Tag Archives: Nazareth

Playing Arab Roulette

14 Nov

In the last couple of weeks Arab terrorism ventured beyond Israel.  A Russian plane exploded over the Sinai Peninsula.  All 227 passengers died.  ISIS, the Islamic State terrorist group, is suspected of this horrific, cowardly attack.  ISIS accuses Russia for attacking its forces in Syria.

Russian plane explodes over Sinai

Russian plane explodes over Sinai

Last night, in Paris, more than 120 Frenchmen were killed in six coordinated attacks.  The eight gunmen are believed to be ISIS operatives.  They’re taking aim at the French for their involvement in Syria. What’s most terrifying is not so much what has happened but “Who’s Next?”  This not-knowing is at the heart of terrorism. Terrorists alter our lives irrevocably.  Stepping out our front door becomes a matter of life and death.

Terrorist attack outside Parisian soccer stadium

Terrorist attack outside Parisian soccer stadium

I bring up these sad examples to illustrate what the typical Israeli has to endure in the last two months since the recent Arab uprising.  Daily Israelis are stabbed to death, run over at a bus stop by a mad terrorist, their cars struck with rocks.  In the first few days, Israelis went into shock.  Shopping malls remained empty.  Buses rolled half-empty across city streets.  People look over their shoulder for would-be killers.  Every Arab-looking man or woman is a suspect.  Israel’s security forces are instructed to shoot and kill.  Soldiers and security personnel could easily disarm a knife-carrying man or woman by wounding and disabling them.  But the order are clear: shoot to kill.  I agree.  The shoot-to-kill policy is two-fold: 1. deter any Arab from launching at attack knowing he will not come out alive.  2. Calm the Israeli public.  I doubt many Israelis want a wounded terrorist to be tended to in an Israeli hospital by Israeli doctors (that has often happened), and then brought to trial, jailed, then released in a swap.

Living in Galilee, I encounter Israeli-Arabs daily.  They’re everywhere; they stock the shelves at the supermarket, cut and slice beef at the butcher’s section; they’re gas station attendants, mechanics, day laborers, vendors at falafel stands, and pharmacists behind the counter.  This proximity is what’s terrifying.  To be constantly on the alert, to be vigilant does a number on the nerves.  It’s Arab roulette.  Who can you trust?  We living amidst them and them living amidst us  is not like walking on egg-shells but walking on land-mines.  What will explode next?

A game of chance with life

A game of chance with life

If Israeli-Jews are jittery and scared, Arab-Israelis are terrified.  Recently I took in my car for service at a Toyota dealership in Nazareth, an Arab town.  For years, the service manager greeted me kindly. Service was superb.  Against my better judgment, I decided not to cave in to fear and “give peace a chance.” Arriving at the dealership, I found it empty.  All the lifts were idle, not one car was being serviced. Phones were mute, as if their cords had been cut dead.  After we warmed up to one another, the Arab manager said between s series of nervous cigarette puffs: “Yesterday, I was terrified.  Yesterday, I drove my SUV into a Jewish town and came to a stop at the light.  Jews in the car next to me eyed me. I thought I was having a heart attack.  I thought they were going to lynch me.”  When I prodded him some more, he said Arabs are panic-stricken. They stay home.  They venture out only when necessary, fearing a reprisal from Jews.  I return to my seat at the dealership and read the paper. Soon I’m offered coffee, baklava pastries, fruit, dates – compliments of the house.  I don’t even have to haggle over the invoice, as before.  This time the discount is offered with a smile, a nervous smile. Everyone’s on edge.  I drive home.  I don’t bother to stop at the nursery to pick up seasonal plants and flowers from the Arab owner. Why tempt fate?  I’m a casualty of fear.  And there are thousands and millions like me in Israel, in Russia, in France.

As for playing the roulette, even Vegas gives better odds.  Spin, baby, spin.

