Now much more familiar with the highways, we headed north up the coast past Tel Aviv, to the small seaside town of Caesarea. Built by Herod and named for Octavian Augustus Caesar, the city became the Roman capital of Palestine at the start of the Christian era. The extensive remaining ruins--including a theatre, amphitheatre, and hippodrome--have been integrated into a National Park. When we got off the highway, however, we missed the turnoff for the historic area, and accidentally headed north into modern Caesarea, a bizarre planned community of mansions and golf courses arranged along perfectly manicured speed- bumped roadways. By the time we found our way to the Roman theatre, the sun was beginning its steady descent into the sea. Archeological work was still underway here, along with civil construction. Near the ocean the flooring of warehouses in the commercial/administrative area had been unearthed, and the damaged remains of intricate mosaic patterns were exposed to view. Along the rocky shore itself, a brand new pedestrian walkway was nearing completion. As the sky darkened with the approaching dusk, the wind came up and the surf crashed with the threat of an impending storm.
We walked along the shore and around a promontory protected by a two- thousand-year-old sea wall, and settled in to a tourist restaurant called Charley's just as the rain began to come down hard. The picture windows gave us a spectacular view of white foam spraying over the outer bulwarks as they were pelted by stormy waves. My most vivid recollection of the restaurant was a large movie poster on the wall for "Arizona Dream"--a film I'd never heard of--starring Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, and Jerry Lewis. It seemed an improbable combination.
During dinner my mother told me about the trip to Masada she had taken with my brother Ari the previous April. After hiking down from the mountaintop fortress, they had gone into a desert canyon not unlike the small canyon we had walked through the previous day in the Sinai. It was like a twisty maze in there, and they had no guide; after some time, they realized to their horror that they were lost and couldn't find a way out. The sun was beginning to set and it really looked as if they would be facing an exposed night in the desert. Just as despair was about to set in, however, they were startled by the sound of a ringing phone. Just around the wall of the canyon was a group of Israelis; one had just gotten a call on his cell phone. They were saved! This story is a testament to the small size of the country and the ubiquity of cell phones. I'm reminded of a story my father told me not long ago. When he had been in Israel he met a skydiver. The greatest concern of Israel skydivers, this person had told him, was landing within the country. Israel is so small that it is all too easy to drift over a border, and it is all too easy to get shot at once that happens.
My mother and I also talked about our Sinai trip; with the typical but unavoidable hypocrisy of tourists, we bemoaned the incipient hotel industry we saw, poised to take over and develop (i.e. ruin) the Red Sea coast and the area around St. Catherine. It seemed a sad truth to us that, all over the world, pressure from the tourist industry was not the only factor in the urbanization of the world. "People when left to their own devices seem to want a mall," she said. There you have the essence of human nature in the post-Soviet twentieth century, captured in a single sentence.
After dinner we drove back to Ann's house to spend the night. The following morning we embarked on a two-day tour of the Israeli North. Our first stop was Zippori, a new national park located in the heart of the Galil. This fertile valley is located between the port of Haifa (on the west) and the Sea of Galilee (on the east). The area was the heartland of early Zionist settlement. The exploits here of the kibbutzim (socialist farm collective workers), who drained the swamps and built the nation in the early part of the century, form a large part of the mythic history of the Israeli nation.
Zippori itself is tucked away amid rolling hills. It had once been the Roman capital of Galilee, but had afterwards diminished in size and stature. The village was abandoned in the Israeli War of Independence and later a small kibbutz was established nearby. Full-scale excavations only began in the 1980s, and the park was opened in 1992. Even in the last eight months since my mother had been there, much that was new had been excavated. Zippori is famous for its mosaic floors, which are specimens of astounding beauty and artistry. One particular image, that of a beautiful woman's face from a dining-room floor mosaic, has become internationally famous as "the Mona Lisa of the Galilee". I'd seen several photos of this face over the previous week--its prominent on postcards--but none of them were able to capture the serene beauty and subtlety of color in the original, which has been painstakingly restored. Elsewhere on the grounds were mosaics of the Nile River, of Amazon warriors, of the signs of the Zodiac--all of incredible grace, power, and beauty. We lingered far too long in this small park, captivated by the vivid energy of these ancient artworks. By late afternoon we forced ourselves to leave, since we still planned that day to drive through the Golan Heights to the northern border.
As we left the park we met a busload of born-again Christians on tour from Kentucky. Outside the Roman theatre in Caesarea we had met a busload of Georgians. For them Israel is rich in Biblical history and holy sites; many conservative American Christian groups are strong supporters of the state of Israel, presumably because with Christain holy sites under the control of a pro-Western democracy, their accessibility is ensured. These groups of elderly tourists seemed to be having the times of their lives, as were we.
