Holiday Food

Where did the summer go? It’s still pretty warm here in the MidEast upper 30*sC/90*sF and now the humidity from the Mediterranean has kicked in making for balmy (sounds more romantic than miserably sticky) nights. We’re headed off to the UK for cooler climes and my daughter’s wedding to the most wonderful English gentleman! Then it’s off to the States to meet our new grandbaby and visit family for a little bit… so I’ve prewritten and scheduled some posts for when I’m gone. In the meantime-

Last week I had to drive my son up to his old base in the Golan Heights because he had reserve duty. Men and women are called up twice a year for a week or two to retrain and fill in spots as needed. This happens until they are in their 40s, depending on the unit. It’s a necessary part of defense here: one needs to be ready to go at a moment’s notice in case of emergency.

Anyway, I love the drive into the Golan. It’s so wild and pristine and gorgeous up there. Free roaming Angus cattle. Fruit orchards. Horses and cowboys. Tanks and soldiers in training. Mountains. Open space. Military bases. Crusader fortresses and Biblical ruins. Druze men roadside selling carob and date honey, apples, olives, and other local delicacies. I could tell it was the end of summer and only a few weeks until the Jewish New Year and fall festivals because…. Pomegranates!! Apples!! The trees were heavy with fruit and the orchards open to pickers. So I just HAD to. Pick. Waaaay too much, but the prices were so cheap! Like $0.60/pound or 4NIS/kg.

Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year is celebrated both religiously and culturally. To represent the sweetness of the year, we eat apples dipped in honey. We eat apple cakes, apple fritters, apple noodle casseroles (kugels), apple salads. You get the idea.

So I came home with my boxes and boxes and immediately set to work. I wanted to do things I could preserve or freeze for when we get back from our trip. So, here are two of my creations: Apple Butter and Apple Lukshen Kugel. Enjoy!

SPICED APPLE BUTTER

The apple butter works great with cream cheese and peanut butter on bread. Or just plain bread. Or stirred into oatmeal on a cold winter day.

Ingredients:

  • 5 pounds (2.5 kg) apples, unpeeled, washed and cut into chunks
  • 4 TBSP apple cider vinegar
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 TBSP cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup bourbon, whiskey or brandy (optional)

Place all the above ingredients into a large pot and cook uncovered over medium heat. Stir occasionally. In about an hour the apples will have become very soft. Blend thoroughly using an immersion blender. Reduce the apple butter to lowest flame. In a separate pot, boil Mason jars (I use 1/2 pint jars) and lids (not screw-top bands) for 20 minutes to sterilize. Ladle the hot apple butter into the hot empty jars. Place lid on top. Then screw on the sealing ring band. You should get 7-8 jars per batch. Submerge filled jars in a hot water bath (not boiling- just a simmer) for 20 minutes. Remove jars and let cool. Keeps up to 1 year in dark pantry. Refrigerate after opening.

SWEET NOODLE PUDDING WITH APPLES: LUKSHEN KUGEL

This is THE quintessential dairy comfort food for Ashkenazi Jews. You can eat it hot or cold, for breakfast, lunch, dinner or snacks. It’s a main dish. it’s a side dish. It’s a dessert. But ask 5 Jewish mommas how they make it and what you’ll get is a headache: raisins or no raisins? Apples, pineapple, dried fruit or plain? Streusel crust, cornflake crust or plain? And then there’s the spices….oy vey! Is it a crime to use ginger and nutmeg or do we just tick to cinnamon? Full fat or low-fat. Everyone has their own opinion….and of course, mine is the best (wink wink). The best thing about it is that if you make a big batch, it freezes and defrosts incredibly well, so I do 3-4 at a time (and have a kugel to send back with the university kid).

This recipe makes 1 9X12 inch (23X30cm) baking dish which cuts to 12 generous pieces.

Ingredients:

  • 1 12 ounce package extra wide egg noodles
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
  • 4 ounces (114 grams) cream cheese
  • 1 1/2 cups cottage cheese
  • 1/2 cup sugar (I prefer coconut sugar)
  • 6 TBSP butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 3 small apples, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1 cup cornflakes

Boil noodles in salted, boiling water for no longer than six minutes. They should be al dente, not mushy. Drain noodles and rinse well. Return the noodles to the pot along with 3 TBSP of the butter. keep heat on low flame just to melt the butter. Stir noodles until coated. Preheat oven to 350*F/170*C. Grease the Pyrex baking dish. In a very large mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Add in eggs, sour cream or yogurt, cottage cheese, spices and vanilla. Mix thoroughly. Fold in noodles, then raisins and apple slices. Pour into prepared baking dish. In separate bowl, lightly crush the cornflakes. Add 3 TBSP melted butter, 1/4 cup (coconut) sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon. Mix well and spoon over noodle pudding. Bake for about an hour or until the kugel is firm and crispy on the top. A cake tester should come out clean- Delicious!

