Chocolate, Love, Olives and Lemons
I love the land of Israel. I only wish that in this land, there could be more straight roads.
It was about the sixth day of our tour of Israel. We had left sacred Jerusalem for a tour of the more secular, serene northern region of Israel, full of fields, mountains and seaside scenery.
After a morning jeep ride, our family got back in our minibus and we began our long and winding climb climb climb to the top of Mount BenTal, one of the highest points of Israel. Here, there is a lookout point where Israelis fought the biggest tank battle against invading Syrian armies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Thank you to Jewish Virtual Library for this source of information:
In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Mount Bental was the site of one of the largest tank battles in history. Mount Bental is a key strategic point for Israel due to its advantageous observation point. Israel knew it count not risk losing this mountain, nor any of the Golan Heights . The Syrians attacked the Golan with 1,500 tanks and 1,000 artillery pieces. Israel countered with only 160 tanks and 60 artillery pieces. The long stretch of valley in between Mount Bental and Mount Hermon became known as the Valley of Tears. The 100 Israeli tanks were reduced to seven under extreme enemy fire. However, the Israelis managed to take down 600 Syrian tanks in the process. The Syrians eventually retreated, but not without inflicting heavy casualties on Israel.
In the backdrop of all this very recent history, mount Bental is also a great place to have lunch.
High atop on Mount Bental is Cafe Annan (anan means cloud in Hebrew). A great play on words, Israel’s highest restaurant is named after the former UN Secretary General.
There, we were treated to steaming bowls of sweet potato soup, salads, tuna and grilled mozzarella sandwiches, bagels, and great cups of hot coffee.
Afterwards, we walked among the bunkers where Israeli troops fought off invading Syrian army during the Yom Kippur War.
The mountaintop also affords a great view of Har Hermon, blessed this winter with snow:
And right into Syria. Damascus is only 60 kilometers away.
My son the Bar Mitzvah boy was nearly eaten by a rusting metallic giant insect, made out of scrap metal from leftover Syrian tanks:
Then, we boarded the bus and went down the winding road to our next stop, the de Karina Chocolate Factory. A small factory created by Argentinian immigrants, de Karina specializes in micro batches of different kinds of confections we all had an opportunity to taste and then make our own chocolates in a workshop. We all had fun getting our hands dirty, except for my dad. My dad doesn’t even like to get his hands dirty eating french fries or barbecued chicken. He can dissect every piece of meat from a chicken breast like a steely surgeon. So you can see the disgust on his face when we all were up to our elbows in melted chocolate:
I however, didn’t mind in the least:
As we were waiting for our chocolate creations to cool, we had a chat with our chocolatier guide, Sigi. When he found out my in-laws were from Long Island, his face lit up:
“Are you near Syosset? That’s where my girlfriend lives!” exclaimed Sigi with a big grin.
“How do you know a girl from Syosset?” We asked.
“I met her when she came on birthright trip when I was still in the army!”
A match made through birthright. My heart melted like chocolate.
Then, it was onto another winding road to an Olive Oil Factory in the Katzrim village. Israel has no shortage of Olives. Groves of olives are everywhere. As it happens, we were in Israel the very week of Chanukkah, when we celebrate the miracle of the olive oil that burned in the newly restored temple for eight days.
It was about the end of this tour that my day started going, well, downhill. I had already started feeling the effects from a day riding a jeep and riding through the winding hills of the Golan. I am sure that chocolate tasting and then olive oil sampling were not much help either.
On the winding way back to our hotel on Kibbutz Halavi, I tried to remember tips to ease motion sickness. Look to a still horizon. Don’t talk. Don’t move. Deep breaths.
Our driver had to pull over about twice for me. The second time was in the thick of the afternoon traffic rush in Tiberias. I lost sight of the horizon of the Sea of Galilee to the houses and buildings of this ancient and thriving town in Israel’s north. I also lost my lunch, chocolates and olive oil.
Our guide Vivi (have I told you yet about the incredible guide Vivi?) hopped off the bus and held back my hair as I puked into the street curb. I was completely humiliated and apologized for making the bus stop so much on account of my weak constitution.
“Aeyn Ba’ayah,” she said, no problem, in Hebrew.”This happens all the time, I’ve seen it all,” she said. Indeed, Vivi has 13 years of experience leading small and large tours through Israel.
