Israeli breakfast is a cheese lover’s Canaan. At the Jerusalem hotel where I arrived mid-morning after a long flight, there were easily two dozen varieties—white, yellow, bleu, hard, soft, semi-soft, creamy. It’s an example of how Kosher restrictions can foster pleasure, the way that structure forces a poet to create literary beauty. Because of the prohibition on meat and dairy foods at the same meal, breakfast tends to be a meatless affair of fruits and vegetables, breads and pastries, and lots of cheese. Going back for seconds, I spied what I thought was more cheese, in tomatoes. As it turns out, it was shakshuka, a north African dish of eggs poached in tomato sauce, with generous amounts of paprika, popular in Israel and becoming so in America. Not only was the savory deliciousness a fine welcome to the Middle East, but the dish has become a favorite breakfast I make myself at home.
A post-flight nap would have been nice, but I had to meet up with the other five women in my travelling group, along with Yehuda, our fantastic guide for the next week, and Zvika, our equally fantastic driver, for a trip to the Ben Shemen Forest and more cheese.
Judi Avrahim Chai is one of those all-too-rare people who glow with contentment in their daily lives. Together with her quieter husband Shapir, she owns the Chai Farm in Mevo Modi’in, where residents have come from five continents to live in a moshav, a cooperative agricultural community where families own their farms—think Little House on the Prairie for Orthodox Jews.
Mrs. Chai herself gave up a public relations career and modern life in London to make cheese from goat’s milk, here on the small farm that they keep under the 50-goat threshold that would trigger government inspections. “If we go that way, it’s so complicated,” she points out.
Under hair covered with a purple scarf, her face shines as she explains the different ways to make cheese and how she finds her simple life so appealing despite, or perhaps because of, the hard work. Life here is not for the lazy. Those in need find help through the moshav’s Livestock Food Empowerment Program, which distributes farm equipment and home appliances, helping families become producers rather than moochers.
After serving us fabulous fresh cheeses, from mild cheddar to tangy labneh, on the long wooden table in her large sunny visitors’ room, with windows looking out to the farm, Mrs. Chai exclaimed, “You have to see our shul!” There was no resisting her warm enthusiasm, so into the van we piled. Along the way, another middle-aged, pale-skinned, hair-covered woman approached, handing Mrs. Chai a small jar.
“I made you some olives,” she said, in native-sounding English.
“We helped them start their farm,” Mrs. Chai explained as we continued on our way.
Carlebach Shul is a small synagogue decorated with bright paintings, like a colorful oil-on-canvass depicting Hasidic Jews happily dancing in the air, against a multi-colored background, as though Chagall had painted the black-garbed floating figures on top of a collaboration between Monet and Picasso. In fact, the painter is Ben Yehuda, one of the moshav’s many talented artists, a friendly young man who enjoys painting pictures of Jewish life and hope.
“Are you the rabbi?” a visitor asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Not yet,” chimed in a smiling Mrs. Chai.
Our food-focussed first day in Israel continued with dinner on the large comfortable balcony at Brasserie restaurant, above Mary’s Spring in Ein Kerem, we savored delicious appetizers and the warm evening air. Having been unable to resist over-indulging in the delicious blends of beef carpaccio with za’atar and rosemary vinaigrette, duck risotto with root vegetables and red wine, calamari with labneh and eggplant cream, and mussels with grilled tomatoes and Pernod, I couldn’t finish the equally fabulous chicken over a generous bed of moist and tender purple sumac I’d ordered as an entrée. I was however able to enjoy an after-dinner “tea”—a cup of hot water filled with mint leaves alongside a tea bag. But the minty water was so good I skipped the tea bag and sipped my way into another new culinary habit. I’m sure the non-alcoholic digestif helped me sleep soundly till it was time for a fabulous cheese-and-shakshuka breakfast and a full day of the highlights of Jerusalem.
The heart of a city is its marketplace, where all classes and races meet, to engage in the buying and selling that sustains life, to taste and smell food and all it means—home, family, pleasure, comfort, culture. At the Mahane Yehuda Market, they can sample the Middle East from end to end, through olives and olive oils, teas and spices, cheeses of course, and the best rugelach I’ve ever tasted, with its warm chocolate enlivened by the slightly salty pastry, from usually friendly and family stall vendors. Here’s where we first started to realize that young and extroverted Yehuda must know everyone in Jerusalem, greeting acquaintances everywhere we went with a warm smile and “Shalom!”
