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
After our months of lockdown, opening my home/cage and setting me free has been an incredible experience. To take a friend, get in the car and start driving to a brand new location – WOW!!! There are just so many places to discover here in the Galilee region of Israel’s North!!! A few weeks ago, I decided to take a trip to Bethlehem. No, not THAT Bethlehem! The other one. Bet Lechem haGlilit – the Galilean Bethlehem. Are you totally confused yet? Just wait…
In the Jezreel Valley of the Lower Galilee, about 15 miles east of Haifa and 6 miles northwest of Nazareth is a sleepy little blip on the map, Bethlehem of the Galil. Because it is within an easy morning’s walk to Nazareth, one Israeli archaeologist is convinced that THIS is actually the birthplace of Jesus. After all, why would Mary and Joseph walk almost 75 miles over mountains and through deserts when she was in her ninth month? It kind of destroys the whole narrative found in the Gospels, but this is Israel, and there are a myriad of opinions on everything.
It did exist in antiquity and there was a Byzantine community that was established here in the 3rd century. After that, there came the Crusaders, as seen from the architectural ruins and structures built atop them. It was later re-settled by the Mamaluks and then Muslims from the Ottoman Empire, but was deserted by the late 1700s. In the 1800’s German Templars settled in Bethlehem haGlilit as well as several other places in Israel. Their distinctive architectural style – the stone houses with wooden shutters – can be seen in the photos below. In the 1930’s the Israeli/German Templars aligned wholeheartedly with the Nazi party. YES!!! We had Nazis living in Israel. How ironic is THAT??? In 1941, the British, who controlled Palestine, deported them as enemy aliens to Australia. Weirdness abounds here.
“The Other Bethlehem” is now an agricultural community of mostly Jewish families, but there are lots of Muslim and Druze residing in the area. Famous for its herb and spice farms, it’s home to Lavido Cosmetics Factory and store (we never made it as far as Lavido) and Derech HaTavlinim, The Spice Way – the largest spice store I’ve ever seen. This is unlike any other shuk or spice place I’ve ever been, and the next time we have guests from abroad, I’ll include this on our “go to” list. The intensity of colors!!! And smells!!!! So let’s go visit!!!
Let’s start with rice spice, which is incredibly popular here. Variations of rice spice are sold from burlap bags and cardboard boxes at every supermarket here. I’ve always been intrigued, but never knew how to use them. So I bought several blends and took them apart for you to be able to make at home. Recipes to follow. But who knew there were so many different ways of making rice? That each ethnicity here has a favorite blend and particular recipe?
The simple white blend in the above photo has a mixture of dried white onions, currants, golden raisins, sliced roasted almonds and sea salt. I love that they have instructions (in Hebrew) for many of the blends. This one, you add a handful to jasmine or white Persian rice as it cooks and then sprinkle some on top for crunch. The blend to the above left is a Mexican seasoning with crushed bell pepper, chile, cumin, salt, died onions, dried garlic, pepitas and crushed dried tomato powder.
As you can see, this is unbelievable, and I was in culinary heaven!! Thank goodness, most of the blends are inexpensive, and I bought small amounts of several just to try. There are Asian blends, blends with dried lentils, assorted nuts, all kinds of interesting ingredients. There is a special blend for cooking in red rice. Once mixed in your own kitchen lab, it can be stored in a tightly sealed glass jar for about six months. Sprinkle it over freshly cooked red rice and mix well. Add some to the top for extra crunch. It uses: 1/2 cup dried onions 1/4 cup dried minced garlic 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts 1/3 cup roasted, salted pecan bits 1 tsp sea salt or Kosher salt 1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
Here is one blend I took apart and has now become a favorite. It’s sweet and mild enough to add a nice flavor. Great served with chicken or salmon.
The spice blend for this is as follows. It can be stored for up to six months in an airtight jar.
1 cup dried onions
1/4 cup currants
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup cranberries
2 Tbsp minced, dried, red bell pepper
1/4 cup orange peel, diced
1 tsp sea salt, coarse, or Kosher salt (Maldon is great)
Use this with a long grain, white rice. For every cup of rice I use 2 1/4 cups water and a handful of the above seasoning blend as it cooks. You can add a squeeze of fresh orange juice. This is so absolutely delicious, and adds just the right amount of fancy.
There were dozens of za’taar blends: Druze, Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, and more. Each ethnicity having their own version. It’s made of hyssop, a thyme/oregano type woody herb that is indigenous to the MidEast, salt, and sesames with many variations. Usually, it is spread over humus, or fresh dairy products, sprinkled on Israeli salads (think tiny cucumbers and tomatoes chopped very small), and served in Druze flatbread sandwiches filled with Labaneh, a wildly popular sour cream cheese.
1 Tbsp nigella seeds (ketzach) or (back) sesame seeds
Extra virgin olive oil
Pour the goat milk into a glass or ceramic mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice. Let sit for an hour until curds begin to form. Strain the curdled milk (you can save the leftover whey water for pickling vegetables – that’s how it’s done here) in a finely meshed colander. Add the seeds and salt. You can also add 2-3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh herbs and garlic at this point OR 1 tsp za’taar. It’s optional, but wonderful. Mix together with a wooden spoon. Place the cheese curds into a large cheesecloth folded/doubled over. Tie the ends of the cloth onto a wooden spoon and hang on the faucet over the kitchen sink. This allows all the liquid to drain out, taking 3-4 hours. Unfold the cheesecloth and dump the cheese ball, which can be formed into a ball or loaf with well-oiled hands, onto a plate or shallow bowl. Refrigerate for an hour to firm and chill. Serve with olive oil and za’taar sprinkled on top. This is typically a breakfast food here, served with pita, olives, and chopped veggies. Very Galilean.
