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.

City of Peace: The Pearl of the Galilee

We visited Israel for the first time in 2011, when I was still a homeschooling mom. Because we used a modified Classical curriculum, my children and I immersed ourselves in history, literature, art, philosophy, ancient languages (Hebrew and Latin), and culture. Israel, a land steeped in Biblical, Hellenistic, Jewish, Roman, early Christian, Byzantine, Muslim and Crusader history was a place where my young son and I could actually walk out much of what we had learned in books. For us, it was truly exiting, and I knew we had to somehow be a part of this fantastic place. We first stumbled upon Tzippori in 2011, and wound up moving to a town just 20 minutes to the north. Last winter, my husband, John, and I decided to visit once again. Come with us to one of the most phenomenal archaeological discoveries in the 20th century (right in our back yard!!).

Perched like a bird on top of a high hill in the middle of the Lower Galilee is the city of Tzippori (which means bird in Hebrew). It was first built by Hellenistic (Greek) Jews around 125 BCE, and was chosen for its prime location on the main trade route between Egypt and Damascus, the Via Maris. It was also on the route from Akko on the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee. On several occasions, the city was attacked by marauding bands, and finally Herod Antipas, the great builder, undertook its reconstruction in 37 BCE. He employed many different tradesmen from stonemasons to carpenters and the top artisans of the day to create what the historian Josephus would call “the pearl of the Galilee.” As it is only 3.5 miles (a 45 minute walk) from Nazareth, it is more than probable that Joseph the carpenter and foster-father of Jesus was employed here, as was Jesus himself.

Lower Tzippori, a sprawling city adjacent to modern-day Nazareth, in background

By 4 BCE, the Romans were fully entrenched in the Holy Land. Many times they were fought off by zealots, but Tzippori was different. The newly remodeled city was full of Roman sympathizers, often times at odds with the local Galileans. Because Sephoris (as it was called by the Romans) was a “City of Peace,” it was spared destruction from Vespasian and Titus like most of the other towns and cities that were razed by the Legion between 66 and 73 AD. In fact, at one time, Vespasian had over 7500 troops quartered here. For its time, Tzippori was a very wealthy city as evidenced by the many magnificent buildings and especially the mosaics…some of the best in the world! Craftsmen were not only locals, but employed from Egypt, Greece, Rome, experts in the latest styles of carving, fresco painting and tile work. Let’s visit, shall we?

The archeological ruins in the lower part of the city included a colonnaded cardo, the Roman term for the large main thoroughfare. On either side of the cardo, merchants’ shops stood. From the excavation, we get a wonderful picture of daily life in the first century. Glass bottles with remnants of exotic perfumes were discovered; ceramics and stoneware vessels containing grains and pulses; exquisitely crafted jewelry (a gold earring with gemstones, bracelets, an olive leaf head wreath of gold) have been uncovered in situ. Historians note that farming in the rich Jezreel Valley soil and shepherding was done outside the city walls. Fish were brought in fresh from the Mediterranean and Sea of Galilee. In the center of the city were government buildings, a synagogue, and a bank or treasury. Most citizens in this mixed Jewish and Roman city worked for the government under Herod Antipas. There were scribes, tax collectors, judges, lawyers and merchants.

A large villa was unearthed in 1987. The many rooms contained floors of magnificent mosaics. It is called “The Nile House” because the floor in the main hall has a large mosaic depicting the celebration of the Nile River, with a number of separate scenes of different events. In one corner, the river flows from the mouth of an animal on whose back sits a Nile god. In another a reclining female holds a basket of fruit. There are papyrus and lilies in the stream, and the center figure is a picture of a man on a column with a rod called a Nilometer, which measured the height of the river. Surrounding are mosaics showing wild animals in hunting mode. In the room adjacent, the mosaic floor depicts Amazons hunting. The Amazons were a mythical race of female warriors originating from the Caucasus, they settled in Cappodocia (Turkey) and mated with the neighboring Gargarensians, keeping only the girls that were born. The word Amazon comes from the Greek ‘a’ meaning without and ‘mazos “ meaning breast. Legend has it that these women cut off their right breast in order to be better archers…. Anyway, you can see the Greek (Hellenistic) as well as the Egyptian influences in this ancient metropolis (The Greeks invaded Israel in about 150 BCE influencing many Jewish people in Israel to adopt their culture. Centuries before, the Jews were scattered throughout the ancient world in the First Diaspora, hence Hellenized Jews).