From this common city element, we went on to explore what is uniquely Jerusalem. Walking through the Old City, with its hot dusty streets and uneven narrow alleys, its limestone walls and arches, was like stepping into an adult-size Bible pop-up book.
The Wailing Wall is the retaining wall on the western side of the Temple Mount, where the Second Temple stood until 70 A.D., and a holy site for Jews. While people of all religions are free to visit the Wall, there are segregated sections for men and women. Even this isn’t enough for some Orthodox men outraged by women praying aloud, wearing prayer shawls, singing, and carrying and reading from the Torah. There have been ugly incidents where men threw chairs at singing women. Fortunately, nothing like this happened on the hot quiet day when I walked across the plaza of the women’s section, past the chairs of women sitting, to find a small opening where I could reach up and touch the crowded wall without disturbing any of the hundreds gathered. On my way back, I peered over the roughly 5’-high partition into the men’s section. The few dozen men and boys left lots of available wall space; several chairs were fortunately stacked up and not being hurled over the divider.
Built in 335 on the site of a temple to Venus, demolished in 1009, and rebuilt in 1048, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has the cavernous feel of more recent cathedrals, with myriad rooms accessed through arches, but in a grittier way that its relatively recent sisters like St. Peter’s. But it houses the history without which no other church would exist. Here are the spots where Jesus was crucified, wrapped for burial, and entombed and resurrected. Paintings on the wall depict these events as throngs of modestly dressed visitors wait in long lines, some to kneel and pray, some to snap selfies.
“So this is Golgotha,” I remarked to Yehuda.
“Very good,” he answered.
Lunch at the crowded Abu Shukri Restaurant in the Muslim Quarter was a feast of my favorite Middle Eastern small plates. Our shared spread of fabulously fresh-tasting hummus, baba, tahini, labneh, falafel, pita, and—surprisingly—French fries, covered from end to end our long wooden table, situated under a poster advertising “Visit Palestine”. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to, but we were able to fuel up on its foods for the afternoon ahead.
Just outside the Old City wall is the City of David, an active excavation site where archeologists have uncovered ancient relics from coins and official seals to a bathroom and believe they may have located the site of King David’s palace. The visitors’ center is a temporary structure made of wood, so that it can be moved to accommodate new digs made necessary by new hypotheses. And it’s where we first heard the Muslim call to prayer as we gathered after a hot afternoon of maybe walking in the King’s footsteps to await Zvika, who was stuck in modern-day rush-hour traffic.
The value of history lies in the lessons it provides for the present. Chef Moshe Basson of The Eucalyptus restaurant applies this principle through cuisine, reviving antique recipes to craft the seven species—wheat, barley, figs, dates, pomegranate, olives, and grapes–of Israel into modern fare. A standout appetizer is the chicken-stuffed figs, the mild savory meat blending into the rich sweetness of the fruit. My favorite of the soup trio—served in espresso cups—was the Jerusalem artichoke, with its savory almond cream base. Once we were as stuffed as the figs, Basson beckoned us outside. “I’m going to make fun of you!” he teased. Intrigued, we followed him out of the dark dining room, past its small bar, and up to a large open patio area, still warm in the evening air. Over a large upside-down cooking pot atop a rimmed stainless-steel platter, the blue-jeaned chef looked up toward the clear sky, brought his hands together, and said a brief prayer. Then he asked one of the women in our group to lift the pot. Out tumbled Maklubah, chicken drummies cooked with rice, vegetables, saffron, and non-dairy almond “yogurt”. Back inside at our large round table, it tasted even better than it looked, the moist saffron-y rice clinging to the fork-tender chicken.
After dinner, we took a short walk to the Tower of David for its Night Spectacular, a 45-minute pageant of images from Jerusalem’s history projected onto stone walls. Like Plato’s cave-dwellers, one watches colorful scenes like the Babylonian Exile, the Destruction of the Second Temple, and Suleiman at the City Gate, millennia of battles for Jerusalem the only reality.