At The Spice Way, there was an entire row of different fish spices. With Lake Kinneret (sea of Galilee) only a twenty minute drive, fresh fish is quite popular here. Denis, Amnon, St Peter’s Fish, Trout are all found in abundance in the Kinneret. Ordering the fish at a restaurant, it comes to the table completely whole (skin, bones, head and tail) smothered in spices, piping hot off the grill. It’s an experience. Anyway there were so many different spices just for fish:
And of course, there were bulk dried herbs, dried fruits, and combinations of herbs and fruits to make tea infusions. A huge grinding machine for crushing sesame seeds to make techineh. Dried lemons and limes, crushed dried flowers (for Middle Eastern culinary delights), preserved citrus in huge jars; preserved fruits and veggies; grains and pulses; olives of all kinds; freshly pressed oils – the list seems endless.
I’ve never seen so many pepper blends: powders and crushes – so many shades of orange and red. Hungarian paprika; tomato, chile and bell pepper blends; smoked and sweet paprikas; hot peppers; sweet peppers; Italian, Spanish, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Middle Eastern. Craaziness! (no filter used to enhance- these are the absolute gorgeous colors!!)
There were several bowls of spice and herb blends just for different potato dishes. I bought a few and went home to experiment. This is the best recipe I came up with after “dissecting” the ingredients of one particular sack.
Potato & Onion Strata
I made this dish three times. I wanted to snap a photo, but every time my husband or son had carved more than half for themselves. Finally….
First let’s start with this mixture of deliciousness – stores in glass jar for up to six months nicely – if it lasts more than a week or two. The blend cam be sprinkled on mashed potatoes or loaded baked potatoes. Put a little dish out at your next do-it-yourself potato bar.
For the strata, I used a quiche dish, but you can use any style baking dish.
1/4 cup Extra virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced paper thin (I use my mandolin)
3-4 large yellow or brown-skinned potatoes, peeled and sliced thin
1/4 cup potato spice blend
3 large eggs, beaten
Preheat oven to 200*C/400*F. Grease your baking dish with the olive oil. Arrange the thinly sliced potatoes concentrically or in overlapping rows on the bottom. Add a layer of the onions. Sprinkle with the olive oil and the spice blend. Add another later alternating potatoes and onions, oil and spice. Do this as many times as you can until the layers are almost at the top of the dish. Pour the beaten egg over the top, very slowly, to allow it all to seep into the cracks. sprinkle more spice blend on top. Place on foil lined baking sheet and bake in oven about 15 minutes until the top browns. Cover with foil to prevent burning and bake an additional 20 minutes. Uncover dish and let brown about 3 more minutes. Don’t let it burn. Remove from oven and let set, about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
This next recipe is very Middle Eastern. I hate to claim it as Israeli, because, once again, there are so many variations based on ethnicity. It starts with a spiced chickpea which can be roasted and eaten as a low-cal, healthy snack. It can be served uncooked, mixed into a salad(think veggies, quinoa or cooked bulgar wheat). The Egyptians use it as a stuffing for hollowed out baked onions, peppers, and squashed. Yemenites use it to stuff a chicken before baking. Some people blend it up to make a humus. Quite versatile.
This uses sumac, a red berry from the sumac bush which grows in this area. The berries are died and ground into a powder. It’s a bit coarse and has a tart, almost lemony taste that cannot be duplicated. It can be found in many grocery and specialty stores outside the Middle East. It is ubiquitous here – a staple ingredient in fattoush salads.
Basic Spiced Chickpeas
2 14 oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp ground sumac
1 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne powder
1 tsp sea salt or Kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin
Preheat oven to 170*C/3608F. Heat the oil one medium high heat in a medium sized pot for about a minute. When hot, add the spices and reduce heat too low. Cook, stirring until fragrance is released, about 2 minutes. Add the chickpeas and stir to coat.Turn out onto Silpat covered or greased parchment covered baking sheet. Spread out so chickpeas cover the pan in a single layer. Bake for about 10 minutes.
These are great eaten as a snack, cold, as is. The peas turn out slightly crunchy, but have a soft center. You can add the chickpeas to a Galilean salad.
Galilean Chickpea Salad
1 cup spiced chickpeas (see recipe above)
1 cucumber, diced finely
1 large tomato, diced finely
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
1 small red onion, diced
1/3 cup parsley, chopped
1/3 cup mint, chopped
1/3 cup celery leaves, chopped, optional
Drizzle olive oil
sea salt, to taste
Combine the chopped veggies in a large bowl. Add the chickpeas and mix. Squeeze lemon using a strainer to catch pips. Add juice to chickpea mixture. Drizzle with olive oil. Add the chopped parsley and mint (and celery leaves). Stir to combine. May add sea salt to taste. Serve cold.
Another option to the above salad is to add a cup of cooked quinoa, and here in Israel, cooked freekeh(a grain) or burgil(a cracked wheat) is also a popular variation. If you are serving a dairy dish, crumbled feta cheese can also be added.
