Israel is a country that never ceases to surprise us. Last week was khol ha mo’ed, the intermediate days of the Passover holiday. It’s a time for hikes, picnics, barbecues, visits to friends, and tiyuulim, which is basically day-tripping. On the recommendation of a couple friends, John and I decided to visit a fairly local winery. Our friends had been raving about their rosé and white wines, so we set out for Jezreel Winery on the small moshav at Hannaton. Oh my goodness, it was packed!! Every picnic table was taken and all outdoor cafe and bistro seating was occupied. The sommelier told us there would be table service for the tasting of all their wines which included a cheese platter, but the wait could be up to three hours. We decided to return another less crowded week, and instead go somewhere else.
It was a beautiful day, the winter storms over, and every hill and roadside field was awash in a rainbow of floral colors. A great day for a ride. We were minutes away from another favorite haunt: the tiny moshav of Alonei haGalil (Galilee Oaks). On the road to my favorite antiques shop, I remember seeing a small, hand-painted sign for another local winery. And this is where the story gets good. We pulled off the single lane ‘main road’ onto a little dirt path and there it was! It had a very familiar fell to it: homey and reminiscent of my childhood in the southern United States. Under a large spreading oak tree was a log cabin! More like an old tobacco curing shack, the the of which used to dot the fields of rural Virginia/North Carolina. Not something one would expect to find in the lower Galilee of Israel. It was the tasting room of Meshek Ofir Wines.
As soon as we entered, I knew right then and there I’d found my new Happy Place. The tasting room was warm, cozy and inviting, and the young sommeliers spoke both English and Hebrew fluently. Besides a nice selection of wine, it was also the tasting room for all their local honey. Tamar, our hostess for the morning, ushered to a porch table under the oak canopy and brought us a flight of six wines to try – all generous amounts – and a gorgeous cheese platter featuring a selection of local goat cheeses, labaneh, pestos, tapenade, fresh veggies, nuts, dates, and because it was Passover, matzah.
There were only two other couples there. Meshek Ofir is a tiny, family-run business that is not well known yet. Their wines are not sold in stores, and they do not market widely. Anyway, as we were enjoying this delightful picnic, a beautiful young woman joined us ( I had mentioned I wanted to find out more about the history of this place for a possible article). Adva is the daughter of the owners. And she began the only-in-Israel story of her family, their history, and the log cabin.
Tzvika Ofir came from a family of beekeepers at Hogla, a small farming kibbutz between Hadera and Netanya. After his IDF service, he met Hadas, a lovely woman from another agricultural moshav. They fell in love and got married. After traveling the world for a year, they returned to Israel and made a home at a newly-started moshav, Alonei haGalil. The newlyweds started beekeeping in 1984 with a few hives from his father, Yishai, getting their own license to be honey farmers (which is now a closed profession here0. It’s one of Tzvika’s passions, and is a win-win endeavor for the farmer as well as the beekeeper. He gets up at 4 a.m. to care for the hives: he now has over 800, collecting the honey and moving the bee boxes to different locations throughout Israel. He smokes out the bees to keep them drowsy and transports the hives in his truck to different fields and orchards. His bees are the pollinators for the different plants, and depending on the flower, the honeybees produce different flavors of the liquid gold.
It’s now the end of citrus season, and soon the mango and avocado trees will be in full bloom. Tzvika’s honeybees produce the most amazing honeys I’ve ever heard of – besides clover and meadow flower, there is sunflower, pumpkin, watermelon, forest fruits, carob, squash blossom, and cotton blossom honey. All are organic and unique to the area, different in color, viscosity and taste – and all are absolutely delicious! And that jujube (Christ’s Thorns Bush) honey is hands down the most different and the best honey I’ve tasted. So I bought a couple jars. They are all so reasonably priced. But I’m skipping ahead….
Having apiaries was Tzvika Ofir’s main love and means of financial stability, but he wanted something new. In 1986 he began to deepen his roots, planting his first vineyard the day Adva was born. Shortly thereafter, two sons and another daughter arrived on the scene. As the family grew, so did the vineyards. Tzvika’s grapes were sold to larger wineries like Recanati, Kassel and other more famous Israeli wineries. The vintners absolutely loved the high quality of his grapes. after ten years, what started as a hobby, took on a new life as he decided to try his hand at making his own wines.
In 1999, Yiftachel Winery was established, bring the story full circle. You see, in this exact area in Israel, archaeologists have uncovered ancient Jewish settlements and villages, each with winepresses, dating from the first century, BCE. Taking on a professional vintner, Kobi Toch, and studying viticulture himself, Tzvika now produces 10,000 bottles a year under his own label (at first Yiftachel Wines, now Meshek Ofir). It is truly a boutique family winery. All four children, now grown, work in the fields with the vines and the bees, and also in the production and marketing end.
All of the wines we tasted were surprisingly good. Adva explained to us that the Sangiovese grape was native to the Jezreel Valley here in Israel. The Romans loved it so much (going back 2000 years), that they took vines back to the Chianti region of Italy, but it was originally an ancient Israeli plant, that grows well here. It’s a big, jammy wine, with a full body and fruity nose. Redolent of chocolate, cherry, and oak, we bought several bottles. Their unique “Marselan” wine is a red blend of Cabernet and Grenache. Aged in American oak barrels, it has a nose of berries, plum, and hints of sage. This is a lighter wine with a nice finish. It pairs perfectly with cheeses and lighter fare like pasta, and makes an excellent sitting-on-the-porch sipping wine. We bought several more of these. John and I sampled the Rosanne ’20, a grassy, citrusy, medium dry white. Also as part of the flight were their Shiraz ’16 and Merlot ’14. But for us, the star of the show was “Deep.” a dark, deep, full-bodied red. the nose has hints of violets!!!! With a rich mouth of berry and cherry and no unpleasant tannic aftertaste. This smooth wine pairs with meats and heartier foods, and it was, by far, our favorite. An amazing wine at a great price. So we bought a case-
Now, about that cabin: Adva was happy to tell us the wild story. It was, in fact, a transplant here. It’s named “Biktat Alan” or Alan’s Cabin. Alan Radley, a nice Jewish boy from the Shenandoah mountains of Virginia, came over to Israel as a Lone Soldier in 1973. He fought during the Yom Kippur War, and afterwards lived on a kibbutz where he made friends with Tzvika Ofir. Besides his love of Israel, he loved building log cabins. Upon his return to the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, he bought an old circa 1840 tobacco shack from a Scottish woman. It was in terrible disrepair, but had potential. Radley had it disassembled and the wood shipped to Israel in 1992. The logs were stored at Tzvika’s meshek (farm). After sitting there idle for a decade, Tzvika offered to buy it from Alan and build the visitor center. He contacted Radley, and for the price of a plane ticket and room and board at the moshav, Alan flew out. With the help of Tzvika and two other friends, had the main frame put together in one day. The logs are all locked together without nails just like Lincoln Logs. By 2004, the panels had been mudded in, windows added, roof put up and an oak plank floor installed. And almost as if it was planned – in Hebrew, alontranslates to oak tree. So this oak cabin now sits in Galilee Oaks – thanks to Alan.
Everything about this place is a labor of love. Aside from the great atmosphere, excellent service, and top-quality products, their prices are more than reasonable. It’s truly a small family business without pretension. Unlike many of the chi-chi boutique wineries here, Meshek Ofir is a gem and a real bargain. Plus, they offer club membership with a 10% discount on each case. Every Thursday evening Alonei haGalil hosts a local farmer’s market/shuk. The farmers bring their produce fresh-picked from the fields, all organic. There are also artisan cheeses from dairies in the North and artisanal breads as well. Before all the pandemic craziness, Ofir Family Farms hosted regular festivals throughout the year celebrating both the honey and the wine with live music on their sprawling grounds under the oak trees. Hopefully, these fun events will resume later in the summer. Until then, we just can’t wait to return.
It’s a bit hard to believe it’s been six years since we sold our home, packed up our lift, said our tearful goodbyes, and moved across the world to Israel. Six years. In some ways, it seems like no time at all has passed. In other respects, it was a lifetime ago.
In those six years, we’ve learned so much about our new country and about ourselves. We’ve had incredible experiences and have met some pretty amazing people. We’ve traveled the land of Israel from North to South, walking the pathways of our Biblical ancestors. In a land this old, history is all around us. Layer upon layer from Neolithic cave dwellers to Biblical patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Greeks, Assyrians, Romans, Jews, early Christians, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Napoleon, Pioneers from Europe, they’ve all left their marks on this tiny country. We’ve toured so many different places and archeology digs, and there is so more still to see and do.
We’ve made new friends from all over the world as well as native Israelis. Until COVID hit, we hosted many visitors from the United States. We’ve seen far too many friends who have moved here return to the familiar lives of their native countries. Leaving behind family, friends, livelihood, and all that you once knew is more than difficult.
In order to fully integrate into a new culture learning the language is becomes a priority. I’m much better than I was six years ago. I can hold my own in a social setting, but am far from fluent. Next month, I am starting another Hebrew intensive course three days a week. Hopefully, I can lose my phone anxiety. Imagine making a phone call and getting plugged into a service loop in a completely different language. It can be terrifying. Reading and understanding bills is another interesting endeavor. Hebrew has absolutely no vowels given, so besides actually reading the words, recall and context are absolute necessities to deciphering the “code.” One can live and function here on just English, but it’s a peripheral life in society without Hebrew language skills.
Still, attaining some sense of competency is doable. You just have to be extremely dedicated – or young. Our son achieved a working fluency within two years. It’s been beautiful to watch him grow up and adapt to this new life. He served for over two years in the IDF in the Foreign Relations unit working on the Syrian border. For a parent to see their child take on entirely new skill sets and adapt, holding a job with responsibility, making friends, navigating the system – it’s a tremendous blessing. He’s now in university studying foreign policy and government and doing amazingly well, far above our expectations. We wish him only continued success.
I’ve learned a lot and have made many mistakes since our landing. Being too eager to get to work and start a successful business in the first months was a tactical error. Yes, I enrolled in a business class for new immigrants at the local community college, but still did not know enough about how a start-up works in a new country. Accounting, tax laws, business certifications, marketing to a different culture and the ability to communicate effectively are all things to fully know before venturing out on your own. It didn’t help that the Israeli culinary palette is completely different than the Anglo food tastes.
In the six years since we’ve landed, we’ve been able to taste many of the different foods here, learning all about dining in the Middle East; the different spices, food combinations and ways of preparation. Because breaking bread together also breaks down cultural barriers, it’s been fun to meet other immigrants (and locals) of various ethnicities and swap recipes. A great ice-breaker I’ve learned to use is at the grocery store or produce market. I don’t hesitate to ask what an item is and how it’s prepared and eaten. I’ll inquire where the person is from (telling them I’m a fairly new immigrant from the US) and ask how long they’ve been here. Many times I’ve gotten the invitation to the person’s place for a meal. I don’t ever remember that happening anywhere else.
I’m still not sure if it’s a Middle Eastern thing or not, but hospitality here is a way of life. We’ve had countless invitations to share meals with relative strangers. Even during business meetings (with our printer, our insurance salesperson, our auto mechanic), it’s typical for us to be ushered into the office and before any business is discussed coffee is made. Not typical American drip coffee, but a type of Turkish espresso with cardamom – or “botz” which is a little tiny demitasse of strong blackness leaving a muddy residue at the bottom. It is in very poor taste to decline for whatever reason. Along with this, coffee, pastries or cookies are usually served – or some type of sweet, and of course, the offer of a cigarette. It was strange a first, and of course, to decline the cigarette is perfectly acceptable (this is only done between the males. I’ve never been offered a smoke). It seems many of the males smoke. It’s ubiquitous here. Something that can be more than a bit off-putting for the Anglo.
A lot of unforeseen circumstances have happened since we first came to Israel. Who would have thought that both my husband and myself would be diagnosed with cancer within five short years of living here? We’ve learned to navigate the medical system. With socialized medicine, the prices are incredibly low, but bureaucracy and wait times for scheduling tests and appointments can be interminable. We have a whole new medical vocabulary down in Hebrew. And despite the difficulties, we’ve had access to some of the best doctors and cutting edge treatments in the world. In America, even with insurance, we would have had to sell our house and hock our kids to afford the care we’ve had here.
Before the ‘pandemic,’ we were able to travel a few times to Europe. The continent is only a 3-5 hour flight, and much more affordable. John and I have visited the Czech Republic numerous times, Hungary, Northern Italy, Switzerland, the French Alps, and Amsterdam. We spent two and a half glorious weeks in Scotland, traveling with American friends who now live near us in Karmiel. Hopefully, we can resume our travel adventures. We’d love to go to Greece, Southern Italy, and now that the UAE is open to us, Abu Dhabi sounds magnificent. Still, first on our list is a trip back to the United States.
