Mysteries of Antiquity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tree People

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Driving home from a picnic in the Misgav Forest

Golani Cherries!

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Picking Bing Cherries in the Golan  Heights

We had been waiting for this tiyuul (Hebrew for field trip) for weeks now. It seemed like ages since we were up in the Golan, one of my favorite places in Israel. First there was all the winter snow, sleet and rain, and then the COVID lockdown for months. But the day was perfect – nice and warm, sunny, with slightly cool breezes from the West off the Mediterranean. And it was the first week of cherry season!

Odem Mountain sits towards the foot of the Mount Hermon and butts up against the border with Syria. The Heights have been quiet since the Syrian Civil War moved from the area about a year ago. Odem is known for its wonderful wineries and for its pick-your-own fruit farms. Raspberries, blueberries and blackberries (called ‘black raspberries’ here) will be ripe in mid-July; grapes in August. But last week, life was a bowl of cherries for us!

We were given entrance to the orchard for 20 shekels per person, about $6 each. We could eat as much off the trees as we could stomach – and that was a ton! – plus pick as much as we could carry in our baskets. The first kilo was included in the price, the rest were about $5 a kg – 2.2 pounds. There were only a few families out, so we had the huge orchard mostly to ourselves. The sky was a gorgeous blue, the birds singing, and the butterflies were out in abundance. Who could ask for more?

I love that Israel is so family friendly. Because fruit picking is a family activity here, the orchards cater to the wee folk. Instead of pruning back the lower limbs and bushes as one normally does to increase fruit production, everything is left in its natural state. Low hanging limbs mean low hanging fruit, and any 2-3 year old can enjoy harvesting the luscious gems.

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John and I each picked four baskets of Bing Cherries before we discovered the sweetest, most delicious Rainiers. Within an hour, we had picked another four baskets. It was sheer bliss – I found my happy spot. As the morning wore on, we followed the sound of Russian voices chattering madly in the Eastern part of the orchard. We found out what was causing the commotion: fresh sour cherries! The Russians and Eastern Europeans are absolutely wild about forest fruits. They especially love sour cherries, preserving them for pastries, toppings and winter desserts.

After eating so many cherries, it’s a wonder we even had room for lunch, but I had packed a lovely picnic with an assortment of cheeses, olives, homemade crackers, pickles and salads and a bottle of rosé. All of the picking areas have adjacent picnic tables under the canopy of vines and trees. It’s just so romantic!

As soon as we got home the work began in earnest -which would last the rest of the week for me. It was enjoyable labor, and I can’t wait to share these recipes with you!!

  CHERRY LIQUEUR

IMG_0144 I can’t believe I forgot to take a picture of the finished product after it had been bottled, but this is the basic process: I steeped about 40 Bing cherries in a covered Mason Jar of vodka for a week. The vodka turns red and the cherries fade somewhat. Strain the infused spirit into sterilized bottles. Store the bottles in a dark cabinet for up to a year. When ready to use, place a bottle of the liqueur in the freezer – the liqueur gets nice and cold, but will not freeze. Sip straight up in a tiny liqueur glass, or mix into cocktails.

You can spoon the reserved cherries (I microwave them for 10 seconds) over vanilla ice cream. A lovely dessert!

        CHAMPAGNE JUBILEE!

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Take the cherry liqueur (you just made, recipe above) out of the freezer. Pour about 1 oz. into a champagne flute and top off with Prosecco, sparkling white wine or a sweet white wine. This is really refreshing on a hot summer day – and beautiful for bridal showers and with brunch!

   CHERRY-BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE                  (makes 4 slender bottles)

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Love this recipe I came up with. It’s really delicious on a pasta salad with grilled chicken strips, or on a sweet summer salad of fresh greens, red onion (or pickled onion), fruit and nuts. Add feta on top for a dairy salad – or leftover grilled chicken strips for a main course (meat/basari). Refrigerate after opening.

Ingredients:

  • 6 Tablespoons wildflower honey
  • 40 Bing cherries, stemmed and pitted
  • 2-3 shallots or 1 Bermuda/red onion
  • 1/4 cup good quality Balsamic vinegar
  • 6 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 1/2 cup champagne or white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt (I use Dead Sea salt or Maldon)
  • 1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
  • Distilled or filtered spring water

  Directions:

Prepare/sterilize the bottles and the tops by keeping them submerged in boiling water for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, place the pitted cherries and the honey in a small saucepan and let them simmer (but not boil!) for about 5 minutes. Let cool. Chop 8-10 of the cooled cherries into little pieces. Reserve the rest of the cherries (for pouring over vanilla ice cream or serving with a dollop of whipped cream!!!), saving the honey liquid.

Pour the reserved honey liquid into the four dressing bottles that have been recently sterilized. Make sure each bottle gets an even amount. Distribute the chopped cherries evenly into the four bottles. I find using a funnel makes all of this a lot easier! Add 2 Tbsp Balsamic to each bottle. Add 1/8 cup champagne vinegar and 1/8 cup olive oil to each bottle. Add 1 sprig of rosemary, the salt and pepper. Using a garlic press, I halve and squeeze 2 peeled shallots to collect the shallot juice in a little cup or glass. Pour the shallot juice evenly into each bottle. Finely mince the remaining shallot and add to the bottles. Fill the rest of the dressing bottles to about 1/2 inch from the top with the spring water. Seal. Shake vigorously before serving.

THE BEST CHERRY CHICKEN SALAD!!

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This is fairly easy to make. I serve it for Shabbat lunch on a hot day. It’s quite flavorsome, not to mention beautiful with the jewel-like cherries poking out. We never have any leftovers it’s just that delicious – but if we did, I’d serve it on a crusty baguette with a bed of arugula or rocket lettuce.

