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.

In the Footsteps of Elijah

Fresco, Ascent of Elijah, on the wall of Stella Maris

I love that everywhere we go in Israel, there is a biblical or historical site. They are everywhere. For the past month, we have been on the trail of the prophet Elijah. Our balcony overlooks Carmel Ridge, where much of the Biblical story takes place. It’s about 40 minutes from our house, so when friends offered to take us to Mukhraka (‘the place of the fire’ in Arabic) last month, we jumped at the opportunity. They were going for the sweeping panoramas. We were hunting Elijah, Eliyahu in Hebrew.

On the southeastern slope of Mount Carmel, the prophet had his famous showdown with King Ahab and the prophets of the god Baal. In this encounter, described in 1 Kings 18:1-40, Elijah issued a challenge to 450 pagan priests over whose god could make it rain. Before an assembly on the summit of Carmel, he called on the priests to seek fire from Baal to light their sacrifice. When Baal failed to respond to their pleading, Elijah built an altar to the L-rd, pouring mega-gallons of water (this was during an extreme drought!!!!!) on top of his own sacrifice. Immediately, fire from heaven consumed his waterlogged offering. Directly down the steep slope of this mountain runs the Kishon Stream, just as it was written in the Bible attesting to us the fact this was the correct location. Elijah tells his servant to go look out to sea to see if there is any sign of rain. From this spot, one can look far off in the distance to see the Mediterranean(another verification of the site). Soon after, the storm began and Elijah outran the chariot and horses of King Ahab down Mt. Carmel to the Jezreel Valley below. When I was a kid, we used to think Elijah was the fastest man alive because he could outrun Ahab’s chariot. Today, now that I’ve been to Mukhraka, I think he was smart. As we stood atop the mountain looking down, we could not even begin to imagine what it must have been like to drive horses and chariot down a steep, very rocky slope. Avoiding trees. Flash flooding. Mudslides. It must have taken endless hours. So much faster and much more direct to just make one’s way by foot!!

Mukhraka today is a Carmelite monastery open to the public. The gardens are well-kept and peaceful. In the center courtyard a monument to Elijah stands. Inside the small chapel is an altar with 12 stones from the site, just like the 12 stones the prophet erected for his altar on this spot. But the prize is climbing to the rooftop for the panorama. You can see for miles and miles in all directions. In the North, you can see all the way to the mountains of the Lebanese border. To the west is the Mediterranean Sea. To the east, the view encompasses the Jezreel Valley, Mount Tabor, Nazareth and the surrounding areas, and to the South one can see Megiddo, Ceasaria, Netanyahu and all the way to Tel Aviv!!! It’s absolutely breathtaking!!!

Elijah the prophet was known to hide out in a cave on the Carmel ridge because King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were both seeking out the prophets of G-d to kill them – and for Elijah in particular. This is where the story gets even more interesting. Here in Israel, you will often find different locations for each Bible story. Because the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Protestants, the Jews, the Druze and the Muslims will not worship at the same site together, there are multiple locations (i.e. The Holy Sepulchre vs the Garden Tomb; three sites of Capernaum; three sites for the Sermon on the Mountain; the Western Wall for Jews and the Temple Mount for Muslims, different sites of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary). After researching and asking many people and tour guides, we found four different caves of Elijah. Each religion swears theirs is the correct one. So, here goes-

The Jewish Cave of Elijah is at the very base of Mount Carmel near Bat Galim Beach in Haifa. It’s not terribly well known. To find it, you must go up a flight of steep steps to a person’s private residence. The old stone home is built right atop the entrance to a cave. Finding it is not so easy as it’s not well marked and the cave is behind a large set of wooden double doors. Once inside, there is a divided cavern – one side for the women and one side for men, as prayer is segregated by sexes in Judaism. At the back of this cavern is a smaller chamber in the rock where the Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls are kept. All in all, the cavern is spacious, dimly lit and musty. Could this be the place?

