September 8, 2007
Culinary and cultural riches await visitors to the Galilee
But that doesn't have to be the case. A walking tour within non-Jewish towns and villages -- with or without guides -- can be an eye-opening, informative, tasty and heart-warming experience. On a recent tour in the Galilee focusing on different religions in the Western Galilee, I meandered through Muslim, Christian and Druze towns, as well as Baha'i landmarks, only to discover cultural richness, friendliness -- and some surprises.
We began the tour at the visitors' center of the only Jewish olive press in the lower Galilee, Avtalion, named after the tannaitic sage who migrated there after the destruction of the Second Temple. A quaint cafe serving olive oil-rich, Arab-style foods overlooks the never-ending groves of olive trees belonging to the Arab town of Arabe, which is part of the "axis of olives" that includes Sakhnin, Deir Hanna, Marah and Rama.
Avtalion offers year-round tours, tastings and lectures on the production and health benefits of olive oil. The olive season begins in October, and visitors are invited to witness the process.
Owner Peretz Elbaz assured me that visiting Arab towns and villages for food and shopping can be a safe and pleasant experience.
I felt only a mild, probably self-imposed tension as our bus passed through the commercial thoroughfare of Arabe, but even more than that, I felt a certain voyeurism. Arab towns always seemed impenetrable, not necessarily because of cultural tensions, but because they look like mazes from afar.
Our tour guide, Morris Zemach, author of "Traveling With Morris in the Galilee," slammed the myth that Arabe residents are stingy and not friendly. But we didn't stop to find out.
We continued to Dier Hana, a mixed Muslim-Christian town named after Yochanan's (John's) Monastery, which thrived during the Byzantine period. The town features some of the country's oldest olive trees, and every home here used to have a working olive press, before industrialization made them obsolete.
"Many Jews don't like to come here," Zemach explained as we stood under an Ottoman stone gate where Muslim elders of the adjacent mosque often meet after prayers. "They're afraid, but that comes from lack of knowledge. You can feel welcome to come on your own."
Zemach, who is friendly with the locals, took us through a Muslim home whose backyard contains the remains of a Byzantine fortress built by Daher el Omar, Ottoman ruler of the Galilee in the 1700s. The residents, an elderly couple, didn't seem to mind that we passed through, although when we left and wished them a good day, they didn't exactly smile and wave back.
But gregariousness was not lacking with the Houris, a Christian family who have made their centuries-old olive press a tourist attraction.
The father of the house, Mutlak, and his wife entertained us with a darbuka and violin; the music wasn't exactly the most melodious, but it was endearing. The Houri family sells homemade olive oil and carob honey in the same room as their refurbished ancient oil press.
"The building is 1,500 years old, the press is 250 years old, and the donkey that pulls the press is 1,007 years old," explained Mutlak with a joke he probably tells to all visitors.
Further northwest, in Kfar Yasif, Muslim, Christian and Druze communities open their mosques and churches to Jewish tourists. Jews lived here before the 19th century, and an ancient Jewish cemetery is hidden among dying weeds at the side of the main road, across the street from a Superpharm.
An ornate, medieval-style Greek Orthodox church is open to the non-Christian public, and nearby is an Evangelical church. The falafel and humus joints along the main road are said to be among the best in Israel.
Our tour guide, Amnon Gofer, encourages visitors to wander through the village, knock on doors, and have coffee or tea with the locals to find out more about the mutual respect between Christians and Muslims.
Avtalion Olive Press and Cafe: (04) 678-9521; www.avtalion-oil.net
The Houri Family: (050) 751-9597, (04) 678-4035
Greek Orthodox Church: (054) 310-9023
Evangelical church: (04) 996-5461
The Great Mosque, Sheik Abbad: (050) 908-4020
Morris Zemach, the tour guide: (04) 693-6924, (052) 654-9191
Western Galilee Information Hotline: (700) 705-050
The Chasidic man with payot walking around the Druze village of Sajur seems like an anomaly, but a Chasidic presence has existed in Sajur for the past five years -- ever since Ibrahim Riad decided to make his family's Druze restaurant kosher. The Riad's eatery, The Sultan's Feast, began in a handsome, Oriental living room. Ibrahim's decision to go kosher was strictly a business decision, and a smart one at that -- the place was filled with a religious tourist group.
Mrs. Riad and her children are the chefs, making fresh, authentic Druze dishes like majadra, a dish of chickpeas, lentils and bourgal; and "groom rice," with meat and cinnamon, served to a Druze groom on his wedding night to give him "strength."
Ibrahim, who served as an Israel Defense Forces army officer for 25 years, has three sons serving in the army, and his sweet, well-spoken daughters were on hand to provide us with some insight into the restaurant, the village, and the basics of the Druze faith.
Further west, in the Druze village of Julis, more insight into the Druze faith can be provided by Nabia Tarif, the grandson and personal assistant of Sheikh Amin Tarif, the "Lubavitcher rebbe" of the Druze community. Sheikh Tari was given the rare Druze privilege of a private burial place, which is now a Druze holy place.
"During his tenure as head of the community, there wasn't any split within the Druze community," Nabia Tareef explained, bearing a noble stature, Druze headdress, friendly smile and sparkling blue eyes.