many times they were fought off by zealots, but Tzippori was different. The newly remodeled city was full of Roman sympathizers, often times at odds with the local Galileans. Because Sephoris (as it was called by the Romans) was a “City of Peace,” it was spared destruction from Vespasian and Titus like most of the other towns and cities that were razed by the Legion between 66 and 73 AD. In fact, at one time, Vespasian had over 7500 troops quartered here. For its time, Tzippori was a very wealthy city as evidenced by the many magnificent buildings and especially the mosaics…some of the best in the world! Craftsmen were not only locals, but employed from Egypt, Greece, Rome, experts in the latest styles of carving, fresco painting and tile work. Let’s visit, shall we?

The archeological ruins in the lower part of the city included a colonnaded cardo, the Roman term for the large main thoroughfare. On either side of the cardo, merchants’ shops stood. From the excavation, we get a wonderful picture of daily life in the first century. Glass bottles with remnants of exotic perfumes were discovered; ceramics and stoneware vessels containing grains and pulses; exquisitely crafted jewelry (a gold earring with gemstones, bracelets, an olive leaf head wreath of gold) have been uncovered in situ. Historians note that farming in the rich Jezreel Valley soil and shepherding was done outside the city walls. Fish were brought in fresh from the Mediterranean and Sea of Galilee. In the center of the city were government buildings, a synagogue, and a bank or treasury. Most citizens in this mixed Jewish and Roman city worked for the government under Herod Antipas. There were scribes, tax collectors, judges, lawyers and merchants.

A large villa was unearthed in 1987. The many rooms contained floors of magnificent mosaics. It is called “The Nile House” because the floor in the main hall has a large mosaic depicting the celebration of the Nile River, with a number of separate scenes of different events. In one corner, the river flows from the mouth of an animal on whose back sits a Nile god. In another a reclining female holds a basket of fruit. There are papyrus and lilies in the stream, and the center figure is a picture of a man on a column with a rod called a Nilometer, which measured the height of the river. Surrounding are mosaics showing wild animals in hunting mode. In the room adjacent, the mosaic floor depicts Amazons hunting. The Amazons were a mythical race of female warriors originating from the Caucasus, they settled in Cappodocia (Turkey) and mated with the neighboring Gargarensians, keeping only the girls that were born. The word Amazon comes from the Greek ‘a’ meaning without and ‘mazos “ meaning breast. Legend has it that these women cut off their right breast in order to be better archers…. Anyway, you can see the Greek (Hellenistic) as well as the Egyptian influences in this ancient metropolis (The Greeks invaded Israel in about 150 BCE influencing many Jewish people in Israel to adopt their culture. Centuries before, the Jews were scattered throughout the ancient world in the First Diaspora, hence Hellenized Jews).

One of my favorite places is the tile merchant’s/ mosaic artist’s showroom. Just as we would go to a carpet warehouse or flooring store today, people in the first century could visit the tile showroom and see samples of floor designs. It’s absolutely great!! The ‘warehouse’ had sample designs in little cubicles, offering a variety of geometric shapes, borders, floral and figurative designs. Plus a sample board to choose the colors and sizes of the tesserae!! I don’t think you can find this anywhere else in the world!

Close up of tesserae samples… 68 varying shades in all

For those of you who are interested in feats of engineering, one of the first considerations when building a city is water. How does a team of engineers get water to a city without digging wells? Israel is situated in a desert/sub-Saharan zone. It only rains in the winter: the rest of the year is bone dry. Especially in ancient times, cities were built atop hills and mountains for obvious defensive reasons. So getting water uphill was quite the engineering problem. In the Nazareth mountains nearby flowed underground springs. These springs were channeled in six separate aqueducts which converged outside Tzippori into an enormous hand-hewn cistern or reservoir. This huge underground storage chamber is 260 meters long and 12 meters deep with a volume of 4300 cubic meters. It was in use from the first through the seventh centuries. From the reservoir, the water then ran into a sedimentation chamber, and filtered into another reservoir or holding tank. Enormous amounts of water then exited via a large lead pipe with a filtering sluice at one end. It is truly a marvel to see this sophisticated system! From the reservoir the fresh water was carried by aqueduct into Tzippori. The tremendous build up of water pressure from the reservoir to the small viaducts propelled the water uphill. The remarkable engineering feat actually carried running water through the town and into each house, providing fresh water for drinking, cooking, washing, sanitation, and the ritual Jewish purification baths called mikvaot as well as to the Roman bathhouse in the lower city.


