Nowhere Else but Here

 

Where in the world can you do what my family and I did for Passover?  Nowhere else but here.

Passover full moon rising over Gilgal

Passover full moon rising over Gilgal

But first, let’s recap one of the greatest stories ever told.

Around 3,500 years ago, the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt.  After wandering in the desert for forty years, their leader Moses dies without ever setting foot in the Land of Israel.  God chooses Joshua to guide the people and orders him to lead the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

The crossing begins as the priests walk ahead carrying the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulders. They step into the rapidly flowing Jordan River, trusting that God will protect them as they cross.

From the Book of Joshua 3:15 Now the Jordan keeps flowing over its entire bed throughout the harvest season. But as soon as the bearers of the Ark reached the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the Ark dipped into the water at its edge, 16 the waters coming down from upstream piled up in a single heap a great way off, at Adam, the town next to Zarethan; and those flowing away downstream to the Sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, ran out completely. So the people crossed opposite Jericho

The Bible states that God performed a miracle and the waters of the mighty Jordan stopped flowing and allowed all the Children of Israel to cross safely to the other side. 

Joshua 4:9 And the LORD said to Joshua: ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’ So that place was called Gilgal, as it still is. 10 Encamped in Gilgal, in the steppes of Jericho,  the Israelites offered the passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the month, toward evening.

So seeking adventure, camping, meaning and spirituality, my family and I joined a group of about 120 Israelis and celebrated the first day of Passover in the wilderness. This group, organized by the remarkable Dvir Raviv, a student of archaeology and Jewish history, started this tradition five years ago.

We camped in Gilgal,on the steppes of Jericho, where tradition states the ancient Israelites stayed upon crossing the Jordan River. We ate the Passover meal, the Seder, where the Israelites held their first Passover meal in the Promised Land.  And we did this on the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan, the first day of the festival of Passover.

Talk about meaning! It was mind-blowing.

The ancient/modern city of Jericho is seen in the background, a mere two kilometers away

Jericho is seen in the background, a mere two kilometers away

The ancient (and modern) city of Jericho lay two kilometers to our west; the ancient city of Adam, where the waters of the river were miraculously held still, was a little distance to the north; the Jordan River and the place of the crossing was a mere kilometer to our east; the Dead Sea, a short ten minute drive south.

Judge for yourself. Here are some tidbits and great photos from our experience:

The site of the Israelite crossing of the River Jordan was a revered place for generations. In the 4th century c.e, it became a Christian pilgrimage site as the traditional site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Today it’s called Qasr el Yahud, (Arabic for ‘the crossing of the Jews’), and the countries of Israel and Jordan offer baptismal facilities on both banks of the river.

Muslim visitors approach the waters of the Jordan River at Qasr el Yahud, the Baptismal site.

Muslim visitors approach the waters of the Jordan River at Qasr el Yahud, the Baptismal site.

We camped in a deserted date-palm tree grove amidst the gorgeous beauty of the Jordan Valley.

Our date palm tree grove, with the Gilead Mountains of the Jordan in the background

Our date palm tree grove, with the Gilead Mountains of the country of Jordan in the background

Our fellow campers

Our fellow campers

We managed to find an isolated spot among the palm trees

We managed to find an isolated spot among the palm trees

The food was pre-cooked and delivered by caterers a few hours before the feast. Some of us were in charge of digging a fire-pit and warming up the food, while others set tables and prepared the kitchen area.

The food was warmed in a fire pit

The food was warmed in a fire pit

The tables being set for the communal meal

Setting the tables for the communal Seder meal

 

As Jewish tradition mandates, all 120 of us began reading the Haggadah together, recalling the story of the Exodus, how God led our people from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Pretty soon each table went off at their own pace, reading and laughing, singing and bellowing into the desert night. It was quite a wonderful cacophony!

The next day, first day of the festival of Passover, included many activities to choose from: resting,  praying, hiking, roasting the Pascal Lamb for lunch, sleeping, tai-chi or study lessons from our sacred texts.

A tai-chi class let by my friend Gil Cohen

A relaxing tai-chi class led by my friend Gil Cohen, with the Jordan River and the Gilead Mountains as a backdrop

A walking tour to the nearby monastery of St. Gerasimus, led by yours truly.

A walking tour to the nearby monastery of St. Gerasimus, led by yours truly.

The Pascal Lamb was roasted for a few hours in the fire-pit

The Pascal Lamb was roasted for a few hours in the fire-pit

Most of the group packed up and left after dark but some friends and us stayed on for another night . We lit a bonfire, cooked some potatoes and onions in the flames, pulled out a guitar and had a great time.

A kumzitz, (bonfire) is a typical Israeli pastime

A kumzitz, (bonfire) is a typical Israeli pastime

Following in the footsteps of your biblical characters of choice — Joshua and the Israelites, Jesus, King David, Jezebel or Samson… it can only be done here, in Israel.

 

 

Advertisements

Renewing the Old – the story of wine making in Israel

My friend Linda and I were hiking along the trail by the nearby village of Solelim, chatting and trying to keep my labrador, Na’ala, out of trouble (she rolls in every cow poop and splashes in every stream).  We took in the gorgeous natural beauty around us; a gnarly oak forest, colorful spring flowers, lizards, butterflies and birds galore, and the occasional dugout cave in the limestone.

“Linda”, I said, “Did you know that many of these hills have ancient wine presses carved into the limestone bedrock?”

“Really?” she answered, “I didn’t know that”.

Now, I don’t know if she does this on purpose, but being the good friend she is, Linda always sets me up to tell the history of this hill or that ancient site.  And she listens patiently. That’s what friends are for.

