Saturday, March 18, 2006

Israel: The Galilee

It was ten minutes after eight on Saturday morning when I was woken by my ringing cell phone. It was my good friend Doni. We had planned to take a trip to the Sea of Galilee, and the departure time was supposed to be eight o'clock. Doh!

I told Doni that I had overslept and that I would be over in about ten minutes. Also scheduled to make the trip were my good friends Geoff and Masha, and right after I got off the phone with Doni, they called as well.

The most embarrassing part of the whole situation was that the night before, we had all been at the same party. As they left one by one, my traveling companions had warned me not to stay too late. When I overslept, they all knew all too well that I had indeed stayed too long at the party.

Everyone was still interested in making the trip, though, and by 8:30 we were on the road.

In my haste to get out the door, I had skipped breakfast. After a night of drinking, I always have to eat breakfast, and my decision to skip it meant that my stomach would be raw until lunch.

This was only a minor inconvenience, though, and we had an enjoyable ride up north.

In about an hour and a half, we reached Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. In Israel, the Sea of Galilee is called Lake Kinneret or just the Kinneret. The Israeli nomenclature is more accurate because the “sea” really is just a lake, and not a very big one at that.

By whatever name, the Galilee region is quite Biblically significant.

Although he didn't have anything to do with Tiberias, Jesus had many connections to the Sea of Galilee. It was here that he performed several miracles, including walking on water, calming a storm with his hand, and feeding a million people with a tuna sandwich. He also gave his famous Sermon on the Mount on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. And beyond all the flashy things, much of Jesus's everyday life revolved around the Sea. He fished, washed, and swam there. He also drank the water of course. Even today, the Kinneret is an important source of drinking water.

Anyhow, following in the tire tracks of Jesus, I parked my SUV in a dirt lot near the Sea, and we set out to explore on foot.

The parking lot ran all the way into the water, and although there wasn't a proper beach, there were a few Israeli rednecks there having a soak. (No, America doesn't have a monopoly on rednecks.)

Doni, Masha, Geoff, and I walked down to the water's edge, looked for a moment, and moved on. We passed by a few churches and the ruins of a Crusader castle.

Then we reached the promenade (i.e., tourist central). This was the land of milk and honey and combination fish platters, and as we walked down the boardwalk, we were harassed by seemingly every restaurateur in town. The approach was the same every time. Once we crossed some imaginary line about 10 meters from the entrance to a restaurant, a guy would rush out and shove a menu in our noses. Then he would start rattling off everything that he was nice enough to include with the purchase of an entrée. The chips come with the fish? Wow!

It was a bit early, so as a group, we weren't really looking to eat just then. By the time we got to the end of the promenade, though, we had been broken. We settled down to lunch at 10:45 in the morning. With my stomach still struggling to emerge from party-mode, I personally had no objection.

The deal we ended up getting was pretty much what every restaurant had been offering: our fish came with chips, a few salads, tea, and dessert.

The food was OK, but the dessert never did turn up. Worse yet, none of us realized this until we had already paid and left.

All was not lost, though, because Geoff treated us to ice cream instead. What self-respecting promenade doesn't have an ice cream parlor or two?

As we ate our ice cream, we planned our next move.

Geoff and Masha are Jewish, so we decided to toss something Jewish into the mix. We would visit the Tomb of Maimonides, the famous philosopher rabbi. Maimonides is often referred to as Rambam, which is the acronym of his name in Hebrew.

So, armed with the basic map in our guide book, we set out to find the Rambam. We left the promenade and found that the rest of the town was deserted. This was no great surprise, though, since it was Saturday (Shabbat), and most everything in the entire country would be closed.

Tiberias is a hilly town, and we walked up and down several hills in our pursuit of the Rambam. In the end, though, he proved to be too elusive, and after 20 minutes, we terminated our search. Yes, we are lame.

A few days later, when I was discussing our trip with my other good friend Geoff, he told me how he had had similar problems in his search for the Rambam. Unlike us, he stuck it out and found the tomb. In his estimation, though, it wasn't worth the effort.

To each his own, though. I'm sure visiting Maimonides's Tomb is a powerful experience for some people.

In any case, once we had thrown in the towel on our tomb quest, we headed back to the car by way of the promenade.

We got attacked by the restaurant people again, but this time we did not succumb to their wiles.

No, instead of eating again, we took a gander at the small market that had sprung up in the center of the walkway.

I don't mean to be critical, but this was possibly the saddest market I ever did see. There were probably a dozen vendors, and every last thing for sale was magically craptacular. I'm talkin' mood rings, windsocks, lacquer boxes, lamp shades stenciled with the signs of the zodiac, faux leather belts, and temporary tattoos.