It’s been over three years now since we’ve been back. And that’s probably the hardest part. We miss our kids something terrible! We have two grandchildren that we’ve only seen when they were first born – and a brand new granddaughter. We are missing one of our daughter’s wedding, which is something that is breaking our hearts. I’m so hoping our airport will be completely open and that we’ll be able to find a flight out later this summer. At this point, it’s impossible to tell what will be even in the next few weeks. Thank heaven for FaceTime and Zoom or we wouldn’t have been able to survive. We get to “see” the girls and their families just about every week through these virtual communications platforms.
Since being here, I’ve run out of many of my favorite American products: from dryer sheets to antiperspirant to cinnamon gum, Shout, and certain medications. Thankfully, every month, we find more of our familiar standby’s like zip-lock baggies, craft supplies, food items (like albacore tuna!!! and salsa and taco mix and shells!!!). For some things, I ask my daughters to make up a care package (cello sponges, flavored coffees, extra-strength Advil). I’ve learned to make my own salad dressings, barbecue spice rubs, pickle relish, garlic croutons, kombucha and focaccia. And just in the nick of time, last month we received the most thoughtful and wonderful gift box from a dear friend back in California: a box of Airborne, Zinc tablets, echinacea drops, thieves oil, Emergen-C packets!!! Oh my goodness!!! It cost an absolute fortune for her to mail this, but man oh man!!! Was this welcomed!!! And last year I found iHerb, which ships many food, beauty, household and vitamin products to us for free.
All things considered, I think we’re doing a pretty great job of acclimating to our new land. Although it’s been more than difficult at times, it’s been well worth it. Life is casual here. We have had many amazing adventures. We now have favorite places to visit, favorite music groups, new pastimes. We’ve made friends and attended a fare share of funerals and weddings and baby showers (that’s for another blog), which are nothing like their American counterparts. We’ve learned from our many cultural faux-pas. Through all of our ups and downs, and with our strong faith in G-d, our marriage has been tremendously strengthened. This has been one of the biggest surprises and blessings of all.
We look forward to see what the next six years will have in store for us. Hopefully, the skies will reopen and the tourists will be back. We will be able to go places again, both domestic and foreign. We will be able to entertain guests. We look forward to exploring new cities and ancient ruins. we pray that we will be able to enjoy the relative peace and safety of the past six years. In the meantime, we celebrate locally by raising a felafel in our honor –
Oh my goodness! Between elections, lockdowns, Green Passports, ankle bracelets for quarantines, and the news cycle in general – it’s time for a bit of fun. Actually, as a semi-new immigrant in a foreign land, there’s lots that can make you completely crazy – or absolutely uproarious. We choose to take the “let’s just laugh at it all and make fun of everything” route. So – let’s go!!
Let’s start with driving. Israeli style. Hold on to your seatbelts, because the lines on the roads (Israeli’s say “lane” for line and “line” for lane, so THAT’s always confusing!) – those lanes/lines painted in the middle and on the sides – well, they are put there as a subtle suggestion. We live way up North, in the perifery, where many of the highways are still one-lane in each direction. So imagine driving on this two-lane road, winding your way up a mountain. And you get behind a very large truck hauling a tank. Yes. A ginormous army tank. No biggie. Common occurrence. It’s very slow, but it gives you a chance to take in the scenery.
The cars behind you start honking like mad. This too, is a very common occurrence. Israelis talk with their horns: whether it’s to tell you that the light is about to turn green; to speed up because ‘I’m in my line/lane getting ktsat impatient’; or just to say shalom – the horn is there for communication. All the time. So the car behind that’s honking decides he’s had enough and creates a third line/lane right down the middle. The tank pulls waaaaay over to the side. You’re plotzing as you watch the oncoming car get waaaaaaay over without slowing down, and the new middle line/lane takes shape. Yikes!!!
So last week, for some weird reason (I think John did a California Roll instead of coming to a full stop), a cop pulled us over. Of course, at this point we are very nice and speak only English. Despite the policeman’s attempt at communicating in Hebrew, we understand NOTHING (wink, wink). So he switches to very broken English. And it happened again: “You need for me lessons,” he says. “Why do we need lessons? What’s wrong?” John asks. “You give for me lessons.” I’m trying really hard not to crack up. John responds, “I took lessons already.” “No. Your lessons. I not took your lessons.Take from me your lessons.” At this point, I interject -“OH!!! You must mean license!!!! Honey, the policeman wants your LICENSE.” He says, “Yes. Yes. Your lie-sense.” After minutes of back and forth, it’s pretty obvious he’s getting nowhere and lets us off the hook. Still – you had to be there. The whole thing was a complete comedy routine.
Parking: if you thought the rest of the Western world was bad in their parking abilities, then you’ve never been to the MidEast. Welcome. There are never enough parking spaces. This country was designed for only a few cars. Small cars. Miniature cars. So parking over the lanes/lines is just a thing. You’ll see cars half-on/half-off the sidewalks. You’ll see cars parked in places one would never dream of parking anywhere else. A few weeks ago, I went to the supermarket. And when I came out, this was my predicament. I had no idea who the wiseguy was (notice he pulled his side mirror in, a sign he does this shtick regularly). All I could do was shout “Un-be LEEEVE-able!!” five times – and take a picture. (I just notice: I am on the lane/line. Oops)
So I climbed around the other side. Speaking of climbing on/out, I’ve never before been to a country where the following happens: I’m driving on the highway…..the big one, Kveesh Shesh…. the one with three lines/lanes in each direction. And there’s a bus right in front of me that decides it’s time to slow down and then stop right in the middle of line/lane one. And a bunch of Ultra-Orthodox Jews hop off the bus. A whole bunch. Why? Because it’s time for afternoon prayers. And when it’s time, it’s time. So they hop off the bus and line/leyn (sorry, if you’re Jewish – pun intended) up on the side of the road, and in back of the bus, and whip out their prayerbooks and start to sway back and forth in prayer. With cars speeding by in lines/lanes two and three. Then they get back on the bus, as the cars behind me create a fourth line/lane, and drive around the bus blocking up traffic. It’s actually kinda fun to watch. Then there’s the Muslim contingents who stop, whip out their prayer rugs and pray on the side of the road. And it’s not at all uncommon to see the Arab contingent parked on the side of the road, taking a break under a tree. Because when it’s time for coffee and hookah…. they whip out their plastic lawn chairs, bring out the porto-hookah and mini camp stove to make Turkish coffee and take a break. Would I lie to you???
There’s one picture I just refuse to take. Something that totally drives me mishuggah. The men. Yup. The Middle Eastern men. They have this thing about stopping the car to jump out and walk over to the side of the road. They then proceed to whip out… well, you can only guess. ALL THE TIME!!!!! Watch the Seinfeld ‘Uromysetisis’ episode. It’s absolutely ubiquitous here. Un-be-leeeeeeve-able! And while we’re on driving, the road signs can be quite amusing. For one thing: Hebrew uses completely different letters than English, so all the English words are merely transliterations which can be spelled many different ways – like Tsfat/Zefat/Tzfat/Safed or Akko/Aco/Acre. Can be a bit confusing for the uninformed. And the Hebrew signs! This one, for the city of Bnei Brak, an extremely ultra-Orthodox place, announces that the entire freeway ramp leading into the city is blocked off from Friday afternoon- Saturday night because you ain’t gonna drive in this town on Shabbat – or holidays. So we’re just gonna shut it all down. So there!
This is a cool one: the place on the road sign reads “Ma’aynei HaYeshua” which means Springs of Salvation.
Religion here is a pretty thing. Taken quite seriously. So to see semis on the freeway with “Ayn ode milvado” in Hebrew, which means “There’s no other but Him” on the mudflaps is actually nicer than the naked girl on the flaps of American trucks. Yes, I’ve seen Scripture verses on the windows, verses that remind me to refrain from gossip “Lo lishon harah” which is a good thing for me to keep in mind. The city buses will even have Scripture and Shabbat or holiday greetings. Speaking of Shabbat, check out this guy. He reminds us “Keeping the Sabbath is a source of blessings.” Also nice.
This one is seriously funny. We see it in the Golan and it cracks us up every single time. It tells us not to enter the military training ground. Live fire. Feathers???? Obviously, someone needs spellcheck! Oh, and the deer – it’s not a hunting area. It’s the symbol of the Northern Command. No animals harmed here.
We don’t live too far away from the Jordan River. For the Christian tourists, it’s a holy place reserved for baptisms. For the Jewish contingent, it’s a great place to go river rafting and canoeing. There’s this great place for canoeing called Rob Roy. But their logo is a bit of a mixed metaphor. It’s the Jordan. Right? The JORDAN!!! And their logo features a Native American, because we all know Native Americans travel exclusively by canoe. And Rob Roy??? A Scottish highwayman who lived in the 1600s? I just don’t know about that one…
Back to driving with another example of terrible Israeli drivers. We had to follow this guy and snap a photo. What makes it so uproarious is that it’s the test car for someone who is trying to get their driver’s lessons. He was backing into a parking spot and totally hit a pole and tore off the back bumper, crumpling up the trunk. We think he needs more license!
O.K.This next one’s pretty funny. They built a new home here in Karmi’el. A beautiful, expensive, multi-million shekel home. But the builder made a very big mistake. He didn’t measure the owner’s car before he built the garage, which is just a few centimeters too short for the intended vehicle. Gotta get a photo of this one!
The next one is cute: in the neighborhood near ours, the women obviously take pride in their bus stop. For Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, they decorate it with a bamboo stalk roof, and palm branches and decorations. They have a light-up menorah and hanging decorations at Chanukah. Here it is in the summertime with framed prints of artwork. Community beautification. I love it!
I think the same group of ladies who decorate the bus stop are the ones who take care of the cats. Let me back up. In Israel, we don’t have squirrels roaming all over the place. We have cats. Feral cats. Lots of them. They are absolutely everywhere. Maybe that’s why we don’t have huge rodent problems…or squirrels? So these ladies (I’ve never actually caught them in the act, and I think all the old ladies in Israel do this…) leave out food for the cats. On paper plates. In foil pans. In empty plastic ice cream containers. Cans of cat food. Handfulls of kibble. Huge pieces of schnitzel, potatoes, green beans, couscous. Fish tails. Fish heads. Meatballs. Seriously. Go for a walk after dinner on a Friday night, and see what the kitties are feasting on. Not only that, but in the more upscale neighborhood, there are special kitty feeding stations for cats of privilege.
Heaven forbid, anyone should ever go hungry here! With all the Jewish mothers around…. and the cathouses. Yup you read that one correctly. Cat Houses. They are set up in the winter. Everywhere. In the parks. Under bushes. Behind rocks. With blankets. And pillows. And. of course, food. So they stay dry and warm. Everywhere. Because heaven forbid, a kitty should not be cold and wet. I kid you not. This is the WEIRDEST place!!!! We love it!!!!
Grocery shopping is always an adventure here, too. For one thing, to get the agahLAH, grocery cart, you have to put a coin in the slot to unchain it. It took a very long time, and a continually upset husband, for me to realize that the “nickel,” the five shekel coin that’s the same size as a US nickel…. (well it’s actually worth about $1.50) needs to be retrieved from the slot at the end of the shopping trip. And you never know what you’ll find at the store here. We’re always on the lookout for hard-to-come-by American imports, and like the typical freiers that we are, have been known to pay $12 for a box of Poptarts (I never ate them in the States, but hey…. nostalgia kicks in) or $9 for a teeny can of albacore tuna. And when you see that product (Brillo, mandarin oranges in a can, Brianna’s salad dressing, molasses, Crisco), you buy it all, because you’ve learned it’s a fluke and you’ll never see it again. Then there’s the fake news of American products which are usually made in Lithuania or Botswana or Upper Korindia. Beware!!
Some things are really fun. Like the Bazooka flavored milk. Israelis love Bazooka. Gum. Milk. Ice cream. Bazooka cakes. We have hot dog buns imprinted with fun slogans like “Summer’s here” and “Time for some Fun.” And the ever-interesting Russian cans of ???? The CIF jug is always my favorite. I have absolutely no idea what it is: laundry or dishwasher detergent? Floor cleaner? Windows? Toilets? Radiator fluid? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s the yellow jug below. But what makes this ultra hysterical (and I mean HYSTERICAL) for us is that Hebrew name. Hebrew is a language with no vowels. Your guess is as good as mine. Plus the letter “P” is also an “F” except when it’s at the beginning of the word, in which case it’s a “P” except for weird exceptions. So when we see that bright yellow jug, we ALWAYS shake our heads and say “Pants steak?????” But if you look closely, it actually reads “Fantastic!” as is fahn-TAH-steeeek. Every. Single. Time. Pants steak. Gotta love it!
