Old Hollywood Glamour in Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quintessential Israeli Dish- 5 Ways!

I thought I’d take us all away from the constantly dismal news cycles and do a fun food blogpost this time. I was first introduced to chicken schnitzel by my California/Israeli girlfriend, Bilha. Every Friday afternoon, my son Max and I and Bilha would go to the local retirement home and do a Shabbat liturgy for the elderly Jewish residents. We’d light the Shabbat candles, sing wonderful songs, read a part of the Torah passage for the week, tell a story and say the blessings over the wine and challah bread. It really was a highpoint of our week, something we always looked forward to and something I still miss terribly. We made beautiful friendships with Holocaust survivors and other residents. And I really miss Bilha. As we’d leave to go back to our homes each week, we’d discuss what we were making for Shabbat dinner. For me, it was invariably salmon: for Bilha, who grew up in Israel, it was usually schnitzel. She gave me her recipe. I tried it, and was hooked! It was delicious…. and really easy to prepare. And the leftovers!!!

Fast forward to our lives here in Israel. I quickly discovered the ubiquitous schnitzel. First brought over by German and Austrian immigrants, it is a staple food here. It’s very economical and easy to prepare. In the stores here, you can buy ”chicken schnitzel,” boneless, skinless chicken breasts that have been pounded thin into cutlets. Or there are plenty of pre-made frozen varieties that all you have to do is pop theEm in the oven or frying pan. When my husband and I volunteered to serve in the army (warehouses) each week, we were usually served chicken schnitzel for lunch. It was at the army that I first discovered corn schnitzel patties, because 32% of the soldiers were vegetarian. And there are many fast food schnitzel and chips shops including Schnitzelina, which specializes in the tasty cutlets stuffed into a baguette sandwich.

I will begin with Bilha’s recipe, the basic schnitzel (it’s ALWAYS chicken for the meat) and then go into some easy and tasty variations. The recipe calls for a kilo (about 2 pounds) of chicken cutlets. I don’t know if they sell pounded breasts in the markets where you are, but if you buy the boneless, skinless breasts or tenders, they can be pounded to flatten to about 1/2 inch thick between two sheets of waxed paper. A kilo is about 6 half breasts for me. O.K. Let’s start

Bilha’s Chicken Schnitzel, Israeli Style

I serve this with wedges of lemon to squeeze on top (a must!!!), an Israeli salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, salt, olive oil and lemon juice. Roasted or mashed potatoes are also delicious with this, but most Israelis eat this with chips or French fries. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do- oh!!!! if there are any leftovers – I ALWAYS make enough to have leftovers- they make the BEST sandwiches, cold with lettuce and tomato, mayo and Thousand Island or for me, just humus.

Ingredients:

  • 1 kilo (2.2 lbs or 6 half breasts) chicken cutlets
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 cups dried breadcrumbs
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbsp mayonnaise
  • 3 lemons
  • lemon zest
  • salt and pepper, about 1/2 tsp each)
  • 1 tsp paprika, optional
  • 1 TBSP sesame seeds, optional
  • vegetable oil

In a flat pan, beat the eggs and add in the dijon and mayo. In another flat dish or pan, pour on the flour. In a third flat dish, the bread crumbs, grated lemon zest from one lemon, salt and pepper. (Many people here add 1 tsp paprika and 1 TBSP sesame seeds which I find adds to the deliciousness).

Rinse off the cutlets and towel dry. First dredge in the flour. Using a long tongs, coazt the floured chicken cutlet in the egg mixture. Then place in the pan of bread crumbs to cover each side. Heat the oil (canola, safflower, sunflower) in a large skillet until shimmery. I use about 4 TBSP, then add more. I don’t like the cutlets swimming in oil, but do want to have a nice crunchy outcome. Place the breadcrumb coated chicken pieces in the hot oil and let fry until they are nice and golden brown on each side. Transfer the cutlets to a wire rack with paper towels underneath the rack, but not touching the schnitzel. Serve hot with lemon wedges to squeeze over the top.