 

 

Springtime in Galilee

16 Mar

If I were a tour guide I would tell vacationers to come to Israel during April-May, the height of the spring season. Second choice would be September-October when the heat dies down.

Lower Galilee seen from Nazareth

Lower Galilee seen from Nazareth

Summer is brutal, mentioned in a prior blog. Winter in Galilee is often wet and bone-chilling.

Our house in Galilee is in the middle of Israel’s farmland, the country’s breadbasket.

Homegrown straberries in our garden

Homegrown straberries in our garden

The earth is deep brown, red, fertile.  Given water, anything grows.

Soon to be cut green wheat, barley and turned into hay

Soon to be cut green wheat, barley and turned into hay

Anything.

During spring the sun hangs in the sky longer, itching for summer.

Farmers roll by on tractors to tend to their crops.

The hired help – Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese men – follow behind the Israeli farmers on trucks.

Homegrown Lettuce

Homegrown Lettuce

Vine leaves taking hold

Vine leaves taking hold

There’s a buzz in the air.  You can smell it, feel it, taste it.

Bees had just pollinated hundreds of almond trees near our house.

Butterflies scatter.Spring 12

Winter birds who’d come from as far as Europe fly overhead.Spring 4

Dogs pull at leashes, wanting to stretch little used limbs.

Stray cats come out from their hiding spots and tempt the sleepy dogs.

Women roll up shutters and blinds from mud-splutteredSpring 8 windows.

Men climb on ladders and wipe off the winter streaks from the glass.

Kids brush off the dust from their skateboards.Spring 3

Boys pedal on creaky bikes.

Almonds

Almonds

Old men linger near orange blossoms on their way to and from temple on Sabbath.

There’s talk of Passover in the air.

Everyone’s got something to do, somewhere to go.

When are you coming to visit?

Scroll down to see more of Galilee’s bounty.

 

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Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

Circumcision. Take one. Action. Cut!

4 Jan

I’m driving in Galilee on my way to Nazareth.  The radio is tuned to a weekly Family Therapy talk show.  A man calls in.  He’s all choked up.  The woman therapist calms him.  The man says: “My daughter gave birth to a boy.  I’m a grandfather.  She refuses to circumcise my grandson.  What should I do?!”

The woman therapists who’s very attentive and supportive can’t help but be professional, too.  “Ultimately, it will be your daughter’s decision.  But you must put your foot down.  Tell her your thoughts, your feelings.  You must.  This is no time to be a liberal, to experiment.”

Jewish circumcision performed

A Jewish “Mohel” performs circumcision

Circumcision of Jewish boys is a rite that’s been going on for thousands of years.  It’s as natural as drawing air into the lungs.  In fact, 98% of all Jewish males in Israel are circumcised, no matter the political spectrum or religious affiliation, orthodox or secular.

Yet not all is calm in Israel today.  Young couples question the ritual.  They’re fed up with the Rabbinical tight noose around their necks, telling them how and whom they can marry, and how to rear their infants.

The objecting parents regard the practice as primitive.  Once the foreskin has been cut away from the penis, it’s irreversible.  Almost.  Secondly, no one asked the eight-day old boy for his consent.  The baby has no voice, no “rights.”

A little history: God commands the Hebrew Patriarch Abraham to tie up his son Isaac and slaughter him as an offering.  Abraham obeys.  God calls it off.  Isaac is spared.  Through a covenant, God promises Abraham his “seed” will be plentiful; he will become a vast nation.  He commands him to circumcise his son to seal the deal.  Imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind — I’m commanded to kill my son.  Then God has second thoughts.  He then tells me to cut off my son’s foreskin, and mine, instead.  Lucky me!

God is very specific about a lot of things.  In the Book of Genesis, God tells Noah precisely how to build the Ark for the coming flood, which animals to bring on board.  In the Book of Leviticus, God tells the People of Israel precisely how animals should be slaughtered, how the land should be planted and harvested, issues regarding incest, orphans, sacrifices, the duties of the priests.