I’d now like to introduce you to a very special young lady. Batya Deltoff is 16 years old. We became friends with the Deltoff family because we moved to Israel around the same time and the Deltoff kids played Little League baseball on my husband’s team. That was over 7 years ago. Batya is from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. This straight-A student hopes to be a anesthesiologist one day, but until then she’s happy to hang with her girlfriends. And cook. Cooking is her creative outlet. She has this intuitive sense of what goes with what and is both experimental and fearless. Ethnic foods from Asian to Middle Eastern specialties are the most exciting for Batya to prepare. And she doesn’t use a recipe! It’s all done from memory of what she’s eaten and enjoyed and from taste. She cooks regularly for her parents and 3 siblings – “but they pay the fee of cleaning up after me,” she jokes. I had the good fortune of watching her and cleaning up after her last week.

This recipe has Iraqi origins and is called Kubbe. It’s a hearty soup or stew and can be eaten by itself as an appetizer or meal or served over couscous. The kubbe makes a huge pot and it freezes well. Man, is this delicious. perfect for the holidays, especially the cooler nights of Sukkot.

To me Batya’s Kubbe tasted like a hybrid Jewish-Mexican style borscht. It has lovely vegetable chunks in a tomato-beet broth. Then there are these dumplings that look just like matzah balls. One bite into the balls gives a meaty taste explosion because they are stuffed with a magnificent ground meat mixture. It’s delish and healthy and oh-so-satisfying. I was worried that it would be too spicy for me, but the range of spices complement the soup. And you can always add sriracha or Tabasco for added heat.

BATYA DELTOFF’S AMAZING KUBBE

Ingredients:
SOUP-

  • 1 large yellow or white onion
  • 3 large carrots, peeled
  • 3 medium potatoes, peeled
  • 1/2 large cabbage or 1 small cabbage
  • 4 medium roasted, peeled beets or 1 large prepackaged cooked beets
  • 2 TBSP olive oil, plus extra for oiling hands
  • 200 grams canned chopped tomatoes in juice
  • 6 cups water
  • 4 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 3-4 tsp cumin
  • 2 squeezed lemons, pips removed
  • 1 TBSP slat
  • 1 TBSP sugar

MEATBALL DUMPLINGS-

  • 1.5 lb ground beef (3/4 kg)
  • 2 TBSP sweet paprika
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1/4 onion, minced fine
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp ginger

DOUGH FOR THE KUBBE BALLS-

  • 3 cups white semolina
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups very warm water

Instructions:
Peel and cut carrot and potatoes into bite sized chunks. Slice cabbage. Peel onion. Reserve 1/4 onion, and cut the rest into bite sized pieces. In a large stock pot, heat up the olive oil and when shimmery add the above veggies. Cook over medium heat to soften. Add in the cooked beets, also cut into bite size cubes. Pour in the canned tomatoes with the juice. Add enough water to completely cover the veggies (about 6 cups). Stir in the spices. Let come to a boil, then after 3 minutes, turn the flame down to medium low. Begin the dough: in a large mixing bowl, add the semolina and salt. Mix to incorporate. Add in 1 1/2 cups of very warm water, stirring as you go. Let sit for about 10 minutes. It will set up to be a granular gooey paste. To make the meatballs: in another large bowl add the ground beef, onion, garlic and spices. Mix well.

To make the Kubbe balls, oil your hands and a ladle well with olive oil. Pinch a golf-ball sized piece of dough and flatten in the palm of your hand, making special care to flatten out the edges. Place a nice ball of the ground meat mixture in the center of the dough (in your hand). Pull the ends of the dough up to cover, and pinch off the ball at the top, completely surrounding the meat. Make sure there are no holes. Place kubbe in a greased ladle and lower it down into the hot soup. Continue for the rest of the balls. You can also put in plain meatballs without the dumpling coat. See photos-

Let the soup come back to a slow boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cover. Let cook about an hour on low. This is best eaten the next day, and makes a great Shabbat lunch.

If you are keeping Kosher, serve it with a generous dollop of Tofutti imitation sour cream. If you are not worried about Kosher status, sour cream is a great add for the top.