Shevvy’s Trader Joe’s Falafel Schnitzel

This is a fun recipe that I got from my friend in the States. She raves about it. The kids love it, her Israeli husband is addicted to it, and I had to bring back two boxes of falafel mix to Israel so we could enjoy it as well. It does not disappoint. Seved with a side of chips (fries), a salad or chopped Israeli salad, fluffy pita bread and humus and/ or techineh. Oh my goodness! For those of you who don’t live near a Trader Joe’s market, see if you can find a standard dry falafel mix-

Ingredients:

  • 1 kilo chicken cutlets (see notes above)
  • 1 cup panko (Japanese style bread crumbs)
  • 1 cup Trader Joe’s falafel mix
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup humus or techine
  • vegetable oil
  • humus or techine for dipping

In flat bowl or dish, beat the eggs. In another flat bowl, combine the panko and falafel mix. Dredge rinsed and dried chicken cutlets first in egg to coat, then in the panko falafel mix. Heat about 4 TBSP oil in a skillet until hot and shimmery. Add the cutlets, frying on each side until browned and crispy. Add more oil as needed. Transfer the cooked schnitzel pieces to a wire rack to drain and keep crunchy. Drizzle with techine or put a dollop of humus on top. We do both. Oy va voy, is is amazing!


Crunchy Seeded Schnitzel, Yotam Ottolenghi Style

I love Chef Ottolenghi’s recipes. I have all of his cookbooks and was first introduced to him here in Israel. A friend of mine who lived in Jerusalem had a cookbook club. We would pick a certIn chef each month, prepare their recipe as was written, then do a riff on the original recipe. This is my slightly modified version of his schnitzel.

Ingredients:

  • 1 kilogram schnitzel chicken cutlets
  • 6 TBSP sunflower seeds
  • 3 TBSP toasted white sesame seeds
  • 2 TBSP black sesame seeds
  • 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp granulated garlic
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 TBSP mayonnaise or humus
  • 1 cup flour
  • extra virgin olive oil

Start by combining the seeds and spices in a large flat-bottomed pan. In a second flat pan, beat the eggs and mix in the mayo or humus. This helps the coating to stick to the cutlets. In a third pan, place the flour. Rinse and pat dry the pounded chicken cutlets (they may be already flat, or you can flatten the breasts between two sheets of waxed paper). Dredge the cutlets, one at a time, in the flour. Then using a tongs, transfer to the egg wash, coating both sides. Next, place each cutlet into the seed mixture. Both sides should be covered. Heat the olive oil, about 4-6 TBSP in a large skillet. When very hot, place the cutlets in the oil, frying on each side until golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to drain.

Tamar’s Asian-Inspired Schnitzel Curry

I looked all over, but could not find a photo of this one. So sorry. This is a must-try, and frankly, is our favorite twist to the standard schnitzel recipe. I marinate the cutlets overnight to infuse the flavor and tenderize. Because many recipes for chicken include a milk bath, and that is not within the Kosher guidelines, I decided to try coconut milk. Infused with the curry and lemongrass, it’s heavenly! Also pretty funny, in Israel canned coconut milk must be labeled ’coconut liquid’ so people don’t get confused and think it’s a dairy product. Only in Israel! I always bring at least 6 bags of Angel-Flake coconut back from the States. We don’t have it here, and it’s just so moist and delicious. If you don’t have Angel-Flake, use the dried coconut shavings. I serve this with chutney on top and rice as the side. Add in roasted broccoli with a bit of teriyaki or soy sauce and some roasted carrots and you have a feast.

Ingredients:

  • 1 kilo chicken cutlets (see note above)
  • 1 can coconut milk (liquid)
  • 1 TBSP yellow curry powder
  • 1 4-5 inch piece of lemongrass cut in thirds
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1 cup baker’s Angel Flake coconut (or desiccated coconut)
  • coconut oil
  • apricot or fruit Indian Chutney to top

In a freezer bag, or a glass baking dish, shake up and pour the can of coconut milk/liquid. Add the curry powder and the sticks of lemongrass. Add the chicken cutlets to coat. Let marinate overnight or at least six hours. (I put several bags of this in the freezer along with the coating mix in a separate freezer bag. Defrost in the fridge and assemble for a quick dinner)

In a flat pan, add the panko and the shredded coconut flakes. Mix well. Remove the marinated chicken to the breading pan and coat on both sides. Heat up about 1/4 cup coconut oil until shimmering. Add the cutlets to the hot oil and cook until golden on each side. Transfer to a wire rack for draining. This is my favorite. Please try it!

