Drive-thru Country — Part 1

Maybe I should skip it this time. Almost without fail, every time we go on one of the AACI study trips, I get inspired and write a series of articles about where we’ve been and what we saw. But I just finished sending out eleven accounts of our tiyul to Egypt – complete with breathtaking photos – and I could use a break. Plus I just finished editing someone’s translation into English of a Hebrew text (one that I ordinarily would not have read) all 100 pages of it – as a PDF, no less (groan!). There are many other tasks and projects that I need to take care of with not enough time to do them. If I don’t have anything to say about our up-coming “Study Trip to Central Israel,” no one will be the wiser. There certainly won’t be people banging on our door and complaining that they’re being cheated out of what is rightfully theirs. Now that I think of it, I get the sense from the itinerary that there will be more listening and less looking. Should I even bring my camera? Might as well, because you never know.

Years ago, before anybody imagined there would actually be a train from Jerusalem that would get you to central Tel Aviv in half an hour, I wrote an article about making the same trip on the #480 bus. My point back then was that, if I worked at it, there would be just enough time to get in a nap before we arrived at our destination – that’s how narrow the country is. Yes, there have been times when, seated in the back of The Levines’ automobile, we have gone part of the way, visiting some wineries in the area, and, yes, there are two major cities – Beit Shemesh and Modiin – to be taken into account. Still, I’ve always considered Route 1 to be not much more than ‘drive-thru country,’ the same way I think about the fifteen-minute bus ride from down the block to the light rail station in Jerusalem.

A number of friends inquired, So where are you going this time? To which I answered, I have no idea. Ask me when we get back. You’ll be the first to know. The printed itinerary we were given said we were starting out at Kfar Truman. Anyone who has ever heard of this moshav, please raise your hand. At least I know who this Truman guy was; I’m even old enough to have been alive when he was U.S. president. A number of us old farts on the bus knew the story, how Eddie Jacobson, Truman’s former business partner, convinced the president to see Chaim Weitzman in 1948, which led to the U.S. being the first country to formally recognize Israel – something which the State Department was less than keen about. So what’s in this little moshav, a few miles away from the airport, that would be worth our attention? The headquarters of an organization called Brothers for Life, where we would meet “inspirational wounded IDF veterans.”

There are a number of other organizations that raise money for Israeli soldiers past and present. I was, frankly, expecting more of the same, even though it’s nice to have a feel-good moment every once in a while. But it took me about six seconds to realize that Brothers for Life is unique. (All manner of promotional material is available here for your edification.) We were welcomed by Ross, the former American, and Tom, the Polish-Moroccan-Israeli, who showed us around their facility, more-or-less a clubhouse with a pool for those in need, and sat us down for some films about the organization, the same ones you can view on YouTube. As their promotional material indicates: ‘Brothers for Life is a non-profit organization created and run by wounded IDF officers and based on the unique model of “injured soldiers helping newly injured soldiers.”’ And that’s it; simple. You have guys who have been there and done that, all ready, willing, and able to support and mentor other guys who are just arriving with their injuries. The organization has helped over 1300 injured soldiers and their families, with two new wounded IDF-ers arriving every week.

If a guy has lost part of his leg or some-such, he soon figures out that something about him is missing. What about the other guys, former soldiers like Ross or Tom, suffering from stress disorders? Maybe it’s not so obvious at the start. So I’ve spent the last six months drinking beer in my room, but I’m all right; there’s nothing wrong with me. Really there isn’t. Either way, this organization will be there, johnny-on-the-spot. When the wounded soldier realizes that the person standing next to him has suffered the same kind of injury and understands – the way no one else can – what he is going through, it does make a difference. Anyway, one big thumbs-up to start our tiyul.

From there, we were back on the bus, listening intently while our guide, the effervescent and always knowledge Aliza Avshalom, set the stage for our next stop, new interactive museum at Sha’ar HaGai (a/k/a Bab-al Wad a/ka The Gate of the Valley).  Now in 2023, this site is just another kilometer along the way, maybe ten or fifteen minutes from Jerusalem, directly opposite the yellow gas station on the other side of the road. Back then in 1947, a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

To put it in its most simple terms, the ‘bad guys’ (them) were trying to prevent ‘the good guys’ (us) from keeping the supply lines open to Jerusalem, in effect, trying to starve the city’s residents into submission. All the bad guys had to do was wait on the hilltops over the narrow, winding road (then two lanes) and attack the supply convoys as they came along. The purpose of the new museum is to recreate that experience, which otherwise would be hard to imagine today. You’re in the front of a truck convoy heading to Jerusalem. You get a radio report that a vehicle behind you is caught in a crossfire. Do you double back to defend the vehicle in distress, or do you press on to get the desperately needed supplies to the beleaguered city? Imagine having to decide….