Israel’s Got Talent

When we moved from the greater Los Angeles area to Israel, we really felt we’d be giving up a lot. We were pretty spoiled, because LA/Hollywood is supported by “The [Entertainment] Industry” and so many of our friends and neighbors were connected in some way… stunt men, costume designers, editors, composers, musicians. We had so many musical genres represented from pop to hip hop and rap to Broadway, jazz and the best in classical with the Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic, LA Master Chorale and smaller opera companies, choruses, and conservatories. We were never at a loss for entertainment from rock concerts to childrens’ choirs and loved our summers at the Hollywood Bowl and season tickets to the opera.

I really didn’t know what to expect culturally when we first moved, but I was told that each large city had its own first-rate music conservatory. This was important, as our son was a trumpet player, and I wanted to afford him the opportunity to continue his lessons and have performance venues as well. In addition, throughout the year different cities and kibbutzim host all types of concerts and festivals featuring both local Israeli talent as well as talent brought in from abroad.

Music speaks to the soul and as such, is so important across cultures. We’ve had the chance to experience firsthand the local flavor of the Arabic music and have visited some of their music schools. We’ve enjoyed Yemenite bazooki concerts and French café style entertainment. The Ethiopians have brought with them their own heritage in liturgy and contemporary music and the immigrants from the former Soviet bloc countries are known for their early training in the classical arts. We’ve found Arab Christian bagpipe bands in Nazareth, a hold-over from when Scottish missionaries came to the Holy Land in the 1800s. And we even have a good friend who is the promoter of heavy metal concerts coming to Israel.

Each year, our local music conservatory hosts a fundraising concert with all the proceeds going back into community programs. At first, we were reticent to go, but now look forward to this event as the range of musical talent is representative of the diverse fabric of our society. There is a beautiful women’s chorus made up of religious Jewish, Arab Christian and Druze and secular young ledies. They sing liturgical, folk and classical chorale pieces.

There are several sopranos, who sing the standard art song repertoire in Italian, French, German and even Arabic:

Our mid-sized city has so much talent, including a young woman cellist who has won several international competitions and will go on to study music after her army service; Russian siblings, ages 11 and 13, pianists who both perform solo and duets; a flutist from Canada and a Ukrainian balalaika player who has been performing professionally since he was six and now serves in the IDF, but made the time to play at this concert.

Karmi’el is one of several cities that prides itself on its Children’s Village. There are 200 children from grades 1-12 who live on the spacious and well-manicured campus. Some are orphans, but many come from broken, abusive or disfunctional families. Separated into 16 “mishpachtim” or family groups, they live in large, specially designed homes with sponsor parents and their families. All the kids attend the public schools, but return to the village for afternoon activities, clubs, music and dance lessons, therapy and sports. In this well-rounded program, the older children help with volunteer service projects within the city. Their success rate in academic excellence, reintegration into society, military service, sports and entertainment is unparalleled. One of the young men recently won Israel’s version of The Voice, Junior. Each year, they put on an amazing show for the community at our local theatre arts complex.

Just before the first wave of lockdowns due to the pandemic, John and I went to a hands-on drumming workshop in Nazareth. It was tremendous fun learning about the darbouka, made of wood or aluminum and covered with leather from donkey, goat, camel or skin, each having a different sound. Demonstrations even included a fish-skin covered tambourine, a bandir, based on the ancient models. The last clip in this series was an ancient Aramaic song from the book of the prophet Jonah: the prayer he made from the belly of the fish. The melody itself is centuries old.

During the summer, neighboring Tsfat hosts a three day Klezmer music festival. At Kfar Blum, a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee, there is a weeklong classical music festival. The kibbutz operates a first class hotel and the venues, for both indoor and outdoor concerts are said to be quite pleasant. The festival features vocal and instrumental music with world class guest artists from throughout the world. Jerusalem hosts an international oud festival (an ancient stringed instrument), and the Red Sea resort city of Eilat is famous for its international jazz festival.

In years past, in the Galilee, there was the twice annual Jacob’s Ladder Festival with the best in bluegrass, Celtic, and blues. Most festivals here are very family friendly with activities and workshops for even the youngest. In the early summer, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at Ein GeV kibbutz, there is an choral music festival of mostly Hebrew and European choirs. It also includes a competition.

Speaking of competitions, Israel has been placing first in the Eurovision Competition, a huge international “Who’s Got Talent?” show broadcast throughout Europe. Israel hosted last year in Tel Aviv. The Abu Ghosh Music Festival (just south of Jerusalem) is home to a classical vocal competition in the Spring. Vocalists come from all over the globe. Performances are held in ancient churches and cultural arts centers in the area. Master classes are open to the public.

