Let’s Get Pickled!

O.K. Four spinal surgeries in seven months and I’m pretty much done! Yup. I managed to do a short desert trip in early December and the rest of the time it’s been Indoorsville. I’m ready to climb the walls… only I’m not up to climbing yet. I just got home again from the hospital last week. I’m ready to … let’s just say it’s time to GET PICKLED!!!!! Together. Please join me. The more the merrier.

You see, Israelis have this mad love affair with pickles. It seriously reminds me of that ”Portlandia” episode, ’We Can Pickle That.’ They seem to pickle just about everything that doesn’t move on its own here. Each cultural community has its own specialties and preferences. The Ashkenaz and Russian/Ukrainian/Slavic peoples have the more-familiar sauerkraut and pickles, very delicious and easy to make. Russians make big, huge jars of pickled tomatoes that are incredibly garlicky and totally addictive.

Every single falafel stand here has its own accompanying pickle bar. Inside a light fluffy pita, humus is spread. Then you select a couple kinds of pickles, then in pops the hot falafel balls, more pickles or ”salat, (chopped veg),then more balls, some fried eggplant or chips (french fries), more kinds of pickles, topped with techineh or amba, my fave, which is a pickled mango sauce. This is street food at its best. And cheapest. A normal falafel sandwich, bursting at the seams, will set you back about $5 with drink. And it’s always a serve yourself pickle bar. So grab a plate and PILE IT ON!! If it’s too early for falafel, get a sabich, also served in a pita, but with hard boiled egg, boiled potato, fried eggplant, humus, techineh, spicy schug sauce and PICKLES!!!

Some of the ’peek-leem” here are as simple as thin slices of red onion marinated in vinegar with a little sumac. Others more complex, like the bright neon pink turnip pickles, which I was hesitant to try at first, but now love. Their pink color comes from beet juice. There’s a pickle that’s ubiquitous here: a fluorescent yellow veg mix, also a street food stand staple. Oh and just about every person from every culture has their own to-die-for version of a carrot salad or carrot pickle. All of these healthy choices are served as part of the pre-appetizer course when you go to a restaurant in Israel. It’s much healthier than filling up on bread… at least you don’t feel as guilty for ”spoiling your appetite” before you even see a menu (Jewish moms are notorious for telling everyone, not just their kids but their husbands, their kids’ friends, the guy at the next table, ”Don’t snack or you’ll spoil your appetite!!”).

The menu hasn’t come yet, so don’t spoil your appetite!

The Ethiopians, Indians, the Mizrachi (from the MidEast), and Sephardic Jews from North Africa/ Spanish speaking countries have pickles that are honestly five alarm hot pickles. They will burn your lips off so you don’t have to worry about spoiling your appetite. I’ve even had the most delicious pickled fruits from Middle Eastern kitchens. They are not spicy hot, but sweet, sometimes sweet and sour and fragrant with ginger, cloves and cardamom.

Russians, Eastern Europeans, Ukranians and Ashkenaz eat pickled fish in the morning with their dairy breakfasts. I was actually raised on pickled herring in cream sauce, pickled herring with onions on top and pickled whitefish. Pickled sardines are a hit among those Eastern Europeans – swimming in a rich tomato sauce. I’ll pass, thank you. It seems you can pickle everything! Not that I’d care to. Also pickled cheeses are not unusual to see floating in tubs or jars in the dairy section of local markets. These pickled cheeses are spread on breads for breakfast. Always served with hard-boiled eggs.

So I sent off my dear(poor) husband who’s been waiting on me hand and foot, to trot around town taking pictures….of pickles! I told him to hit up the street food stands and anybody or anything that looks pickled. It’s like a scavenger hunt, Honey. And while he’s hunting I’ll be sharing recipes with you at long last. These are recipes I’ve been collecting over the past few years. I’ll seriously ask ANYBODY for a favorite recipe. It’s a great ice-breaker and even greater way to break the culture barrier. And who doesn’t love a good crunchy pickle? They’re incredibly healthy. Low calorie. Easy to make. And delicious. Some of the recipes are lacto-fermented like the cucumber pickles, which means they do wonders for your gut flora. So, here goes:

This first recipe comes from a woman I follow on Instagram. Malka Channah Amichai is a wife, mother of four young children, social influencer, doula, teacher on women’s issues, cowgirl, potter, cook. You name it, she does it all. In Yiddish this is a balabusta, the highest compliment, imho. Malka calls herself ’The Bohemian Balabusta.’ Her sense of style is incredible. Modern Orthodox hippie chick. American. Israeli. Funky. Fun. This is her pickle recipe.

HOMEMADE PICKLES

These really are amazing! Crisp, fresh, garlicky, sour, salty….these pickles from bohemian balabusta are my grandfather’s kosher pickle recipe. So good, so easy, and full of good bacteria for the tummy!

STEP 1: The Mixture In a large jar add- 1 liter jar of natural spring water
1 TBSP coarse salt

STEP 2: Shake mixture until all the salt is dissolved.

STEP 3: Wash very well 15-20 mini cucumbers or as many will fit nicely into the jar..Add to jar of brine.

STEP 4: Add 1 tsp black peppercorns

Several sprigs of fresh dill

STEP 5: Add in a bunch of peeled, smashed garlic cloves (5-8 large) * *STEP 6**: make sure everything is submerged under salt brine so it doesn’t mold!!! MalkaChannah hack: she uses a small, clean glass jar inside the larger jar to weigh everything down. Screw the lid on top lightly. MalkaChannah says, ” Let them sit in a cool place on the counter for at least four days. It will ferment and be super yum.” The longer they are left, the better, and if the water seems a little cloudy, it’s just fine.

You can’t walk into a falafel or shawarma joint here without noticing those BRIGHT PINK STICKS OF SOMETHING!??! What are those things??? I avoided them like them like the plague for the first couple of years that I was here. They just didn’t look natural! But they are, in fact, both natural and delicious! The lowly and ugly turnip that many people avoid or cook and bash are amazing made into pickles, served with sandwiches, deli meats falafel, shawarma…. and are stunning in a little dish on a veggie or cheese board.

Israeli Pickled Pink Turnips

No, they don’t have food coloring or any additives at all. Their gorgeous, vibrant color comes from beets! The flavor is sharp like a radish, a little sour, slightly sweet, a little salty, and fairly addictive. I got the recipe a couple years ago from our neighborhood falafel guy (after much coaxing. Shlomi, see, I’m sharing your recipe just like I said. You’re famous!!). They are really easy to make and keep in the fridge indefinitely. And they are really cheap too. Did I mention gorgeous?

ISRAELI PINK PICKLED TURNIPS FROM SHLOMI

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups water
  • 1/3 cup coarse salt
  • 2 TBSP sugar
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 1 bay leaf, crumbled
  • 1 beet
  • 4 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 lb/0.5 kg turnips, about 3 medium-large turnips

Peel the turnips and the beet and slice into large strips. Bring water, salt, sugar and vinegar to a boil and stir until the sugar and salt are completely dissolved. Let cool and pour into a large glass measuring cup. Add smashed garlic cloves, peppercorns, bay leaf into a large 3 cup canning or pickle jar. Add the veggie strips, with a layer of beets on top and bottom and turnips in the middle. Pour the liquid brine in the measuring cup over the veggies in the jar. Make sure the veggies are completely covered by the brine. When the liquid is room temp, screw on the lid and refrigerate. They will be ready … and gorgeous… after 5 days. Enjoy!

England has their pickalili. The people of India have their chutneys and raitas. In the Deep South of the United States, it’s chowchow. Torshi is prevalent in Iraq and Iran. And Koreans enjoy kimchi. The entire world over, we all love pickled veg prepared in various ways, depending on what we have at hand and depending on our individual palates. When the summer garden yields its abundance, our grandparents were wise enough to preserve and put up the harvest for use throughout the year.

The next recipe is also found throughout Israel. It’s a staple food and anchors every condiment stand at the falafel shops. Each person has their own recipe depending on what vegetables are available. Always cauliflower! Sometimes carrots or white cabbage, red or green pepper, sometimes celery. You can also add jicama or kohlrabi. Stunning on a crudite platter or cheese board. The veggies are slightly crunchy, vinegary tangy, and very healthy. If you like a little (or a lot) of heat, you can add pepperoncini peppers. Some people add cut-up pickles. In Hebrew the word for sour is khamootz. So we ask for khamootzim and point to which one we want. Usually there are several. The yellow, the white, the orange, purple or green.