The above picture is one of the more ‘interesting’ blends. Ras-el-Hanut translates from the Arabic loosely to mean specialty of the store. Each spice shop has their own unique blend, and, once again, it varied widely depending upon ethnicity. This one contains cardamom, ground roses (really!!!), ground lavender, cinnamon, cloves, and dried ground raisins. The little sign at the bottom instructs us to add it to a kilo (2.2 pounds) of ground beef along with chopped onion and chopped cuzbara (cilantro) and salt. Mix gently until combined and form into small logs (kabobim) and grill. Or form into balls and simmer in a tomato sauce.
Now for a healthy dessert. A couple days after we visited the spice superstore, my travel buddy, Hadassah Rose, surprised me with a lovely gift –
She made a wonderful sweet, but not too sweet, healthy date roll chock full of goodies like nuts and dried fruit and mini dark chocolate chips. We finished it off in no time. Using many of the ingredients she bought that day, Hadassah gladly shared her recipe. A couple days later she brought over another adorably wrapped log, this time filled with dried pineapple, mango, papaya and coconut. Oh my L-rd!!!!
Hadassah Rose’s Date Logs
100 grams coconut oil (1/2 cup)
400 grams pitted dates (medjool) (1 1/2 cup, well packed)
1 cup desiccated coconut or 1 cup almond flour
3 Tbsp almond butter or techineh (tahini)
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 cup almonds
1 cup dried fruit (apricots, cherries, cranberries or tropical), chopped
1 cup chopped nuts (hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts)
1/2 cup seeds (sunflower, pecan or toasted sesames)
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
extra coconut, fruit or nuts to decorate
Process first five ingredients in a to a smooth, thick paste. Transfer to bowl. Mix in fruits and nuts, with oiled/gloved hands (this is sticky!!!) Smash down in parchment lined (coconut oiled) pan. Refrigerate until hard, 2-3 hours. Cut into squares; or with oiled/gloved hands, roll into log or balls. Can decorate by rolling in coconut or nuts. Wrap in parchment. Keep in fridge until ready to eat.
Perhaps this will inspire you to experiment with creating your own unique combination of herbs and spices. If you are ever out here, I’m certainly game for a return trip to ‘the other Bethlehem’ to visit Derech haTavlinim!!!!
We had heard about the graffiti wall on the Northern border of Israel with Lebanon, but had been unable to located it in day trips past. So it was with great anticipation when we drove up there with Israeli friends a few weeks ago. The world seems to have exploded in bouts of rage and rioting and baseless hatred and division over the past few weeks. This wall is most definitely a ray of hope.
Despite the fact that the Hezbollah terror group is strongly entrenched directly on the other side, with hundred of thousands of missiles (thank you, Iran!!!) pointed at us, we actually felt quite safe traveling up to Moshav Shetula. The moshav (small community – this one of about 250 people) was founded shortly after the 1967 War by a group of brave individuals forming the front lines of defense. As one man told us, “Someone has to do it. And we are here to live fruitful, quiet lives.” In fact the Hebrew word ‘shetula’ means planted firmly with roots going deep. It is a beautiful place, perched atop the mountains with spectacular views. The families earn their living mostly through farming and raising chickens, both for the eggs and the meat. Many of the residents are Kurdish Jews, who managed to escape before things got really bad. For them, just the ability to live in freedom in the land of Israel is an honor and a blessing.
In 2017, after several breaches in the security fence, and the finding of Hezbollah terror tunnels that were dug underground into Israel for the purposes of kidnapping and killing Israeli citizens, a reinforced cement wall was built along the border. Soon after, artists – Israeli graffiti artists; school children; non-profit organizations and artists from around the world were invited to decorate it. The theme: Art Over Hate/Love Conquers All. It is an amazingly beautiful sight!!! Full of bright colors, love and hope.
The above paintings are entitled “Planting the Tree of Life: Shetula” and “Come Together Right Now Over Love.” The vibrant colors express a vision of hope and peace for Jews and Arabs, looking towards a brighter future when all people can live in harmony. We are not there yet, but perhaps one day soon….
The next grouping is an homage to the people of the moshav who raise chickens. Whimsicality reigns with these three pieces of art. Honest work to feed the country’s people – noble indeed. May they enjoy many peaceful years up there raising the chickens!
I absolutely love this one. It’s a painting of Montfort Castle, just a few miles to the south. For a story on the mystery of this Crusader ruin, read my last blog post. The olives grow all over the Upper Galilee, and are one of the crops the people of Moshav Shetula grow. The olive branches are symbols of holiness (the holy oil used to light the menorah and to anoint priests and kings in Biblical times) and of peace. The blue in the background is a special color used here on roofs, gates, doors, and the tombs of holy saints. It has its roots in thousands of years of superstition and is thought to ward off demons from entering.
In the next grouping, the top painting was done by the children of the moshav. Grapes (grown in the little village), olives, and a heart shaped swimming pool to cool off on those sweltering summer days. A child’s vision of a good world. The bird in the next photo is a Bee-eater, indigenous to the area and quite necessary for pollinating the fruit trees and flowers. He’s bitten his apple into the shape of a heart (Love and Beauty Conquer All). In the next illustration, a dove of peace flies an olive branch to a young girl. And the last in this set is a whimsical depiction of colorful elephants. Check out the baby, holding a lit candle to be a light in the darkness. These illustrations are all about happiness. There is no negativity, no hate here. It’s simply wonderful!!!
