Sunday 19 February 2012

the Hula Nature Reserve -The birdies Watford Gap

Imagine the Watford Gap services for millions of migrating birds, heading from Northern and Eastern Europe to the breeding grounds of Africa and then returning six months later.  Tired and hungry, they look for the very best place to rest and feed, before flying on. This is the Hula Nature Reserve. Once an expanse of fifteen thousand acres, in the 1950s, the new Israeli government decided to drain the marshes of the Hula lake to create farming land. It was d disaster Due to the ecological ramifications of draining the swamp, so, in 1994, the authorities decided to restore part of the marsh by reflooding a portion of the reserve. Perhaps only in Israel would this decision be taken.
Of course, in the intervening years, many of the birds who had once made their homes in the Hula moved on, but after the reserve was restored, a number of species returned, some nesting there permanently. During migrating season, bird-watchers have counted nearly 400 species of birds that come to the reserve to rest, and some species, like the white-tailed eagle, are being reintroduced to the area by the staff of the reserve.
You will enter the reserve through a Visitors Centre, called the "Oforia" (bird house). Put on the 3D glasses they give you, sit back on the moving seats and experience the multi-sensory simulation programme, complete with smells, clouds, wind turbulence and amazing video footage. Then you wander through the displays to learn about the Hula Nature Reserve and its history - the plants and animals that once existed in the reserve, and those which have been reintroduced to the area.

When you leave the Visitors Centre, you walk to the reserve. Bikes and small jeeps are available for rental and all the paths are wheelchair and buggy friendly. The stroll into the reserve takes about 15 minutes, plus stops, during which time the birds circle overhead. Walking quietly, one can see various animals such as coypu and water buffalo, reptiles (mostly turtles) and fish. There are many spots to sit and relax while watching the birds flying overhead, but at the end of the trail, a covered walkway takes you out over a lake near the birds' nesting area so that you can observe the birds without scaring them. A lookout tower achieves a similar effect.
The greatest number of species can be viewed during the winter, from October to May, which includes both the autumn and spring migrations. The best time of day to come is the late afternoon, immediately before sunset, when the birds, return for the night. Look upward and see thousands of birds of every imaginable size and species gathering in the Reserve. It's a sight that is not easily forgotten.
You reach the Hula reserve by turning of Route 90, north of Rosh Pinah and north of route 9119.

Dali at Ralli are really worth seeing - The Ralli Museum of Art, Caesarea


Harry Recanati was a major force in Israeli business and banking, with a family with whom he clearly wished to have no connection.  However, his love of art – and particularly modern South American art -inspired two amazing linked museums in Caesarea.

One building, inspired by his families Sefardi routes, via Salonika and with Italian connections, is in the style of a traditional Spanish building with a beautiful courtyard, complete with cooling fountains. Its enormous interior, over three floors, has paintings from Europe with biblical themes, each one giving its Tanach based quotation. They are not by any means by important artists, but they are importantly displayed, in matching modern frames and having been heavily restored. The galleries also display some life size bronze statues by European artist who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Adjacent to this building is another, with an interesting display of the archaeology and history of the area, together with some finds (and copies of more important ones, too) but the other five galleries display an amazing collection of South American art and artists.  Whilst there is no obvious Jewish theme to any of the pictures, the real eye opener is an enormous collection of Salvador Dali bronzes, many on familiar themes (droopy watches, for example) as well as his very interesting design for a menorah!

What you will not find in either gallery are guide books, gift shops or cafes.  This was an express request of Mr Recanati: clearly a man with VERY strong views! The museums, like the car parks and toilets, are free and spotless.

The Ralli museum is well signposted off Rothschild Boulevard which is easily accessed from Route 5211 (although the map says route 6511!), just off Route 2 at the Or Akiva junction.

Gan Hashlosha. Warm waters+ good picnicking+ interesting site = great day out.

