"Don't let him inside the synagogue, he's a beast!"

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Middle East » Israel » North District » Safed
January 19th 2011
Published: January 22nd 2011
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From Nazareth, I take a bus to a junction near Amirim, where my host Chen picks me up. Amirim is a moshav that was founded by vegetarians. The difference between a kibbutz and a moshav is that kibbutzim are more Socialist or Communist in their political orientation, so the people live together like a real community, sharing everything. Moshavim, on the other hand, are agricultural villages, where people own land and grow vegetables or other things on it. They don't share everything, it's more like a normal village or community, just with a very strong agricultural focus.

Amirim was founded as a meat-free community in 1958. It sits perched in the forest on the lower ridge of Mt Meron, surrounded by olive and pistachio trees. It looks decidely Mediterranean, and the primary source of income for its inhabitants is tourism. It's most popular with Israeli weekenders, who flock the moshav and indulge in spa treatments, shiatsu massages, yoga and the great vegetarian food in its multiple posh zimmerim (a faux plural of the German 'Zimmer') and restaurants.

Chen isn't vegetarian, but he eats meat rarely and buys mostly organic, vegetarian food. He still had to promise to his landlord not to grill meat when he has a barbecue outside. Fair enough. Chen works in a posh hotel in nearby Tsfat. He says the rooms there are much too expensive and not so nice, and that you get much better zimmers for less money in Amirim. The boss of his hotel likes to take pictures with famous guests, but he took down the ones with former president Moshe Katzav. He just didn't want his hotel to be associated with a rapist.

When he opens the door to his house, we are greeted by his four dogs and two cats. The dogs all bark and yelp hysterically, jumping on me and snarling at each other as they are fighting for attention. There are two big dogs, a labrador and a weird mixture of a shepherd and other things, and two small ones, a pinscher and an unidentifiable mongrel.

Chen goes on to prepare a great dinner of broccoli with almonds, onions and garlic sauteed in butter, black rice with dried plums, apricots and figs, and lentil stew. Afterwards we eat some Danish biscuits and a millefeuille-like Arab pastry filled with halva. I ask him whether he keeps kosher, but he says no, it's too expensive and too much work, and he's not religious anyway. He tells me his brother became kosher recently, though, and him and his wife had to restructure the whole house for it. They needed to buy a new special kosher fridge, in which the light doesn't switch on automatically when you open it on Shabbat. In their kitchen, many things are made of plastic, so they can be disposed of after one-time use.
They also had to install timers everywhere, so that the electrical appliances can be programmed for Shabbat. The bathroom light is left open on Friday before sunset until Saturday after sunset. If they want to drink coffee or tea, they have a hot water dispenser that doesn't need to be switched on on Shabbat. Same with the food, which is prepared on Fridays and kept in a pot on a hot plate for Saturdays.

I've already noticed that all of my hosts, kosher or not, keep on lights randomly, even when they leave the house for the day. Everything seems to be on standby, and they don't seem to care about the extra costs this inevitably involves, which doesn't fit in with the stereotypical stingy Israeli image I had in my mind.


The following morning, Chen takes me to Tel Hazor in his car. Tel Hazor was the capital of Canaanite Galilee and the largest fortified city in the country at that time (approx. 2500 BC). Together with two other bilical tels, Megiddo and Be'er Sheva, it forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The best about the whole archeological site is its location. The view on the surrounding Galilee and Golan Heights mountains is superb. The site itself is interesting as well, but fails to inspire my imagination as much as the surroundings do. We still take our time wandering through the ruins and reading the signs explaining the history of the place.

After that, we drive on to Tsfat. The town is the highest in Israel at about 800m above sea level. It is probably best known to be the centre of Kabbalah and a refuge for Hasidic Jews from all over the country and from the United States, who started to flock here in the early 1980s. In Latin script, the town is also frequently spelled as Safed, Zefat, Tzfat, Sfat, and Seattle.

We wander around in the cobbled streets of the old town, sample some excellent cheeses at a local dairy, and have a look at the artists' colony. The latter was established in the 1950s in the former Arab quarter. Even the mosque has been transformed into a gallery of mediocre paintings.

We eat a nice lunch in a vegetarian restaurant set on a tiny, picturesque square in the centre of the old town. We have a good view on the goings-on outside, involving mostly Black Jews, as Chen calls them, passing by, looking like they're on a mission from God with their self-important look on their faces. The men wear kaftans and black, wide-rimmed hats, and sport long sidelocks. The women wear headscarves, long skirts, and tights or black pants underneath. Even 4-year old girls are dressed like that. When I comment that I find this a bit silly, Chen says: "Religious people are tempted by everything, even by young girls, so you have to dress them up."

