Reuven Kalifon works as a night guard at Kibbutz Tzuba, where he has lived for 35 years. It gives him time to think about Jewish history.
“What is the origin of the name Binyamin?” he asks as he gazes out over the rolling hills of Jerusalem towards Nebi Samwil. “The Hebrew language is special, it preserves the past. The word yamin in “Binyamin” means to the right, because it was on the south when people were facing east.”
That doesn’t make sense if you think of the history of Israel as relating to the Kingdom of Judah, because the Tribe of Benjamin was north of the kingdom. Kalifon corrects my supposition – “It was a tradition of the northern kingdom” – and as we know, if you had been a Jew in the 10th century BCE in the Kingdom of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin would have been on your southern flank.
It is such wordplay, incorporating Midrash and Jewish history that appeals to some. For most, a trip to Kibbutz Tzuba is a chance to escape the confines of urban life and experience the beautiful green lungs of the hills between Jerusalem and the coastal plain.
Located just a 20-minute drive from the capital and 40 minutes from Tel Aviv, the kibbutz is perched on a hill overlooking the Arab villages of Ein Rafa and Abu Ghosh that straddle Route 1. In the Crusader period, the nearby hill was the site of a Crusader castle – part of a chain of forts around Jerusalem, like Nebi Samwil, that ringed the city.
Entering the kibbutz, one can see old cabins that mark the style of living for the first settlers in 1948. “In those days, four or five people lived in each cabin,” explains Kalifon. Not far away is an old, ruined stone building, a memory of the Arab village of Suba that once stood here; some of the descendants of these Arabs live in Ein Rafa today. The kibbutz, which has slightly less than 250 members, is economically successful and has a windshield factory.
We begin our tour of the winery, which is offered every Friday.
Tzuba wines have been winning medals in recent years, and are part of the exciting blossoming of the Israeli wine industry. Paul Dubb, the winemaker, was born in South Africa and took over the operation in 2007. A guide details how they produce around 50,000 bottles of kosher wine a year; they face hurdles in expanding the operation because of the struggle to find available land in the Jerusalem area.
“We wake up early, at 2 a.m., in summer; we put grapes in a machine that sorts them. It is hard work,” notes the guide, who also works at the factory.
We taste two reds, one a 2011 called Belmont that is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet; and a 2013 white that is a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Priced from NIS 65 to NIS 100, these are affordable and pleasant vintages. The wine-tasting room is modest but affords a nice, airy view of the kibbutz.
Their Port is 40-proof and has a dramatic, fruity explosion upon sampling.
After the tasting, the tour takes the large group of Israelis who have come for the Friday brunch down along a path to an old wine press.
“You just tasted wine, and now you will see the way wine was made before. Our forefathers drank a lot of wine; if you take the average Jew who drinks on Passover or on Friday, maybe he drinks 5 liters a year.
But in those days they drank a lot,” says Kalifon.
The long explanation about the ancient Jewish connection to vino seems to go over the heads of most of the group, including the children – who spend most of their time chucking rocks and dirt into the wine-press cisterns.
BACK AT the lunch hall at the Tzuba Hotel, 50 or more guests are seated around the ample dining room. With a full side open to the beautiful Jerusalem hills, this is the high point of the visit.
With around 64 rooms, with some still being renovated, the hotel is experiencing a facelift. “We have conventions here and people from universities and companies hosting events,” says the manager.
A night at the hotel costs around $150 for a couple with breakfast.
The Friday brunch and tour are NIS 95 per adult, NIS 50 per child. In the summer season there is a swimming pool.
Unfortunately, the food is a little bland; consisting of a table of various salads (bulgur, peppers, carrots, beets), and another table with entrees such as lasagna, quiche and Moroccan-style spicy fish. There is some herring and a salmon pate.
Fresh-squeezed juice is on offer, as are delectable deserts. Waiters bring around a special glass of wine-punch, which balances out some of the disappointment over the meal.
Even if the food could use a makeover, the experience of a visit to Tzuba for the wine and alluring, bucolic views and history is well worth it.