The sad theme of conquest continued in the morning, though green trees stood tall testament to goodness and hope. Outside Jerusalem’s holocaust museum Yad Vashem, the Garden of the Righteous honors those who risked and often gave their lives to protect others. Inside, the largely underground museum houses items stolen from victims and later recovered. Boots and shoes, baby cradles and children’s toys, silver menorahs and family photographs fill rooms with sad memorabilia.
Displays in other rooms show some of the details of how these victims were imprisoned and murdered. The Arbeit Macht Frei gate from Auschwitz is a replica, but the battered sign from the Treblinka rail station is genuine. An ash-colored scale model shows the figure of a woman on a pallet being shoved into an oven; atop the woman’s body is that of a small child.
The gas canisters remind visitors that atrocities like these couldn’t happen in an airless cultural vacuum. Other rooms document the long years of anti-Semitic propaganda that poisoned the social climate. Cartoons depict Jews as big-eyed, hook-nosed bugs taking over the world. Deutschmarks are printed with the complaint: “The Jew has taken our gold, silver and fat and left us this garbage.” Even a family board game is a tool of anti-Semitic propaganda; the winner of Juden Raus is the first to “deport” six Jews by landing on spaces marking Jewish businesses and capturing their owners. When one finally emerges from this underground horror, much-needed green beauty returns via a panoramic view of the hills of Jerusalem, the city not only of the past in the Judeo-Christian tradition but also of the future.
After Yehuda favorably resolved a lunch-long question over whether our entry to the Israel Museum had been covered, we unfortunately didn’t have time to explore its extensive art collection. We did see its magnificent scale model of ancient Jerusalem. Looking from above, it’s easy to see how the Temple Mount dominated the cityscape. I gazed at the precisely detailed replica of the Second Temple and its large open courtyard areas and golden doors, behind it the Western Wall we’d seen the day before.
“So that’s where Jesus overturned the tables and threw out the money-changers,” I said to Yehuda.
“Very good,” he responded, and I realized that must be tour-guide for “Duh.”
Protected from the sun, behind glass panes, in a dimly lit room, under the white dome of the two-thirds underground Shrine of the Book, live the Dead Sea Scrolls, or more precisely the Dead Sea Scraps, fragile fragments of the Biblical manuscripts discovered in caves during 1947-56, rotated every three to six months to protect them from the degradation of even this careful display. Even if I could read Hebrew, the torn pieces of papyrus are so thin, and the room so dark, I doubt I could have made any of it out.
From the Scrolls, we headed to the Dead Sea itself. After dodging a headache while listening to lullaby renditions of Coldplay, standing like Saul amid our baggage during the 20-minute check-in process at our new hotel, I was delighted to find a balcony with a partial view of the Dead Sea off my large room, where I quickly changed into my swimsuit.
The Dead Sea is actually a mineral-laden lake at the lowest point on earth. I waded in carefully, to avoid splashing others with the salty water. We’d been warned repeatedly about how much it could sting—“Don’t shave!” But a small bug bite I’d absent-mindedly scratched to bleeding didn’t bother me at all; I loved every second of it. Our feet bobbed up, and the salt propped us up at the shoulders, and we sank in the middle. It’s like being on a pool raft—without the raft. We floated and chatted, two concentric circles of feet and heads. An hour or so later, when I dressed for dinner, my skin felt as though I’d just had a spa scrub.
Dinner at the hotel was a Vegas-like buffet of meat and fish, with Israeli salads on the side. My plan was to start with salad and then tuck into the entrees, but the fresh fruits, grilled veggies, and couscouses of the salad side were so scrumptious that I had seconds instead. It took me a little while after dinner to get to sleep. As is common in Israel, my bed wasn’t really a king but rather two twins pushed together. In this case, the right side was firm, but the left offered less support than the Dead Sea. I finally managed to drift off after settling mostly on the right side while swinging my legs over to the left.
At 9am, the sun shone hot and strong on the open-air Jeep we rode through the Jordan Valley. “You’re lucky; today it’s only going to be 46 degrees” Celsius, said Ali, our bare-footed Bedouin guide for the morning. “Last week, it was 52.”