Another fun thing you won’t see too often outside of Israel is this: An every day sight here:
It actually makes us feel really safe knowing there are always soldiers around (he’s probably an American lone soldier. He has a jar of Skippy. Maybe I should invite him over for Shabbat dinner?) I also took a picture of the t-shirt another gentleman in the next line/lane was wearing. He wasn’t American. I have this sneaking suspicion…
OR this one: 2021- the year spelling turned deadly –
We really haven’t gone to restaurants for over a year now, but here are a couple mis-spells to make you scratch your head:
If anyone knows what pettrejane is, please let us know. In the meantime, al snarkiness intent ended. The small salad is exactly as it sounds. Just that. A small salad. And don’t you dare ask for dressing!
Come with us on another tiyuul (Hebrew word for field trip) to a most magical place in Northern Israel. It was another perfect day in Paradise, and everyone seemed to be out enjoying a respite from the strict lockdowns over the past two months and from the cold, rainy days of winter. I had always wanted to visit this site – between the natural beauty and Biblical history, Tel Dan more than lived up to our expectations. So, let’s go!!!
Situated at the foot of snow-capped Mt. Hermon and of Mt. Dov adjacent to the Lebanese, Syrian borders, is Tel Dan. In Hebrew a tel is a large hill (or small rounded mountain). First, an introduction to this nature reserve, which will set the scene for the history associated with it. The entire region is lush and verdant, fed by hundreds of underground springs which bubble up to the surface forming little brooks. The brooks run together to form streams, joining up to eventually form the mighty, rushing Dan River. These are the headwaters of the Jordan River which flows into the Sea of Galilee and down into the Dead Sea.
These springs and rivers create are teaming with fresh fish. It is a most fertile area for growing crops. The isolated tel forms a great strategic advantage, as it gives great views in all directions: one can easily see an approaching enemy. It is no wonder that early civilizations settled here. The earliest archaeological findings are of a city first built here in the early-Canaanite period, between 2700 and 2400 BCE. In Genesis chapter 14, we read of the first war in history: the battle of the four kings against the five kings, in which Lot (yup, the nephew of Abraham who later escaped the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah!) is kidnapped. “And when Abram heard that Lot was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them all the way to Dan.” Abram liberated Lot from the hands of his captors here. And it is here, that the ancient city was uncovered!!! Another hurrah for the historical archaeological excavations which confirm Bible history. It is the most remarkable discovery!!! The entrance to the city os formed by a 7 meter tall gate to the city, completely intact – with the earliest complete arch (one of three consecutive arches leading into the city) found in the world and still standing. Incredible to think that the walls and bricks are made of a hard, baked clay. The arches (all three) have been shored up and the entrance to the gate sealed for stability and dare I say, permanent, preservation of the structure. Once it was unearthed, it was subject to rapid deterioration. An impressive arched covering has been erected over the complex to prevent any further damage from weathering. Beautiful basalt steps lead up to the entrance of this ancient fortress/palace/walled city. And here it is, live and in person, thousands of years old. Living history!
This 3700 year old city was known as La’ish. It was also important as it was situated at the junction of trade routes. In the Bible, in the book of Judges, when the spies from the tribe of Dan were sent to La’ish to scout out the region, they saw “the people that were therein, how they dwelt careless.” The tribe of Dan conquered the city, renaming the place Dan, after their ancestor (Judges 18:27-29). Several meters beyond the immense gate (above) lies the ruins of the ‘more modern’ 2500 year old city of Dan. It was expanded during the First Temple period after King Solomon. Israel had become divided into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Judah in the South (Jerusalem area) and the Kingdom of Israel in the North. During this era, Jeroboam, king of the Northern tribes, led a people’s revolt against the heavy taxes levied by King Rehoboam, the son of King Solomon. By setting up a large administrative center here, Jeroboam tried to draw the population’s attention away from Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. He established his own form of cultic worship here at Dan, going so far as to erect an altar upon which he placed a golden calf for the people to worship instead of G-d. Outside the main entrance to the city are the ruins of the alternate temple with its priestly chambers – and the altar itself!!! Bones of animals were found in front of the altar, and remains of incense and cannabis which were burned were also found on the stone altar itself. So sacrifices to the golden calf and pagan rituals were conducted at this site just outside the city walls. The whole story can be found in 1 Kings:12-13.
Thirty-six years after the reign of Jeroboam, the infamous King Ahab and his evil queen, Jezebel, ruled the area from this place. Ahab further expanded the city to over 50 acres, adding outer walls, storehouses and courtyards. The high walls are made of unhewn basalt rock and carved travertine blocks. The walled city is built right into the slope of the mountain, which also helped to preserve it as the soil and erosion from the top of the mountain downward covered the city over the millennia. The sloping open space that leads up to the entrance of the city, called a glacis, is still there, and it is all quite impressive. It is a huge ‘cobblestoned’ area, a bit like a large courtyard.
It is all quite magnificent. I can only imagine Queen Jezebel in all her make-up and finery, ordering her court necromancers and pretend priests, scheming against the prophet, Elijah. Looking out over the Hula Valley to the south, with all the vineyards, fields and orchards, I see King Ahab, who swindled the poor Naboth out of his vineyard there. I see the altar where the pagan sacrifices actually took place. And sitting high atop the walls of the city, I can only imagine this is the place where the ultimate karma happened and Jezebel fell to her death from a high window (1 Kings:16-21). Shortly after these events, the Assyrian army would sweep down from the North destroying the Kingdom of Israel and scattering the ten tribes into the far corners of the earth.
Another great example of realizing the tiny details of history that I had only read about is the perfectly preserved spot where the elders of the city and the king sat. Just a walk up the sloping cobblestone glacis and through the main gates of the city is an area lined with stone benches. Here sat the elders, ready to settle disputes and greet visitors and deal with the important municipal duties of the town. A little further up the promenade is a large stone dais. There are four ornately carved stones into which poles supporting a canopy would be placed. Under the canopy, the king would sit in a position of importance. The hole in the dais where the stone throne would have been can still be seen in situ. Incredible stuff!!!
Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit the museum at the neighboring Kibbutz Dan. It is here that many of the artifacts found at Tel Dan can be found. There are many tools dating back to Neolithic pre-Canaanite times, as well as incense shovels from the time of the First Temple. Pottery shards, coins, and many other artifacts were discovered during the many digs. Impressive sculptures and a fairly intact painted terra-cotta amphora from Hellenistic times are included in the exhibits there. The most fascinating piece found at the site, now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, is the Dan Stele. It is a large shard of fossilized tablet dating back to the second half of the ninth century, BCE. In Aramaic is an inscription from King Hazael of Damascus boasting of his victory over the king of Israel and the house of David. It was the first time an actual piece of history with the words “house of David” was discovered from an extra-Biblical source, which testifies to the veracity of the Biblical stories.
All-in-all it was a lovely way to spend Valentines Day. Just being out in nature, hearing the birds (O.K. and the constant whir of drones as they surveyed the border to keep us safe) and the rushing of the waters and laughter of children was enough to feed our weary souls. In one area, the fresh water streams had converged into a little oasis that served as a wading pool. It was in full use by several families. In the heat of summer, the place is always packed with families seeking relief. In typical Israeli fashion, we passed several groups of hikers and of picnickers: Israelis are famous for their love of picnics! Throughout the nature reserve are trails ranging from stroller and wheelchair accessible to the most grueling of steep mountain trails. Everything is well marked and well mapped out. Well-kept restroom facilities are available at all ends of the park, and of course, there is a well-stocked gift shop and snack shop. It has everything needed for a perfect day trip.
I don’t have to tell any of you this, but what a year is already blowing through! For everyone across the globe. Beside being in our fourth lockdown here in Israel, and all the other things we’re already faced with coming down the pike, I will try to keep this blog as uplifting, fun, and informative as possible. Because we all need a break from the “news,” am I right???? That said, let’s get into the real history of couscous. I bet it’s not what you think! And this food that is an Israeli staple, is ubiquitous here. Eaten as a hot side-dish with meat or veggies piled on top, as a breakfast food (really!!!!) or as a cold salad, you’ll get a few recipes and ideas here.
Although this side dish is used by every ethnicity here in Israel, we do not call what is labeled ‘couscous’ or even ‘Israeli couscous’ by that name. We call it p’tit-TEEM, or ‘little flakes.’ The photo below is most likely what you, living outside Israel think of when you hear the word couscous:
Yes, the picture above shows a fluffy, yellowish side dish fairly familiar in the United States. It actually comes from Italy. Made of durum wheat, it’s really a type of semolina – the part of the wheat that is separated out from the wheat germ and bran in the milling process. In Italy it’s mostly used to make pasta and polenta, but can also be steamed or boiled and simmered and then fluffed up. Then there is the larger product called “pearl couscous” in the States and throughout Europe. This is actually an ancient Middle Eastern side dish (mistaken for Israeli couscous) called Moghrabieh in Arabic, sometimes called maftoul. It is a hand-milled, cracked bulgur wheat product that is hand-rolled to the size of chickpeas. Moghrabieh is also popular within the Mizrachi (Middle Eastern), North African, and Portuguese/Spanish Jewish population – those Jews who lived under Muslim rule. Maftoul is boiled and for the most part, mixed with other ingredients and used as a stuffing for hollowed out vegetables, which are then cooked.
After the Israeli War for Independence in 1948, there was a huge influx of immigrants from all over the world. Many had never farmed, and in the early 50’s the country faced major food shortages. Food rationing was instituted. Importing basic supplies was cost prohibitive. Prime Minister David BenGurion contracted with the Osem Food Company to create a staple food that could replace the expensive rice. It had to be cheap, versatile, and easy to prepare. Called p’titim, or ‘BenGurion’s Rice,’ this new product was made from pre-baked whole wheat flour, water and egg yolks for added protein. The dough was extruded through specially developed machines in mass quantities and the rice-like flakes were then toasted to seal in the starch. It became an instant hit! Soon tiny, itty bitty little flakes, larger pellets, and different shapes like stars and hearts were introduced to appeal to children. Easy to prepare (recipes to follow!), the ptitim is quickly sautéed in oil; then after it browns, water or broth is added; the one-skillet wonderfood is brought to a rolling boil, covered, and left to simmer gently for about ten minutes and voilà! The grains remain firm and slightly chewy when eaten. They don’t get mushy at all. They don’t stick together because of starchiness. And they take on the flavors of the broth or other foods surrounding them. It’s absolutely Israeli comfort food at its best – home cooking, served plain or with meat, fish and veggies piled high atop. We used to eat it every lunch served to us in the army (when we volunteered). Usually alongside chicken schnitzel with ketchup.
In the early 1990s, Israeli chef Michael Sharon, who had a chi-chi, upscale restaurant in New York City, first introduced it to his patrons as “Israeli couscous.” It was a huge hit, and soon became served in posh restaurants on both the East and West Coasts as a novel ethnic dish. Trader Joe’s picked up on the trend and started mass-marketing this popular side as “Israeli couscous” or “pearl couscous.” It’s found in every shape and color here, with even gluten-free varieties. A bag of “regular” ptititim here sells for around $1.00-$1.75/pound with the fancier colors or shapes running a little higher. A small bag of gluten-free (about 3/4 pound) goes for upwards of $4.50.
As a very basic cooking lesson, I take about a cup of the “Israeli couscous” and sauté it in about 2 TBSP olive oil on a medium-high stove. It takes anywhere from 2 – 4 minutes to toast up to a nice golden brown. Do not let it burn! For every cup of the ptitim, use 1 1/2 cups of water or broth (veggie, chicken, or beef).
I also add a little salt and then the magic: as the liquid starts to boil, I’ll add a variety of spices. In this instance, I’m adding some raisins and dried cranberries; about 3 TBSP dried onion flakes; a few cut up dried apricots for a burst of color and flavor; and a handful of nuts- I used almonds, but you can use pecans, peanuts, pistachios, pine nuts or hazelnuts for crunch. Cover the skillet and simmer on low for about 10 minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed into the little balls. Garnish with fresh parsley. It’s delicious!
