What to Pack for Israel?

My good friend Wilma visited me in Israel recently and one of the first questions she asked as we emailed back and forth as she was preparing for the journey was “What do I pack?”

I told her not to worry and to wait until a week or so before the trip to see what the weather forecast will be and then we’d talk. It was only later, on our many conversations as we traveled around the country, that it dawned on me that for those who have never been to Israel,  “What do I pack?” means much more than questions about a warm sweater or a pair of shorts.

“You should write a blog post about that” Wilma said, “Tell everyone what to pack!”.

Ok, she is right. So from the more general to the more specific, from the climate and the weather to the different religious sites’ attire requirements, and about the security, here goes:

  • We in Israel have what is called a Mediterranean climate, very similar to California’s Central and Southern coasts. We have four seasons: Spring (March- May) is warm and sometimes a little rainy in March/April, Summer (June – August) is HOT and dry, Fall (September – November) is warm with cooler nights and hopefully some rain towards October/November, and Winter (December – February) is cold and hopefully rainy. You may have noticed, we WANT rain. We pray for rain in these parts of the world. So if its raining, HALLELUJAH!
  • That being said, we do have several micro-climates in tiny Israel and they vary in temperature and precipitation.
    • The coast (Tel Aviv, Haifa, Akko, etc) is very humid and usually warmer than other parts of the country, hot in the summer and mild in the winters.
    • The Sea of Galilee area (Tiberias, the Christian sites around the Sea of Galilee) are 200 meters (600 ft) below sea level, creating what is called a tropical climate. Its always hotter there than most other places in Israel, making it wonderful in the winter but at times oppressively hot in the summer.
    • The Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights are high in altitude, therefore in the summer the weather is very warm and in the winter is quite cold with an occasional snow. It snows every winter on the northern part of the Golan Heights and respectable accumulations of up to a meter (3 feet) are common.
    • The Judean Desert (Masada, Dead Sea) is about 400 meter (1200 feet) below sea level and is the hottest place in Israel. The winters are mild (making is totally fine to bathe in and float on the Dead Sea) but in the summer the temperatures can easily reach over 40 degrees Celsius (+110 F). But, as they say in Phoenix, AZ, “It’s a dry heat.” 🙂
    • The Negev Desert is a wonderful place to to visit, especially in the spring and fall when the temperatures are warm and the nights are cool. The summers are HOT and the winters are actually cold, especially at night.
    • Eilat is a seaside resort city on the southern tip of Israel, on the Red Sea coast. It has temperate weather in the winter and is hot in the summer.
    • And Jerusalem. Many tourists do not realize that Jerusalem (and Bethlehem) are located in the Judean Mountains. Therefore, in the summer its not as hot as the coast but still pretty warm, certainly not humid, and the winters are cold. Yes, there is an occasional snowdrift in Jerusalem, but it usually doesn’t stay for long.
  • What is the main reason tourists end up in the hospital in Israel?? Dehydration! If you have a favorite water bottle, by all means bring it. A good tour guide will be a real nudge about drinking water, and plenty of it. As I tell my tourists: When I was in Tour Guide School years ago, we frantically took notes on all subjects and were freaking out because we had no idea how we would remember all those facts and figures. Our course coordinator told us that for the facts and figures we could always consult Rabbi Google, but the MOST important thing we needed to memorize was the answer to “Where are the bathrooms?” and let me tell you, she was RIGHT. So please drink lots of water. We know where the bathrooms are!
  • Oh, and bring a hat. Don’t worry about your hair-do, its more important to protect your head than to end up in the hospital from sunstroke.
hat