We had tickets to the Liturgical Festival, but because it was during the pandemic, the events were all livestreamed.

There’s something here for everyone. If you’re into indie, the InDNegev Festival each October is the place to be. The event has grown each year since 2007, and now includes art exhibitions, poetry readings, movies, and huge parties lasting all night. As with several of these types of festivals, camping is strongly encouraged. Every winter, there is also a Grateful Dead festival with live music cover bands as well as dance tents and hippie art shows. If raves are your thing, then there’s the Minus 424 (meters below sea level) Dead Sea Rave. Electronica, lots of DJs and laser light shows have festival goers dancing from sunset to sunrise with the red desert mountains as part of the surreal backdrop. And not to be outdone by America’s Burning Man Festival, there is the infamous Midburn Festival in the Negev Desert each October. A combination Woodstock, Coachella and Burning Man, the participants themselves are the ones who create the performances. They set up an entire weeklong installation in the desert. It has become so popular, that you need to know someone who is part of the event in order to get a ticket.

Israel is truly a crossroad of the world. Because of its proximity to Africa, and due to the influence of our Ethiopian, Eritrean, Nigerian and Ugandan immigrants and visa holders, there are several AfroBeat, AfroJazz, heritage and Reggae concerts throughout the year. Every city has multiple entertainment venues, and most events are free to the public, like the Nuite Francaise which even included a wine and cheese bar and ballroom dancers!


And of course, we have our own mega stars singing pop, hip hop, and indie folk. All during the summer, our Israeli entertainment icons perform concerts in amphitheaters all over the country, many are free, sponsored by the municipality.

(Warning: the next two video clips include bright, flashing lights-)

The very popular Hatikvah 6
Static & BenEl, a high energy boy band, is extremely popular here

Saving our favorite Israeli performer for last: John & I first heard the music of Idan Raichel in Los Angeles in 2010. We saw him at different locations in California and we haven’t missed one of his concerts here (which always sell out in hours). Idan first started performing (accordion) at age 12. He’d play for the dancers at the Karmi’el Dance Festival every year. Last year he, most deservedly, received an honorary PhD in philosophy from BarIlan University and has been named Israel’s Poet Laureate. His music is not only beautiful, but the words! About the beauty of life, of love and friendship, of peace and unity. Many international recording stars have teamed up with Raichel to form the world-beat Idan Raichel Project. It truly is peace through music. So I leave you with this- Enjoy!

Solo performance at the Elmaa Arts Center, Zichron Yaakov

Diversity in Israel: Meet the Circassians

Circassian Cultural Heritage Center in Kfar Kama, Galilee

Adding to the rich cultural diversity in Israel, we have the Circassians. Mainly living in two communities in the North and numbering approximately 4,000, the Circassians’ history goes way back to pre-4th century. Originally from what is present-day Russia – from between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, they were the indigenous people of the Caucasus Mountains. They lived from Sochi to Baku: their capital city was Nalchik and they were known as the Adyghe (Adiga) people. In their language Ady means highlander and ghe means sea. Between the 4th and the 9th centuries, many of them converted to Christianity. When the Tartars and Ottoman Turks conquered their territory, many were forcibly converted to Islam. The Turks called them Cherkess which was Latinized to Circassian. After many years as dhimmie under the Ottomans, most adopted the Muslim religion voluntarily. 1763 marked the 100 year war between the Circassians and the Russians for access to the Black Sea. Eventually, in 1864, Russia launched a genocidal campaign. 90% of their population were exiled from their land – put on ships bound for the Balkans, Anatolia, Bulgaria and Turkey. From there they were taken to the Middle East and can be found throughout the Levant. Their population is about 1.5 million.

Because they were such good fighters, the Ottomans took them in as brother Muslims; and it was the Turks who scattered them throughout the Lebanon/Syria/Israel/Jordan region as a counterweight tothe non-Muslim Jewish, Christian and Druze populations as well as to the Bedouin. Even though they are Sunni Muslim, they are not Arabs. They were brought here in the 1870s as tax collectors for all the other Arab villages in the surrounding area (today, this practice no longer exists).Here in Israel, they maintain excellent relations with the Jewish and Arab populations. The Circassians, although very separate with their own language and educational system, all serve in the IDF. They have kept their ancient phonetic language, Adyghebza, but are fluent in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Their educational levels are very high, their communities, impeccably clean with flowers blooming in every windowbox and garden. There are only 26 family groups or clans within the Israeli Circassian community.

