Down Under

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On Friday I visited two attractions just outside the town of Beit Shean.  I almost didn’t get there, as unbeknownst to me, there was a marathon race going on and many of the roads were closed to traffic.  Waze (the traffic and map navigation app) took me a roundabout way, telling me to go on dirt “security roads” that bordered kibbutz agricultural fields and Arab villages.  Instead of taking an hour from my home, it took nearly 2.5 hours’ travel time and I got lost repeatedly! I finally passed a concrete bus stop where a soldier was waiting for a bus to take him home in time for Shabbat.  I gave him a ride which he gratefully accepted all the way to his home on Kibbutz Nir David (where his mother anxiously and proudly awaited his return with all sorts of special treats and foods for Shabbat; I think every Israeli mother gives her son a hero’s welcome when he comes home on weekly leave).  He had come all the way from south of Eilat, so this final leg of his long journey was a big relief to him, and he was of course a big help to me in finding my way.

The first place I stopped is called Gan Garoo (which is next to the aforementioned kibbutz).  It’s an immaculately kept zoo that is dedicated to Australian-Israeli friendship, and all the animals within are those found in Australia.  There are many different unusual birds large and small, but the real highlight is the “mob” of different varieties of kangaroos of all ages and sizes – some 53 in all – who roam freely in a large enclosure where humans can not only interact with them, but oblige the ‘roos with a much-appreciated back scratch or neck massage.

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lorakeets
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neck rub

What a delightful experience!  The kangaroos were as tame as one’s pet dog, and each one had its own look and personality.  The joeys (baby kangaroos) were adorable, but my favorite was actually the oldest and largest, a red kangaroo with the expressive face of a donkey (others had faces that looked like rabbits, hares, deer and goats).  They reacted equally well to being petted by a 3-year-old little girl as they did an adult human.  It was truly thrilling, and I hated to leave, but on a short winter Friday, I wanted to leave time for a swim at the three spring-fed natural pools of Sachne (also known as Gan HaShlosha).

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a punim only a mother could love
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joey with child

Sachne’s waters are a crystal-clear turquoise blue and maintain their 84 degree F temperature year round.  The swimming there is fantastic.  The springs, part of Israel’s national park system, are visited year round by an extremely diverse group of people: Israeli Jews (Sephardi, Ashkenazi, religious and secular, and lots of Russian, French, and Anglo immigrants) and Arabs (Christian and Muslim) families, along with a sprinkling of tourists, who are seeking an enjoyable, relaxing and beautiful way to spend the day.  There is plenty of picnicking alongside the water in park-like grassy areas, and this is just one of many places where tolerance and cooperation between peoples defies the anti-Israel propaganda promoted by world media.

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As the sun started to get lower, I regretfully said goodbye and continued on another 5 or 10 minutes by car to the town of Beit Shean, where I would be attending a special Shabbat weekend with other Anglo immigrants to Israel who are associated with Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that facilitates aliyah to Israel from North America, and provides many helpful services to help olim navigate the bureaucracy that challenges every newcomer.  This annual gathering is specifically for olim (immigrants) who’ve chosen to make their permanent home in northern Israel (the Galilee and the Golan Heights).  We stayed in a government-run youth hostel that was newly remodeled and expanded, with attractive if simple dorm-like rooms and a general dining hall where the dozens of Anglo immigrant families shared meals together.  It was a great opportunity to meet and make new friends, and encourage one another with a deep understanding and empathy about the joys and challenges of living in Israel.  Everyone was nice, but I was especially excited to meet some new potential friends and we have already made plans to get together next week.

On Saturday afternoon, the entire group meandered over to the Beit Shean archeological dig, which is located about a block away from the youth hostel.  I was wondering why I had never visited the remnants of old Beit Shean and the subsequent Roman city of Scythopolis, which at one time housed a staggering 40,000 residents, when I lived in Israel many years ago!  The beautiful amphitheater, which has been partially restored, had seats for 7,000 Roman citizens.  You can wander down the Cardo (the shopping lane, lined with many stores), visit the arena where gladiator games were held; you can see the remains of a fountain, a temple, a brothel, and several restored mosaic floors.  Perhaps most amazing, Scythopolis had only been aggressively excavated in the 1980s and 90s – – before that is was mostly unexcavated and buried completely under the ground (the city was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 749 AD) and the extent of its size until then was unknown – – which also explains why I hadn’t known about it when I lived in Israel in the early 80s and it was not yet open to the public.

Overlooking the ancient city, which was a half-way point for trade between Damascus and Caesarea, is a huge tel (mound) which was first excavated by archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1930s.  Eighteen different civilizations were uncovered from the different strata, including Crusader, Muslim, Roman, Greek, Philistine, Israelite and Canaanite periods.  The relics were shipped mostly to Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was constructed especially to house the extensive finds (and is still in operation today).  A small portion of the finds were donated to the Israel Museum where they can been viewed.

But for me the most meaningful events of Beit Shean occurred years before the Roman conquest.  For it was at nearby Mt. Gilboa that King Shaul fought his final battle against the Philistine king.  Three of Shaul’s sons were killed in that battle, and King Shaul himself was gravely injured. Rather than face capture alive, he threw himself upon his own sword, ending his own life.  The Philistine king would not permit the corpses of Shaul nor his sons to be buried, and instead decapitated them and took their bodies to the gates of the city of Beit Shean, where they hung on those walls as a final humiliation.

