We Keep Getting Back on the Bus — Part 1

Two tried and true truisms

There’s this old truism, what goes up must go down. You’ve heard it once or twice in your lifetime. As it applies to yours truly and the social director, having been on a tiyul to the Upper Galil, inevitably we would wind up getting back on the bus headed to the Lower Galil. And that’s what happened. We came back last week from another AACI study trip (#183, if you’re counting), similar in concept to the ones we’ve been on before, getting to places and meeting with people we would never be able to on our own. Led by our wonderful tour guide, Aliza Avshalom, we began our exploration of the region at kibbutz Magal, home of the Netafim drip irrigation systems.

There is another truism floating around that necessity is the mother of invention. But sometimes that maternal figure is none other than good old observation. As Itzik told us, the idea of drip irrigation came about when somebody (I don’t remember who it was) noticed that one tree in a grove was demonstrably bigger and healthier than the others around it. On investigation, he realized that the reason for this anomaly was that this particular tree was next to a water pipe that was leaking. Brilliant! Then came trial and error to develop plastic pipes you could install wherever you wanted that would ‘leak’ on demand, to the point that there are now sophisticated systems for any type of agriculture, using computer technology, even drones, believe it or not. If any B.D.S.-er is reading this and is thinking of avoiding these products made in Israel, be aware that a few years ago the company was sold to a Mexican outfit and is now doing business big-time world-wide.

One of our group asked the obvious question. The basic concept is so simple, how do you prevent other companies from ‘borrowing’ the technology? Itzik conceded that there are a number of wannabes in The Land who are trying to compete, as well as the large we’ll-steal-whatever-you-come-up-with nation in the far-east. The best way to protect whatever it is you do, he said, is to be the first and the best; that way, people will remember who you are. Sounds good to me.

Now that the kibbutzniks who work at Netafim are only employees of the company, the remaining enterprise that the kibbutz can call its very own is Masik, which makes varietal olive oils. On their 170 acre grove, seven different varities of olives are grown: Leccino, Arbequina, Picual, Koroneiki, Souri, Askal, and Coratina, each one with a different place of origin, each one with a different flavor profile, each one to be used differently.

Olive oil and tea, oh my, oh my…

Now I was getting excited. Think of it: olive oil can be as distinctive and as interesting as different wines or types of coffee. You don’t have to buy plain old run-of-the-mill extra-virgin olive oil when, for example, you may have a selection from the Picual olive(‘oval, medium sized with a stigma on the top’ originally from Spain; ‘flavor reminiscent of almonds with an exceptional but unique aroma with citrus undertones…’) All the while our group was hearing the presentation, random customers were arriving from who-knows-where and leaving with copious quantities of the good stuff. I purchased my default, two bars of olive oil soap. I can get their olive oil in a number of stores in Jerusalem, so why shlep it back?

Now if you think I was enthusiastic about the olive oil, that was only the beginning. The next day, we headed to Kibbutz Beit Alpha to visit Shimon and Zohar and their tea company. I don’t know much about olive oil, but caffeinated beverages, that’s another story. Now I was in my element. When Shimon asked if anybody knew the one plant from which all authentic tea is made, I felt compelled to respond. Camelia sinensis, I shouted out. People looked at me. How do you know that? It was as if I had rattled off the beginning of Virgil’s Aeneid in the original.

ARMA virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem,
inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum,
Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae.

There are things that one knows, as well as things one doesn’t know. I have spent decades explaining to Shabbat guests the difference between actual tea and herbal infusions (Which do you want? I have both.), hence the botanical name of this shrub comes trippingly off my tongue.

Now I could sit back and let someone else, who knows much more about the topic than I do, give the lecture – starting with the basics and going from there. But at some point, he had to lay it on the line. It would be like my buddy Brandon having to explain to a tour group at Power Coffeeworks why his coffee is better than what comes out of a jar of Elite Instant.

There’s very little to recommend your standard supermarket teabag. There isn’t much tea in it and, as Shimon pointed out, whatever is in it has long since given up the ghost. What he was telling us was that pretty much whatever you’re drinking and whatever you’re doing to it is just wrong – and why that is. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

One of our group asked a pointed question. I’ve been drinking five cups of coffee a day for many, many years. Why should I switch now? Shimon wasn’t going to come out and bad-mouth the other product; that would have been ridiculous. What he did discuss is the difference in the amount and the effect of caffeine in each beverage. The way I describe it, coffee is jolting and tea is soothing. There’s room for both on this planet.