 

  • 3 cups (about 1 pound/1/2 kg) cooked chicken breasts, chopped into bite sized bits
  • 1/3 cup chopped red/Bermuda onion
  • 1/3 cup chopped celery
  • 1 cup pitted, halved cherries (I like a combo of Bing and Ranier cherries for this dish)
  • 2 Tbsp poppyseeds
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise (light mayo, preferable)
  • 1/2 cup “Chinese” sweet pecans
  • Sea salt & freshly cracked black pepper to taste

In the States, I was able to buy pre-grilled or pre-cooked chicken strips (I was spoiled). Here I have to make everything from scratch, so I boil my chicken breasts in water with celery tops, an onion, bay leaves, salt, pepper, 2 Tbsp whole cloves and a thumb sized sliver of fresh ginger (I just gave away my bubbe’s chicken stock recipe!!! I swear the addition of the cloves and ginger take the soup to a whole new level of awesomeness!!!!). Let the chicken simmer on the stove for about a half hour until cooked through. I reserve the stock to freezer bags once it cools – future use. There’s no soup in aseptic boxes or cans here.

Chop the cooled breasts into bitesize morsels. Chop the onion and celery. Add all to a large bowl. Stir in mayo and poppy seeds, salt and pepper. Gently fold in cherries and pecans. Chill until ready to serve.Can garnish with rosemary sprigs or fold in about a Tbsp finely minced fresh rosemary before serving.

CHERRY CHOCOLATE CHIP SCONES      (makes 18, but doesn’t last more than 2 hours! They tend to disappear that quickly)

My family loves these scones. I’ve made them for years, but can never seem to find them when I want to serve them. So glad I took the picture shortly after I took them off the baking sheet, because they were all gone 2 hours later when I wanted a sweet snack!

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Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups regular flour
  • 1/3 cup coconut sugar (low glycemic option to white sugar)
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 20-25 Bing cherries, pitted and quartered (use gloves or your hands will get stained)
  • 8 Tbsp cold butter
  • 3/4 cups cream
  • 2 Tbsp milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp dried ginger powder or 1 TBSP grated fresh ginger or stem ginger pieces, minced
  • 3/4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

 

Preheat oven to 400*F/200*C.  Place baking paper or silpat on two baking sheets.

Mix together dry ingredients a large bowl. Using a party cutter, knife, or fork, cut in pieces of cold butter and blend until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Stir in the cherries and chocolate chips to coat with a dusting of flour (this prevents sticking together or clumping on the bottom).

Make a shallow well in the middle of the flour mixture. Whisk together the wet ingredients and pour into the middle of the well. Gently stir the wet ingredients into the dry mixture without overworking the dough. It should just be moistened.

Using an ice cream scoop, I place small scoops of the batter (6 on each sheet, evenly spaced) on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with a little sugar if you’d like a little sparkle. Bake for about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for a couple minutes. Repeat until all batter is used up. Guard these babies with your life if you want them to last! They can be stored in a wax-paper lined tin box or plastic container for a couple days (yeah, right – good luck on that one!)

I find them best served with a light spread of cream cheese. So delicious!

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And OF COURSE!!!!I made 12 jars of cherry vanilla preserves last week. Two are gone, so I hope to make some more in the next couple days…. until then, my friends –

 

Merrily We Float Along

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Morning on the Sea of Galilee

The weather here in the North of Israel has been nothing short of spectacular this week!!! Hot, but not too hot; nice breezes wafting in from the Mediterranean; quiet and peaceful days. Yesterday, we decided to take advantage of the early summer weather and the calm. We desperately miss our tourists and need them for the local economy, but are enjoying the non-crowded venues and leisurely pace as various sites open, but are still social distancing. What a better way to spend the day, than by rafting down the Jordan River!!

The source of the Jordan River lies in the very North of the country from the melting snows atop Mount Hermon and the underwater aquifers bubbling up into mountain springs and rivers. The two largest, the Dan River and the Hatzbani Stream come together in the lush Hula Valley and form the Jordan River, which pours into Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). From there, the Jordan flows (trickles more like it) through the Jordan Valley (Samaria and Judea) into the Dead Sea. All in all, it is 251 km or 156 miles long.

There are several companies that offer rafting and kayaking down the upper part of the Jordan, but we love Kfar Blum the best. The attraction center at Kibbutz Kfar Blum offers so many fun activities. For those that enjoy camping, there are several different options: there is the basic tent campground. Tents are supplied. Also provided are a small outdoor refrigerator, picnic table, clothes line, and rec area. Tents hold up to four people. Just bring food and sleeping bags. A step up in the luxury campground has large six-eight person canvas tents (air conditioned!!!) on wooden floors with platform beds, large fridge/freezer, hammocks on the porch and recreational area.  If that’s too rustic, there are cabin/bunk houses with all the comforts of home and a fenced-in private yard. Playgrounds for the kids available at all sites.

On site is the Top Rope Adventure Park, a high ropes course that is incredibly popular with the youth. Add to this a 40 foot rock climbing wall, archery range, and 300 feet long zip-line course which splashes down into the Jordan, and it’s almost a full day’s worth of activities. But we went for the rafting – Blum has “The Long Course” – a 2.5 mile course down the Hula Valley, which takes about an hour and a half – or longer if you get out and swim. It costs $30 per adult and is well worth it. There were absolutely no lines yesterday (no Birthright kids on tour) so we made it to the bus within a few minutes. The Blumbus takes you up river where a guide gives you the course outline and instructions. All people must wear a life preserver at all times.