However, God’s command to circumcise comes without an Owner’s Manual.  God is silent on how to cut.  Maybe it wasn’t the foreskin (ערלה) after all.  Plucking a few pubic hairs off the balls would have been just fine.

We will never know.

Emperor Hadrian did not approve the mutilation of the body

Emperor Hadrian did not approve the mutilation of the body

Objection to circumcision goes back centuries.  Roman Emperor Hadrian in the year 131 AD ruled over Israel.  The Jewish Temple lay in ruins.  He was greatly influenced by Greek culture that worshiped the human body.  To him, circumcision mutilated the perfect body.  He persecuted the Jews over it.  A revolt broke out.  Hadrian had to recruit generals and troops from as far away as Britain(!) and the Danube to put down the revolt.  That’s how strongly the Jews believed in their God-given right.

But why do it?

Covenant with God, I get that.  Any other reason?  To make the Jews different from all other nations?  That’s one explanation.  But Jews didn’t invent the practice.  Pagans and Ancient Egyptians circumcised their boys too.

Circumcision in Ancient Egypt

Circumcision in Ancient Egypt

“Cut off your penis in the morning, build a pyramid in the afternoon.”

And no bonus and no overtime.  No wonder the pyramids resembled erections.

The “Rambam,” also known as Moses Maimonides, was a much-loved and revered medieval scholar, Jewish Rabbi, philosopher and physician in 12th century Egypt.  He wrote commentary on the bible.  Here’s his belief on the merits of circumcision from his book “The Guide of the Perplexed”:

“One of the reasons for circumcision is the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible…. and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished.”

Quick!  Does someone have the phone number for a good plastic surgeon?

Rambam explains why the ritual is performed eight days after birth:

“The first is that if the child were let alone until he grew up, he would sometimes not perform it. The second is that a child does not suffer as much pain as a grown-up man because his membrane is still soft and his imagination weak;” 

He concludes his reasoning that the parents’ attachment to the child is not as strong days after birth.  If the circumcision were to be performed after three or four years, for example, the parents might refuse inflicting pain.

England.  1966.  I’m an elven year-old Israeli in a London school.  As part of physical education, my classmates and I board a school bus on a half-hour ride to an indoor swimming pool.  In the locker room I remove my underwear to put on my swim trunks.  I’m shocked to find that my Little Sausage is different from the English boys.  That day, I didn’t swim well.  I sank.  When I got home, I asked my dad: “What’s wrong with me?”

Circumcision tools of the trade

Circumcision tools of the trade

And that’s just it.  As a boy, as a man, you don’t want to stand out from the crowd.  Definitely not in the Israeli military.

“You’re in the Army now!”

And this is what the family therapist was alluding to during the radio call.  Young men are vulnerable about their sexuality.  The last thing they need is to be ridiculed, to be sidelined, to be ostracized.  Men in the army should all be G.I – General Issue – they wear the same uniform, the same boots, carry the same gun, and carry a standard-looking penis….

The Israeli army is the ultimate “melting pot.”

Some secular Israelis rail against the orthodox, yet when it comes to circumcision, it’s a different story.  They swallow their pride, their views, and go on with the business at hand — kicking and screaming.  As the father of daughters I didn’t have to decide.  But if I had a son, I would follow generations before me.

It’s something innate: You can’t mess with a 4000 year tradition.

What do you think?  For?  Against?

Even Russian male adults who’d immigrated to Israel in the 1990s; they were mostly uncircumcised because of communism’s banning of religion — they had to be circumcised as part of becoming Jewish.

“Welcome to Israel, Comrade.  Now drop your pants.”

This blog is getting a little long.  I think I should “cut” here.

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Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

A Big Texas Footprint in Galilee

9 Nov

Galilee, like much of ancient Israel, was at the crossroads of the Fertile Crescent.  Not everyone came in peace. The Babylonians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks trampled the region on horseback.  And with swords.

