Thursday, August 30, 2012

Day Two: Galilee

August 16, 2012

I had trouble sleeping again the second night in Israel.  The "dwarf" beds and sheets were no help, along with the extremely cold air conditioning.  I at least was smart enough to wear a sweatshirt this time, but by 4:00 or so I was pretty lucid, and I spent the next two hours lying in bed only half-asleep.  By 6:00 I decided to get up and write for a little while on the roof deck where we'd spent the previous evening.

Breakfast was the same on day two, and we were off by just after 8 to see the holy city of Tzfat. I was immediately struck by the much more nuanced and cared for architecture of the small hillside town.  It is a relatively young city in light of the region's historical scale, dating back only 400 years, but the town had a charm that I've yet to see elsewhere in Israel, where so much of the development has been in the past 70 years and is much more economical.  Everywhere the structures were built with limestone using blue trim, reminiscent of traditional Greek architecture.

Leaving Tiberias, driving north through Galilee.

Walking through Tzfat.

Our first stop in the town was to an artist—the town itself is an artists' colony—who moved to Tzfat from Detroit about fifteen years ago.  He had grown up as a not-very religious Jew, but discovered his passion for the spiritual side of the religion through reading passages of the Kabbalah in college.  Before long, he was traveling to Israel on a regular basis, eventually finding that Israel felt more like home, and it was America he was visiting in between.  He was very engaging, and got the whole group thinking about who we were, where our names came from, our interconnectedness on this planet, and the miracle of us coming to Israel at all, fulfilling a prophecy that our forebears had been trying to complete for 2000 years.  This above all resonated with me and many of my peers.  While Israel does not feel like home to me personally, the experience of visiting it on behalf of all of my ancestors who could only ever dream of such a day gave the trip of greater feeling of relevancy to me.

We next visited The Ashkenazi Ha'Ari Synagogue, which I found remarkable for its contrast to the grand churches I've seen across Europe.  While there was definitely some beautiful art to the interior, I found the temple to be quite subdued in character—certainly a mark of the Jewish traditions by comparison to Catholicism—with little to distinguish it besides its heritage.  Perhaps what I found even more surprising was the small size, which I imagined would be a squeeze to fit much more than thirty people in it, with the lectern sitting at the center of the square room rather than against one wall.

Einat, outside the Tzfat Gallery Of Mystical Art, where we met with Avraham Loewenthal to discuss art in relation to the Kabbalah.

The Tzfat Gallery Of Mystical Art.

Team Shlomo walking through Tzfat.

According to Einat, "The narrowest alley in Israel."

Einat discusses the significance of the Ashkenazi Ha'Ari Synagogue before we enter.

Outside the synagogue.

Inside the synagogue. 

Representing the arts in Tzfat.

Looking out across Galilee from the top of Tzfat.

Me, Jillian, and Graham in Tzfat.

The joyous girl of Tzfat.

Descending through the hilltop town.

I'm glad the sign was there to let me know not to jump on and climb an electrified piece of metal.

Cemetery at the foot of Tzfat.

After dining on a gigantic "shwalafel" (shwarma/falafel), we drove 90 minutes south to a small farm community, known as a Moshav, where we got to visit the home of one of the Israeli soldiers who would be joining our group over the weekend. Sigal, our host, was a third generation dairy farmer who invited us to have this unique experience, seeing where she grew up milking cows in rural northern Israel.  Her father moved there when he was about eight with his family from Britain, so he spoke quite fluently to us with a great English accent.  It was a special experience we were afforded, which most birthright groups do not get the opportunity to see, because Sigal, who would join us in a few days, wanted to show us a different side of Israel. 

As we were told, a Moshav is different than a Kibbutz in that each of the farmers runs their own private business rather than pooling all resources together.  There is a community board that oversees the allotment of homes, and the 300 or so families share a grocery store, school, and synagogue, but each works their own small part of land for personal profit.  Each farm was hardly bigger than the backyards in a lot of suburban communities, just big enough for the job at hand with another different farmer abutting their property.  We saw Sigal's cows, adjacent to a neighbor's olive orchard; got to taste fresh yogurt and milk at a neighbors farm, alongside a turkey farmer; and concluded by visiting the last of the rose farmers in the Moshav.  All in all, it was an enlightening experience, and Sigal was so pleased that we were interested in her family's way of life.

