Israel is not the largest country on the planet. In fact it’s rather tiny, geographically, at least. Just how small is driven home when, within less than an hour’s drive, we find ourselves less than one hundred meters from the borders of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
The past few days’ travel have taken us to a city famed for mysticism, to the Valley of Tears – a site that was the scene of one of the greatest tank battles of all time, lunch at the home of a Druze, the area where Jesus did his best David Copperfield (not the Dickens orphan) imitations, a visit to a synagogue that was covered wall to wall, floor to ceiling (including floors and ceilings) with mosaic descriptions
of the political, financial, and biblical history of Israel and the Jewish people, and a return the the two kibbutzes that Lori and I inhabited for several months back in the late 70s. Aside from that, pretty boring times.
The Golan Heights, formerly part of Syria, was the launch pad for multiple attacks against Israel. The bluffs provided ample protection and sight lines making the Israeli settlements appear as fish in a barrel. 1973 saw a surprise attack by the Syrians. 500 tanks rumbled their way down the valley while the Israeli ground forces scrambled to assemble 55 tanks to hold off the attack. Our tour guide took us to the site where the battle raged over a 24 hour period. She was very emotional describing the events of the day as she had lost several of her friends in the fight. At the end of the day, about 4 or 5 Israeli tanks remained functional, but Israel’s fierce resistance was enough to have the Syrians pull back. Their efforts crushed an attack that, had it gotten past the first line of defence, would likely have flattened all of northern Israel.
Once recovered from the first wave, the Israeli airforce bombed the tar out of the Syrians who had bunkered and hunkered in. Normally it is difficult to determine bunker locations from the air. As is often the occasion, Israel used smarts over mass. Anticipating a long term problem with Syria, Israel’s Mossad managed to find an individual named Eli Cohen, who had a masterful handle on Arabic and Arabian customs. They sent him to Argentina in the early 60’s disguised as a Syrian businessman. There he infiltrated the Syrian ex-pat society, became a well known figure and, with the surrepticious financial support of the Israeli government’s money, invested in numerous businesses with his new found Syrian partners and became very wealthy. He moved to Damascus where he continued to enhance and develop relationships with the business, military and political elite, all the time reporting back to Israel. Seeing the Syrians reinforcing the Golan Heights, fortifying them with bunkers, he suggested to his friends in the military that they should plant eucalyptus trees next to the shelters in order to provide their soldiers with much needed shade. When the time came for Israel to destroy Syrian positions, the pilots searched for eucalyptus trees and dropped their payloads.
Unfortunately Eli Cohen did not live to see the fruits of his labours. One of his messages was picked up by Russian interception radios, he was tried, convicted and hung in Damascus’ main square. A memorial stands in the Golan to the memory of this great man.
The Druze are a people who are semi-nomadic. An integral part of their religion is unabated fealty to the nation on whose territory they live. The Druze in Syria are loyal to Syria; the Druze in Israel, to Israel. There is a wide gap between traditional and secular Druze. We had the great pleasure to meet up with one woman who had an amazing story.
Naseba was the eldest daughter of a wealthy Druze who made his fortune in the fruit processing business. She grew under what is best described as a fairly western roof. She married a fellow from the other side of the tracks. That is to say he lived in a religious village where Naseba’s blue jeans and halter tops were not exactly in keeping with the hijabs and burkhas of the neighbouring chicks. Not one to back down, she completed her education, started several businesses and obtained her driver’s license. As the only female behind the wheel of a car, she was such an anomaly that when she drove down the streets she was thought to be a Jewess.
Naseba served us a delicious spread of vegetables, a special soup that took a week to prepare and properly ferment, salads, meats, cheeses and a dozen other dishes.
She and Nomi, our tour guide, have a great friendship. Nomi was doing all that she could to enhance Naseba’s freedom. We also had the pleasure of meeting one of her sons who was heading to Haifa to continue his university education on his way to becoming a psychiatrist – probably the most necessary occupation required in the Middle East.
This is the place that invented Kabbalah. You didn’t think it was Madonna, did you? Set high atop a hill, the area is famous for mysticism, art, religious souvenirs and the most delicious Yemenite sandwhiches you’ve ever eaten.
Having been advised by my Rabbi back home that the tallit (prayer shawl) that I had been wearing was inappropriately short, given my new status as ‘macher’, I went door l’ door looking for a proper model.
We also picked up a mezuzah scroll for Andrew and shofar for Trev. Shofar sho good.
One of Lori’s and my favourite memories of decades past were the times we spent on our respective kibbutzes way long ago. Wistfully, I desired to go back and visit, painfully aware that by now, not only were the people I knew likely gone, but their ghosts have probably made aliyah as well. Unannounced, Nomi drove up to Mahanayim, my place of refuge, misconduct, and great times in 1977-8. Nobody was left and the place had changed its physical presence nearly to the point of non-recollection. As I turned to go, a women who I had a chance encounter with advised me that the leader of the kibbutz was just arriving. I hadn’t seen Chaim Ben-Arzi
since the time I was there nearly 40 years back. There was a slight mutual recognition although he was now 81 instead of 45. We chatted about the changes, how the volunteers were lazy and never worked too hard and about how the kibbutz provided a life training which produced the current leadership of the country in all its facets. According to Chaim, the reason behind Israel’s meteoric rise, despite a few small problems it encounters from time to time, is a result of the know how and confidence embued in the spirit and work ethic of the graduates of the kibbutz.
Today we drove to Lori’s kibbutz, Degania Aleph, established 1910 on the banks of the Jordan River. She too met up with a physically changed presence and felt the same melancholy of being unable to connect with the lifeblood of her past. Until she met up with a lady on a bicycle, and then another woman. The first was the head cook while Lori was there, the other was the daughter of the person responsible for coordinating the volunteers in the day. Names were exchanged, ‘where are they now?’s were provided, tea was served and a stroll through old neighbourhoods rendered unrecognizable as a result of the inevitable march of progress was softened as a result of stories told along the way by the current occupants.
Driving back, we drove past the Church of the Beatudes at the Sea of Galillee site of the original Sermon on the Mount (improved and updated 2 millenia later by Masters and Johnson) and where one fish two fish became red fish, blue fish, then past the site of the Baptism at the Jordan River (chilly but not wide). Finally, feeling half dead, we rode into (OK, actually just past) Nazareth.
Something special at every corner, every day.
Special birthday girl shout outs to my honey
and to Vera.