The next Cave of Elijah is a story unto itself. We were equally unprepared for this one. My husband and I heard that there was another cave at the top of the western cliff of Mt Carmel in Haifa, just 140 meters up the hill above the Jewish cave. Literally surrounding the cave is the Roman Catholic Church of Stella Maris, run by the Carmelite order. The Carmelites were founded upon Mount Carmel during the Crusades by hermit monks who lived in caves like the prophet Elijah had done. Many of the monks here were killed by the Muslims in the 1400s, but resettled the mountain in 1631, purchasing the land outright from Emir Jorabay with mediation from the French. They erected the monastery, but were expelled by Al Omar in 1767. Not daunted, the Carmelite monks received patronage from the Turkish Sultan and the French and were allowed to return and expand their building. During Napoleon’s siege of Akko eight miles to the north, the building was converted to a French hospital for the wounded soldiers. In 1821, Abdullah Pasha, the governor of Akko tore down the church, but it was rebuilt in 1836. It became an influential institution to the city of Haifa, attracting a large Arab Christian population. Furthermore, the ‘rediscovery’ of the Holy Land in the late 1880s (Mark Twain) brought more visitors and pilgrims to the area. In 1887, a hostel was built around the cave and church. Many brought their sick who came for the chance the spirit of Elijah would heal them. The large complex of monastery, basilica, lighthouse (which we see from our balcony every night), and surrounding gardens stand to this day.

Before I get back to Elijah, there’s another thread I want to share (that happens all the time here. I’ll go for one story and find three other fascinating ones as well!!). A mysterious, invisible straight line links seven monasteries from Ireland to Israel. They were built independently of one another from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries and are all very far apart from each other, yet all in a line. As the story goes, the archangel Michael fought a great battle in heaven with Lucifer/Satan, eventually hurling him from heaven to earth. It is said that the line of churches follows the path of Michael’s sword, the tip landing in Haifa on Mt Carmel. The first monastery is located on the island of Skellig Michael in Ireland…on to St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, UK…Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France…Sacra di San Michele in Turin, Italy…Monte Santangelo, Italy….Simi Monastery, Greece… and Stella Maris. And all were supposedly built by direct request from an apparition of St. Michael, Archangel.

We made it up the mountain to Stella Maris Church just in time for the Mass. The church was reminiscent of many I’d seen in France or Italy. It was astoundingly beautiful, but strikingly different, because the raised altar was built over top of Elijah’s Cave. The walls were marble imported from Italy, as was the mosaic floor. Stained glass panels told the story of Elijah, and overhead was a stunning cupola with frescoed panels depicting Elijah, King David, other prophets, and Mary. Just beyond the pews were three steps down into the grotto, where pilgrims go to pray and light candles, much as in the Jewish cave. Above the altar was a large statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. Suspended from her hand is a large scapular. Mary, patroness of the Carmelites, gave this scapular to one of the monks in the 1200s. Many Catholic faithful today wear it. A tiny bit like a talit kattan worn by Jewish men or a mezuzah, the scapular is a prayer placard suspended around the neck by cords or fringes. It rests over the heart and between the scapula bones at the back. Of all the Elijah caves we visited, this was certainly the most impressive.

At the southwestern face of the Carmel Ridge is the site that Protestant Christians claim is the true cave of Elijah. There are no fancy churches, no places for prayer or lighting of candles, no holy books or gardens….just a lonely walk to a cave in the side of the mountain. It was roped off and quite inaccessible to humans – except for a couple of creepy life-sized dolls. Were they supposed to be representations of the famous prophet? The site certainly had that desolate feel of a place a hermit would live or a place one would go to seek escape. But those dolls!!! What were the people that put them there thinking???

