Israel's Good Name

Babylonian Jewry Museum

In Central Israel, Israel on July 1, 2021 at 12:10 PM

Just over a month ago, towards the end of May, I took a bus over to nearby Or Yehuda to meet up with my wife, Bracha. A soon-to-be graduate of social work, Bracha was doing her third year of fieldwork at the Welfare Centre of Or Yehuda, where she tended to the social needs of the city’s citizens. Having heard about her place of work throughout the academic year, it was finally time to visit – and to check out some of Or Yehuda’s star attractions together.

The Babylonian Heritage Centre

Bracha met me at the bus stop across from our first destination of the day, the titular Babylonian Jewry Museum. An impressive building, the Babylonian Heritage Centre commands the respect deservant of such an interesting topic and we were excited to see what was in store for us. Inside, we secured tickets and began our tour of the two-storied museum. But first, a few anecdotes which proved to make our experience all the more poignant. Or Yehuda began as a grouping of immigrant and refugee absorption camps, where mass immigration from countries such as Libya, Turkey and Iraq took place in the 1940-50s. As such, Bracha’s clients belonged largely to that very same demographic. Additionally, in the course of this academic year’s curriculum, she  took a class on the Ben Ish Hai, the famous rabbi of Baghdad from the turn of the last century. Now, the pieces can all fit together nicely.

Model of a Babylonian yeshiva during the 7th-13th centuries

The museum’s layout began us on a chronological tour of the Babylonian community, with an exhibition on the first Jews who were exiled by Nebuchadnezzar. A beautifully animated video gave us a historically-based perspective of exiled Jews who had grown accustomed to life in Babylon, and were offered the idea of returning to the Holy Land – as was the case starting in 538 BCE. Alongside this video were artefacts and replicas to help illustrate life so long ago.

Antique Torah scroll cases

The exhibition then merged into more modern times, with artefacts and information about the Babylonian Jewish community in the 18th-20th centuries, which had spread to the nearby lands such as India and Singapore. The highlights were a handful of ornate Torah scroll boxes, as well as a transplanted aron (or ark, where the scrolls are kept in a synagogue). Naturally, life extended beyond the religious and the exhibition continued into the daily life of the community – full of interesting facts and artefacts alike.

A glimpse down the alley

The next bit was my favourite, a fine example of how to properly present historical still life. The museum painstakingly recreated an old Baghdad alley, complete with windows peering into the various stores and workshops that would have existed then. We walked down the dim alley, admiring the mannequin tailor and jeweler as they toiled away timelessly in their neat shops. I particularly enjoyed the intricate detail given to the setting beyond the exhibited shops and storefronts, such as the beautiful wooden dormers which poked ever so elegantly over the quiet street.

The jeweler hard at work

The end of the quaint alley led us into a recreated synagogue, with the grand wood teva (or, central platform from which the services were led) serving as a worthy centerpiece. This teva originally belonged in the Great Synagogue of Baghdad, where the famed and aforementioned Ben Ish Hai gave his cherished sermons. Encircling the teva were windows into the circle of Jewish life, and likewise the various annual holidays. We particularly enjoyed looking at the ethnic foods that were served at the different social events that took place in the synagogue.

The teva of the Great Synagogue

From there the subsequent exhibitions focused on the more modern, from the tragic Farhud pogroms in 1941, which served as a catalyst to the brave efforts that the Jewish community made to reach the Holy Land after the founding of the State of Israel. It was humbling to read about the many Jews who lost their lives both within Iraq and on their way to Jerusalem, so much senseless loss.

Fun Iraqi foods

Our tour continued on with a display of superstitious talismans, a tradition that somehow still clings to some community members to this very day. Next, we went upstairs and saw relics of the time when Or Yehuda consisted of immigrant and refugee absorption camps. Representations of that hard life filled a corner of the large room, including a temporary tent home for fresh immigrants, and a small shop of canned and dry goods to feed the newcomers. From there we took a jump back in time with the exhibition of traditional Iraqi homes, starting with a comfy sitting room overlooking the bustling Or Yehuda street outside. Next, a more upscale sitting room – the most ornate room in a traditional home, where guests would be entertained.

Incantation bowl against demons from Mesopotamia in the 5th-8th centuries

The final exhibits concerned marriage and the glamorous outfits that the bride and groom wore to their wedding ceremonies. We laughed as we imagined ourselves wearing such exciting brocade robes, being cheered on by an imaginary crowd of proud Iraqi Jews. A chronologically-arranged display of ketubot (traditional Jewish marriage contract), each of which was handwritten on a beautiful sheet of what appeared to be parchment. A quick look at the temporary photographic exhibit titled “Family and its Many Faces” and we finished our grand tour of the excellent museum. When we had left, having thanked the staff for our lovely visit, we explored the town a bit more. It was certainly fun to see where Bracha spent so many of her weekdays, getting a glimpse into the life that I had heard so much about throughout the year.

