Everyone needs a break, a vacation, an opportunity to charge one’s batteries. Mr BT and I decided that Sukkot was the best time for us to recharge ourselves. As a former meeting organizer, I love to plan our trips. I like to find interesting places to stay, see, and eat; and I am forever looking for those interesting out-of-the-way places. Israel is a small country, but it is full of nooks and crannies that most people do not look for in a vacation. The unplanned theme for our three-day vacation was “home away from home”. No, we didn’t stay with relatives, we just found places with a homey feel in more ways than one.
We began our three-day weekend by driving to Zichron Yaacov to visit a friend and also to see the beautiful Ramat Hanadiv Gardens, Heights of the Benefactor gardens. The benefactors of these gardens were the Baron and Baroness Edmond James and Adelaide de Rothschild.
One of the must sees is the Cascade Garden, with its terraces that face the Mediterranean Sea, lined with dragon trees and large cypresses.
The Rose Garden is a formal garden with a variety of roses that includes six pools with fountains, representing the Rothschild family. The large pool represents the founder of the family, Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) while the five small pools represent his five sons, whom he sent to major European cities in order to found the branches of the family business. It isn’t really rose season at the moment, but I am sure this garden is beautiful when all of the roses are in bloom.
The Palm Garden, located on the eastern side of the park, includes a small selection of the world’s 2800 palms.
The Fragrance Garden was designed for the visually impaired and is one of my favourite areas of the gardens.
It includes fragrant sweet smelling plants and herbs such as rosemary, thyme, za’atar, basil, cardamom, lavender . The fragrances are intoxicating. Visitors are encouraged to touch the plants in this section, where plants are clearly labeled in Braille, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic. It was the first time I had ever seen a cardamom plant.
We left Zichron and headed straight for the zimmer we booked in a moshav on the border of Lebanon called Matat. The word “zimmer”, which means “room” in German, was adopted into Hebrew to mean little cabins that have sprung up all over moshavim and kibbutzim, especially in the Galilee for townies to spend a few days in nature and get away from it all.
The moshav was founded in 1980, and currently 35 families are living there. One of them is the famous baker and chef, at least here in Israel, Erez Komarovsky, former owner of the Lehem Erez bakery. He sold his bakery and moved to the northern Galil. Now he conducts cooking classes on everything from bread making to fish to beef. I would love to take a bread-making class from him. Unfortunately, he had just returned from a trip abroad on the day we left. So, I didn’t get to “accidentally on purpose” run into him.
By the time we arrived to Matat, it was already dark, so we couldn’t see much of the moshav. However, the drive up to Matat was breathtakingly beautiful and Mr. Moon greeted us full, big, shiny, and bright. The surrounding area will remind you of Provence. We stayed at the beautiful and romantic zimmer called Eretz Bereshit, which means the Land of Genesis.
Because Matat is built at the top of a steep hill and the land allocated to each householder basically starts at the top of the hill and goes all the way down to the valley at the bottom, the houses are nearly all at or just below the brow of the hill and the zimmers that some of the owners built, including the one where we stayed, are about half-way down and can only be reached by a long flight of steep steps. Fortunately, we knew about this ahead of time and the steps were also lit at night to ensure that we didn’t break our necks.
We hadn’t made any firm plans for dinner before arriving, but I had a list of interesting possibilities to choose from. One of them turned to be an emotional and frankly speechless experience that I hadn’t had in a long, long time. On my list, I had found a Kurdish restaurant in a moshav called Shtula that is a 15 minute drive from Matat. We both love Kurdish food and assumed that a restaurant on a predominately Kurdish moshav can’t be bad, so we called to make sure they were open. A pleasant voice answered the phone and said sure, come on over. We called when we arrived at the entrance and the woman instructed us where to go. We parked in front of a large home and realized that we would be dining in someone’s home, not at a restaurant. We knew this was going to be interesting.
Ora Hatan greeted us at the door and told us to sit down at the dining room table. There were already some lovely meze waiting for us on the table to enjoy
with Kurdish flatbread made on a saj, which is like an upside down wok heated over charcoal. It is very thin and crispy.
She then brought us kubbeh soup. Kubbeh, in different regional variations across Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Kurdistan, is made by taking a ball of moistened semolina mixed with water, sticking your finger into the middle to hollow it out and filling it with a meat mixture: some types are made with a mixture of bulgar and minced meat that is then filled with meat. This was some of the best kubbeh I have ever had. The soup was tomato-based and quite flavourful.
The meal continued with aubergines, onions, and courgettes stuffed with a rice and meat mixture.
Then, she brought out hand-minced lamb kebabs. These were seasoned with herbs and were absolutely delicious. She served them over softened Kurdish flatbread.
As we sat down to eat, an elderly lady with bright eyes and lovely smile came out from the back of the house, said good evening to us, and went to sit down in the living room to watch TV. As she came out, I thought to myself that she looked familiar, but then said “naaah, that can’t be her”. When Ora came back from the kitchen we told her that we had seen a very interesting documentary about a Kurdish moshav on Israel Channel One and we didn’t remember which moshav they were filming. It featured a wonderful lady who was herding her goats on the Lebanese border and she told of her life there. Ora got a big grin on her face and said, “It is about our moshav and the woman is my mother, Sarah.” She called for Sarah to come to the table and thus began the most interesting part of our meal.
Sarah reminded me of my great-grandmother, Ina Nathan; they had similar smiles. She told us that she was from Koya, Kurdistan and emigrated to Israel in 1951, almost 9 months pregnant, with her husband and the first two of what would eventually be fourteen children. She said that it was very difficult when she first came here; for the first few years, they lived in absorption camps that were unfortunately the fate of many new immigrants in the 1950s, there was very little food and they had to build everything from scratch.
She then told us that she traveled alone to Kurdistan 12 years ago on a mission to bring back a Torah scroll that belonged to her family for generations. They had left the Torah scroll with a family anticipating that they would come back to get it someday. She flew to southeastern Turkey and then hitched a ride across the border all the way to Koya. By chance, she was given a ride by the local mayor who asked her where she was from: when she said she was from Israel, he welcomed her and did everything in his power to help her in her mission. With his assistance, she discovered that the Torah scroll was being held by a local qadi (Muslim religious judge). She told the qadi that she had come specially from Israel to retrieve the scroll and asked for it back. When he refused, she offered him money, and then more money, but he continued to refuse explaining that he and his fellow Muslims believed that the scroll gave them divine protection and that he wasn’t willing to give it up. Eventually, she discovered that the qadi and his family had moved to Sweden, taking the scroll with them.
We were then served cinnamon tea and extraordinary figs that had been poached and served in their juice. This was truly the food of the gods. She also served us homemade date cake and some biscuits.
After dessert, Ora took us out to the balcony which overlooks the Lebanese border, a couple of hundred meters away and showed us a couple villages on the other side of the fence that had become Hizbollah strongholds.
When we staggered, stuffed with wonderful Kurdish food, back to the car, I was just in tears, not just from meeting such lovely people but from Sarah’s story of her life and especially her first trip back to Kurdistan. Weren’t you afraid of being in Kurdistan while Sadaam Hussein was still in power in Iraq, Mr BT had asked Sarah. “No, I just had faith in G-d.”