The last cave of Elijah was not on Mount Carmel at all. It was adjacent to the city in which we live! A five minute drive across the highway and a twenty minute hike on a narrow trail. Located between the Arab towns of Nahef and Deir al Assad, we could see the structure high up in the mountain cliffs. John and I had always wondered what it could be? It looked like an ancient Egyptian temple or some type of mausoleum. It was the Muslim site of Elijah’s cave. In Arabic Elijah is known as “El Khader”. During the Byzantine period the Beit ha Kerem (House of Vineyards) Valley was a major center of Christian monasteries. The caves in the hills were used as burial sites for local Jewish residents and also for the early Hebrew Christians of the Galilee. Monks secluded themselves in these numerous caves as well. When the Muslims invaded the land, they took over many of these sites. They built their own shrine at the entrance to one of the larger caverns for their El Khader. Today, Bedouins still go up to the heights to offer sacrifices of sheep and goats… seeing the remnants of a recent Eid sacrifice near the entrance was just a little weird for us.

2 Kings, chapter 2 recounts the famous Bible story of Elijah being taken bodily to heaven in a whirlwind. He had traveled with his disciple Elisha down to the Judaean desert at the Jordan River crossing. There, Elijah instructed Elisha to wait on the western side of the river and not to take his eyes off him as he crossed over and ascended in the whirlwind when a fiery chariot split the sky (but Elisha’s attention was not diverted!!!) and he saw his mentor go up into the heavens. He then received a double portion of Elijah’s anointing – and his mantle.

Last month, our good friend, Marc, wanted to visit that spot at the Jordan River – to see how high the water was after two years of heavy winter rains. The Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) was still full and feeding the Jordan, which down near the Dead Sea is usually just a slimy trickle a couple inches deep. This year, it was supposed to be freely flowing and quite deep. I was dying to go because not only was it where Elijah was taken up, but it was also the exact spot where the Children of Israel crossed into the Promised Land of Israel at Gilgal (near Jericho)after their forty year desert wanderings – Joshua 3. Once we got down there, I learned it was also the site where John the Baptist was immersing his disciples – and where he immersed Jesus. Also, it marks the spot where the leprous Syrian general Naaman dipped seven times in the river at the directive of Elisha. He was reticent to do something so simple, but was immediately cured of his disease (2 Kings 5). So it was quite the holy place!!!

In the Samarian (Shomron) desert, also known as the West Bank, on the border with Jordan, is Qaser Al-Yahud, also known as ‘the baptismal site.’ It had been completely closed since the 1967 War. Following Jordan’s defeat in the war, and their loss of control of the West Bank, the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat began to launch attacks on Israel from the Jordanian territory. The fighting lasted until Black September in 1970 when the troops of King Hussein routed the Palestinians (being supported by Haze Assad of Syria) into Lebanon. The area they left behind had been heavily mined. The old church that stood at the site is still pockmarked with bullet holes. Over the past decade, the IDF has been working to clear the landmines in the immediate vicinity so the Catholic Church and Franciscan monastery there could be used again. Today, it’s under the protection of the Israeli Parks Service and the Franciscans and can now be used for baptisms…once tourists are allowed back after the pandemic closures.

Because there were so few tourists on the Israeli side, we had a fun time to ourselves. Being careful to stay within the confines of the designated paths, we made our way down to the Jordan River. Unlike the crystal clear waters in the North, the Jordan was quite muddy by the time it reached Qaser al Yahud. The Israeli side was quite sparse, but there were an assortment of beautiful churches on the Jordanian side: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox. There were steps leading down to the river for baptisms, and a large chain dividing line that signified the border between Israel and Jordan. It was crazy being so close to the border!

As I was dipping my foot in (I just HAD to do it!) the murky waters, we heard singing coming from the Jordanian side. English voices! Americans!!!! Escorted by an armed guard, an American Evangelical pastor from California had taken some of his congregation on a pilgrimage. I yelled to them from the Israeli side. He was there to baptize them. How lucky for us to be there to see them!!

In total, he baptized six people. Tears were flowing, songs were being lifted heavenward, and you could just tell it was a moment that would forever be sealed in the hearts of those people. By the time we left, the one armed guard was joined by four other Jordanian military. And so we found ourselves at the last point in Elijah’s earthly life. It had been a most interesting journey for us.

Living Bridges

As our peaceful Shabbat ended last weekend, the Jewish community of Pittsburgh was enduring hell on earth. A deranged gunman was bent on murdering as many Jews as he could at the Etz Chaim Synagogue. It’s unfortunately an age old history that my people share.

