Archive | April, 2012

Tiberias – a city in search of potential

20 Apr

The dictionary defines the word “potential” as capable of becoming, possible as opposed to actual.  An example: “Listen, kid, you play the piano 6 hours a day and you have the potential of becoming a virtuoso.”

Another example: “Tiberias, should another earthquake strike and flaten you to rubble (no casualties, please), should the trash be picked up, should the Orthodox Jews see you for what you are, a pearl on the water, then there’s ‘potential’ you’ll become a world-class destination.”

These are harsh words.  But strong medicine is needed if the city is to avoid sinking.  And believe me, Tiberias, you’re no Venice.

Tiberias Hotel with low-occupancy rate

It wasn’t always like this.  The city, named after Roman Emperor Tiberius some 2000 years ago, was a jewel on the waters of the Sea of Galilee (Kineret).  Romans bathed and splashed in the city’s natural hot springs that boasted temperatures up to of 140 Fahrenheit.  The springs contained 100 minerals – a cure to skin diseases, ulcers and diminishing libido.  Jesus may not have gone into the hot springs in his Speedo swimsuit but just around the bend he preached and walked on water.  The town was a center for Jewish learning, the center of Sanhedrin, the Jewish Court.  It came to be ruled by Arabs, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Empire, the British.  It was part of the trade route with the east, a center for making silk.  After Israel was founded in 1948, it grew rapidly by taking in Sepharadic immigrants.

The city reached its zenith after the Six Day War in 1967.  Israelis from around the country came to see Tiberias on the way to Golan Heights that was taken from the Syrians.  Tourism flourished.  Vacationers came to see the speed boats race on the Kinnert, to dance in nightclubs, and to the see the uniformed U.N. personnel that gave Tiberias an an international zest.

Tiberias Cafe

In the 80s and 90s things changed for the worse.  Development money went to build mega-sized hotels at the shores of the Dead Sea.  The hotels were new, subsidized by government grants.  In contrast, the hotels in Tiberias were in dire need of renovation.  Little was done.  Several years of drought led to the shrinking of the Sea of Galilee.  It retreated, revealing sewage and trash.  Over-pumping from Israel’s only fresh-water source exacerbated the problem.

Decay set in.  Those with money left.  Cafes closed.  Tourism was down.  Housing prices tumbled.  Orthodox Jews, (average family, 8) unable to afford homes in large metropolitan areas (Tel Aviv region, Haifa) flocked to Tiberias.

In a matter of thirty years, the city had become “Haredi” – Orthodox.  Tiberias is following in the footsteps of Zfat to the north, the country’s Kabbalah center.  American Jews in dreadlocks and black coats can be seen stepping out of banged-up cars in Tiberias, followed by little children, dressed in black.  The city shuts down during Sabbath.

The mayor, Zohar Oved, confirms that the city’s population is 20% Haredi and 50% Conservative (Masorti).  He says: “I don’t see a problem with that.  Tiberias relies on Christian pilgrims (tourists) and the closed cafes and restaurants on Sabbath do not interest them.”  No everyone agrees.  Aaron Amsalam, a Jewish entrepreneur whose family had lived in Tiberias for over a century, and who owns one of Israel’s leading tour operators, buses, and hotels faults the mayor’s narrow vision.  Amsalam says: “You can lie in the middle of the street on Sabbath and not worry about getting run over.  Everything’s dead.”

The Orthodox, saddled with large families and a stay-at-home lifestyle, don’t have money to burn.  According to a recent Yediot article, Israel’s leading paper, you can tell who’s spending money.  A cafe table crowded with bottles of wine and beer belongs to tourists.  A table with a cup of coffee belongs to a local.  The shops tell the story.  Brand-name stores in Tiberias are few.  Falafel stands are housed in corrugated metal structures or converted ship containers.

Pilgrims cruisng the Sea of Galilee

Christian tourists come by bus loads.  The tour includes a boat ride on the Kinneret.  From my vantage point, the boats appear flat-bottomed.  They look like large, brown biblical sandals floating in the calm waters.  As they approach the shore, you can hear gospel songs.  The flag fluttering atop the mast tells you where they’re from.  This one is American.  Once they reach shore, the tour guide ushers the hungry pilgrims to the fish restaurants for a prix fixe lunch menu.

There’s very little fishing in Kinneret today.  The fishermen mainly cast their nets for the cameras.  The commercially cultivated fish are grown in fish ponds several miles away.