Control panel of an Egged bus c. 1947, part of a convoy trying to reach Jerusalem

After we finished pondering what we would have done in those dire circumstances, we were ushered into a screening room and shown films that featured interviews with survivors of those battles, convoy drivers, radio operators, and the like. It began to dawn on me, the situation these grizzled old-timers were describing happened to them in 1947 and 1948. Even if they were teenagers at the time, they must have been born somewhere around 1930, which would make them in their nineties in 2023 – assuming they – some, all, none – are still alive. It’s a good thing someone took the trouble to record their stories, otherwise the kids I see on the bus every day wouldn’t have a clue.

I watched and I listened as these vatikim described all the strategies employed to thwart the bad guys on the hilltops: using different kinds of caravans and armored vehicles. I felt like yelling at the screen. You gotta go after them; go up on top to where they are; raid their villages if you have to; otherwise you’re just sitting ducks. Which is ultimately what the good guys did to break the siege, so that the residents of the beleaguered city didn’t starve to death.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the ‘Nakba.’ As Aliza would be the first to say, it’s complicated. Yes, there were Arabs displaced simply because they were in the way; there were Arabs displaced because they would have killed us otherwise. There were Arabs who fled because they were afraid or because they believed promises made by other Arabs. But, as I pointed out to some of our group, we weren’t far from Abu Gosh, an Arab community whose leadership wisely didn’t join in and whose children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are still there, healthy, wealthy, and wise to this day – with a very popular wedding hall that lots of people use.

Enough about military matters. Time for lunch at the mall at the entrance to Beit Shemesh and then off to Srigim, a moshav a little south of Beit Shemesh, to the Srigim Brewery, where they make their own beer and tell you all about it. There’s a backstory; there’s always a backstory in these matters. Two Israelis, successful hi-tech entrepreneurs, each one wandering around the world, getting introduced to the kind of quality suds produced in many countries, with one of them becoming fixated on reproducing the legendary Pete’s Wicked Ale. Fast forward a bunch of years and these two guys, having joined forces, entered the ranks of microbrewers in Israel making beers and ales to beat the band. After listening to the presentation (with me methodically dipping into a bowl of pretzels as the lady spoke), we were taken upstairs where they do the brewing and the bottling. (Be careful: the floor is wet, and the smell of beer is overwhelming.) Then back downstairs, where we got to taste tiny samples of everything they produce: their three American style beers, The Ugly Beer, the Wicked Dark Beer, and the Naughty Wheat; along with Belgian Tripel (sic), Irish Red Ale, Bavarian Wheat, and Blond Ale, their four European style products. (Could I have a little more of this one? Is there anything left in that pitcher? Barbara, are you going to finish the rest of your sample? I need to try that one again.)

Sorting beer bottles at the Srigim brewery

And then, just when I had reached a sense of spiritual nirvana and thought it couldn’t get better, Aliza, always mindful of her clientele, whispered to me that, as we were running right on schedule, if we wanted, there would be just enough time to go back upstairs right around the corner, past the brewery, to Agrocafe. My jaw dropped; my heart skipped a beat.  I indicated my assent and followed our guide up the stairs. Just in time. They were planning on closing the coffee shop but, with a little persuasion, graciously agreed to stay open for a while to accommodate thirty more customers.

I knew of this place by reputation only, never imagining I would ever find my way there. I had heard several different versions of their backstory, but what each version had in common was the tale of a couple of guys finishing their army service and doing what any self-respecting Israeli would do, taking a backpack and heading off to somewhere, anywhere. They wound up in Colombia, where they met some coffee growers, who were having a more and more difficult time growing their crops because of a lack of rainfall. The Israelis looked at each other and said, in effect, that’s so been-there-done-there; we in Israel have long since figured out drip irrigation. And so a shiduch was made. The coffee growers are now recording bumper crops, some of which is being sent to a little moshav that I never knew existed and couldn’t find on my own. But now that I’m there… One espresso, please!

The young lady who was sort of in-charge, a former customer, now a full-fledged employee, gave her version of the Agrocafe story. Meanwhile, I headed into the roastery in the back and picked out a small bag of a Sumatran light roast for Barbara Levine and a similar sized bag of a Costa Rican coffee for myself. Let’s see what these guys can do. Their espresso was certainly impressive. They get points for their story; their selection, compared with the variety of beans Brandon has to offer, not so much. Plus, Power Coffeeworks is across the street from Machane Yehuda, in the middle of downtown Jerusalem, as opposed to the middle of nowhere, where we were now. In short, I’m not planning on switching my allegiance any time soon.

It’s been fun, but they really wanted to close. We needed to get back on the bus and head to our hotel in Neve Ilan, another moshav I had never heard of. I was getting the feeling that there’s a lot more happening right off the highway, prosaically named route #1, than I had ever imagined. But wait, there’s more …. Next time.

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