Nazareth

Nazareth

Last month we learned of another “invader,” this time from America, from Texas.  This time, they’re not coming with knives in their satchels.  Instead, they’re coming with a fig leaf, big Texan smiles, and lots of money.

Texas A&M, the 4th largest university in America is coming to Nazareth in Galilee.  Their mission: to build a “Peace Campus” in the Arab town.  Texas A&M will join forces with the one and only Arab college in Israel: Nazareth Academic Institute.

Texas A&M University logo

Texas A&M University logo

The project is the brainchild of Texas A&M’s chacellor John Sharp and the Texas governor and former Republican presidential candidate, Rick Perry. Christians United for Israel Pastor from San Antonio, Texas also “lobbied” for Nazareth, a town where Jesus grew up.

Texas University Chancellor John SHarp and Texas Governor Rick Perry

Texas University Chancellor John SHarp and Texas Governor Rick Perry

They’ve already built an American university elsewhere in the Middle East, in Qatar, in the Persian Gulf.  Now they’re bringing their science and research branch to Nazareth.  It’s not going to be as big as the “mothership” university in Texas (1/2 the area of Tel Aviv!), but the modest start is drawing attention from many educators and hands-on involvement from Israel’s president, Shimon Peres.

Simon Peres wants to be remembered as the advocate for peace.  It follows his recent ambitions to foster cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Galilee.  And the Americans are coming with $70,000,000 in their briefcases to help build the new campus.

Israel is 80% Jewish, 20% Arab.  The Arabs remained here after the war of 1948.  They enjoy equal rights under the law.  The official languages are Hebrew and Arabic.  All road signs, milk cartons, bags of potato chips carry both languages.  However, in elementary school, the Arabs kids, Christian and Moslem, start out in Arabic and eventually they turn to Hebrew as well.

This late start in Hebrew plus their wish to retain their culture are what keeps them from getting ahead in later years. Rarely do they catch up in high school and colleges where all is taught in Hebrew and English.  They don’t get the grades.  Many fail the universities’ entry exams and end up in quasi-academic schools that churn dubious diplomas.  In recent years, Arabs have made great strides in education.  They work in hospitals, pharmacies, law firms, social work.  They’re narrowing the gap.  Somewhat.

Students at Nazareth Academy Institute

Students at Nazareth Academy Institute

So what’s an Arab to do if he can’t get the grades, can’t graduate?  Up until recently, not much.  As many as 10,000 Israeli Arabs study in Arabic — in Jordan(!).  Many trek to study in the West Bank.  Thousands more study abroad, in Hungary, in Italy, Bulgaria.

That’s all about to change in 2015, the opening of the “Peace Campus” in Nazareth.  The Texas university will award degrees in chemistry, engineering and other science programs.

The kicker?

Classes will be taught by American professors as well as Israeli.  Arabs who’d struggled with academic Hebrew will have to deal with another challenge – English.

But everyone’s excited.  Israel’s Ministry of Education stresses the American campus will be open to all: Arabs and Jews.  Classrooms at Haifa University, Zefat and elsewhere in Israel already cater to both populations.

It’s not a melting pot.  Not by a long shot.  At best, it will be a salad, with the greens next to each other, Jews and Arabs.  The salad dressing will be American.

So if you’re near Nazareth in 2015, come see the students: Arabs women wear head covering, Jews wear aviator sunglasses, and Texans wear ten-gallon hats.

What’s next?  Texas steakhouses next to Hummus joints?

___________________________________________________________________________

Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

_________________________________________________________________________

We are family – all my daugthers and me

20 Jul

In 2011 I packed up our household, myself, Pnina and my twin daughters, Maya and Romy (14) and moved from California to Israel, to Galilee.

Last month my oldest daughter Michelle (29) and her husband Jonathan and my second-oldest daughter Vanessa (26), came to visit me in Israel.  Their two-week stay with me still lingers like a sweet dream.