Of course, there are the typical graffiti tags and pictures. What would a graffiti wall be without those??? The portraits of the two men were done by Solomon Souza, who is most widely known for his painted murals at the Mechane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem – as well as several album cover designs.
Something every soldiers looks forward to – there is actually a phone app counting down the days – is that momentous day they get to cut their choger, (pronounced khō-GAIR) which is their active military duty ID card. And here is a piece of art celebrating that:
Of course, being in the Holy Land, there is the Bible Verse from Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” This is an English translation from a youth group, B’nei Akiva. I think their English skills need a little help, but the sentiment is there.
My favorite remains the explosive colors and message of hope and love below:
O.K. I lied. It’s the blue owl. He’s called the Mona Lisa Owl, because his eyes follow you as you walk along the road. But if you look carefully at his pupils, you can see the reflection of the local mountains, opposite him.
So, there are a few other things I’d like to point out before we leave the art wall. Every few meters there was an indentation of sorts in the wall which looked out over the real electrified border fence. Several military bases are stationed within a mile of each other guarding the border. Our friend, Gabi, was able to explain just what we were looking at. There are cameras all over the place. Every square inch is under IDF observation 24/7. An extra security fence was in the process of being built around the moshav, a necessity and fact of life as to increased threat. IDF patrol vehicles and UNFIL jeeps (United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon) also passed us frequently. Exactly what good they do is hotly debated. And a gentleman who had just picked the most delicious nectarines from the local orchard stopped to give us handfuls on his way to market. That’s typical Israel.
What type of people would build homes, places to raise young children in a place like this? What does the community look like? The homes were all very nice and well-manicured with flowers and an abundance of green everywhere. There was a synagogue, community sports facilities, little general store and post office, swimming pool, amphitheater, basketball courts – typical of every single moshav I’ve visited throughout Israel. Every block had the instant emergency warning system and underground bomb shelter, may they never have to be used. Adjacent to some houses were farms, groves and gardens, with lots and lots of chicken coops on the Southern outskirts of the village. There is also a restaurant on the moshav serving authentic (Kosher) Kurdish dishes….
As we were leaving, we were stopped at the front gate by the police, border patrol, and civilian guard from the area. There had been a “security breach.” The main exit road was blocked to deal with it. We still felt safe as there were other cars stopped and no-one was panicked in the least. We were told to turn our cars around and leave through the back gates. No biggie. Later we were to find out that three Sudanese men attempted to sneak into Israel and had been apprehended.
We pray for the peace and safety of this land and for art to rule over hate.
Montfort Castle (in mid-ground) perched on a mountaintop, overlooking the Mediterranean
There are few things Israelis (both native-born and immigrants) love more than a tiyuul (TEE-ool), a day-trip, tour or hike. We had hiked up to Montfort Castle, six miles south of the Lebanese border, twice before – from different angles and with different tour-guide friends. Each time we got a different view of the majestic ruins of this Crusader fortress – and each time we got a different story. Each story was fascinating and mysterious, full of romance and military moves. And each had elements of historical truth and fact; but all three stories varied wildly.
How does one piece together truth from ruined antiquities? Each person telling the stories of the past has his or her own bias and own historical interests and specialties. Add to that a host of unsolved murders, ghost stories and tales of hauntings that have crept into the retellings, and you have quite the mix to sort out. Such is the case with Montfort Castle. The first time we made the hike was four years ago, with Shabtai, an Israeli who loved history and loved a good yarn. It was a beautiful spring day, in the times before COVID, when the trails were jam-packed with hikers of all ages. Those intrepid Israelis: babies and musical instruments on their backs, navigating the steep mountain trails like the Israeli deer one can see on the cliffs.
Shabtai had told us about this Crusader Fortress, one of several built during the 12th century by the Christian conquerors of the Holy Land – Christians bent on establishing an enduring presence in Terra Sancta. These Europeans traveled to Israel – some for religious pilgrimage; some for adventure, fame and fortune; some for conquest – to rid the land of infidels, Muslim and Jew alike; some to set up missions and colonize the area for the Church. On a steep ridgeline in the center of a wadi overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, eight miles northeast of the ancient Akko port, these French Crusader knights decided to build a fortress. It was hidden from plain view, but afforded excellent views from all directions. It was the perfect and most strategic spot for a military installation. And because it was so hidden it was the perfect location to store hidden treasure – everything from Biblical antiquities from the Second Temple in Jerusalem (think of the movies, National Treasure or Indiana Jones) to plunders of gold and silver artifacts from the Muslim sheiks to religious relics of various saints. It was all stored and buried there or in caves in close proximity to the fortress. I remember the tale he told of a handsome Christian knight who fell in love with a local Galilean Jewish girl, both young and beautiful. It went against religious practices for either of them to marry each other. As the story goes, they had a secret rendezvous at the castle on a moonlit night and fling themselves over the parapet into the cavernous wadi below rather than to live apart. Their ghosts still linger as mists on the walls on nights with a full moon.
Our friend, Shabtai, is a grand story teller. We could listen to him all day, but have learned to take much of what he says with a few grains of salt. About 45% is actual historical fact, the rest….well, it makes us want to research the true histories of the land. I’ve learned to check my old history books (from the days of homeschooling) and look for first-hand documentation, if it can be found. The histories of Josephus Flavius, the Scriptures – a working knowledge of both Tanach and New Testament are important in this land; diaries and letters from ancient Romans, Jewish rabbis and European Crusaders; old maps; and speaking with archaeologists and historians are all part of putting together the puzzle pieces.