Oddly enough, we all walked away empty-handed.

As we left the market, our tour of Tiberias had basically concluded, and it was only 1:00. Since we were already in the area and since we still had daylight left to burn, Geoff asked if we would be interested in stopping to see some of his relatives (his aunt and uncle I think) who lived just south of the Kinneret. They lived on the Ashdot-Ya'akov kibbutz.

We were all keen on the suggestion, and in less than half an hour, we reached the gates to the little township. Geoff's uncle, whose name was Efraim, met us and showed me where to park. Then we walked with him over to the house where we met his wife (named Tirza, I think).

Efraim and Tirza had many lemon trees and they were heavy with fruit. Inside the house, there were copious amounts of lemons as well. All around there were buckets and baskets brimming with the fruit, and once Tirza had seated us all in the living room, she served us (what else...) lemonade and cake. I love lemonade, so I definitely wasn't complaining. I also love cake.

Initially our conversation was in English and very easy Hebrew, and I did OK, especially with the English. In no time flat, though, the conversation switched exclusively to harder Hebrew, and I was the odd man out. Geoff spoke fluent Hebrew, and Doni and Masha, while both novices, were able to understand quite a bit. My skills were just advanced enough to say things like, “More lemonade, please.”

As usually happens when family members get together, the talking went on and on. Occasionally someone would address me directly, but for the most part I just focused on my lemonade or the TV, which was also in Hebrew. I didn't mind zoning out, though.

Then, after two hours of this, Efraim broke up the party and offered to show us around the kibbutz. Before we started with the kibbutz, though, he showed us his backyard. There, there were more lemon trees and many cages housing a variety of different birds. With all the talk in the news at the time, my thoughts immediately went to bird flu. I brought this up, but Efraim didn't seem overly concerned about it himself.

After the backyard, we walked to my car and started on Efraim's tour. As we drove out of the gates, he told us a bit about kibbutzim and Ashdot-Ya'akov.

Here is my totally simplified version, which completely glosses over the whole Ihud vs. Me'uhad thing:

The original concept of a kibbutz was to have a community where everyone contributed what he or she could to the community and took back only what he or she needed. Property was owned by the community, not individuals. People didn't earn wages for their work. Daily life was communal with people working together, eating together in dining halls, sometimes sleeping in communal dormitories, and sometimes sharing child-rearing responsibilities. Initially kibbutzim were almost always agriculturally based, but as times progressed, many migrated into other businesses. Today, for example, there are kibbutzim making ammunition and bullet-proof glass. That's a bit removed from growing strawberries.

Efraim explained how Ashdot-Ya'akov, like many other kibbutzim, had really lost most of its original vision. Now it was almost indistinguishable from any other gated community. In the Ashdot-Ya'akov of today, people earn money for working, and they also pay for things that they need. The dining hall is only open a few times a week because it is too expensive to open it more frequently. Even when it is open, though, many people still choose to eat at home in private.

We drove by a building that I think Efraim told us had at one point been a bottle factory. It was shut down.

Ashdot-Ya'akov did still have plenty of farming going on, though.

We drove past groves of date palms and fields of other crops. Then Efraim took us to a spectacular viewpoint.

Ashdot-Ya'akov sits very near to Israel's border with Jordan, and it overlooks the Jordan and Yarmuk River Valleys. Efraim had me drive out to the border itself, and I parked the car there.

Down below, he pointed out some farmland that was technically inside Jordan but that the kibbutz had been allowed to keep. Using special border permits, the residents of Ashdot-Ya'akov were able to tend their fields.

We walked along the border, just near the barbed wire, and there was even an abandoned guard tower that we got to climb inside.

We remained on that ridge overlooking the Jordan River for about an hour. Then the sun left us, and we returned to the town.

Back at the house, Tirza was happy to see us again, and another conversation erupted. She and Efraim knew that we had to get going, though, so they didn't keep us long. Geoff, as it turned out, decided to stay the night in Ashdot-Ya'akov and return to Tel Aviv later by mini-bus. This would give him plenty of time to finish catching up without having to worry about Doni, Masha, and me.

In exchange for leaving Geoff behind, Tirza and Efraim gave us three large bags of lemons before they sent us on our way.

Geoff versus some lemons… Man, we made out like bandits!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Chris! You're an interesting writer! I agree -- Tiberias is a dump, mostly, despite how pretty you think it will be driving down that steep slope from the SW.

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