It really wasn’t my fault that I got it all wrong. After all, I had prepared for my trip to Gush Halav by reading everything I could get my hands on. And because the books and Internet sites I industriously perused called Gush Halav an “Arab village” or “Arab town,” I naturally assumed that hubby and I would be staying overnight with an Arab family. I also looked forward to practicing the spoken Arabic that I had been studying since the beginning of the year.

Within minutes of meeting our host, Shady Khalloul, I learned how mistaken I had been. Most of the people who live in Gush Halav are Maronites: Christians who have been followers of a hermit known as Mar Maroun since the end of the fourth century. They are most definitely not Arabs, stressed Khalloul, who asked me never again to refer to Gush Halav as an Arab village.

Like Father Abraham, he told me, the Maronites originated in Aram (an enormous area stretching from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean Sea) and dispersed throughout the Middle East. When the Arabs swooped into the region early in the seventh century, they tried to force Islam on the Aramaic population in general and the Maronites in particular. Yet despite immense pressure, the Maronites, like the Jews, refused to abandon their faith.

Since then Aramaic Maronites have been continually persecuted by the Arabs. Most of the area’s Maronites eventually moved for safety into the Lebanese mountains, where they tilled the rocky hills. Thousands were killed in a bloodbath that took place in the mountains in 1860.

Historically, like the Jews the Maronites spoke Aramaic. Today, although the prayers are written in Aramaic, only the elders of the region and a few scattered communities in Cyprus and Lebanon still speak what was once the lingua franca of the Middle East. A few years ago, Khalloul began working toward its revival as one way of reconnecting the population with its heritage. As highly motivated as any Jewish pioneer, and as passionate about Aramaic as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was about Hebrew, Khalloul managed to get the ancient tongue into the village curriculum: Aramaic is now offered to all pupils from first to eighth grade.

Khalloul quickly squelched my hopes of learning Arabic from the locals.

Everyone in the village speaks excellent Hebrew, he explained, while their Arabic is impure and filled with both Aramaic and Hebrew words and phrases. He himself converses with his son Aram in Aramaic only, and communicates with his Russian-born wife in Hebrew.

Israel’s Maronites have never raised a finger against the Jews, not before, during, or after the 1948 War of Independence. Nevertheless, the establishment has always considered them Arab and behaved towards them accordingly.

During 1948 they were told to leave their homes in the Aramaic Maronite village of Bir’am (near Kibbutz Bar’am), and promised a speedy return. Most of them resettled temporarily in Gush Halav, but five years after the evacuation, and despite a court decision in their favor, Bir’am was razed to the ground.

Although their young people identify with, and are loyal to, the Jewish state, they are not required to serve in the army. Nevertheless, after they finish high school almost every graduate volunteers for either the army or National Service.

Were it compulsory, I was told, villagers would serve in the armed forces without complaint.

Khalloul is an officer in the paratroopers, and reports at least once a year for reserve duty. His day job is in hi-tech, but he spends every spare moment promoting tourism to the village and working toward preserving its Aramaic identity. As yet there are no “bed and breakfast” lodgings in Gush Halav (Khalloul begins construction of four hillside units next month), so he either arranges for tourists to stay overnight in area settlements or matches them up with Maronite families from the village who open their hearts and homes for a minimal fee.

Khalloul also organizes tours of Gush Halav and the surrounding area, and arranges what he calls Aramean meals with a wonderful family on a balcony overlooking the entire area.

LOCATED ON the slopes of Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee, Gush Halav faces stunning views from almost any vantage point and features old and new churches, Jewish antiquities, the tombs of two famous Jewish sages, direct access to a perennially flowing river, and a hidden lake. The latest attraction: a wheelchair- accessible path from Jish to nearby Moshav Dalton – two and a half kilometers long each way.

Since I had come to Gush Halav to write a travel article, we started taking in the sights soon after hubby and I settling into the Khalloul family’s guest room.

First, Khalloul accompanied us to the older of the village’s two Maronite churches. It was surprising in its simplicity; in fact, it looked rather like the interior of a cave. The décor wasn’t Eastern Orthodox, nor was it elaborately Catholic. Which made me ask Khalloul what, exactly, was a Maronite? About 100 years after the Byzantine Empire accepted Christianity as its national religion, a deeply spiritual priest named Maroun decided to meditate in solitude within the mountains of Mesopotamia (today’s northern Syria).

His saintly life attracted many followers, called Maronites, who accepted the authority of Rome as Catholics who worshiped in their native tongue. Maronites are the only Eastern Christian sect that is not split between Orthodox and Catholics: all Maronites are Catholic.

Because of the Arab invaders’ consistent persecution of the Maronites, they had to be ready at all times for flight. As a result, they often worshiped in caves or in simple structures that could be quickly abandoned, which is why the old church has such character.

