The Best Tiyul EVER

It Takes a Resolute Tour Guide…..

Imagine the following scenario: it’s sometime in November, and our tour guide – Ezra Rosenfeld, by name – is planning a three-day excursion up to the North for some time in March) A lot of what he can expect to happen is pretty much under his control. He’s been there before – many times – so he knows the territory. He knows what he will need to explain to everyone, and he knows how to organize the itinerary, so we make the best use of our limited time. A little less under his control are the people who will sign up to accompany him. Will there be enough to make the venture do-able? Will they get along? (If you’ve ever been on a tour with a lot of other people, you know that a few ‘bad apples’ can ruin the barrel.)

But he’s planning for March! How is he supposed to know four months in advance what the weather will be like on three consecutive days in a month that might be either winter or summer here in The Land? And what’s the rush anyway? Why does he need to get people signed up with their checks in the mail before the end of 2018?

That, gentle readers, we can explain. What Ezra was planning to do is take us up to Amirei Hagalil, a spa hotel in between Karmiel and Tzvat. There are exactly seventeen guest accommodations in this cozy establishment, and the plan was for us to take over the entire hotel for a Monday and a Tuesday night, which you can’t expect to do at the last minute.

Once we got Ezra’s e-mail, the obvious thing to do was go on-line and check out the facility. (Which you can do here.) Wait a minute; they even have the dinner menu for the in-house restaurant listed. Not only would we be going with the best tour guide in town, we’d be staying at a fancy-shmancy boutique hotel, one that doesn’t let little kids through the front door, that has a spa, that overlooks the entire region, AND where we could do some mighty fine dining.  Fast forward several months, and the bunch of us (no rotten apples in this barrel) were on our way, heading up to the northern Galil and the Golan Heights for what turned out to be the best tiyul EVER.

The view from the Amirei Hagalil hotel


A couple of the places we stopped at or passed by were strictly for laughs, like the Chabad House on kvish sheish (Highway 6) and the cleverly named little restaurant on top of a mountain that is often covered with clouds (anan means cloud in Hebrew).

Coffee Anan

There were several attractions we had been to before but certainly deserved a re-visit, and there were several important sites that I can’t believe we had never visited before.

One of these was Tel Megiddo, officially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (for whatever that’s worth). For those of you who don’t remember or who never knew, a tel is the mound created when one civilization is piled upon the rubble of one or more previous civilizations. At Megiddo (the Armageddon of the Christian world), there is evidence of people living there pretty much from the Neolithic period to the third century BCE. Why was this site so popular?

We Know, We Know!

Those of us who have been on Ezra Rosenfeld’s Tanach Tiyulim can give you the answer, maybe even in our sleep. There were four considerations as to why a community would decide on a particular location, as opposed to down the block or on the other side of the mountain. 1) Access to water; 2) Availability of arable land; 3) Defensibility; 4) Proximity to a trade route. According to Ezra, on a scale of 1-10, Megiddo gets a 10+ in each of these categories, which explains why, through conquest and re-conquest, through thick and thin, the city continued to exist. Speaking of conquest, one of my favorite Ezra stories concerns the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III (fifteenth century BCE), who did battle with an alliance of Canaanite cities that had rebelled against Egyptian rule. He had planned to take the direct route to the city. However, his advisors pointed out that he could expect to find the enemy forces lining the way. What he should do, they suggested, was take one of two more circuitous routes, which would probably be undefended. To which the pharaoh responded, if you’ve thought of that, I’m sure they have as well. Sure enough, the Canaanites were massed along these two secondary roads, leaving the main route undefended – the one the pharaoh chose to take. I remarked to Ezra that this might be the earliest example of game theory known to us.

One could spend days profitably exploring the site. We spent several hours, more than the run-of-the-mill guide would allow, just enough to get a tantalizing taste of what is there.  A lot has been uncovered, a lot is still buried under the rubble of later civilizations, waiting to be uncovered. At least these days, the archaeologists are doing it right, carefully sifting through whatever it is they have found. This is in marked contrast to the original German explorers 100 years ago, who ran amok cutting into the middle of the tel.