Jessica Halfin’s Vegetarian Corn Schnitzel

I’d never leave out the vegetarians! We first had these when doing our army service and they were quite tasty. Here in Israel, they are a staple on the kiddie menu. My friend, Jessica Halfin, who did Haifa Street-food Tours and who also writes for Hadassah Magazine, developed this healthy version of corn schnitzel. The recipe makes about 10 patties.

Ingredients:

  • 5 1/2 cups canned and drained or frozen corn
  • 3/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 cups breadcrumbs
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp granulated garlic
  • 1 egg
  • 1 TBSP white sesame seeds
  • vegetable oil

Process 4 cups of corn kernels in the food processor until smooth. In a large bowl, add the processed corn along with the 1 cup whole corn kernels. Mix in the egg, the flour, the spices and 1 cup of the breadcrumbs. In a flat pan, mix together the additional cup of breadcrumbs and the sesame seeds.

Using an ice cream scoop, scoop the wet mixture into the bread crumb pan and flatten, coating the patty with breadcrumbs on both sides. In a skillet, heat the vegetable oil until hot and shimmery. Using a spatula, transfer the corn cutlet to the skillet and fry until golden brown on both sides. Drain on wire rack.

Serve with ketchup and Israeli tomato-cucumber salad, pita and humus on the side.

It’s a Wrap! The Art of Headcovering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Mysteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecological Wonders for a New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desert Wanderings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– 2 Chronicles 28:25

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

– 2 Kings 12:1-3

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

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

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

The Desert Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday Beauty in Northern Israel

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

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

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

Klezmer music Chanukah joy!


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

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

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

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

Fr. Sergei as St. Nicholas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chanukah Adventure 2021


For this former homeschooling mom, moving to Israel has been a history geek’s dream-come-true. The place is jam-packed with historical sites from ancient to modern times. I’ve always been interested in the origins of some of the Bible stories I grew up hearing(especially around the festival of Chanukah). I was familiar with the exploits of Judah Maccabee and his band of ragtag fighters; of the valiant heroine Judith; of the high-drama tragedy of Channah and her seven martyred sons, but couldn’t locate any of them in the Scriptures. Aha!!! I discovered them in the Catholic Bible and in the writings of Josephus (Matityahu Josephus Flavius).

John and I have been spending the last couple months pouring over the First and Second Books of the Maccabees and subsequent historical accounts by Josephus. It’s not that the Jews and the Protestants erased these books, per se: it’s just that they don’t rely on them as Canon. Maccabees and Judith are books in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible written by the Hellenistic Jews in exile. They are classified as Apochryphal books by some theologians. Yet these stories have been passed on as an important part of the Jewish oral tradition, and Josephus, a Jewish Israeli historian who wrote for the Romans in the first century, corroborates these accounts. Archeological finds substantiate the rest.

Anyway, that said, it was time for a road trip, our first in months. It would have to be very special – just for Chanukah. Last year we went to Tsfat to find the burial tombs of Channah and her sons, as well as the high cliff dwellings and fortress on Mt. Arbel where the Hashmonean resistance fought off the Greco-Syrian army (see 5 December, 2020 post). This year, it would be Modi’in, site of the battlefields and of the burial place of the Maccabees. Modi’in is now a large, modern city halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Let me take you back in time a couple thousand years.

It began around 167 BCE, when the Greek army under Antiochus arrived in Israel to quell the Jewish forces and colonize the land. Conquering their way to Jerusalem, the Greeks commanded Matityahu, the High Priest, to sacrifice a pig (forbidden meat) upon the Temple altar to their Greek gods. He refused. Antiochus Epiphanes mandated that the Jews would not be allowed to keep their religion. No Sabbath. No Torah study. No circumcision. No weddings or Bar Mitzvahs. Gymnasia would be built. Academia. Pagan temples. Statues of Greek gods erected in the town squares and now-desecrated holy Temple. The elderly priest fled with his sons and the Resistance to the hills and fields of Modi’in to begin their guerilla campaign. After the death of Matityahu, his son, Judah took over as the Jewish leader. They marched into battle against the world’s largest army of the time, carrying flags emblazoned with the words, ”Who is Like Our G-d?” In Hebrew, the phrase is ”Mee camokha ba’alim Adoshem,” and the first letters spell out the nickname ”MaCaBee,” the rulers of the Hashmonean Dynasty. There were many, many battles between the Greco-Syrian army and the Jewish Hashmoneans. The entire war lasted decades after the Temple Mount was reclaimed, cleaned and rededicated. The Books of Maccabees are exciting reading and recount the entire history. Highly recommended!