Always wear a hat! And wicking fabric travel clothes are awesome

  • And speaking of hospitals, always, but always get yourself Travel Health Insurance. Cause you never know.
  • What else should you do before you travel? Let your bank/credit card company know you’re traveling. You don’t want them to block your card because they suspect someone stole it and is using it in Israel.
  • And what about cash? Don’t worry about it. There are many ATMs all over the country so I recommend bringing your debit card or whatever card you can use to pull out cash from an ATM. And for goodness sake, if you have to pay a $3 fee for pulling out a few hundred dollars, just do it. Its so much easier to pay the fee than to waste time looking for a better place or a better deal. There are also many Change places, where they will exchange dollars/euros for the local currency.
  • Oh, and from years of experience, the most convenient thing to do is to exchange just a couple hundred dollars (or pull out of the ATM) at the airport when you arrive. Saves you stress the next day and you’ll be ready to hit the markets with some cash in your pockets.
  • Just so you know, and this is very important. Dress in Israel is very casual. And that means that people go to business meetings or even the synagogue in shorts and sandals when its warm, suits and ties are NOT easily found, and attire for the best restaurants in the country is leisurely. Absolutely no need to overdress or be fancy.
  • And now, what about appropriate attire for religious places? So here is the lowdown.
    • Women: As long as your shoulders are covered (short sleeve is just fine), your neckline is not low and you wear something below your knees, you are good to enter all Jewish and Christian religious sites. No, you don’t need a long skirt (I don’t even own one!) or to cover your head with a shawl. As long as your pants/skirt are below the knees, you’re fine.
    • Men: As long as your shoulders are covered (short sleeve is just fine) and your pants go below your knees, you are good to enter all Jewish and Christian religious sites. When you enter a church, you’ll need to remove your hat. When you approach the Western Wall, as per Jewish custom, you’ll need to cover your head. A baseball cap or hat works well or you can pick up a disposable ‘kippah’ head covering in the bin at the entrance and keep it as a souvenir 🙂
kotel attire

Short sleeves and pants are perfectly appropriate at the Western Wall. Whether you cover your head or not is completely up to you.

  • HOWEVER, there are two exceptions to the above rules. If you will be visiting the Temple Mount (Dome of the Rock/Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem), then if you are a woman, you will need to wear long sleeves and long pants, not tights, or skirt. Also, if you will be walking around Mea Shearim or any other Ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, then long sleeves and covering your legs with long pants or skirt are appropriate. Check your itinerary.
  • When coming to Israel, don’t forget your swim suit! You have flown all the way to Israel so you better dip in the miraculous waters of the lowest place on Earth. Seriously. Don’t even think about not trying it out. Its a UNIQUE experience. And also don’t miss swimming in the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee and the Red Sea. Oh, and bring flip-flops or water shoes as well, as the salt crystals on the shore of the Dead Sea can be sharp and pokey and uncomfortable to walk on as you enter the water.
  • Speaking of water shoes, if you’ll be entering Hezekiah’s Tunnel in the City of David (and you totally should, its amazing!) bring water shoes or sandals as you’ll be walking in ankle deep water, in complete darkness for about 20 minutes. If you don’t bring the shoes with you, you can conveniently purchase them at the store.
  • So in summary about clothes. Dress in layers if in the spring or fall and wicking fabric travel clothes are magnificent.
  • And finally, what about the security? You will be surprised at the level of comfort and relaxed atmosphere here in Israel. Many tourists are wary and hesitant about traveling to Israel because other people, upon hearing of their travel plans have probably commented “What? Are you crazy? Its so dangerous!”. Well, its not. And the only way for you to believe me it is to see for yourself. So c’mon over. You’ll love it.

That about covers it. What else should you pack? Lots of patience because drivers in Israel can be a bit crazy, a good sense of humor and a positive attitude because that’s just the way you should always live, and great questions for your tour guide because this place is very, but very complicated.

If you have any other questions about what to pack, please do let me know.

See you in Israel!

The Circuitous Journey of An Extraordinary American Family

Boy, do I love it when seemingly unrelated events come together and fit into the puzzle that is my life. And, when they do, it gives me goosebumps and I re-think my stance on a Higher Power.

For those who do not know of my previous life in California, I lived in Salinas for eight years. Capital of Monterey County, Salinas is the largest city in the Salinas Valley, home of wonderful, hard-working people (especially teachers) and lots of lettuce and strawberries. I loved living and teaching there and one of my favorite things was teaching about homeboy Noble Prize winning author John Steinbeck, who was born and raised on Center Street in downtown Salinas. As part of my 4th grade curriculum, my students read some of Steinbeck’s stories and visited his home. We also headed out to the Monterey Bay and followed his adventures on Cannery Row.