Ezra Rosenfeld expostulating by the Canaanite gate at Megiddo

Imagine, if you will, a multi-layered wedding cake, and some kid comes along and says, I want a piece. Instead of taking from the top layer, he starts to cut from one of the middle layers. What will happen? The entire cake will collapse, that’s what. The same is true when one is excavating a tel. As archaeologists realize today, context is all important. Let’s say that a digger comes upon a piece of pottery; as long as the site is intact, then one knows what layer – therefore what civilization – the piece comes from. Otherwise, the whole thing is just a mish-mash, with artifacts from different time periods jumbled together, and no one knows what’s what.

We had left Jerusalem fairly early in the morning and had made our first stop at a site known in Arabic as Um al Umdah (mother of all columns), the remains of a synagogue from the first and second century BCE, located just outside Modiin. From there, to Megiddo, and then another short stop at Tel Jezreel, and finally, finally to Amirei Hagalil, the small hotel where we would be staying for two nights. Barbara and I must rate somehow, because we found ourselves in a suite with a Jacuzzi in the living room. Some class! We hadn’t called to make reservations at the spa early enough to arrange a massage, so we were out of luck on that score. But having our very own Jacuzzi more than made up for it.

Time for dinner! Freshly baked bread with a battery of spreads to put on it; soup; sorbet; a choice of main courses, mine being dark meat chicken braised in red wine, espresso, and thyme leaves, with a salad thrown in for good measure; a choice of desserts, mine being apple pie. Fill up the Jacuzzi, splash around in it for a while, then to bed.

Water, Water Everywhere

These tiyulim are always get-ready-at-the-crack-of-dawn. The morning minyan was called for 6:45. I showed up at 6:46 and realized that I was the last one there. Talk about a yekki crowd. We were done by 7:15, leaving us time to prepare for breakfast at 7:30 and time to be on the bus at 8:30. Off to the Golan Heights!eights!Heights

When you’re with Ezra Rosenfeld, not only will you get more than a dollop of Ancient History, you will also come away knowing a lot more about events more recent, like the on-going conflict between us and the Syrians about who gets to control the Golan Heights. We always get to stop at one of the scenic spots overlooking the Kinneret, the farming communities in the valley below us, and Tiberias across the way (in this case, Mitzpe Ofir, a park-like area developed by the family of a young man who had died and the JNF). In 1999, Ehud Barak, our chief-idiot-in-charge at the time, was determined to return all of The Heights we had captured in 1967 in exchange for a peace agreement with the then-Assad-in-charge. The sticking point was giving away the farming communities that bordered the Kinneret, because relinquishing that bit of land would have affected our water rights, and that even Barak couldn’t agree to. (What was it that Abba Eban said, about their never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity…) So despite Ehud Barak, there are now no Syrian artillery batteries on the Golan Heights aiming down at us, like shooting ducks in a barrel.

Speaking of water…….. Ezra, who is frequently in this neck of the woods, gave a vivid description of the bleak situation six months ago. The many reservoirs, which have been built to collect as much rain water as possible, were no more than glorified puddles, the small springs and ponds almost empty; until recently one could see an island in the middle of the Kinneret that’s not supposed to be there. But thank the Almighty, we had a wet winter, with the Kinneret rising over two meters. All of the north is now greener-than-green, lush beyond anyone’s imagination, with yellow wildflowers (I suspect they’re the common giant fennel, a/k/a ferula communis or in the local tongue, kelekh matzuy) in abundance, like Wordsworth’s daffodils.

Greener than green, lusher than lush

Several years ago, we and our friends The Levines visited an archaeological site previously known by the Bedouins as Um-el-Kanatir and now renamed Ein Keshatot. When we were there, the site was obviously ‘under construction,’ the most prominent part of the landscape being a huge crane that was used in restoring a 6th century synagogue that had collapsed during an earthquake in the 8th century. What a difference a few years makes in modern Israel! You go there now and there is a brand-new visitors center (because now they expect visitors), and the synagogue has been reconstructed. What a story that is! When the synagogue collapsed, the building stones were spread out layer after layer, and, except for the ones that were pilfered for some other use, they remained there for over a thousand years. The archaeologists working on the project hoisted a camera on top of the crane and photographed the site, carefully identifying each stone and labeling each one with a computer chip. Using the most modern computer technology, they were able to figure out where each stone belonged and were able to reconstruct the building (at least the first floor). For your information, the process of reconstruction is called anastylosis; ten points to anyone who can figure out how to use that word in a game of Scrabble.