Yesterday evening my husband and I attended a memorial service for the victims here in Karmi’el. For over 20 years Pittsburgh has been a sister city to our community and the surrounding Misgav Regional Council under the Partners 2Gether program. In addition to the hundreds of local population, we were privileged to have in attendance, over 30 members of Beth Shalom and Etz Chaim Synagogues from Pittsburgh. Theirs was a pre-planned visit, the beginning of a weeklong tour of Israel. We were able to mourn and pray together side by side. Several of our own Olim were originally from Pittsburgh, making it all the more poignant.

The communities of Misgav and Karmi’el have connected through a close partnership and deep bonds have been forged over decades with the Jewish people of Pittsburgh. It is now a family relationship. Through the years, Pittsburgh has helped our Northern Israel communities, with donations to our local synagogues and in times of our crisis- when we were under a barrage of missiles launched from Lebanon in 2006- they provided much needed prayers and support.

Rabbi Amy Levin of Misgav who served as interim rabbi in Pittsburgh before moving back to her home in Israel in 2016, led the Kaddish. The El Malei Rachamim (G-d of Mercy) prayer was recited by Rabbi Gil Nativ, rabbi emeritus of the Kehillat HaKerem Conservative Synagogue in Karmi’el. Our mayor, Adi Eldar gave a moving speech emphasizing the need for Jewish unity. As his last act as sitting mayor, commissioned a memorial statue to be erected in Karmi’el.

As the eleven memorial candles were lit by members of Beth Shalom and Etz Chaim, a choir softly sang. Everyone was thinking of friends and family, sharing pictures. The couple sitting next to us showed us pictures of Daniel Stein (of blessed memory) dancing at their daughter’s wedding just three months prior. “Squirrel Hill was such a safe neighborhood. Everyone knew their neighbor. We left our doors unlocked. We walked the streets at night without fear. Anyone was welcome in our shul….”

We had a live stream video link with two members of the Etz Chaim community thanking us for their support. Rabbi Seth Adelson was officiating funerals, but is expected to join the Pennsylvania group later today in Israel. A video montage put together by our community – schoolchildren, soldiers, workers, family, government officials- was played for us. It will be taken back to Pittsburgh.

After the service, the busload of our “extended family” was taken to Kehillat HaKerem/Spitzer Center where the Conservative Congregation hosted a dinner in their honor. It was bittersweet as president of the Beth Shalom Congregation, Deborah Firestone, recounted the day’s events- “We were in shul saying our morning prayers when we heard the sirens. Our security officer, a retired FBI agent called for us to go into lockdown. Etz Chaim down the street was under attack. We usually don’t use our phones on Shabbat, but all at once everyones’ phones started buzzing, and we knew immediately something aweful was happening. We stationed guards at all our doors (they are glass) and tried to pray. Three separate congregations were housed at Tree of Life on separate floors. By 11:30, we received the all clear.”

Both Don Jacobson and Julie Landau of Kehillat HaKerem gave updates of all events at the Conservative Synagogue and a pledge of continued mutual support. “We reach out to you. If there is anything we can do- help you enhance your security, fight anti-Semitism, anything at all… let’s start a conversation of what we can further do together.”

Emails or notes of sympathy, support or encouragement can be sent directly to jewishpgh.org

Making the Connection

IMG_0862The United States today is facing a time of the erasure of its history; “cultural misappropriation” and confusion; fractioned families; identity confusion. Colleges and universities have been taken over by waves of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and Boycott, Divest and Sanction programs against Israel. There has been an ongoing bias in the UN and in the media against Israel.  Also, there has been a growing shift towards secularism and away from any and all religion. How then to connect the Jewish young adult to his/her heritage? How does one foster a connection to Judaism, to the land of Israel, to awaken a dormant spirituality, to create a sense of heritage, belonging, and identity?