There are just so many interesting things to see here. Let’s head back to the cardo: we were smitten with the actual tracks made by the heavy wagon wheels on the stone streets. A representation of an ancient cart built upon wheels and axels found there is on display. Seeing this really brings the place to life as we could envision a bustling city teaming with life and wagons laden with building materials.

Back in 2011, Max and I got most excited over our tremendous ‘discovery.’ As soon as we saw this graffiti etched into the paving stones on the wide city street, we knew exactly what they were. We had read about this in our Rome studies, so to see it up close for reals: WOW!!! Before I explain, I’ll let you look at the photos and you can try to guess what they were-

So what are all these odd markings? They are street games. During times of boredom, children, merchants, and soldiers alike used to throw knucklebones. Small bones or cubiyot, like dice would be rolled into a designated area etched into the street and points would be racked up. For the adults (and street punks?) it was a game of great skill and often involved placing bets. Sometimes, as in the photo uppermost right, the grids would be stacked in a line and the game resembled cribbage or backgammon as the player would move their pieces from grid to grid. Is this super cool or what???

Now we make our way up the mountain to the upper part of Tzippori. Again, we can see the influence of Rome. Every metropolis needs entertainment, and as one would expect, there is a nice sized amphitheater carved into the north side of the mountain. It was built in the late first or second century AD and had seating for 4000. On ground level in front was the orchestra (the place for the chorus during the Greek period, reserved for honored guests during Roman times. The elevated stage or scena was made of marble and wood. Behind would be large scaffolding for the backdrops with costuming below and balconies for soliloquies above. At this particular site, metal scaffolding has been added so one can get a general idea of the design. Rows of seating were hewn out of the bedrock and covered with marble slabs. Most have been raided and repurposed for building by other civilizations, a very common occurrence. The bottom rows remain intact.

The remains of a spectacular Roman residence built at the beginning of the third century AD were found towards the mountain’s plateau. This villa, along with most of the other structures in Tzippori, was destroyed in the great earthquake of 363 AD. The villa would have had most spectacular views, and because of its proximity to the theatre, indicates a high status of the owner. It has now been enclosed to preserve what is left including Israel’s finest mosaic, the Mona Lisa of the Middle East. The mansion was built according to a popular Roman floor plan. The main room of the sprawling villa was the triclinium, or dining room walled on three sides open to spectacular views and a colonnaded portico facing the Mount Carmel Ridge of Haifa. Cubiculum, or bedrooms, were located off the main hall. Also, just off the dining room, was an indoor bathroom (picture below) with running water below the latrine hole. The walls of the villa were once covered in beautiful frescoes as evidenced by the remains of paint on the existing walls. Many of the rooms had mosaic floors with colorful patterns, the most ornate in the dining salon contains scenes from the life of Dionysus, god of wine. The mosaic is comprised of 1.5 million stones in 23 colors.

Now for a bit of interesting history. The Romans finally decided to subjugate these living in Israel. Why after so many years? The Jews paid taxes at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The taxes exacted by the Romans were exorbitant and bleeding them dry (hence the “render unto Caesar…” speech). Many refused or just could not pay, which oftentimes led to enslavement. The Romans worked seven days a week except for State/religious festivals. The Jewish people insisted on keeping the Sabbath: every Saturday was a day of complete rest in which no work at all was done. When in the early 30s-70 AD, this new cult of Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) as their promised Messiah started springing up, not only was Shabbat kept, but now Sunday was held by these nascent Christians as the Lord’s Day. The Romans were losing a day’s labor from the Jews and two days labor from the Messianics. It was going too far! Plus bands of Jewish zealots were springing up trying to shake off their hoke of bondage to Rome.

In 66-68 AD, the Roman legions led by Vespasian and his son, Titus, landed on the shores of Akko in Israel. They spent the next two years routing out all the Jewish people living in the towns and countryside of the Galilee region. It was during this time the Jewish general Mattityahu Ben Joseph was captured (later becoming Josephus Flavius, the historian to Rome). Many Jews were expelled. Many were taken as slaves. Many killed. Many traveled south towards Jerusalem. By 70 AD, the Romans captured their prize jewel, the eternal capital of the Jewish people: the city of Jerusalem. The walls were breached after a long siege and after a bloodbath, the Roman army seized the city and razed the holy Temple (see Arch of Titus in Rome). This marked the beginning of the great diaspora in which most of the Jewish people were either taken into captivity or were dispersed throughout the world.