Israeli ”khamootzim”

ISRAELI KHAMOOTZIM (Pickled veggies)

Ingredients:

  • 4-5 liter pickle or canning jar
  • 1 head of cauliflower, cleaned and broken into florets
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced into thin coins
  • 1 very small head of cabbage, washed, cored and chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 2 red bell peppers, cleaned, cored and sliced
  • 2-4 pepperoncini or more, to taste (optional)
  • 4-6 cloves garlic, without skins
  • 1 well-washed lemon, sliced thin
  • 8 cups water
  • 2 TBSP coarse salt
  • 2 1/2 cups white vinegar
  • 1 whole lemon, squeezed, seeds and pulp strained out
  • 1/2 TBSP Curcum (Turmeric powder)

Boil the water for 5 minutes. Add in salt, lemon juice, vinegar and turmeric, stirring well to mix. Add all your chopped veg into the empty jar. When room temperature, pour the brine into your jar. IT IS IMPORTANT THAT ALL VEGETABLES ARE SUBMERGED COMPLETELY UNDER THE BRINE!!! Screw the top on and place in the refrigerator. It will be ready after 4 days.

Now, to switch gears and go to a different type of ”pickle.” Actually these are not brined over a period of time, but are served fresh and bright, right out of the garden. I’d call it a salad, but here there part of the ‘picklim’ family. They are served in the morning at breakfast, always present at table along side Israeli Salad, which is chopped cucumbers and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, and sprinkled with salt. I would love to pack this in a little dish and take it on a picnic. Great on a hot day when you don’t feel like cooking.

Light Israeli Salad/Pickles

Ingredients:

  • 3 large cucumbers, washed well and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 lb red radishes (1 large bunch)
  • 4 sprigs, fresh dill, chopped
  • 1 red/purple onion, thinly sliced
  • 5 TBSP freshly squeezed lemon juice, pits and pulp strained out (1-2 lemons)
  • 1 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • optional- shredded mozzarella ( or crumbled feta)
  • 1//2 tsp freshly cracked ground black pepper

Thinly slice the cucumbers (unpeeled), radish and onions. Place in a pretty, shallow bowl. In small bowl, mix the oil and lemon juice, salt, pepper, and dill. Pour over the sliced veggies. Toss together, incorporating dressing over salad. Let stand, covered, in the fridge for about a half hour and serve cold. If desired, you can top with shredded mozzarella or crumbled feta.

O.K. so I’m running low on battery and at the point of exhaustion. John has just come home with the photos and stories of the people he chased down asking to take a photo of their food. For those of you who know him, you can just see my jovial husband doing this. He also brought this great ”mana falafel in picklim.” I’m ready to GET PICKLED!!!

Aliyahversary #7!!🎉🥳🍾

I really can’t believe it’s been 8 years now since my 5-week pilot trip to Israel (to see if moving here could work out). Nor can I fathom how 7 years have gone by so rapidly, which marks the time we’ve been here. It’s been a time of discovery, of taking advantage of some great opportunities. It’s been a time of struggle and victory, a period of intense learning and of adventure.

The very nature of adventure is the unsure nature of the results. I’ve learned that sometimes things will go wrong. Very wrong. Sometimes when least expected. Like learning a new language and not having a clue how things work in a different country. Opening bank accounts, reading mail(bills) and emails to find an alphabet completely different than English. A written language with no vowels means one’s vocabulary must be at least as strong as one’s reading skills to get context. There’s an Israeli joke that goes like this: an Oleh chadash (new immigrant) asks someone to read his mail for him; an Oleh vatik (immigrant) ignores the mail he can’t read; Israelis just throw everything in the trash.

Yet, I’ve learned the language enough to get by with some degree of proficiency, although I’m still a long way from fluency. Usually the situation goes like this: “I’ve got this!” I know exactly what I’m going to say. Perfectly. Seamlessly. Without an American accent. Confidently initiating a conversation, I’m quickly blown away by the machine-gun-rapid-fire response in Hebrew that leaves me with mouth wide open and scratching my head. ”Again? I didn’t quite hear it with these stupid masks,” I reply in Hebrew. ”Do you want me to speak in English?” the person asks -if I’m lucky. It’s a humbling experience. Israelis, whether native or those who have been here for many years are usually very quick to correct my grammar. They just love to help. So it’s totally normal for me to have a four-minute lesson at the checkout counter with six other people in line behind me. And also normal for two or three of those people to pipe up and give their teaching on how to remember conjugations and declensions. It’s the Israeli way. Everyone has their own correct opinion on every subject and will not be swayed a millimeter. And only in Israel, when you buy an item, be it a car, a new skillet or shirt, will the salesperson/cashier wish you a ”titkhadshi” which has no direct English translation. The closest I can come to this blessing is ”Use it in good health” or ”Enjoy the new item.” I just love this!!

We have learned to be careful, especially when a person says ”I speak English.” Numbers are especially horrendous for them. There was the time when we were buying a case of wine at a particular winery because the sommelier assured us of a 50% discount if we bought 12 bottles. The 50 was actually 15. When we corrected him, he insisted that’s what he said. 50. We even wrote it down. 15%. ”Yes.Yes. I know. 50.” Another example: When we meet someone at ten thirty, they say ten and a half. “Your appointment is four and a half.” OK then…

We are learning to decipher our own mystically encrypted language (English spoken by Israelis). It was only this year that I finally understood the beauty salon owners who style the long, silky-smooth black tresses of the young Israeli women. They call it ”fen.” As in ”You want me to make you fen, Mommy? I make you fen. You be young and sexy, Mommy.” Actually, they are asking me if I want my hair blown out… as in FAN. Using a blow dryer. Fen. Oooooohhhhh, now I understand. Make fen. Use the blow dryer. And what’s all this ”Mommy” business? I hear it all the time. Not just from men, but among the women, too. That word here has nothing to do with being a mother. It’s a term of endearment. Short for mamtoKAH or ”My Sweet.”

In the beginning even the most mundane tasks were extraordinary feats. You have to LEARN how to ask for a bilingual menu. Just think about that one for a minute. We’ve tried fending for ourselves many times. More often than not, we’ve learned to ask for help – especially when it comes to things medical. Finally we’ve learned to navigate the beaurocracy of the socialized medical system with all its paperwork, forms, and gatekeepers. We’ve learned to lean on other more ”in-the-know” friends to get us in with the right/best doctors. Here it’s called Protektzia. It’s very necessary. Coming from the rather cushy life, hospital experiences have surprised us. It’s bring your own towels, water pitcher/bottles, straws, emesis basin, food, even babysitter who will be there 24/7 to advocate for you. It’s a necessity here. It’s not a luxury. Everyone has a family member or paid mittapellet to stay with them bedside.

I’ve found humor in the most unexpected things. The word for the hospital gown… you know, the one that never comes together where you want it to… is called a keTONnet!!! In Hebrew, this is the biblical word for robe or tunic, as in ‘Joseph’s father, Jacob gave to him a many colored ketonnet.’ I love this!!!! And the nurse thought I was absolutely nuts when I proclaimed “ketonnet?!?! ketonnet??? k’mo Yosef?????” Or when the anesthesiologist says ”I’m going to put you to sleep,” but in Hebrew it’s the same phrase for euthanizing your pet. ”I’m going to put you down now.” Not particularly something you want to hear before your operation. It requires a world of trust in the doctor and faith in the Almighty. Still, there’s nothing like being in a clinic or a hospital and everyone wishing you a speedy recovery, a “feel good,” a ”quick return to health,” or a blessing of G-d that you will be well and the treatment successful… even if it’s for a check-up. Even the security guards and janitors wish people to be well. I think this is humorously precious.

Speaking of Israelisms and Biblical references, the Hebrew language has no real curse words. There’s lots of slang that has been introduced into the culture recently, mostly among the young, from different cultures. But I think it’s pretty funny that to say, ”Go to hell,” is “l’azazel.” Biblically, the azazel was the scapegoat that on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It carried the people’s sins out into the desert wilderness (off a cliff). And while I’m on the subject of remission of sin: the word ’kappara’ in the Biblical sense is that which covers or is a propitiation for sin as in Yom Kippur, Day of Covering(sin). When someone wants to say ’Oh my goodness!’ a lot of times it’s ’Oy, kappara!’ Also the word kappara is an endearment for Sweetie. A guy will call his girlfriend or wife ’kappara.’ Another idiom that everyone says is ’Barukh haShem’ (praise the Lord). It’s used for a myriad of responses. “How are you doing?” – “Barukh haShem, all is well.” “And your final exam?” ”It’s over, barukh haShem!” The airport: “The lines were small, and, barukh haShem, I got through in no time.” The other prevalent phrase is ’b’ezrat haShem’ or with G-d’s help. ”And your final exam?” ”I’ve studied. B’ezrat haShem, I’ll pass.”