I sit at Dageh Gil restaurant with friends within earshot from the tourists.  The fish I’m eating, Dennice, in Hebrew, similar to tilapia or snapper, is grilled and rubbed with garlic and lemon.  To unsuspecting diners, they believe the fish was just pulled from the waters moments ago.  In fact, there’s a moratorium on fishing in the Kinneret.  The fish we’re eating was flown in from the waters near the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean.  It is packed in ice and flown within 24 hours throughout Israel.  I chase down the last bites of fish with Maccabee beer and watch seagulls take flight.

Tiberias is situated in the Syrian-African Rift that stretches all the way to Kenya, making it seismically active.  It suffered several devastating earthquakes over the centuries.  It suffered a terrible flood.  Yet the damage is man-made, the result of neglect, ineptitude and influx of the poor.

The city is 700 feet below (!) sea level, known for its mild winter; it’s an ideal winter destination for freezing Europeans.  Potentially.  Think of Tiberias as Palm Springs without the golf courses.  Maybe it’s Bakersfield by the water without the oil refineries.

Tiberias Open-Air Market

But change is coming.  Slowly.  Tiberians are fiesty.  The long-time residents can be spotted by the way they walk (as if the legs are doing the body a favor by moving), the way they dress (flashy, way over-the-top), and by their distinct Hebrew dialect.  The promenade is getting a facelift.  The wrinkles in town are being injected with Botox.  Hotels are planned on the drafting board.   The recently renovated promenade on Galil Street is a major improvement.  The floor was redone, the gorgeous see-through canopy offers protection from the scorching sun and from rain.  An Amsterdam-style cafe was recently opened to good reviews.  An impressive Tiberium water & light show, the likes of Las Vegas Bellagio, is featured during summer nights.

Tiberias, you might go places.  Potentially.


Dust to Dust – Walk Like an Egyptian

11 Apr

We’re celebrating the week of Passover, a holiday filled with stories of our delivery from slavery in Egypt, a holiday filled with crunchy matzas.  It’s also the season of dust.  The 2011/2012 season was one of the wettest and coldest on record in Israel.  The Kinneret sea level is at an all-time high, the meadows are green and the hills of Galilee are lush with vegetation.  That’s assuming you can see them through clouds of dust.

Hamsin winds from North Africa

Yearly, during this time of year, April and May, Israel is subjected to sand storms.  They originate in Egypt (Pharoah’s revenge?), the Sahara and in Jordan.  These easterly winds pick up sand particles hundreds of miles away, lift them into the air and carry them across Israel.  The result is an orange-brown-gray haze that blankets the land.  You don’t have to pack a suitcase and visit Egypt.  Egypt comes to visit your nose in the form of a sand booger.

The sand storms, the dry winds, the heat waves are referred to as “Hamsin.”  Hamsin means “50” in Arabic, the number of days these winds prevail around here, from Passover to the Holiday of Shavuot.  The number of dusty days rarely reaches fifty, but once you’re in one, you hope it will be the last.  Some wrongly interpret Hamsin to mean the temperature — 50 degrees celsius (122 Fahrenheit).  They’re not far off the mark.  During Hamsin there’s no mild or warm weather.  It’s like the choices available in a Thai restaurant: Hot and Extra Hot.  And then cold.  One day you’re bundled in a coat, the next day you’re running barefoot.

Sand Storm

Hamsin covers the land and the pages of history.  During Napoleon’s advance on Egypt, the French did not heed the warning about the advancing red cloud.  Many of the soldiers suffocated to death while the Egyptians stayed indoors.  During World War II the Allies battled the sands as much as the Germans.  Grains of sand whirled by the wind blinded the soldiers and created electrical disturbances that rendered compasses useless.

The dust cover invades every pore of your skin; it’s unrelenting.  The airborne sand sometimes picks up moisture, makes a brown paste in the atmosphere and hails down as giant blotches.  All cars, windows, clothes hanging on the line are afflicted with brown measles.  Inside the house, tables, chairs, computer monitors are covered with the filmy dust.   (I’m thinking of importing Lemon Pledge).

Farmers fear Hamsin.  The dust shrivels the crops and shrinks their pocketbook.   They gladly mark off each passing day on the calendar, wishing the 50 days will soon be over.  Prayers are heard.  Once Shavuot arrives, there’s a collective sigh of relief.  But not for long.

Then summer arrives and the “real” heat begins.  Alaska anyone?

Hamsin fatigue