Jerusalem, the Holy City since King David, had always been the spiritual or religious center for the Jewish people. It was where the Sanhedrin (the main body of the court of law) assembled. Home to the great priests, rabbis and Torah scholars of the day. it was a major center of learning in the ancient world. Many of these great sages of old (khazal) escaped Jerusalem and went south to Yavne (south of modern day Tel Aviv) or north toward Tzippori. For the first part of the new millennium, the Oral Law or Mishnah (companion to the Torah), which had been handed down from generation to generation, was codified, much of it in Tzippori. Great sages of Judaism, Yehuda haNasi and Rebbe Eliezer lived in this city arguing, discussing and writing the heart of the Talmud. The remains of a large synagogue from the first century are here, but the structure was mostly destroyed in the great earthquake.

Early Christianity/Catholicism also had their own Oral Traditions that had been handed down from generation to generation (Dormition and Assumption of Mary; home of the Holy Family; sites of miracles). One of these traditions states that Mary’s parents (grandparents of Jesus), Joaquin and Anna, were originally from the city of Tzippori. During the times of the Crusaders, a large church and monastery were erected at the site of their purported home. It was called Deir Anna or the Monastery of St Anna.

There is a Crusader fortress at the very top of the mountain. It was destroyed by the Mamaluks under Baybars, then rebuilt in the 18th century by Daher Al Omar, the Bedouin ruler of the Galilee. During this time period, Tzippori, called Sephoris by the Romans, was now renamed Safouriyeh thus Arabizing the Hebrew.

Last, are the ruins of a large synagogue from the second century. It was a center of activity for the sprawling city, and reflected not only its Jewish heritage and connection (commemoration of) the destroyed Second Temple, but also has Greek, Roman and Eastern influence as seen in the mosaics. There is a large central medallion of the zodiac with both Hebrew and Greek writing. Side panels depict the accoutrements of the Temple worship: shofarim (trumpets), menorah (lamp stand), incense table, showbread table, bulls for sacrifice, jars of olive oil, baskets of fruit containing the seven species of plants native to Israel. At the other end of the synagogue floor are mosaic representations of the Biblical story of Abraham: Abraham feeding the angels, Abraham and Sarah, and Father Abraham’s ascent up Mt Moriah with his son, Isaac on the donkey. A side band in Hebrew reads that the floor was “donated with generous funds by ….. in memory of their son, …. “ So it keeps the tradition of a memorial plaque. The geometric design is more Eastern than Western. Even though the synagogue is now a museum, pre-arranged weddings and Bar Mitzvahs can take place on the site. When we were there, a group was gathering for a Bar Mitzvah. A portable ark with Torah was being wheeled onto the main floor and a bima was being set up. It’s another example of living connection to the past.

The Three Weeks: The Latest Conflict

The past three weeks have marked a period of collective fasting, prayer, charity or alms-giving and mitzvot, or doing good deeds for the Jewish people of Israel. It comes at the hottest, driest time of year when all a person wants to do is sit in front of a fan and eat ice cold watermelon. The period starts on the 17th of Tammuz, the Hebrew month. On this day, thousands of years ago Moses came down from Mt Sinai to see drunken orgies and the people worshipping an idol, the golden calf, so in anger, he smashed the tablets with the Ten Commandments. A year later (1313 BCE) 12 spies were sent out into the Promised Land to scout out the lay of the land. On the 9th of Av, 10 spies came back with a bad report. Instead of proclaiming a land filled with natural goodness – super huge fruits, date honey, goats, cows, milk, rich soil, a land with which they were bequeathed, they spoke of walled cities. They spoke of appearing to be like tiny grasshoppers in the eyes of giants. They said it was untamable. Wild. Dangerous. Instead of relying on the L-rd, they fell into despair. And they took an entire nation into absolute hopelessness and despair with them. Instead of being filled with gratitude and strength and optimism, they were defeatist. So the entirety of the Children of Israel were made to wander in the desert for forty years.

From that time on, it seem those three weeks would be an infamous swamp of bad karma for the Jewish people. Biblically, the 10 Northern tribes were taken by the Assyrians during this time. Then the Babylonians swept in, breaching the walls of Jerusalem on the 17th Tammuz and taking the city. On the 9th of Av, Solomon’s Temple, the First Temple, was razed and the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were led into captivity for 70 years. The Temple was rebuilt under Cyrus and lasted until 70AD, when it was leveled by the Romans. Most of the Jews were scattered throughout the world in the Great Diaspora. Fifty two years later, the walled fortress of Beitar, held down by the last Zealots against the Roman regime was breached on 17 Tammuz. Again, after a three week siege, the Romans killed the thousands of remaining Jews and destroyed the city (just outside Jerusalem near Bethlehem) on 9 Av. It marked the end of a Jewish homeland for almost 2000 years.