Aaron Botzer, who immigrated to Israel in the late 1970s has done exactly that. From humble beginnings in the scenic mountain town of ancient Tsfat in the Upper Galilee, Aaron has cobbled together an amazing program for Jewish young adults. Livnot U’Lehibanot, Build and Be Built, is a program like no other in Israel. It is a holistic, physically and spiritually challenging Jewish experience that connects the participants to their heritage and community in an open environment. Combining hiking through the beautiful countryside while learning about the history, the land, the ecological balance, and the flora and fauna is only one experience to feed the soul. Through nature, hands-on experiences, seminars, connection to the local community, field trips, and unique cultural opportunities, the soul is elevated and can make connections not otherwise drawn.

Situated in the mystical city of old Tsfat, which is literally built atop layers and layers of history provides another advantage. Not only are the youth able to enjoy the artsy and spiritual vibes of this unique place, but the Livnot Center itself, is built on a most amazing archaeological site, the Kahal. Located on a 700 square meter site, in the heart of Tsfat’s ancient, Jewish quarter, are underground stone passageways and tunnels leading to rooms, structures, ritual bathing pools (mikvaot), synagogues, and homes from the 16th century, Tsfat’s Golden Age. The participants in this program spend time actually working on the ongoing excavations and renovations of the site. It provides a unique hands-on opportunity to connect with the past as well as to enjoy all that it offers in the present. There is a large communal hall that has been unearthed and restored. It contains wood-burning ovens from the 1500s, where today, pizza is made and challah is baked. The carved-out stone seating area along the walls of this spacious stone room is lined with richly colored Middle Eastern pillows and cushions – a perfect place for seminars, musical concerts and just hanging out.

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Livnot U’Lehibanot is not only concerned with the past, but community service programs and opportunities to volunteer within the local communities provide a link to present-day Israel. There are seminars and group discussions led by leading experts in different fields. Also, there are interactive workshops, in art and music, challah making, cooking, folk dance, ecology and sustainability, and spirituality. Fantastically fun and spirit-filled Shabbat celebrations are another highlight of the program. There are classes in leadership training as well, as the future leaders of society make up the different groups.

This life-changing program is not affiliated with any particular denomination of Judaism, which is very unique here in Israel. The philosophy behind this is that all denominations have the ability to influence one another for the good of all. There is no pressure on the youth to go one way or another, just to enjoy and grow from the experience. There are many different paths of Jewish spirituality that vary from individual to individual. It is quite open-minded in its holistic approach, which helps bridge many gaps. Ultimately, to form a bond with the Almighty, with Judaism, and with the land of Israel is the ultimate goal. Here, the young adult will meet many different people from all over the world – not just the States, but Europe, South Africa, Canada, Australia and South America. Trained mentors oversee the activities in a safe and fun environment.

The Livnot programs consist of short term 1 week, 2 weeks, and 6 weeks intensives. Each group consists of no more than 24 youth. The intensives are highly subsidized by generous patrons, making it very affordable indeed (a full week including room and board is only $195/ a six week course runs $500). It is perfect for the person who has made a Birthright trip and wants something more – to take that adventure to a higher level.  There are winter programs, running from December through February; summer programs from May through August; and special holiday programs. Perfect for the university student as well as the post graduate, who is looking for a different kind of spiritual experience. To date, over 1000 alumni of Livnot have completed the program and have gone on to become active young professionals and lay leaders in their own communities back home.

“In retrospect, there has probably been no single life experience                     that has had such a profound effect on my life. I was able to discover what a gold mine was out there for Jewish souls. Shabbat evening, with its candles and sensual setting, was a profound experience of peace and belonging, connection and fulfillment. My life has been forever transformed.”   Avi R., Program T25

” I am reminded of how one week in Tsfat set me on the path of personal legacy. Livnot has been the catalyst of my Jewish journey…my program showed me that being Jewish isn’t about scrambling to save people from being washed out by modern society, but rather that we are privileged to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We are connected to a thriving, growing family and culture that is infused with thousands of years of spirituality and wisdom.”  Abigail C., Program 256

“Life altering is an understatement!”   David B., Program 126

For more information, as a potential participant, or to donate – contact www.livnot.org

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Recipes & Ideas for the Fall Feasts

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It’s a few days after the observance of Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year – and I’m finally beginning to catch my breath. John & I had just returned from two weeks in Europe, and I was having five extra guests plus my son (on army leave) over for dinner. I wanted a really pretty table and menu with a minimum amount of hardship. Plus, we would be celebrating a traditional New Year Seder here in Israel.