We decided to make our own personal connection to the narrative and visit the sites. Several surprises awaited us. Following the roadsigns off Highway 433 near Modi’in, we followed a dirt road. Lots of cars were parked on either side, so we knew we’d arrived. John and I were perplexed by what sounded like rave music coming from the woods. Tents. Pop-up campers. Old sofas. Intensely religious Haredi Jews. Hippie families. And in the middle, a large stone structure with a domed top. It was a wild scene. A happening.

We were all here for a special Chanukah experience. The hub of it seemed to be this building, the tomb of the High Priest Matityahu the Macabee. It was a hive of activity, with people going in and out and milling about. A fitting place to start. I lit a candle and said some prayers, prayers of thanksgiving and prayers for protection of this land and her people. Prayers for the wisdom of today’s leaders. It was so moving.

All around were small groups of campers, much like the Macabee band, I thought. Some were praying, a few were studying Scripture. Families were cooking over campfires. Kids were playing in the woods. People were playing instruments. It was all quite loosely organized. Next, John and I made the short drive down the mountain. There were hikers everywhere and even caravans of dune buggies out for fun. We met up with an interesting and friendly group. The men were old army buddies, and each year when school is out for Chanukah, the families all make a camping trip together somewhere in Israel. This is so typical of Israeli life.


I spoke for awhile in Hebrew with the young families.They had come from as far away as the Golan, Judea and Beersheva. And they really wanted a group picture, so i gladly obliged. They pointed us in the direction of the tombs from the Maccabean era, but first a little stop to visit the battlefields along the way. No huge monuments of historical markers as in the United States. Just open spaces with tiny deer leaping across the plains.

No crutches! I’m walking again!! on the battlefields of Modi’in

There was some small Hebrew lettering spray-painted on a rock alongside the road. We almost missed it, but it marked the way to something spectacular: Macabee tombs!!!

The bones had long since disappeared, but the tombs remained. Carved into the stone with huge boulders shaped to cover each opening, the rocky landscape was dotted with the ancient tombs! I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Every so often, between the hewn tombs, were little bone pits. As was the custom, a body would be lowered into the hole then placed into the carved-out slot. The boulder was then rolled over the tomb and left there for a year, after which the bones would be removed and placed into the nearby bone pit. Then the burial site could be recycled for another body.

Did i mention how rockin’ awesome this was? John had so much fun hopping from hole to hole then going exploring. It was hard to keep up. Deep in the underbrush, he found ancient walls, stacked blocks. An old fortress? A synagogue? This is where a guide or an archaeologist would have come in handy. Upon further examination, John found what appeared to be an underground shaft or tunnel. It was blocked by several large round rocks, which of course, he had to try to roll away. Whatever this structure was, had once been quite extensive, judging by the size of the foundation.

Not far from the National Forest is the Hashmonean Village/Museum, a re-creation of an ancient village. There is a fee to enter, but it includes guided tours, static displays, cases of oil lamps, ancient pottery, tools and coins found in the area from that time period.

Not only is this a historical Biblical site, but it was instrumental in the 1948 War for Independence. The Ben Shemen Youth Kibbutz was located here and surrounded by Arab villages. Several important battles were fought here in ’48. Control of the surrounding hills was essential in order to ensure freedom of action at the Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion), and to keep safe passageway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. During the operation, for the first time in history five brigades came under one central command, the nascent Israel Defense Forces.

There is a monument to the young soldiers who fell in this area. Fittingly, it ties the valiant Macabees of old to those who died to secure the land in 1948. Eight concrete flames, like the flames of the Chanukah menorah, rise to the sky. According to First Maccabees 13:28 Shimon, brother of Judah, set up seven pyramid-shaped stone markers for the graves of his family: for his parents, for his four brothers killed in battles- Elazar, Yehudah, Yochanan and Yonatan as well as his own. This modern monument is also an homage to the former.