Part of the reconstruction

Ezra in Peak Form

After taking a stroll through the rest of the site and having our lunch at the picnic table thoughtfully provided, we were back on the bus, off to the previously mentioned Coffee Anan, where, from our vantage point on top of the mountain, we had a birds-eye view of the entire region. Off to the east were several either dormant or extinct volcanoes, the subject of some heated negotiations between Henry Kissinger (boooooo!) and Golda Meir (yeaaaah!) many moons ago. Kissinger was pressuring Meir to agree to return that area to the Syrians in exchange for I-don’t-know-what. The pressure on her kept increasing and increasing until, out of desperation, Golda went over to the window of the conference room they were. You see those people out there, pointing to the large gathering of protesters who had amassed outside, some of them camping out overnight; they’ll kill me if I agree. Kissinger realized that there were some things that it would be politically suicidal for the Israeli government to agree to, and he backed off. Ezra, in telling the story, mentioned that a few guys from Machon Lev (he being one of them) had wandered over to the protest to check out the action; so he figured that he had played a very tiny role in creating history. To this day, the area near the volcanoes remains in Israel, prompting me to suggest to him that they ought to call this episode Avinu Volcano (drum roll, please!).

Speaking of Ezra anecdotes about forgotten incidents in Israeli history, here’s one he related sometime on the tiyul about a kibbutz called Ein Harod, or better still, the two kibbutzim called Ein Harod. Close to 100 years ago, obviously before the modern state, there was a kibbutz with that name, and like many kibbutzim of its kind (resolutely secular, definitely left-wing) had a picture of Uncle Joe (Stalin, that is) in their cheder ochel (the communal dining hall), and life was good until the 1950’s, when the enormity of Stalin’s crimes began to dawn on some, but not all, of the kibbutz members. And then, all hell broke loose. (Think Trump vs. anti-Trump in the States or pro-Brexit vs. anti-Brexit in England.) The kibbutz split in two (Not the only one to do so over ideological differences; these kibbutzniks took their politics very seriously!) That’s not the end of the story, of course. Someone Ezra knew was from the more moderate version, and that fellow over the years became religiously observant. He would go back to the kibbutz every year to organize Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayers. When he began doing this, he had about twenty-five people; over the years, the number of participants increased, until now there are over 300 joining in. Whatever happened to the portrait of Comrade Stalin in the other kibbutz? That I didn’t think to ask.

The Day Wines Down…

It’s good to be with Ezra. If you were to wander into the Golan Winery on your own, you would probably get a run of the mill tour of the facility and be served some of their cheap stuff in the tasting room. However…….. Ezra called the visitors center in the morning and told them he would be arriving in the afternoon with thirty some odd people and he wanted Reuven to take us around, which is what happened. What I learned later was that Reuven was originally German, became interested in things Jewish, came to Israel, converted, got married to an appropriate Jewish woman, and lives with his family in the area. None of which would be relevant except that Reuven definitely knows his way around a wine barrel. He gave a very respectable presentation about the why’s and wherefores of the Golan Winery to our group, whose interest in and knowledge of wine varied markedly. For example, Why do some wines cost more than others?, was one question asked of him.

When Reuven was finished explaining, he took us into the tasting room, where a lot of not-their-best wine usually gets poured, especially to a large and not-so-knowledgeable group as ours. But the Reuvens of this world do not pull their punches; he brought out the good stuff: a Yarden Gewurtztraminer, one of their Cabernet Sauvignons, and finally the latest version of their T2, a lovely dessert wine made from two types of grapes originally indigenous to Portugal, Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cao. I’ve always maintained that a lot of Israeli wineries are making a big mistake when they insist on offering visitors their el cheapo wines. Reuven knew better. You should have seen our group of non-mavens bringing their high-quality purchases to the check-out counter. (We plan to be back at this same visitors center in June on a different tiyul, and you better believe I’m going to pay attention to how we get treated on that trip.)

Generally speaking, any time I discuss wine, you can expect that our friends The Levines will somehow be part of the story. I was on the phone with Richard the day before we left, and, when he found out where we would be staying, he got very excited. Our hotel was just down the road a stretch from Har Halutz, the mountain top where they live. Maybe they could join us for dinner? So not only were we getting another sampling of the hotel restaurant’s scrumptious cuisine, but good friends could join in the repast. The only downer was that, after carefully tasting minute quantities of the offerings at the winery, I couldn’t join Barbara L. in anything from the restaurant’s well-stocked supply. Oh well!