 Situated at the foot of the Mount Gilboa range of hills lies a gem of a park, Gan Hashlosha, ranked by Time magazine as one of the twenty best parks in the world.  Whether you decide that their ranking system is good or not, it certainly takes a lot of beating. The same geothermal activity which sends very hot water to Hammat Gader’s pools, drive gently warm spring waters to emerge as the Amal Spring in the western part of the park at a constant, year-round temperature of 28 degrees Celsius. This means that swimming is pleasant here out of the summer season, too. The Amal Stream crosses the entire park, and has been widened into pools, with safe bathing for adults and children, too. Numerous picnic tables a cafe and changing facilities show that the Parks Authority has tried to think of almost everything, although overnight camping is not permitted.

An old water-powered mill now operates again and also features a display of agricultural tools. The adjacent madafeh, or Arab hospitality room, has also been restored.

In another part of the park is a restoration of Tel Amal, established on the night of December 10, 1936 as one of the Tower and Stockade settlements set up by Jewish pioneers in the face of British Mandate opposition. The rooms in which the pioneers lived feature an exhibit of daily objects they used. In another room, children can enjoy putting together a model of a settlement. A 10-minute film (in Hebrew) in the restored dining hall depicts life during the time of the Arab revolt (1936–1939).  Opposite Tel Amal, over a small bridge, is the regional Mediterranean archaeological museum, showing the life’s work of a local expert. It contains a display of rare Greek tools, finds from excavations in the Bet Shean Valley, some of which come from as far away as Egypt and Persia, and a unique exhibit about the Etruscans. It also has a display showing what local life must have been like in biblical times.

All in all, an excellent day out for the whole family, but be aware, lots of Israelis think so too in the height of the summer vacation time and during chol hamoed, too.

You can find Gan Hashlosha on Route 669, just off route 71, a little east of Bet Shean.

The National Maritime Museum, Haifa. Of Ancient ships and pirates.


Haifa has been a port of importance for many years and Israel’s maritime heritage stretches back millennia, so what better place to learn about it than in the National Maritime Museum, on Allenby Street in Haifa? 

 The building stretches over three floors and shows both the ancient story of ships, artifacts and sailing in the eastern Mediterranean and, interestingly, the growth of the modern Israeli shipping industry.  This starts in the Mandate period and has expanded to the current fleet of freight and cruise ships.

The lowest floor has an exhibit on piracy, which has little to do with Israel, but would be interesting for children.

Right next door, but not connected to the museum, is the Clandestine Immigration Musuem, which has even more real boats and should be all of a piece with the Maritime museum.  Quite why it isn’t, remains a mystery to me!

The Mount Gilboa Scenic Route. Of Tanach, tragedy and triumph.

 In Tanach, Mt. Gilboa (which is more of a ridge rather than a single mountain) is a place of tragedy and triumph. Israelis flock here every year from February to April to see the multitude of wildflowers and the famed purplish Gilboa Iris (Iris Haynei), but it’s good to drive – and stop – at any time.

The Book of Samuel tells us that it was here that Saul, the first King of Israel and his sons died fighting the Philistines, “And it came to pass on the morrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen in Mount Gilboa”, (1 Samuel: 31). Take your Tanach, drive the route and you can easily imagine what, tragically happened.
However, most of what is today the scenic drive is what used to be known as the Patrol Road in Mandate Palestine. While the road is now completely paved, you may actually want to veer off and take some of the unpaved paths (check that your car hire allows it first) and walk a bit – to get the best views of the valley. If you would like to have a picnic, there are many delightful picnic areas along the scenic route. Many have walking trails leading from them, too.
From Gilboa you’ll be able to see the valley below. This part of the Jezreel valley is known as the Harod Valley and it is full of fishponds that attract a great number and variety of birds including cormorants, pelicans and storks. You’ll also be able to see the hill of Moreh where the Philistines assembled to fight Saul and his army, Mt. Tabor and the mountains of the Jordan Valley. On a clear day you might even see Mt. Hermon to the north.
David, who of course replaced Saul, lamented his fallen king in II Samuel 1 thus: ‘You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings.’ Over the years some took this curse literally, as the reason for the seeming ‘baldness’ of Mt. Gilboa. However, in recent years the Jewish National Fund planted thousands of trees which have greatly changed the situation, although ‘bald spots’ are still visible in places.
Guide books will tell you that late winter and early spring are the best time to savour the full splendour of Gilboa and the valley below, but we have been there at other times of the year and each has its reasons to visit.
The scenic route is Route 667 and runs from Route 90 south of Bet Shean to the junction with route 675, near Route 71, south east of Afula. If you want to break your drive, Route 6666, about half way along, will take you back down to the Jezreel Valley in a series of spectacular hairpin bends.

The Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem. Putting it all in context

As you park for your trip to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, you might be forgiven for ignoring the building to your right, the Bible Lands Museum – but this would be a big mistake. Representing just part of the private collection of Dr Elie Borowski, a major international dealer in antiquities, Talmudic and biblical scholar and ‘a man with a plan’, the museum, which opened its doors in 1992, is the only museum in the world dedicated to the history of the biblical period in the lands of the Tanach, from Ur to Egypt – and beyond, including Canaanites, PhilistinesArameans,  Hittites,  Elamites, Phoenicians and Persians.  Whether you take the daily English tour at 10.30am or choose to guide yourself, you will be able to chronologically trace our history and the history of the lands in which we lived, from the dawn of civilisation to the Talmudic period. Taking as its themes the lives, beliefs, trades, commerce and communications of the peoples of the region, this exquisite collection helps to put our familiar stories and long held beliefs into a wider context.
Even the origin of the museum is of interest. Borowski, was born in Poland, studied at Mir yeshiva  and the Sorbonne, took semicha in Italy, fought with the French army, was captured and interned in Switzerland during World War II and lost his family in the Shoah. He had amassed a vast and important personal collection of antiquities, all bought on the open market.  On a visit to Jerusalem in 1981, a woman he met at a hotel, Batya Weiss, encouraged him to bring his collection to Israel rather than establish a museum for it in Toronto, as he had intended. She put him in contact with Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.  Borowski took her advice, and built the Bible Lands Museum. The two eventually married.
The main gallery displays hundreds of artifacts: ancient documents, idols, coins, statues, weapons, pottery, and seals from across the Bible Lands. Many topics are elaborated upon in maps and articles on the walls , such as Avraham's journey along the ancient fertile Crescent trade route.
While the museum's emphasis is the history of ancient Near Eastern civilisations, the museum always make links to the relevant verses in Tanach. For example, above a display of ancient Anatolian jugs is the verse "Behold, Rebecca came forth with her pitcher on her shoulder; and she went down unto the well and drew water" (from Bereishit 24:45).
The museum also allows you to make some intriguing links which would seem to confirm the antiquity of our most sacred texts. Just one example is the representation of the Egyptian goddess Hathor. To give away the possible link to a complex incident on our journey from slavery to freedom would be to discourage your visit – which would be a real pity.
The Bible Lands Museum is on ‘Museum Row’, in Givat Ram, Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter as it really was – The Isaac Kaplan old Yishuv Court Museum

For the tourist, Jerusalem is often all ancient ruins or brilliant modern buildings, but rarely do we see what life was like for the thousands of Jews who lived there but a few hundred years ago – or even more recently. We all have different ideas about how life was lived there, some of us wear rose tinted spectacles and others are more sanguine. Moses Montefiore certainly was in the latter group.