One of my favorite places is the tile merchant’s/ mosaic artist’s showroom. Just as we would go to a carpet warehouse or flooring store today, people in the first century could visit the tile showroom and see samples of floor designs. It’s absolutely great!! The ‘warehouse’ had sample designs in little cubicles, offering a variety of geometric shapes, borders, floral and figurative designs. Plus a sample board to choose the colors and sizes of the tesserae!! I don’t think you can find this anywhere else in the world!

Close up of tesserae samples… 68 varying shades in all

For those of you who are interested in feats of engineering, one of the first considerations when building a city is water. How does a team of engineers get water to a city without digging wells? Israel is situated in a desert/sub-Saharan zone. It only rains in the winter: the rest of the year is bone dry. Especially in ancient times, cities were built atop hills and mountains for obvious defensive reasons. So getting water uphill was quite the engineering problem. In the Nazareth mountains nearby flowed underground springs. These springs were channeled in six separate aqueducts which converged outside Tzippori into an enormous hand-hewn cistern or reservoir. This huge underground storage chamber is 260 meters long and 12 meters deep with a volume of 4300 cubic meters. It was in use from the first through the seventh centuries. From the reservoir, the water then ran into a sedimentation chamber, and filtered into another reservoir or holding tank. Enormous amounts of water then exited via a large lead pipe with a filtering sluice at one end. It is truly a marvel to see this sophisticated system! From the reservoir the fresh water was carried by aqueduct into Tzippori. The tremendous build up of water pressure from the reservoir to the small viaducts propelled the water uphill. The remarkable engineering feat actually carried running water through the town and into each house, providing fresh water for drinking, cooking, washing, sanitation, and the ritual Jewish purification baths called mikvaot as well as to the Roman bathhouse in the lower city.


There are just so many interesting things to see here. Let’s head back to the cardo: we were smitten with the actual tracks made by the heavy wagon wheels on the stone streets. A representation of an ancient cart built upon wheels and axels found there is on display. Seeing this really brings the place to life as we could envision a bustling city teaming with life and wagons laden with building materials.

Back in 2011, Max and I got most excited over our tremendous ‘discovery.’ As soon as we saw this graffiti etched into the paving stones on the wide city street, we knew exactly what they were. We had read about this in our Rome studies, so to see it up close for reals: WOW!!! Before I explain, I’ll let you look at the photos and you can try to guess what they were-

So what are all these odd markings? They are street games. During times of boredom, children, merchants, and soldiers alike used to throw knucklebones. Small bones or cubiyot, like dice would be rolled into a designated area etched into the street and points would be racked up. For the adults (and street punks?) it was a game of great skill and often involved placing bets. Sometimes, as in the photo uppermost right, the grids would be stacked in a line and the game resembled cribbage or backgammon as the player would move their pieces from grid to grid. Is this super cool or what???

Now we make our way up the mountain to the upper part of Tzippori. Again, we can see the influence of Rome. Every metropolis needs entertainment, and as one would expect, there is a nice sized amphitheater carved into the north side of the mountain. It was built in the late first or second century AD and had seating for 4000. On ground level in front was the orchestra (the place for the chorus during the Greek period, reserved for honored guests during Roman times. The elevated stage or scena was made of marble and wood. Behind would be large scaffolding for the backdrops with costuming below and balconies for soliloquies above. At this particular site, metal scaffolding has been added so one can get a general idea of the design. Rows of seating were hewn out of the bedrock and covered with marble slabs. Most have been raided and repurposed for building by other civilizations, a very common occurrence. The bottom rows remain intact.

