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Romancing Israel
Aron and Judith Hirt-Manheimer. "What would it be like to revisit Jerusalem, the place where we met and vowed our love in a field of wizened olive trees and scarlet spring poppies? Could Israel still work its magic on us?" Part of "Israel at 50" pullout guide produced in conjunction with the Israel Ministry of Tourism. Fall 1997.

Romancing Israel

By Aron & Judith Hirt-Manheimer

When we sojourned in Jerusalem twenty-five years ago, Israel had all the markings of a third-world country. Most Israelis could only dream of owning their own car; private telephones were a status symbol, and Levi jeans a luxury. We were recent university graduates, and like us, the fledgling state depended for sustenance on foreign aid.

To get around the country, we hitchhiked and dined at falafel stands. Back then, a hard bench in the rear of a pick-up truck suited us fine, and food was food. We needed little more than a backpack, some pocket change, and "reservations" at a kibbutz that could use a couple of extra hands to bring in the harvest or shovel out the chicken coop. Back in the sixties and early seventies, nothing could have been more romantic than living like the selfless pioneers who had drained malaria-infested swamps and turned deserts into gardens.

But that was then. We are now, pardon the expression, "middle-aged." And the Jewish state, too, is approaching its fiftieth birthday. Last summer we returned to Israel. What would it be like to revisit Jerusalem, the place where we met and vowed our love in a field of wizened olive trees and scarlet spring poppies? Could Israel still work its magic on us?

Happily, Israel is as alluring and exciting as ever. The pioneering spirit lives on, though it no longer draws its inspiration from the old Socialist ethic. The new Israeli heroes are entrepreneurs who have advanced Israel to the forefront of technological innovation and transformed the country into a world-class travel destination with the finest of gourmet dining and luxury hotels. These days one rarely encounters kibbutzniks dancing the hora around a campfire; they are too busy marching to the beat of the burgeoning tourism industry. From the Negev Desert to the Golan Heights, kibbutzim are turning former housing units and children's houses into comfortable tsimmerim, "bed & breakfast" accommodations. Israelis everywhere are opening their "tents" to vacationers looking for a one-of-a-kind experience, from rough-water rafting on the Jordan River to a Roman feast in Jerusalem to a tour of a high-tech industrial park and museum in the Galilean hills.

S'dot Yam--Sailing on Caesar's Harbor

One of the more adventurous kibbutz tourism enterprises is operated by Kibbutz S'dot Yam, located next to the ancient Roman capital of Caesarea on the Mediterranean shore half-way between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Five years ago, the kibbutz decided to supplement income from its farming and manufacturing branches, which could no longer adequately support this 700-member community.

Typical of kibbutzim that cater to vacationers, S'dot Yam has capitalized on its natural and historical charms: a seaside setting and proximity to the famous archaeological site, which features a still-in-use Roman amphitheater, palace ruins, a Crusader fortress, and a sunken harbor that can be viewed from glass-bottom boats. Watersports enthusiasts can rent boats, scuba dive, and take sailing lessons from two Olympic champions. Terra-firma types may prefer to take a jeep tour or an old-fashioned bus excursion to the artifact-rich excavations at Caesarea, where it is not uncommon to discover ancient glass or coins in the sand along the shore.

The excavations are managed by a kibbutz member and archaeologist who has a say as to where the finds will be housed. Many treasured pieces go directly to the kibbutz's own official Museum of Caesarea. The landscape of S'dot Yam, decorated with a collection of marble columns and carved figures, serves as a constant reminder that ancient conquerors and kings once beheld the grandeur of this place.

Visitors take their meals in the spacious kibbutz dining room, from which one can enjoy a view of a stunning sculpture garden against the backdrop of the sea. The large-scale figures were created in the kibbutz studio of acclaimed Moroccan-born artist Yael Artsi. Anyone interested in modern Jewish history will want to stroll over to Beit Hannah, established by the kibbutz to memorialize the legendary poet and partisan, Hannah Szenes, who died in Nazi captivity after parachuting behind enemy lines into Hungary on a rescue mission. Hannah had immigrated to Palestine in 1939 at the age of eighteen and joined S'dot Yam, where she wrote "Eili Eili"--O Lord, My God/ I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea/ the rush of the waters/ the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart.... This poem has become part of the Jewish liturgy and appears in the Reform movement's Sabbath prayerbook, Gates of Prayer.