The tragedies of Tisha b’Av ( Hebrew for 9 Av) and the three weeks continued throughout history. European Jews were burned alive in synagogues in Italy, Germany & France in the 1100s-1200s; the Jews of England were expelled by King Edward “Longshanks” in 1290; King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain in 1492; on Tisha b’Av in 1914, Germany declared war on Russia thus beginning World War l; in 1942 Hitler’s Final Solution was announced; on that same day, the deportations of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps commenced. In more “modern times,” the deadly bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires by Iranian-backed terrorists killed 86, seriously wounding over 300. And in 2005, on Tisha B’Av, in the name of “land for peace” Israel forcibly and permanently removed the remaining Jewish residents of Gaza (they had until then been living relatively peaceable lives with their Arab neighbors), in essence handing the territory over to Islamic militants like Hamas (the word actually means VIOLENCE!!!) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. There has been no peace ever since.

With that brief history, we’ve been watching events unfold over the past few weeks. Israel had been seeing a sharp uptick in Palestinian violence recently. There were car-rammings, stabbing, shootings, the throwing of projectiles onto the windshields of cars, and other incidents of violence. Hotbeds of illegal weapons, cash and drug smuggling were uncovered in the cities of Nablus, Um-Al-Fahmm and Jenin. In an IDF raid, on which I reported several weeks ago, the journalist Abu Ahkleh was shot. Despite video that showed evidence to the contrary, TikTok clips released by the Islamists in real time, her death was blamed on Israel’s attempt to assassinate an Arab reporter. Things were heating up again as the summer sun blazed on.

During this years’ Three Weeks period, several more surprise raids were made by the IDF to try to curb the violence. Entire terror cells were taken into custody. We were closely following the news, as friends of mine in Tekoa and Gush Etzion in Judaea (West Bank near Jerusalem) had their gate guarded communities breached by men wielding guns. Last Tuesday, 2 August, in Jenin ( the West Bank) the IDF arrested Bassam al-Shaadi, the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Founded in 1982, the PIJ is an internationally recognized terrorist organization which has direct backing by the Iranian and Syrian regimes. After Hamas, it is the second largest terror group in the region, ruling over much of Gaza. Its sole purpose of existence is to destroy Israel and make it free of Jews. Al-Shaadi had been directly involved in planning and executing several deadly attacks against Israeli civilians. Bags of cash and illegal weapons were found upon his arrest and the arrest of two other wanted terrorists.

Marches of protest and cries of revenge sprang up immediately in the Arab towns and cities. The PIJ, in return, threatened to commence the bombing of Southern and Central Israel where 70% of the Israeli population lives. As a precaution, all the roads leading up to and within the Gaza envelope were closed off to any traffic. Roadblocks were set up. The citizens living within the area were all told to remain inside and lock down, staying close to the nearest bomb shelters. The following day, a senior PIJ military leader announced, “We have every right to bomb Israel with our most advanced weapons.” They threatened to attack the most populous areas including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 80 km or 50 miles away. The rhetoric intensified on Thursday, as many residents remained hunkered down, not going to work, not going to the market, not sending their children to summer activities.


Special cabinet meetings were held. Israel was attempting to appease the PIJ, to stop their threats to now carry out attacks across the country. Later it was reported that there was actionable intelligence of an imminent attack by the PIJ using an anti-tank missile to blow up a bus. The chatter was recorded. The launcher was found along with the ten terrorists headed to the border to instigate the attack. In a well-coordinated, heavily-planned preemptive strike, Israel entered into its latest conflict, Operation Breaking Dawn, on Friday afternoon just before the Sabbath. Also struck with absolute surgical precision, was the apartment of PIJ senior commander in Gaza, Taysir al-Jabari. Al-Jabari was killed and in return, the PIJ immediately started their missile barrage against the citizens of Israel. The missiles rained down on Central Israel continuously for over 50 hours. In all, over 1,100 were fired. Just stop for a second or two and think of that. Over 1100 missiles in just over 2 days!!

Although heavily inconvenienced, many in shock from the trauma as the bombs whistled overhead and shook the ground upon impact, the Israelis stayed resolute. All were united behind the IDF efforts to take down this most recent threat. In an almost supernatural answer to the prayers and fasting of the people, and much thanks to Iron Dome, there was not one Israeli casualty. Several cars and a couple buildings were hit and a few people were treated for falling while on the way to shelters and for shock. But there were no major injuries. This was a Tisha B’Av miracle. Still, sirens wailed throughout the center of Israel nonstop. Another huge miracle, not to be underestimated, is that Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, decided to sit this one out. Perhaps it was because the knew that the IDF was only targeting PIJ. Maybe it was because they were pummeled last conflict and did not want a repeat performance. A miracle, nonetheless.

