Back on the Bus Again — Part One

Never let the cole slaw get you down

Oh no. Not again! If I have to cancel this trip after having been COVID-ed from the excursion to Egypt last month, I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe never sign up for any such jaunts in the future because it’s not worth it. The AACI study trip #181 – Upper Galilee (bus 2) was scheduled to depart bright and early on Sun. March 6, and here it was the day before – Shabbat – and my insides were in rebellion. Not a good sign, not at all. It turned out in the end to be a simple matter – as in the coleslaw I had nibbled at Fri. night, which had been sitting in the fridge a little too long. By the time Shabbat was over, I was pretty much fit as a fiddle, a much happier camper, ready to finish packing and head out crack of dawn the next day.

To tell the truth, I hadn’t been that eager to go on this excursion. We’ve been here; we’ve been there before. A lot of the other places don’t seem that interesting. So I’m not that excited. But Barbara really wanted to go. She needed to go somewhere, just to get away after the Egypt debacle. (Note to self: always listen to your wife. Life is better that way.) And I had to admit, even the AACI study trips I had been on just to please my life-mate had turned out to be winners. Plus, it had been two years since our safari to Tanzania, the last time I had an opportunity to do any extended photography. So why not just go, enjoy myself, and, on a good day, get some photographs worth sharing?

Who are these guys?

I hadn’t paid attention, but the guide for this trip was Jacky Sivak, and you don’t get any better than her. After boarding the bus in front of the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, we stopped to pick up a few folks at the Rosh HaAyin North Train Station and then at the Yokne’am-Kfar Yehoshua station. Right away, Jacky hit us with, Which Yehoshua is the station named for? (Total silence.) The correct answer is Joshua Henkin (spelling?), but you knew that. (Of course you did.) Jacky explained that he was a proto-Zionist who was responsible for acquiring much of the land over which we would be traveling the next few days. From which, she segued into a more general discussion about the waning days of the Ottoman Empire here in The Land and the willingness of the absentee Arab landowners in Lebanon to part with their ‘worthless’ property for a pittance. If they only knew!

As I’ve written before, the value of these study trips is that, we not only travel The Land, we also learn in depth about where we’re going from special people we would otherwise never get to meet. Example A: The Circassian Heritage Center.  Now be honest; if it were up to you, would you get up at the first light of day, get on a bus, and travel three or four hours to visit this less-than-stellar attraction? All I knew about this ethnic group was that they were a tiny minority in Israel and that they served in the IDF. Ze hu. But did I need to know more; would my life be improved with a little more information about their life and times?

Not only did we get the basic primer about the plight of the Circassians: murdered and expelled from their homeland in the Caucasus by the Russians in the 19th century; we learned about what life is like for them in 2022; how those in The Land have successfully integrated into Israeli society, while maintaining their distinctive culture. They still speak Circassian (along with Hebrew, Arabic, and English), a language whose origins and distinctive features we learned about – unlike their brethren in Wayne, N.J., who basically speak English only. (Who knew there were Circassians living on the West Bank of the Hudson River!) The icing on the virtual cake was a dance performance in full costume by a young couple. You don’t get that on your standard tiyul!

Circassian Dancers

If our first visit fell in the category of Why on earth are we going there?, the next one was more like, Fine and dandy, but I don’t need a tiyul to get us there. I am referring to the Adir Winery, one of The Levines’ favorites. But this time I did get to meet Mordechai, the transplanted Brit who more or less functions as the maître d’ of the Visitors Center. And our visit started out with a demonstration of cheese making in a part of the Center I never knew existed.

OK; enough of this touristy stuff. Let’s get serious. How about some wine? We headed over to the main building for a sampling of their current offerings. Here Mordechai was in his element, pouring with a practiced hand, explaining what was in the glass. Here was my chance to buttonhole our host and ask him some questions of my own. But there was one question I had to ask myself and my life mate. Am I crazy to buy some wine here and shlep it back to Ma’ale Adumim? Pondering the matter, while eyeing the offerings neatly arranged on the shelves of the Visitors Center, I came up with a good rationale. When we head back on Wed., the bus will drop us off right by a light rail station in the center of Jerusalem, close to where I would get on anyway if I were at the shuk and buying wine there. Until then, the bottles would rest comfortably in our hotel room, where we would be shortly. So it makes sense; let’s do it.

Mordechai shmoozing with one of the guys

And yes, we were soon checking in at our hotel, the Pastorale in Kfar Blum. (As I was writing this, something occurred to me: I now know who is the Yehoshua of the eponymous train station, but Blum? I never thought to ask. The only Blum I could think of – not the Leopold Bloom of Ulysses – was Leon Blum, the Jewish socialist PM of France pre-WW II. That would make sense for the name of an Israeli kibbutz back in the day. Turns out I’m right; but you knew that all along.)

The hotel reminded me of the first-rate lodges we stayed in on our trip to Tanzania: a central building, used for registration and dining, surrounded by a host of small well-appointed rooms for the guests. BUT, unlike our African experience with its limited options food-wise, here there was an almost endless array of yummy kosher food for the dining room-full of guests. Like any respectable army, Jewish tour groups travel on their stomachs.

You can always Tel Dan, but you can’t tell him much.

There was a reason I had brought along an extra pair of shoes, old sneakers with not much life left in them – perfect for walking along the nature trails of Tel Dan, where it might get muddy. This nature reserve fell into the, Yeah, we’ve been here before, but it’s worth another visit category. We in Ma’ale Adumim live on the edge of the midbar, so anytime we get a chance to witness water in such abundance, flowing and gushing the way it does here, ultimately wending its way into the northern part of the Jordan River, we should take the time to appreciate it. It does wonders for one’s soul. Sort of reminds me of the state parks in the Finger Lakes.

Water flowing to the Jordan river

But while the gorges and the waterfalls in New York State are geologically old, there are no traces of humans having been there in bygone days to contrast with the cascading water. Here in Tel Dan, you have the gate of a 5,000-year-old Canaanite city. That’s always worth a look-see. I don’t remember the scaffolding; it must not have been there when we came with Ezra Rosenfeld. How many years ago was that? And then there are the remains of the Israelite city, from the time when the tribe of Dan conquered their neighbors, all of which is still being assiduously excavated. We were standing where the gate of the Danite city had been, looking at where the hinges of the gate had been. But we were five or six feet below ‘ground level.’ That’s how much soil had piled up, waiting for the archaeologists to show up millennia later and start digging.

The structure is old; the scaffolding is new

Time out for a short rant about coffee

Like any respectable army, Jewish tour groups travel on their stomach. One of the good things about traveling within the Land is that you don’t have to pack up a tuna fish or PBJ sandwich to take for lunch. There has to be a mall within driving distance where there will be a place with something we can all eat. Depending on where you are, it might be first-rate, or it might be at the margins of edibility, but it’s something. But even in the best of circumstances, what they won’t have is a soy latte that’s up to my standards – not coffee-flavored soy milk, which is what I’m usually served. To get a proper brew, I must wait until I return to Jerusalem and head over to my stool at Power Coffeeworks. It will be worth the wait. Speaking of which, the concluding part of this essay in pictures and words will be available shortly. It will also be worth the wait – I promise.

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