It’s the only country where people paste signs up on their back windshield telling everyone to keep the Sabbath holy. Where the mud flaps on trucks do not have sprawling naked women but the Hebrew phrase, ”There is nothing else but G-d.” It’s like the Deep South in the United States you see billboards saying ’Jesus saves.’ Here there are billboards announcing the imminent arrival of the Messiah. And if you go to Jerusalem, be prepared to see several Jesus figures. Barefooted, white robed, some with donkeys, others wearing crowns of thorns. For reals! There’s a documented condition here called Jerusalem Syndrome. Pilgrims visit the Holy City and become so absorbed in the milieu that they have mental reality breaks. You must Google it.

There was the time when my car completely broke down. It was cold and the rain was coming down in buckets. I was alone. In the industrial sec of Haifa. And it was getting dark. Somehow I managed to call the tow truck myself. I explained where I needed to have it towed. But then things took a turn. The tow company said they would be there between two and four hours from the time of my call. Leave the keys under the mat, the door open, the hazards blinking. What could I do? It involved complete trust. I called a friend to pick me up and I hoped my car would still be there when the tow guy came. But I did it! All by myself! In Hebrew! And it worked!!!!! Victory!!!

We’ve learned to become very flexible. To be open to the experience, to the journey. There’s literally something new and exciting in every little village, around every corner. Israel is ancient. It has a lot of history. We’ve spent the past 7 years really studying Scripture – and then going to the places we read about to put ourselves in that exact spot. How did it feel to be sitting at the oldest, pre-Canaanite gate/entrance to the city where Abram rescued his kidnapped nephew, Lot? What must it have been like to cross the Jordan and enter into the Promised Land? To watch Elijah go up in the whirlwind? To see Naaman the leper get cleansed by dipping in that very same spot seven times? To be there as John was immersing his followers in the River Jordan? We’ve seen ”the high places” with their altars to pagan gods and we’ve seen Asherah poles. We’ve studied Roman history and have visited some of the Decapoli, beautifully preserved ruins of Roman towns with their markets and bathhouses (we studied the anatomy of a Roman town when I homeschooled, so this has been pure delight for me). We’ve climbed on and in aqueducts. Walked through old Crusader ruins. Squeezed our bodies into ancient first century hidden tombs in the mountains. It’s a country where the ancient meets the medieval that kisses the modern. Where an old Crusader hall is now an ice cream shop and an Ottoman khan is now a nightclub.

It’s the only country I know of where the street graffiti has Biblical connotations.

A walk in the shuk (covered open-air marketplace) is filled with the smells of fish, of ripe fruit, freshly baked breads, exotic spices (those colors!!!) and incense. The smell of fruity tobacco is prevalent here, in the shuk where vendors hang out at the entrance to the shops smoking their hookah pipes or playing sheshbesh (backgammon). In fact everywhere you go, whether to the shores of a lake or a restaurant, you will see the men smoking their nargila pipes of tobacco. Israel is a place where grilled cheese sandwiches are called ”toasts” (Anglicized Hebrew) and our toast in Hebrew is actually grilled or roasted bread. Be forewarned! It’s a place where dogs and cats and peacocks roam freely in many restaurants up here in the North. Where golf carts mix in with the regular cars on the streets, slowing traffic for ages. Where the honking of horns is used both to communicate ”nu? the light will soon turn green. Pay attention. Just sayin’” To ”Hi there. How ya doin’?” Or ”Move over NOW!!” The drivers are more than very aggressive here. And my husband has become one of them. In this instance, he’s truly learned to live like an Israeli. If you can’t find a parking spot, use the sidewalk. Make one up. It’s an empty space. Only in Israel have we seen motorized wheelchairs with oxygen tank on the side rolling along the side lane of the freeway, again stalling traffic for miles.

We’ve learned to at least appreciate the different foods here. Israel is a cultural melting pot. Highly spiced North African dishes; stuffed, cooked vegetables from the Middle East; healthy Israeli chopped salads for breakfast; pita bread so fluffy it feels like you’re eating a cloud; shawarma; falafel; firey hot sckhoog sauce; and tangy mango pickled amba sauce are some of the highlights. We’ve gone to restaurants astounded by the sheer amount of food put on the table. I’m not joking when I say there are up to 30 different bowls and small plates of salads, pickles, relishes and dips placed in front of you even before you order the ”real food.”

Hospitality is a real art form in the Middle East. When we go over to someone’s place for just a quick visit, we are usually offered coffees, teas, lemonade, plates of appetizers or snacks, dessert cakes or cookies. We’ve learned that it’s truly rude to say no. Even at places of business – like our printer or the insurance guy – it’s customary to be offered Turkish coffee in teeny tiny paper cups, served black or with sugar. Also bourekas (filo pastries filled with cheese and spinach or mushroom and potato)and plates piled high with little pastries or rugela, bowls of dried fruits or nuts. And for John: ”You want smoke? Cigarettes? Nargila? (hookah)” The first 15-30 minutes of a meeting is chat. Current events. Family. Weather. Travel. This has been very different for us, as we are often reminded: ”You Americans. Always in a hurry. It’s always rush, rush, rush. Never time to enjoy.” There have been dinners that have lasted until 2 am with the guests absorbed in conversation as each course is leisurely brought out. A bite of this. A bite of that. And lots of talking. A restaurant table is reserved for the evening at many places. At first we thought the waiters were completely inept and negligent, as in no service at all. Now I understand that they expect you to enjoy your meal and the company. If you want something, you will ask for it. A different culture indeed.

Yes. It has been difficult. My husband and I both have battled cancer successfully (b’ezrat haShem) since we’ve been here. We’ve dealt with family crises. We’ve missed the wedding of one daughter. We’ve become grandparents several times and over thousands of miles. Thank goodness for FaceTime! But we love it here. We have enjoyed the seasons and now measure time by what is growing in the fields or what is available at market. We’ve gotten to know the history here and the many different people. We can now discuss the political scene with some understanding, realizing that every person has their own opinion and everyone thinks their opinion is the only correct one. We’ve enjoyed long nature strolls and days at the beach with a Roman aqueduct as the backdrop. Lazy mornings at a cafe are normal. I think our outdoor cafe culture rivals that of Paris.

Before the days of lockdowns, we were able to travel fairly easily and inexpensively to Europe. A flight to Italy is only a couple hours. It takes about 4 1/2 hours to fly nonstop to the UK. John and I have finally been able to fulfill our lifelong dream of traveling. So far we’ve been able to visit Scotland, Amsterdam, France, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic (7 times now. Prague is amazing!) Israel is a great point of departure and there are many more places we wish to see. We’ve hosted many visitors from abroad and look forward to the days when we will be able to have more guests. One of the best parts of our moving abroad has been seeing how our son has grown and developed. When we came, Max was 16. He’s since mastered the language, gone through army service, made friends, and is doing incredibly well in university. It amazes me at how well he has adapted to life here.

So after seven years, we are no longer considered new immigrants. We have settled in and have grown accustomed to the pace of life here. Where things run from Sunday morning to Friday afternoon, after which there is a complete shutdown for Shabbat. We know the year’s rhythms; we drive back roads, sometimes faster but always more scenic; we have learned to decipher and understand our new language; we have met and made friends with many different people from many different countries and cultures. Our prayers seem more relevant and intimate now. It is indeed holy land. I have returned to a Land my ancestors prayed about and dreamed of for generations. An ancient and ancestral homeland with many modern wonders and modern problems. A Land where the past bumps up against high rises and high tech. A Land surrounded by enemies who wish to see us nonexistent. Yet we stand up and defend ourselves. A Land bringing help and hope to the world. John and I are often asked when we are moving back to the States. Our answer: This is our home now.
A joyous and meaningful Pesach and Easter to all my readers! May we enjoy days of true peace soon.

A Micronation Within Israel & Parties on the Beach

As I always say, Israel is the most random country. There are adventures and interesting spots in the most unsuspecting of places. It’s another reason we enjoy living here: we never know what we’ll find next. I had heard rumors of Achzivland when I was in high school from friends’ older siblings who’d returned from Israel. Then the stories popped up again when we were volunteering with the army. There were tales of rock concerts, hippies, free love on the beach, artists, celebs and draft-dodging wanderers in the 1960s-1970s.

