Sunday, December 24, 2006

Along the Border on Hannuka

Driving around the north of Israel you’d never know that 4,000 Katyusha rockets rained down on the towns and villages only a few months ago.

One is struck by the green rolling hills, the orchards and vineyards, something like Tuscany, or the California wine country. According to a book entitled The Wines of Israel, about twenty different wineries now exist in Israel where once only the giant Carmel Winery controlled the market.

If one wanted, one could cruise the upper Galilee on a wine tasting journey, making it an Israeli type “Sideways,” the Hollywood film about two guys driving around the California wine region. And like the heroes of that film, tourists could drink themselves into oblivion with the excuse they were sampling different wines.

A long bumpy serpentine dirt road leads from the main highway to the Rimon Winery, just five kilometers from the Lebanese border. The road slopes down and around the pomegranate orchards and ends at the oversized warehouse.

“We had four hundred rockets,” said Gabi Nachmias, 47, owner of the Rimon Winery in the upper Galilee. Stout, clean-shaven, wearing a knit kepaw, Nachmias stood outside his processing plant while a group of Druze women sorted pomegranates, preparing them to be squeezed for their juice.

The Rimon Winery is, according to Nachmias, the only facility in the world preparing pomegranate wine. The plant is small, only an oversized warehouse, but busy. Red juice runs down from the plant towards a trailer where another worker prepares the pomegranate seeds for other uses, like soaps, and creams, and jams.

The group of Druze Arab women stood over a large plastic crate filled to the brim with pomegranates. Identical crates are lined up stretching fifty yards side-by-side, and another fifty yards back. A forklift moves through the open space of the warehouse, retrieving the pomegranate crates after the women have finished with them.

“Did any Katyushas land here?” Nachmias is asked.

“Oh, ho,” he answered. “Four hundred. Some here,” he motioned beyond the women to the fields to the south, “and some there,” he said, motioning towards the north, back towards the road leading to the highway. “But, Thank God, none right here.”

Then his mobile phone rang, again, and he walked away to talk in private.

Down the road from the Rimon Winery is Moshav Kerem Ben Zimra, a Moshav made up mostly of Oriental Jews. The Moshav is well-tended, neat homes separated by trees and bushes each on a quarter acre of land. Some have a tractor or other farm equipment visible.

Two other wineries are located in the Moshav, these are boutique vineyards, catering to small select markets. One is the Kerem Ben Zimra Winery run by 32 year-old Avi Ashkenazi. This winery is essentially a small bungalow guarded by a friendly mutt, a few picnic tables and a wine bar manned by Ashkenazi, a small dark man, for tasting the only wine they bottle, a Cabernet Sauvignon. They produce only about 4,000 bottles a year.

“I worked during the beginning of the war, but then, like everyone else, I got drafted, went off to fight,” Avi said. This year he hoped to bottle 8,000 bottles. His wines are not kosher.

A few kilometers down the road from the Kerem Ben Zimra Winery is one of the two big vineyards in the region, the Dalton Winery. This is a privately-owned business begun in 1995 by a family originally from London, England. Dalton bottles upwards of 800,000 bottles a wine a year, but is still considered a boutique winery. Dalton has shelves filled with prizes for their wines won at some of the most prestigious international competitions.

The real Dalton prizewinners, available at stores in the USA and around the world, are the Merlot 2002, the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2002. The Dalton Fume Blanc is the wine served to the El Al Business Class passengers. The Shiraz is the wine pushed by the pleasant staff in the wine tasting cabin.

“We didn’t close during the war,” said Oz Haruni, the owner’s son. “We closed the store, but the factory kept running, said Oz.

Like most of the wine stores, this one was all wood, floor to ceiling, with wine barrels serving as decoration. Dalton had a wider selection of wines than the others, and was proud of their prizes.

The Galilee Winery, a sister company to the Golan Winery, is the largest in the region. A factory tour becomes a family event. Wine tasting at their store is organized and refined. The vineyards stretch out for football fields beyond the factory.

Besides the wineries the local industry also seemed to be reviving. The pleasant reasonably priced boutique spa Amirey HaGalilee, with 20 rooms, was full. The young cook, from the adjacent vegetarian Moshav Amirim, prepared excellent meat dishes for the guests, and for diners arriving from the surrounding towns and villages. The rooms were spacious and those with balconies provided unobstructed views across green fields all the way down the slope to the Sea of Galilee.

The bed and breakfasts in the region were also thriving during the Hannuka/Christmas vacation. Moshav Amirim, is quaint, rustic, set amid a forest, and is a popular place to rent a cabin. At the Stupps Vegetarian restaurant in the Moshav, operated by a family that originally came from Canada, every table was full, with more people arriving to take the place of those leaving. And the food was good and reasonably priced.

Visitors to the region might want to drive across the street to Moshav Shefer, and take the road up about three kilometers into the national park of Hemdat Harim, on Mt. Hillel. There the owners, who moved into the national park 40 years ago with special government permission, operate six bed and breakfast cabins, a small concert hall for weekly duets, and a large coffee bar that offers live music Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.

Car trouble took us from a getaway in the Golan Heights, amid the rolling hills and ubiquitous greenery, down to Kryiat Shmona. Again, if a local resident hadn’t pointed out the discolored rocks, burnt red by the explosions of Katyusha rockets, one would never know there had been a war. In Kyriat Shmona, the town most often hit by the nearly 4,000 rockets that fell on the Galilee during the Lebanon War II, life went on as normal. No one talked about the last war, or one coming up. The body and fender guys went about their work, the shopkeepers sold their goods, the shoppers shopped.

The upper Galilee is dotted with the graves of legendary Rabbis dating as far back as the Talmudic period nearly 2,000 years ago. One of the most famous graves is that of Eleizer Bar Yocha, son of Shimon Bar Yochai, the creator of the Zohar, the book of Splendor, an anchor to Jewish mysticism.

The bus stop and road leading to the Bar Yochai graves was teeming with religious people, men and women, young and old, mostly dressed in the ultra-Orthodox black garb.
Across the road was Moshav Or Ganoz, another ultra-Orthodox village, flat, busy with young women in long dresses and heads covered and small children, boys with long hair until the age of three, and side-curls if older, girls miniature versions of moms, with long dresses and long-sleeved blouses.

Or Ganoz was hit hard during the war, but no sign of that damage was evident to the casual viewer. The guesthouse was destroyed, but the destruction wasn’t obvious. Or Ganoz was one of the few Moshavim in the Galilee from which no resident fled during the incessant Katyusha attacks.

Not far away was the old Northern Road that ran near the Lebanese Border. Here there was evidence of tension.

A new four-lane road replaced the old border road a few years ago. The new road was busy with traffic. The old road had barbed wire strung across the entrance, with just enough room for a single car to squeeze through. The security fence and sand covered security road ran just below the old road. Here and there one could see the Israeli army presence, in concealed outposts.

Along the fence on the Lebanese side, if one looked closely, one could see a yellow Hezbollah flag fluttering in a wilderness, as a reminder, perhaps, of what was, and what could be. No troops were evident, neither Hezbollah, nor the UN peacekeepers.

After a few days in the Galilee one had to admire the resiliency of the residents, the ability to compartmentalize their situation and carry on with life as if the threat of another Hezbollah attack was not discussed daily in the newspapers. As if the head of Israel’s military intelligence didn’t predict another war by the summer.

The predictions were met with a shrug. The shopkeepers kept selling, the wine makers kept making wine, the body and fender guys kept pounding out dents. One observer said, that is the way Israelis have been coping since they settled the land nearly sixty years ago. And that is the way they intend to continue living their lives. Day by day.