We were completely unaffected by this in the North, but still, the people were all on edge. Last year, many of the surrounding Arab villages and mixed cities experienced uprisings and violent riots which saw the destruction of Jewish property and resulted in several deaths. The government had well-prepared for this scenario, and this year made sure the police were out in advance to quell any disturbances before they could take hold. Simultaneously, the IDF was making military incursions into places like Nablus and Jenin arresting terror cells and confiscating stolen and homemade illegal weapons. It was a well-coordinated effort.

The Israeli army has a policy to go out of their way to avoid incurring civilian damages. Both PIJ and Hamas go out of their way to hide their bomb and rocket launchers behind their own people: in schools, hospitals, mosques and inside high-density housing units. Israel has every right to defend its people. What would you do if a neighboring state started attacking your city? There is a popular narrative that is being spread by many mainstream news outlets and by members of the US government: that there is an imbalance of power. That the Iron Dome affords Israel a unique advantage. This narrative is both misleading and dangerous. Iron Dome definitely saves countless lives and property. It is because of the strength and accuracy of Israel’s army that Hamas, Hezbollah, PIJ and other terror organizations that have genocidal racism as their epithet have not proliferated and taken over in the region. Their goal is not to “resist the occupation.” Their goal is to make the entire MidEast, especially Israel free of Jews, free or Christians, free of homosexuals and free of any other group they do not approve of. Their goal is to make the entire Mideast a vast wasteland of their religious intolerance and supremacy as can be seen in countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Yemen. They have no desire in making life better for their own people, who live in abhorrent conditions under a militaristic religious dictatorship.

All the violence could be stopped in a single instant if the Islamist terrorists would just put down their weapons to live in peace. We all want peace here. We do not seek conflict. We just want to live normal lives. All they have to do is accept our existence, something they all have been given the opportunity to recognize officially on many occasions, but refuse. There is no easy answer. Usually the blame falls on Israel. For example,, early on in the conflict, Gaza reported that 7 civilians including 5 children were killed in the Jabalia refugee complex when an Israeli bomb struck the tenement housing. They even released footage of the strike. Upon inspection, it can be seen that their own missile completely backfired, making a slowly arching u-turn before crashing down and hitting the Jabalia site. The news, first broadcast by AlJezeera then picked up by international mainstream media was debunked as fake news within the hour. More footage released shows that not only did this bomb fail to reach its target, but that over 20% of the launches misfired, falling back into Gaza.

Late Sunday evening, a ceasefire, brokered by Egypt, was announced. So far, it has held, but things are tenuous at best. The PIJ has called for the release of al-Saadi and other “political hostages.” As of this morning, Tuesday, 9 August, Israel special ops were in Nablus encountering extreme and wild fire power. So far 11 terrorists including the head of the AlAqsa Martyrs’ Brigade have been killed with zero IDF casualties with the exception of a counterterrorism dog. A large number of explosives and additional weapons have been located at the site. Hopefully this will deter the terrorists and help break the wave of recent violence. We pray for peace and security and for the wisdom of our government. We pray for truthful reporting. And we thank G-d that this Ninth of Av we were spared.

Diversity in Israel: Meet the Circassians

Circassian Cultural Heritage Center in Kfar Kama, Galilee

Adding to the rich cultural diversity in Israel, we have the Circassians. Mainly living in two communities in the North and numbering approximately 4,000, the Circassians’ history goes way back to pre-4th century. Originally from what is present-day Russia – from between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, they were the indigenous people of the Caucasus Mountains. They lived from Sochi to Baku: their capital city was Nalchik and they were known as the Adyghe (Adiga) people. In their language Ady means highlander and ghe means sea. Between the 4th and the 9th centuries, many of them converted to Christianity. When the Tartars and Ottoman Turks conquered their territory, many were forcibly converted to Islam. The Turks called them Cherkess which was Latinized to Circassian. After many years as dhimmie under the Ottomans, most adopted the Muslim religion voluntarily. 1763 marked the 100 year war between the Circassians and the Russians for access to the Black Sea. Eventually, in 1864, Russia launched a genocidal campaign. 90% of their population were exiled from their land – put on ships bound for the Balkans, Anatolia, Bulgaria and Turkey. From there they were taken to the Middle East and can be found throughout the Levant. Their population is about 1.5 million.