Yesterday was the best, because unlike during the hottest part of the summer and all the tourists, the river was not clogged with rafts. There was plenty of room to float at a leisurely pace and to pull off to the side and swim. I just love how Israelis sing here. Passing rafts of families, so many were singing the old Hebrew folk songs I grew up hearing. One raft was full of beautiful IDF soldiers on leave posing in their swimsuits. We passed families on shore fishing and picnicking, another favorite Israeli pass-time. It was a glorious day with birds singing in the blackberry brambles lining each side of the river, and dragonflies darting between the rafts. We saw turtles sunning themselves on the rocks, and lots of trout in the crystal clear Hatzbani Stream. Further down the line were the invasive nutria, a recently introduced species that is a cross between a beaver and a river otter.

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Such a lovely day!! For those in Israel who want a staycation in the North or those planning to visit from abroad, Kfar Blum (founded in 1943 by a group of olim from the UK, the US, and Eastern Europe) also has a luxury resort, The Pastoral Hotel. Beautiful rooms, Kosher food, a pool and spa as well as tennis and fitness areas are part of the package. At various times throughout the year, Kfar Blum offers music weekends, featuring classical music, jazz and opera as well as full productions of Broadway shows (in English) in their auditorium. There are also film festivals held during the summer months. It’s a great place to host a family reunion, wedding or other life event. All information is available on their website.

Udderly Delicious

Time for the annual Shavuot-in-Israel dairy blog! The holiday where we celebrate eating cheesecake and dairy products (or so it seems) is bearing down hard upon us. Actually, Shavuot is the holiday 50 days after Pesach (Passover), commemorating the end of the barley harvest and beginning of summer, as well as the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses by G-d on Mount Sinai. Because milk is sometimes used as a symbol for the Scriptures (providing us babies spiritual nourishment), we eat lots of dairy and stay up all night studying the Scriptures, reading the book of Ruth, and discussing how bloated we feel after consuming so many milk products. Uuuurrppp -Pass that bowl of whipped cream, please-

It’s also the time when Israelis make their annual pilgrimages to local dairy farms. Goat farms and pasture-fresh goat milk dairies and restaurants are ubiquitous throughout the Galilee region of Northern Israel. All are independent, family-owned and run. Some are Bedouin Arab, some secular Jewish, some following the strictest of Kosher laws. Some offer tours of the cheesemaking process and some have petting zoos attached where little children run around petting the goats and helping with the milking. Each has its own flavor (pun intent ended).

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Galilean goatherd in the wadi below our house

This year I selected two different places, each with their own vibe and each within a fifteen minute drive of home. Due to the easing of the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, all the local roads (many one lane in each direction!) were p’kock and each place jam-packed with locals satisfying their ‘pent-up-for-way-too-long’ and ‘just-let-me-out-in-the-fresh-air’ desires.

Yesterday, my girlfriend, Hadassah, and I decided to take a short morning tiyuul to Kibbutz Shomrat, just across the highway from Akko. (O.K., so we wound up picnicking at nearby Achziv Beach, visiting a distillery, and making new friends at a small kibbutz cafe on the Lebanese border and didn’t get home til after sunset, but we had a blast!!!)

Alto Dairy on Kibbutz Shomrat had been highly recommended as a gourmet Kosher establishment. We found it was a lot more than that. Shomrat has a guesthouse (motel); individual family tzimmerim (lodges); a gourmet restaurant and cafe. It is also the home of the Mazan family’s Alto Dairy. Run by the lively matriarch, Ariel Mazan, she prides herself on the traditional techniques she learned in Europe and the highest standards.

Alto (Italian and Spanish for high, as in their quality) specializes in both hard and soft cheeses made from pasteurized goat milk, which is mild, healthy and easy to digest. They offer over 20 different products including yogurts; two types of bleu cheese; camembert with nuts; camembert in ash; chèvre with herbs or garlic or seeds; salty cheeses; pecorino – all up for tasting. I must admit, this was by far the best dairy I’ve tried here to date. Their Tom cheese is soft and mild, buttery and yet flavorsome. (Even better than the San Francisco, Cowgirl Creamery Tom…. did I just say that????)  I bought a ton. And the goat cheddar -WOW!!!!! Flavor explosion. I bought two tons. And yogurt, and chèvre, and bleu, and halloumi (for sautéing). Their prices were very reasonable, but I wound up spending a small fortune anyway.

Alto has a small cafe-style seating area indoors as well as an adjacent covered-porch sit down restaurant. All the food is beautifully presented and kosher dairy – no meat products are served and they are closed on Shabbat. They offer cheese and wine platters, of course, but their Israeli breakfast is something else. Traditional Israeli dishes with a gourmet twist: stuffed mushrooms with pureed fresh beets and melted cheese; salad with pear, pecan and bleu; roasted eggplant slices on fresh whole-grain sourdough – topped with melted cheeses; a croissant stuffed with wilted spinach and cheese and a perfectly poached egg; shakshuka with lots and lots of cheese; savory quiches; and yogurt parfaits to name just a few items.

The atmosphere is family-friendly, laid-back and very casual with nice views of the farm, fields and coastal plains between Akko and Haifa. You can take a pre-arranged guided tour of the establishment enabling you to learn the entire cheese-making process from udder to shelf. Not only will you learn the nutritional advantages of goat milk and the different types of cheeses, but how to serve and cook with them!

This morning John, Max and I visited a popular hangout for the locals. Located off Route 85 between Karmiel and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), there is a signpost for Ein Camonim, another family-owned goat dairy and restaurant. I first heard about this place from my California-Israeli acupuncturist who was good friends with the Ovrutsky family. Very small world.

Ein Camonim does not have Kosher certification because they are open on Shabbat. Still, it is all natural and dairy only, with a store and adjoining restaurant. They, too, sell a nice variety of hard and semi-soft cheeses as well as goat yogurt. I love their chèvre dipped in volcanic ash and their gouda. The fresh homemade ice cream is to die for creamy, sweet and well-balanced with absolutely no “goaty” taste at all – a hallmark of freshness. It comes in several different flavors and all products are available for take-away.