Heading down towards to Kottel from the Jaffa Gate, you could easily miss - but you really shouldn’t – The Isaac Kaplan old Yishuv Court Museum.
This fascinating museum consists of a warren of courtyards, tiny apartments and artefacts from both the Sephardi community, exiled from Spain and arriving via Turkey and the community of Ashkenazi Jews. These followers of the Vilna Gaon, who trekked across Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries lived in the Jewish Quarter, making Jerusalem a Jewish majority city by 1850.

The museum explains how they lived (in extreme poverty mostly), where they dwelt (often one family in just one room, around a tiny courtyard) and how they made a living. Look out for the iron bedstead and its amazing story!
 Some real surprises await you as you arrive at a ‘secret synagogue’ (to avoid the prying eyes of the Ottoman authorities), learn how the wives of many scholars began industries to support their husbands (and had to learn new industrial skills along the way) and find out how some of Israel’s earliest settlements began, sometimes faltered and eventually  flourished.

The Museum then leads you to domestic equipment and furniture from the Mandate period in Jerusalem, which was marked by the arrival of electricity, running water and more Arab riots. The siege of Jerusalem in 1948 is examined via a special exhibit on how 380 fighters and residents of the Jewish Quarter were captured by the Jordanians and were held as Prisoners of War near the Iraqi border.

And Isaac Kaplan’s link to the museum? He was the generous benefactor who funded this fascinating, out of the ordinary, museum.

You can find the old Yishuv court Museum at 6 Or Hachaim St in the Jewish Quarter, as you walk down from the Armenian Quarter,before you reach the Cardo.

Juicy Jewish Jaffa

Whilst Tel  Aviv claims the lion’s share of attention for visitors, it would be quite wrong to ignore its far older sister, Jaffa and its Jewish heritage.


 Legend tells us that Jaffa, Yafoh, is the oldest port in the world, being founded by Japhet, the third son of Noah. Whilst hard to disprove, it is certainly true that early Egyptian records show that it was conquered by Thutmose III in 1468 BCE and archeological excavations in old Jaffa have uncovered the name of Ramses II (often assumed to be the pharoah of Yetziyat Mitzrayim, the Exodus). Allocated to the tribe of Dan but mainly Philistine controlled and occupied, it was conquered by King David. We believe that the cedar logs used to build King Solomon's original Temple in Jerusalem around 950 BCE were probably floated down the coast as giant rafts before being landed at Jaffa, the nearest port to Jerusalem. There are Hasmonean ruins, and traces of Roman occupation. Tragically, the Hellenistic residents of the city loaded the small Jewish community in boats and sank them during the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE.

As we read every Yom Kippur in Maftir Yonah, it was from Jaffa that Yonah set sail for Tarshish, before his encounter with the big fish and one midrash suggets that all the sunken treasure in the world flows toward Jaffa, and in King Solomon's time the sea offered great riches, which accounted for some of the king's wealth. Ever since Solomon's time, the wealth has been accumulating, to be distributed by the Messiah "to each man according to his merits."

England's King Richard I, 'the Lion-Hearted' and the Crusaders also came through Jaffa on their way to wrest control of Eretz Yisrael from the Muslims, as did Napoleon, on his campaign through the country. In the maze of streets, the Armenian convent that served as a hospital for Napoleon's troops is still to be seen.

By the end of the nineteenth century, early Jewish pioneers from Sephardi lands had made a life for themselves in Jaffa and other travellers, came to Jaffa when they arrived in the country by sea. Due to treacherous rocks (the Greek legend of Andromeda started right here), their ships would anchor off the coast and passengers and freight alike would be loaded into small boats. Jaffa had become a city where Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived side by side, one of the wealthier Jews paying for the building of the town clock tower in 1901. It was suggested that this was because he was fed up with passers by coming into his shop to ask the time, but there was a far more practical reason: following his largesse, he was also seeking permission form the Turkish rulers to buy large tracts of land for the first Jewish settlers to modern Israel.

Jaffa is now an artists’ colony of some importance, but the excellent visitors’ centre, which explains the history and development of the town in a very entertaining way, should not be missed.