It’s All About the ”Red Stuff!”

Middle Eastern Red Lentil Stew (vegan!)

Yaakov (Jacob) simmered a stew, and Esav (Esau) came in from the field, and he was exhausted. Esav said to Yaakov, ‘Pour into me now some of that very red stuff for I am exhausted.’(From then on they called him Edom) Yaakov said, ’Sell me today your birthright.’ And Esav said, ’ ’Look, I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright?’ Yaakov said, ’ Swear to me this day;’ he swore to him and sold his entire inheritance to Yaakov. Yaakov gave Esav bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and got up and left; thus, Esav spurned the birthright.

Each year we read through the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. I have always loved the story of the two brothers, Jacob and Esau, on so many levels. It’s so descriptive. And I’m a real foodie, so I appreciate that it centers around food – but to sell off my entire inheritance (Esav, the oldest brother was a son of Yitzhak (Isaac), and grandson of Father Abraham, the Patriarch: two incredibly wealthy men). He had to be mighty hangry!!! And that must have been some mighty delish stew!! Each year I try to test a new recipe for that ’red stuff,’ so now I’m going to share three of my favorites. So glad I had this blogpost in reserve to pull out for you all. This year’s trio is decidedly MiddleEastern, as I’m trying to be more authentic and historical. Next year, I’ll actually be up and able to make them… in the meantime, somebody bring some of that mejaddra!!

– Genesis 25:29-33

The first recipe is true Middle Eastern comfort food. I think my tastes are changing a bit from strictly Western to other things. I first had this on my pilot trip to Israel in 2014. I hadn’t really eaten much in a couple of days because I was so on the go, and I was starving. Like Esau. In the ancient city of Tsfat in the Upper Galilee, I met a native Israeli family who invited me in to their home for lunch. They served the most delicious dish: simple home cooking. The perfect, satisfying, filling, comfort food, and so easy to make. It’s not red stew, but a combination of rice, lentils and fried onions. We feasted on freshly-made cheeses, mejaddra, and yogurt. And afterwards the father brought out a carafe of strong Turkish coffee infused with cardamom, which we sipped from tiny demitasse cups while eating a little piece of halvah. It was the best, just an unforgettable moment of Israeli hospitality. So glad I snapped photos of it back then. What I wouldn’t give for this plate of mejaddra now…. I hope you enjoy!

Mejaddra

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 3 large brown onions (the onions are the star of the show here)
  • 1 cup dried brown lentils (or 1 can lentils, liquid reserved)
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1 cup Basmati rice
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp powdered cumin
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 3 cups of water or vegetable stock, or if you are using dried lentils, the boiled lentil water)

In separate bowls, soak the rice and the lentils for a couple hours, straining out and changing the water twice. Next, drain off the lentil water and place the lentils in a medium sized pot. Cover the lentils completely with water with a good inch more over the top of the lentils. Add about a tsp salt and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to simmer and cook about 20-30 minutes until the lentils are tender. NOT MUSHY! Drain off the lentils SAVING THE LENTIL WATER! (If you are opting for the quicker, canned lentils, drain, reserving the liquid.)

Thinly slice the onion. Place in a bowl and sprinkle with salt and flour. Toss to coat the onion in the flour. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or medium sized pot. When glistening, add the onion slices and fry up for 10-12 minutes until the onions are a crispy brown. DO NOT BURN!! Transfer out the crispy onions to a paper-towel lined plate. In the same heavy saucepan in which the onions were cooked, add the cumin and coriander seeds. It should become quite fragrant after heating for about a minute. Now add in the drained rice and the remaining powdered spices. Stir to coat the rice in the oil and spice. Add in the lentils and reserved lentil water. The liquid should measure 3 cups. If necessary, add in more water. Bring to a boil, then turn down to low and cover. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Uncover and fluff rice. season with salt to taste.

Spoon the rice-lentil mixture onto a large plate or bowl and top with the crispy fried onions. If you’d like, you can top it off with a small handful of chopped parsley or cilantro.