The off-white to light brown sand, salt, and stone seemed barren at first, but Ali showed us how much life was in the desert, though it’s not for the feint of heart. He pointed to a raised flat sandy area where families often camp, calling it a 5,000,000-star hotel. From the flat sand grows nebit, a short green plant that blooms with several small pockets. Ali grabbed a fistful and crushed it between his palms, releasing a clear bitter fluid that, he said, will keep a dehydrated person lost in the desert alive for a few hours. He mentioned that the biggest threat to new babies is scorpion bites, so a mother will capture a yellow scorpion, the most lethal, kill it, dry it by the fire, grind it to a powder, and feed a little powder to her baby each day for a couple of weeks as a vaccine.
His survival tips sometimes came with a dash of gallows humor.
Q: “If someone is missing from the group, how will we find her?”
A: “In a few hours, we’ll see birds circling.”
Q: “If it’s dark and you see an animal, how do you whether it will kill you?”
A: “If you see one eye, you’re safe; all the safe animals have eyes on the sides of their heads. If you see two eyes, they might be the last thing you see.”
Q: “How do we get the Jeep down a steep sandy hill?”
A: “Ride the break and cry ‘Allah! Allah!’”
We gripped the sides as this one came with a demonstration.
Riding high in a cable car, we enjoyed aerial views of the pale blue Dead Sea and the golden yellow Judean Desert, as well as the Snake Path stairs and the Roman ramp leading to the mountaintop fortress of Masada. Originally built by King Herod, much of it remains standing though crumbling in the driest air I’ve ever felt. The ruins of structures from a synagogue to storage rooms whisper the quotidian stories of those who lived and died there. The soft blue of the chipped mosaic floors enlivens the rusty tan of the broken stone walls.
Roman rule had its advantages for vassal kings like Herod, but it was offensive to most Jews. After occupying Israel in 63 B.C., Rome took over the appointment of high priests, not surprisingly selecting men loyal to Rome. Matters worsened under the empire, when Caligula declared himself a deity in 35 A.D. and demanded that his statue be placed in every temple throughout the empire. And all along, like all too-big governments, Rome imposed too-high taxes, worsened by the hazardous perq for tax collectors that they were permitted to keep whatever they seized beyond the annual quota they sent to Rome. The thin line between confiscatory taxation and outright theft was crossed in 66 A.D., when the procurator Flavius stole vast amounts of silver from the Second Temple. This led to the Jewish revolt, an uprising that brought four years of Roman retaliation. At the same time, a group of Jewish rebels overcame the Roman garrison at Masada and settled there. In 70 A.D., Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and more Jews fled to Masada. Three or four years later, a Roman legion surrounded the mountain, built the ramp to attack the fortress, and laid siege. According to legend, the Jews chose death over slavery. Every man had to slit the throats of his own wife and children and be similarly killed by another man or kill himself. When the Romans ultimately breached the fortress, they found only two women and five children alive.
More than 2,000 years later, Israel remains the world’s most contested land. As we rode north through the West Bank, colorful laundry waved from the decrepit shanties that sadly symbolize the generations-long refugee status of Palestinians. Though it would have been legal, if not wise, for our group of Americans to explore one of the villages, it would have been neither for Yehuda and Zvika, Israeli Jews forbidden to enter parts of their own country. Yehuda explained that when he guides groups who want to see a Palestinian area, like Bethlehem, he has to escort them to the perimeter and turn them over to a Palestinian guide who will give them the tour and then return them to him.
We did get out of the van for about three minutes in a barren area. The sky was clear blue and dotted with puffy white clouds. A purple rim topped the desert brown mountains in the distance. The dry River bed marked the border with Jordan. The sand was russet in the hot sun. Yellow grain grew tall. And in the foreground, a barbed-wire, chain-link fence, with rust-colored supports, marred the spectacular view; signs warned of electrocution in three languages. History moves on, but human nature doesn’t change.
But human nature isn’t all bad. Back in the van, we talked about how much we enjoyed travelling with each other and were grateful for such a cohesive, congenial group of women. Riding shot-gun, Yehuda piped in that he and Zvika had earlier said the same thing about us, that they’d been touring together for years and never seen a group of women get along so smoothly. It helped that we were all experienced international travellers and know how to roll with the frustrations that are the price of exploring unfamiliar cultures.
We approached a checkpoint. To our right, armed guards searched a stopped car as a blue-jeaned man and two head-scarved women stood watching. Yehuda flashed his tour-guide badge to the officer in a booth, who waved us through and on to our next destination.
