When my wife and I finally decided to make aliyah four years ago from dark, dank Manchester in the north of England following my retirement, our (actually my) first thought was to head for Netanya where I have relatives. After all it’s by the sea and there are lots of Anglos around, what’s not to like? As usual my wife had other thoughts. “It’s too hot and humid in the summer and the surrounding countryside is flat and uninteresting” said she. “What about the Galil”?
We’d toured and certainly admired Galilee on a previous visit to Israel but who would want to live there? Well, as fate would have it, Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Anglo aliyah assistance organisation with which we had signed up, had recently started their ‘Go North’ program. This is in association with the Ministry for Development of the Galilee and the Negev and offers additional help for settlers in the north. After grudgingly admitting that maybe she had a point, we did an online search and alighted on Karmiel nestling in the Beit HaKerem Valley which divides Upper and Lower Galilee. This growing city of 50,000+ people proved to be even more attractive ‘in the flesh’ than in photographs. What’s more prices are lower and its upland elevation means that cooling breezes blow most of the time, which also reduces the humidity. The climate generally is very agreeable although winters can be harsh with snow certainly not unknown.
Come the spring though and the rolling hills of Galilee are surprisingly verdant and the rocky landscape is clothed in its finest greenery. As Song of Songs so lyrically renders it, “For Lo the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come and the sound of the turtledove is heard in our land.” The many forests, some natural, some planted, climb up and down the hillsides covering them in a fragrant, woody mantle, The region’s farms and kibbutzim produce an extraordinary array of crops and the vineyards and wineries yield amazing wines of all types for the discerning palate.
Israel is thought of generally as a Middle Eastern country, conjuring up images of the burning sands of Arabia but this can be misleading. Essentially this is a Mediterranean land whose history, geography, culture and climate are redolent of the classical Mediterranean World. In no part of the Holy Land is this more obvious than in the Galil with its undulating terrain, mountains and limestone cliffs down which tumbles lush greenery and brilliantly coloured plants of many and varied hues.
For the religious visitor, of course, this land is a magnet and there is much to see and experience. Jewish tourists will seek out the two of Israel’s four holy cities located in the north, lofty Safed home of Kabbalism and Tiberias on the lakefront of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), as well as the many tombs of saintly rabbis. Of these, perhaps the two most visited are those of the Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) on Mount Meron, whose final resting place is the subject of overwhelming attention each LaG B’Omer, and the tomb of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) in Tiberias. It was Galilee too which kept the torch of Judaism burning brightly following the Jewish Revolt of 70 CE when the mighty legions of Rome expelled those Jews whom they hadn’t massacred, from Jerusalem. The survivors fled north and the Sanhedrin and academies were re-established there.
For the tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims who come each year, this is where Jesus spent his formative years and where many of the miracles ascribed to him are believed to have taken place. At the southern end of the Kinneret is Yardanit, where pilgrims can be fully immersed in the waters of the Jordan River, just like their religion’s founder and receive a certificate to prove it!
To the secular visitor, it is still fascinating to see ordinary workaday road signs pointing to legendary places which are mentioned in the Bible, as one would see signs to say, Manchester in the UK, Boston in the USA or Toronto in Canada. ‘Mount Tabor? Oh yes, isn’t that where Deborah defeated the Philistines?’ or ‘En-Dor 10 kms.’ You get the idea. Archaeological evidence is constantly being unearthed (quite literally) which backs up the Biblical narrative undermining those who maintain that the Bible should not be taken too seriously, that in reality it’s just figurative.
Here the Nature lover will discover paradisaical reserves such as the Tel Dan National Park where the three streams which form the headwaters of the Jordan, fed by the melting snows of the Hermon massif, gush forth amid luxuriant undergrowth. Frogs, fish, birds and a myriad other creatures stare curiously at any human who dares invade their sovereign territory. In the Hula Valley, migrating birds take a much needed pit-stop on their long flight between Europe and Africa. Twitchers (ornithological enthusiasts) from all over the world descend on this site to watch this amazing spectacle especially in spring and autumn.
Galilee then, is a very special region as its denizens are well aware, although it really is quite small and in inverse proportion to its influence on the culture and heritage of the whole Western World. We who live here, feel fortunate indeed to wake up each morning to the Psalmist’s refrain, “I shall lift up mine eyes unto the hills.”