The remains of a spectacular Roman residence built at the beginning of the third century AD were found towards the mountain’s plateau. This villa, along with most of the other structures in Tzippori, was destroyed in the great earthquake of 363 AD. The villa would have had most spectacular views, and because of its proximity to the theatre, indicates a high status of the owner. It has now been enclosed to preserve what is left including Israel’s finest mosaic, the Mona Lisa of the Middle East. The mansion was built according to a popular Roman floor plan. The main room of the sprawling villa was the triclinium, or dining room walled on three sides open to spectacular views and a colonnaded portico facing the Mount Carmel Ridge of Haifa. Cubiculum, or bedrooms, were located off the main hall. Also, just off the dining room, was an indoor bathroom (picture below) with running water below the latrine hole. The walls of the villa were once covered in beautiful frescoes as evidenced by the remains of paint on the existing walls. Many of the rooms had mosaic floors with colorful patterns, the most ornate in the dining salon contains scenes from the life of Dionysus, god of wine. The mosaic is comprised of 1.5 million stones in 23 colors.

Now for a bit of interesting history. The Romans finally decided to subjugate these living in Israel. Why after so many years? The Jews paid taxes at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The taxes exacted by the Romans were exorbitant and bleeding them dry (hence the “render unto Caesar…” speech). Many refused or just could not pay, which oftentimes led to enslavement. The Romans worked seven days a week except for State/religious festivals. The Jewish people insisted on keeping the Sabbath: every Saturday was a day of complete rest in which no work at all was done. When in the early 30s-70 AD, this new cult of Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) as their promised Messiah started springing up, not only was Shabbat kept, but now Sunday was held by these nascent Christians as the Lord’s Day. The Romans were losing a day’s labor from the Jews and two days labor from the Messianics. It was going too far! Plus bands of Jewish zealots were springing up trying to shake off their hoke of bondage to Rome.

In 66-68 AD, the Roman legions led by Vespasian and his son, Titus, landed on the shores of Akko in Israel. They spent the next two years routing out all the Jewish people living in the towns and countryside of the Galilee region. It was during this time the Jewish general Mattityahu Ben Joseph was captured (later becoming Josephus Flavius, the historian to Rome). Many Jews were expelled. Many were taken as slaves. Many killed. Many traveled south towards Jerusalem. By 70 AD, the Romans captured their prize jewel, the eternal capital of the Jewish people: the city of Jerusalem. The walls were breached after a long siege and after a bloodbath, the Roman army seized the city and razed the holy Temple (see Arch of Titus in Rome). This marked the beginning of the great diaspora in which most of the Jewish people were either taken into captivity or were dispersed throughout the world.

Jerusalem, the Holy City since King David, had always been the spiritual or religious center for the Jewish people. It was where the Sanhedrin (the main body of the court of law) assembled. Home to the great priests, rabbis and Torah scholars of the day. it was a major center of learning in the ancient world. Many of these great sages of old (khazal) escaped Jerusalem and went south to Yavne (south of modern day Tel Aviv) or north toward Tzippori. For the first part of the new millennium, the Oral Law or Mishnah (companion to the Torah), which had been handed down from generation to generation, was codified, much of it in Tzippori. Great sages of Judaism, Yehuda haNasi and Rebbe Eliezer lived in this city arguing, discussing and writing the heart of the Talmud. The remains of a large synagogue from the first century are here, but the structure was mostly destroyed in the great earthquake.

Early Christianity/Catholicism also had their own Oral Traditions that had been handed down from generation to generation (Dormition and Assumption of Mary; home of the Holy Family; sites of miracles). One of these traditions states that Mary’s parents (grandparents of Jesus), Joaquin and Anna, were originally from the city of Tzippori. During the times of the Crusaders, a large church and monastery were erected at the site of their purported home. It was called Deir Anna or the Monastery of St Anna.