By contrast to the winery, I felt these farmers really represented the agricultural potential of the region.  As I described to some of my peers, the Golan wine was like supermarket milk compared to the wonderful fresh tasting milk we sampled on the farm.  As I found in the small farm communes of Sicily, you could taste the cow itself in the milk.

On the road again through Galilee.

 Sigal's cows.

The rose farm at the moshav.

From the northern countryside we headed another two hours south to Jerusalem, getting ourselves settled into a new hotel and home-base for the next four days.  Along the ride, we passed Megiddo, supposed site of future Armageddon.  It seemed to stick out on the skyline before Einat mentioned it because out of the plains are a cluster of trees.  Einat pointed out these were not intentionally planted but rather the result of a group of soldiers camping on the hill and spitting out their date seeds there.

At the end of the evening we had a group discussion reflecting on our time so far in Israel.  I was pleasantly struck by several members of the group, who described a feeling of being at home in Israel in a way that they hadn't experienced before.  Even though they may not have been to Israel before, it felt more comfortable than America.  It was a sentiment I could relate to, as I listened to person after person describe my emotional reaction to living in Italy. I was able to connect with Italy through its foundation as the birthplace of modern Western Civilization during the Renaissance and embrace of music, art, food, and life on the whole.  I am happy my peers found that in Israel, and I value the opportunity I've been given to learn about my heritage and its current iteration in Israel, but their epiphanies solidified for me that I was not meant to have that experience here myself.  It is my heritage but no longer my culture, and I will enjoy the rest of the trip as a pilgrim/tourist learning about a people I do not so strongly identify with myself.

Minaret on the hill.

Airplanes near Tel Aviv.

More dangerous fence.

Electrical support comes in all different shapes and sizes.  These look like giant robots to me.

Emerald city in the distance?

The outskirts of Jerusalem.

Santiago Calatrava's Jerusalem Chords Bridge.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Day One: Golan Heights

August 15, 2012

While I am not usually one to complain too much about hotel accommodations, the rooms we had in Tiberias were rather interesting.  Most notably, the beds were short and the blankets stretched only to my midriff.  When I untucked them a bit more from the bottom of the bed and scrunched my body down into a more compact position I was able to nearly get the covers up to my shoulders, which was necessary, considering the air conditioning was set on full blast in our room.  In my sleep I imagined I was out under the stars in the desert, exposed to the cool night in the arid land, although in reality it was quite warm outside.

Breakfast looked somewhat more Americanized than the typical fare I'd seen in Italy, including pancakes, frittata, and cereal.  However, there was no syrup, and I instead enjoyed my pancakes with tzatziki: one of a number of cheese and yogurt options that were available along with a terrific tuna fish salad and one other smoked fish I couldn't identify.

Before we could begin our day, we had to come up with a group name, which came surprisingly easily.  In honor of our bus driver, we called ourselves "Team Shlomo," which led to the group call-and-response chant, "Marco, Shlomo." 

Our first day in Israel was a real blast: start to finish.  We began by hiking down the Nachal Jilaboun river gorge, weaving our way up and down along the sides of the valley, crossing the stream back and forth, passing over slippery rocks, and clinging to nearby tree branches for support.  There were several waterfalls along the route, and it made for an exhilarating start to our day.  The valley was peppered with volcanic rock and was in bloom with some gorgeous pink flowers and prickly pear cacti—planted originally by Muslims to serve as fences.


The hillside around the Kinneret (Sea Of Galilee)


Rolling hills of Galilee

Roadside cattle.  The cows we saw always seemed to be living a happy life, roaming the hillsides.

The flat plateau of the Golan Heights

Beginning our hike of the Nachal Jilaboun gorge

Switchbacks into the gorge

Climbing through bamboo

Bamboo and cacti

Team Shlomo on the move

Looks like Scotland?

Einat informs us about the history of gorge, its inhabitants, and its geology.