Ein Hod--Art Lovers' Paradise

If we could choose one place in the world from which to gaze upon shooting stars, it would be a rooftop in the storybook village of Ein Hod. Perched on a hillside facing the Mediterranean coast, the village is scented by herb and flower gardens, pomegranate, olive, fig, and carob trees. Its historic and modern stone homes are wrapped with cascading vines and surrounded by works of art. Established in the early fifties by Marcel Janco, a pioneer of the Dada movement, Ein Hod is home to 120 families, each with at least one outstanding artist. Janco's vision was to create a place where artists in every media--from the visual arts to theater, music, and literature--could work together in an environment that inspires creativity. In addition, Janco conceived Ein Hod to be a center for art education.

The Janco-Dada Museum in the heart of the village houses a permanent exhibition, which includes a selection of Janco's early paintings as well as temporary exhibitions. The main gallery showcases and sells ceramics, photography, jewelry, paintings, sculpture, and many art forms created by village residents, six of whom are recipients of the nation's highest award for artistic achievement--the Israel Prize. An additional gallery exhibits other Israeli master artists. We watched the installation of "Reflection on Kafka's Roots," paintings on canvas and glass combined with metal sculptures by visiting exhibitor Paul Bergman, who is one of the few living close relatives of Franz Kafka. The opening ceremony, attended by the ambassador of the Czech Republic to Israel, featured Czech music and a "Czech buffet." On the subject of food, an "old-country style" restaurant near the village entrance serves as a place for social gathering and merriment. During the summer months, performances of light music, comedy, and drama are performed in the 500-seat, Roman-style amphitheater. The Gertrude Krause House sponsors biweekly chamber music concerts and guest lectures. Ein Hod has no hotel or bed & breakfast facilities, but lodging can be arranged in a neighboring town.

Har Chalutz--Buki's Bed & Breakfast

Heading north and high up into the Galilean hills, we stopped to visit our friends Chaya and Mordy Burstein at Har Chalutz, a Reform Jewish free-enterprise community of close to fifty families. On a clear day atop this remote mountaintop settlement, one can scan the distant waters of the Mediterranean and Sea of Galilee.

The Bursteins settled on Har Chalutz after immigrating to Israel from the United States in the mid-eighties. For years they lived in a "caravan," a small trailer they called home while waiting for permanent dwelling. Now they reside in a three-bedroom stone house complete with fireplace, screened-in patio, and flower garden. From their windows they can see neighboring Druze villagers herding goats among the underbrush of this craggy terrain. They might also see NFTY youths trekking across the landscape as part of their Israel summer experience. Couples carrying a picnic basket would likely be guests at Buki's Bread & Breakfast, one of Har Chalutz's privately owned and operated enterprises.

Buki and Rochelle Cohen partitioned their home to create an environment that serves couples (sorry, no kids allowed) in need of a quiet, relaxing, and romantic weekend. Each of the four non-smoking rooms is named after a spice--basil, lavender, rosemary, sage--and comes equipped with an air-conditioner, private bath and shower. Fresh-cut flowers and candles are standard issue at Buki's, and a masseuse is on call, offering a menu of massages from foot to holistic shiatsu. The Cohens plan to install a Jacuzzi in their garden of exotic plants imported from Buki's native Australia.

In the morning, guests are treated to a sumptuous breakfast of Buki Cohen's freshly baked rolls, muffins, and pies; homemade melon, ginger, and cherry jams; fruit salads, herring, and cheese; and fresh brewed coffee and tea. In the afternoon, couples may order a gourmet picnic basket, complete with a bottle of wine, art supplies for landscape painting, and a little instruction book, "How To Get Romantic."

Families and groups visiting Har Chalutz can reserve space in one or more of the four recently constructed log cabins, each with eight beds, a kitchen with microwave, and a Jacuzzi. These days, the cowboy theme is chic in Israel. We stopped at the Bat Ya'ar dude ranch in the Bariah Forest, the nation's largest. Here horses and peacocks roam and guests play all day with paint-ball guns, scouting out the area in Land Rovers and other off-road vehicles or on horseback. At night, visitors square dance or play poker in a saloon in which Wyatt Earp would have felt at home. Meals are served from a covered chuckwagon or at the restaurant, which prides itself on dishing out thick T-bone or New York steaks with baked or fried potatoes and hot apple pie a la mode for dessert, and all for about $15. The servers come right out of central casting for the old television westerns, except that these cowboys and cowgirls, decked out in jeans and red scarves, sport Israeli accents.