There is a Crusader fortress at the very top of the mountain. It was destroyed by the Mamaluks under Baybars, then rebuilt in the 18th century by Daher Al Omar, the Bedouin ruler of the Galilee. During this time period, Tzippori, called Sephoris by the Romans, was now renamed Safouriyeh thus Arabizing the Hebrew.

Last, are the ruins of a large synagogue from the second century. It was a center of activity for the sprawling city, and reflected not only its Jewish heritage and connection (commemoration of) the destroyed Second Temple, but also has Greek, Roman and Eastern influence as seen in the mosaics. There is a large central medallion of the zodiac with both Hebrew and Greek writing. Side panels depict the accoutrements of the Temple worship: shofarim (trumpets), menorah (lamp stand), incense table, showbread table, bulls for sacrifice, jars of olive oil, baskets of fruit containing the seven species of plants native to Israel. At the other end of the synagogue floor are mosaic representations of the Biblical story of Abraham: Abraham feeding the angels, Abraham and Sarah, and Father Abraham’s ascent up Mt Moriah with his son, Isaac on the donkey. A side band in Hebrew reads that the floor was “donated with generous funds by ….. in memory of their son, …. “ So it keeps the tradition of a memorial plaque. The geometric design is more Eastern than Western. Even though the synagogue is now a museum, pre-arranged weddings and Bar Mitzvahs can take place on the site. When we were there, a group was gathering for a Bar Mitzvah. A portable ark with Torah was being wheeled onto the main floor and a bima was being set up. It’s another example of living connection to the past.

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

The Three Weeks: The Latest Conflict

The past three weeks have marked a period of collective fasting, prayer, charity or alms-giving and mitzvot, or doing good deeds for the Jewish people of Israel. It comes at the hottest, driest time of year when all a person wants to do is sit in front of a fan and eat ice cold watermelon. The period starts on the 17th of Tammuz, the Hebrew month. On this day, thousands of years ago Moses came down from Mt Sinai to see drunken orgies and the people worshipping an idol, the golden calf, so in anger, he smashed the tablets with the Ten Commandments. A year later (1313 BCE) 12 spies were sent out into the Promised Land to scout out the lay of the land. On the 9th of Av, 10 spies came back with a bad report. Instead of proclaiming a land filled with natural goodness – super huge fruits, date honey, goats, cows, milk, rich soil, a land with which they were bequeathed, they spoke of walled cities. They spoke of appearing to be like tiny grasshoppers in the eyes of giants. They said it was untamable. Wild. Dangerous. Instead of relying on the L-rd, they fell into despair. And they took an entire nation into absolute hopelessness and despair with them. Instead of being filled with gratitude and strength and optimism, they were defeatist. So the entirety of the Children of Israel were made to wander in the desert for forty years.

From that time on, it seem those three weeks would be an infamous swamp of bad karma for the Jewish people. Biblically, the 10 Northern tribes were taken by the Assyrians during this time. Then the Babylonians swept in, breaching the walls of Jerusalem on the 17th Tammuz and taking the city. On the 9th of Av, Solomon’s Temple, the First Temple, was razed and the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were led into captivity for 70 years. The Temple was rebuilt under Cyrus and lasted until 70AD, when it was leveled by the Romans. Most of the Jews were scattered throughout the world in the Great Diaspora. Fifty two years later, the walled fortress of Beitar, held down by the last Zealots against the Roman regime was breached on 17 Tammuz. Again, after a three week siege, the Romans killed the thousands of remaining Jews and destroyed the city (just outside Jerusalem near Bethlehem) on 9 Av. It marked the end of a Jewish homeland for almost 2000 years.