So imagine my surprise, when as part of my Israel Studies Master’s Program at Haifa University here in Israel, I learned that John Steinbeck had some interesting Israel family connections!

Turns out that John Steinbeck’s great grandfather moved his family from Massachusetts to the Holy Land around 1850, settled in Jerusalem, then on a farm near Jaffa. At the same time, and following the same deep religious beliefs about the return of Jesus Christ, Steinbeck’s paternal grandfather left Germany for that same Holy Land, settled on that same small farm outside of Jaffa, met the Massachusetts fella’s daughter, married her, and the rest is history. However, somewhere in that family saga is a terrible tragedy of violence, murder and rape, international scandal and the intervention of the United States and Turkish governments, the rebuilding of lives and changing of names, the American Civil War, disguise as a dead man, a farm in Hollister, the Hamiltons of King City and voila… John E. Steinbeck III is born in Salinas in 1902.

It is a fascinating story and you can read it here by clicking The Circuitous Journey of an Extraordinary American Family

BUT WAIT!!! There is MORE!!! Once you’ve read the above research paper, you may remember that Johann Grossteinbeck, John’s grandfather, was a carpenter and joiner (a skill necessary to seamlessly join pieces together to make beautiful wood carvings).

Well, as I was researching for the above paper, my good friend Baruch Velleman called. He told me that he had begun working at the Kibbutz Gennosar souvenir shop and was selling his friend Lenny’s antique coins and carved wood pieces.

Baruch had previously told me the story of how Lenny Wolfe, one of Israel’s foremost ancient coins and antiquities dealers, had come by a cache of 19th century olive-wood carved pieces and was now ready to sell them.

“You know, the olive-wood pieces I told you about” he said, “The ones that are 150 years old from Christ Church in Jerusalem”.

Suddenly, the hairs on the back of my hand stood up.

I called Lenny.

I told him about Johann Grossteinbeck. I told him about my research. I asked him, “Could it be? Could it really be that one of those pieces may have been carved by John Steinbeck’s grandfather?”

Olive-wood paperweight and sewing kit

Olive-wood paperweight and sewing kit (c.1850-1920)

Olive-wood candlesticks and letter opener

Olive-wood candlesticks and letter opener (c.1850-1920)

And the truth is, that Lenny knows these pieces were made starting in 1850 by skilled woodworkers at the carpentry shop at Chris Church in Jerusalem, but that is where the certainty ends.

Several of the pieces have the stamp of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews (abbreviated to London’s Jews Society or LJS), but the actual woodcarvers’ initials or signatures are not present. In 1849, the LSJ helped found Christ Church, the oldest Protestant Church in the Middle East.

Olive-wood Flowers of Palestine book (it still has the dried, pressed flowers in it)

Book of dried flowers and photographs (covers made from olive-wood) with Bethlehem on front; House of Industry, Christchurch, Jaffa Gate (1850 – 1920)

It is quite tantalizing to think that Johann Grossteinbeck could have carved some of these 19th century olive-wood pieces. And that years and years ago, some unknown buyer bought these pieces at the Christ Church wood shop and took them back to England. And that Lenny Wolfe found them in England and purchased them. And that my friend Baruch helped Lenny bring the pieces from England to Israel. And that Baruch called me and told me about his exciting new job, just as I was researching the Steinbeck family’s connection to Israel. How cool is that!

This is certainly The Circuitous Journey of an Extraordinary American Family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Day I Turned Five

It was 50 years ago today in 1967,  and we were living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.  Now, I don’t know if what I am about to tell you is exactly the way it happened, or if it is the mish-mash of stories I heard and photos and family films I have seen,  or if it is my inner child’s skewed memory of an event that shaped my life on the day I turned five.