Muhammed's Rooms and Omar's Feast

Israeli Arabs in the Galilee now have a stake in the fledgling bed and breakfast market. One of the first Arab B & B's in the area is Muhammed's of Saknnine. A jovial man who clearly enjoys entertaining guests, Muhammed welcomes visitors with a homemade tamarind fruit drink. The reception room doubles as a gourmet shop stocked with olive oil, spices, carob syrup, and other local delicacies. Each of the six rooms, clean and modestly furnished, is available for about $30 a night, including a breakfast of fresh pita and cheeses, labane (a kind of yogurt), local olives, and beverage. Applying the marketing principle of subliminal seduction, Mohammed drew our attention to the antique coffee grinder (which looks like an oversized mortar and pestle) strategically located in the corner of each room.

Up the road in the neighboring Moslem village of Arabeh, we dined in the Tent of Peace, which owner Omar Yadi built with his own hands near a spring behind his house. Omar had left his job as a waiter in Tiberias to start his own home-based business. His two wives cook the hot dishes; Omar is the maitre d' and assembles the salads; and his daughter and five sons, including twins Moses and Muhammed, help serve and clean up. If his business continues to grow, Omar tells us, he will marry again and build a third story to his house, one for each wife. Doesn't having two wives cause marital strife? No problem, says Omar, they are good friends.

Omar's tent is bordered by a low stone wall with various arches and niches. We removed our shoes and walked upon padded mats and carpets to our designated area, marked by a circle of pillows. The authentic Bedouin goat-skin canopy overhead did not obscure our view of the setting sun or of the full moon that soon dominated the star-swept sky. Omar brought out an enormous round metal tray and placed it before us. An array of warm and cold salads--okra, red cabbage, lemon onions, cilantro carrots, and stuffed vine leaves--surrounded the main course of chicken and lamb roasted in rice.

During the meal we asked Omar why he called his restaurant the Tent of Peace. "The relationship between Arabs and Jews in the Galilee is solid as stone," he said. "My dream is that this will be a model of cooperation for all the world." Omar says he owes the success of his business to Ruti Avidor, a member of nearby Yodfat, a community established about forty years ago by a group of Jewish pioneers who practiced transcendental meditation and various forms of spiritual healing. Ruti not only gave Omar moral support ("I can lift stones, but she is my back"), she helped select the menu and advised on presentation and price--all you can eat for about $20 per person.

While feasting in the tent, we heard a distant drumbeat and singing--an Arab wedding in progress. Omar told us that all guests to the village are welcome to join family festivities. On our way out of the village, our guide stopped the car so we could take a few photographs. As we neared the line of dancing men, the groom and his family urged us to come and eat. We declined, pointing to our bellies and intoning the name Omar. The celebrants gave us an understanding nod and kindly released us from any social obligation to eat or, in Aron's case, to join the all-male snake dance.

Mizpe Hayamim and the Art of Healing

For the health-conscious traveler, Mizpe Hayamim is a Garden of Eden. Built on the hills above Rosh Pina, the hotel commands picture postcard views of the Sea of Galilee, the Hula nature reserve, Mount Hermon, and the Golan Heights. Mizpe Hayamim owes its existence to Dr. Yaros, who, in the 1920s, purchased thirty acres of natural forest to establish a vegetarian resort and center for homeopathic healing. Unable to secure permission to connect the property to water lines, the German doctor could not begin construction until 1966, when the first twelve rooms finally opened to the public.

Today, under the ownership of Sami Hazan, the hotel operates eighty rooms and employs more than one hundred persons, who not only look after the guests but run the organic farm and fish pond from which the foods are harvested. The hotel's bakers use only organic flower in their breads and pastries, all baked on the premises in brick ovens. Organically-fed chickens produce eggs; the milk of organically-fed cows, sheep, and goats is pasteurized and used to produce cheeses. Berries are preserved into jams, olives pressed into oil, herbs dried for teas, grapes aged into wine.

Guests are never far from foliage, even inside the hotel, where the rooms border a lush courtyard with a goldfish pond, palm trees, and hanging gardens. In the lobby a man plays classical guitar. At Mizpe Hayamim, where the emphasis is on health and relaxation, guests can relieve stress and restore physical and psychological equilibrium through herbal mineral baths; a good shvitz in the Jacuzzi or sauna; homeopathic medicine treatments; yoga and Tai-Chi; swimming, hiking, and tennis; or a choice of eleven massages.

Judy opted for aromatherapy, a treatment combining different massage techniques, among them shiatsu and reflexology, and the application of herbal oils. But which fragrance should be used: stimulating rosewood or soothing bergamot, cleansing grapefruit or digestive cinnamon? To find out, the aromatherapist offered Judy a sniff of several bottles and advised her to go with the ones that were most appealing on first whiff. Judy selected three, which the therapist blended with pure sunflower oil and then gently applied to the body from back to front, top to bottom.