There is indoor seating in the restaurant as well as dining alfresco under the pine and oak canopy. This place, so typically Israeli, is about as relaxed and mellow and casual as it gets. Jeans, tee shirts, shorts, boots or bare feet – we’ve seen it all. But I’ll save the most interesting surprise for last….

It’s mostly frequented for lazy brunches and long lunches. Yes, there is the requisite cheese platter with local boutique wine pairings, but the Israeli breakfast (not cheap) is simple, fresh food from the local gardens served in huge amounts. Olives picked and cured on site; fresh hummus and simple chopped veggie salads drizzled with fresh olive oil; chavita (kha-vee-TAH) – the flat Galilean omelette, and shakshuka served with fresh warm bread made on the premises. And there’s cheese pizza for the kids. Totally filling. Very plain. Most Israeli.

The part that was so shocking to us the first time we visited, was not just the cats and dogs wandering the premises, visiting the tables. It wasn’t that patrons brought their dogs, who were welcome to loll under the tables, It was the peafowl!!! Peacocks and peahens seem to have the run of this establishment. They wander freely about the tables, inside and outside of both restaurants, occasionally jumping up on the uncleared tables to snatch morsels of food. It’s just part of the charm of the place: it’s a rural, local joint with absolutely no pretenses – and by now we’re used to such… It’s Most Israeli!!!

Have fun eating your cheese this weekend. I’m off to prepare my own cheesecakes and cheese blintz souflée toped with raspberry puree and fresh goat yogurt. Have to put the fridge full of dairy products to use!!!!

To my Jewish friends and family, Happy Shavuot! Chag Shavuot sameach (khag shah-voo-OAT sah-MAY-akh)!!!!! and to my Christian friends and family, Happy Pentacost!!!! And pass me another hunk of brie, please –

Cooling Summer Salads

Our lockdown due to the global pandemic officially entered a new phase last week. Restrictions were eased allowing Israeli citizens to travel the country a bit more freely – provided face masks were worn. Stores with streetfront access were open (forehead temperatures were taken before entering).  Restaurants, malls, cinemas, sporting events, all remain closed. Religious services were allowed with masks and proper social distancing. Schools began to open up.

But then, as quickly as the easements were occurring, the next plague swept in with a vengeance! Schools were closed again. Few dared leave their homes. Heat! Searing heat with over a week of extreme temperatures soaring well into the triple digits Fahrenheit – the 40’s Centigrade!. The winds were hot. The skies blistering. So we “sheltered in place” as best we could. You know it’s a scorcher when you go to take a cold shower, put the water on full cold, and tepid/lukewarm water at best comes out. We have one tiny air conditioning unit (mahz-GAHN) in our living room (for the whole house) and an even smaller mazgan in our master bedroom. The best we could manage was to bring the internal temps to a “balmy” 94 degrees Fahrenheit!!! Even the dog was lethargic. This was one time I was glad our scheduled houseguests from the States had to cancel their travel plans. Venture outside? I think NOT!!!!

Heat up the house even further by running the oven? NO WAY!!!! Inspired by the weeks of cooking shows by my favorite chefs (and I found a slew of new favorites) during the stay-at-home period, I decided to get creative with whatever I had left in the freezer, fridge and pantry. And I harvested most of my lettuces and the rest of my citrus fruits before they could burn up in the sun. Along with my new found organic produce delivery, we were good to go. So, I thought I’d share with you some of those recipes for when the weather heats  up in your area (Most I posted on Instagram and Facebook without recipes).

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                    COOLING CITRUS PAVLOVA

I started with dessert first, because, hey! Why not? This was by far the easiest, throw together; the most beautiful, colorful, juicy, sweet, creamy dessert ever. I harvested and wanted to use up all my grapefruit, lemon, oranges, and clementines. Luckily, I had bought package of miniature meringue puffs ages ago, thinking they were marshmallows. So now, to use them! Check your local supermarket to see if they carry pre-made meringues. Here in Israel, they come in all different shapes and sizes (and colors). If not, meringues are fairly easy to make – just requiring stiffly beaten egg whites (or aquafava, the juice left over from your canned garbanzos or kidney beans) and sugar with a little cream of tartar.

Ingredients:

  • peeled, de-seeded, and sliced (crosswise) segments of your favorite citrus fruits –
  • meringues (I used pre-packaged)
  • high quality vanilla ice cream
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream
  • 3 TBSP white sugar
  • 2 TBSP vanilla extract, Chambord or St Germain liqueur (optional)

Line a serving platter with the meringues – this could be one large pouf, mini meringues, or meringue cups. On top of that, lay the sliced citrus fruits – the more varied the colors, the prettier. Whip the cream (I used 38% milk fat) with the sugar until it holds its shape. Add in the flavoring, optional, but yummy. This time I used St. Germain, which imparts a lovely elderflower taste – virgin Elderflower Syrup (non-alcoholic) is available at IKEA. Spread on top of the citrus. Add as many scoops of vanilla ice cream to the top as you have people.

               PEACH and CARPACCIO SALAD

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Sometimes, you just never know what you’ll find in your freezer!!!! Going through for odds and ends and recipe ideas, I found two tiny packages of beef Bresaola I got from my Italian friends last summer. Usually made from horse (uuggghhhh), Daniel and Claudia bring me Kosher beef bresaola from Milan. It’s an air-dried, salted beef that has been aged two or three months until it takes on a dark reddish purple hue. It’s lean and tender and sweet. Altogether delicious. Claudia served it wrapped around melon, so I’m guessing if you can’t find Bresaola, a prosciutto would work well here. It can be eaten as an appetizer or main course (for a luncheon or light dinner).

This is another easily assembled recipe that looks amazing and is super delicious. Especially on a hot, no-cook day. Here, I was able to harvest the last of my arugula/rocket leaves, and also use the basil from my garden. I even used the crumbs from the fresh garlic croutons I make each week. Amazing!!!!