So I started telling her about the ancient wine production that flourished in the Lower Galilee during the Roman and Byzantine times.

When the Romans expelled the Jews from Judea and Jerusalem in the 1st and 2nd centuries and forbade their return, many of the Jewish people migrated north and settled in the Galilee. They eventually lived side by side with the Roman soldiers, developing friendships and business relationships in many small villages and larger mixed towns.  When the Byzantine Empire took control of the land in the 4th century, the Jews continued living among the growing Christian population until the conquest of the Muslim empire in 640 c.e.

The Jews have always used wine as part of their religious rituals. Vineyards are ubiquitous in the Bible; Noah planted the first vineyard, Micah’s vision of peace was when one sat under his vine and fig tree, grapes are one of the seven special agricultural species of the Land of Israel, and don’t forget Moses’ spies returning from scouting the Promised Land with a huge cluster of grapes. The Hebrew word for wine, ya’een, is mentioned 141 times in the Bible!

Moreover, wine was widely consumed by all ancient Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent peoples; Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans alike. The alcohol in the wine killed the bacteria in the otherwise fetid water they drank. The wine was diluted with water and due to its short production time, contained only around 4% alcohol.

Romans believed wine to be an essential daily necessity and made it available for everyone: slaves, peasants, legionnaires, women and aristocracy.  In fact, Roman citizens (and Jews) consumed a liter of wine per day!

Therefore, as the Jewish and Roman population of the Galilee grew, so did their need for wine. Lots of it!  Wine production was a major local industry and was exported to the rest of the Roman Empire, providing jobs, giving growers and merchants needed business and trade opportunities.

Hundreds of vineyards were cultivated in the hills of the Galilee, and each vintner needed a place to crush the grapes and ferment the  juice. Theses wine presses, some small enough for one vineyard, others large shared by several vineyards, were carved into the limestone bedrock.

As I was jabbering away to Linda about Galilean ancient wine making, we came upon a couple walking towards us on the trail.

“Are you coming from the ancient wine press?” they asked.

“What wine press? Where? Here?”

And lo and behold, they led us a few paces off the trail to a most magnificent Roman-Byzantine era wine press at the top of the hill, complete with two liquid gathering vats, and a beautiful mosaic covered grape crushing floor.

winepresses 006

Linda and Na’ala wait for me at the newly discovered ancient wine press. The site is dated to Roman and Byzantine times (1st to 6th centuries c.e.)

The grape-crushing platform, carved out of the limestone, sometimes had a mosaic floor like this one

We find hundreds of ancient wine presses in Israel today, from the Negev desert in the south to the Golan Heights in the north. Many of these are located close to my home in the Galilee.

For example, there is one among the ruins of Usha, a village that served as the first Galilean stop for the Sanhedrin in the 1st and 2nd centuries.

usha winepress

One of the grape juice collecting vats in the wine press complex in Usha, evidence of a large wine making industry in the area

And there is also one located just a few steps from my home, on the Kibbutz Hannaton hill!

IMG_3570

The Hannaton wine press sits atop the hill, overlooking the Nazareth hills in the background

What is even more exciting is that not only does Kibbutz Hannaton have its own ancient Roman-Byzantine wine press, but it is also the home of Jezreel Valley Winery.

My friends Jacob Ner-David and Yehuda Nahar followed their dream of reconnecting with the land and renewing the ancient Jewish tradition of wine making by founding a new “start-up” boutique winery that is already winning prizes.

Click here to meet Jacob and Yehuda and hear their story

‘Recently acknowledged by the Terravino Wine competition with a silver medal (RedBlend 2012), the Jezreel Valley Winery wines have already been featured in leading restaurants in Israel with the most discerning wine lists, as well as served to visiting delegations from all over the world.’

I love the fact that Jacob and Yehuda purposefully chose to use grapes with a unique Israeli story for their flagship wine, the RedBlend.

The Jezreel Valley Winery RedBlend, made from three varietals with an Israeli story

The Jezreel Valley Winery RedBlend, made from three varietals with an Israeli story

The Argaman variety was developed in the Weizmann Institute in Israel in the 1990’s, making it a ‘sabra’ (Israeli born) grape. Jezreel Valley Winery is the only Israeli boutique winery that chose the Argaman as its main varietal.

The Syrah originates from southern France and is perfectly suited for Israel’s Mediterranean climate.

And the Carignan? This Mediterranean variety was introduced to the Land of Israel at the end of the 19th century, just as the modern Israeli wine industry was in its infancy. It gave high yields cheaply and became the backbone varietal used to make the thick, sweet, sacramental wines produced for so many years by Israel’s major winery, Carmel Mizrahi.

As the Israeli wine industry underwent a quality revolution in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Carignan vineyards were slowly neglected, many of them uprooted and replanted with more sophisticated varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

However, about twenty years ago, vintners noticed that the abandoned Carignan vineyards were yielding less clusters but the quality of the grape had greatly improved. Once abandoned and left to die, the Carignan grapes made an amazing comeback!

The Carignan varietal once used solely for sacramental wines in Israel is now being used to create prize winning, world quality wines. Wow!

Jacob and Yehuda have built Israel’s first successful ‘start-up’ winery, now offering all of us wine and Israel aficionados an opportunity to partner with them in this venture.

Click here to learn more about their ‘start up’

crowd sourcing campaign

The story of wine making in Israel today is a continuation of an ancient tradition, renewing the old, returning to the roots, reconnecting with the land.

L’Chaim !