Because they were such good fighters, the Ottomans took them in as brother Muslims; and it was the Turks who scattered them throughout the Lebanon/Syria/Israel/Jordan region as a counterweight tothe non-Muslim Jewish, Christian and Druze populations as well as to the Bedouin. Even though they are Sunni Muslim, they are not Arabs. They were brought here in the 1870s as tax collectors for all the other Arab villages in the surrounding area (today, this practice no longer exists).Here in Israel, they maintain excellent relations with the Jewish and Arab populations. The Circassians, although very separate with their own language and educational system, all serve in the IDF. They have kept their ancient phonetic language, Adyghebza, but are fluent in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Their educational levels are very high, their communities, impeccably clean with flowers blooming in every windowbox and garden. There are only 26 family groups or clans within the Israeli Circassian community.

We visited the two Circassian towns recently. Kfar Kama (pronounce Comma) is a thriving village on the upper slope of Har Tavor (Mt. Tabor) in the lower Galilee. The mountain village is walled in, an old form of defense. All of the stone houses are interconnected, sharing a back or side wall. The only way through into the village is from a guardpost/ gate, like a fort. The mosque stands in the very center of the town. And it is the location of the Circassian Heritage Center. Every day, the center welcomes Israeli school groups as part of their educational enrichment program. We were greeted graciously by our docent, Ibek, dressed in a black costume and high fur hat.

After sharing their history with the large group, several members of the village put on a dance exhibition in their native noble costumes. Red and black are their battle colors, turquoise symbolizes the sea and green, the land from which they came.

All Circassians are taught the traditional dances from the time they are young, and all can play at least one musical instrument. The women have much power in their society, and are free to make their own decisions. When a young man comes of age, it is traditional for the Circassian man not to ask permission of the girl’s parents to marry. He asks the girl to marry him directly. This is where the story gets good. Without her parent’s knowledge, the bridegroom and his male attendants, kidnap the beloved at an agreed upon time and place. Two of the bridegroom’s attendants, then go to her family’s home to inform the parents (after she has not shown up). The family must then go out in search of their daughter, but it is the girl’s decision entirely to marry. The parents have no say in the matter. The bride is taken into the groom’s family’s home, and it is they who pay for the entire wedding feast. The families marry within their clans. Sometimes the men travel to Eastern Europe or Turkey where other clan member reside to find their betrothed.

Circassian young woman in native dress

Much of their labor today is agricultural. Olive growing has played a large role in their subsistence . They follow the Muslim dietary laws (refraining from pork, Hallal slaughter) with the exception of fish. Because so many of their people were killed in the Black Sea War, fish and seafood are off the menu in homage to their brethren. They are fairly famous for their smoked meats and hard smoked cheeses. The cheese shop in Kfar Kama boasts of the oldest cheese in Israel: this hard, smoked cheese is shaped like an enormous dagger and is 43 years old!

Today in Israel, about half of the Circassians are devout, the other half fairly secular. There is no pressure to be traditional, although all intimately know the culture and traditions. Observant women wear a white headscarf, like Druze women, but the Circassian style for every day is more like a hijab. Colorful clothes as well as pants are worn by the younger women.

The other Circassian village is Rechaniya, near the Lebanese border, established in 1878 by 66 families. It too is built in the fortified walled village style with a central mosque as in Kfar Kama. Because of their location, the village maintained active ties with their Lebanese and Syrian relations across the border. This proved problematic for the Israeli authorities during the 1967 and Lebanese Wars. Frequent home searches were conducted by the IDF for security reasons. Smuggled weapons were confiscated and some of the Rechaniya townsfolk were temporarily moved to Kfar Kana, 30 miles to the south. Mostly, they preferred to remain neutral during the wars Israel faced. Today, friendly relations have been restored. They pride themselves as being full Israeli citizens and part of the fabric of society. Many Circassians today serve in the police and border patrol units. Several are noted Israeli football stars.

Hani Madaji is the owner of the Rechaniya restaurant, Nalchik. There you can eat like a local, feating on lots of carbs, some baked, some fried, all with different fillings. One of the favorites is Haliva, a fried dough dumpling filled with Circassian cheese, potatoes and herbs. Some variations use beef and leeks.

There are Kalkata, dumplings filled with sheep milk yogurt and paprika; memjak, a savory lentil dish and an interesting type of chicken salad. The shredded, cooked chicken is dressed with a rich, garlicky tehineh and is served at room temperature. Before eating a red olive oil that has been infused with spicy Aleppo pepper and paprika, is drizzled over top. Walnuts, also are sprinkled over (Note: for those visitors keeping Kashrut, this food is definitely not Kosher! Still, interesting to see and learn). Also in Rechaniya is a specialized cheese dairy that has been in the same family for generations. It is an art that has been passed down from mother to daughter for hundreds of years.