From Zippori we drove straight east to Tiberius, a rather drab and uninteresting lakeside tourist town, then swung around the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Then, like a satellite slingshotting around Jupiter to reach escape velocity, we peeled off northeastward into the Golan. Climbing steeply, we came within feet of the Jordanian border. There were minefields everywhere, carefully fenced off and marked with yellow signs carrying stern red-lettered warnings. Occasionally we passed what looked like bombed-out pillboxes. The road was new and paved smooth, but the unescapable feeling of recent warfare was everywhere around us. After ten or twenty minutes of climbing and curving, we ascended to a flat plateau atop the hights, and the vista that unfolded before us revealed with instant clarity the strategic importance of the area. We had a panoramic, unimpeded view--and presumably an unimpeded line of fire--over the whole Sea of Galilee and the heart of the Galil valley beyond. It was magnificent and beautiful. The north of Israel is lush in winter, green and wet, a stark contrast to the dry deserts of the south. The lake gleamed a brilliant blue, and all around it the earth was glistening a dark, vibrant green. The hills on the other side of the valley, which I imagined in summer might be the same charred gold-brown of a Northern California summer hillscape, were verdant and alive. It was hard to enjoy the simple beauty of the scene, though, since superimposed over it in my mind was the ghost image of falling shells and rockets. It was easy to understand why Israel is reluctant to give up this piece of territory without a solid peace agreement with Syria. We were far enough north now that the country to our east was no longer Jordan, but Syria. We headed north; the land opened flat and wide, and here and there among the cultivated plains were dotted little kibbutzim and settlement outposts. We drove into one of these small border towns, called Ramat Magshimim, looking for gas. It was located right along the Syrian border, and looked like an armed camp. The houses were identical, gray little boxes, with narrow slits for windows. The small gardens in front of each did little to dispel the sense of claustrophobic menace.
We finally made our way, with night falling, to the small town of Qazrin, which is the unofficial capital of the Golan. It's a new town, as indeed are all Jewish settlements on the heights, which were captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Farther from the immediate threat of the border, this town looked more normal. There was a bank, a small shopping center, a post office. A few miles outside town we had picked up a hitch-hiker, a young soldier, who had flagged us down with some authority. With evening falling, young soldiers, off-duty for the weekend (it was now Thursday evening), were massing on the streets to look for rides. Hitch-hiking is common for these soldiers, and no one feels any qualms about picking one up. They generally all speak some English, and they are good for conversation and for helping with directions. They climb aboard wearing their rifles. In Qazrin we cashed a traveler's check at the post office (the Russian postal worker spoke no English and I doubt she'd processed a traveler's check before) and called a hotel in Metullah to make reservations for the evening. Outside of town we picked up two more soldiers, who were heading towards Haifa for the weekend, and took them down out of the Golan to the valley, leaving them at a major intersection to look for their next transport. We turned north, fat raindrops falling now in the dark night, and drove straight up to Metullah, the northernmost city in Israel, nestled in a little bulge of Israeli territory poking into southern Lebanon.
We checked in at Hotel Azarim, a homey little place run by a matronly old lady from Eastern Europe. The dark wood wall by the reception desk was covered with framed pictures and mementos. Some were letters of appreciation from American tour groups (many Christain fundamentalists) or visiting luminaries; others were from UN troops serving in the Lebanese buffer zone, who seemed to have a particular affection for the hotel. Here was a picture of a small unit of Norwegian solders; and beside it a photograph of an intersection in their home town, buried under ten- or twelve-foot snowdrifts.
For dinner we drove down to the Canada Center, an ultramodern recreational sports facility built largely with donations from Canadian Jews (chief among them probably Bronfman). We ate in an Italian cafe overlooking the only regulation-size ice skating rink in Israel. Young girls were taking lessons with their coaches, and some of them looked quite good. With the influx of Russian Jews, there is apparently now quite a pool of training talent in ice skating. In the next decade we may very well see Israeli competitors in the winter Olympics.
After dinner, weary from driving, we retired to our room and checked out the TV. We ended up watching "Bananas", the Woody Allen movie, presented in English with Hebrew and Arabic subtitles. As I shook with laughter watching the scene where Allen interrupt his doctor father in the middle of performing surgery, to tell him of his plans to go to Central America, I marveled at the brave souls who would attempt an Arabic translation of this very New York Jewish style of humor.