The Shabbat candles glowed atop the wooden table. A young woman welcomed us with cups of fruit juice. The smiling manager personally greeted us. Through the large-pane, floor-to-ceiling windows of the reception area, we could see past the well-tended green trees and grass toward the Sea of Galilee.
No, we were not checking into a luxury resort; we were on a kibbutz. Beginning in the early 20th century, kibbutzim are Zionist farms organized around collectivist principles, including common ownership or land and houses, equal pay to each family, cradle-to-grave care, and direct democracy. Since such a model can’t possibly produce sufficient economic growth to be self-sustaining, by the mid-1980s kibbutzim were some 70-billion shekels in debt to Israeli banks. One solution was to attract tourist money by opening hotels, which offer simple sleeping rooms, restaurants and bars, and even swimming pools and spa treatments. Instead of the theatrical luxury of five-star resorts, they offer pastoral scenery; warmth and friendliness take the place of invisible service. I was delighted that my simple but passably clean room featured a large balcony facing the Sea of Galilee. I left its door open to enjoy the fresh air as I slept soundly till morning.
Cockadoodledoo!! I jumped out of bed. A large peacock was strutting and crowing across the balcony. I grabbed my phone and ran out just as he thrust his magnificent blue feathers straight back and flew to the next balcony.
After a simple but scrumptious breakfast of rugelach, dates, and of course cheese in the kibbutz’s large common dining room overlooking the Sea of Galilee, we travelled to Kibbutz Kinneret and its Tmarim Plus, a bare-bones shop where customers support the kibbutz by purchasing items from wine to kitchen kitsch. But the kibbutz is best-known for the dates it’s been growing since 1933. Dates are one my favorite fruits, and having them as a kind of breakfast dessert has become a third culinary habit I formed in Israel, but even I couldn’t taste all the varieties available to sample, let alone the date syrups, spreads, and sauces.
Also along the Sea of Galilee, the Yigal Alon Museum houses the “Ancient Galilee Boat”, a simple brown wooden fishing vessel of the type used by Jesus’s disciples and authenticated to the first centuries and optimistically nicknamed “The Jesus Boat”.
“If only it had Jesus’s name on it, it would be a home run!” exclaimed an excited young visitor amid a display of colorful depictions of gospel stories in Galilee.
From the remains of a boat that Jesus probably never touched, we went to the ruins of synagogue where He almost certainly taught. The Magdala center is a Catholic retreat center being built in what is believed to the home town of Mary Magdalene, in the Galilee region where Jesus spend most of His public ministry. During a routine salvage dig, archeologists struck a stone bench; they ultimately concluded it was part of a first-century synagogue, one of only seven from the Second Temple period known to exist and the first to be discovered in Galilee. As the dig continued, archeologists discovered the Magdala Stone, a rectangular piece of limestone carved with several images, including a candelabra that likely represents the menorah in the Second Temple. A dusky-blue rosette-and-meander pattern is easily discernible in the mosaic floor, and the deep red of a small section of frescoed wall seems barely faded. In the immediate area around the synagogue are a fisherman’s neighborhood, complete with hooks and other equipment, the marketplace, with pools most likely used to hold fresh fish for sale, coins, pottery, three ritual baths fed by natural spring water below, and what’s been dubbed the House of Dice, probably a large private home where a pair of dice were discovered. After a light lunch in the small snack area, dotted with roped-off mosaic flooring, we were off to explore another site and story of the collision of religions.
For a brief afternoon, it seemed we were visiting not ancient Israel but medieval England. The Crusader Fortress is the second-most prominent building in Old Akko, next to the mosque. Built by the Hospitaller Order of Knights, who provided medical care to pilgrims visiting the holy land in the 12th and 13th centuries, it later served as an Ottoman fortress during the 18th and 19th centuries. Today it is remarkably well-restored, even down to the latrines. The large pillared halls, heraldric banners, pointed-fifth archways, and colorful cartoonish art brought us back to crusader times. Then after strolling through the escape tunnels, we popped into the Turkish Bazaar, awash in head-scarved women shopping at market stalls, and off to dinner.
Uri Jeremias stood under the golden fabric dome with his flowing white beard, looking like a Biblical patriarch in a Bedouin tent. Here in the 400-year-old Ottoman building that houses his Turkish restaurant, Uri Buri, just across the street from the Mediterranean Sea in Akko, Chef Jeremias is something of a prophet of fish, developing inspired and surprising creations, like the wasabi sorbet that tops his tangy salmon sashimi. Wasabi is too strong for some, he notes, so, “I tried to make it more friendly to humankind.”