The next time, we hiked up the wadi following the Katziv Stream. It was an early autumn hike, and the stream bed had long dried up. Avigail, our guide for this one, gave us a history lesson that seemed much more factual than our first introduction. Archaelogical excavations had revealed this was once the site of an ancient Roman fortress, as coins and Roman spear tips had been found in situ. After the Romans, the Muslim invasions of Israel swept down from the North and the East in the 700s-800s. French Crusaders first conquered the Holy Land from the Islamists in 1099. As a reward, large swaths of Israel, were gifted by the Roman Catholic Church and the Crowns of Europe to royal families. This whole northern area was given to the DeMille family of France to settle and farm. They built a castle atop this mountain and planted vines for the cultivation of wine. In the late 1100s, SalahDin, the Kurdish Muslim general, took the land and the castle from the French settlers upon his brutal retaking of the land. Enter the English and French together, who vanquished SalahDin under Richard the Lionheart. These Crusaders resettled the coast of Israel from Jaffa to Caesaria and Akko, their new capital(also known as Acre). The land where the DeMille estate was located was sold to the Knights of the Teutonic Order (Germans).
There was a great rivalry between the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller over Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Akko. Who would have control over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the holy sites and the strategic sites? The Teutonic Knights were formed as a German military order of the Holy Roman Empire to secure territory and aid pilgrims from Europe traveling to the Holy Land. They gained control of Akko, but moved to the abandoned Montfort Estate in 1229, fortifying the property with outer and inner walls and guard towers. The Teutonic Knights added a second story as well as magnificent archives and a treasury, renaming it Castel Starkenberg. In 1266, the fortress was overtaken by the Mamaluks (Muslim mercenaries from Egypt who were first enslaved by the Sunnis, but proved to be an excellent asset for their military and engineering prowess). Sultan, Baybars conquered much of the territory of the Northern Galilee, including Montfort. A siege ensued. The Crusaders were forced out and the much of the remote mountain fortress was razed. Fortunately, the Teutonic Knights were able to take the contents of the great library and the most of the treasury with them as they fled back to the Germanic territories in Europe in 1271.
Last week was another beautiful week in the Northwest Galilee. We planned a tiyuul with friends to some of the border villages and to Park Goren, a JNF sponsored park. Goren is gorgeous!!! It reminds me a tiny bit of Yosemite with spectacular views of cliffs and canyons. It’s a favorite place for hikes, picnics and campouts. Fortunately for us, the area was rather deserted and very peaceful. This time, John and I looked over the wadi to the mountain ridge opposite for the most spectacular view of Montfort Castle (see above). People are able to take the steep, almost vertical, steps to the bottom of the wadi (to the Katziv Stream/Nahal Kziv). From there it is an hour or two hike up to the ruins.
Breathtaking view to the Northeast
The snakepath to Montfort Castle
Over the ridgetop – a beautiful Mediterranean view!
Hundreds of steep steps to the wadi floor
The Katziv Stream flows through the canyon
This trip found us in the company of an amateur military historian and fascinating story teller. He explained to us that Montfort is the site of one of the greatest military mysteries of all times. The way Avi tells it, during the Second Crusade, the French wanted to establish a hidden and strategic military outpost. As soon as they saw the ridge of the Beautiful Mountain, they knew they had found their spot. It was perfect for defense: an arrow shot right into the wadi below, a rolling stone down the cliff, the high ground easily kept. From Montfort, one could watch for invading armies sweeping down from the North in what is now Lebanon. It was the perfect site for an ambush! They would also have a fairly unobstructed view down the wadi to the coast. It was decided at once to start the massive building project at any and all expense. Slave labor was recruited from both the remaining Jewish population and the Bedouins that lived in the area. Three years spent hewing massive rock and constructing the fortress, many lives lost in the process. It was only during the third year of the great building campaign that the French decided to send their scouts further up the wadi. These Crusaders had been waiting in vain for an imminent attack from the North for all those years but none had come. It didn’t take the scouts long to return. Not four miles to the north, the twisting path of the wadi became a dead end, completely blocked by the mountains, cut off at the pass!
Now why would the French build without first thoroughly scouting out the land in all directions? Who would give the orders and who would procure funds from the Pope and the French monarch? Who would release the fortune required to undertake such an endeavor? Avi says it is one of the unsolved military mysteries of all time. After the tragic discovery, he informed us that it remained a type of resort for retired military generals – that they could finish up their tours of duty with mountain breezes and gorgeous vistas without fear of enemy invasion.
As for us, it was a great tale, but will stick with Avigail’s more factual rendition.
We did learn that with advance permission, you can spend the night camping out at Montfort Castle. It is a popular spot for school trips and summer camps (although not this summer). The stream below is known for its natural beauty as well as a great shady walk for families on hot days. In the spring, the entire hillsides are covered in wildflowers. And there is a stable in the village of Hila which offers horseback rides both to the castle and through the wadi. All in all, it makes for a beautiful day trip – take your pick on the stories.
The Yair Forest in the Judea Hills is Israel’s largest forest
Before the settling of the Land of Israel by the Jewish pioneers of the late 1800s-early 1900s, Israel was a vast, uninhabited wasteland of bare mountains and deserts. In 1866, the beloved American author, Mark Twain set out on a trip through Europe and the Holy Land, writing his memoirs of the journey in his famous book, The Innocents Abroad.