Ingredients:

  • Arugula/rocket
  • Sliced peaches
  • Thinly julienned Italian basil
  • Beef Bresaola, Procsciutto, or Carpaccio
  • High quality Balsamic vinegar (I use the one with three coins on the front of the bottle for extra richness/sweetness)
  • Bread crumbs

All you do for this one is to arrange the arugula/rocket leaves on a plate. Alternate the peach and bresaola slices. Scatter the basil on top. Drizzle with balsamic and sprinkle with those crunchy, salty, garlicky crumbs. If this is not an umami explosion, I don’t know what is!

                          AVOCADO SALAD

This was another winner as a side salad requiring no heat and little time to put together. If you keep Kosher, this is a good one because it is neither dairy nor meat, and can be eaten with either food group. As you can see, I’m really not giving quantities here as I was using up all my produce and odds and ends – and it depends on the number of people you are feeding. These are easy enough to eyeball, guesstimate, and assemble.

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                                BEET SALAD

Because of the influx of Russian, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European immigrants to Israel, beets are a most popular food here. They are ubiquitous on the Israeli table – in borscht, in salads, as side dishes, even pickled beets. Very cheap, and easy to grow (I’m growing both red and golden as well as the candy-cane striped chioggias which I shave raw into salads). I always have at least 4-6 roasted beets in my fridge for put-together recipes…

This recipe can be made with the addition of feta cheese (or bulgarit cheese) crumbles, if you are serving a dairy meal. I left it out as we were having a salad with smoked duck (recipe to follow) that evening.  Also, it used pickled onions, a really easy thing to make that is a staple in our home. I use the pickled onions on sandwiches, and in salads as a random garnish. Quite deliciously tangy and sweet.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 large red beets
  • 1 golden/yellow beet (if available)
  • 1 orange zested, peeled, seeded & segmented
  • squeeze of orange juice
  • pickled onions (recipe follows below)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt, fresh cracked black pepper
  • rosemary of thyme

Wrap the beets in foil and roast in a 200*C/400*F oven for about 30 minutes or until tender. Allow to cool fully. Remove the skin and any “burned bits.” Slice into a bowl. Squeeze about 1/4 cup orange juice over the beets. Add about 1 teaspoon of the orange zest, and the segmented orange bits (you can also use canned mandarins, which are impossible to find here). Drizzle with about a tablespoon of the olive oil and sprinkle with the slat and pepper. You can add about a teaspoon of fresh rosemary or thyme or just use it as a garnish Both work well in this salad. Top with a scattering of pickled red onions. Serve cold.

Pickled onions:

  • 2 large red/purple/Bermuda onions
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup white wine/champagne vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp white sugar
  • 1 Tbsp pickling spice
  • 1 tsp coarse salt

Peel the onions and slice thinly. In a medium saucepan, heat the vinegar sugar, salt mixture to boiling, then let simmer five minutes. Remove from heat and add in the sliced onions. Add the pickling spices. Store in a glass jar. Keep refrigerated. This will stay good for weeks and I add extra sliced onion as the quantity diminishes with use. The pickled onions will be ready to use in as little as half an hour after they are made – but keep getting better as they sit in the fridge.

                     SMOKED DUCK SALAD

This was our favorite salad ever. I found a smoked duck breast in my chicken just hiding out under the frozen peas. So glad!!!!! Don’t even remember when I bought this pre-packaged little gut, but it was a life-saver. The inspiration for this one takes me back to one of our favorite San Francisco restaurants, Cinema Cafe. Served with a crusty slice of sourdough, and its a winner of a meal – great for company!!!

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I’m just giving ingredient list here as you can determine how much you want to make to feed a hungry crowd. I was using everything I had left in my pantry (literally) and fridge, so….

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1-2 smoked duck or chicken breasts, sliced into thin strips
  • arugula/rocked/ baby lettuce leaves
  • sliced cherry tomatoes
  • pitted kalamata olives
  • 1 can drained garbanzo beans
  • pickled onions (see recipe above)
  • garlic croutons
  • lemon juice
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • pepitas/pumkin seed (sunflower seeds, nuts, whatever you can find)
  • poached eggs
  • salt and papper

Arrange the first five ingredients on a platter fairly artfully. Drizzle with freshly squeezed lemon juice and olive oil. Sprinkle on croutons and pepitas. On the top add one or two perfectly poached eggs per person, keeping the yolk fairly runny.

It’s fun to break the egg yolk into the served salad and mix it up with the other ingredients as kind of a warm sauce. Quite fancy. Very easy to make and super tasty!

 

 

The Great Escape: Antiquing in the Time of Covid-19

Friday morning was a gloriously beautiful spring day. After eight or nine weeks of being cooped up in the house, we were itching to escape and Israel had just eased up on the quarantining. For the past six weeks I had been positively salivating over the Instagram photos from Antikontainer in Alon haGalil – and I could wait no longer. So…. I called to see if they would be able to open the warehouse for us. And we were off!!!!!

Driving through the hills of the Galilee with the wildflowers all abloom and the sun shining was just what we needed. Finding this place, was another story. It’s a bit off the beaten path. Down dirt roads, past fields of grazing cattle, two wineries, past a dog kennel, past the goatherds, winding, winding over hill and valley. I had to call Dudu a couple times to make sure we were headed in the right direction – there were absolutely no signs and we were 200 meters from turning around completely! But there it was. Finally. A large warehouse. We masked and gloved and went in.

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Oh my goodness!!! We were in heaven!!! This place certainly did not disappoint!!! Importing containers from Europe (Sweden, Hungary, Eastern Europe) as well as collecting throughout Israel, the warehouse was stocked with all sorts of treasures!

