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.



4 Responses to “Tiberias – a city in search of potential”

  1. Sandy Galfas April 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    Hi Maurice, This latest blog entry begins on a depressing note but builds to a sense of hope at the end. “Potentially.” Love your colorful description of the history of Tiberius and environs.Your writing, as always, is first rate. Keep it cdoming. 🙂 Sandy

  2. Avi April 20, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

    “Believe me, Tiberias, you’re no Venice.”


    Agree with all you said. Visited there just a month ago, and I could not miss the neglect and the feeling of a missed opportunity.

    But as you said, there’s a potential…

    • Alan Bockal April 21, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

      YOu write so well Maurice. Are you glad you moved back?

  3. Mark Bernhard April 23, 2012 at 3:31 am #

    You are an amazing writer. The Christian pilgrims who come there will feel the holiness of the place regardless of neglect or bad planning. Sounds like there is a kernel of renewal going on though.

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