Vanessa in Jerusalem market

Vanessa in Jerusalem market

Although Michelle and Vanessa had been to Israel several times before, and with

Vanessa, Maurice, Jonathan in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter
Vanessa, Maurice, Jonathan in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter

Birthright, this time was different.  They weren’t typical tourists; they’d come “home” to see and be with me.  We spent mornings together, cooked breakfast, went places, spent time talking into the night.  I couldn’t help but admire how they’d turned out – magnificent women.

Michelle, me - Hanging out in Jerusalem

Michelle, me – Hanging out in Jerusalem

Michelle and Jonathan in Notre Dame -Jerusalem

Michelle and Jonathan in Notre Dame -Jerusalem

We hugged a lot, joked and laughed.  Maya and Romy couldn’t be happier with their older sisters.

Vanessa, me on Tel Aviv beach

Vanessa, me on Tel Aviv beach

Michelle trying on hat in Nazareth

Michelle trying on hat in Nazareth

Michelle and Vanessa got the chance to see how we live in Israel, to meet up with our friends, aunts and uncles, grandfather and grandmother, to sun and bathe on a Tel Aviv beach, to trek in orchards and vineyards in Galilee, to wander through the streets of Nazareth, to witness the wonder that is Jerusalem.

Pnina in Nazareth

Pnina in Nazareth

Fruit Stand in Tel Aviv

Fruit Stand in Tel Aviv

My parents Joe and Yvonne

My parents Joe and Yvonne

Michelle and Vanessa outside grandparents' house

Michelle and Vanessa outside grandparents’ house

The family gang at beach restaurant

The family gang at beach restaurant

My dad and I

My dad and I

Sweet Delights in Nazareth bakery

Sweet Delights in Nazareth bakery

Michelle and Me at the top of Mt. Tavor,

Michelle and Me at the top of Mt. Tavor,

We are family - all my daugters and me

We are family – all my daugters and me

Seniors at Jerusalem Cafe

Seniors at Jerusalem Cafe

In the end, the clock wound down.  Caught us all by surprise.  They packed their suitcases with memories and returned to America.  Until next time.

Lights. Camera. Action.

A day after too much fun

A day after too much fun

Vanessa and me on Mt. TAvor

Vanessa and me on Mt. TAvor

Twins Romy and Maya lounging on Tel Aviv beach

Twins Romy and Maya lounging on Tel Aviv beach

Daughters enjoying a much-deserved break at Carmel Market, Tel Aviv

Daughters enjoying a much-deserved break at Carmel Market, Tel Aviv

Found a Photo of the Labi family in 1976, Israel

While going through photo albums at my parents with my kids found a Photo of the Labi family in 1976, Israel – Mom, Dad, sister, me

Your Flag is (not) my Flag

9 Nov

Galilee is home to Arabs and Jews – a short sentence that’s long on unfinished business.  After Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Arabs fled, or were driven out.  Yet many stayed in their homes, in their towns and villages.  They became part of newly established Israel.  They became citizens, like it or not.  Many will admit they do not like living under Israeli rule, but recent surveys have shown time and again that they’re in no great rush to move to the West bank, to Jordan, or any other neighboring Arab country.

Israeli Flag in Upper Nazareth

It’s not perfect, but they accept it as a fact of (better) life.  The Arabs here live in a democracy; they gripe about the usual issues: discrimination, unequal opportunities to education, jobs.  Yet the Israeli Arabs of the past are gone; they’re upwardly mobile, they run businesses, and they want to move where Jews live.

A case in point: Nazareth.  To be specific, Lower Nazareth is exclusively Arab, home to Christians and Moslem.  They lived there for centuries.  In the 1950s, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion had a vision to “Judify” Galilee, to build Jewish towns and villages as a counterweight to the Arabs.  That’s how Upper Nazareth came into being.  My wife Pnina grew up in Upper Nazareth, then a backwater town on the “Frontier.”  Its main export was dust, isolation, tired-looking grocery stores.  For years Jews and Arabs in Upper and Lower Nazareth co-existed.  Pnina’s mother shopped for live chickens, produce and coffee at the Arab souk (market).  In time, the Jewish town grew.  Built from the ground up, hundreds of apartment units covered the hilltops.  Industrial parks shot up to provide work for Jews.  Schools, government buildings soon followed.