Lots of primitives and old farm equipment from wagons to wheelbarrows, from rakes to carts – amazing decorative pieces for the garden- were the first things to catch my eye. One part of the large warehouse was stacked with old wooden blanket chests, some beautifully decorated, most Swedish. The prices were incredibly cheap…starting at about $45 USD a chest.

Next came buckets, bins, and bread bowls – lovely farmhouse tables, hutches and sideboards. I had always wanted a dough bowl, but could never find one in the States for the right price. Score!!!!! I got a beauty for about $28 USD!!!! One item ticked off my list. IMG_5596.jpeg

I was almost tempted by the shelves and shelves of old linens, most with traditional Swedish red and blue embroidery…. 10-50 shekels per piece…that’s about $3-$12. Not gonna lie, I just might go back for one or two. There were some lovely European porcelain sets of dishes, and serving ware that I passed up. All looked like they were in pristine condition, but I don’t have an antiques store anymore, so those were pass. I  did, however, nab a nice set of 6 crystal glasses that I can’t wait to use for cocktail hour later today. They were only $12 for the entire set!!!!!! That’s two bucks a piece!!!! Easily worth $50.

A few lovely old porcelain and enamel fireplaces/wood burning space heaters. And lots and lots of furniture…A Tel Aviv cafe would do well to stock up on their wide selection of white brasserie chairs for $15/each. I didn’t see the rocking chairs until we had already checked out – pity. And I really, really wanted the pair of hand-carved and painted children’s chairs to send to my granddaughter in California. Good thing John was there to remind me of the prohibitive shipping cost, but they were absolutely adorable!!!

The side yard was filled to the brim with galvanized tin wash buckets, feeding troughs, watering cans and the like. There was a large pile of those Hungarian baby bathtubs and stands (the ones Williams-Sonoma was selling for $380-$800 in 2014) perfect for planting herbs or filling with ice for drinks. If we had a swimming pool, I’d fill them with towels, they are just so versatile. I bought one in Haifa a few years ago for about $100, and love it for my herbs, but these were even cheaper (I might just have to get another one??). And the vintage metal washstands in all colors with matching enamel on steel bowls. So we bought a lovely one of those which we’ll scrape of rust and repaint and use as a drink stand on the patio (pictures to come).

Next was the room of enamelware. Oh my Lordie! milk pails, bowls, utensils, you-name-it. Awesome vintage produce scales in working order. And vintage blown glass. I’ve always wanted a demijohn, the big bulb-shaped glass flasks that were one used for storing rum and other alcohol. Today, the genuine antique ones are hard to find and cost a fortune. They make gorgeous lamps (I have absolutely no more room in my house for another lamp). Once again, the prices were UNREAL, so we got a bit too greedy and bought the largest one they had. Also a smaller one. Turned out to be way to large for the house, so they are now outside on the front porch…still, I feel it was a great purchase.

There was just so much to take in, and after not “feeding my addiction” for about three years, we bought several items (just think of how much we saved!!!) for just a small chunk of change. As with most antique and vintage stores, there were those one of a kind treasures – a camel saddle, an old typewriter ($40), a glockenspiel, mannequins, an old brass distillation contraption, farm items, and those weird oddities of all sorts.

But, I’m no longer in the business, and I have no room left in our house at all. Still, some things were just so so tantalizing – and the prices!!!! We just might have to go back. Hey, maybe they will hire me?!?!?IMG_5627.jpeg

Day of Remembrance: Quarantine 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Quarantine Cooking (Life Under Lockdown, Passover Edition)

 

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Things are exceptionally quiet here in Israel. This is usually the time when children are merrily paddling down the Jordan River in canoes; horseback riding in the Golan; hiking in the Judaean Hills; sailing on the Red Sea in Eilat. Today, Sunday, is usually joyous and loud in Jerusalem as thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world make the Palm Sunday Walk from Bethpage through the Lion’s Gate and into the Holy City following the path that Jesus took. It is a day where Mechane Yehudi market is bustling with shoppers buying all their provisions for the imminent Passover feast. Not so now. All is surreally still under the COVID-19 lockdown.

I spent my morning doing something I’ve promised myself for ages: trying out new and exciting Charoset recipes from around the world. Each very different and each delicious in its own way. I’ve collected these recipes over the past five years from people I’ve met here. Each woman has come to Israel carrying her own cultural traditions and special holiday foods.

Passover, or Pesach, is the springtime holiday celebrating the triumphal exodus of the Children of Israel, the Jewish people, out of slavery under Pharoah in Egypt and into eventual freedom back in their homeland of Israel. After 40 years of intense desert wanderings, that is! And to remember the entire story, Jews the world over (and now many Christian communities are following suit) are hosting a Seder meal. Seder is a Hebrew word meaning order, and the table is beautifully set. The centerpieces are the Seder plate, containing foods which will be integral to the telling of the story – and the plate of matzah, or unleavened bread. The Jews left Egypt in such a hurry there was no time to let their dough rise, hence the matzah.

Anyway, I’d like to share these charoset recipes with you. They are fun to put together, and since our Seder (I used to host upwards of 30 people!) will be minuscule this year (thanks COVID!), we will have a fun charoset tasting. The charoset symbolizes the mortar that the Jewish slaves had to make (a mixture of straw, water and mud) to cement the stones of the pyramids and monuments of ancient Egypt. In modern times, Jews have been scattered (since 70 AD, when they were kicked out of Israel by the Romans) all over the world. Depending on the resources available, different recipes have developed, each uniquely different, but representing the same idea.

The first type of charoset is our traditional Ashkenaz family recipe. The Ashkenazi Jews settled in Europe – mostly Poland, Germany, Russia and other parts of Northern Europe. There was an abundance of apples available in that region of the world, hence the apple base. We love it – it’s so delicious, that I have to make multiple batches throughout the holiday for myself and my family. We eat it on matzah with a ton of fresh horseradish flavored with beet juice. It’s called a Hillel Sandwich, after the famous first century rabbi who invented it.