I have used the larger ptitim as a substitute for bread when making a stuffing for turkey or chicken. Following the above directions, toasting, then adding chicken broth to the grains, I then add the following:
-1 onion chopped and 2 stalks celery chopped – both sautéed until translucent -1 tsp each dried rosemary, sage & thyme -1/3 cup chopped chestnuts -sea salt & freshly cracked pepper, to taste – 1 chopped apple or pear
After it simmers down, I place this in a greased baking dish, cover with foil and bake for 15-20 minutes on 170*C/350*F.
Ptitim is so versatile. It can be served hot or cold. You can make an Italian version by adding: -1/4 cup diced sun-dried tomatoes in oil -1/4 cup halved, pitted kalamata olives -1small jar marinated artichoke hearts with the oil, chopped (about 1/2 cup) -1 TBSP dried oregano -salt & pepper, to taste
In the summer, I love to serve a cold ptitim salad with chopped fresh stone fruits – peaches, nectarines, cherries and almonds. I use my own cherry or raspberry vinaigrette (if you’re in the States, I highly recommend Brianna’s Blush Wine Vinaigrette) as a dressing. Then I place grilled chicken strips on top. It’s easy to prepare, elegant, and quite tasty – makes a fantastic Shabbat lunch as the ptitim is made the day before and refrigerated, and the chicken strips pre-grilled and ready to be laid atop the salad.
Among North African Jews, especially Moroccans living here, Ptitim with Seven Vegetables is a popular dish. It is made with the tiny flaked variety, simmered in a vegetable stock with 2 heaping TBSP turmeric and a heaping teaspoon of cumin after toasting. The turmeric gives the dish its classic, bright yellow color. Ladled over the grain is a stew of seven vegetables, typically onions, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, whole chard leaves, zucchini and whole garbanzo beans or chickpeas. The veggies are simmered in a veggie broth laden with turmeric and other spices. Served hot, with pickles on the side, it’s an ethnic treat.
One of my favorite dishes can be served as a meal or a side. I prepare it in advance, stick it in the fridge to let the flavors meld together, and have it for lunch the next day. It’s bright, colorful, healthy, and amazingly yummy – a great combination of color, flavor and texture.
Middle-Eastern Shabbat Ptitim Salad
I use the smallest ptitim flakes, similar to “couscous.” Starting with one cup of ptitim toasted in 2 TBSP olive oil until golden brown, I add 1 teaspoon of yellow curry powder and 1 1/2 cup of water. Bring this to a boil and then power the heat to a simmer for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool. After it cools down add:
1 red bell pepper, diced fine
1 small red (Bermuda) onion, diced fine
1/2 cup currants or raisins
1/2 cup chickpeas (canned, drained)
2 green onions, chopped fine
1/4 cup peanuts
the juice of 1 orange
a large handful of mint, chopped fine
This salad is so easy, so colorful and just loaded with flavor. I refrigerate it and serve it cold.
This is a wonderful dish that can be eaten as a main course or a side dish. It’s a bit of a riff on a mushroom risotto, but much easier to prepare.
1 cup large grained ptitim (Israeli couscous)
2 TBSP olive oil
1/2 pound mixed mushrooms – oyster, brown, bella
1/4 cup basil, chopped fine
1/3 cup grated fresh parmesan cheese
sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
In a large skillet, toast the ptitim in olive oil until it gets golden, about 2 minutes. Do not let it burn! Add 1 1/2 cups water, bring to a boil, and then simmer for about 10 minutes. Brush any dirt off the mushrooms and chop into large slices. Sauté in a dry (no oil) pan for about 5-7 minutes, or until the shrooms begin to get juicy. Add the cooked mushrooms to the ptitim. Grate the lemon zest onto the mixture. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze onto the mushroom ptitim. Add the chopped basil, parmesan, salt and pepper, and gently mix just to coat the ptitim. You can drizzle a little more olive oil on top and garnish with basil leaves. Serve hot.
I hope you enjoy these recipes. You can also serve the ptitim for breakfast – toast the grains in coconut oil and then cook in coconut liquid (in Israel, they are not allowed to use the word ‘coconut milk’ because people might confuse it with a dairy product!!) and a little maple syrup. Throw in a chopped apple or a handful of dried fruit. Add a teaspoon of cinnamon as it cooks, and in 15 minutes you have a hearty hot breakfast. Top with sliced banana and some extra milk or coconut liquid. Let me know how these turned out for you if you do try them.
As always, thank you for reading. If you haven’t already please subscribe and be on the lookout for more Israeli life, culture, sights, and of course FOOD!!!!
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).
It’s olive season here in Israel!! This year, I had the great fortune of following native Israeli, Boaz Engel, as he harvested the fruit from his Yodfat Olive orchard. Plus I had the added bonus of going to the beit baad, the press, to see how the liquid gold is processed. It was completely different than anything I expected, but totally wonderful, nonetheless.
The Galilee region of Northern Israel is Olive Central. There are more orchards here, with more varieties grown, than in any other place in the world. Everywhere you look for miles and miles, olive trees cover every hillside and valley. From late October to early November, usually right after the first big rainstorm, you can see the olive pickers. Most of the groves here are Druze and Arab owned. Entire family groups drive into the orchards, spread out their big blankets under the trees, and start whacking away. The men whack at the limbs with long sticks, causing the olives to fall from their branches onto the blankets below. Young boys climb into the canopy and hit the branches to dislodge the fruits while the women prepare the noon meal from grills and tables they set up between the rows of trees. Depending on the size of the grove, picking usually lasts a week, sometimes two weeks. Then, they take their full crates to the community presses to make the oil. Besides being hard work, it seems like it’s also a huge social event as well as yearly family ritual.
Until I moved here, I had no idea there were so many different varieties of olives, or so many ways to prepare them. All varieties start out green. They can be harvested while they are still green. As they hang on the tree, at the proper time, they quickly turn from green to purple, red or gray, and eventually get darker and darker until they take on a deep brown, dark gray, or black color. Each type of olive has a different use – for eating or for pressing. They vary in flavor, oil content, and intensity. Some are rich, meaty and mild; others are up-front and strong with a certain “bite” at the end. The curing and brining process accentuates these differences. Getting out “in the field” to see the process up close was such an educational experience!
I was familiar with wine tasting, whiskey flights, coffee tasting and even testing different types of teas, so it should have come as no surprise that there are olive oil aficionados offering special oil tastings. I’ve enjoyed several since I’ve been here, and have refined my own tastes, so there are those I use for cooking, and those I use for making salad dressings. There are the “extra-specials” that I reserve for dipping and drizzling on cut up veggies or humus. By far, the best olive oil I have ever tasted comes from Yodfat, a neighboring village. So, to meet and shadow the owner of Yodfat Olive Oil, Boaz Engel, made for a wonderful day.
Boaz Engel lives with his wife and four children, ages 6-15, in the beautiful mountain village of Yodfat, about 15 minutes from Karmi’el. He has been growing olives since 2012. Boaz’s mentor, fellow Israeli and senior agronomist, Reuven Birger, has guided and accompanied Boaz throughout the years, but mostly, it’s been trial and error. He grows olives in two orchards spreading out over 450 dunams or 112 acres of land. His trees were purchased as seedlings from a special nursery specializing in olive trees. They come from France, Italy, Greece, Spain and Israel. He now has about 15,000 of the healthiest, most beautiful trees I’ve seen since I’ve been here. I asked Boaz if they need any special care, as most of the trees in the groves I’ve seen in the Galilee have paler leaves and a scraggly appearance. His are vibrant and lush with dark green foliage. One thinks that pruning after harvest is enough, but Boaz makes sure they are well irrigated all year long and fertilized during the summer months. He watches carefully during the winter months for any sign of leaf disease and during the spring and summer for insect infestation or dryness. Any of these can cause the leaves to fall prematurely, or the developing fruit to be deformed or stunted.
Despite the height of the olive harvest, Boaz was gracious enough to meet me on the side of the highway and drive me to the grove – I never would have found the tiny and obscure gravel road that narrowed into dirt paths otherwise. He escorted me through the rows of trees, pointing out the differences between the green Barnea the workers were harvesting (this would make that wonderful buttery oil I love the most); the French fichuline, an excellent eating olive; his award-winning picual from Italy; and the Coratina with its incredibly strong taste, so strong that the oil must be blended with the gentler Barnea to be palatable. Boaz would grab a handful of each kind of olive and crush the berries in his hand until the oil ran out. Each type produced a different quantity (some have a naturally higher oil content) with a different smell. WARNING!!!! Never attempt to eat olives straight from the tree! They contain a high amount of tannins which could make you very ill if not cured first (I will explain the curing process shortly).
Altogether, Boaz harvests between 10 and 13 tons of olives each year. While some go for curing and eating, most go into the production of olive oil. From 12 tons of olives, about 1.5 to 2 tons of oil is made. When I asked Boaz how long the whole process took from grove to bottle, he answered “two.” To clarify, I responded. “two months?” and he looks at me like I was absolutely looney. “Whaaaaat? No! Two hours!!” And this is where the story really gets good.
First, I had assumed that we would be taking long sticks and whacking at trees. Or that I’d be picking by hand. With little kids shaking climbing up high to shake branches… ABSOLUTELY WRONG!!!!! The entire process has been mechanized. Hello – we’re in the 21st century now. A big truck casts rows and rows of netting from giant spools onto the floor of the orchard in neat rows. Workers from the moshav (community) spread out the nets neatly under the trees. Then a tractor with a pneumatic arm comes along. The arm wraps around the base of the olive tree; a button is pushed; the arm vigorously vibrates the trunk – and voilà! All the olives tumble out of the tree onto the nets below. It takes all of ten seconds! Then the nets are reeled in and the fruit dumped into large plastic crates and the process continues down each row. It was quite amazing…and deafening. That was the first surprise.
The next surprise came when Boaz asked if I wanted to go to see the beit baad. For some reason I had envisioned a large room in an ancient stone building. There would be a huge grinding stone perhaps operated by horses pulling a crushing device. Also, from the Chanukah story and the book of Maccabees, I had always known that the olive oil takes a full eight days to make. When the Maccabees cleaned out the holy Temple after it had been thoroughly desecrated by the Greco-Syrians in 150 BC, they found only a small cruze of pure olive oil which with which to light the menorah lamp. It was enough to last for only one day, but miraculously burned for eight days until the new oil was ready. According to my friend, Gabi, the oil for the Temple was produced in the Galilee, and had to be brought to Jerusalem. It would have taken a full eight days to travel by donkey, hence the delay. today, the process is almost instantaneous.
The beit baad, the community press, was a large room with a stainless steel machine imported from Italy, state of the art. The crates of olives are dumped into a hopper where most of the attached twigs and leaves are sorted out and the olives washed off in a water bath. The machine then sucks up the olives which are fed into a grinder and crushed. The noise is so intense that we were given headphones to wear to block out the sound. From one chute, the crushed pits and detritus plops out the dregs into a waste bin. From another chute, the golden liquid pours into a large, stainless steel container. The silver barrels are marked with the owner’s name, date, and type of oil. After the oil remains in the drum for about a week, so the oil cures a bit and the sediment settles out, the liquid is decanted into half-liter, liter, and five liter tins, labeled, boxed, and shipped to markets throughout Israel.
I was given a small sample of the freshly pressed oil to taste. It was rich and buttery – the most amazingly fruity taste. The sharp bite at the end (it actually took away my breath!) I was assured would disappear within the next couple weeks. I found out why this was my favorite oil: this particular variety from Yodfat Olive Oil has won first place in the Israeli olive oil competition!
I was able to take home a small bag of the freshly picked Barnea olives to cure at home. So if any of you have access to fresh, unsprayed olives right off the tree (we had lots of these in our California neighborhood, but I never knew how to prepare them), here are some simple instructions:
After washing the olives, make a slit down the center of each one (or at the ends) with a sharp knife. Soak the olives in a jar of sweet water for three days, changing out the water each day as it turns murky. these are the tannins leeching out. After the olives have soaked, transfer them to another jar of water with 12% volume of coarse or Kosher salt added. For a quart Mason jar, this is about a Tablespoon and a half of salt.
Here’s where it gets good, because everyone who cures olives here (it seems like that is everybody in Israel) has their own sworn special recipe. To the jar of olives in salt brine you can add: peppercorns; chiles; garlic; bay leaves; lemon; orange; fennel seeds; cumin seeds, dill weed; olive leaves; onion; oregano; zata’ar; caper berries; or any combination of any assorted herb imaginable. Some people swear by a vinegar solution instead of brining in a salt solution. Others add a few drops of vinegar to the end result. Some say to gradually add more salt during the last week of ‘curing.’ There doesn’t seem to be any set way. People home-cure their olives and then store them in recycled plastic soda bottles. Almost every grocery store here has an impressive olive bar. Here, you can see all the different varieties including those that have been salt dried and those olives that have been pitted and stuffed with almonds, garlic, little cornichon pickles, pimentos, or pieces of citrus. All have a unique taste. I can’t wait to try mine next week!