Aron opted for a Swedish massage, which improves blood circulation and relaxes the muscles. With his Hulk Hogan hands, Yeheshyahu from Russia kneaded Aron like a pizza pie, while bathing him in virgin olive oil. We emerged from our 45-minute anointments relaxed, regal, and ready for our next adventure in this land of milk and honey.

The "Active"Holiday

Outdoor adventure lovers will find many suitably challenging experiences in Israel, from handgliding off Mount Carmel and rappelling the cliffs of the Judean Desert to whitewater rafting on the Jordan River. Tracks-Israel Adventures arranges for city slickers to explore Israel's most scenic terrain by horse, camel, donkey, mountain bike, dune buggy, raft, jeep, bus, or foot. The "roughing it" is often tempered by an unexpected treat, as when a desert expedition comes upon an oasis of tables fit for a five-star hotel, or when hikers arrive in Caesarea and discover a sumptuous Roman feast awaiting them in the amphitheater. In the Jewish state, catering and trekking go hand in hand.

That "Old Man River" is jumping with thrill seekers. Last year, the Whitewaer Rafting Company, founded by two enterprising former Israeli navy "seals," shepherded some 70,000 rafting enthusiasts down the rushing Jordan River. Our personal preference would be to relax at the base camp, where visitors can take a nice shvitz in the wigwam sauna and picnic in the shade of Eucalyptus trees until the wet and weary return. Then, in the evening, we would join them on a calm part of the river for a candlelight dinner of assorted gourmet cheeses and award-winning Gamla wine, produced from grapes grown by kibbutzim in the Golan. Happily, Israel's outdoor adventure companies offer custom-made tours for groups, families, and individuals, matching the experience to the clients' comfort level and interests.

Tefen: Industry, Zionism, Culture

Israel's new entrepreneurial spirit is nowhere better demonstrated than at Tefen, the industrial park established in the Western Galilee by Stef Wertheimer to incubate new export companies. "I am very glad I created a capitalistic kibbutz," says Wertheimer, a former Palmach fighter and Knesset member. At Tefen, which has been midwife to dozens of successful enterprises, industry and art are wed to generate creativity. Wertheimer believes that Israel's future depends on export--"the battle for market share is like an ongoing military battle." Every year 25,000 Israel soldiers visit Tefen for their first exposure to the industrial world, and many of them take a course at the facility "to show them that they have creative ideas in their heads." Tefen is a showcase of Wertheimer's pioneering vision, and, like the kibbutz, it draws many visitors.

Start-up export companies, which develop a wide range of products from plastics and CDs to herbal medicines and pottery, may remain at Tefen no more than five years. During that period they must pay rent; in exchange they receive not only space but administrative support, consulting, translation services, assistance in technical and promotional writing, utilities, a post office, and cafeteria. Just as important, the fledgling companies benefit from Tefen's planned cultural environment, which stimulates innovation through a constant interaction with the arts. Tefen houses a museum for Israeli modern art, with changing exhibits every three months; a historical museum of German Speaking Jews (Wertheimer is German born); an automobile museum; and sculpture gardens; the natural setting is made even more beautiful by scenic rose and herb gardens. The Wertheimer formula seems to be working; of the 47 companies that originated at Tefen, 45 have succeeded.

Wertheimer established his own start-up company in l951; today Iskar exports $320 million annually of its two basic metal cutting tools (in 13,000 variations) used in the auto and aircraft industries. On the day we visited Iskar, which is a short drive from Tefen and situated near a Druze village, olive groves, and grazing goats, we noticed a display of foreign flags, among them those of Japan and Romania. We later learned that Iskar conducts thirty international seminars a year. Why does Wertheimer share trade secrets? "To create a niche in the world for the Jewish people," he says, "we need to play the Swiss/ Singapore game; that is, we can help our neighbors without having to dominate them." True to his vision, Wertheimer is working on setting up Tefen-type complexes in Turkey and Jordan.

Stef Wertheimer believes that the Zionist goal of gathering the world's Jews to Israel can succeed when it "becomes a place that Jews can't refuse, when the quality of life in Israel is competitive with that of the United States." This will be achieved, he says, in the next ten years, at which time the crowning entrepreneurial stage in the history of Zionism will be realized.