I notice that many 'Black Jews' passing by are busy talking on the phone and smoking. Smoking's allowed? Chen says yeah, of course, but not on Shabbat. And their incessant talking on their mobile phones? "They have special kosher mobile phones without any multimedia applications or SMS. Very simple phones, just for talking. These are much cheaper than normal phones, and the community talks a lot. They have special packages, which makes the calls really, really cheap. It excludes Shabbat, so if they call on Shabbat, it might cost 20 shekels a minute.
It's true, they talk a lot, they're always busy, so they're always on the phone. They never have time because they have so many children, but they really only look after the first two or three, then afterwards, the oldest children are supposed to look after the younger ones. Anyway, they don't have jobs, and they get supported by the government, which is a huge issue for many Israelis and there's always a big debate going on whether or not this is right. It's a huge burden on our budget. Why should I work and support them? They don't do anything, just produce 10-12 children who become like them, ignorant and narrow-minded."

Speaking of which, when we walk through a small alley inside the market, we enter a synagogue. In the hallway, there are a few vendors selling religious paraphernalia and trinkets. One of them, upon beholding me, starts sneering and says something to a stern-looking guy who guards the entrance to the synagogue. "Come on, let's go out", Chen says suddenly in an irritated-sounding voice, and I follow him out, mildly confused. Before we exit, Chen turns around and shouts something at the vendor.

Outside, I ask what that was all about. "Ach, nothing, forget about it." But I really want to know. "He was just calling you not so nice names. He really made me angry." So what did he say? Chen seems reluctant to tell me, but he finally comes out with it: "He was calling you a beast. And I said to him he's the beast, and he should be ashamed." But what did he say to the caretaker? "He told him not to let you inside the synagogue."

After that funny little interlude we walk around some more, enter the Ashkenazi Synagogue and chat a bit to the friendly caretaker. We dodge the multiple American tour groups, which seem to be made up of Jews that just finished high school. They go crazy buying random overpriced shit with their credit cards and US$ (why bother changing money anyway?) and keep telling each other about their life in Wisconsin, Connecticut and Delaware, which sounds quite intriguing.

Back in Amirim, Chen cooks a great dinner of fried black rice noodles, which is a first even for an Asian foodophile like me. We eat it together with the leftovers from last night's dinner, and I have a Leffe Blond with it. Belgian beers appear to be hugely popular in Israel, you can get them in almost every small supermarket. Usually they cost around 3-5€ for a small bottle.


In the morning, we set out for the Golan Heights. We pass an Arab Christian village named Jish. I don't bother asking why these particular Arabs are Christian now, it would probably confuse me even further. Chen says the village is highly unusual in that many of its inhabitants serve in the Israeli Army, despite the fact that Arabs are exempt from the military draft. He tells me that Circassians, an independent Muslim group, serve the Army as well, just as Bedouins and Druze people. The idea I had in my mind of the Israeli Army as the defender of the Jewish people is shattered by this.

We drive through an industrial area, which looks rather ramshackle from the outside, but in fact it houses multiple ultramodern wineries and dairies. We stop at one shop and buy yoghurt ice cream made of goat milk. Sounds weird, but tastes great.

We make our way to the Tel Dan Nature Reserve, where we embark on a nice little hike counter-clockwise around and through the Reserve. We see bubbling streams feeding into the running Dan river, ancient olive and lotus jujube trees with grotesque-looking crooked branches, and, unexpectedly for me, the ruined ancient city of Dan. The ruins are surrounded by a massive wall, built during the Israelite period, in which the First Temple was built. Probably most impressive is the cobbled square in front of the city itself. It just looks like it could be bustling with activity any minute.

For lunch, we drive up 1165m-high Mt Bental, from which you get the best views on the dimilitarized zone and Syria, including the Syrian ghost town of Quneitra, which was destroyed in the 1967 war by Israel. You can still see the deep trenches scarring the beautiful green countryside. Far off into the distance one can see Damascus, a mere 60km away.

The mount is dominated by Israeli soldiers, who are explained the history and strategic location of the area by their captain. They look tired but still attentive, given the historical significance of the Golan Heights. I feel uneasy seeing all those young, aggressive-looking spring chickens carrying rifles, eager to shoot and kill whenever they are told to. How would they know themselves? Give them guns when they're still wet behind the ears, they won't question anything.

There's a nice little coffee bar, amusingly called 'Coffee Annan' (annan means cloud inHebrew), on the top of the mountain. We eat a great lunch there and have some really good coffee with it. For dessert, I buy a slice of cheesecake, at 24 shekels the most expensive piece of cake I've ever bought in my whole fucking life. Tear. At least it's a damn good cheesecake.

My next stop is Tiberias, and Chen offered to drive me there. We make one last little stop in Katzrin, the only town in the Golan Heights. We visit a little olive oil factory and shop, and I briefly chat to the saleslady. She proudly announces that she's a second-generation Golani, that she and her mother were born in Katzrin. The town doesn't look like much, plus it will be evacuated eventually when the Golan Heights are returned to Syria, so I'm not too impressed. (Yeah, I know, it's still highly unlikely that this will happen anytime soon, but you never know)

As we descend on sea level, it's just in time to see the sunset over Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, See Genesareth, or whatever you want to call it. The gentle light beautifully illuminates the lake, and I realize that this might be an ideal way to end this entry. So there you have it.

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