I have been rather hard -pressed to find jars of tapenade here, and when I have, it’s been exorbitantly expensive – go figure. Most people make their own and it is so easy to do:
I buy an assortment of pitted olives – kalamata, black and green. With an immersion blender, I blend them up with a small amount of olive oil. this past year, I also added a few roasted figs with some sea salt and a bit of fresh rosemary and a splash of high quality balsamic vinegar. It was heavenly!!!!
I can’t wait to go to Yodfat next week (the general store in the village) to sample all of Boaz’s new oils and stock up on this years’ blends. I usually get a large five liter of Barnea and one liter each of the special blend and the Picual. If I figure correctly, it will be enough to last until next years’ harvest. Thank you, Boaz for an amazing experience!!!
What is the secret to becoming a success in the business world? How did four separate women, immigrate to a new country with a new language and an entirely different culture and make it in light of the many challenges they faced? What advice can they offer to new olot (Hebrew for immigrant women) who are planning on making Aliyah to Israel? I have had the tremendous privilege of getting to know these four enterprising women – all part of the food industry in different ways. They are my friends well as my inspiration. And they have agreed to share their stories (and some great recipes) with you.
Jazzie Morgan hails from Daufuskie, South Carolina, a small island off of the coastal mainland, only accessible by ferryboat. In 2016, during her junior year of college in Charleston, SC, she attended a study abroad program in Israel, “The Nachshon Project”. After returning to the US and completing her undergrad degrees in Psychology and Jewish Studies, she decided to make the big leap – leaving all her family and friends behind to immigrate to Israel. Jazzie was already fluent in Hebrew, a decided advantage for her, and she enrolled in Machon Schechter in 2018 to get her Masters in Talmud and Communal Leadership. While in school, she worked many hours for a non-profit organization.
Upon graduation, this bubbly, young redhead plunged headfirst into the Jerusalem business world, starting JLM Social, a full-service agency helping small businesses build their social media presence as a manager, consultant and coach. But this is only one of her “jobs.” You see, Jazzie also has a strong internet presence with her blog and her Instagram site, ‘The Israel Bites.’ She had been blogging and Instagramming her way through college with Charleston Bites, which grew to an impressive following; so this new endeavor came naturally to her. Her presence can also be found on Facebook, Pinterest, and Tumblr.
Jazzie has Celiac Disease, a chronic immunological disorder that is triggered when gluten is eaten. For some, like Jazzie, eating even the tiniest bit of gluten can become life-threatening. She must be impeccably careful – not only to avoid those foods, but to avoid anything that even comes in contact with a product containing the substance (found in almost everything). Cross-contamination is a real issue for people with celiac. So she set out to find not only food, but good food that was gluten-free. That meant scouring supermarkets for available options: restaurants, cafes, bakeries throughout Jerusalem and all of Israel.
It was here that Jazzie Morgan found her niche. When she first arrived in Israel in 2016, there was absolutely nothing available in English that could help people suffering from celiac navigate the food world here. She saw a need, and immediately strove to develop this niche market through engagement with social media. She regularly posts her adventures in this new country… from finding and trying new foods and beverages (the iconic Aroma Coffee, cafe and restaurant here, uses gluten powder in their ice coffee drink); taking exciting day trips throughout the country; apartment hunting; her adopted pet rabbits; and of course the gluten-free world in Israel. All are accompanied by mouth-watering photographs from the restaurants, shuks, coffee houses, wineries, and even street food stands she visits. She also includes what foods and establishments cater to the strictly Kosher market. Because of this, she has quickly rocketed to success.
If you read or watch nothing else of Jazzie’s, you absolutely must go to her Instagram site. In the little bubble under her bio, find “Bubby in IL.” It’s poignant – and UPROARIOUS!!!! I can watch this account of her grandparents’ visit millions of times and still laugh my tuchus off. Her stories take you along with her and you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll learn a lot about Israel, the culture, the places, as well as the food. And this was how I, too, first fell in love with Jazzie Morgan.
I asked Jazzie the secrets to her success, and she replied with several things. First of all, she found a niche that did not previously exist, offering something that no-one else had done. She gives everything she does in life her all, and never gives up or takes no for an answer. “You have to be your own advocate here,” she says. “A lot of people just give up when they are not successful at first, but you have to learn from any mistakes and just keep going.” It takes both consistency and commitment. To keep her presence on social media authentic, Jazzie does not take any paid sponsorships. It’s all based on her own research and opinions.
Her favorite foods? “Definitely the Green Shakshuka at Cafe Naadi in Jerusalem!! It’s the perfect blend of crunchy kale, salty feta cheese and runny egg in this amazing cream sauce. And of course, it’s all gluten-free” With all of the work she puts into maintaining both JLM Social and her Israel Bites, she still finds time to volunteer, putting on cooking programs and workshops for people with special needs. Even though she’s only in her twenties, Jazzie has no regrets. Israel Bites is way beyond its goals. “When I have parents writing me from outside the country thanking me for what I do because their child is coming to do army or studies or special service in Israel and can’t be around gluten, I know I’ve succeeded. I have everything I ever wanted.”
Here are two of our family’s favorite recipes. They are quick and easy (which is how I found Jazzie: I was looking for a very quick cookie recipe for Shabbat that I could make with limited ingredients in under 15 minutes).
FOUR INGREDIENT GLUTEN FREE CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES (pareve)
These cookies have become a Shabbat staple in our house. They never make it past Saturday afternoon, because they are that addictive and can be eaten with either a dairy or meat-based meal, if keeping Kashrut!!
1 cup peanut butter (I use chunky for more crunch)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup chocolate chips
(optional 1 tsp vanilla)
Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl. Drop on parchment lined cookie sheet and bake at 170*C/350*F for about 10 minutes or until golden brown.
SWEET POTATO MACARONI & CHEESE serves 4
This can be made either gluten free or not, using your favorite pasta. Another simple family-friendly dish the is quick and easy to assemble, using pantry staples. I garnish mine with a generous dollop of pesto for the perfect dinner. Just add a salad, and you’re good to go. There is also a non-dairy option that uses coconut milk.
1 large sweet potato
1 cup heavy cream or coconut milk
2 tsp garlic powder or 1 clove fresh garlic
Salt & pepper
Prepare your favorite pasta according to the instructions. In the meantime, microwave, roast or boil the sweet potato (peeled) until soft. In a blender combine the potato, cream, and spices. Blend until creamy. Pour over the pasta and enjoy!
Rita Ackert’s story is heart-wrenching and inspirational at the same time. Rita moved to Israel from Philadelphia relatively later in life. She and her husband, Bob, first visited Israel in 2000 with the Eretz Israel Tour. The seeds were planted during that trip and that little spark of love for the Land and its People fanned into flames. They knew this was their people and their homeland. After much prayer and thought, they returned for their pilot trip, looking for a quiet place to settle, a growing community to continue Bob’s chiropractic practice, and a close-knit community that would be welcoming to them.
In 2011 they made Aliyah with their oldest daughter and her family and youngest daughter (who was 4 years old at the time) to the small, picturesque town of Maalot (like an Alpine village) in the North of the country. Their son was learning in Beit Shemesh, but had not yet made Aliyah. Last year, he was married in New York, and has since immigrated with his new wife to Israel as well.
In America, Rita homeschooled her children (now do you see a connection?) and enjoyed crafting, especially jewelry making. She has always loved to cook, and has treated every Shabbat as a dinner party. Every Shabbat, Rita enjoyed preparing and presenting her family and guests with different cuisines from around the world prompting them to ask which country they would be “visiting.” Helping in the kitchen in her Philly synagogue, and working among friends, was a huge source of joy for Rita. The women of the synagogue would host blow-out kiddush lunches after services. Several of the ladies were Persian, and terrific cooks. After one service, a local restaurant owner approached Rita with the idea of catering for his establishment, but Rita turned him down thinking she had little to offer. She cooked and baked for fun: to enter the business professionally was another ballgame.
“One of the interesting things about moving to another country is the opportunity to completely reinvent yourself,” explained Rita. “I first started making jewelry to sell, working and displaying in a gallery for women’s art in Tsfat, but was floundering as to what to do after an injury. I started thinking out of the box.” Four years ago, another friend from Philadelphia moved to Israel and called Rita asking if she knew where to buy tasty kugels for the Passover holiday. One thing led to another. Rita wound up making the kugels as well as offering a full Kosher for Passover holiday menu.
Things were going well with her nascent catering business until the unexpected hit hard. In February of 2019, Bob had a small stroke. Then in May of the same year, after a surgical procedure, he had a major stroke, leaving him in a vegetative state. Rita suddenly became the sole breadwinner for their family. With lots of support from the local community, she decided to keep moving forward. Always she asks the question, “What would Bob do in this situation?”
Because of her passion for cooking, Rita took on a handful of steady clients – working women who were too tired to cook when they came home; people hosting a dinner party; families desiring an elegant Kosher meal with little time to travel to a restaurant (the availability of fine Kosher dining is quite limited in the North). And many Anglos, especially those who move to the periphery of the country from large cities, really miss the options of different kinds of ethnic foods – Mexican, Asian, Indian, Southwestern. Filling the void is part of Rita’s newfound success. She will do all the shopping and then come to her clients’ homes, doing the cooking there, having it beautifully presented… and she cleans up afterwards!
Drawing on her passion for preparing sumptuous ethnic foods, Rita’s business, Rivanacooks, is in high demand. “I’m a good boss to myself,” states this incredibly outgoing and enthusiastic woman. Working hard, but pacing herself, she has built up her daily clients as well as adding meals for people who would like something for special occasions. She has also progressed to teaching food workshops and cooking classes, mostly in English. She recently overcame the huge challenge of teaching a cooking workshop in Hebrew to a group of Sherut Leumit girls (girls doing a gap year program after high school). She especially enjoys teaching holiday classes. One look at her Instagram and Facebook pages, Rivanacooks, is enough to make a foodie swoon!!!!
The COVID lockdowns here in Israel have been another unexpected opportunity for Rita. She is now making prepared dishes able to be frozen and defrosted for later baking or reheating. Order from her menu and pick up the food- enough to fill your freezer for a few weeks – and there will be tasty family meals with the utmost convenience.
Rita Ackert reminds me so much of Ina Garten. Her outgoing personality is infectious; her attention to detail and presentation impeccable; and her desire to share her knowledge with the public is such a gift to this country. She loves the Persian cuisine due to the flavor profile and the colors with its combination of spice and dried fruits. The toasted, layered spices of her Indian dishes are as authentic as one can find here. Yet nothing is off limits to her: tofu-based Asian dishes, Mid-East cuisine, vegetarian, special needs diets food, Tex-Mex barbecues, and hearty, rustic home cooking. All are created with the utmost of love and culinary skill. Not only that, but her baked goods are also a strong suit. Here are three amazing recipes from her collection. I know that you will enjoy making and eating them!!
PERSIAN SAFFRON RICE (pareve, serves 4-6)
This recipe is now a holiday hit at our house. Served with a roast or with chicken (see following recipe), it’s not only gorgeous, but a flavor explosion!
For the parboiled rice:
2 cups Basmati rice
1 TBSP salt
3 liters/3 quarts water
Rinse rice until water runs clear and soak for 15 minutes. Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add salt and rice and bring back to a boil. Cook 3-5 minutes until rice is still firm, but can be broken easily. Usually this takes about 3 minutes. Drain and let sit for 5 minutes.
For the filling:
1/2 cup dried cranberries/if you can get barberries that is traditional. You can even use dried cherries
2 TBSP olive oil
2 leeks, trimmed, sliced thinly and cleaned well
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled and shredded
1 TBSP orange zest
drizzle of silan (date syrup) or honey
salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add leeks and lower heat to medium-low. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sauté leeks until soft and a bit caramelized. Add garlic and stir until fragrant. , then add shredded carrot and cook until soft. Stir in the dried cranberries for abut a minute until they are plumped up. Remove from heating add orange zest and a drizzle of the silan or honey. Stir and set mixture aside.