Friday morning, the 30th, under overcast but non-precipitous skies, we drove north to the Lebanese border to look for "The Good Fence", as the local border crossing is known. The border itself wasn't hard to spot; after driving north for a few minutes, we hit a large barbed-wire fence. On the other side were the remains of a village. There were minarets and buildings, but no signs of life; no intact glass; no traffic, no lights, no people. It looked like a no-man's land. A narrow road ran along the fence on the Israeli side, and we turned onto it, heading east. As we drove alone on this road I grew increasingly nervous, wondering if snipers were in the abandoned buildings to the left thinking about taking a shot at us. My mother assured me the road must be safe or we wouldn't have been allowed on it, but I couldn't shake off a creepy feeling. With no sign of the Good Fence ahead, we turned around and drove west along the border. Soon we came upon the border crossing. The road narrowed into a cul-de-sac. Army vehicles were parked along the side, and UNIFIL ("United Nations Intevention Force in Lebanon" is my guess) soldiers manned a guard tower and sauntered around on the ground. There was something very odd about the scene. We had become trapped in the cul-de-sac; I had to do a three-point turn, in the midst of all these soldiers, to make our way back out. But no one seemed the slightest bit concerned. None of the soldiers asked who we were, or even gave us a second glance. And this despite the fact that we had heard that a few days ago a man had come across the border from Lebanon with explosives strapped to his body and had blown himself up, taking a border soldier with him.
The no-man's-land across the fence wasn't entirely deserted, it turned out. Old ladies were shuffling over the border, coming in to Metullah to do their shopping, then passing back into their crumbled village. The Israeli government had decided, unofficially, to allow these crossings. This was described to me later as the type of kind-hearted government policy which you never read about in the press.
This was to be our last full day in Israel, and we wanted to see something of interest on the way back to Tel Aviv. We decided to stop at Banias Falls, the site of an ancient pagan temple dedicated to the god Pan. After viewing the grotto in which the remains of the temple were slowly dissolving, we set off on a trail along a small stream, thinking we would walk to the site of the falls themselves. Before long it started to rain, then to rain hard. We didn't have umbrellas, though my mother's head was partially protected by the hood of her winter jacket. It wasn't long before we were covered in mud and scrambling uneasily along the narrow dirt trail which rose and fell along the banks of the stream. Despite the rain and the fear of slipping and falling, it was a pleasant walk; we distracted ourselves by trying to count the number of distinct species of wildflower we could find; the blooming season was just beginning. By the time we got to the falls area, we had taken a wrong turn and missed the view of the falls, ending up instead at another parking lot at the end of the trail. Conveniently, a hose and shoe-brush were provided here, which I used to wash and scrape most of the mud off of my hiking boots. To get back to our car, we headed out along the main road. There were minefields here, too, on either side of the roadway, fenced-off meadows, the grass growing wild and untended over their secret dangers.
The rest of the car trip home was largely uneventful. We stopped at a sweet little cafe for lunch in Rosh Pina, and discussed the accent difference between Yiddish and Hebrew, specifically in the word for bread (LECH-em versus lech-EM). We decided the Hebrew word-final accent sounded more lyrical. In Afula, an unsophisticated place known primarily for being the intersection of some major highways, we stopped at a florist to pick up Shabbat flowers for Ann. The shop owner lectured us about Clinton, who had just gotten drawn into the breaking Monica Lewinsky scandal. "The way we Israelis see it," she said, "everything in America is so good that you are just too bored. No inflation, no unemployment, no war, no bad news. So you're getting obsessed with this stupid nothing. We like Clinton, we don't care who he sleeps with." The affection for Clinton was real. I'd read in the papers that billboards had just gone up in Tel Aviv showing pictures of Clinton and reading, "We support you, Friend!"--a reference to Clinton's "Goodbye, friend", a phrase he uttered in Hebrew after the assassination of Rabin that has become a bumper-sticker commonplace in Israel. After further discussion, we found out that the florist's daughter was working in a kosher restaurant in Brookline, Massachusetts, right in my father's neighborhood.
We got back to Ramat Hasharon in time for Shabbat dinner; in addition to daughter Nava and son Micah, the oldest son, Guy, also joined us. My mother and I left the house at 8:30 for our 11:00 flight. The roads were empty; we had to fill the rental car up at the airport gas station, since all the other stations were closed for the holiday. We did some last-minute gift shopping in the airport, then settled in for our flight home. I ended up traveling for well over 24 hours due to delays at almost every leg of my journey, so that I arrived home exhausted. I assume you're a little weary too, after slogging your way through this lengthy travelogue! So go on, get some rest.
Pictures of the North
This page last modified May 9, 1998.
Zev Handel / zev_web#namkung.com