Dinner at Samarkand

Feeling a bit hungry, it was time for dinner and so we headed for a Libyan restaurant which we had pre-designated months prior. To our dismay, the restaurant was closed for the day, so we settled for an ethnic restaurant or another kind: Samarkand, a server of Uzbek and Bucharian food. It was enjoyable going out for dinner, but we both realised pretty quickly that this Central Asian cuisine wasn’t quite what we were looking for. Regardless, it was a nice ending to an exciting visit to the charming Or Yehuda. Perhaps another visit is in order…

Horseback Riding in the Golan

In Golan, Israel on June 16, 2021 at 1:40 PM

Following two days in the snowy Golan back in February, our third and final day began with packing up our belongings at our rental tzimmer in Ein Zivan. It was sad leaving such a cool place, but we had exciting plans to wrap up our trip before embarking on the long drive back home. Our first order of business was to go horseback riding at a ranch just outside of Moshav Ramot, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Reservoir in the Golan

We made such good time in the morning that we were running early to our booking, and decided to look for something small to do on the way. Whilst driving along Road 888 we saw a sign for Ein Almin, a spring-turned-“officer’s pool” built by the Syrian army for privileged R&R. Naturally, we turned onto the access road to check it out but eventually realised that the going was a bit too rough, even for the rugged Dacia. Alas, we turned around and kept driving, when we spotted another interesting body of water – Matash Tzor’s reservoir. Following great successes at other reservoirs (see Matash Ayalon and Hulda Reservoir), I decided that this easily-accessed location deserves a quick look. It proved to be a good call, as I saw at least two greater spotted eagles, marsh harriers, shovelers, teals and even a small flock of tufted ducks bobbing in the rich blue water.

Bracha sporting a riding helmet

Time ticked away and before we knew it we were back on the road making a beeline to the ranch. Once there, we did all the necessary procedures involving money, helmets and waivers, and then we were introduced to our rides. Neither of us have ever been proper horseback riding, so this was to be an exciting first that we would likely never forget. Being 6’2″, I was given one of the largest horses, a chestnut steed by the name of Kfo (if I understood correctly). Bracha was given an off-white mare with a name that has since been forgotten.

Such fantastic scenery

After receiving our handling instructions, our guides took us and another family that joined us out on our hour-long ride. It began with a simple walk up the paved road, and then merged onto an uphill dirt path. There was something quite exciting about riding the large beast, and even if he did get distracted now and again with delicious grasses, I found him relatively easy to manage. So much so, that I felt comfortable taking plenty of pictures and videos to properly document the adventure (as Bracha held on for dear life).

Entering the plateau

We rode further up the slope, until we reached a bit of a plateau where a gorgeous open area of lush grass dotted with small trees greeted us. The view was breathtaking as we reached the far side of the plateau, overlooking the valley of Nachal Samach and the opposing mountain. As exciting as it was with all the snow, there’s something equally charming about the lush green vistas of the Golan in the winter. Our guide called for our attention just as a few mountain gazelles dashed for cover, nimbly avoiding my camera’s inquisitive lens. Sure enough, more gazelles were to be seen further down the slope, too far to get any decent photos.

Our guide pointing out some fleeing mountain gazelle

On the plateau we allowed our horses to roam around a bit freely. Bracha’s mare seemed to have a mind of her own as she ambled off in search for succulent herbage, and I urged my steed after her. This wasn’t a difficult task as both of our horses just happened to be close friends, and naturally enjoyed each other’s company. This made our experience all the more charming, as our rides took us on a merry walk through the thick grass.

Riding westward

The next part proved to actually be a bit challenging, as our resumed route took a quick turn back down the mountain. This segment was a narrow and delicate descent full of inconvenient rocks that required our horses to navigate carefully. I had to slow my steed down several times as he attempted to just dash his way down, which was borderline frightening considering the fact that I didn’t have any real way of stopping him. Thankfully, these are tame and trained horses, and with a few kind words and gentle lead tugs, we made it down safe and sound.