We were part of a small community of Israeli families in this lovely East African nation that had just achieved its independence in 1963. My father had been sent there by the Israeli government as an Officer of the Israel Defense Forces and a fluent English speaking Electronics Engineer, and was put in charge of helping the nascent Tanzanian Police force design and manufacture their first transistor radios. He taught the Tanzanian police students engineering and electronics, and together they built these first locally made radios.

zvi with tanzanian police

My father,  Zvi Harrel (first row, second from the right )  with his class of graduates of the Tanzanian Police Academy

There were other Israeli families in Dar es Salaam at the time, each sent there to help the new African country with building infrastructure such as roads and construction projects, improving agricultural technology, business development, arms sales and my dad with his radios. Israel was desperately trying to make friends among newly independent nations and many Israeli specialists and advisers spent the 1960’s in Africa. Like us.

On the morning of my birthday, I eagerly waited for my friends to arrive at our home, excited about the presents I would receive and the fun time we would have playing in our sandbox and up in my tree house

As my friends started to arrive, the moms directed the kids towards the front yard and all the dads went inside. I clearly remember the inside that day, as my father had prepared it ‘for the party.’ From the Dar es Salaam police headquarters, he brought home what to me appeared to be humongous, gray machines with lots of black buttons and lights. I remember them being taller than me.

IMG_5391

My five year old self, riding my bike in front of our house in Dar es Salaam

These huge radio transmitters were placed in the living room and as the fathers came in, they put on head phones and huddled quietly around them, listening intently to radio transmissions, waiting for the familiar two-word codes that meant you were needed in a national emergency. Israel was at war and Arab countries were already broadcasting that Egyptian forces had reached Tel Aviv. Israeli radio broadcasts were somber and eerily silent about events on the ground.  I seem to remember the dads were smoking, which doesn’t surprise me because Israelis awaiting orders of whether to hop on a plane and join their military units to fight for the survival of their small country,  always smoke. Its a thing, one of those unwritten rules. You fight for survival, you smoke.

Little did I know, but in the  weeks before my birthday, there had been rising tension and increasing threats by Egypt, Syria and Jordan against little Israel. They had been amassing their armies on the borders, making death threats on the airwaves and the print media, and Egypt blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping,  itself an act of war. Israelis were worried. Very worried. War was looming and the only questions were when would it start and how would we survive.

Israelis had been preparing for an inevitable war with their Arab neighbors.  Israelis living abroad, especially the men, had already packed a small suitcase and were anxiously awaiting the moment they would get the word from their reserve units to return and help defend the homeland. Everyone was on edge. So was my dad. And so were all the Israeli dads in Africa.

I learned later, that my parents decided to go on with preparations for my birthday party despite the tension and uncertainty and invited the whole Israeli community so we could all be together. A great excuse for moms and kids to play and the dads to huddle around the great big radio receivers and listen to the latest news from Israel.

As chance would have it, the war began at dawn on the very day of my fifth birthday, June 5th, 1967. My birthday party became the gathering place, the headquarters for all Israelis in Dar es Salaam as we eagerly awaited news from home.

It turned out that Israel, our little David of a country, defeated Goliath that week and in only six days destroyed the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, soundly defeating them against all odds. Our fathers were not called up to join their units and after a week of fighting, Israelis breathed a sigh of relief.

However, the most amazing, exhilarating and important result of the Six Day War happened on June 7th, 1967, two days after my birthday. Israeli forces pushed the Jordanian army back,  re-entered the Old City of Jerusalem, re-took the Jewish Quarter and once again, the Jewish people were able to touch and to pray at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.  Our eternal capital was again in our hands.

Today, May 24th, 2017, is a day of great joy in Israel, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar) of the re-unification of our capital. Thousands of Israeli Jews are celebrating in Jerusalem at this very moment and my heart is with them. I will leave it at that, as this is very complicated. But wow, it has been 50 years.

I felt the need to put pen to paper since I am emotionally very attached to the events of the Six Day War, as if I had played a part in that history. And I guess I did. After all, we share the same birthday.

Harrel photo 1967

The Harrel family in 1967, Zvi, Pola, Anat and baby Micah.

Playing Indiana Jones

Smitten.  That’s what I was from the moment I saw Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.  I mean, seriously… weren’t you? Harrison Ford and archaeology became intertwined and favorites in my world. I even applied to study archaeology at the Hebrew Universtiy in Jerusalem in 1983, which never happened,  and has remained one of my life’s regrets.