Nadi explained to us when we asked how the Circassians fit into society in Israel today that it is a matter of tolerance. They see other people and other cultures as having tremendous dignity and worth as human beings. We are all brothers and sisters, she said. We seek to live peaceably among our own people and alongside the other Israeli citizens. However every Circassian carries deep within him the desire to go back to their original homeland that is today part of Russia. They are all a part of the Great Circassian Diaspora. For them, May 21 is their Genocide Remembrance Day. In both Kfar Kama and Rechaniya there are parades, special services and speeches made. All are welcome to attend.

Ancient Mysteries

The last day of our three day desert adventure this past December was incredible in several ways: it was midweek and there was no one else for miles so we were alone in the desert – a special experience; we were able to cover a tremendous amount of territory and make it to three amazing and different archaeological sites; we were trying to do it all before the predicted high winds, sandstorm and first major storm of the winter hit.

Our adventure started early in the morning at the ruins of Susya, an ancient city that was excavated from 1985-2000. On the eastern fringe of Mount Hebron, southeast of BeerSheva in the area once walked by Abraham and the Patriarchs of monotheism, settled by the tribe of Yehuda (Judah), a large town was built by Jews after the Roman destruction of Yerushalayim. It is one of the most unusual ancient towns we’ve ever visited, a town filled with mystery. Sometimes there is only so much that archaeologists and anthropologists can put together from their findings. Stones are uncovered which tell only part of a story. Without first-hand written records or documents much is left to speculation.

Susya was a fortified city built on a high plateau, excellent for defense. As in most ancient towns, it was surrounded by a high stone wall at one time. It was built after 70AD and lasted until the end of the Byzantine or beginning of the early Arabic period. After that, it seemed to have been abandoned. Why? A mystery. The town had homes separated by streets and alleys, but most of the homes and businesses (potter, forge, olive production, wine production) took place underground! Homes were connected by subterranean passageways. Many of the ”buildings” were carved out caverns. Huge underground chambers, many linked together. Why? Was it for defense? If so, from who? Perhaps because it was cooler underground in the summer and warmer in the winter? Without written documents, it’s difficult to piece together the whole story.

More than 70 of these underground spaces have been uncovered at Susya. What is known is that it was a Jewish city. Both private and public mikvaot (ritual baths used for purification purposes) were found. Such a large number of these purification baths testifies to the great importance of their adherence to Torah law.

The crown of the city is its spectacular synagogue, which is still fairly well preserved, considering its age. The entrance to the synagogue can be approached through a large arched portico surrounding a central congregating area. An enormous round stone, which can be rolled by many strong men along an outer track, can block the main entrance to the courtyard. From the portico, there are high steps and Doric columns leading into the large worship/study area.

The floor of the synagogue is covered with a well-preserved mosaic floor. The mosaics include two menorah/lampstands, a shofar, lulav branches and etrog, and an immense zodiac calendar. There are many blessings written in Aramaic including one that reads, ”remembered be for good the comforter Yeshu’ the witness and the comforter that [……]”. What does this mean? Was it an early Messianic community? Was that why they were so concerned with defense? Was it part of another group?The rest of the inscriptions are all typically Jewish. There is a raised platform or bima and a space where the ark containing the Torah scrolls would have been kept. The synagogue also had an upstairs gallery for women. But here, too, in the synagogue are escape tunnels and stones to roll across doorways to block the ebterances and exits. From whom were they hiding and trying to escape? So far, archaeology gives us no clues….Today the synagogue is used for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.

The next stop on our desert adventure was at an overlook along the high cliffs of the Maktesh Kattan. A maktesh is a geological formation that only occurs in the Negev. There are three of them here, kattan meaning the smallest. It’s s a completely sunken hole, a huge round crater that was naturally formed as the ground there collapsed millennia ago. We were beginning our descent onto the desert floor. I got out of the car to take photos and John got out… well… to be John.

I really shouldn’t have been nervous at all when he scurried down to the edge of the ledge. He’s done it at the Grand Canyon. He did this at Maktesh Ramon years ago. I think he’s part mountain goat. Truly. Still, I just about had a heart attack and he got some pretty great pics: the Thelma & Louise remnants of an old car crash; the white and blue stripes signifying the Israel Trail (seriously, who would hike down this cliff into the desert?); a hidden party terrace.

The road we traveled was tortuous… a real snake path. No safety barricades on some of the cliff edges. Hair-raising! The panoramas absolutely gorgeous! Once on the desert floor, we quickly headed for the painted desert. Mineral deposits left not only lots of iron, but also copper, magnesium, manganese, sulfur. I forgot to mention that this was in the area of Biblical Gomorra….hmmm…. There were huge chunks of iron ore in the sands – and tons of white snails! In the desert sands!! Snails! Still, my first reaction when I saw the beautiful palette of colors? Make-up!!! The shades of pink, rose, purple, yellow, red, brown, orange, ochre. Nothing short of magnificent!!