It never fails to amaze me that I am walking on the very ground where my forefathers walked, lived, loved, prayed, fought, and died.  Everywhere – everywhere! – in Israel, the ground is rich with the holy blood, sweat and tears of the Jewish people.  I am not only reliving that history, I am part of it and it is part of me.  The connection to the past is palpable, and the realization that I am part of its future fills me with humility and awe.

Only in Israel could I go from a modern Australian zoo to a natural oasis to an ancient city where Biblical battles were fought, all within a few minutes of one another.

Not a day goes by without me pinching myself that I merit living here on a daily basis, something my great-grandparents could only dream about in the most surreal of fantasies from their pogrom-ridden shtetls.

This new life of ours is very good indeed.

(I do not use a camera on Shabbat, which is why I didn’t take pictures of Beit Shean, the youth hostel, and the archeological park.  Please feel free to click on the highlighted links for pictures taken by others.)

 

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A Mystery (Finally) Solved in the Galilee

A generous donor funded the construction by the Jewish National Fund and the regional council of Misgav, of a beautiful bike and walking path which connects the communities of Manof and Shechaniya, two lovely yishuvim in the Galil.  The mostly level path is not long, but it affords panoramic views of the thorn-, carob- and pine-covered Western Galilee and on a clear day you can see Rosh HaNikra in the far north and Haifa Bay in the distance.  Just off the path is a somewhat challenging trail to a cave inhabited by bats.  It was in this cave that human skeletal remains were discovered, fifty-two years after the original murder was committed.

The sad and fascinating story is etched on some stone boulders, a memorial to the 33-year old husband, father, and seventh-generation Israeli Jewish pioneer who met an untimely end while in the service of the Jewish National Fund.  His name was Yisrael ben Ze’ev Loifer Hy”d.  He disappeared mysteriously in August 1938 and nothing was heard from him nor from the people who kidnapped him.  It was as though he’d fallen off the face of the earth.

What follows is my translation of the Hebrew inscription at the memorial site:

Yisrael was born in 1905 in a Jewish settlement in the Galil.  His parents, Ze’ev and Sara, were the sixth generation of his family to live in the Land of Israel.  They left their home in Tzfat to help settle the Galilee in a place called Yisod HaMaaleh.

Because of the difficult economic conditions, as well as severe malarial outbreaks in the area that sickened and killed many, Yisrael was forced to abandon the family settlement and left the Galil to work in the orchards of Petach Tikva.   There, he met the woman who would become his wife, Rivka Bergman, a sixth-generation Jew living in the Land of Israel.  They became parents to a boy, Ze’ev, and a girl, Shulamit.

In 1930 the Jewish National Fund appointed Yisrael as a property guard in the Zevulun Valley and his family moved to Akko.  In the 1920s and then again from 1936 – 1939, Israel experienced an ongoing Arab intifada which included strikes, riots, pograms, thefts and attacks against Jewish settlers throughout the Land.  Hundreds of Jews died.  (ed. note:  It was during this time that many German Jewish emigres living in Israel, traumatized by these attacks, actually returned to Germany where ironically and tragically they would perish in the Holocaust only a few years later.)  Because they were living in what was then considered a remote area subject to extreme danger, Yisrael moved his family to an area just outside of Haifa, in what is today known as Kiryat Bialik.

Meanwhile Yisrael continued his work guarding undeveloped Jewish land in the Galil.  He got to know his Arab neighbors and their way of life; he learned to speak Arabic fluently.  Many Arabs considered him a friend.  Yisrael wore a kaffiye (Arab cloth headdress) and dressed in an abbayya (long flowing white cotton robe); on his feet he wore leather boots and he rode upon a fine Arabian horse.  Only his pale skin identified him as a Jew.  According to Arab custom, Yisrael was called “Abu Ziv” – father of Ze’ev, his firstborn son.

Within the framework of his position as a guard, he prevented the theft and takeover of Jewish-owned land by the area’s Bedouin tribes. (ed. note:  it seems Yisrael Loifer was part Lawrence of Arabia and part Texas Ranger.)  He helped the Jewish National Fund  redeem parcels from the hands of Bedouins that lived in the Zevulun Valley.  Additionally, he secretly trained Jewish youth living in the area of Haifa Bay to handle and  fire weapons for their defense.  With great sensitivity he took tremendous responsibility for his very dangerous work, a task he fulfilled with tremendous passion and dedication.  Yisrael was known far and wide for his audaciousness and courage and his reputation extended all the way to Damascus.

In the beginning of August 1938, Yisrael loaned his beloved horse to a trusted friend, a Bedouin guard, who promised to return the horse to him the following day.  When he was late,  Yisrael took his wooden staff and hiked to the Bedouin guard’s village, Kfar Damon.

And then no trace remained of Yisrael Loifer.

After a long and exhaustive investigation by his son, Ze’ev,  and with the help of Giora Zaid (the son of the legendary guard, Alexander Zaid) and according to eyewitness accounts by Najiv Zaidan and Abu-Daouf, the mystery was finally solved.

It appears that Yisrael was tortured and murdered by three barbaric Bedouin men who chose to commit these horrific acts as part of an initiation rite to join a gang.

On the first of Nisan (March 27, 1990),  bones were found buried under a pile of stones in Shechaniya cave, a place in the area of Bir El Yahudi.

Forensic evidence confirmed that the bones were those of Yisrael Loifer, killed 52 years earlier.

On the 20 of Iyar, 5750 (May 15, 1990), Yisrael Loifer’s remains were brought to Jewish burial next to the grave of his faithful wife, in the Segula cemetery in Petach Tikva.

Rivka Bergman Loifer died without knowing whatever happened to him.

Hy”d.