Fast forward to the 90s.  Jewish Russian immigrants settled in Upper Nazareth in great numbers.  The city expanded.  Lower Nazareth also grew (pop. 75,000) but was limited by available land.  Flush with cash and eager to join the middle class, the Arabs started moving to Upper Nazareth, buying up homes.  Jews panicked, moved out.

Today 17% of Upper Nazareth’s 40,000 population is Arab, and growing.

The mayor, Shim’on Gapso, wants to reverse the tide.  He wants to take back the city street by street.  He started renaming them after Israel’s founding fathers.  Recently he erected 4 giant Israeli flags in the entrances leading from the Arab villages and into the city.  He plans to erect 3 more in other strategic locations.

The Arabs don’t like it.  They contend that  his patriotism is misguided, offensive.  An Arab city councilman says it borders on provocation.  He’s okay with flags; he’s not okay with their size.  Other Arabs join in.  They say the mayor suffers from an identity complex and that he tries to shove Israel down their throats.  A woman Arab Member of Israel’s parliament, Hanin Zo’abi, says, “The flags’ size are unnatural and their location opposite Lower Nazareth send a message to the Arabs that the Israeli flag does not represent them.”

Nazareth City Emblem

The mayor is not backing down.  “They can go screw themselves, if they don’t like the flag.  America waves its flags proudly.  Why can’t we?”

The Israeli flag is greater that the sum of its parts: fabric and color.  The flag embodies identity, history, heritage, patriotism, inexplicable feelings.  It speaks of one people – the Jews.

To most Jews the giant flag is a source of pride and beauty.  To Arabs it’s an eyesore, an attack.

The controversy led to a fire storm.  The support for the mayor is overwhelming.  It’s not even close, more like 95% are in favor of hoisting the flag even higher, bigger.  Here are some of the comments on-line:

“Ban all Arab businesses in Lower Nazareth, then they’ll see.”

“Upper Nazareth is a Jewish city.  You don’t like it  – move!”

“You Arabs like your welfare checks, avoiding the draft, and your standard of living, but the flag bothers you?!”

“Put up cameras by the flag poles.  Punish anyone who vandalizes them.”

The support is genuine, widespread, emotional.  Yet, it rings hollow.  Many of the comments undoubtedly come from Jews living in Tel Aviv, far, far away from Galilee.  They’re not unlike Americans who send $10 to the Red Cross after a disaster strikes a distant state.  They’ve done their share from the comfort of their living room armchair.  Their conscious is clear.  They wrap themselves with the flag.

Yet 65 years after Israel’s independence, Galilee is 50% Arab, 50% Jewish.  How Galilee will look like in 50 years is anyone’s guess.

Galilee – Why can (can’t) we all get along?

21 Jan

It was bound to happen sooner or later.  In this part of the world it’s unavoidable.  You’re at someone’s house or at a cafe.  You start out talking about your summer trip to Budapest, the latest pair of shoes you bought in Tel Aviv at a steal of a price, and then, BAM! you find yourself embroiled in a heated discussion about politics, religion.

What happened to the cruise down the Danube River and the Italian leather shoes you ask?  They got buried under ancient controversies of ancient peoples.  Israel’s small, the size of California’s San Bernardino County.  My focus is the Galilee–the size of the City of Los Angeles–it stretches from Yizrael Valley in the south to the Lebanese border in the north, from the Mediterranean coast in the west to the sources of the Jordan river in the east.  Yet there are so many religions here, splinter groups, factions, denominations, special-interest, you’d think Galilee is the size of China.