It wasn’t as if Shimon was giving a high-powered sales pitch, but between what he was saying and the little sample cups Zohar was bringing around – or maybe it was simply that this was a group of elderly shoppers just itching to buy something wherever we went – when our hosts were done, all of us began lining up with our purchases.

If you were to inspect our cupboards here on Hakeren, you would come upon lots of different kinds of tea. But, I didn’t have a quality white tea, nor had I known anything about Puer tea, and why not get started upping my game? I too came away with a little shopping bag to take with me back to home base.

The beauties of The Land

A featured part of any of these study trips is to allow us to enjoy the beauties of The Land and learn about the history of the region.  Aliza had said that she would have changed the name of our destination from ‘the Lower Galilee’ to ‘Valley of Springs’ (Emek hama’ayanot),because that’s where we were. Sure enough, we found ourselves at a large park where we were ushered into 4-6 seater golf carts (driver’s license required) and, as a group, convoyed hither and yon around to see the many springs first hand.

What happened to the springs; weren’t we supposed to see them; wasn’t that the point? In between driving around and enjoying the scenery, we did stop at two of the larger ma’ayonot, which were, in effect, glorified swimming holes with lots and lots of kids and other humans hanging about. Some of our group did jump in. I, on the other hand, a firm believer in keeping my feet and powder dry, remained on dry land. The point of this exercise was to demonstrate that there’s lots of water in this region, most of it having made its way down from the nearby mountain tops from the rain that had landed years ago. (Nothing happens overnight here in The Land!)

Speaking of mountain tops, one of our other stops was a look-out over Mount Gilboa, giving Aliza an opportunity to read to us the portion of Tanach that dealt with Shaul Hamelech and his defeat in battle against the Philistines, which had occurred more or less where we were standing. It was quiet on top of the mountain, and we could experience the solitude and admire the view of the fishponds dotting the valley down below. It goes without saying that these factories of aquatic life were the avian equivalent of Ponzio’s Diner for a hungry traveler. What the farmers have to do is simulate shotgun blasts every so often to keep the migrating birds away. I must assume that our group came between ‘so oftens,’ because we heard nothing.

Speaking of hearing things…. Barbara and I had been several times to the excavations of the Roman city at Beit Shean, and I was wondering whether this would be a been-there-done-that moment. However, this trip was billed as ‘Shean Nights.’ Some enterprising person had the bright idea of turning the site into a sound and light show during the evening hours, in a touristy effort to simulate what it ‘was like’ back then; with a virtual fountain gushing water and the sound effects of humans and animals in the marketplace. The first part was kind of tacky, a short film screened against the back of the ruins of an ancient theater. Then David took over and with his trusty laser beam guided us around the ancient city. He used to work in this park, and now comes back to volunteer with tour groups. I guess he can’t get away from the place. As a child, he told us, Shabbat afternoons, he and his cousins would go there – white shirts and all – to play in the Roman ruins. He flashed his laser to the top of a tall column standing in the distance, maybe thirty feet high. That, he said, was ground level back in the day, and they would use the little bit of column then above ground as one side of the goal posts for a game of ‘football.’

What happened to this place? There was the inevitable earthquake in the 8th century C.E., burying the city in the twinkling of an eye, where it remained until the twentieth century. First the theater was excavated, then an amphitheater a distance away. Recently, the main area of the city has been dug out, and many of the fallen columns have been rre-erected to their original positions. What about the rest of the city, someone asked, the houses where the people lived? Will that area ever be excavated? Probably not; that’s where people live today. We’ll have to be content with the many rooms of the bath house, the public lavatories (!!!), a fountain, the theater, and the cardo (the main street in any Roman town). David mentioned that if there is a heavy rain in today’s Beit Shean, the drainage system is not always up to the task. In the cardo? No problem. Dry as dust. The Romans knew what they were doing constructing roads, arches, and drainage systems. They just weren’t always the nicest people. To meet some actual really nice people – the ones we met on our trip – you’ll have to wait for part two, coming soon to a computer (or phone) screen near you. I’m saving the best for last.

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