Avraham and the Canaanite Gate

Even without an additional glass of wine, our tiyul kept getting better and better, for Wednesday morning, we packed up our stuff and headed up to Tel Dan. As the brochure puts it, “Entering the Tel Dan reserve is like stepping into a wonderland.” Are you sure we’re still in Israel and not the Finger Lakes? The Dan stream is the most important source of the Jordan River, and it sure was flowing as our group walked beside it through a wooded landscape. Maybe we should come back in the summer when most of The Land is brown and the largest amount of water to be seen elsewhere is at a carwash. I imagine that in the middle of the day, and with all the tourist groups stomping about, most of the wildlife choose to remain out of sight, so we got nary a glimpse of rodents such as the Cairo spiny mouse, the broadtoothed mouse, or the ever-popular Tristram’s jird (sic) along the way. Nor did I notice any specimens of the Damascus barbel, the Levantine sucker, or the Jordan loach in the rapidly flowing water, let alone some of the rare plants that are found in the marshes or along the river banks, the marsh fern or the stinking St. John’s wort. You will be relieved to discover that the Syrian ash and the Jerusalem thorn co-exist quite amicably in the Tel Dan reserve.

By yon bonnie banks…..

However, Tel Dan is not just a nature reserve; it is an extremely important archaeological site (hence its name ‘tel’) as well, apparently occupied from the Ceramic Neolithic Age until the Roman period. I saw enough ancient walls that day to keep me busy for a while, but what I remember best was standing in front of the Canaanite Gate and listening to Ezra give a remarkable explanation. How many times have I read the part in parshat Lekh Lekha about the four king and the five kings and wondering why we are being told about this incident? Anyway, the armies of the four kings abducted Lot, and Avraham assembled his 318 men and set off to free Lot, winding up at Dan. And here we were, how many millenia later, standing in front of the ancient gates of the city, the assumption being that Avraham stood in that very spot. (I imagine this is our equivalent of ‘George Washington slept here.’) Then the text tells us that Avraham divided up his forces and proceeded to somewhere near Damascus. Well, of course. Ezra pointed in the direction of that city, and we could see for ourselves: right in the way is Mount Hermon. Nobody would climb the mountain to get to Damascus; one would go around the mountain, either to the west or to the east. Avraham chose to do both. What’s the point that Ezra was making? Unless you understand the geography of The Land, many of the references in the Torah are incomprehensible. It’s not just that Rashi had no idea what an olive looked like……..

Back on the bus for our final destination, Hamat Teverya, another national park just south of the much-neglected city of Tiberias, this one containing renowned hot springs and a third century synagogue with a well-preserved mosaic floor, in whose center is a wheel of the zodiac with an image of Helios the sun god in  the center. A lot of what the archaeologists are uncovering seems at odds with our notions of normative Judaism, but that’s the way it is. Can’t argue with facts literally on the ground. (Well, some people can.) Barbara and I had been to this site several time before. The new wrinkle was putting in a few small pools where folks can get their feet wet and sample the waters of the hot springs. When we arrived, there were a few young ladies who, in order to get properly immersed, were walking around in skimpy bathing suits, much to the consternation of the parkees.

We had traveled several hours from Tel Dan down to Tiberias, with several more hours to go, but at least we were traveling down the Jordan Valley. One of our midst had asked Ezra that, since eight of us were from Ma’ale Adumim, which is on the way, could the driver (a really nice guy) stop and let us out there.

Wait a minute; what just happened? A few hours before we were up at Tel Dan, traipsing around in our shirt sleeves. When we got off the bus in Ma’ale Adumim, we were hit with gale force winds. We could barely walk to the bus stop for the #174 to our apartment. I read later that snow was expected on Mount Hermon, the same Mount Hermon that we had been looking at most of our trip.

How did Ezra figure it out for months in advance, the precise window of opportunity when the weather would be perfect for thirty some odd people to take a trip up north, when a few hours later the weather would be awful? Maybe that’s his secret or a trick of the trade, if one is a tour guide trying to put together the best tiyul ever.


2 thoughts on “The Best Tiyul EVER

  1. Sounds like a fantastic trip! I took a look at the hotel’s menu and was very amused to see “Chocolate Nemesis” as one of the desserts. LOL. The place does look enticing and your itinerary was wonderful.


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