Tuesday through Thursday, we were in the Golan. Unlike our last two tiyyulim, the Golan, Israel's back 40, is the anti-desert; especially now, in the springtime, the place is so overflowing with life and water and cow dung, you can't take one step outdoors in the entire region without stepping in one of the three. The whole time, I just had to keep reminding myself this garden paradise was still Israel.
Shortly after arriving in the Golan, we began our first set of hikes. I did the hard hike—a five hour tour of Nahal Jilaboon and Gesher Pekak. In what would become a recurring theme through out our hikes, we walked through forests, on cliffs, and saw some stunning waterfalls.
Including this, the second-largest in Israel.
Later on, some people who were apparently lucky enough to be born without the ability to feel cold got to swim underneath a different waterfall.
This is the former site of a swimming pool Syrian officers built for themselves while patrolling the Golan before '67. Apparently, these dot the area. After seeing this and hearing the story of Eli Cohen, we finished the hike by trekking down a steep hill on a rocky, narrow path, rusty barbed wire and a minefield on either side of us. In America, it would be a lawsuit waiting to happen, but in Israel, it's just another part of the trail. Though it's easy to forget because it's peaceful now and never makes the news, and, thank God, it's native Druze population likes being Israeli, the Golan was a war zone until really the end of the Yom Kippur war in 1975. Reminders of this cover the region like cow poo, there are old tanks nearly everywhere, including this one outside a rest-stop, that some of the most liberal students at Pardes gathered around for an oh-so-ironic photo-op.
One tank has never held so many vegetarians.
The Golan's bloody past was an especially big theme Wednesday morning, when we went to Mt. Bental overlooking the Syrian border.
It's best known for having arguably the most photographed sign post in Israel and for it's coffee shop, Coffee Annan (so named because a. this means “Cloud Coffee” in Hebrew, and b. as a way of sticking it to Kofi Annan, who pushed hard for Israel to give the region back to Syria. Sticking it to the UN is a favorite past time here, as well it should be.) I went to Mt. Bental before while on Birthright, but the weather made this an entirely new view of the mountain.
After seeing Mt. Bental and sampling its coffee, we took a short bus ride and split into groups for hiking. I did the five-hour hard hike through the Banias stream.
I mentioned before how hard it sometimes was to remember that we were still in Israel, but reminders were always there.
After the hikes, we went to see some sight none of us had ever heard of, and, tired from the hike as most of us were, and didn't want to get off the bus to see. This sight turned out to be the memorial for the worst helicopter disaster in Israel's history—on February 4, 1997, two Israeli Air Force helicopters collided in the Golan, killing all 73 soldiers aboard. The memorial is so touching, even our weary, cynical hearts were moved by it, or at least mine was. After being briefed on the nature of the tragedy, we first saw the families' personal memorial. In the woods by a creek, where one of the helicopters went down, the families have hung little homemade mementos to their loved ones from tree branches. The ground is scattered with yahrtzeit candles and other small things the families wanted to be there. I deeply regret not taking any pictures, it was truly one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, it reminded me somewhat of the temporary memorial fence for Flight 93 in Shanksville. Following this, we moved on to the permanent memorial—a long covered stream (I would guess 73 meters long) running down from a circular pool of water, with rocks with the victims' names on them forming concentric circles within the pool. Outward from the pool radiated paths leading to a larger circle, like a helicopter rudder. In the grass areas between the pool and the outer circle were 73 large stones, as our guide Ma'ayan pointed out, each one, while similar in size and composition, is utterly unique in appearance and orientation.
That night after dinner, we heard a presentation by a man named Mike, who lives in a small moshav nearby the beautiful complex where we were staying. Though an archaeologist by profession, Mike was here today to talk about his moshav, which takes great pains to be half-religious, half-secular. The expected conflicts arise—how can secular families make food for communal meals? (the solution is everyone buys food for them) What if the religious guys really need a minyan, can they call one of the secular guys? (yes, but he does not have to participate in the service) Should we have a rabbi? If so what kind? (Mike said there was lots of heated discussion about this, but in the end it didn't really matter anyway because they could never afford one) Whose house will the kids play in on Shabbat? (kids aren't stupid, they can understand that it's okay to do things in one person's house and not in another's). Though this makes it seem tense, Mike emphasized that the conflicts are the exception and that the vast majority of the time, everyone lives together in peace. The whole point of this endeavor is the children—so they know how to not just live with, but understand, appreciate, work, and play with those who are different than them. I pray that when they grow up, at least some of these kids will move to Jerusalem, we could really use them here.
Thursday, everybody joined together to do a hike through Nahal El-Al.
The hike was full of unexpected surprises. The first was seeing the Golan Iris, a protected and extremely rare and beautiful species that grows only in the Golan Heights.
The second was the strength of the river.
Ordinarily, the water at this point is just a stream you can walk across with no problem. This year, the historic amounts of rain turned it into a team-building exercise—some of the stronger guys got in the water and found footholds strong enough to help everyone else across.
(Photo stolen from Yishai Paquin)
We hiked for an hour-or-so more, then right before the end of the hike we came to another abnormally strong, deep stream. Unlike the last one, this one had muddy banks and a muddier bed. It also had a stronger current, and a group of Israelis with little kids interrupting our group to cross it from the other side. This is also when it started raining.
But we survived with only one pair of shoes as a casualty. On the other side of the stream, at the top of the hill, at the very end of the hike, we were rewarded for our trouble with a stunning view of green mountains and valleys and cliffs, a huge, sparkling blue sky, and even some dude playing the guitar. So we hung out there for awhile and ate lunch, then we went home.
The forecast for the tiyyul was rain and cold, but thankfully, every day turned out gorgeous—blue skies, the occasional light breeze, and roughly 70° temperatures—hot enough to wear short-sleeves and no jacket, cool enough not to break a sweat. Perfect.
Without doubt, this was my favorite tiyyul. The deserts are nice and different, but I didn't fall in love with them. Here, lost amongst the cliffs, mountains, rocks, flowers, vineyards, apple orchards, and rivers, I understood for the first time what people mean when they say they feel a “spiritual connection” to Israel. Some places you have to look for Godliness and accept whatever traces of it you can find, but the Golan screams it at you. This plateau, this magical garden where cacti grow next to waterfalls, might be the most stunning place I've ever seen. This is the only place I've yet been in Israel where I could legitimately picture myself living someday, if only I were capable of doing farm work. I know, I saw the Golan with her best face on, in the spring when everything is in bloom and the temperature is just right, and had I been here during a dead winter or a scorching summer, or during a war, I might feel differently, but for right now, I'm content to just be naïve as all new lovers and think the Golan is perfect.
Quote of the Week: “We're going to go down and see the waterfall, then when we come back up here, Rav Elisha wants to talk about Jesus.” - Jamie, our tour guide.
Hebrew Word of the Week: מפל (“mahpal”) - waterfall//