For the saffron rice:
1 tsp saffron threads
2 TBSP warm water
1 cup soy yogurt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 egg yolks
3/4 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 180*C/350*F. Lightly oil a deep, round glass baking dish. Add warm water to saffron threads and steep for 10 minutes. Place yogurt, egg yolks, saffron, salt and oil in a bowl and mix well. Add parboiled rice, stirring gently, but well. Pour 1/2 rice mixture into the deep, round baking dish and smooth out. Top with 1/2 fruit mixture and then the rest of the rice. Smooth top an add the remaining fruit mixture. Press mixture down firmly into the rice.Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour – 1 hour 20 minutes. The bottom should be a deep, golden-brown. Remove from oven and let sit for 10 minutes before removing foil. Place serving platter over dish and flip rice carefully onto plate. Rice will remove easily and should be intact. Top with fresh pomegranate arils and chopped pistachios.
BALSAMIC, FIG & ROSEMARY GLAZED CHICKEN
For the fig preserves:
About 30 dried figs, cut into quarters (*see note)
Enough water to cover figs about 3/4
1 cinnamon stick
Bring figs and water to a boil. Reduce heat and add cinnamon stick. Simmer about 45 minutes or until figs are soft enough to process with an immersion blender. More water may be added as necessary. Remove from heat and let cool a bit.remove cinnamon stick and process with an immersion blender to a smooth consistency.
*Note: I check figs to make sure they are free and clean of any bugs or other such specimens.
*Note: if you can find fig preserves, you can skip this step and fast-forward to the glaze.
For the glaze:
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large red onions, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
3 TBSP dark brown sugar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup red wine
1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
salt & fresh ground pepper, to taste
2 cups (or more as desired) fig preserves
Heat olive oil in pan until shimmering over medium heat. Add diced red onions, season lightly with salt and pepper and reduce heat to medium-low and cook until onions are caramelized. Add minced garlic and stir until fragrant. Stir in fig preserves then balsamic vinegar and red wine. Stir until incorporated. Next add brown sugar, cinnamon, additional salt and pepper to taste, and rosemary. Stir and simmer until nice and bubbly and sauce has thickened.
For the chicken:
8 chicken legs(I cut mine in half)
1 whole head garlic, top cut off and outer papery skin removed(keep head together)
Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Clean and trim any excess fat off thee chicken and arrange in a shallow baking pan. Season chicken with freshly ground pepper. Spoon fig mixture all over the chicken, coating well. Wrap head of garlic in a piece of foil, drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil and place in the middle of the chicken pieces. Roast in oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, basting occasionally with pan juices. Unwrap garlic and spoon a little of the pan juices onto it. Serve the garlic on a platter in the middle of the chicken pieces. Simply pop the garlic out of its skin and shmear on chicken, It just melts right in! Enjoy!!
APPLE STRUDEL (dairy or parve) Adapted from everyday dishes.com
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
6 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into small chunks
2 TBSP lemon juice
4 TBSP unsalted butter or margarine
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cardamon
2 TBSP flour
1/2 cup cream cheese, room temperature
1 egg, beaten (for egg wash)
Sugar to sprinkle on top of strudel.
In a bowl, toss peeled and cut apples with lemon juice. Melt butter or margarine in a large pan over medium heat. Add brown sugar, salt, and spices and stir until sugar dissolves. Add apples to pan and stir coating apples with sugar mixture. When mixture becomes bubbly, simmer 8-10 minutes until apples are tender, but not mushy. Stir often. Sprinkle flour over apples and mix in. Cook for another 1-2 minutes until sauce thickens. Let apples cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 200c/400F. Lightly flour surface and roll out a piece of puff pastry on a sheet of parchment paper and spread cream cheese(if using) in center of dough. Long side should be facing you.
Leave a 1/2 inch border on left and right. Place apples in center length of dough.
Fold the top over filling, then brush surface with beaten egg. Next fold bottom over top and press right and left edges together, then fold under. transfer strudel and parchment paper onto a baking sheet and brush entire top and sides with egg ash. Cut slits on top of dough and sprinkle with sugar. Bake 30 minutes or until pastry is a lovely golden brown. Remove pan from oven and let cool in pan. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, or as is with a slice of cheddar cheese or a nice cup of tea or coffee. Enjoy in your sukkah for breakfast/brunch or as a dessert.
Another one of my inspirations is Jessica Halfin. Originally from Newton, New Hampshire, this young woman did a study abroad program in Jerusalem during high school. She had such a great experience here, that she decided to attend college at Ben Gurion University in BeerSheva. She finally made Aliyah in August, 2006 – during the Second Lebanon War, transitioning to life in Tel Aviv. Jessica worked teaching English as a Second Language, as she thought that was her only option as an Anglo immigrant. Totally no passion for this!!! Her life needed a change – and change she did – to follow her foodie passion!
Because Jessica has always loved to cook, she first enrolled in some gourmet cooking classes in Israel. After that, she honed her skills by taking a ten-month pastry course, where she learned the different methods of making typical Israeli baked goods. To supplement her income, she sold her confections on the side, but in the days before strong social media outlets, it was hard to find an audience.
While at BGU, Jessica met Eli through mutual aquaintances. They became friends, but didn’t start dating until years later. Eventually, they would marry and Eli would start medical school. Moving to a small dorm apartment in Haifa in 2008, made cooking elaborate gourmet meals and baking anything at all more than difficult. As an outlet and to earn some extra money, Jessica started teaching creative cooking workshops for students at the Technion. In addition, she started blogging and doing freelance articles on food and the local cuisine of Haifa. Her articles have been featured in The Nosher, Hadassah Magazine, Jerusalem Post, JNF-B’yachad Magazine, Times of Israel, Israel 21c, and Time Out Israel Magazine.
An offshoot of these articles happened when Jessica started taking tourists to Israel on street food excursions. And that’s how I first met Jessica four years ago. We had been following her articles and salivating over the amazing photos she was posting from her Haifa Street Food Tours. Not only did Jessica know the best falafel and shawarma, the best humus and shakshuka, bourekas and breads, but she really got to know each vendor. Jessica was able to teach the history of each food, where it originated, and the fascinating history of Arabs and Jews living side by side peacefully and adding to the rich culinary diversity of this city. Family-run restaurants that had been in existence for generations and hard-to-find hidden gems were all included in her amazing tours. She did this for three years, until Eli was assigned a residency at a hospital in Afula.
The Halfins were able to find an amazing villa in Afula with a wonderful, large yard with fruit trees and a large kitchen so Jessica can really get creative. Now, a mother to three young children, she still manages to make everything from scratch. Because Afula is a rather rural city, there are not a lot of restaurant options. With the demanding schedules of her husband’s residency, and a limited budget, dining out is not something they are able to do. Still, Jessica plans romantic dinners for the two of them, with themes like Sushi and Asian night or Italian Adventure with her incredible homemade pastas – complete with candles and music after the children are in bed).
Jessica loves baking and the doughier side of life. Fresh pasta and accompanying sauces are a staple in the Halfin home, as well as creating family-friendly and vegetarian options (for Eli). She has a passion for sharing food with people and loves to entertain. Her dream is to one day own a bed and breakfast where she can serve guests fresh bread and homemade spreads as well as big Israeli style breakfasts, her favorite meal. She makes her own yogurt and labaneh, a soft and tangy white cheese spread that is ubiquitous here in Israel.
She is currently working on a cookbook, The Israeli Pastry Kitchen, which will not only provide recipes for baked goods, but whole sections on the Israeli cafe culture. This includes drink recipes as well as items offered at the Israeli breakfast. She hopes to find a publisher and have it available for purchase next year.
Because Jessica Halfin absolutely refused to do anything else (take a job at a supermarket or bakery for minimum wage, which is ridiculously low here), and because she has been really stubborn and persistent about putting herself “out there into the universe,” Jessica has been received with high marks in travel guides and through her foodie articles. “You have to keep at it, keep going, even if you get rejections at first. Persistence pays off.” And following your passions….
Here in Israel it is khavoosh season. The khavoosh is a quince: a hard, ugly yellow fruit, a bit similar to a deformed pear in appearance with a strong, sweet smell. It is native to the Levant area. I had only heard of it in the children’s poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, and have never known what to do with it until now. Jessica shares one of her favorite recipes with us – Spiced Quince in Syrup. It can be preserved or served immediately after cooking. The quince slices make a lovely dessert and can even be used for breakfast served over yogurt. Top a sponge cake with it and let those delicious juices soak in! Jessica’s family loves it served with homemade pistachio ice cream- I will be making these for hostess and Chanukah gifts this year. The rosy pink color is just gorgeous!!
QUINCE IN SPICED SYRUP (Makes about 3, 8 oz. glass jars)
4 large quince (1.5 lbs/680grams)
5 cups water, or more to cover the fruit
3 cups (600g) sugar
1. 3-inch (7.5cm) cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
4 strips lemon peel
Prepare the fruit: Peel quince using a paring knife, and make slices of medium thickness using a very sharp chef’s knife. Make sure not to include the inner, woody core in your slices. This is a bit of a painstaking process, as quince is a wonky shaped, very thick and difficult fruit to cut, but the effort is more than well worth it!
Using a peeler, cut strips of lemon peel. Take care not to cut too deeply, as you want little or no pith in the strips.
Cook the fruit in the syrup: Add the prepared quince to a medium pot with the water, sugar, whole spices, and lemon peel. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the fruit and syrup turn a lovely rosy shade, about 1.5-2 hours.
Jar and Store: Add the fruit and syrup to 8-ounce (227g) glass jars that have been sterilized in a hot water bath 20 minutes. Seal with a sterilized vacuum lid. Process in a water bath for 10 minutes and store in a dark, cool place for over a year, or simply keep unprocessed in the fridge for up to 3 months. These taste better and better as they sit, and the fruit continues to soak up the syrup.
HOMEMADE GREEK YOGURT WITHOUT A STARTER
(3 liters/quarts whole milk not ultra pasteurized)
2-3 TBSP plain, full-fat store-bought yogurt
In a large pot, heat the milk over a medium flame until steaming (`162F). Take off the heat and let cool to 110F. Skin off any skin from the surface of the milk and stir in the store- bought yogurt.
Immediately cover the pot, drape with a clean towel for insulation. Place in the oven with JUST the light on. Let sit for `12 hours (This is best done overnight).
After 12 hours, remove from the oven and transfer the now yogurt to a fine mesh strainer that’s been lined with cheesecloth and placed over a large bowl. You can also use a muslin swaddle blanket or a very light dishtowel.
Tie up the ends and let strain in the fridge for about 8 hours.
remove the strained yogurt from the fridge, and open up the cheesecloth. Transfer the yogurt to a serving bowl or storage container. Mix with your favorite addition, such as homemade jam, or frozen berries and honey to taste, or keep plain.
Yogurt will keep for two weeks in the fridge, and can be used as a starter in your next couple of batches.
*For homemade labaneh: Follow the same procedure for the yogurt, but just use 1 liter of milk and 1 TBSP of store-bought yogurt. Stir in the salt before transferring to the cheesecloth, then strain the yogurt for 24 hours. Can be stored in a container or shaped into balls.
(The custom here is to serve labaneh with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of zataar spice. serve it on bread or pita. If making balls, thy can be rolled in zataar or paprika or stored in olive oil in a jar.)
MAPLE-SILAN PECAN GRANOLA
5 1/2 cups (500g) whole rolled oats
3 cups (250g) quick cooking oats
1 cup thinly sliced almonds
1 cup desiccated coconut
Heaping TBSP ground cinnamon
2/3 cup Sunflower (or olive) oil
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup Silan (date syrup)
3/4 cup brown sugar (I make my own from ing sugar mixed with 1/3 cup silan
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 TBSP water
1 cup pecan halves, roughly chopped
Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Combine all ingredients in a very large bowl except for the pecan halves. Spread out in an even layer on a parchment paper-lined baking tray (A thin layer is best, so even if your oven is small you may want to do this on two trays).
Bake for 20 minutes, then remove from the oven and stir the granola. Place back in the oven for an additional 7-10 minutes, until deep brown. Let cool completely, then break up into chunks, and keep in an airtight container. Granola lasts about 1 month at room temperature, or indefinitely if frozen.Any pieces that feel slightly soft as opposed to crunchy upon cooking, can be placed back on a tray and rebaked for 10-15 minutes to crisp up.
Jessica Halfin is a professional foodie, recipe developer, and freelance food and culture writer. You can find her online at jessicahalfin.com. Her Instagram account is #jessicahalfinfoodwriter.