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

How else can you explain the fact that, 30 years later, I came back to Israel to became a tour guide in this land of biblical archaeology?  I even try to dress a little like Indy when I guide.

Come to think of it, I need a better hat.

However, I digress.

This past weekend, my husband and I decided to get away and spend some quality time together. I had just finished two weeks on the road and will be taking off for another twelve days of touring this week.

So where, oh where can we find a sweet place to stay? I have wanted to explore the small community of Zippori, only 10 minutes away, and asked my husband to find us a nice B&B there. Little did we know, but we were in for an Indiana Jones style adventure!

I can see Zippori National Park from my house (literaly); the Crusader citadel on the hill, giving a great vantage point to whoever controled it through the ages, also giving the place its name – Zippori, from the word ‘zippor’, Hebrew for bird – a bird’s view.  From the Neolithic era, to the Iron age, to the Hasmoneans who first build a Jewish town there, Zippori has been an important urban area, being the largest city, the capital of the Galilee during Roman and Byzantine times. It was in Zippori that the Mishnah was compiled by Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi. Until the 7th century, it was a mixed city, inhabited by Jews, Roman pagans and Christians.

Ongoing excavations started in the 1980’s have uncovered an amazing city of synagogues, churches and pagan temples, private villas, streets and public buildings, gorgeous mosaics and exquisite evidence of Zippori’s grandeur during the Roman/Byzantine/Mishanic/Talmudic times from the 1st to the 6th centuries CE.

After the Crusaders fortified and rebuilt it in the 12th century, it was taken over by the Mamluks and became a small Muslim town for several hundred years.

Today, next to the National Park and the excavations, lies the lovely, modern village of Zippori. Nestled away among lush greenery and rolling oak hills, it includes family homes and agricultural farms, horse stables, the Rish Lakish organic olive press, and several B&Bs.

We headed to the Makom Lachlom, ‘a place to dream’, a couple of nicely furnished, quaint log cabins, equipped with luxurious jacuzzi, small kitchenette and plenty of quiet. Perfect.

However, what caught my eye was what I saw when I looked out the window of our cabin.

An ancient Roman pool ?!?

Owner Avi Hazan told the story:  When he and his partner bought the land to build a small farm and a B&B, they began digging the foundations for three log cabins. Lo and behold, they found the remains of what seemed like a Roman era pool. They called in the Antiquities Authority who immediately began a salvage dig, putting Avi’s plans on hold for almost a year and many tens of thousands of shekels over budget.

romanbath2 IMG_4785

What the Antiquities Authority found was the foundations of a large Roman bathhouse, with three pools and aquaducts leading water from one pool to another. Two of the pools were not well preserved so they were filled in and the cabins were built over them. The middle pool, however, was in good shape and was kept.

Avi told us that several families in the village had found Roman remains and even the ancient tombs of well known Jewish rabbis.

” Are there other Roman remains we can see?” I interrupted.

“Oh yes, there are ones that you can see still buried in the ground.”

“Where? Can we see the now?” I was getting more excited by the second.

“Sure. Follow the cattle fence about 100 meters, cross it and take a right. You’re looking for a large hole in the ground.”

Avi explained that a while back, some antiquities robbers had dug a large hole in the ground and found some Roman sarcophagi before they were driven off by the police.  The archaeologists don’t have the budget to propely excavate, so the site remains untouched. Avi keeps an eye out for robbers and notifies the Antiquities Authority if he notices anything suspicious.

Yitzhak and I were off like a flash. And we found it!

hole2 IMG_4777

The first thing we noticed were two sarcophagi half buried in the dirt. A sarcophagus (from the Greek for ‘flesh eater’) is the common name for an ancient Egyptian, Greek or Roman coffin). Yikes!

I was so excited, my ‘Indiana Jones’ instinct took over and I immediately jumped in. With both feet. Yitzhak followed.