Out of nowhere, our driver Eli also came to my aid and handed me a freshly-halved lemon. The lemon’s zingy scent was instantly refreshing and reminded me of how an Arab shopkeeper decades ago revived my brother on a hot August day in Jerusalem in 1982 with a lemon.
I guess Eli had this lemon stored away for this very occasion. Israeli guides and their drivers are prepared for anything and keep their tourists in very good hands.
I spend the rest of the drive sucking on the lemon, rubbing it on my forehead and inhaling its citrus aroma. And I felt much, much better.
Riding a Jeep in the Golan Heights
There is not one big vacation that comes to mind that I didn’t suffer from some kind of motion sickness.
I do not do well with motion. When I asked my friends back home who had been on one of these jeep rides in Israel how it was, they described it like being on a roller coaster.
I do not do roller coasters. Even stop-and-go traffic makes me ill.
But I am still glad I embarked on a two-hour jeep ride through the Golan Heights. Like anything else in Israel, every tourist activity, even a seemingly carefree jeep ride, is an opportunity to learn and further reinforce the fact that land, water and security are never things taken for granted.
The scenery along the ride was beautiful. The recent winter rains keep pastures and fields green.
Cows graze along the pastures. The rainfall in the winter provides grass for the cows, which then provides milk, butter and other dairy products for the Israelis.
But, within that beauty is a constant reminder that it wasn’t too long ago that the people below lived in constant fear when the Syrians controlled the Golan Heights.
The Golan Heights are high bluffs that were captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War.
Fact: Israel is not hungry for more land. They are hungry for safe, defensible borders. So, why then, does Israel not give it back? First of all, what country in the history of the world has ever been put upon to give back land it won in a war? Where are the Golan Heights and why are they strategically important to Israel?
According to JewishVirtualLibrary, from 1948-67, when Syria controlled the Golan Heights, it used the area as a military stronghold from which its troops randomly sniped at Israeli civilians in the Hulah Valley below, forcing children living in villages to sleep in bomb shelters. In addition, many roads in northern Israel could be crossed only after probing by mine-detection vehicles. In late 1966, a youth was blown to pieces by a mine while playing football near the Lebanon border. In some cases, attacks were carried out by Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, which Syria allowed to operate from its territory. For more on the Golan Heights, go to JewishVirtualLibrary
If you need a visual to get oriented to this region, here is a map that shows you just why the Golan is important to Israel’s security. Our jeep toured through the tiny green area. With the current situation in Syria and a Lebanese government that is controlled by Iranian backed Hizbullah, the map shows that Israel is set within one very rough neighborhood:
If you still don’t understand why the Golan Heights are essential to Israel’s security, I’ll let our jeep driver, Avihu Hardy Yessod-Hamala speak for himself.
Avihu is a stout, strong man in his mid-50s with the ruddy complexion of a man who farms for a living. A retired pilot from Israel’s Air Force, Avihu is a fourth generation Israeli. In the early 1900’s, philanthropist Baron Edmond James de Rothschild commissioned Avihu’s great-grandfather to come to Israel because of his expertise as an agriculturist. Once in Israel, he helped pre-state Israel’s first wave pioneers learn how to turn northern swampland into farmland as part of Rothschild’s Jewish Colinization Association.
Avihu still lives in the same village in the fertile Hula Valley that his great-grandfather helped found. The region serves as resting point for 500 million birds that migrate each year from Europe to Africa. Avihu’s family grows fruit like peaches, plums, pears and pomegranates that are sold locally in Israel and exported to Europe.
Avihu remembers as a child the dangers his villagers faced every day they went into the fields. Syrians had a stronghold and fortresses in the hills we drove along. From that vantage point, the farmers in the fields were like fish in a barrel. Very easy to shoot.
When Avihu was 14, the Six-Day War broke out. Avihu remembers sleeping in those bunkers mentioned above. He remembers his village being shelled.
In some of the fields, there are still active mines though the war ended over 40 years ago. The Syrians refuse to tell Israel where the mines are in these fields, so vast parts of land are wired off with warning signs in Hebrew, English and Arabic. As we took a break sipping freshly prepared mint and honey tea that Avihu made for us in a portable kettle, we could not help but reflect on the beauty – and the still lingering danger – that surrounded us.