Jerusalem: Learning Without Walls

All those who fell asleep during history class and can't differentiate Herod from Hadrian or Suleiman from Solomonneed not despair. Jerusalem has become a university "without walls" with many gates to learning. The city's tourist sites have incorporated the latest interactive educational technologies for the edification of young and old alike. Our city tour began at the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem, which not only displays the city's story in dioramas and holograms, but tells it with a sound and light show, children's workshops and activities, and a murder mystery play based on real events at the time of Herod the Great and performed by actors on an outdoor stage. The audience tries to determine which of the four suspects killed the high priest and why.

Jerusalem's central attraction, of course, is the kotel, the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, where Jews pray, leave notes in the crevices, and celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs. Those who wish to get even closer to the Temple's inner sanctum can reserve a place on the tunnel tour beneath the kotel. Our guide showed us the mountain bedrock upon which the original city stood. We saw evidence of fire that might have been set by conquering armies. We came upon a hand-hewn stone that weighs 570 tons; it marks the closest point in the tunnel to what had been the Holy of Holies of the Temple--the very spot where the ark of the covenant once stood! A rivulet of water, some say tears, flows from the giant stone and visitors kiss the cold granite and weep. Nearby, tradition tells us, Abraham held his knife over Isaac and, many centuries later, Mohammed ascended to heaven. These stones tell many tales. For the archaeologically challenged, the tour provides a subterranean model of the ancient city, which utilizes computers and a hydraulic system to peel away the various layers of the city's 3,000-year history. To learn more about Jerusalem, we recommend a visit to the Bible Lands Museum, which exhibits rare and authentic artifacts of great beauty to show the interaction of art and religion in the cultural lives of our ancient ancestors and neighboring civilizations.

For those who want to get a taste of history, literally, we recommend the Cardo Culinaria. Billed as "the only Roman Judaen kosher restaurant in the world," the Culinaria is located in the Old City near an ancient Roman walkway. As you enter, a costumed maitre d' greets you with a fanfare forced from an elongated brass trumpet, and a tunic-draped nymph cools you with an oversized straw fan on a stick. Before you can say vini, vidi, vici, a plastic wreath crowns your brow, a toga envelops your body, and you are reclining seder style against soft leather cushions. Jugglers, mimes, and a harp player add to the revelry. We began the meal with pita bread dipped in spiced olive oil; next came lentil soup flavored with dill, cumin, and garlic croutons; a main course of chicken roasted with hyssop spice, parsley, sesame seeds, and chick peas; and a dessert of fresh watermelon with dates and raisins. The meal concluded with a washing ceremony.

The Culinaria's recipes are adapted from an authentic Roman cookbook discovered many years earlier by Fran and Bernie Alpert, active Reform Jews from Chicago who had majored in classical studies at Oxford University. When their daughter became a cook and wanted to open a restaurant in Israel, the family members combined their interests and created the Culinaria. "Coming back to Israel allowed us all to synthesize our interests," says Fran. She and Bernie also run various tours, including "Dig for a Day," an authentic hands-on archaeological experience at Tel Marisha, which many Reform youth have experienced as part of NFTY in Israel programs.

As a land of immigrants from the widest stretches of the diaspora, Israel offers an abundance of exotic cuisines. We managed during our short stay to dine in several authentic ethnic restaurants, sampling dishes from Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Ethiopia. Our favorite was Jerusalem's new Darna Moroccan Restaurant, both for its outstanding cuisine and atmosphere--the fresh white roses on every table, the live music of a master oud player, and the impeccable craftsmanship of the interior design. Chef Mohammed Boussaound, formerly of the Palais Dgamai in Marrakesh, comes to Darna direct from Morocco. Our first course consisted of thirteen salads, including caviar carrots, cinnamon and honey black olives, and cucumbers with orange blossoms. After a bowl of harirah soup (barley, tomatoes, meat, and coriander), we delighted in a serving of pastilla (thin philo pastry stuffed with Cornish game hen, onions, almonds, lemon, ginger, and cinnamon). We could have lounged in the Darna for days, but it was soon time to go to the international music festival and hear a famous female vocalist from Turkey. If you can't take a trip around the world, come to the Jewish capital and let the world come to you.

It is said that there are two Jerusalems--the ethereal one above and the earthly one below. The same may be said of Israel. On one level, Israel a land in search of peace; on another level, Israel is a garden of sensuous delights for all who come and experience her intoxicating beauty.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is editor of Reform Judaism magazine and co-author with Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg of the forthcoming book, Jews (HarperCollins).
Judith Hirt-Manheimer is an educator, author, and copyeditor of
Reform Judaism magazine.


Union for Reform Judaism.