This next soup is more of an accurately Biblical lentil dish. the spices and the red lentils really bring out that glorious color:

Red Lentil Soup vegan

Now this red lentil soup is the real deal. The Red Stuff. Esav’s Bane. True flavors of the Levant. Israeli cooking, whatever that is. It’s fragrant, filling, flavorsome, fantastic. I think once Esav got a whiff of this soup, he was justified in saying, “Just pour it right down my throat, Bro!” Not only a lovely soup, but the lentils are just full of protein, so it is quite life-sustaining.

Jacob’s Big Boilin’ Pot of Red Stuff, aka Red Lentil Soup

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups red lentils
  • 5 cups vegetable broth (or water or a combo of both)
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 5 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne or chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt
  • 1 lemon, cut up
  • optional garnishes: chopped parsley or cilantro; yogurt; crumbled feta cheese bits (we’re keeping it Israeli)

In a large bowl, soak the lentils for about two hours, straining out and replacing the water at least once. Heat olive oil in a medium/large pot. When glistening, add in the garlic, onion, and bay leaf until the onion is soft and fragrant. Add in carrot slices and cook, stirring about 2-3 minutes. Mix in all the spices with about 1/4 cup of the veggie broth or water. It will be very rich in color and very fragrant. Add in drained lentils and 5 cups of veggie broth or water. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to a simmer and let gently cook on low heat for 20 minutes. The lentils should be tender/ slightly chewy, but not mushy.

I keep the soup chunky. It’s more rustic and has more of a Biblical feel to it that way, but feel free to puree it with an immersion blender. Add salt to taste, and garnish with the chopped herbs. Serve with a wedge of lemon on the side, which can be squeezed into the soup at table. You can also add crumbled (goat) on top. This is great served with light, fluffy Israeli pita and humus (NOT the American cardboard that passes as pita!!) or pieces of crusty, wholegrain bread.

But I like the idea of a red stew. A stick to your ribs kind of meal. Hearty and healthy.

Hearty Red Lentil Stew with Chickpeas and Pumpkin vegan

This is the one! The lentil stew to sell a birthright for …. almost … not quite. But still, this is the one I was making all last winter that is, quite frankly, one of my favorites. It can be made in a crockpot for a Shabbat lunch (perfect for this weekend!). Great lefovers. Freezes well.

We have lots of pumpkin here. Big, huge, light brown monsters that are cut into wedges and sold fresh at the market. Our dlaat is a staple food here. As is the lentil. As is the humus. Not the paste, but the bean. The Hebrew and Arabic word for chickpea is actually humus, pronounced KHOO- moose. I’ve tried to keep this stew as authentically Biblical, using foods indigenous to this region. If you are a geeky homeschool mom (ME!!), then this is a perfect food to cook with the kids as a historical re-creation. Enjoy!!

HEARTY RED LENTIL STEW WITH CHICKPEAS AND PUMPKIN


Ingredients:

  • 1 1/5 cups red lentils
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained (15 ounce/ 425 g)
  • 1 kg/ 2 pounds of peeled, chopped pumpkin cubes or butternut squash cubes
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 TBSP olive oil
  • 5 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 28 ounce/794 g can chopped tomatoes, with the liquid
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne or chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp paprrika
  • 1/2 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • salt, to taste
  • garnishes: lemon wedges; chopped herbs (parsley, cilantro, zaatar), grated nutmeg, (goat) yogurt

In a medium bowl, soak lentils in water for about two hours, changing the water at least once in the process. Heat olive oil on medium high heat until shimmering, then add the garlic and onion, sautéing until soft. Add in the spices and 1/2 cup of the broth to form a red, fragrant paste with the onions. Cook about 2 minutes. Now add the rest of the broth. Mix in uncooked squash or pumpkin cubes, the undrained canned tomatoes, and the drained lentils. Pour the chickpeas into a strainer, drain, and rinse under cold water. Let drain and add to pot. Stir until well mixed. Bring to a slight boil, then turn down heat to low and let simmer at least an hour. Add salt to taste. Cook low and slow, the longer the better, stirring the bottom and sides every half hour to prevent sticking.

Garnish with lemon wedges, chopped herbs, yogurt, or sour cream. Serve with soft, fluffy pita, or a hearty whole grain sourdough. Makes great leftovers. Freezes well. This is also a fantastic crockpot meal for Shabbat.