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Israel through a tourist’s eyes (2)

Our friend Jimmy came to Israel for the first time a few weeks ago. He combined staying with us and several days each in Tel Aviv-Yafo (Jaffa) and Jerusalem, as well as two tours when we traveled together. The previous article covered the Judean Desert, the Dead Sea, and Ein Gedi trip. This article is about our trip up north.

A few days after returning from the Dead Sea area, we ventured with Jimmy and two other couples to the Galilee and the Golan. In the car provided to me while my ibex-bashed Citroen was being repaired, we headed north for the Kinneret. What’s the Kinneret? It’s usually identified as the Sea of Galilee to non-Israelis, but the Hebrew world for “harp” is the name the locals use. Though not large by international standards, the Sea of Galilee is revered by Christians because Jesus did some of his most renowned acts in the area. It also is Israel’s largest fresh water lake.

Our first stop was at Kfar Nahum on the Kinneret’s northern shore, famously known as Capernaum — the town of Jesus — in English. There we had a very nice view of the Kinneret, which is a large water resource for Israel, but no longer the most critical one since desalinated water transformed Israel from a perennially thirsty country to a water-rich one. This winter was relatively rainy and the lake is almost at the point where the dam constraining its flow to the Jordan River could be opened, which is unfortunately rare. 

“Capernaum is where Jesus lived as he carried out his mission. Most of the chapters in the New Testament describe what happened when he was living in Capernaum – from his baptism to the last week of his life. Jesus chose his twelve disciples in this area on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum is mentioned more than fifty times in the New Testament, making it the most-mentioned place after Jerusalem. Jesus chose to live in Capernaum and not in Tiberias, which was a bigger and more important city, because he wanted to be close to the Golan [the gateway to Damascus].”

https://www.travelingisrael.com/capernaum/

After checking out some of the ruins and viewing the more modern basalt stone buildings at Capernaum, we drove the short distance to Migdal. There we had reserved a table at the famous chef restaurant Magdalena, known for its Arab-style food. Chef Youssef Hana’s menu fuses home-cooked specialties from the Galilee kitchen Hana grew up in, combined with influences from Lebanon and other Mediterranean cuisines. It’s near the ancient town of Magdala, which is believed to be the birthplace of Mary Magdalene. We enjoyed a late lunch that was absolutely scrumptious. The salads, the main courses, and the dessert were all worth every bit of the high price that we paid, making it a very special meal.

Next stop was our accommodations in Had Nes, a very popular town filled with zimmerim, which often have rustic, or more sophisticated, cottages often located right on the host’s property. We had three cabins in a lush setting; ours had two bedrooms. After our big afternoon meal, we made a very appetizing and light supper of leftover snacks and pita on our porch, accompanied of course by lots of wine. Since it was Friday, Jimmy had another chance to enjoy the welcoming song and prayers accompanying the Shabbat meal.

In the morning, after preparing our own breakfast,  we drove to Mt. Bental, which is one of Israel’s favorite mountain peaks for visitors and Israelis alike. A short drive up the mountain, at the top there is both scenic beauty and an important battleground with bunkers open to visitors. From there are great panoramic views of the Golan Heights and Syria, especially of nearby Quneitra, which was conquered by Israel in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War and is located in the buffer zone between Israel and Syria. 

Quneitra was mostly destroyed and has been left in that state by the Syrians as a reminder – of their former glory or their great defeat?  On a hike years ago, before Israel gave the nearly demolished city back to Syria in 2018 (see Note), we had visited the remains of the officers barracks and headquarters in Quneitra, which was in disarray after the officers and soldiers fled the Israeli army.

 “The battle [at Bental] was one of the largest tank battles ever and was miraculously won by the Israelis with their small force of 160 tanks. The Syrians attacked with 1,500 tanks and 1,000 artillery pieces to be slowly mowed down by the much, much smaller Israeli force. The Israeli army suffered large casualties as well and by the time the battle was over, only 7 Israeli tanks were operational. After 900 of the Syrian tanks were destroyed, the Syrians turned and fled, leaving the land for the victorious Israelis. Today, to remember the bloody battle, the valley below the mountain, reaching to Mount Hermon, is called the Valley of Tears.” https://www.touristisrael.com/mount-bental/5821/

Because of the ample rain this year, the streams in Israel’s north have plentiful water. We drove to the Sa’ar Waterfall to see the rare sight of a majestic (for Israel) stream of water flowing from the heights. Just like Israelis flock to Mt. Hermon in the Golan to see snow during a cold winter, they come in droves in springtime to see the relatively rare, abundant waterfalls. There were many people walking the short distance to the lookouts, passing through stands of Druse food and handicrafts, plus other tourist items; even cotton candy!