Achzivland is actually its own independent country, the smallest in the world, on the shores of the Mediterranean just 3 miles south of the Lebanese border. The story begins with Persian-born Eli Avivi who immigrated with his family to Israel when he was a baby during the Palestinian Mandate, a time when the British ruled the nascent Jewish state. Always in love with the sea, Eli, who was in his early 20s, was a smuggler. He was involved with the underground navy, pre-IDF: really just a few old fishing boats, a couple freight barges and a decommissioned cruise ship. The British had imposed strict quotas on the number of immigrants after World War II and the numbers were quite low, so Eli would take a small fishing trawler from British Palestine to Cyprus and other European locations to pick up Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and smuggle them at night across the Mediterranean back to their ancestral homeland. After the British withdrew in 1948 and the newly approved (by UN majority vote) nation of Israel fought off the invasion of Arab nations in the War of Independence, Eli Avivi left Israel for colder climates. He worked on fishing boats in the North Sea, in Iceland and Norway for two years. Then he sailed to Africa. But Israel was always calling him back.

Eli returned to Israel in 1952, settling down at an old abandoned Arab fishing village on the Mediterranean Sea once known as Al-Zeb. The few stone buildings were run down, but there was a certain charm to the compound. To Eli, it was Paradise. Beautifully frescoed plaster walls and magnificent mosaic and tiled floors in each room added to the mystique. Rumor had it that the large house was owned by a wealthy Bedouin sheik and his many wives and concubines. The fishing was excellent, there was a natural-spring well, and it was close to Akko. It was quiet and remote, perfect for a solitary life. The beach-combing and scuba diving were favorite pass-times as well as scouting out the surrounding unplowed fields. Eli picked up all sorts of artifacts and antiquities, his massive collection constantly growing to include pottery, sculptures, ancient Iron Age tools and farm implements, Ottoman and Crusader weapons, glass and coins. Avivi studied the history of his ’new’ home and discovered it went back to Biblical times. It was home to the tribe of Asher and was also inhabited by the ancient Phoenicians who used to trade nearby. What more could a handsome young man want in this Garden of Eden? He was soon joined by the beautiful fashion model, Rina, who became his wife.

Technically, Eli and Rina were squatters on this 3 1/2 acre piece of prime real estate. The Israeli government repeatedly tried to take the property back, even showing up with bulldozers. After nearly two decades of battles and their refusing to leave, Eli and Rina ripped up their Israeli passports and declared their independence. They held a large press conference and became overnight celebrities in Israel. ”I fought for this country. I loved Israel. But I have no time for the government. I just want to be allowed to live on my own little piece of land, in my own place, in my own way,” he said in a television interview. As an act of protest, Avivi created the State of Achzivland in 1971 with himself as its President for Life. He established a bicameral House of Parliament consisting of Eli and Rina. The new micronation had its own flag, with a mermaid and his house as an emblem. He wrote up a constitution (“The President is democratically elected by his own vote.”), a national anthem and passports.

For all of this Eli Aviv was arrested by the Israeli police and border patrol. He was thrown into jail, but released ten days later when the judge ruled the charge ”Creation of an Independent Country Without Permission” did not exist. Still, he was hounded by the government until he brought a countersuit. The high court ruled he could have a 99-year lease.

Eli and Rina were no pushovers. A group of six Arab PLO assassins tried to infiltrate Israel from nearby Lebanon to commit acts of terrorism in the winter of 1971. The Palestinian terrorists landed their raft on the beach of Achziv on a foggy March morning. The Avivis had seen them approach from their living room window. One wetsuit-clad terrorist met up with a fully-armed Rina as he snuck into the house. Not expecting a loaded rifle and Karl Gustav pointed at his head, he dropped his gun and a bag of grenades and pita breads. Two were wrestled on the beach by Eli and disarmed. The Avivis tied up their captives and fixed a pot of hot tea as they waited for the authorities. The paratroopers, police, Golani brigade – the whole army showed up. The other infiltrators escaped inland and were later caught by the IDF. At this point, the Avivis were national folk heroes.

In the early 1970s, just as today, the world was in upheaval. It was a time of great unrest. The war in Vietnam was raging. The hippie movement was growing. Students were protesting in Europe. The Mideast was in constant turmoil. And the beach at Achzivland was just gaining notoriety. Jewish kids, whose parents sent them after high school to work on a kibbutz would end up there. European hikers and university students found out about this great, laid-back camping area and hostel right on the beach where the only rule was non-violence. They would help out around the property in return for a place to stay and a meal. Nude bathing? No problem. Free love? It was not unheard of. Drugs? While not encouraged, it was not discouraged either. The water was pumped from the well. The bathrooms were rudimentary latrines. The house had no electricity. The young people helped Eli as he constructed his makeshift second story to the house. They helped build additional guesthouses. It was a work in progress. At the time, it was an out of the way local, yet through word of mouth, Achziv attracted artists and bohemians, poets and musicians.

Israeli musicians and rock bands played free, all-night summer concerts on the beach. Soon artists and celebs from around the world were guests there. Young couples came asking Eli to perform marriage ceremonies for them on the beach. He happily complied. In the summer of 1972, the Avivis planned a large Woodstock type music festival. Young people came from Israel, Europe, America, Canada and Australia. From that summer on people from the likes of Bridget Bardot to David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Bar Rafaeli would drop in. The main house grew in size but not to any code. More bungalows were erected. Electricity and plumbing were eventually installed.

We first visited Achzivland almost three years ago to the day. It was exactly one year to the day that Eli Avivi passed away. Rina was there with several of their old friends remembering times past. Long gone ere the concerts and parties. The main house, now a museum open to the public, was in terrible disrepair. Still, it was not hard to envision groups of revelrers dancing around a fire or hanging around the salon. A few people come by to swim at the beach. But the sun-worshipping youth have now been replaced by large Arab men, their fully-covered wives sitting on the sand. We went again last year and met Ofer, helping out around the property before his army service. His parents were regulars at the beach compound years ago. He remembered the tail end of Achzivland’s glorious past.

Our good friend, Norman (now of blessed memory) had also told us of the place in its heyday. He had come to Israel the summer of 1974 to work on a nearby kibbutz. After his stint there had ended, he met a gorgeous blonde from Sweden. It was an August romance, the tale of the girl that got away. The guests and rock stars that were there. Swimming in the Mediterranean on a moonlit night. Barbecues on the beach. His ”Lagatha” returned to Sweden, he stayed in Israel… and so it goes.

We return infrequently to that idyllic beach. The large lot next door is now a national park/ lifeguarded beach where families come to picnic and swim. The strains of music have been replaced by the sounds of children. It’s a completely different vibe. At Achziv, Rina still rents out cabins called tzimmers, mostly to the locals. They are quite rudimentary, but fitting for the beach. Old timers occasionally spend a summer weekend there, chatting with Rina and recounting tales of the past. If you visit, make sure to bring your passport and have it stamped with the seal of this interesting micronation.

Old Hollywood Glamour in Israel

I love Israel for its absolute randomness. There are just so many amazingly unexpected places to discover here. I had first heard of the old Dolphin House Hotel years ago, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I had the opportunity to visit the site and learn about its history. A friend of ours took us to brunch at The Breakfast House in the little village of Shave Zion (pronounced SHAH-vay Tsee-YONE in Hebrew).

Shave Zion (Return to Zion) population 1209, is located exactly 2 miles between Akko (Acre) and Nahariyya, 5.5 miles south of the Lebanese border. It sits right on the Mediterranean Sea and is one of the most beautiful places to relax and enjoy the sun and sea breezes. It was established in 1938 by a small group of German Jews who were escaping the Nazis. In its early days, the moshav was primarily an agricultural one, growing carrots, wheat, dates and citrus fruits. Fighting off armed bands of Bedouin raiders was not uncommon in the days of the British Palestinian Mandate.

Joshua Malka (1920-2005), was born in Egypt, one of seven children born into an upper-class Jewish family. Speaking Arabic, French, English and Hebrew, he served in the hospitality sector as a manager at the Luxor Hotel in Alexandria waiting on the elites of Egypt including King Farouk. Egypt, however, was becoming increasingly hostile to its Jewish population. Joshua and three of his brothers escaped persecution, immigrating to Israel in 1948, just in time to serve in the IDF during the War of Independence. He was 28 years old.