For the centerpiece, I used my Rosh HaShannah seder plate which I got at Shalom House in Tarzana, California. Underneath I laid (silk) fall leaves with grapes and chestnuts (I picked off the ground in Geneva & will cook later) surrounding the plate. I decided to use my autumn colors tablecloth so I didn’t have to iron my good white damask one. Gold trimmed placemats, my autumn (meat dishes) china, and we were almost good to go. Hollowing out a few tiny acorn squash and inserting a tea light in each one was inexpensive, easy, and really lovely.  I put a hostess sized Tamar Gourmet Preserves or Chutney at each of the guests’ plates.

Now for the traditional foods and their meanings: the Seder Plate contains nine symbolic items, each associated with a blessing. The first is a pomegranate. I discussed the symbolism of the pomegranate in my last blog post. May the 613 arils remind us of the commandments in the Torah, so we  can have a holy year. Scallions or leeks are used to remind us of the whips of taskmasters and oppressors. May we never come under the rule of oppressive dictators and Pharaohs again. Amen! A gourd: may our good deeds in the coming year be as numerous as seeds of the pumpkin. The head of a fish (I use a paper one) so that we may always be the head and not the tail in the year ahead. A beet or carrot. Some of the words in Hebrew form the meanings or word play for the symbolism. They just don’t translate into English well. Also, each community has their own tradition – go with me on these. The beet (or carrot). May G-d in His mercy keep our enemies far away from us. A double Amen as we live in a very uncertain world these days. Black eyed peas: a few traditions on this food. One is that our enemies will be turned back; another is that the eyes of G-d, the angels and holy ones watch over us to guard us and guide us throughout the year. Dates. I discussed the significance of the date palm (tamar) last post, but may we bend under troubles and not break, as other less supple trees during storms.

I really love these sticky, sweet fruits for so many reasons. As an object lesson, think on the date palm. They bend: they give when pressure is applied. When an intense wind storm hits, they drop their fruits. I like to think of myself as being especially fruitful during a hard situation. Yes, sometimes I lash out and can be pretty miserable; but like the date palm, that’s when I want to be spreading the most help, the most cheer, the most optimism to others. Going with the flow, accepting what I have no control over, and being as positive as possible.

The next food, perhaps the most famous combo associated with Rosh HaShannah is apples and honey. May we have a sweet year. A year of health!!! A year of joy!!! A holy year. A year of prosperity. A year of peace!!! And lastly, the wine and the challah. From Rosh HaShannah through Simchat Torah we use a round bread, not the traditional braided one. The roundness is to remind us of many things – the cycle of the year and the cycle of life. The fact that G-d has no beginning or end. He was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Also, the rounded loaf looks like a crown. During this season we crown Him King of our Lives.

I love the new round challah cover I just bought for the holidays in Budapest last week. It was made by a 93 year old woman who somehow survived during the Holocaust and now works at the Dohany St. Synagogue. She’s a lively, chatty old soul – but has had to slow down over the years due to her failing eyesight. She now uses a machine instead of sewing by hand, but either way, this is a beautiful piece I’ll treasure always. It says in Hebrew “Sabbath Peace and Holiday Happiness.”

During, the holidays, I try to keep to a healthy diet, using as many of the fall fruits and veggies – Israel’s Seven Species, and incorporating as many of the symbolic foods as possible. Because there is so much cooking this time of year, I also try to make things as simple as possible. Hope you can try a few of these as well during your fall feasts.

