Israel: Part 4 – Tsfat, the Golan Heights

Monday, June 8th, 2015

The Wandering Jew by Nicky Imber in Tsfat
The Wandering Jew by Nicky Imber in Tzfat

On Sunday evening, we arrived at Kibbutz Lavi. Kibbutz Lavi’s hotel facility is one of their main sources of income and popular with Orthodox Jews. They also make synagogue furniture and engage in the traditional Kibbutz business of agriculture. Agriculture is no longer the primary business of any kibbutz, from what I understand.

Compared to the two hotels I visited, the room was nice, the wifi at the Kibbutz was good, the staff was friendly, and the food…left a bit to be desired. The eggs were powdered, for example. It seemed to be more like a public school cafeteria.

Tzfat was the first stop on Monday. It is the highest city in Israel in terms of elevation. The Jewish presence in the city dates back to the Middle Ages. After the Spanish Inquisition expelled the Jews from Spain, it became a center of Jewish learning, and is considered a center of Kaballah even to this day. Notably, Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch and Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, composer of Lecha Dodi, which is sung as part of the Friday evening service.

In Tzfat, we visited a gallery of artwork by Nicky Imber. Imber was an artist who was so skilled, when at Dachau, he’d been able to make a mask out of break and sand of one of the Nazi soldiers, steal a uniform, and walk out of the gates of the camp. His sculptures are still famous worldwide.

Joseph Caro Synagogue
Joseph Caro Synagogue

We then visited the Joseph Caro synagogue, built in the 16th century, and rebuilt after a 1759 and an 1837 Earthquake. It was originally a place of learning, and didn’t become a synagogue until 1903.

The Ha Ari Synagogue in Tzfat
The Ha Ari Synagogue in Tzfat

The other synagogue visited was the Ha’ Ari Synagogue, built in honor of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari. It may be the oldest synagogue in Israel still in active use. The distinction is questionable, because there are many repeatedly destroyed synagogues that have been rebuilt, in some cases after many years of destruction, including the Karaite Synagogue in Jerusalem.

After touring both, we wandered around the Artist’s Quarter…otherwise known as random people trying to sell us things. There were some nice items, but nothing so nice I could see myself hauling it around for a week to bring home. The most surprising part was a woman who greeted us “Good Morning” and called me out when she didn’t hear my low and noncommittal response. It turned out, by odd coincidence, when we did speak to her, she had grown up in Westchester and had gone to school with my cousin. Small world.

Later that day, we headed toward the Golan Heights, taking a jeep tour of the area. And when I say a jeep tour, I mean it. Bumpy unpaved roads, dust flying everywhere(and me wearing a dark shirt that day)…certainly an experience.

The Jordan River
The Jordan River

And then we get to the Jordan River. There it is….surprisingly tiny, isn’t it? I’m assuming that when Johnny Cash sung about waiting on the Far Bank of the River Jordan…he hadn’t seen it.

The Jordan River is 156 miles long, running from its sources to the Sea of Galilee, and then a lower section down to the Dead Sea. South of the Sea of Galilee, it forms the border between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan. The flow of the Jordan has been sharply reduced by Israel, Jordan, and Syria. Prior to the Six-Day War, in 1965, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon attempted to divert some of the sources of the Jordan River in order to reduce Israel’s water supply.

Danger Mines I remember visiting the Golan Heights the last time I was in Israel. And I remember signs like these, and being told that they still, years after the Golan Heights were captured in 1967 and annexed in 1981, the mines were still a threat. The Heights are a plateau, from which the Syrian Army attacked Israeli communities in the valley below by firing artillery shells. Without getting into the politics of it, which date back to 1923, returning the Golan Heights to Syria would leave Israel at significant risk.

On June 6th, 1967, Syria launched three attacks against Israeli positions. On June 8th, 48 years to the day that I was there, the Israeli Air Force bombarded the Syrian positions on the Golan Heights.

After 16 years, it is hard to reconstruct the last trip I took here, but it was part of the March of the Living, and I was asked to take notes. I’ve pulled what I wrote that day, after writing my recollection of the more recent trip.

Tuesday, April 20, 1999 – We had gone up the mountain in jeeps, and also returned that way for a nature hike, which was cut short. Bret Gutstein once again appears in this document, hitting me with a large piece of bamboo.