For lunch we stopped by a Druse roadside stand, where we enjoyed special pita-type bread filled with labneh, the tastier Lebanese version of cream cheese, wrapped  like a crepe. It included a dollop of olive oil and Mideastern spices and it’s quite nice when eaten shortly after preparation, while it’s still warm. 

As we returned to Had Nes in the afternoon, we hoped to go to the adjacent Meshushim  (hexagonal) Pool, where we had hiked years ago. There one can see breathtaking views of deep basalt canyons with pools and bubbling cascades, fascinating and impressive hexagonal basalt pillars, and flower-filled meadows along the Meshushim Stream. Unfortunately, the entrance was closed when we arrived there.

The next morning we left early and had an excellent breakfast at a cafe in the center of Katzrin, “capital” of the Golan Heights. The original village flourished from the 4th century CE to the 8th century. “Katzrin is full of beautiful scenery and fascinating history. The original Katzrin, which dates back to the Byzantine era, was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 CE. Thousands of years later, you can still see some of the ruins that tell the story of the ancient town. Lovely hikes, great wineries, and fascinating archeological sites make Katzrin an essential stop in the Golan Heights.” 

https://www.touristisrael.com/katzrin/51436/

In the same center is the Golan Archaeological Museum, whose highlights include extraordinary basalt lintels and Aramaic inscriptions from 32 Byzantine-era Golan synagogues; coins minted during the Great Jewish Revolt (66–70 CE); a model with copious explanations of Rujum Al Hiri, a mysterious Stone Age maze 156m (465 ft) across, built some 4500 years ago; and a film (available in nine languages) that brings to life the Roman siege of Gamla.  www.lonelyplanet.com

It was at Gamla in 67 CE that the Israeli general Yosef ben Matityahu surrendered to Roman commander Flavius Vespasian, who soon became the Roman emperor. Yosef, who had told the commander that he would soon rise to power, was spared, became a Roman, and emerged as Flavius Josephus, one of the most significant historians of the Jews in that period and before. Learn a lot more about this fascinating character at: 

https://patternsofevidence.com/2021/12/03/flavius-josephus-jewish-historian/.

In the ancient Talmudic Village of Katzrin (you can buy one ticket for the museum and the site) we saw yet another interesting film on the era of the Talmud (Jewish civil and ceremonial law) and walked through the ruins. Especially exciting is the remains of the synagogue, which was an elaborate and expensive building which, attesting to the wealth of the community. Housed in the structure was a school and the Court of Law. Today the partially reconstructed synagogue is a venue for weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. 

We also enjoyed learning about the ancient olive oil press, where we saw a group of students in period costumes receiving an explanation of the work done there. During this time, about 300 years after the destruction of Gamla, there was a renewal in the Golan of about 25 settlements, some with magnificent synagogues. This was the time of the Byzantine period  of Christianity, when Christians, Jews, Romans and others lived in what the Romans named “Palestine,” in their effort to erase the Jewish patrimony there. 

For reference purposes, note that the Golan Heights territory comprises only 690 sq miles, roughly the size of Houston, TX. To learn more about the fascinating history of the Golan Heights and the struggle to include it into modern Israel, see this site: 

https://www.peterbaileybooks.com/post/katzrin-from-the-talmud-to-the-20th-century-and-beyond

Because we needed to replenish our supply of olive oil, we stopped next to the Village at the Olea essence factory, where the Talmon family in 1997 began to develop a unique process producing olive-based skincare that is, “eco-responsible and fully natural, using all of the olive to the last molecule and disposing of nothing.” Besides skin care products, some of which both Jimmy and Michal purchased, we also bought a large tin of one of their varieties of olive oil. You can find out more at https://www.oleaessence.com/our-story/.

We returned home by evening and Jimmy began gathering his things for his return to Florida the following day. It was an awe-inspiring visit for him, one that he looked forward to for years. He did a lot of preparation for the trip and it paid off. Jimmy enjoyed himself immensely, saw a lot, learned a lot, met many people and made friends, and thoroughly enjoyed himself. We did too! 

Note: Before the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, there was an uneasy stand-off between Israeli and Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.But in 2014 anti-government Islamist rebels overran Quneitra province on the Syrian side. The rebels forced Assad’s forces to withdraw and also turned on U.N. forces in the area, forcing them to pull back from some of their positions.

The area remained under rebel control until the summer of 2018, when Assad’s forces returned to the largely ruined city of Quneitra and the surrounding area following a Russian-backed offensive and a deal that allowed rebels to withdraw.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-israel-golanheights-explainer-idUSKCN1R22IR

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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