Afte the war, Joshua, now known as ”Shua,” returned to the hotel industry. He became head of reception at the famous King David Hotel in Jerusalem. At the time, it was Israel’s only luxury hotel serving foreign dignitaries, businessmen and celebrities of the highest order. In the late 1940s, immediately after World War II, Israel saw a huge wave of new immigrants: they were Jewish refugees rising like Lazarus from the concentration camps of Europe, arriving on the shores of the newly-reborn nation with nothing but the clothes on their backs. It was an interesting time for Israel, impoverished from the war with few resources, food rationing and in most places, third world living conditions. Despite all the hardships, the people came with hopes and dreams. It was around this time that the South African movie producer, Norman Lurie started to build a beachfront hotel in Shave Zion.

The new Beit Dolfin, The Dolphin House Resort Hotel and Country Club needed a manager. Someone used to working with VIPs, serving them and catering to their unique needs. None other was more suited for this job than Shua Malka. Shua and his gorgeous wife Eva (Chava), herself a Czech refugee who had survived Auschwitz, moved to Shave Zion in 1951. They lived a charmed life. In the winter they would travel to Europe with their young daughter. At night they would scout the hottest Parisian clubs and Berlin coffeehouses for singers and dancers to entertain at Beit Dolfin. While Shua made business connections, Chava would shop for high fashion in London and Milan. They brought back the highest quality furnishings for the new hotel as well as European chefs and entertainers.

By the mid-1950s, Dolphin House had earned a reputation among royalty, diplomats and Hollywood movie stars. With ”unbeatable scenery and impeccable service,” the luxury hotel had an Olympic-size swimming pool, tennis courts, shuffleboard, library, theatre, synagogue, and activities center. Tsimmerim, private suite cabins on the beach were always in high demand year round. Besides a Kosher dining room, there was a cafe and five-star gourmet chef restaurant. There was a house orchestra, jazz band, and celebrity entertainment. It was not unusual for there to be ballroom dancing one evening, jitterbugging on the terrace the next and Israeli folk-dancing around a huge bonfire on the beach another night. Peter Sellars, Danny Kaye, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Sofia Lauren were among the most prominent regular guests. Leon Uris wrote his novel, Exodus, from a beach chair on the sand there. Later, during the filming of the major motion picture by the same name, Pat Boone, Eva Saint Marie, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward would stay at Dolphin House. Kirk Douglas first stayed at the hotel while filming ”The Juggler,” the first full-length Hollywood movie to be filmed in Israel. It was there that he ‘discovered’ the young Dalia Lavie who lived on the moshav. She told him she wanted to be a dancer, and Douglas convinced her parents to let her study ballet in Sweden. Dalia Lavie would go on to become a top model and Hollywood starlet, often playing the role of femme fatale. She is best known for her performance in the James Bond film, Casino Royale.

Beit Dolfin didn’t just bring Beverly Hills style living to Shave Zion, it raised the entire quality of life of the moshav. The resort complex employed round-the clock workers from chefs, waiters and waitresses, cleaning crews, entertainers, valets and chauffeurs, activities leaders, lifeguards, tennis instructors and managerial staff. Private tour guides would escort the guests on hikes and to historical sites throughout the land. The Malkas built a waterfront villa and were the first in Shave Zion (outside the hotel) to own a telephone, television and private car. By the mid-1960s, Shave Zion had one of the highest standards of living in Israel.

I heard the stories over what is arguably, the best brunch in Israel…The Breakfast Club cafe. We sipped mimosas on the patio – the place is always packed and reservations are an absolute must! It’s a bit out-of- the-way, but easy to find as the village only has one main street, lined with shade trees, boutiques, cafes and pubs. Their scrambled eggs on brioche served with creme fraiche and lox was to die for. My husband ordered the chavita, an omelette topped with asparagus, basil, Mediterranean vegetables and feta, equally delicious.

After brunch, we were in desperate need of a walk, so we made our way down the street to see the hotel I had heard so much about. Unfortunate is not the word. Today it is completely abandoned, fenced off, and in absolute disrepair. Sad. Sad. Sad. The bones oof the building are still there, but it is hard to imagine the glory days. We pray someone will buy and restore it to its former self, abuzz with VIPs and alive with activity. Until then, ghosts of the past haunt it halls and memories of music and laughter waft from the balconies of Beit Dolfin.

It’s a Wrap! The Art of Headcovering

Recently a good friend of mine in the States who is Catholic asked me to buy her a beautiful Israeli chapel veil for when she goes to Mass. After all, I’m sure that she thought it’s the Holy Land, so they must be sold everywhere. In all my touring the country and visiting holy sites of many different religions I have only once seen chapel veils – actually mantillas worn by a group of Mexican ladies on a pilgrimage to the Annunciation Basilica in Nazareth.

Israel is a unique place in that there are a majority of people who do cover their heads. Just by looking, one can tell which religious or ethnic group a person belongs to. Religious Jewish men wear different styles of kippah – knit, black velvet, small, large- and different styles of hats depending upon their sect. Druze men wear white knit caps or maroon fez-type turbans, depending upon their rank. And some of the Muslim men wear tight-fitting knit caps. Sometimes you will be lucky enough to see a Bedouin shepherd sporting his kaffiyeh tied around his head with black rope.

But it’s the women who really take head covering to a whole new fashion level in Israel. The married women are the ones who cover their heads here. So if the woman is religious, right away you know her marital status (secular people or hiloni as well as Christians keep their heads bare). Druze ladies are the plainest, wearing long black robes and white veils. Muslim women cover their entire heads and the neck and throat with a hijab, which gives them a very distinct look.

Orthodox Jewish women also keep their heads covered all the time. Whereas there are no Biblical or Scriptural injunctions that are given, it is a tradition rooted in ancient times. It is both a sign of respect to G-d, that one is under His authority; a sign of one’s marital status; a beautiful crown for a queen; and for some, a sign of modesty in reserving the most beautiful parts of herself for her husband only. It is NOT a sign of feminine subjugation, as the man also covers his head in the religious household.

That said, let’s move to the fun part… the fashion. The headwrap is a creative and beautiful extension of a typical Israeli look. Called a mitpachat, meet-PAH-khat, in Hebrew or tichel, TIH-khel in Yiddish, it is a single or multiple layers of scarves wrapped around the head. Sometimes a bobo is used, which is a padded pouff used to add extra volume and a wig band is essential for keeping the mitpachat in place.

Although married women of all ages wrap their heads in scarves and laces, some of the older women and women who don’t like that look for them, opt for hats. Sometimes berets in felt wool or fluffy knit are worn, others sport jaunty little caps which range from extremely casual to very dressy (weddings, Shabbat, holidays).

Not up here in the periphery where things are more casual, but in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the center you can see amazing fashion statements. I think it’s the influence of French and British Jewish women, but I’ve been recently seeing the most gorgeous fascinator hats worn by young married ladies of style. There are entire shops which just sell hair accessories… and some of the selections are very, very expensive!

The next look, worn by many ladies in the Chabad sect, is the sheitel, SHAY-tl. Be very, very fooled. These are wigs. Not yo momma’s wigs either. Beautiful, long full, silky, luscious locks which cover the head, but feel and look incredibly natural. I remember pointing out women in sheitels to my husband when we first got here and he was pretty incredulous. If you didn’t know, there’s no way you could tell. It’s now become a fun ”game” for us, especially in the larger cities. And of course, they come in all lengths, colors, textures – and price ranges from expensive to exorbitant!

So there you have it, the diverse world of Israeli fashion. One of the most popular items to buy at the shuk, the markets, here in Israel are pashminas. They are huge scarves made of lamb’s wool and woven in the most gorgeous variety of patterns and colors. Many tourists buy them to wear as shawls for cool evenings. Some use them for table coverings or even wall hangings. Jewish women collect them to use as mitpachat. I have a large basket full of them, yet I have never once seen a chapel veil for sale. Not in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem, nor in Nazareth or any other shop selling to pilgrims here. Although it is a rule that one must dress modestly upon entering a church here(no shorts, bare legs or arms), head coverings are not required. I leave you with a few more samples-

Ancient Mysteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecological Wonders for a New Year

We are about to celebrate the new year here in Israel in the middle of January. And it’s not January 1. You see, in Israel, according to the Jewish Biblical calendar, there are actually four new years – ways of marking the passage of time. Are you thoroughly confused yet??? The spiritual new year, Rosh HaShannah, comes on 1 Tishrei, a Hebrew month usually falling in September. It is commemorated by going to synagogue and praying for G-d’s blessings as we turn fully to Him. Then there’s 1 Nissan which falls in the springtime, and corresponds with the exodus from Egypt and the Passover. The first day of the month of Elul, in late summer is a new year for animals (pre-dating St. Francis by milennia) and was the time for the ancient tithing of livestock. Lastly, the 15th day of the month of Sh’vat is the new year for trees! You read that correctly: a new year’s day for trees!