I looked up Bret Gutstein…I believe she is now running a bagel seasoning business in New York.

More on 1999 later, especially since, combining all this material makes me think my narrative here is going to last a lot more parts…we haven’t even reached Jerusalem yet. I had forgotten I still had this notebook till I was writing about the Golan Heights.

Next time on Israel….we visit the the Memorial at Mitzpe Gadot, the Banias Springs, and Tel Hai. And more…Israel: Then and Now.

Israel: Part 3 – Caeserea, Haifa, Rosh Hanikra

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Drive north to tour Caesarea, once the Roman capital of the region. See the excavations of the crusaders’ city, the aqueduct and amphitheater which has been restored as a concert venue. Proceed to Haifa for a panoramic view from Mount Carmel and visit “AF AL PI CHEN”, the naval museum of the illegal immigration to Israel at the time of the British mandate. Drive to Acre; walk along the old harbor and local market; continue to the northernmost point of Israel at Rosh Hanikra. Descend by cable car into the limestone grottoes.

Sunday morning we bid a fond farewell to the Dan Panorama Tel Aviv and met up with our tour. To our surprise, it was the same guide from Friday. But now we had a full sized bus, more people, and a separate driver.

Outside the Roman Theater...finally, a foot that needs a bigger shoe than I do
Outside the Roman Theater…finally, a foot that needs a bigger shoe than I do


The Same Foot in 1974 - It has been moved
The Same Foot in 1974 – It has been moved

Our first stop was the ancient city of Caeserea. Under the leadership of King Herod, whom our guide spent the entire work referring to as “that meshuganah paranoid”, Caeserea was transformed from a small village into an important port city. Caeserea is also home to the country’s only 18 hole golf course.

The Park is where much of the ruins exist, and have been excavated.




The Roman Theater in Caeserea
The Roman Theater in Caeserea

At the Caesarea Park, we ran into a group on Birthright Israel. Birthright has always been a sensitive topic for me. I went on March of the Living in 1999, and was told that made me ineliglble for Birthright, which is a free trip to Israel for college-age kids. Meanwhile, people who had been to Israel dozens of times seemed to be going for free. And I felt there was more for me to see.

The rules, from what I understand, were changed, and one person who went on March of the Living later told me he went on Birthright. But, no use crying over spilt milk. I was never in Tel Aviv during that trip. Look for future editions of Israel: Then and Now…1972, 1974, 1999, and 2015. We’ll see how things have changed.

The Roman Theater at Caeserea has been rebuilt, and now serves as a venue for music.

Caeserea also began my continual search for water fountains during the course of the trip. Apparently, for a desert country…the idea of public water is not as common as you’d think. The park did have water, which is good.

After we left the park, we headed toward Haifa, stopping for lunch at a small mall, where I had a tuna sandwich. We picked Aroma, which is interesting in that it is an Israeli coffee chain that is currently available in cities around the world. The first U.S. Branch opened in 2006. There are 10 in New York, for example.

Haifa is the third largest city in Israel, and a majore seaport. Built on the slopes of Mount Carmel, unlike Tel Aviv, it seemed like it would be a place I would want to see more of. However, it is built into the side of a mountain. I learned when I went to school in Ithaca that a large amount of steep hills is an issue for me.

The Bahá'í World Centre Gardens and the City of Haifa below
The Bahá’í World Centre Gardens and the City of Haifa below
Haifa, Circa 1974
Haifa, Circa 1974


Matching Hats
Matching Hats

And once again, we have Haifa as it appeared then and now. We stopped for this picture of us in our official Costco Sunhats, apparently very popular on our tour group.





The Rosh Hanikra Cable Car
The grotto


The old train tunnel at Rosh Hanikra
The old train tunnel at Rosh Hanikra


We did not, despite the itinerary, visit the Naval Museum. We took a walk through the city of Akko before headed toward one of my favorite sites, Rosh Hanikra. I realized I did not take any pictures in Akko.

Rosh Hanikra is a series of grottos very near the Lebanese border, accessible by what may be the steepest cable car in the world. Nearby is the sealed railway tunnel to Lebanon. The tunnel was built in 1943 to connect Cairo and Istanbul, created a single route that could extend all the way through to Europe. However, the tunnel was sealed, and reportedly was never used for civilian service.

The day ended at Kibbutz Lavi. More on that in Part 4, where we visit Tsfat.