Riding back down the slope

Once back on level ground, we rode the final leg back to the stable-yard and dismounted our trusty horses. It felt funny walking on our own two legs, similar to disembarking a sea craft, but life returned to its normal self and we wrapped up our visit there. In terms of experiences, this was most definitely one well-worth it, especially considering the breathtaking pastoral Golan scenery. We got back into the car and headed for Qatsrin, where we got lunch – a mouthwateringly tasty pizza from Pizza Margarita.

Bazelet HaGolan Winery

There was just one more place to visit before heading back, and that was the Bazelet HaGolan Winery located in nearby Kidmat Tzvi. Arriving, we began our visit with the visitor centre where we happened to bump into Yechiel Luterman, a long term employee who recently embarked on an exciting new venture producing his very own Edre’i whiskey – which he allowed us to taste! Yechiel and I had taken a MATI business course together back in 2011 and had both shared interest in the idea of brewing beer. I ended up with my Arx Meles hobby-project, and he went the route of wine and then whiskey. With his help, we watched the video about the winery and then tasted a handful of their offerings, a combination of white and red wines. Bazelet HaGolan grows mostly cabernet sauvignon, but they cleverly use the grapes at different levels of ripeness in order to create different tasting wines.

Wines at Bazelet HaGolan Winery

We sampled from their basic cab, as well as their higher-tiered 188 cab. To balance those out, we sipped from some fresh chardonnay as well as a rich 2008 merlot which I found to be quite enjoyable. Between tastings, Yechiel filled our brains with fascinating behind-the-scenes information regarding wine varietals, oak aging and more. Needless to say, it behooved us to buy a bottle as a keepsake of our fun three-day vacation, so we did just that and bid farewell to Yechiel. We got back into the car and headed back home, bringing our exciting trip to a gradual close.

Mount Hermon

In Golan, Israel on June 7, 2021 at 8:42 AM

Continuing with our three-day vacation to the snowy Golan this past February, Bracha and I started our second day at our rental tzimmer in Ein Zivan. Our main plan for the day was the glorious Mount Hermon, covered in thick snow and more inviting than ever. After a cursory breakfast we got into the car and began driving north, taking in the wide open vistas of snowy orchards and vineyards.

Welcome to Mount Hermon

Welcome to Mount Hermon

Before we approached the mighty mountain, I decided that it’d be fun to have a quick look at Birket Ram – a volcanic crater lake located just outside of the Druze village of Mas’ada, not to be confused with the desert mountain top ruins of Masada. A beautiful body of water, Birket Ram always appears as a dark blue eye in the green and brown landscape around it, staring unblinking into the equally enchanting heavens above. However, much to my surprise, the melting snow runoff muddied the usually clear waters and thus we were presented with a large brown lake – slightly less inspiring. We spent a few minutes overlooking the water, noticing a handful of birds including some chaffinches, goldfinches and a handful of gulls.

Approaching the snowy peak

Approaching the snowy peak

Returning to our original plan, we drove back out towards Mas’ada and then headed for Mount Hermon. We passed through Majdal Shams, another Druze village and the highest locality in Israel, as we began our way up the majestic mountain. Needless to say, at this elevation, snow covered everywhere but the plowed roads. It was a glorious site and we marvelled at the raw natural beauty. Unlike most of the rest of the Golan, Mount Hermon is composed of limestone and shale bedrock, and not the typical dark grey basalt so common in the region.

Map of the Mount Hermon park

Map of the Mount Hermon park

We parked in a large staging lot and boarded a shuttle bus with dozens of other excited vacationers. It was a nice ride going ever-higher up the mountain and then we were deposited at the attraction entrance, the lower half of the park. It was slightly overwhelming at first, mostly due to the fact that we weren’t quite sure what there was to do, nor did we know how much time to allocate to each section.

From the bottom looking up

From the bottom looking up

It wasn’t long before we realised that there really wasn’t much to do at the lower half of the park – unless one was a child, or had purchased the ski package. We fit under neither category so we made our way through the throngs of coated merrymakers to the cable car installation. We presented our tickets and climbed into one of the lime green cars, which we had to ourselves, and began the ascent to the peak.

Riding the cable car up the mountainside

Riding the cable car up the mountainside

Some cable cars are too short (like Rosh HaNikra) and some are just right (like Haifa) but this one at Mount Hermon was almost too long. We were surprised at the length of the journey as we climbed higher and higher, looking down at the skiers racing below us on the tree-dotted slope. It was a glorious ride, and when we arrived safe and sound at the peak, we disembarked into the strong, cold wind that greeted us with its strong bite.