Twain was fed up with the primitiveness of the settlements and roads he encountered: “The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became…There was hardly a tree or a shrub any where. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country”. The statement reflects his general attitude to the ancient land throughout his journey.
I come from a line of Tree People. Before Earth Day, before it was even popular, we planted trees and forests. My mother was sometimes known as ‘The Tree Lady.” From the 1950s to the 1990s, she took on the job each month of calling up every member of the Jewish community in our small Southern US town. On behalf of the Jewish National Fund, she would read out the list of birthdays, anniversaries, new births, deaths, weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of our community for the month. These were all opportunities to make a small donation and have a tree planted in Israel in that person’s honor or memory. In turn, the recipient would get a lovely certificate of planting with the location of the tree. When I lived in California, I became The Tree Lady for my congregation. For years I did the same, inviting people to plant a tree each month. My sister in Raleigh is also a Tree Lady. And so it goes….
When I moved here, it was no surprise to see much of the country covered in forest – mostly various species of pine, but also deciduous oak and maple and elm and hickory and redbud in the North. It is gorgeous and life-giving. Almost every mountain has been planted, blanketing huge swaths in vibrant hues of green.
From the mirpesset, balcony of our house, we look over acres and acres of JNF planted trees. Favorite pastimes of Israelis are hiking, bicycling and picnicking in the forests. Through many donations, and much hard work, the Land has come alive again. We, too, go hiking and have picnics in these government protected areas. Many a last minute decision to pack up a backpack of food, grab the dog, and jump in the car to get out of the city has resulted in an idyllic adventure. Often we pass random people stopped by the side of the road and setting up folding chairs, tables, food – and hookah and coffee set-ups to have a little relaxation time. Jews, Arab Muslim and Christians, Druze – we’ve passed them all enjoying nature in the forest. The Israeli forests are open and available to all.
Aminadav Forest outside Jerusalem
Very sadly, there are certain (not all, but enough) Arabs who call themselves the Palestinian Peoples who do not want to see the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. They try to thwart our being here any way possible – and one of the ways they terrorize the people is by setting fire to the forests. Each year, there are massive forest fires in this country set by these Palestinian arsonists (It’s a bit like being back in Southern California during brushfire season).
However, there are several things that are done here that are not done in the States. Namely, we have excellent forest control. If there are any dead or diseased trees, they are removed immediately to keep the forests healthy and to keep any blight form spreading. This is a necessary preventative measure. It is good stewardship of the Earth and its resources. Healthy forests free of dead and decaying matter are less likely to burn as quickly. Still, the damage is done each year by the arsonists. When a forest burns, after they are put out, the land is immediately cleared and new trees are replanted. In abundance. (There is also video of Arabs pulling out the trees within a day or two of the Jews’ planting. This happens repeatedly.) But these modern day pioneers and nature lovers prevail, as they are constantly putting in new trees and forests across the entire land.
In the Galilee, we have acres upon acres of olive trees. Fruit orchards line the Hula Valley and Northern Golan. Palm Trees stand proudly in rows that go on for miles in the Jordan Valley and in the desert. Most of these groves and forests are still made possible by the donations to the Jewish National Fund. The Israelis in Judea and Samaria have turned the desert mountains green by bringing in irrigation and planting – trees, bushes, grasses, and crops.
Aminadav Forest outside Jerusalem
Forest Ben Shemen, ‘a green lung in the center of Israell’
We love our land. We are proud of our country. As a whole, Israelis are very green, taking care of the Earth and encouraging her bounty. We know how important it is to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and go Forest Bathing, a now-popular term that was coined here. There are usually (not this year due to COVID) myriad nature camps for kids during the summer months. After high-school, gap year programs include forestry service – before army service the kids spend the year clearing trails, setting up picnic areas, cleaning the parks, planting trees, and caring for green space.
Today, I invite YOU, dear Reader, to go to the JNF website, use.jnf.org
or at Treesfortheholyland.com because trees are a living memorial. Thank you!
We had been waiting for this tiyuul (Hebrew for field trip) for weeks now. It seemed like ages since we were up in the Golan, one of my favorite places in Israel. First there was all the winter snow, sleet and rain, and then the COVID lockdown for months. But the day was perfect – nice and warm, sunny, with slightly cool breezes from the West off the Mediterranean. And it was the first week of cherry season!
Odem Mountain sits towards the foot of the Mount Hermon and butts up against the border with Syria. The Heights have been quiet since the Syrian Civil War moved from the area about a year ago. Odem is known for its wonderful wineries and for its pick-your-own fruit farms. Raspberries, blueberries and blackberries (called ‘black raspberries’ here) will be ripe in mid-July; grapes in August. But last week, life was a bowl of cherries for us!
We were given entrance to the orchard for 20 shekels per person, about $6 each. We could eat as much off the trees as we could stomach – and that was a ton! – plus pick as much as we could carry in our baskets. The first kilo was included in the price, the rest were about $5 a kg – 2.2 pounds. There were only a few families out, so we had the huge orchard mostly to ourselves. The sky was a gorgeous blue, the birds singing, and the butterflies were out in abundance. Who could ask for more?
I love that Israel is so family friendly. Because fruit picking is a family activity here, the orchards cater to the wee folk. Instead of pruning back the lower limbs and bushes as one normally does to increase fruit production, everything is left in its natural state. Low hanging limbs mean low hanging fruit, and any 2-3 year old can enjoy harvesting the luscious gems.