Next week marks our holiday of ”tu b’Sh’vat,” in the middle of winter, the middle of our rainy season. The ground has softened, the sap has begun to rise, and the fruits are just bursting forth in their nascent stages. We celebrate the festival by eating different fruits indigenous to the Land of Israel and by planting trees. Lots of trees! And bulbs! Children are out of school and you can see groups of people everywhere with shovels, on their knees, digging holes, planting precious trees…in the most unlikely of places, too! You see, here in Israel, most people are very environmentally conscious and very much lovers of nature.

Still, it was a huge surprise for us to see what is happening in the desert during our trip to the South last month. We spent three days in the Negev, and were astounded by the modern-day ecological and sustainable miracles that Israeli ingenuity is doing there – projects that can effect the entire world for the good! About an hour’s drive south of the Dead Sea, in the Arava part of the Negev (Jordan rift valley on the eastrn border) is an area called the Badlands. That’s exactly what it looks like- an uninhabitable sandy wasteland. A land where movies have been filmed because it looks like it’s from another planet!

We were butted up against the eastern border of Israel, driving along the Peace Route. This border was created on 1 September, 1922, when the British Mandate separated Transjordan from Israel. The border in the Arava is in the center of the lowlands formed by the Syrio-African rift, a deep crevice in the earth’s crust starting in Turkey and ending in Mozambique in Africa. This rift valley was formed eons ago by the movement of the edges of two tectonic plates. On 26 October, 1944, a peace treaty between the Kingdom of Jordan and Israel was signed. Ironically, for a Peace Route, much of the area is barbed wired off because of mines which were planted by the PLO in the 1960s.

Still, the landscape was stunning. The red sandstone mountains of Edom in Jordan to the east and the white mountains of the Negev to the west frame the valley. Our first stop was Moshav Hatzeva, founded in 1965 as a farming outpost protected by the IDF. Today this agricultural community extends over 1,500 acres. Yes. In the desert! Israel is farming productively in the middle of the desert! Food is now grown here, supplying not only Israel, but also for export to other countries in the Mideast, Africa and Europe. KKL-JNF (the Jewish National Fund) built the Hatseva Reservoir which receives floodwaters that flow in the winter. Using this huge reservoir as well as desalinated and gray water, the desert is able to bloom.

John and I stopped at the Peace Pavilion, a joint US-Australian project that overlooks the moshav. From the plateau, a sea of green and what looked like water (actually the sun’s reflection on the white tent rows) stretched for miles below. We were surprised and filled with pride to see the marker adjacent to the pavilion: the funds for the development of this vast irrigation project was funded by the generosity of the Los Angeles Jewish communities. Way to go, Angelenos! All those water certificates sent as Bar Mitzvah and birthday gifts and for memorials for loved ones went here. Our dollars in action!

We just HAD to drive down to the valley floor to get a closer look. Rows and rows of beige canvas tents and white plastic greenhouses greeted us. Some were empty, awaiting new seedlings. Others were filled with all sorts of herbs, fruits and vegetables in various stages of growth. We saw cucumbers, tomatoes and beans growing vertically to conserve space. There were scores of varieties of eggplants. Strawberries hung suspended from what appeared to be white plastic gutters. Hands of bananas hung ripening in huge bunches from squat trees. Citrus fruits were nearly bursting from the branches of tented citrus groves. And the date palms! These farmers were even growing corn. In the sand! Vegetables that typically grow in the heat of summer thrive here in winter.

The farmers here use a variety of agricultural techniques. Drip irrigation, the main way of irrigation, delivers specified amounts of water directly to the root system of the plant through carefully placed hoses. Watering is also carried out hydroponically. Here the roots grow in long tubes which carry recycled and recirculated water. There are also misting systems sending microdroplets to the plants during the hottest times of day. Most is computerized to fit timed requirements. Tents not only provide needed shade, but prevent rapid evaporation due to both blistering sun and driving winds. It’s a grand experiment with equally grand results providing nutritious food to many areas in the world that would go without. Such ingenuity! And it’s all sustainable! Earth friendly!

From Moshav Hatzeva we drove to Ein Yahav, another desert farming community that is absolutely thriving! It takes a certain sort of person to live out here in the middle of nowhere, so to speak. But this date-producing moshav is growing and prospering in every way. New neighborhoods of single-family homes and duplexes (large single-family homes with a shared wall) are being built. There are neighborhood restaurants, a pub, grocery stores, clinics, post office and a new strip mall with cafes and glideria (we Israelis love our glida, or ice cream!), toy store and handcrafts shop. We saw the community synagogue, parks, neighborhood swimming pool, rec center and schools. A thriving community made from dates where children of all ages roam free, and every family drives around in little golf carts!

Not missing an opportunity to experience the local color, I went to the shopping center. i had the best glida, a soft goatmilk ice cream sprinkled with fresh cantaloupe and halvah and drizzled with techineh. Can you say Paradise? The store selling local handcrafts got me next. With an eye-catching display of soaps (CAMEL MILK soap! Hey we are in the desert!), desert-sage sticks, desert plant teas, dates, and ceramics, I gladly emptied my wallet. The prices were very friendly and quality amazing. All the people we met were friendly and all spoke English. And of course we went into the date store and bought a couple boxes of dates and a bottle of silan date honey so we could celebrate Tu b”Shvat and the wonders in the Israeli desert.

Desert Wanderings

A friend of ours up here in the north of Israel wanted to tour the Negev area for a few days before he moved back to the States. He rented a large apartment just southeast of Beersheva and said we could come down and take one of the guest bedrooms. So, why not? We jumped at the opportunity. In my last blogpost, I wrote about the Yatir Forest, an immense manmade forest planted in the desert and an organic herb farm and world-class winery there. But there were more surprises in the land of Bedouins and camels than just the Yatir Forest.

John and I have taken upon ourselves to read through the entire Scriptures in one year. And not just to read the Bible, but to visit as many of the sites mentioned as we could. We wanted to get a real feel for the Land, the People and the stories – up close and personal – to be able to internalize what we’ve been reading. What an incredible gift it has been!!! In the books of Kings and Chronicles, especially, as we read through the actual historical accounts, I kept coming across qthe term ”high places.” It was a term I just glossed over and took for granted. Tel Arad changed that.

A high tel or hill(Hebrew) rises from the wide expanse of desert plain. It is a perfect spot, once settled and fortified, for defense because it provides a 360* lookout. It is one of the high places. Tel Arad is made up of two components: at the base of the mountain are the ruins of an ancient Bronze Age civilzation dating back to the third millenium BCE with a large Canaanite city built over it, and at the top, a huge fortified city from the Israelite period and time of the kings (12th century – 6th century BCE).

Why the Bronze Age inhabitants disappeared, know one knows, but the Canaanites built over top the remnants 1500 years later. A thick, double-layered wall runs along the perimeter of the village at the tel’s base. At various intervals along the wall and at the entrances to the city were once semicircular guard towers. A deep well and cistern which collected the rain runoff provided water for this desert community. Close in proximity to the Dead Sea, the Canaanites traded asphalt from there to the Egyptians who used it for mummification. There is evidence of small one-story and two-story residences, as well as larger living complexes with severals rooms and courtyards. There was a cultic worship area with the remains of two platforms with altar and nearby basins as well as shrine areas for idol worship. Arad is first mentioned in the Torah, in Numbers 21:1-3 ”…the Canaanite king of Arad, who dwelled in the south, heard from the spies that Israel had entered the land. And he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoners…and Israel conquered them and their cities.”

Climbing up the mountain was no small feat for me, but eventually we reached the smaller, square Israelite fortress constructed during the reign of King Solomon. It was built as a royal citadel to block any invaders, Moabites and Edomites from the Southern Negev coming into Judah. Two incredibly important discoveries were unearthed here that cement Arad to its Biblical references. The first finding was a pile of 107 ostraca, pottery shards of historical account and basic bookkeeping written in Both Hebrew and Aramaic. Some contain instructions for the disbursement of grain, oil and water to the troops stationed there. Others, dated to 600 BCE, were letters written to the commander of the garrison, Eliashiv son of Eshiahu. A seal was also found here bearing his name. Another had an inscription which mentioned a ”House of YHVH” that was there.