Our next stop was the modern Maronite church, still lacking the ostentation of many Catholic churches but absolutely stunning. Completed in 1995 and built with funds raised among Maronites here and abroad, the church can hold 1,000 people and on holidays like Easter it is full to bursting.

The décor is simple and even the pillars are plain: no Corinthian columns or elaborate decorations. But the walls are colored in warm and comforting shades of orange, yellow and peach. On the windows, and sandwiched between views of the Way of the Cross, are lovely biblical scenes from Creation to the Revelation on Mount Sinai.

Later in the evening we stopped in at a restaurant/pub where the young people of the village sometimes hang out, and then turned in for the night. But next day my husband and I we were up with the roosters and took a walk along the asphalt path to Dalton.

It was glorious: not only was the air sweet and clear, but on one side we had a view of Mount Meron, towering above us, and on the other a breathtaking view of snow-covered Mount Hermon. Besides brightly colored hydraulic exercise equipment that we stopped to enjoy, we encountered galloping horses, grazing cows and a glistening lake in a pastoral landscape that hinted of Ireland or Wales.

Afterwards, Khalloul and three-year-old Aram joined us on a hike partway to Nahal Gush Halav. We didn’t do the entire five-kilometer hike, trail-marked in green, as we would have needed a pickup near Kibbutz Bar’am. But even our shorter walk was delightful.

In the distance, we could see sheer white cliffs above the riverbed; on our left, a tiny waterfall. To our right, further down the slopes, water was gushing out of a large spring. Besides the numerous underground springs near Gush Halav, two streams feed into the river. Since it flows all year round, people flock here in late summer to enjoy both the cooling water and the wild raspberries that grow nearby.

Gush Halav was a thriving Jewish village during the Second Temple period and in the centuries that followed the Great Revolt against Rome (66-73 CE).

You may have heard of the most famous Jew born in the village: Yohanan Ben- Levi.

Better known as “Yohanan from Gush Halav,” he was one of the main figures leading the fight against the Romans during the Revolt. After the Golan and the rest of the Galilee fell to the Romans, the conquering army laid siege to Gush Halav. When it became clear that the town could not survive, Yohanan escaped to Jerusalem (where an alley bears his name) and continued the good fight inside the Holy City.

CONSIDERING THE long-term Jewish presence in Gush Halav, it is not surprising that it sustained at least two synagogues. The ruins of one were incorporated into the foundations of a Greek Orthodox church perched at the very top of Gush Halav. The other was right on our path, on the slopes inside an olive grove.

We found the synagogue, which functioned from the fourth century to the sixth, very similar to another located on Mount Arbel. Khalloul pointed out the sculpted eagle on its lintel, a decoration found all over synagogues in the Galilee and Golan Heights, and a column with barely decipherable letters that read, in Aramaic: “Yosa Ben-Nahum made this.

May he be blessed.”

Tombs of the sages are found throughout the Galilee, some of them packed at times with worshipers who come to ask for help in times of tragedy and illness or hoping for assistance in finding a life partner. Two of the most famous rabbinical sages are Shmaya and Abtaliyon, who served as spiritual leaders during the first century BCE. Shmaya was presiding judge of the Sanhedrin, or Jewish Court, and Abtaliyon was its president.

According to tradition, they are buried together under a double sarcophagus in Gush Halav, next to a large, modern patio for hilulot – celebrations on the anniversaries of their passing into the next world. Both Shmaya and Abtaliyon are known for their pithy sayings. My favorite is attributed to Shmaya, who counseled his fellow men to “love work and shun power.”

Before taking off – he was scheduled to guide a group through the village – Khalloul led us to an overlook on an anemone-covered hill from which Mount Hermon seemed almost close enough to touch. We had a sweeping view of the surrounding area settlements, slopes and valleys, along with the Hill of Weeping, from which former Bir’am residents watched as their homes were demolished by the army. Khalloul also pointed out the Lebanese village of Maroun Aras, which kept the name of its Maronite inhabitants but is now populated instead by Shi’ite Muslims.

To our delight, we also got a glimpse of a shiny lake almost completely hidden in the folds of the hills. It was only minutes away, so we said our goodbyes, then got into our car and tried to find our way to the water. At one point, a bit lost, we stopped at a field and asked a shepherd, his bronze face creased from the sun, where to go next. I admit to trying out my Arabic, but the shepherd answered me in perfect Hebrew, and gave precise directions. We ended our weekend in Gush Halav at a clear blue lake, surrounded by flowers and horses, and enveloped in a pastoral tranquility that stayed with us for days.

The season for picking fruit begins in May. Come and bring your families: Call Tony Allum at 052-873-0100.

During the summer Gush Halav will be holding a festival with Aramean music, food, tours and all kinds of goodies. For information about the festival, visiting the village, staying overnight, or getting a guided tour see www.aramaic-center.com, write to Shady Khalloul at aram.maronite.center@ gmail.com or call him at 054-753- 1785.

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