John and I each picked four baskets of Bing Cherries before we discovered the sweetest, most delicious Rainiers. Within an hour, we had picked another four baskets. It was sheer bliss – I found my happy spot. As the morning wore on, we followed the sound of Russian voices chattering madly in the Eastern part of the orchard. We found out what was causing the commotion: fresh sour cherries! The Russians and Eastern Europeans are absolutely wild about forest fruits. They especially love sour cherries, preserving them for pastries, toppings and winter desserts.
After eating so many cherries, it’s a wonder we even had room for lunch, but I had packed a lovely picnic with an assortment of cheeses, olives, homemade crackers, pickles and salads and a bottle of rosé. All of the picking areas have adjacent picnic tables under the canopy of vines and trees. It’s just so romantic!
As soon as we got home the work began in earnest -which would last the rest of the week for me. It was enjoyable labor, and I can’t wait to share these recipes with you!!
I can’t believe I forgot to take a picture of the finished product after it had been bottled, but this is the basic process: I steeped about 40 Bing cherries in a covered Mason Jar of vodka for a week. The vodka turns red and the cherries fade somewhat. Strain the infused spirit into sterilized bottles. Store the bottles in a dark cabinet for up to a year. When ready to use, place a bottle of the liqueur in the freezer – the liqueur gets nice and cold, but will not freeze. Sip straight up in a tiny liqueur glass, or mix into cocktails.
You can spoon the reserved cherries (I microwave them for 10 seconds) over vanilla ice cream. A lovely dessert!
Take the cherry liqueur (you just made, recipe above) out of the freezer. Pour about 1 oz. into a champagne flute and top off with Prosecco, sparkling white wine or a sweet white wine. This is really refreshing on a hot summer day – and beautiful for bridal showers and with brunch!
Love this recipe I came up with. It’s really delicious on a pasta salad with grilled chicken strips, or on a sweet summer salad of fresh greens, red onion (or pickled onion), fruit and nuts. Add feta on top for a dairy salad – or leftover grilled chicken strips for a main course (meat/basari). Refrigerate after opening.
6 Tablespoons wildflower honey
40 Bing cherries, stemmed and pitted
2-3 shallots or 1 Bermuda/red onion
1/4 cup good quality Balsamic vinegar
6 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 cup champagne or white wine vinegar
1/2 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp sea salt (I use Dead Sea salt or Maldon)
1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
Distilled or filtered spring water
Prepare/sterilize the bottles and the tops by keeping them submerged in boiling water for 20 minutes.
In the meantime, place the pitted cherries and the honey in a small saucepan and let them simmer (but not boil!) for about 5 minutes. Let cool. Chop 8-10 of the cooled cherries into little pieces. Reserve the rest of the cherries (for pouring over vanilla ice cream or serving with a dollop of whipped cream!!!), saving the honey liquid.
Pour the reserved honey liquid into the four dressing bottles that have been recently sterilized. Make sure each bottle gets an even amount. Distribute the chopped cherries evenly into the four bottles. I find using a funnel makes all of this a lot easier! Add 2 Tbsp Balsamic to each bottle. Add 1/8 cup champagne vinegar and 1/8 cup olive oil to each bottle. Add 1 sprig of rosemary, the salt and pepper. Using a garlic press, I halve and squeeze 2 peeled shallots to collect the shallot juice in a little cup or glass. Pour the shallot juice evenly into each bottle. Finely mince the remaining shallot and add to the bottles. Fill the rest of the dressing bottles to about 1/2 inch from the top with the spring water. Seal. Shake vigorously before serving.
THE BEST CHERRY CHICKEN SALAD!!
This is fairly easy to make. I serve it for Shabbat lunch on a hot day. It’s quite flavorsome, not to mention beautiful with the jewel-like cherries poking out. We never have any leftovers it’s just that delicious – but if we did, I’d serve it on a crusty baguette with a bed of arugula or rocket lettuce.
3 cups (about 1 pound/1/2 kg) cooked chicken breasts, chopped into bite sized bits
1/3 cup chopped red/Bermuda onion
1/3 cup chopped celery
1 cup pitted, halved cherries (I like a combo of Bing and Ranier cherries for this dish)
2 Tbsp poppyseeds
1/2 cup mayonnaise (light mayo, preferable)
1/2 cup “Chinese” sweet pecans
Sea salt & freshly cracked black pepper to taste
In the States, I was able to buy pre-grilled or pre-cooked chicken strips (I was spoiled). Here I have to make everything from scratch, so I boil my chicken breasts in water with celery tops, an onion, bay leaves, salt, pepper, 2 Tbsp whole cloves and a thumb sized sliver of fresh ginger (I just gave away my bubbe’s chicken stock recipe!!! I swear the addition of the cloves and ginger take the soup to a whole new level of awesomeness!!!!). Let the chicken simmer on the stove for about a half hour until cooked through. I reserve the stock to freezer bags once it cools – future use. There’s no soup in aseptic boxes or cans here.
Chop the cooled breasts into bitesize morsels. Chop the onion and celery. Add all to a large bowl. Stir in mayo and poppy seeds, salt and pepper. Gently fold in cherries and pecans. Chill until ready to serve.Can garnish with rosemary sprigs or fold in about a Tbsp finely minced fresh rosemary before serving.