During the period of the Israel’s kings – found in the Bible in the first and second books of Kings as well as in First and Second Chronicles – several of the rulers decided of their own volition to build their own temples, alternatives to traveling to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount for Jewish worship, sacrifice and pilgrimage. The temple at Arad is a perfect example of this. With our guidebooks, our Bible and well-marked signs (in English!), we were able to fully comprehend what we were seeing.

Not built according to the standards given by G-d to the Jewish people for authentic worship, the Tel Arad temple is completely out of scale and layout for the Holy Temple. This place was an extra-Biblical Jewish-pagan hybrid. It did have an altar for sacrifice and an inner sanctum, their version of the Holy of Holies. Two incense altars and a standing stone (the originals are now in the Israel Museum) were found in situ. The incense altars had a cannabis/frankensence remains, so was used for enhancing ecstatic states. There were two standing stones: a monument to G-d and one, a shrine to, Asherah, a pagan fertility god.

“And in every city in Judah he (King Ahaz) built high places to burn sacrifices to other gods and aroused the anger of the Lord, the G-d of his ancestors.”

– 2 Chronicles 28:25

“ In the seventh year of Jehu, Jehoash began to reign for forty years in Jerusalem. And his mother’s name was Tziviah of Beersheva. And Jehoash did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord all his days wherein Jehoiada the priest instructed him. But the high places were not taken away: the people still sacrificed and burnt incense in the high places.

– 2 Kings 12:1-3

During Josiah’s rule, the high places with their cultic worship were torn down, the temple at Tel Arad was buried, but this would only be temporary. It would be uncovered under successive kings and rededicated. Despite the warnings of the prophets, the high places were never fully destroyed. Under Israeli King Jehoash, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar would sweep down and destroy the Southern Kingdom, taking the Jewish people away captive in 598 BCE.

Centuries after the Jews abandoned Tel Arad, the Greek Hellenists, then the Romans claimed the mountaintop. Both invading armies built on top of the Hebrew’s fortress, reclaiming the parts that were still intact. It fell into disuse over the years, then was retaken by the Ottoman Turks. Eventually that, too, was abandoned.

The December sun was casting long shadows as the afternoon grew on, and we had to meet our friend in Beersheva for dinner. It was a good half an hour drive back and Marc had found a wonderful authentic Indian restaurant, vegan and kosher. It’s name Hodoo haK’tannah, Little India in Hebrew. It’s owners are members of the tribe of Menashe, whose wanderings took them to at part of the world for nearly 2000 years. Most of the Bnei Menashe have returned home to Israel in the past 18 years, and are observant Jews. We ate out of doors and the food kept coming. Most was highly spiced, but we shared dish after dish of deliciousness. After this grand adventure, I was thoroughly stuffed… and completely exhausted, but couldn’t wait to see what surprises the next day’s travels would bring.

The Desert Forest

Israel is truly a land of the miraculous on so many different levels. What was just a century ago a barren dry desert, has become through ingenuity, a powerful vision of the future, hard work and Divine Providence, a fertile and prosperous country. The people of Israel have always valued nature and green space. The early pioneers of the late 1800s and early 1900s labored under grueling extremes of temperature, lack of fresh water, malaria and Arab Bedouin attacks to drain swamps, clear rocky soil and bring irrigation to the parched land to plant fields and orchards, forests and parks.

The first Prime Minister of Israel, David BenGurion, had a dream to turn the Negev Desert into a vibrant, flourishing place where people could live and thrive. Through the generosity of donors to the non-profit Jewish National Fund (JNF/KKL), tens of millions of trees have been planted throughout the country. The most visionary and near- impossible feat, the creation of a ’green lung’ – an entire forest planted in the sands of the Negev Desert!! – has been the most spectacular, gaining recognition from environmentalists worldwide.

The Yatir Forest is named after the Levite Biblical city whose ancient ruins from the times of Joshua were discovered there. It lies south of Jerusalem and northeast of Beersheva, on the southern edge of the Hevron Mountain slope. It is the land Abraham and the Patriarchs of the Jewish faith traveled and sojourned, today the Upper Negev Desert.

The land in the upper Negev is made of loess soil. During the winter rainy season, the water creates a crust on the topmost part, causing the rainwater to run off creating flash floods. For years, that rainwater (in an area where there is typically less than 275 mm of rain per year) was basically being wasted. Using the collection techniques from the 5th century BC Nabatean spice traders of collecting the rain in cisterns combined with modern techniques, digging trenches to channel the water into man-made reservoirs, the Yatir Forest was first conceived in the late 1960s. Since then, over 4 million trees have been planted on over 7,500 acres. Many different varieties were selected for this project as the elevation changes from 1200 feet to 2500 feet above sea level. Both the temperature and amount of rainfall vary from elevation to elevation as well. Different species of evergreen trees (Aleppo pine, Jerusalem pine, cypress) as well as deciduous (terebinth, eucalyptus, fig, pistachio, jujube/Christ’s thorn, Jerusalem oaks, carob and tamarisk) have been planted. The trees grow on terraced steps with wide berms banked on each side to maximize water retention and to prevent flooding and soil erosion. Three weeks ago, we visited the region. It was spectacular to actually see what we had read about!

Most of the coniferous trees we saw were shorter and thinner than their American counterparts, but just the fact that they are able to grow at all here was incredible. Five hiking trails of varying difficulty wind their way through the Yatir Forest, including Israel’s National Trail which spans the country from North to South. The forest is an environmental wonder. Not only are their many designated hiking and picnicking areas, but the composition of the soil itself has changed. Where once was rock and sand is now richly composted loam due to the tree roots, decaying leaves and underbrush. Animals not seen in the area for centuries, like certain fox and salamander species, some thought extinct, have returned to the forest. Not only the landscape, but even the climate has changed. The temperature variations in this microclimate are now less extreme. It is cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter here, and the oxygen levels have increased, cutting down the carbon levels in the atmosphere. Scientists worldwide are now studying this ‘experiment’ in reforestation to help fight climate change.

The trees of the Yatir Forest are all tagged and the land meticulously cared for. Any unhealthy trees are removed or treated, and the underbrush is also managed. Bedouins who live in the area graze their goats and sheep in the forest. They are allowed to chop down a certain amount of timber each year for cooking and heating wood, thereby thinning out the thicker parts of the woods. The animal dung also aids in fertilizing the soil. It has become a win-win solution for all.

In the early 2000s, a 650,000 cubic meter reservoir was added to collect the channeled rainwater and assist with irrigation. In addition, desalinated water from the Mediterranean and gray water from sewage has been treated for use in orchards and vineyards. The Yatir Biological Farm, using permaculture techniques, grows vegetables, olives and herbs which are used in the manufacture of medical tinctures and essential oils. Several vineyards have sprung up in what was desert just a few decades prior. The elevation and chalky, calcium-rich soil is the perfect medium for the vines.

At the recommendation of our friend, Saher, we made reservations at the Yatir Forest Winery, located at the base of the mountain, a 10 minute drive from the forest’s vineyards. Saher makes a special 3 1/2 hour trip down from the North twice a year just to buy their wines. And now we know why. It has become one of our top four best wineries in all of Israel. John and I and our friend, Marc, were warmly greeted by Smadar who took us on a personal tour of the whole operation. The small winery began in 2000, a joint venture between local winegrowers from three tiny moshavim or villages in the forest. Today they carry on the winemaking tradition that goes back to the time of the Judaean kings, 2500 years ago. The farmers that lived in the area back then earned their livelihoods through grape and olive production, so wonderful the wine and olive oil were exported to Egypt and Rome. The current output of Yatir Forest Winery is 180,000 bottles per year, enjoyed locally and internationally. The production staff used the down time during COVID when there were no tourists to build the new visitor center and tasting room. The vintner at Yatir, Eran Goldwasser, chooses only the most select grapes grown exclusively in the region. He is now garnering worldwide attention for his output, the wines winning several prestigious awards throughout the world.

A table was set for us with big plates of locally produced cheeses and crackers, olives, nuts and dried fruits. Smadar gave generous pours as she told us about each wine. The Mt. Amasa white, a blend of Vigonier, Rousanne and three other grapes is absolutely the best white wine we’ve had while in Israel. Highly aromatic with a fruity nose with undertones of oak and vanilla, it reminded us of the California varietals that came from the Arroyo Grande vicinity. We bought a case of six bottles… the price was too good for us not to pass up. Their four reds we tasted were all complex and delicious. Great color, body, legginess and nose. The Petit Verdot, with its intense dark purple color and fruit- forward bouquet also had a rich dark-chocolate scent. Blackberries, cherries and chocolate, ripe and full gave a satisfying palette. It also came with a good price tag. We bought a case for special occasions and Shabbat.