The tragedies of Tisha b’Av ( Hebrew for 9 Av) and the three weeks continued throughout history. European Jews were burned alive in synagogues in Italy, Germany & France in the 1100s-1200s; the Jews of England were expelled by King Edward “Longshanks” in 1290; King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain in 1492; on Tisha b’Av in 1914, Germany declared war on Russia thus beginning World War l; in 1942 Hitler’s Final Solution was announced; on that same day, the deportations of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps commenced. In more “modern times,” the deadly bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires by Iranian-backed terrorists killed 86, seriously wounding over 300. And in 2005, on Tisha B’Av, in the name of “land for peace” Israel forcibly and permanently removed the remaining Jewish residents of Gaza (they had until then been living relatively peaceable lives with their Arab neighbors), in essence handing the territory over to Islamic militants like Hamas (the word actually means VIOLENCE!!!) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. There has been no peace ever since.

With that brief history, we’ve been watching events unfold over the past few weeks. Israel had been seeing a sharp uptick in Palestinian violence recently. There were car-rammings, stabbing, shootings, the throwing of projectiles onto the windshields of cars, and other incidents of violence. Hotbeds of illegal weapons, cash and drug smuggling were uncovered in the cities of Nablus, Um-Al-Fahmm and Jenin. In an IDF raid, on which I reported several weeks ago, the journalist Abu Ahkleh was shot. Despite video that showed evidence to the contrary, TikTok clips released by the Islamists in real time, her death was blamed on Israel’s attempt to assassinate an Arab reporter. Things were heating up again as the summer sun blazed on.

During this years’ Three Weeks period, several more surprise raids were made by the IDF to try to curb the violence. Entire terror cells were taken into custody. We were closely following the news, as friends of mine in Tekoa and Gush Etzion in Judaea (West Bank near Jerusalem) had their gate guarded communities breached by men wielding guns. Last Tuesday, 2 August, in Jenin ( the West Bank) the IDF arrested Bassam al-Shaadi, the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Founded in 1982, the PIJ is an internationally recognized terrorist organization which has direct backing by the Iranian and Syrian regimes. After Hamas, it is the second largest terror group in the region, ruling over much of Gaza. Its sole purpose of existence is to destroy Israel and make it free of Jews. Al-Shaadi had been directly involved in planning and executing several deadly attacks against Israeli civilians. Bags of cash and illegal weapons were found upon his arrest and the arrest of two other wanted terrorists.

Marches of protest and cries of revenge sprang up immediately in the Arab towns and cities. The PIJ, in return, threatened to commence the bombing of Southern and Central Israel where 70% of the Israeli population lives. As a precaution, all the roads leading up to and within the Gaza envelope were closed off to any traffic. Roadblocks were set up. The citizens living within the area were all told to remain inside and lock down, staying close to the nearest bomb shelters. The following day, a senior PIJ military leader announced, “We have every right to bomb Israel with our most advanced weapons.” They threatened to attack the most populous areas including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 80 km or 50 miles away. The rhetoric intensified on Thursday, as many residents remained hunkered down, not going to work, not going to the market, not sending their children to summer activities.


Special cabinet meetings were held. Israel was attempting to appease the PIJ, to stop their threats to now carry out attacks across the country. Later it was reported that there was actionable intelligence of an imminent attack by the PIJ using an anti-tank missile to blow up a bus. The chatter was recorded. The launcher was found along with the ten terrorists headed to the border to instigate the attack. In a well-coordinated, heavily-planned preemptive strike, Israel entered into its latest conflict, Operation Breaking Dawn, on Friday afternoon just before the Sabbath. Also struck with absolute surgical precision, was the apartment of PIJ senior commander in Gaza, Taysir al-Jabari. Al-Jabari was killed and in return, the PIJ immediately started their missile barrage against the citizens of Israel. The missiles rained down on Central Israel continuously for over 50 hours. In all, over 1,100 were fired. Just stop for a second or two and think of that. Over 1100 missiles in just over 2 days!!