We visited the two Circassian towns recently. Kfar Kama (pronounce Comma) is a thriving village on the upper slope of Har Tavor (Mt. Tabor) in the lower Galilee. The mountain village is walled in, an old form of defense. All of the stone houses are interconnected, sharing a back or side wall. The only way through into the village is from a guardpost/ gate, like a fort. The mosque stands in the very center of the town. And it is the location of the Circassian Heritage Center. Every day, the center welcomes Israeli school groups as part of their educational enrichment program. We were greeted graciously by our docent, Ibek, dressed in a black costume and high fur hat.

After sharing their history with the large group, several members of the village put on a dance exhibition in their native noble costumes. Red and black are their battle colors, turquoise symbolizes the sea and green, the land from which they came.

All Circassians are taught the traditional dances from the time they are young, and all can play at least one musical instrument. The women have much power in their society, and are free to make their own decisions. When a young man comes of age, it is traditional for the Circassian man not to ask permission of the girl’s parents to marry. He asks the girl to marry him directly. This is where the story gets good. Without her parent’s knowledge, the bridegroom and his male attendants, kidnap the beloved at an agreed upon time and place. Two of the bridegroom’s attendants, then go to her family’s home to inform the parents (after she has not shown up). The family must then go out in search of their daughter, but it is the girl’s decision entirely to marry. The parents have no say in the matter. The bride is taken into the groom’s family’s home, and it is they who pay for the entire wedding feast. The families marry within their clans. Sometimes the men travel to Eastern Europe or Turkey where other clan member reside to find their betrothed.

Circassian young woman in native dress

Much of their labor today is agricultural. Olive growing has played a large role in their subsistence . They follow the Muslim dietary laws (refraining from pork, Hallal slaughter) with the exception of fish. Because so many of their people were killed in the Black Sea War, fish and seafood are off the menu in homage to their brethren. They are fairly famous for their smoked meats and hard smoked cheeses. The cheese shop in Kfar Kama boasts of the oldest cheese in Israel: this hard, smoked cheese is shaped like an enormous dagger and is 43 years old!

Today in Israel, about half of the Circassians are devout, the other half fairly secular. There is no pressure to be traditional, although all intimately know the culture and traditions. Observant women wear a white headscarf, like Druze women, but the Circassian style for every day is more like a hijab. Colorful clothes as well as pants are worn by the younger women.

The other Circassian village is Rechaniya, near the Lebanese border, established in 1878 by 66 families. It too is built in the fortified walled village style with a central mosque as in Kfar Kama. Because of their location, the village maintained active ties with their Lebanese and Syrian relations across the border. This proved problematic for the Israeli authorities during the 1967 and Lebanese Wars. Frequent home searches were conducted by the IDF for security reasons. Smuggled weapons were confiscated and some of the Rechaniya townsfolk were temporarily moved to Kfar Kana, 30 miles to the south. Mostly, they preferred to remain neutral during the wars Israel faced. Today, friendly relations have been restored. They pride themselves as being full Israeli citizens and part of the fabric of society. Many Circassians today serve in the police and border patrol units. Several are noted Israeli football stars.

Hani Madaji is the owner of the Rechaniya restaurant, Nalchik. There you can eat like a local, feating on lots of carbs, some baked, some fried, all with different fillings. One of the favorites is Haliva, a fried dough dumpling filled with Circassian cheese, potatoes and herbs. Some variations use beef and leeks.

There are Kalkata, dumplings filled with sheep milk yogurt and paprika; memjak, a savory lentil dish and an interesting type of chicken salad. The shredded, cooked chicken is dressed with a rich, garlicky tehineh and is served at room temperature. Before eating a red olive oil that has been infused with spicy Aleppo pepper and paprika, is drizzled over top. Walnuts, also are sprinkled over (Note: for those visitors keeping Kashrut, this food is definitely not Kosher! Still, interesting to see and learn). Also in Rechaniya is a specialized cheese dairy that has been in the same family for generations. It is an art that has been passed down from mother to daughter for hundreds of years.

Nadi explained to us when we asked how the Circassians fit into society in Israel today that it is a matter of tolerance. They see other people and other cultures as having tremendous dignity and worth as human beings. We are all brothers and sisters, she said. We seek to live peaceably among our own people and alongside the other Israeli citizens. However every Circassian carries deep within him the desire to go back to their original homeland that is today part of Russia. They are all a part of the Great Circassian Diaspora. For them, May 21 is their Genocide Remembrance Day. In both Kfar Kama and Rechaniya there are parades, special services and speeches made. All are welcome to attend.

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.”