Their flagship red, Yatir Forest, received a score of 93 from critic Robert Parker.
The 2016 combines Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, Petit Verdot and Malbec all grown regionally and selected specifically from the best grapes. Aged 15 months in French Oak, it is very drinkable now, but definitely a wine to keep for a few years. Another deep purple/crimson wine, the Yatir Forest had an amazing nose of forest fruits, fragrant leather and oakiness. The taste was spectacular! With a limited edition each year, this wine had a much steeper price.

Such magnificent wines come from vines are uniquely fit for that particular microclimate. The wines are exported to Europe, the United States, Argentina and China. All are Kosher to the highest standards. Representatives from different European and American wineries are now coming to Israel to learn from Yatir Forest on how to shift ways of growing sustainably and ecologically with respect to changing climates.

Israel, tiny though it may be, is truly a land of innovation. It is a testament to vision and perspicacity. It is a fulfillment of ancient Biblical prophecy and a modern-day miracle! As the prophet Amos wrote, ” I will restore the people Israel from captivity. They will plant vineyards and drink of their wines. I will firmly plant them in their own land that I have given them, never to be uprooted again says the Lord.”

Holiday Beauty in Northern Israel

We absolutely love the diversity that is in Israel. There are so many different cultures each with their own unique celebrations and December is certainly the month where this is most visible. This year, we set out to learn about and experience as much as possible. I invite you to come with us as we tour the North.

They say there’s no place quite like Tsfat for Chanukah. One of the oldest cities in Israel, built atop a high mountain overlooking the entire Galilee, it is a very observant Orthodox Jewish city reminiscent of 18th century Europe in many ways. At Chanukah, the whole city is aglow, bathed in the warm candlelight of menorahs perched in every window. It is the most beautiful, quaint, romantic city! Walking tours beginning at twilight are prevalent.

The smell of latkes, potato pancakes fried in oil, hangs heavy in the air as families gather to say prayers, sing songs and light candles. Children dance and sing to street musicians’ Klezmer music. Street vendors hawk trays of piping hot chestnuts and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). There is wine tasting and liquor tasting and beautiful art exhibits to see. If you are lucky, you will come across a group of children playing dreidels (spinning tops) in one of the side alleys. Old men hand out Chanukah gelt, gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins.

Klezmer music Chanukah joy!


From Tsfat, we move down the mountain to the Arab town of Rameh. Northern Israel is dotted with Arab towns: Muslim, Druze, Circassian, Bedouin and Christian. Each village has its own flavor and traditions because the people who have settled there are from different places. There is a large population of Lebanese and Syrian Christians in Rameh, which is home to Melkite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Latin Rite Catholics. On the eve of December 4, they hold grand celebrations in honor of Saint Barbara. As an aside, we used to live very close to Santa Barbara, California, and often visited the mission there, yet knew nothing about this saint.

Barbara was born in Southern Lebanon, very close to the present-day Israeli border in the early 3rd century. This beautiful young woman had a very wealthy, pagan father who kept her locked away in a high tower to preserve her maidenhood. Somehow, she would sneak away and go to a well where she met a group of Christian girls who told her about Jesus. Barbara became a secret Christian. When her father found out, he had her brutally tortured in hopes she would recant her faith. Every night her wounds would heal. Eventually her father beheaded her. There are many miracles associated with the young martyr, and she is venerated throughout the region.

The Maronite Christians of Rameh hold a Vigil Mass as evening descends on the hills and mountains of the Galilee. Afterwards, there is a candlelight procession through the streets of the village. The priest carries a gold monstrance containing a consecrated communion wafer, the Eucharist, the Body of Christ lifted up high. He walks under a canopy, the four poles held by men of the village. There is much singing in Arabic, songs about Saint ”Boorbar” that are centuries old. At the culmination of the Eucharistic processsion, a feast is put on. The main food eaten is a hot, honey-soaked, boiled wheat dish. I asked several people the significance, but it was difficult to understand, as most of the ladies I met spoke Arabic exclusively. The cooked wheat is topped with different things, mostly pomegranate arils in the shape of a cross; various nuts,pine nuts or dried coconut; raisins, dried cranberries and other fruits; candy, sprinkles, candy, sweets, and more candy,

Because there are so many immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, many people have brought their traditions with them. Many Jews married outside of their religion under the Communist regime. Many became atheists. More than a few converted or celebrated the Russian Orthodox feasts with their spouses. In Haifa, there is a large Russian Orthodox Catholic group. On December 5, they gather for the Mass and to commemorate St. Nicholas. Following the church service, the priest dresses up as the saint and distributes candy to the children. He enters the darkened church hall carrying a lit candle, representing the saint brining the light of the gospel to the people. To the adults, he gives each a tea light. Everyone gathers in a circle and sings Russian Christmas songs as each candle is lit and the room becomes brighter and brighter. That night, the children go home and leave their shoes outside the door to be filled with goodies (small candy and toys) from St. Nick.

Fr. Sergei as St. Nicholas

One of the holiest places in Christendom is the ancient city of Nazareth. This is the home of Mary and Joseph and the childhood home of Jesus. It is about a half an hour drive from our home, and we understood the city goes all out during the month of December. There are huge nativity scene displays at all the entrances to the city, as well as Israel’s largest Christmas tree and annual Christmas market. Nazareth is also home to the Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest Roman Catholic church in the MidEast. It is built over the remains of the house where the angel, Gabriel, appeared to the virgin, Mary, to tell her of her role in bearing the Messiah. The church has large displays of madonnas (statues, plaques, paintings, mosaics) from all over the world.

In the streets outside are large Christmas markets , wooden stalls where one can buy Christmas ornaments, hand-carved olive wood nativities, arts and crafts, spices, incense, holy oils, food, and of course, Santa hats and suits. By nightfall, it gets very crowded. The place is positively dripping with pork products (pork shawarma, anyone?). There are stages set up for local choirs and dancers in native costume. What would a celebration be without parades? We were absolutely shocked to hear bagpipes!! Because the Scots were here during the British Mandate period, they passed on their love of bagpipe music to the local Arab community. In Nazareth you can see ladies dancing, pipers piping and drummers drumming. It’s all part of the hoopla with fireworks every night.

There are so many Christians here in the Galilee now, and commercialism has taken over the Holy Land. I never remember seeing the Christmas shops and markets that are now prevalent throughout the region. As more money flows into the Arab communities here, upscale European and Western style stores filled with the most gorgeous decorations line many of their streets. Last night, John and I visited two exclusively Christian villages to see their decorations: M’ilya and Fassuta, right up against the Lebanese border. The streets are heavily decorated with beautiful and tasteful white lights. M’ilya is built on the top of a mountain, an old Byzantine turned Crusader village. At its highest point is Château du Roi (see blogpost 13 July, 2021, ”Living Like Kings”) and the Greek Melkite Church. There is a huge Christmas treee and nativity scene. During the weekends, there are visits with Santa and a Christmas market with fireworks.

Last night was our first trip to Fassuta. The residents are mostly refugees to Israel escaping the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s. All are Melkite Catholics. Fassuta is absolutely the cleanest, friendliest, beautiful old city in the Northern Galilee, in our opinion. John and I were only a handful of outsiders visiting, and we were warmly welcomed by Musa Gerais, the town’s treasurer, who personally led us on a tour of the village. The highlights included an old stone chapel, very tiny, lovingly renovated and restored to its original 11th century splendor.

Outside, the town was elegantly decorated. The Sha’ir home was built in1776, renovated in 2019, and arrayed in tasteful holiday splendor. Across, the street was the large MelkiteChurch with a magnificent life-size nativity imported from Italy and a stunning Christmas tree. During the weekends leading up to Christmas, there will also be Christmas markets, street food, staged performances and fireworks.

There are so many more sights, sounds, smells, and celebrations in this part of Israel. Several of the churches in Nazareth and along the shores of the Galilee host classical concerts. The Ethiopian Jewish community celebrate their holiday of Sigd, which usually occurs at the beginning of December. Whether Jewish or Christian, there is more than ample opportunity to learn of the various traditions. Haifa hosts the Holiday of Holidays, in tribute to the three Abrahamic religions and their roots in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s interesting that the main street for this month-long celebration takes place at the foot of the Bahai Gardens.