We found an small opening on the side and crawled in.

sarco2 sarco5

It was a family burial cave, with niches for laying the bodies of the dead. About a year later, when the flesh had rotted, families collected the bones and placed them in ossuaries, bone boxes, that were usually kept in the home. This form of burial for wealthier familes was very common in the 1st – 6th centuries CE.

sarco6burialgrave1

The limestone hill we climbed must be dotted with many of these burial caves. That was logical because we were across the small valley from ancient Zippori and these could very well be Jewish family burial caves, excavated as tradition dictated, outside the city walls.

unnamedIMG_4780

We explored some more, got dirty and LOVED IT!  We crawled in an unexcavated burial cave from Roman times, touched sarcophagi that were still buried in the dirt… real Indiana Jones moment.

As were climbed out, our attention turned to some collapsed concrete buildings that were around us. There were six or seven of them, one sitting right on top of the hole we had just climbed out of.

IMG_4782

Yitzhak and I tried to figure out what they were. Concrete doesn’t fit ancient times, so it must have been from the 20th century. Then,  we both knew.

The Arab village of Saffuriyeh was originally built by the Mamluks in the 14th century on the ruins of the Crusader town, on the ruins of the Byzantine, on the Roman/Jewish ruins. It maintained remnants of its original Jewish name Zippori, via the Greek name Sepphoris. It stood here for several hundred years, through the War of 1948-49.

After six months of civil war, the British Army left Palestine on May 15, 1948,  and then several Arab armies attacked Israel on all fronts.  The Arab Liberation Army (ALA), headed by its Iraqi leader Fawzi al Qawuqji, was headquartered only 5 kms away from Saffuriyeh, in Nazareth. In early July, the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) started its main offensive in the Galilee, named Operation Dekel, and designed to push the ALA back.

Most of the villages in the area presented little or no resistance to the advancement of the IDF.  Benny Morris, the well known historian and author of 1948 writes that, “emboldened by its successes and the weak ALA resistance” the IDF finally decides to take the town of Nazareth, al-Qawuqji’s headquarters.  “On 15 July, Golani Brigade units captured the villages of Ma’lul and al-Mujeidil… while an armored column of the Twenty-first and Seventy-ninth battalions drove straight down the road from Shafa-‘Amr, taking Saffuriya (Zippori), a large village north-west of Nazareth.” (Ch 7, pp 280-81)

The village was known to harbor ALA fighters, so as the soldiers approached, the village was attacked with mortarshell fire, causing villagers to flee their homes in panic.  Many villagers from Saffurieyh ended up in refugee camps in Southern Lebanon. Others settled in several of the villages closer to Nazareth, such as Ilut and Raame.  Four hundred villagers remained in their homes in Saffuriye and eventually received Israeli ID cards, although they were all removed from the village and made to re-settle elsewhere in the early 1950’s.  Click here to read the story of one such family, the al-Alzharis.

After the war, however, the Arab population that had fled the fighting had begun returning to their villages.  This presented a serious problem for the newly created State of Israel. The authorities worried about a fifth-column growing among the Arab villages and didn’t want to have to ‘capture the land all over again’.

Morris writes, “During the war’s first, critical months Zionist energies were directed at defending the Yishuv (Jewish community in the Land of Israel). But in mid-April, within days of the strategic switch to the offensive, the national institutions began to establish new settlements, not only to assure control of the main roads linking the Yishuv’s concentrations of populations and the border areas, but also to consolidate its hold on newly conquered territory.  Initially, the new outposts were set up on Jewish-owned land within the November 1947 Jewish state partition borders. Within months, though, such niceties were thrown to the wind, and settlements were established on Arab-owned land and outside the partition border.” (Ch 7, p 307)

Over a million Jews streamed into the newly founded State of Israel within its first 5 years, tripling its Jewish population. Finding them places to live became a high priority, and several new immigrant families founded a new Jewish village by the name of Zippori, on the lands of the Arab village of Saffuriyeh.

This beautiful land, with its layers of history and archaeology is a complex place, ripped apart by war and strife, conquests and conflict. Living among these stories, within sight of archaeological marvels like Zippori, and walking the land like Indiana Jones, knowing that somewhere beneath my feet are buried the remnants of some ancient civilization… is mind boggling. And so cool!