I had the extreme good fortune of meeting Elisheva Levy exactly five years ago. We had recently made Aliyah and were apartment-sitting in Jerusalem over the Sukkot holidays. A new program had just been launched pairing up olim khadashim (new immigrants) with host families who had lived in Israel for a while and we were invited by Elisheva to come have a Sukkot dinner with her family. Many times we are invited out and I remember only certain things about the evening or the meal. This was one of the rare cases where I remember much about that night in full detail. At her apartment in Jerusalem we were served amazing appetizers – the most delicious pastilles (film dough rolled ‘cigars’ stuffed with chicken and savories), which I had never had before -spoiler alert: she gives the recipe below! There were meatballs in a sweet, yet tangy tomato sauce; orange soup (made with pumpkins, carrots and other orange veggies). When we thought we could eat no more, out came the chicken, the brisket, the roasted veg, a rice pilaf – And then the most glorious pastries! Homemade rugelach and assorted cookies and baklauwa. Oh my word!!! The food she served!!! And her three children were delightful as well. Adi, Elisheva’s daughter, would be drafting into the IDF the same time as Max, and her oldest son, who was still serving, answered tons of questions for us.
Elisheva Levy came to Israel from England in 1987 to volunteer at Shaare Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem. The volunteer nursing stint turned into a full-fledged Aliyah. She met her further husband two years later. Because he worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they have lived in India, Miami and Brussels as well as Jerusalem. It was the perfect gig for this energetic, outgoing woman! She was able to work in the Israeli Embassies hosting events for the Jewish people living in the area. These included Shabbat dinners and gatherings, holiday parties, and many other social events. Elisheva, who absolutely loves entertaining and meeting people, was in her perfect element.
She has always had a passion for the culinary arts. Shortly after I met her, Elisheva invited me to the first meeting of the Jerusalem Cookbook Club. The dozen or so women and men meet every month for a feast – and to share recipes of a favorite chef or theme of the month. And it is still going strong, albeit in these days of COVID, by Zoom. They usually meet in each of the members’ apartments, sharing their love of food as well as life events.
Elisheva is the most beautiful woman, inside as well as out. Warm, funny, hospitable, with a keen eye for design and detail and a powerhouse in the kitchen are only a few words I have to describe this dear friend (Her strong British accent certainly doesn’t hurt either). There is a Yiddish word for a woman like Elisheva: a word that is (for me) the highest compliment and thus, rarely used. It’s bollibustah – a woman who excels at absolutely everything!
Elisheva, who is incredibly well-connected opened her own small catering business, Byelisheva, a little over a year ago. It has enjoyed rapid and amazing success. I asked her what her secrets were, and she confided, “I’m passionate about what I do. Besides the food tasting great, it’s the attention to detail, the aesthetics. The packaging. The service I offer to each client.” People in the Jerusalem area can order one dish or a five course meal for Shabbat, holidays, special occasions, and everyday meals. Her menu is incredible down to the most minute detail. During COVID, because so many families with small (bored) children have been locked down for weeks, Elisheva offers pre-made gorgeous cookie kits complete with tubes of royal icing. All items are delivered to your doorstep, so it doesn’t’t get any easier than that.
Baking is her forte. Nothing is off limits. She has taken professional courses and honed her skills. Breads, beautifully decorated cakes, cookies, are in her repertoire, but those macarons!!!! Filled with ganache flavors like hazelnut and mint and fruits and Bailey’s Irish Cream!!! And the colors!!! As if this wasn’t enough, her chocolate babka is to die for!!! Elisheva has a social presence on Facebook (Elisheva); Instagram (Byelisheva) and Yummi (firstname.lastname@example.org).
She has shared a couple of my favorite recipes, so we can all enjoy her delicious pastilla and chocolate babka, my two favorites.
PASTILLAS (meat/basari Makes 15)
These are an amazing finger food. Serve them as an appetizer or for party snacks. They are great with drinks. Or make them larger and serve them as a main course with a side of couscous and roasted veg. They are a Sephardic- North African fusion cuisine. As the Jewish people were exiled from Israel by the Romans in 70 AD, they spread all over the world. This recipe comes to us from Morocco by way of Spain and Portugal, I’m thankful for Elisheva for sharing it, and will be making them for the Shabbat/holiday weekend.
1 pack fill pastry
3 skinless chicken thighs
1 bunch finely chopped parsley
1 bunch finely chopped cilantro
3 finely chopped onions
3 cups water
1 TBSP ground ginger
Salt & Pepper
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup sugar
1 TBSP cinnamon
In a pot over medium flame, cook together the chicken, water, onion, parsley, cilantro, salt and pepper – about 40 minutes until tender. Remove chicken from pot. Keep pot on stove and continue to cook until liquid has evaporated. Remove chicken meat from bone, slicing finely. Add sliced chicken back to saucepan. Add ginger, 1 TBSP sugar, salt & pepper (to taste). Add eggs. Mix well for a few minutes. Let cool down completely.
Preheat oven to 400F/200C. In medium bowl, mix together almonds, sugar, cinnamon. Open up a fiilo sheet, cut in half. Place some of the chicken filling on the bottom of the pastry sheet, 1 tsp of the almonds and cinnamon sugar mix and roll up like a blintze or a burrito. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush all the pastilles with beaten egg and bake til golden brown and crispy. Lightly dust with icing sugar (powdered sugar) before serving.
NO-FAIL BABKA RECIPE ( dairy Makes 3 babkas)
Babka is traditional Shabbat morning breakfast food here in Israel, since we don’t cook on that day, and want to serve something extra-special and sweet. Pair it with a cup of coffee and a side of yogurt and fruit or cottage cheese, and you have the perfect no-cook meal. Believe me, it won’t last until lunchtime!!!! You can also substitute poppy seeds or cinnamon for the chocolate in the filling. They freeze nicely too –
1.1 pound of flour (1/2 kilo)
1 TBSP dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup oil
1 cup warm water
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
Mix all ingredients for the dough together. THE DOUGH WILL BE REALLY SOFT…it’s meant to be so. Leave rise covered with a towel for about an hour. Divide into three balls. Roll out a rectangle. Spread filling of choice. Roll up. Cut in two down the middle. Twist the two halves together into a babka shape. Put into loaf tin. Let rise again for about 15 minutes. Brush with an egg wash. Bake 170C/350F for about a half an hour. Brush with sugar syrup.
Sugar syrup: Place sugar and water in a saucepan. Let simmer very gently until sugar is dissolved entirely. Spoon over babka as soon as it comes out of the oven.
100 g dark chocolate
100 g butter
60 g powdered sugar
2 TBSP cocoa
Add cocoa powder and powdered sugar in microwave. Add cocoa powder and powdered sugar. Let sit to thicken.
What’s next for Elisheva Levy? She has set her sights high. Hopefully in the near future she will travel to Dubai to be a Kosher pastry chef for special holidays and Shabbat. Get ready UAE!!!
How many times have we heard “…in these uncertain times” or “…due to the events of this year” or “…because of the unprecedented events” in the past few months? I think the most useless purchase of 2020 will go down as the event planner/calendar. It’s impossible to make plans these days – whether for international travel or even a dinner party. Here in Israel, the places that are open for business one day are closed the next. For the most part, our airport still remains closed to international flights. We face uncertain, yet imminent, complete lockdowns once again over the fall holy days due to containment of COVID.
In past years, we have enjoyed hosting IDF Lone Soldiers for the holidays: kids who leave their home countries, their families, friends and lives, to volunteer their service in the Israeli army. We’ve had wonderful young adults from the States, the UK, Columbia, South Africa, Mexico, France, and Australia. This year will be different. This year, we will only have one or two guests at a time spaced over several meals. No soldiers.
As is typical for this time of year, we have been having our end-of-summer one last doozy of a heat wave. For two weeks, we endured temperatures in the triple digits Fahrenheit (40-43*C) with a shift of winds blowing in the desert dust from the East. It’s finally down in the 90s, but, still – with temperatures like these, who wants to cook in a hot kitchen all day? And who can sit down to eat a heavy meal?
This year, I’m focusing on large, cooling salads that can be easily assembled with some accompanying sides. No heavy soups or roasted meats. There are a few recipes borrowed from friends of different ethnicities. Some salads, like the basil recipe, look and sound very unusual (to put it mildly). But I’m including them because they work!! The flavors all come together to create a delicious symphony in the end. So…. let’s get chopping!
LEBANESE BASIL SALAD
O.K. When my friend brought this salad to the table I was…ummm…reticent to try it. This Lebanese Basil Salad just screamed WRONG!!! But, surprisingly, this works!! Gloriously! The flavors all meld together beautifully to create a total sweet, savory, crunchy, salty umami explosion. Promise me you’ll try it just once, and then write to tell me what you think.
2 cups roughly chopped fresh basil leaves (2 large bunches)
1 small can pineapple chunks, drained
1/4 cup each, chopped red and yellow bell pepper
1/4 tsp (or more if you like heat) chili flakes
1/2 cup walnuts
juice of 1/2 large lemon
drizzle extra virgin olive oil
In a large mixing bowl, put the washed and chopped basil leaves and peppers. Gently mix in the nuts and pineapple chunks. Pour the lemon juice over the top using a fine strainer to take out the pulp and pips. Drizzle on the olive oil …. about 1/4 cup and sprinkle on the chili flakes and sea salt. Toss gently and plate. And please… I’m really curious to know how you love this refreshing dish.
ENDIVE & APPLE SALAD
This one! Amazing! Easy! Refreshing! Restaurant-worthy! Israeli! It can be a starter, a side or an entire meal. I serve this with whole grain toasts topped with a delicious goat Brie. For us, it makes a whole meal. This recipe was given. To me by Dafna, a vegetarian, native Israeli amateur chef. Because it is traditional to serve apples and honey to Mark a sweet new year, I’ll be serving this for a late lunch the first day of Rosh HaShannah – which also happens to be a Shabbat (so no cooking).
8 heads of endive lettuce, roughly chopped
2 large green apples, thinly sliced
2 large Fuji or Gala apples
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup candied pecans or walnuts
Orange Honey Mustard Vinaigrette, recipe below
Wash and roughly chop the endive into a large, shallow bowl. Thinly slice the green apple around the core, leaving the peel on. Dip the slices in a little saucer of lemon juice to prevent discoloring and add to salad. Toss in nuts and mix gently. Dress lightly with the vinaigrette…recipe below. Then garnish with sliced red apple and fresh basil on top.
Orange Honey Mustard Vinaigrette
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 TBSP honey
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
2 tsp minced red onion or shallot
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
I make this in a Mason jar because it’s easy to add ingredients, shake, pour and refrigerate any leftover dressing all in one jar. Using a microplaner or small grater, grate the orange zest into the jar. Place a fine wire mesh strainer over the jar and squeeze in all the orange juice. Add the honey, oil, vinegar,mustard, chopped onion, salt and pepper. Cover and shake vigorously to create an emulsion. Pour lightly over salad, just to wet, not to overwhelm. Gently mix into salad before serving.
I’m still enjoying our bumper crop of tomatoes this summer! Heirloom varieties from the US plus cherry tomatoes (did you know that the cherry tomato was first developed in Israel over 4 decades ago?) and tomatoes grown from seeds I traded with a local Bedouin woman. Yes, I know I just wrote I’ve been trying to keep the house as cool as possible by not slaving over a hot stove all day. Usually I spend hours parboiling and peeling hot tomatoes to then cook all day for pasta sauce. I spend my late summers canning away foods to be enjoyed throughout the year. This year I tried something different. I cut up my tomatoes, whole, no peeling, and laid them out flat on a foil-lined baking sheet. A drizzle of EVOO and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar over the top. A generous sprinkling of sea salt, pepper and dried oregano and a tiny pinch of chili flakes and pop it all into a 200*C/400*F oven for 15 minutes.
While the tomatoes are roasting, I sterilize my quart sized jars and lids in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes. After the trays of tomatoes are out of the oven and cool down about 5 minutes, I transfer them to a larger bowl and use an immersion blender to crush it all into a tasty pasta sauce. The still-hot tomato sauce is poured into the sterilized jars and zehu, that’s all!
The next way we’ve been enjoying all those yummy tomatoes is a very simple tomato toast, a recipe brought to Israel from the Spanish Sephardic Jews. It’s become a family favorite, especially when paired with a salad. I even eat it in the morning for breakfast with a medium cooked/slightly runny yolked egg on the top. It tastes absolutely decadent!!!
I buy 3 long, crusty baguettes to last a day in our household. Slice each baguette in half lengthways, then cut into halves or thirds. Place in a 200*C/400*F oven for about 5 minutes or until the bread starts to brown around the edges. Remove from oven, and while still hot, rub generously with peeled, raw garlic – we like it very garlicky, so I use a clove for each slice. Halve a large, fresh tomato. Rub it all over the garlic toast, skin side down, so the bread turns pink with tomato. Drizzle with EVOO and sprinkle with sea salt.