Team Shlomo still intact

Teamwork on river crossing

Pretty pink flowers!

Rock climbing

Cave spelunking!

No jumping!

Syria controlled the Golan Heights up until 1967, and all across the plains beside the roads were minefields planted by the Syrians prior to Israeli control of the region.  The Israelis have deactivated many of the mines across the territory, but certain places, particularly near the border, they've left undisturbed in part as a buffer in case of future war.  There was certainly a much more visible military presence during our driving today, passing several military bases with tanks being driven up and down the highway on flatbed trucks.

Our second destination was Mt. Bental, a dormant volcano overlooking Syria, the U.N. border zone, and Mt. Hermon, where Israel also borders Lebanon.  We could see farmland in the Israeli areas, followed by a road marking the border, and then arid terrain across Syria, which was more clustered into cities.  At the top of the mount we also got to tour an old military bunker, replete with turrets and gun mounts for defense of the high ground.

Former Syrian (now Israeli) minefield 

Mt. Bental (notice that dormant volcano in the distance) sticks out on the mostly flat plains of the Golan Heights.

Israeli farmland, UN-controlled forested city, and Syrian planes, seen from atop Mt. Bental.

Volcanic vestige of Mt. Bental, now the site of an Israeli military base.

Israeli military bunker atop Mt. Bental leftover from 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Mt. Hermon, seen in the distance, marks the highest point in Israel, where there is skiing in the winter; although, the highest point on Mt. Hermon is shared by Syria and Lebanon, which border each other and Israel along the mountain ridge.

An Israeli kid plays on the military remnants of Mt. Bental, much as I did as a kid at Valley Forge.

Robot statues on the mountain top blend in with the volcanic rock.

We ate lunch at a shopping center, which had some more traditional American fare, but the majority of us went for falafel or shwarma.  It was definitely a few notches better than what I get at even the best New York street vendors.  The falafel and vegetables were more evenly distributed in the pita bread rather than stratified one on top of the other, and the overall quality was far superior.

Following lunch we headed off to what I would term a "wine factory."  By comparison to the producers I am familiar with presenting at Moore Brothers, who average 10-15,000 cases of wine a year.  The Golan Heights Winery boasted some 2,500 cases of wine produced a day.  The quantities are outrageous, and as a consequence, I believe the wine shows less character in representing the region.  This became clear in other ways as well just in listening to our guide at the winery.  They are using mostly new oak barrels from France for fermentation, which filled a building as big as an airplane hangar floor to ceiling, and
varietals seemed chosen more by familiarity for a foreign market, despite the fact that some made sense for the weather of the region, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and others did not, like Pinot Noir and Riesling--typical grapes of much cooler climates in Burgundy and the Rhineland. 

The wine itself was perfectly adequate, and I'm happy that many of my peers got to learn some about the wine-making process, but it was rather generic tasting, with little to distinguish it from wine in California, Australia, and other places around the world.  Those new oak barrels masked much of the fruit and earth tones that might have come out in the wine.  After competently answering nearly all of the questions our guide asked about wine, I was approached by many of my peers, who had further questions about wine and wanted to know how I knew so much on the subject, and to each who would listen I shared my unique Moore Brothers perspective of nuanced wine representing a place, a people, a culture, and the weather of that year.

Driving back across Golan/Galilee farmland.

In a brilliant show of Birthright planning, we then headed to the Jordan River for a three mile rafting trip down the lazy river.  I was able to use my experience from summers of canoeing in Canada to help me paddle my group down the river, although we were taken off guard by one rapid that shot us out into an unrelenting eddy, from which we had to paddle backwards in order to continue.  At that point, I wanted to get out of the raft and swim us forward, but we were instructed to stay in the boat for safety reasons.  I got a lot of joy out of the rafting, which, like the hike, I get to experience so seldom these days, living in New York.

Dinner was the same buffet as the night before, and with more energy on night two, we concluded the evening on the roof deck of the hotel swapping stories, playing cards, drinking beer, and admiring the view of the hilltop developments of Tiberias.

Driving back down switchbacks to Tiberias and the Kinneret.

The Kinneret at sunset.