BLACK-EYED PEA SALAD, ITALIAN STYLE                      parve, serves 8

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Ingredients:

  • 2 cups uncooked black-eyed peas or 1 large package frozen peas
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 orange bell pepper
  • 1 yellow bell pepper
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 2 large stalk celery (or 6 tiny Israeli stalks)
  • 6 large scallions (green onions)
  • 1 small bunch flat, Italian parsley, minced
  • salt & pepper to taste
  •  Italian dressing (I make my own using 4 Tbsp red wine vinegar; 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil; 1/4; 4 cloves smashed garlic; 1 tsp oregano; 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper; 1 tsp sea salt)

Soak the dried peas overnight, covering with boiling water. Drain, rinse, then cook in salted boiling water 15 minutes. Let simmer for 1-2 hours or until softened. Drain & rinse well. Drain again.                                        You can save yourself all the extra trouble by using defrosted frozen or drained & rinsed canned black eyed peas, if available.  Place peas in a large bowl. Cut up veggies into a small dice. Add to bowl. Pour the Italian dressing over top. Before serving, mix in the minced parsley leaves. Garnish with parsley leaf and the top of a pepper. Refrigerates and keeps well for leftovers. Can be served as a hearty salad lunch or as a side with either meat or dairy. Protein packed!!!

HARVEST QUINOA SALAD                                         parve   serves 6-8

I love quinoa. It’s gluten free and great for special needs diets; so versatile and easy to prepare!

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Ingredients:

  • 2 cups cooked, fluffed quinoa (cook according to package directions)
  • 1/3 cup dried sweet pitted cherries
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions (scallions)
  • 1’4 cup sliced almond pieces
  • 1/2 cup roasted butternut squash or pumpkin cubes
  • 1/2 cup dressing (if in US, Brianna’s Blush Wine Vinaigrette is amazing!!!!! If not, recipe follows…

Cook the quinoa according to package directions to yield 2 cups. Fluff and set aside to cool in large bowl. Halve and de-seed a butternut squash or small pumpkin. Place on baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, salt & pepper. In  220*C/450 *F oven, roast the gourd for about 15-20 minutes until tender. Let cool. Add dried fruits, sliced scallions and almonds to quinoa. Mix gently to incorporate. Cube the flesh of the squash/pumpkin into small bite sized chunks and add to quinoa bowl. Mix gently. Pour dressing over top, and mix in. Can be served room temp or refrigerated. This makes tasty leftovers – if there are any!!!

Dressing: Blend well-

  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/3 cup blush or rose wine
  • 2 Tbsp red onion juice (I use my garlic squeezer to juice my onion) and remaining pulp
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp honey or sugar
  • 1 tsp ginger juice (squeeze fresh) – optional
  • 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg -optional

 

              ROASTED FIGS ON BABY GREENS                    parve      serves 6

Another easy one, that is raving delicious! I cook the figs with all the other items I’m roasting that day, running the oven only once….

On a foil-lined cookie sheet, halve washed figs. Drizzle with small amount of olive oil, salt & pepper. You can also add a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar, but only if it’s sweet (3-5 coins on packaging). Roast at 220*C/450*F oven for 10 minutes.  In large bowl, put pre-washed mesclun or baby green salad mix. Lay the roasted figs on top SAVE THE JUICE!!!!!! Add a few thinly sliced purple onions to the top, and sprinkle on some candied pecans.

Dressing: pour the reserved fig juice into a small bowl. Add a bit of olive oil, salt & pepper. Squeeze in 2 Tbsp onion juice (I use my garlic press) and pulp. Blend well & pour over salad just prior to serving.

SHOESTRING VEGGIES SALAD

This is also quick and easy. It’s very colorful and oh so good for you. Can be served at any meal. The veggies can be bought pre-prepared and mixed or you can run the fresh veggies through a food processor. I use my mandoline slicer –

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  • 3 medium red beets, peeled, raw, and julienned
  • 2 large carrots, peeled, raw, julienned
  • 1 large kohlrabi or jicama, peeled, raw, juilienned
  • 1/3 cup Brianna’s Blush Wine Salad Dressing if in the US. If not see recipe for the dressing above in the Quinoa Salad.

Enjoy, my friends. I hope your Fall Feasts are sweet – filled with family, friends, good food & good music. And in this holy season of introspection before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atoning:

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