Although heavily inconvenienced, many in shock from the trauma as the bombs whistled overhead and shook the ground upon impact, the Israelis stayed resolute. All were united behind the IDF efforts to take down this most recent threat. In an almost supernatural answer to the prayers and fasting of the people, and much thanks to Iron Dome, there was not one Israeli casualty. Several cars and a couple buildings were hit and a few people were treated for falling while on the way to shelters and for shock. But there were no major injuries. This was a Tisha B’Av miracle. Still, sirens wailed throughout the center of Israel nonstop. Another huge miracle, not to be underestimated, is that Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, decided to sit this one out. Perhaps it was because the knew that the IDF was only targeting PIJ. Maybe it was because they were pummeled last conflict and did not want a repeat performance. A miracle, nonetheless.

We were completely unaffected by this in the North, but still, the people were all on edge. Last year, many of the surrounding Arab villages and mixed cities experienced uprisings and violent riots which saw the destruction of Jewish property and resulted in several deaths. The government had well-prepared for this scenario, and this year made sure the police were out in advance to quell any disturbances before they could take hold. Simultaneously, the IDF was making military incursions into places like Nablus and Jenin arresting terror cells and confiscating stolen and homemade illegal weapons. It was a well-coordinated effort.

The Israeli army has a policy to go out of their way to avoid incurring civilian damages. Both PIJ and Hamas go out of their way to hide their bomb and rocket launchers behind their own people: in schools, hospitals, mosques and inside high-density housing units. Israel has every right to defend its people. What would you do if a neighboring state started attacking your city? There is a popular narrative that is being spread by many mainstream news outlets and by members of the US government: that there is an imbalance of power. That the Iron Dome affords Israel a unique advantage. This narrative is both misleading and dangerous. Iron Dome definitely saves countless lives and property. It is because of the strength and accuracy of Israel’s army that Hamas, Hezbollah, PIJ and other terror organizations that have genocidal racism as their epithet have not proliferated and taken over in the region. Their goal is not to “resist the occupation.” Their goal is to make the entire MidEast, especially Israel free of Jews, free or Christians, free of homosexuals and free of any other group they do not approve of. Their goal is to make the entire Mideast a vast wasteland of their religious intolerance and supremacy as can be seen in countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Yemen. They have no desire in making life better for their own people, who live in abhorrent conditions under a militaristic religious dictatorship.

All the violence could be stopped in a single instant if the Islamist terrorists would just put down their weapons to live in peace. We all want peace here. We do not seek conflict. We just want to live normal lives. All they have to do is accept our existence, something they all have been given the opportunity to recognize officially on many occasions, but refuse. There is no easy answer. Usually the blame falls on Israel. For example,, early on in the conflict, Gaza reported that 7 civilians including 5 children were killed in the Jabalia refugee complex when an Israeli bomb struck the tenement housing. They even released footage of the strike. Upon inspection, it can be seen that their own missile completely backfired, making a slowly arching u-turn before crashing down and hitting the Jabalia site. The news, first broadcast by AlJezeera then picked up by international mainstream media was debunked as fake news within the hour. More footage released shows that not only did this bomb fail to reach its target, but that over 20% of the launches misfired, falling back into Gaza.

Late Sunday evening, a ceasefire, brokered by Egypt, was announced. So far, it has held, but things are tenuous at best. The PIJ has called for the release of al-Saadi and other “political hostages.” As of this morning, Tuesday, 9 August, Israel special ops were in Nablus encountering extreme and wild fire power. So far 11 terrorists including the head of the AlAqsa Martyrs’ Brigade have been killed with zero IDF casualties with the exception of a counterterrorism dog. A large number of explosives and additional weapons have been located at the site. Hopefully this will deter the terrorists and help break the wave of recent violence. We pray for peace and security and for the wisdom of our government. We pray for truthful reporting. And we thank G-d that this Ninth of Av we were spared.

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.

A Micronation Within Israel & Parties on the Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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 –

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.