The upper area of Mount Hermon

The upper area of Mount Hermon

Our first order of business was to examine our surroundings, so we followed the fellow cable car passengers to the large bowl-like depression where a safe slope was made. There, children were playing in the snow, shrieking as they tumbled down and lobbed snowballs at each other. Due to some unusual rule made by the Ministry of Health, we were unable to go sledding with actual sleds and so we tried scooting down on plastic bags – like many others there – with very limited success yet lots of laughter.

Panoramic looking west to the Golan and Upper Galilee

Panoramic looking west to the Golan and Upper Galilee

We took a walk around the upper confines of the park, which ultimately proved to be relatively small. Most of the park is dedicated to the ski slopes, which look quite impressive to one who has never skied before. All that’s left for us is a large gently sloped summit defined on two sides by a drop-off, a third side formed by another slope and the last side blocked by a symbolic gate and a pair of soldiers. This last side is the direction of the many military outposts on the Israeli side of the mountain, and while I had actually gone up to the second-highest one while I was an active-duty soldier, Bracha and I stayed put on the civilian side of the gate.

Bracha enjoying her bagel at the checkpoint

Bracha enjoying her bagel at the checkpoint

We lobbed some snowballs around and decided to have some lunch – bagels and cheese/cream cheese that we had packed in the morning. It was indescribably picturesque as we sat on a concrete block overlooking the snowed landscape stretching out to the far beyond. It was also unbelievably cold with the thin mountain air biting us with each gust. We ate and then began our next snowy activity – building a snowman, a quite ritualistic activity which must be done with each snowfall.

Mr Snowman

Mr Snowman

It took a bit of time, but at last we had our icy idol formed into the iconic shape that we all love. Unfortunately, there were no spare carrots laying about, so we had to scrounge a frozen tree bud to suffice as facial features. When he was finished, we felt as though there was not much left to do on this freezing mountain – and, sadly, not a single bird was seen. We made one last circuit of the interesting area with a lookout and a memorial monument commemorating four fallen soldiers from the Golani special forces unit who had perished in battle against Syrian forces in 1973. According to the monument, the Syrian army has succeeded in capturing the Israeli side of the Hermon early on in the Yom Kippur War, so two attempts were made to recapture it – the second succeeding but resulting in unfortunate casualties.

Nothing like an icy pine tree to symbolise winter

Nothing like an icy pine tree to symbolise winter

We re-entered the cable car building and boarded a lime green car which took us the slow and gentle way back down to the lower half of the park. It was delightful seeing so much snow, let alone on Israel’s highest peak, but there was something sadly commercialised about it which left us feeling slightly unsatisfied with our experience. I wonder if purchasing the ski package would remedy that sour sensation. At any rate, back near the park entrance we got a pair of hot drinks at the busy kiosk and that’s when I noticed something that excited me. There were soldiers from the elite reservist alpinist unit, a form of special forces trained to excel in snowy, mountainous terrain. No doubt they were practicing their necessary ski skills, and it was thrilling to be able to see these otherwise-unknown characters come to life upon the falling of fresh snow.

The trusty Dacia Duster

The trusty Dacia Duster

Making our way out of the park and towards a shuttle, we saw more and more evidence of military activity, as it is the military who is tasked with snow-chores, including plowing the mighty mountain’s roads. Back in the car lot, we got into the Dacia and began the drive back down. I pulled over at a particularly scenic lookout to take a few pictures when I was approached by some teenage lads on foot. Oddly enough, they were familiar faces – lads from the school I worked at for several years. They were desperately looking for a ride up the mountain, as they had parked at the bottom entrance with the understanding that there was no more parking space up top. As was to be expected, we gave the thankful lads a lift up to the park entrance and bid them farewell.

Sa'ar Falls

Sa’ar Falls

Descending Mount Hermon, we decided to take a quick drive over to the nearby Sa’ar Falls, which I had hoped would be magnificent with the melting snow. Sure enough, we were not the only ones hoping to lay eyes on the locally-famous waterfall, so we parked a bit down the road, walked to the falls and enjoyed the view. I snapped a few pictures and we moved on to an adjacent field to befriend some grazing cows. Ultimately, they wanted nothing to do with us, so we admired them from a distance and befriended some wildflowers instead. Ready to move on, we headed back to our tzimmer to freshen up and then back out to Qatsrin for a much-desired dinner.

Tasty hummus in Qatsrin

Tasty hummus in Qatsrin

Thus, after eating and perusing Qatsrin’s shopping plaza, we drove back to Ein Zivan bringing our second day to a close. We had exciting plans for our third, and final day, so resting up was imperative and that’s exactly what we did. To be continued…