           CHAROSET, ASHKENAZI STYLE

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Ingredients:

  • 4 large apples, cut into quarters
  • 1 cup walnuts
  • 1/2 cup sweet Kosher wine (Manischewitz anyone? In Israel, I use King David Concord)If you don’t use alcohol, substitute pure grape juice
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 freshly squeezed lemon (juice)
  • 2 tsp cinnamon

In food processor, or by hand, chop the unpeeled apples as finely as possible without creating a mush. Empty into large bowl. Chop up the walnuts, also very very finely. Add to bowl. Mix in the remaining ingredients, the lemon juice, wine, honey and cinnamon. Mix well and let sit for at least an hour for the flavors to absorb and blend together. Hide it from yourself and other people in the house or there won’t be any for the Seder – it’s that addictive.

 

The next charoset recipe is from my Israeli sabra (Israeli born, 4 generations!!!) friend, Liat. It’s very sweet, and uses much of the seven species of the Land of Israel (mentioned in the Bible, they are: figs, grapes, pomegranates, wheat, barley, olives and (date)honey) plus a couple extra ingredients. When blended together, this really looks like the mortar the slaves could have used. It’s a really, really, thick and sticky paste. You can also add cocoa powder (1/4 cup) and roll it into balls and then roll the balls in dried coconut or nuts…

NATIVE ISRAELI CHAROSET

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup pitted medjool dates
  • 1/3 cup dried figs
  • 1 ripe banana
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate juice
  • 1 cup chopped raw almonds
  • 1/4 cup honey or silan (date honey)
  • 1/4 cup red wine

In a food processor, chop up the figs, banana and dates until it is one thick, gooey paste. Spoon into large bowl. Chop up the almonds in the processor very, very finely. Add to paste along with the juice, wine and honey. Mix well. Let stand for about an hour for flavors to blend.

The following recipe is lovely, From Devorah, a new olah (immigrant) to Israel from Rome Italy. Devorah also has lots of family outside Venice and this is their take on charoset. It is very different, but I absolutely loved these flavors!!! Because they have lots of chestnuts in Italy, that’s what they use. It also looks a lot like mortar…

ITALIAN CHAROSET (VENETIAN STYLE)

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dried apricots (the bright orange kind)
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup pistachios
  • 1 small package of roasted, shelled chestnuts (about  1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 tsp orange blossom water (found in gourmet or specialty food shops – Trader Joes? or a MidEast or Indian store?)
  • grated orange rind
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 1/4 cup honey

Process the dried apricots until they are about the size of small raisins. About 4 quick pulses in a food processor. Place in large bowl. Add the raisins. Process the pistachios and the the chestnuts until they are quite fine. Add to bowl. Add the freshly grated orange rind, the brandy, honey, and orange blossom water (this really sends the whole concoction over the top!!!). Mix well, and let stand at least an hour to let all the flavors absorb into a romantically exotic paste. So so fragrant and sweet!!!! This is decidedly different, but I love it!!!!

The last recipe hails from Morocco/Algeria/Tunisia – Northern Africa. The jewel tones look nothing like mortar, but like exotic gems from Egypt. It is also nothing like the other recipes, as it has lots of spice – lots of intense flavors, a lot like the beautiful people from North Africa now calling Israel home.

NORTH AFRICAN CHAROSET

IMG_9542.jpegIngredients:

  • 1/2 cup pitted medjool dates, diced
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup apricots, diced
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup brown raisins
  • 1/3 cup dried cherries
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup chopped pistachios
  • 1/2 cup chopped almonds
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp clove powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1/4 tsp allspice (English pepper)
  • 1/3 cup silan or honey
  • 1/3 cup Arak (I would substitute sweet wine, pomegranate juice or even a port or brandy for this Middle Eastern liquor)
  • grated lemon peel
  • grated orange peel
  • dash sea salt

That’s it! I chopped up my apricots and nuts and mixed in the rest, substituting Port wine for the spicy, licorice-tasting Arak. It turned our chunky, but really really pretty. It, too, is quite fragrant, and the spices really  intensify the flavors.

So there you, have it. Whether you are celebrating Passover or Easter, or just want to have some experimental fun in the kitchen during quarantine, these should keep your hands busy and your mouth happy for awhile. Have fun!!! And Khag Pesach Samayakh!!! Happy and healthy!!!!!

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ALIYAVERSARY!!!! 5 YEARS!!!!!

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Who would believe? Five years already since we packed up our things and made the huge move from Southern California to Israel! Who would believe we’d be spending our Aliyahversary under quarantine?

This week was supposed to be incredibly special – celebratory. My old neighbors and girlfriends of 25 years were supposed to fly in for an incredible visit yesterday. We were supposed to tour this gorgeous, history-packed country for the next two weeks. We were supposed to see the best of Israel from the hiking trails and waterfalls of Mt Hermon in the North to the Arava Desert and the coral reefs of the Red Sea in the South.

Instead, life on most continents has come to a screeching standstill. Actually, this has been an opportunity to really see the best of this country firsthand. I’ve been following stories of food, toilet paper, sanitary supply shortages in the United States as panicked shoppers try to prep for the seeming apocalypse. Angry Americans placing blame on government leaders. Hoarding. Inflated black market prices for basic supplies. Israel is surprisingly not experiencing that at all.

Israelis are notorious here for not following rules, being unable to form a simple queue. But we are a people who know how to handle emergencies. Get me right: I’ve had my doubts over the years. Over the span of five years, we’ve had the imminent threat of war several times. Hezbolla’s 15,000 missiles aimed right at us from Lebanon. ISIS, rebel strongholds, Bashir’s forces and a raging civil war in Syria within striking distance of our city. Yet, these Israelis always seemed nonplussed.