The next salad takes me back to my Southern California days. It’s my version of a fiesta salad. If I wasn’t trying to keep the house bearable cool (we just have one tiny AC in the master bedroom and one overworked, too-small AC in the salon, so…. if I didn’t mind using the oven so much I’d roast a sheet pan full of zucchini, onion, tomato and bell pepper to put on top. Here’s the stripped-down version. Feel free to improvise!
On a large platter I arrange the following (can you tell I’ve really been getting into serve-yourself platter salads? It makes for great presentation):
1 medium sized can corn,drained
1 medium sized can black beans, drained
roasted veggies, optional
chopped cilantro (cuzbara)
2 chopped avocados
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts or pumpkin seeds
1/3 cup grated sharp cheddar
This is large and hearty enough to serve as a whole meal. I squeeze lime over the whole salad and serve little side bowls of sour cream, salsa, chopped onion and black olives. A cilantro-lime vinaigrette is also a welcome topping. Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette
1 cup cilantro/cuzbara leaves
1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp honey
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp sea salt
Put all ingredients in a blender or food processor, or use an immersion blender to make a creamy emulsion. Drizzle over salad. Keep refrigerated in a small Mason jar for about 3 weeks.
This light and creamy (dairy) salad is very Israeli, the flavors mild and very cooling. It’s a perfect accompaniment with fish or a dairy meal (I’m thinking a quiche or a cold Lukshen kugel/noodle pudding). Serve in a shallow bowl with a sprinkling of fresh rose petals (edible if organic), nasturtiums or marigold petals from the garden. I think it’s really funny that they call it Grapes Salad with a plural – because you shouldn’t be confused and think it only uses one grape, hahaha!
ISRAELI GRAPES SALAD
2 cups green grapes, halved lengthwise
1 cup celery chopped thin
1/4 cup chives or green onions, chopped thin
1/2 cup walnuts
1 cup plain yogurt, if you have goat milk yogurt, it’s amazing
1 TBSP honey
2 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tsp lime zest
2 TBSP finely chopped fresh mint
sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste Combine first four ingredients in a large bowl. In Mason jar, combine the yogurt, honey, lime juice and zest, chopped mint, salt and pepper. Cover and bake well. Pour the entire jar of ‘sauce’ over the grape mixture. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving.
I hope you are all managing to stay cool- whether it be the heat of the Middle East or the humidity of the East Coast of the US. I understand the fires and smoke combined with the heat all up and down the West Coast of the United States has made life really unpleasant. Here’s hoping the New Year brings better things than the past.
I’ll be doing another recipe blog during the holidays. I’m already working up a few delicious surprises! Please let me know what interests YOU!!! Would you like more food-related posts? They are my most popular. Or would you like to read more about the places, people, or culture? Perhaps the politics here in the Mid East is what excites you- that’s ALWAYS an interesting topic. Or the many religions here…. and the myriad religious sub-sects within each larger religious community. Thank you for taking the time to read Israel Dreams, and let me hear from YOU!
Until next time, happy holidays and looking forward to fall!
I had heard the story of Eli Cohen and of his heroic contribution to the security of Israel when I was a young teen. He was one of those larger than life characters for me in modern Israeli history. This past winter we watched the Netflix series, The Spy, with Sacha Baron Cohen in the starring role. It did not disappoint! Action-packed and suspenseful, after seeing the story I couldn’t wait to get out and follow the Eli Cohen Trail to see some of the places where it all took place.
Eli Cohen was born in 1924 in Alexandria, Egypt to Syrian Jewish parents. In 1947, his family made Aliyah to Israel leaving Eli behind to assist the Jewish community in Egypt and to help with Zionist activities, a perilous venture at the time. When it became too dangerous for him to stay in Egypt, he emigrated to Israel ten years after his family. Eli met and married Nadia in 1959 and they started a family in the idyllic coastal town of Bat Yam where he worked as an accountant.
Eli Cohen was a striking man with an aristocratic swagger: swarthy, tall, very handsome and very intelligent. Besides speaking flawless Hebrew and Arabic, he was fluent in Spanish, French and English. Cohen was recruited by the Israeli Military Intelligence (Mossad), trained for two years, and then sent to establish a new “fake” life in Buenos Aires, Argentina where he posed as a wealthy Syrian businessman, Kamel Amin Thaabet. While in South America, ‘Thaabet’ cultivated friendships with the rich: tycoons, politicians, diplomats, military leaders. His wife, Nadia (still in Bat Yam) only knew that her husband was working oversees for a defense company.
He relocated to Damascus, Syria in 1963, where he moved into a most lavish penthouse apartment directly across the street from the Syrian army headquarters. He was the wealthy Syrian expat, returned home, throwing lavish parties with all the most important Syrian high society in attendance- and lots of alcohol and beautiful women. Kamel Thaabet was loved by all the top leaders, who never suspected him of being a spy until the very end. He was generous in giving out advice and loans. He passed on vital information to Israel through radio telegraphing and during business trips to Europe where he would have secret rendezvous with his handlers and would also be able to see Nadia for a week at a time.
In 1964, he relayed info to the Mossad about a Syrian plot to steal Israel’s water from its source in the Upper Golan mountains. The IDF would be able to bomb the Syrian equipment, halting the diversion of their main water supply. Thaabet made frequent trips with Syrian generals to the Golan Heights. The Syrian army had command of the most strategic spot militarily. Ramat haGolan overlooks the entire Hula Valley just north of the Sea of Galilee. This incredibly fertile land is one of the most productive of Israel’s agricultural areas. From the Heights, the Syrian army positioned snipers to continually shoot down on the farmers working their land. They would often shell the kibbutzim on the other side of the Jordan River. This was a regular occurrence that spanned decades.
Feigning sympathy for those poor Syrian soldiers baking in the intense summer heat, Thaabet bought hundreds of imported eucalyptus trees to be planted at each of the outposts. It would provide much needed shade and would also pinpoint the exact location of the embedded troops for the IDF. Even smarter, Thaabet/Cohen, planted one tree for each platoon stationed up there. A large grove would signal a larger battalion and bunker locations and the largest clump of trees signaled the headquarters. Just brilliant! He also told the Syrians that the shade would provide cover for the afternoon reflection of the sun on their telescope/binocular lenses. They had no reason to doubt his altruistic overtures. The Eli Cohen eucalyptus trees proved to be a vital part of Israeli defense and can be seen dotting the mountain plateau today.
A few weeks ago we decided to drive the Eli Cohen Trail in the lower and upper Heights with the company of two other couples. Our native Israeli friends are history buffs well acquainted with the area and Eli’s story, so picnic in tow, it made for another perfect day. Our first start was the old checkpoint separating the Lower Golan from the Upper Golan. There was an abandoned building that served as the Officers’ Club -a place Thaabet frequented to get the latest military info.
Traveling the wild grassy plains of the windswept barren Golan is always an adventure for me. In many places there are still minefields planted by Syria before the Six Day War. The IDF is working to clear them out now, field by field. Fortunately the minefields are all well mapped out and marked with barbed wire and warning signs. Military bases dot the landscape, and frequently you can watch tanks and soldiers in training. Surreal is a grand word to describe the Golan. Besides the many army bases, it is a place where the cattle roam (Angus ranches and real cowboys on horseback!!!) and the antelope, wild boar, and wolves play. It’s a countryside patchworked with fruit orchards, vineyards, wineries, and Druze villages. Ancient ruins are scattered among the basalt rocks and on high cliffs just east of the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee.
Our next stop was a small Syrian outpost, mostly a bulwark of rocks and trenches – but with great views to the valley floor below. Today there is a modern sculpture of Eli looking out in all directions. The face that points towards the Galilee is the only one with an open mouth and large smile.
We drove north a few kilometers until we reached Tel Facher, once the main outpost of the Syrian command in the Heights. This is where having Gabi as a guide was an optimal experience. He explained that the Arabic armies were closely allied with the Nazis during World War II. Both nations were united in their hatred of the Jews and of the Jewish Homeland. As the Jews drained the Upper Galilee swampland, and worked the land in the 1930s and 40s, the Germans helped their Syrian compatriots to enforce their bunkers. The Nazis were experts at reinforcing the concrete with basalt… basalt from the Golan was shipped by Syria to Europe to help the Nazis build their underground shelters. Basalt is one of the strongest naturally occurring rocks, making the bunkers bomb resistant. Gabi explained that the Syrian officers would lock their soldiers in the bunkers at night so they would not desert. Because of the impermeable bunkers and the information relayed to the IDF by Cohen, the only way to effectively capture these troops during the Six Day War was through hand-to-hand combat.
Knowing this, the IDF specially outfitted the tank treads on their Merkava and Sherman tanks. They were modified from tanks with spring suspensions to tanks with hydraulics enabling maximum torque so their suspensions would not be torn up when hitting the basalt rock and concrete bunkers. Syrian tanks -were Russian built with suspensions too low to the ground. It tore up the tanks, rendering them useless. Abandoned Russian tanks still dot the landscape.
At the pinnacle of the hill/outlook at Tel Facher is a monument to all the troops that fell in this battle of the Six Day War. It’s quite sobering to read the names and ages of the fallen IDF soldiers. Today, it’s a site where army groups and school groups come for a lesson in Israeli history. My son’s military base was right up the road from Tel Facher, and he was in one of the groups that visited the site.
From there, we drove up to Israel’s border with Syria. Har Bental is a high mountain outlook with sweeping vistas overlooking the border wall, Syria and Quneitra. Visitors here can have a lovely meal at Coffee Annan and walk around the old IDF outpost listening to a prerecorded commentary in English. You can explore the trenches dug by the Syrian troops and walk through the IDF bunkers, now abandoned. In years past, we used to hear the sound of artillery coming from Syria, as rebel factions were shooting at each other. Today it is eerily quiet and oddly safe since the most recent Syrian Civil War has moved out of the area. Today it also serves as a UNDOF outlook and was the perfect place to spread out our lunch. There are numerous picnic tables dotting the area.
Just below Har Bental is what the IDF kids call the “Russian Hospital,” even though it is not Russian and was never a hospital. It was the office complex for the Syrian army. A grand building in its day, with a majestic, sweeping staircase, the building was host to grand parties, diplomatic meetings, and military planning. It was a place very familiar to Thaabet – he frequented this building many times, gaining access to Syrian military secrets. Today it is a bombed out, gutted shell, covered in some beautiful graffiti. I walked the halls taking pictures and imagining Eli Cohen confidently striding beside me.
Because the Syrian high-ups knew there was a leak in their intelligence, and that it was coming out of Damascus, they launched an all out effort to locate the source… never suspecting Eli Cohen/Kamel Thaabet. Radio silence was imposed – the electricity cut block by block each night in order to find the spy. Radio transmission to Israel was intercepted as Cohen tapped out his message. They knew it came from his apartment complex, but couldn’t charge him as a spy – to save face. Cohen was brought in to the ‘Russian Hospital’ for interrogation – under intense torture. He was brought to trial in Damascus. Cohen was not afforded a defense attorney. He was convicted on illegal entry into the Syrian headquarters without permission. A mandatory death sentence was imposed on anyone who entered the secure area under false pretenses. That’s what they got him on: being a civilian in a military area. Israels’s most effective spy was hung publically in the Damascus town square May 18,1965, the photos sent to Israel. His body was never returned, and supposedly no one knows where it is. His wife, Nadia, has made several attempts, along with the Israeli government, to have his body released, all unsuccessfully.
Not far from Bental, near the Syrian border, a monument has been erected to his memory. It is a representation of his wife and three small children looking out across the now-peaceful plain towards Damascus waiting for Eli to return. It’s a bit surreal to know that Damascus is a mere 36 miles from this spot.
Eli Cohen was the quintessential Israeli. He was dedicated and loyal to his beloved country, to the point of sacrificing his own life. His work was beyond dangerous. Even though he dearly loved his wife and children, and was fully aware that at any moment his cover could be blown, his desire to serve his country was his overriding motivation. The intelligence he transmitted was invaluable. He successfully infiltrated the highest levels of the Syrian military and government, providing Israel with the most important detailed information. People. Places. Numbers Strategies. Cohen’s information would enable the IDF to capture the Heights from Syria and be victorious in the Six Day War.
“I do not regret what I did and if I do regret anything, it is what I could not accomplish.” -the last words of our man in Damascus, Eli Cohen