Jeremias, who develops all the recipes for his restaurant, is a former fisherman with no formal culinary training. He taught himself to cook for his fellow fisherman and keeps the same attitude today: “I’m cooking for friends and not for clients.”
Fortunately, he encourages small plates, and the chef’s tasting menu offers plenty of variety. The amberjack soup, based on coconut milk, with ginger, curry, basil, coriander, and lime highlights Jeremias’s quest for the “natural fusion” in non-intuitive ingredient combinations. The sea bass in a cauldron, also with a coconut-milk base, blends apples and chiles. The redrock is served with wild endive, picked by Bedouins. For dessert, there are house-made ice creams, in flavors from halva to passion fruit.
“Nobody comes here because he’s hungry,” says Jeremias. “People come because they want to try something new.”
I’m pretty sure no one ever leaves hungry either. Ready for a nap seems more likely. Which one could do down the block at the luxury Effendi Hotel, which Jeremias opened in 2012, with 12 sleeping rooms, a wine cellar, and a spa and hammam. We however had morning plans to visit the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, and so off we were to that port city. But not before taking a few moments to savor the sunset over the Mediterranean, as we heard the Muslim call to prayer for the first time since Jerusalem.
We arrived in Haifa early enough for an evening stroll through the first of seven 19th-century colonies established by the German Templers, who believed that living in the Holy Land would hasten the second coming of Christ. Families lived in two-story chiseled-limestone houses with red-tiled roofs and black-iron balconies, labored in early industrial workshops, and built transportation to other areas, turning Haifa into a modern city. Christ didn’t come, but Kaiser Wilhelm II did, in 1898, sailing into the bay on the first official visit by a German king in more than 600 years. Matters went downhill within a few decades, as many Templers identified with German nationalism in the 1930s; the British deported them as nationals of an enemy country during World War II. Seventy years later, as we walked along what is now Ben Gurion Boulevard, restored Templer houses and buildings, converted into bars, cafes, and restaurants, teemed with travellers and locals.
Back in my small room, I donned the fresh white bathrobe and plastic-wrapped slippers, and opened the generous window to continue enjoying the atmosphere of Ben Gurion Boulevard below. Directly to my left, I spied a large black-iron balcony, so close I could almost reach out and touch it. I crossed the black-and-white checkerboard-tile floor, my slippers crackling against the stickiness, to the mildew-redolent bathroom and reached over the detached tub to open the long thin double window. Locked—but above was a smaller separate window. I kicked off the slippers and, balancing with my right foot on the white tub ledge and my left on the tiled window base, opened the higher windows and stretched to peek out. The balcony extending below my bathroom windows belonged to the room next door. If the lower windows had opened, the bistro table and chairs would have a fine setting for quite a peep show.
I had better balcony luck at breakfast, as the second-floor restaurant offered several outside tables overlooking Ben Gurion Boulevard. I did have one brief moment of panic—when I saw a sign reading “Not in use on Saturdays” covering the cappuccino machine. I pointed out to a friendly waiter that it was Sunday; he countered that it was Shavaot but pleasantly offered to prepare a cup for me. The day’s first crisis thus resolved, I carried my bounty onto the balcony and savored the warm bright morning and the bustle below along with my array of soft cheeses and sweet dates.
The golden-domed Baha’i Gardens dominates Haifa they way the Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiore dominates Florence. Baha’i is a monotheistic religion founded in 19th-century Persia. Followers built the gardens in Haifa as well as in Akko to surround the burial places of the religion’s two prophets. The tranquility of the gardens is intended to help followers prepare themselves to visit these shrines.
I’m sure it works. The hanging gardens surround a staircase of 19 terraces extending up the northern slope of Mount Carmel to the shrine. From above, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of Haifa, the Galilee Hills, and the Mediterranean Sea. Gravelled paths weave through impeccably manicured green grass and 450 varieties of colorful trees, hedges, and flowers.
At least, that’s how it looked from the outside. We never got past the iron gates. Unfortunately, one thing that Baha’i shares with Judaism is that the day when our tour group was scheduled to visit the Gardens was a holiday, meaning that the Gardens were closed. This left us with some open time.