The first days in our lovely rented villa were spent equipping the mamad, the safe room. I stocked it with water to last a few weeks, food, medical supplies, a portable toilet and sanitizers, camping lanterns and cookstoves, flashlights, cards and boardgames, radio, sleeping bags, big-out bags, copies of important documents, clothes…. we were set. I did practice rounds in the event of hearing the red alert siren. Ready to go.

But this coronavirus snuck up on us. For the past two weeks, we watched and listened as this country shut down bit by bit. Israel was the first country to proactively cancel travel visas and send tourists back to their home countries if they did not have a place to quarantine.  Incoming flights from Asia, Italy… incoming flights from Europe…incoming flights from the States: canceled. Hotels closing. We were the first country to put a halt to all non-essential travel. I spent the week canceling hotel reservations and tickets purchased. Netanyahu and crew made the announcement that any group over 1000 people, then 500 people would be barred. Sporting and cultural events were closed. Then came the announcement last week that all schools would be shuttered for the next five weeks until after Passover. Regional hospitals to able to handle the virus were assigned. Then the public service announcements: cinemas, malls, restaurants were the next too close. No meetings of more than ten people – and they had to keep a two meter distance from each other. That put an end to religious gatherings – in this Holy Land. If we feel that we have come down with the virus, call Mogen David Adom, the ambulance services. Hotlines are set up, and the appropriate crew will come to us.

I fully expected to see huge lines coming out of the grocery stores. No food or supplies on the shelves. No. Quite the contrary. There’s plenty. No need for panic. Buy what you need. No hoarding. Antiseptic wipes to clean the carts and hands in plentiful supply. Face-masked customers and clerks greeting one another with a “Khag Corona samayakh!” or “Happy Corona holiday!” A bit surreal. The stores are much less crowded than usual, but still cheerful. Before entrance to a store or clinic, the usual security guard is armed with a digital scanning thermometer. He swipes our foreheads and asks each person: Have you been outside the country? Have you had any contact with a sick person? Have you had a cough or fever in the past few weeks? Why are you here?  You may pass. So weird…. but I feel pretty safe.

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The restaurants have all closed. But the home-delivery business is thriving!!! Extra drivers are being hired for grocery, pharmacy, pet store, and food deliveries. For those that have been temporarily laid off, they can fill out a simple online form at the Bituakh Leumi (Social Security) office and be reimbursed by the government for the loss of income. Things are running smoothly here. They seem to be organized and thorough. Funds have been fully allocated to handle the emergency.

Each person that has tested positive for the coronavirus has been tracked as to their exact whereabouts and contacts over the past two weeks. There is actually an online interactive map for tracking how many cases have been reported and their location (in real time)! I don’t know if I love it, but you can click the pinpoints on the map and get a detailed rundown, ted by the Ministry of Health, of where each infected person has been hour by hour- what stores they frequented; what sporting events; what synagogue or church or mosque; what clinic they used. There is a plethora of testing kits and facilities ready to handle the onslaught.

Even though all schools have been cancelled, online counsellors are available to help parents. They recommend being honest with the children, telling them exactly what is happening; instructing them on proper distancing and hygiene; the importance of keeping up a regular schedule and set routines; the importance of letting the child ask as many questions as they want – and trying to give them age-appropriate answers. There are on-line classes set up by each teacher – WhatsApp classroom groups, where the children can continue with their work and interact with their classmates.

WhatsApp groups are a big thing here. It is THE MAIN way people communicate in Israel. Whether classroom, sports group, groups for immigrants, hobbyists or religious communities. Everyone seems to be a member of an infinite number of WhatsApp groups. Not only are there WhatsApp classrooms, but new Quarantine Friend Circles, and even Quarantine Dating Groups!!! (spend your 14 day quarantine with a fun-loving guy who loves Thai food, hiking and animals – no joke!!)

Last week we spent the holiday of Purim making and delivering several food baskets for our quarantined neighbors. We knew of people who had recently returned from South Africa and Europe. They had to go into a 14-day confinement period. So we made big baskets of an Italian dinner complete with tapenade, crackers, pasta, pasta sauce, salad, homemade croutons and Italian dressing, meringues and lemon curd, wedges of cheese and a bottle of wine (Usually these mishloakh manot gifts for Purim consist of sweets and treats). We left them at their front gates with a cheery note and our phone number if they need anything else. a great way to meet a couple of our neighbors.

Boredom in your new self-imposed confinement? I think not!!! I’m totally surprised at and delighted with the world museums which are offering virtual tours: no lines, no crowds, linger as long as you’d like. The Met Opera is offering free opera screenings all this week – the best of the best. There’s Netflix and HBO and DisneyPlus. Hulu is offering free screening. Check out Spotify!!!! There’s a myriad of new Coronavirus, CO-VID19 and Quarantine playlists.

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The global community has been coming together in a most extraordinary way (how did people survive before the internet????). Authors are offering story times for children. Artists, drawing and art classes, activities and contests. Instagram is rife with lovely activities for all ages. Free yoga and exercise classes. Crafting lessons. Gardening help.IMG_9069IMG_9065 2IMG_9068IMG_9067

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I’m not trying to make light of this situation by any means. My husband has been glued to the stock market as it continues to drop. But hopefully, this dire situation will pass soon. Hopefully, we’ll stay healthy and take all the proper precautions. Here, it is not a time for mass panic. It’s a time to catch up on all those projects we’ve been putting off. It’s a time to hunker down, count our blessings, hug our loved ones, reach out to those across the miles. We are waiting for the next week of drenching rains to arrive and planning a time of board games and movies. Soon enough, the warm weather will be here and the cases of illness will drop off. There will be time to celebrate our Aliyahversary in style another day. Be creative. Be gentle. Be thankful. Be safe. Be well- we can get through this stronger and better people. May G-d bless us all!!!!