Here history runs deep. It’s not to take away from American history, 1776, the Civil War, the wagons heading West, settling Native Americans in reservations, Route 66 — yet it pales in comparison to what’s happening, and has happened in Galilee.  Here they talk in millennia and centuries, not decades.  It’s not Who’s Your Mama, but Who’s your Father’s Father’s Father’s Father. You can’t kick a rock around here without tripping over a ruin, fragments of scripture, a marble column. Every hill, outcrop, ravine, valley, mountain, rift, river, stream, creek, wadi, has a name whose origin is prehistoric, biblical. Jews call one settlement by one name, the Moslems by another and they both claim the high road. Throw in the Christians (not to the lions, please), with all their splinter groups (Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Protestants, Assyrians, Armenians, to name a few) and you’ve gone one wild Hannuka, Christmas, Ramadan party.

What does Galilee mean? It depends who you ask. To Christians it’s where Jesus performed miracles, practiced his ministry. To Moslems, it’s where they’ve lived for centuries, where they drove away the Crusader armies. To religious and observant Jews, it’s the battle of Devorah against the armies of Sisra, it’s where the Tribes of Naftali, Dan, and Asher lived, it’s where the scholars and sages in Tiberias studied, it’s the center of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, in Zefat. To secular, urban Jews from Tel-Aviv — a two-hour drive — the Galilee evokes vineyards, hills, valleys, hikes, a week-end destination for yuppies with money to burn at roadside Zimmers (Bed & Breakfast, in German), or skiing down the snowy Mt. Hermon instead of the Swiss Alps. To them it’s also a place of kibbutzim, moshavim (collective farms), industrial parks, and failing towns which had absorbed immigrants in the 50s.

The Druze, who are Arab but draw influences not only from the Three religions but also from Greek philosophy and Hinduism, the Galilee is a sacred place. To the Circassians, fair-skinned and blue-eyed, who were driven from the shores of the Black Sea by the Russians, and who’d become expert horsemen and warriors under the Ottoman empire, and who’d converted from Christianity to Islam, the Galilee is their last refuge from persecution. And I have yet to throw into the mix the Bedouin tribes, the nomads.

Church of Beatitudes overlooking Sea of Galilee

We live in Kfar (Village, in Hebrew) Tavor, population 4000, at the foot of Mount Tavor. The Kfar’s Community Center arranges monthly bus tours to neighboring towns and attractions. Recently one such tour was to the Sea of Galilee, the other to Nazareth, in the footsteps of Jesus. The average age of the day-trippers is 75. There are so many walking sticks on board the bus you can build a nice campfire. The loud beeps and whistles from their hearing aids could interfere with military radar or bring down fighter jets. Yet they’re a feisty group, full of zest and quest for life. They embrace us as newcomers; they call me and Pnina “the Israeli-American kids.” The trips are ridiculously cheap ($10), and the guides are volunteers, licensed by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

The guides on the first tour, Amiram and Yaffa, are a husband and wife team. It’s a second marriage for both of them. He’s religious, spiritual. She’s all business. He wears a kippa, she wears the pants. We’re at the Church of Beatitudes on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, a church commissioned by Mussolini in the 1930s, completed by the Italian architect Barluzzi, nicknamed the “Holyland architect” under the Franciscan Order from Assisi, Italy. Amiram talks about the Christians’ wishes to link Jesus to King David, to Bethlehem. “Joseph and Mary lived in and around Nazareth. They were forced to move to Bethlehem as part of the Roman census to count its subjects. There Jesus was born.” It’s not long before Amiram begins to meander from one topic to another; he’s a barrel of knowledge. Yaffa cuts him off. “Focus on the fishes and loaves story.” He sighs and continues. “Jesus was born a Jew, died a Jew. Like all Jews, he lived under Roman rule. He challenged the Jewish scholars, announced that he was the Messiah, the King. The Jews turned him in. The Jews had no army, no power, no currency, no form of government. The Romans ruled the land, did away with the troublemaker.”