We still had two places to visit. No time to dally! Back in the car and on to Tamar Fortress in the Arava part of the desert, about 30 miles or so south of the Dead Sea. Tamar was once just an oasis, a desert watering hole where the Moabites and Edomites used to frequent. Mayaanot, underground springs surrounded by date palms, or tamar in Hebrew (yes, my Hebrew name means date palm). The place was well known to the ancient Israelites. It is mentioned in the Scriptures. During the reign of King David, it was the southernmost outpostfor the tribe of Judah. King Solomon built a fortress here, serving not only defensive purposes, but it was strategically positioned to monitor caravans traveling to and from distant places in the east, and to protect the southern copper mines. We read in the book of Kings that King Josiah destroyed the pagan idols that had been set up there. Archaeological remains are always confirming the words of the Bible. It is an irrefutable claim that the Jews inhabited the land of Israel from ancient times. Tamar Fortress (excavated by archaeologist and adventurer, T.E. Lawrence ”of Arabia”) is an incredible fortified walled city. Strata upon strata of different civilizations have built layer upon layer. Ancient Israelites, Greeks, Romans, Mamelukes, Ottomans. And at the top of the hill, the offices for the generals of Great Britain during the period of the British Mandate in the early 1900s. Today it serves as a museum to the history of the area.

It was getting on in the afternoon, one of the shortest days of the year. The trip had been an incredibly hard one for me, as I was still in the process recovering from an extensive spinal surgery. I was exhausted. My legs stiff and heavy. The wind was picking up and a dusty haze was limiting visibility. We had one more stop: the Nabatean city of Mamshit (pronounced MomSHEET). So we pressed on.

Mamshit was a Nabatean city. The Nabateans were spice traders. Their caravans of camels traveled from what is now Saudi Arabia, through Jordan, through Israel to the Mediterranean laden with frankincense, mhyrr, spices and jewels. Mamshit sits at a crossroads on the spice route. A permanent settlement was established here in the first century BC. It consisted of villas for its wealthy inhabitants as well as khans, or inns for travelers!and large and extravagant stables. It is believed that they were also breeders of stallions from the stables and implements they found in situ. By the second century AD Mamshit had been annexed by the Romans. The extravagant building projects continued.

The Nabateans were converted from their polytheistic idol-worshipping religion to Christianity by the third century. At the beginning of the fifth century, two magnificent churches were built here: the Western Church and the Eastern Church (named for their locations in the city). They were in use until the Arab conquest in 636AD. After that time, Mamshit ceased to exist. The Western Church was a basilica shaped church, built at a high point in the city. It was entered through a colonnaded courtyard or atrium. The main part of the church was divided into three parts: a central nave and two side aisles. At the front was a semicircular apse marking the sire of the altar and the direction of prayer. The floor was paved in mosaics featuring geometric patterns, birds, two peacocks and inscriptions.

The day was growing short. The wind was whipping sand through the air. I was most exhausted, but we wanted to see the other church and the ”Nabatu house.” John and I (foolishly) split up. He was more able to make the long haul and climb the stepped ruins up to the Eastern church – and he was able to get some great photos of the frescoed walls and mosaics. He said there was also an incredibly deep baptismal pool there as well and that the mosaics here were incomparably beautiful and really well preserved.

Iwent to visit the largest villa, known as the Nabatu house as well as a three room bathhouse next to it. The public bathhouse ( because you know – Romans!) was made of three rooms: the caldarium, a forced air steam sauna and hot pools; a frigidarium, a cold water pool from the reservoir for a quick plunge after the sauna; and a forum or dressing/social room. The furnace room consisted of red bricks heated by a massive fire and clay pipes through which the hot air flowed. It was all very interesting.

I really don’t know what happened next. I was walking with two crutches. The pavement was really quite uneven. Theres a metal pole sticking up from the ground about three inches. It was very windy and getting very cold. My legs were very heavy and my body aching. My back was screaming at me. I was trying to take pictures… and I went down. Really hard. I felt whatever surgery corrected in my back completely shift. I screamed, but there was no one else around. And that marked a dramatic end to our Negev adventure. The drive home was dusty with limited visibility. We made it just in time- through a sandstorm and before the rains hit. Since then I’ve been laying low, literally, and have been enjoying our rainy season. The winter has finally arrived with storm after storm. We made our trip just in time. It was totally worth it. Until the next adventure –

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).