P.S. I send Harrison Ford my most sincere wishes for a Refuah Shlemah, ‘speedy recovery‘ after his flight mishap.  Please take care of yourself.

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.

 

 

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 !

 

 

 


 

An Insignificant Hill

An Insignificant Hill

Tel Hannaton 022

The view from my front porch

Looking out my front porch, I enjoy oaks and pines, vast olive groves, a beautiful Beit Netofah valley floor checkered with shades of green and brown agricultural fields,  two mountain ranges dotted with Bedouin villages and a small, green hill in the middle of it all.

In Israel, however, one can never make assumptions or think that something seemingly benign can’t have deep, historical meaning. Like this green hill. Right outside my window. The insignificant one.

Tel Hannaton may seem like a nothing hill, but the history of this artificial mound (tel) goes back over 3500 years! It happens to be located at an important crossroad; on the Via Maris, the ancient road leading from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and on the road from Damascus to Akko, an important port on the Mediterranean Sea.

We first learn of Tel Hannaton in the El-Amarna letters, 380 clay tablets (written in Akkadian and found in excavations in Egypt), used as correspondence between the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (who eventually called himself Akhenaten) and Burnaburiash, king of Babylon.  Tablet number 8  translates like this:

To Akhenaton,  King of Egypt, my brother, to say:
Thus speaks Burnaburiash King of Babylon, your brother.
I am well. To your country, your house, your women,
your sons, your ministers, your horses, your chariots,
many greetings. I and my brother have signed a treaty,
and I spoke thus: Like our fathers, who were friends, we will be friends.
And now, my merchants who traveled with Ahutabu delayed in Canaan for business.
After Ahutabu set out on his way to my brother and in the town of Hanatun which is in Canaan,
Shumda Son of Baluma and Shutatna Son of Shartum from Akko
sent their men there. They beat my merchants and stole their money.
Ahutabu , whom I sent to you, is before you. Ask him and he will tell you.
Canaan is your country and its kings are your slaves, in your country I was robbed.
Bind them and return the money they robbed.
And the men who murdered my slaves, kill them and avenge their blood.
Because if you do not kill these men, they will again murder
my caravans and even my ambassadors, and the ambassadors between us will cease.
If this should happen the people of the land will leave you.

Don’t know about you, but I find it spectacularly fabulous that a Babylonian king wrote to an Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh about wanting his money back because his merchants were robbed outside my front porch about 3500 years ago. “And if you don’t give me my money back”, he states, “I won’t be your friend no more!”

Tel Hannaton has several more claims to fame:

  • It is mentioned in the Bible (book of Joshua 19:14) , as being the northern border of the lands of the tribe of Zebulon.
  • Tiglath Pileser III

    Tiglath Pileser III

    Our dear friend Tiglath Pileser III(732 b.c.e), King of Assyria, carved the stories of his victorious military campaigns on the walls of his grand palace in Nineveh and boasted that he conquered and plundered five Canaanite cities, the fifth one being… you guessed it, Hannaton!

  • The Greeks, the Jewish priestly families, the Romans, all left their mark in the area
  • The Crusaders built an agricultural farm at Hannaton in the 13th century, during their 2nd Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It is the ruins of this Crusader building that are still visible under the ground.

    Tel Hannaton 010

    Entrance to the underground dining hall at Tel Hannaton, exhibiting typical Crusader arches and masonry

  • The Mamelukes first, then the Ottomans turned the Crusader structures into a caravanserai, a roadside inn where travelers and their animals could rest and recover from the day’s journey.
  • Tel Hannaton is called Tel Badawiyya in Arabic, from the Arabic word for Bedouin, nomad.

Tel Hannaton was partially excavated in the 1980’s but has remained untouched for many years.

Today, school children on educational seminars at the Hannaton Educational Center visit and learn about the site, and it also gets visits from occasional curious families and hikers.

Tel Hannaton 006

Israeli school children on a visit to the underground ruins of a Crusader farm building on Tel Hannaton

Tel Hannaton 001

Typical Crusader architecture windows provide light in the underground room

But for me, its a constant companion, the ancient hill outside my front window.

Tel Hannaton

Tel Hannaton