Madonna and Child Mosaic

A month later we’re on another tour, this time to Nazareth.  Leslie, a Moroccan-Israeli from Kfar Tavor, a vivacious woman in her 50s, is our guide.  Her Hebrew is sprinkled with a French accent.  Nazareth, spread over several hilltops, was once a Christian stronghold.  But no more.  It’s 2/3 Moslem.  Every square inch is contested.  The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming may have been a funny movie in the 60s, but even here, in Nazareth, the Russians came, secured their Russian Orthodox foothold.  Much earlier, Ivan the IV, the Terrible, linked himself to King David, said the Russians are the Chosen People, and Moscow is the Third Rome after the original Rome, and after Byzantium.

After a short break for homemade sandwiches and some coffee from Thermoses, we shuffle to the next point of interest.  We’re standing in front of the Church of Annunciation, the place where the Virgin Mary was told she would give birth to Jesus.  Ironically, on the ruins of this ancient church, Solel Boneh, Israel’s largest public works contractor, built the new Church in 1965.  It’s almost as if Halliburton won the bid to build New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The Church of Annunciation is a massive structure, breaks the skyline.

Nigerian Pilgrims in Nazareth

Hordes of pilgrims from Nigeria, Korea, the American Bible Belt, Moscow, go past us and into the vast courtyard.  In it are mosaics of the Madonna and Child from around the world.  Once we’re out, we walk down the hill to the main square.  There we run into a Moslem throng, hundreds of men.  An Imam, a Moslem priest, is leading the prayers.  He’s shouting into the megaphone.  Moslems kneel and bow on dozens of carpets.  Tourists cringe and rush past him to the Church.  This area is known as the Square of Contention.  The Moslems want to build a mosque on or near the Church of Annunciation.  They claim the remains of Salah Al-Din’s uncle, the warrior who fought off the Crusaders, are buried here.   So far this demand has been blocked.  With the Church of Annunciation acting as a backdrop, a passage from the Koran is written on a large banner in English and in Arabic.  It reads: “Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted, and in the Hereafter, he will be one of the losers.”

Square of Contention at Church of Annunciation

We’re hungry again and we want a distraction from all this religious stuff.  We trek through the Moslem market, the butchers, the vendors.  Leslie then leads us to a Christian-owned spice shop.  It’s a cavern of a structure, high rounded ceiling.  Sacks of every imaginable spice are stacked high and deep.  The owner, Christian, runs the century-old business.  He tells us he no longer grows the herbs in Israel.  “We import everything from the Orient, from India.”

The Indians are Coming, the Indians are coming.

We buy German-made chocolate, left over from the Christmas rush.  We’re treated to sweet coffee and a short history about the place.  Outside, there’s a billboard in Arabic, with Santa Clause standing on a patch of snow.  Moslems walk past it without the slightest interest.  Jews don’t frequent Lower Nazareth either unless they want to have their cars fixed on the cheap, unless they want a low-cost dentist.

Santa Clause Billboard in Galilee

We’re all living side by side but not with each other.  Jews read the Hebrew road signs, Arabs read the Arabic, foreigners read the English.  There are three languages on bags of potato chips, three languages on milk cartons, three religions at every turn.  And here’s the rub.  The man (son of God), who preached of brotherly love, brought about such friction after his death (resurrection), that we mortals are still dealing with it today.  Or is it all a master plan to see if we can survive together on this “rocky” terrain?

Amiram the guide summed it this way: “Christians number 2+ billion.  Their one obligation: Believe.  They make it to the Afterlife.  With Jews, just 14 million, it’s more complicated.  There’s no specific talk of the Afterlife.  Our purpose is to do good deeds (mitzvah).  What’s the reward?  Another mitzvah.  Completed mitzvah begets another mitzvah.  Judaism is work.”

Christian Spice Market in Nazareth

I don’t know all the details of how Moslems regard the Afterlife, but I heard it has to do with virgins.

I’m thinking of converting.