CHERRY CHOCOLATE CHIP SCONES (makes 18, but doesn’t last more than 2 hours! They tend to disappear that quickly)
My family loves these scones. I’ve made them for years, but can never seem to find them when I want to serve them. So glad I took the picture shortly after I took them off the baking sheet, because they were all gone 2 hours later when I wanted a sweet snack!
2 1/2 cups regular flour
1/3 cup coconut sugar (low glycemic option to white sugar)
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
20-25 Bing cherries, pitted and quartered (use gloves or your hands will get stained)
8 Tbsp cold butter
3/4 cups cream
2 Tbsp milk
1 tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp dried ginger powder or 1 TBSP grated fresh ginger or stem ginger pieces, minced
3/4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 400*F/200*C. Place baking paper or silpat on two baking sheets.
Mix together dry ingredients a large bowl. Using a party cutter, knife, or fork, cut in pieces of cold butter and blend until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Stir in the cherries and chocolate chips to coat with a dusting of flour (this prevents sticking together or clumping on the bottom).
Make a shallow well in the middle of the flour mixture. Whisk together the wet ingredients and pour into the middle of the well. Gently stir the wet ingredients into the dry mixture without overworking the dough. It should just be moistened.
Using an ice cream scoop, I place small scoops of the batter (6 on each sheet, evenly spaced) on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with a little sugar if you’d like a little sparkle. Bake for about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for a couple minutes. Repeat until all batter is used up. Guard these babies with your life if you want them to last! They can be stored in a wax-paper lined tin box or plastic container for a couple days (yeah, right – good luck on that one!)
I find them best served with a light spread of cream cheese. So delicious!
And OF COURSE!!!!I made 12 jars of cherry vanilla preserves last week. Two are gone, so I hope to make some more in the next couple days…. until then, my friends –
The weather here in the North of Israel has been nothing short of spectacular this week!!! Hot, but not too hot; nice breezes wafting in from the Mediterranean; quiet and peaceful days. Yesterday, we decided to take advantage of the early summer weather and the calm. We desperately miss our tourists and need them for the local economy, but are enjoying the non-crowded venues and leisurely pace as various sites open, but are still social distancing. What a better way to spend the day, than by rafting down the Jordan River!!
View of the Hula Valley
Looking down from the Golan
The source of the Jordan River lies in the very North of the country from the melting snows atop Mount Hermon and the underwater aquifers bubbling up into mountain springs and rivers. The two largest, the Dan River and the Hatzbani Stream come together in the lush Hula Valley and form the Jordan River, which pours into Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). From there, the Jordan flows (trickles more like it) through the Jordan Valley (Samaria and Judea) into the Dead Sea. All in all, it is 251 km or 156 miles long.
There are several companies that offer rafting and kayaking down the upper part of the Jordan, but we love Kfar Blum the best. The attraction center at Kibbutz Kfar Blum offers so many fun activities. For those that enjoy camping, there are several different options: there is the basic tent campground. Tents are supplied. Also provided are a small outdoor refrigerator, picnic table, clothes line, and rec area. Tents hold up to four people. Just bring food and sleeping bags. A step up in the luxury campground has large six-eight person canvas tents (air conditioned!!!) on wooden floors with platform beds, large fridge/freezer, hammocks on the porch and recreational area. If that’s too rustic, there are cabin/bunk houses with all the comforts of home and a fenced-in private yard. Playgrounds for the kids available at all sites.
On site is the Top Rope Adventure Park, a high ropes course that is incredibly popular with the youth. Add to this a 40 foot rock climbing wall, archery range, and 300 feet long zip-line course which splashes down into the Jordan, and it’s almost a full day’s worth of activities. But we went for the rafting – Blum has “The Long Course” – a 2.5 mile course down the Hula Valley, which takes about an hour and a half – or longer if you get out and swim. It costs $30 per adult and is well worth it. There were absolutely no lines yesterday (no Birthright kids on tour) so we made it to the bus within a few minutes. The Blumbus takes you up river where a guide gives you the course outline and instructions. All people must wear a life preserver at all times.
Yesterday was the best, because unlike during the hottest part of the summer and all the tourists, the river was not clogged with rafts. There was plenty of room to float at a leisurely pace and to pull off to the side and swim. I just love how Israelis sing here. Passing rafts of families, so many were singing the old Hebrew folk songs I grew up hearing. One raft was full of beautiful IDF soldiers on leave posing in their swimsuits. We passed families on shore fishing and picnicking, another favorite Israeli pass-time. It was a glorious day with birds singing in the blackberry brambles lining each side of the river, and dragonflies darting between the rafts. We saw turtles sunning themselves on the rocks, and lots of trout in the crystal clear Hatzbani Stream. Further down the line were the invasive nutria, a recently introduced species that is a cross between a beaver and a river otter.
Such a lovely day!! For those in Israel who want a staycation in the North or those planning to visit from abroad, Kfar Blum (founded in 1943 by a group of olim from the UK, the US, and Eastern Europe) also has a luxury resort, The Pastoral Hotel. Beautiful rooms, Kosher food, a pool and spa as well as tennis and fitness areas are part of the package. At various times throughout the year, Kfar Blum offers music weekends, featuring classical music, jazz and opera as well as full productions of Broadway shows (in English) in their auditorium. There are also film festivals held during the summer months. It’s a great place to host a family reunion, wedding or other life event. All information is available on their website.