About an hour before we reached Tel Aviv, Zvika pulled in to the non-Kosher Amphorae Winery. It wasn’t on our agenda, but knowing of our interest in wine, he delighted us with a side stop. The winery building looks almost Tuscan, with stone walls and red-tiled roof, surrounded by green trees and shrubs at the foot of the Carmel Ridge. The tasting room was full, and since we didn’t have a reservation, they weren’t able to seat us at a table. But Riva Ilyaev, the Visitors’ Center manager whose quite charm and warm graciousness matches the setting, was happy to serve us standing in the bar area, pouring several samples of wine and even placing a plate of cheese and crackers at the edge of a case displaying corks and bottles. The hit of the afternoon was the Cabernet Sauvignon from the winery’s Makura collection. Fruity and intense, it was the best Cab I’ve ever tasted and a welcome treat before heading on to Tel Aviv.
The morning sun glistened off the dozens of bottles of Veuve Cliquot in the open-air bar nestled under a billowing green ficus tree. A handful of designer-clad visitors walked on patterned tile in and out of bistros and boutiques, but the old train station was refreshingly uncrowded. HaTachana is a Turkish-era station renovated into a 49-acre attraction featuring art and history exhibits as well as luxury shopping and dining. With its well-heeled visitors, hot-climate earth-toned architecture, and open concept, it feels a bit like Newport Beach’s Fashion Island.
Once a stop on the first piece of railroad in the Middle East, it’s now a fine embarkation point to the rare charms of Jaffa. In that storied section of Tel Aviv, Jonah boarded a ship for his eventful voyage and St. Peter raised Tabitha from the dead. Today the central point is the Clock Tower, completed in 1906 to mark the 30th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. All three major religions coexist in Jaffa, but the Turkish Muslim influence predominates.
A prime attraction is the Jaffa Flea Market, the area’s only surviving 19th-century souk, but Flea Market doesn’t convey the range of quality shopping available in Old Jaffa. At Liat Azar, one of many small modern boutiques tucked in old buildings along the area’s cobblestone side streets, the young designer proprietress hustled about in Tory Burch flip-flops to show us her one-of-a-kind hand-sewn lightweight sweaters and wraps.
Though it was still early in the day, the sun was hot, and we took refuge in the Market House hotel in the northeastern part of the Flea Market area, sinking into leather seats in its cozy but comfy lobby, lined with shelves of books, wines, and fruit bowls. Like many luxury hotels, the Market maintains its own art collection, with colorful drawings, photographs, and silkscreens depicting life in new and Old Jaffa, like Yaarn Zach’s untitled red, green, and blue minimalist line sketch of a tank-topped and tee-shirted couple sitting below a pointed-fifth window. But the most intriguing display is the ruins of an 8th-century Byzantine chapel visible through clear panels on the lobby floor. Sitting in this blend of old and new, sipping on quickly and cheerfully provided bottles of water, revived us for more sight-seeing and a quick stroll through the Carmel Market to buy the freshest za’atar I’ve ever tasted and then dinner before our long flight home.
Using one hand, Dr. Shakshuka cracked eggs with the dexterity of a surgeon, as he prepared his signature dish, standing over a large cast-iron skillet on a gas flame in the kitchen of his namesake Jaffa restaurant. Though the restaurant is Kosher, Dr. Shakshuka, whose real name is Bino Gabso, is quite the ham, and clearly reveled in showing our group of foodies how he separated out the eggs within the sizzling red blend of tomatoes and other veggies, generous amounts of paprika and other spices. Once again, it was Zvika who came through with this special opportunity to watch Dr. Shakshuka prepare our dish. He’s a friend of the Doctor’s and, knowing our love of food, asked whether he’d like to do something special for us.
Once the doctor was satisfied with his creation, we followed him back out into the dining room, where old pots and kettles hang from rafters, and to our long table, covered with brown butcher paper featuring colorful caricatures of the Doctor himself. Though his English was limited, his love of food and of preparing and sharing it shined through. “I’m not one of these thin chefs,” he pointed out unnecessarily through Yehuda. While the Muslim call to prayer sounded through Jaffa, Dr. Shakshuka beamed at the head of the table as we tucked in to his signature dish.