Living the high life

Home to unique guest houses, visitors and vacationers have found respite in the tranquil, vegetarian-oriented community of Amirim, perched atop the Galilean hills.

simsala 88 224 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
simsala 88 224
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Amirim, situated hundreds of feet above sea level halfway between Karmiel and Safed, gives visitors the feeling that they're hang gliding with their feet firmly on the ground. This very special community, home to around 150 families, provides spectacular views of the Kinneret, the lower Galilee, the Jordan Valley, and the Golan Heights, as well as tranquility and freshest mountain air. What it doesn't provide - its founders were among the pioneers of the vegetarian movement in Israel - is meat. In some homes in Amirim, even so much as a boiled egg would be strictly off-limits. However, the food in the local restaurants proved a very tasty eye opener for this veteran meat eater, who until recent years, pooh-poohed vegetarian, vegan and other carefully thought-out dietary regimes. Age brings with it both wisdom and a few creaks and cracks in the body, both reasons to consider an alternative diet or possibly even trying one of the forms of alternative medicine seemingly on offer in every other home in Amirim. Established by the Jewish Agency as a moshav, Amirim ("treetops" in Hebrew) was initially settled by new immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia, who found themselves truly out on a limb and three-quarters of the way up a mountain, with few other inhabitants for miles around. Abandoned and resettled a number of times, with a few of the "originals" hanging on somehow, Amirim began to put down strong roots in the Galilee in the late 1950s when a group of vegetarians arrived with a plan to set up a meat-free community in the northern hills. While the remaining original inhabitants raised chickens for a livelihood, their new, vegetarian neighbors had no wish to exploit animals and somehow scratched out a living at whatever work was available. Among the vegetarian newcomers were Dalia Cohen and her late husband, Amiad, whom the 73-year-old restaurant owner describes as a "vegetarian from birth." The Cohens left Kibbutz Mishmar David in central Israel and moved to the Galilee with just four other families. "We were pacifists and vegetarians with a very definite idea of what we did and didn't want," explained Dalia, a retired home economics teacher who decided to open her own eatery 23 years ago. She describes her cooking as "simple and tasty" - "simple" being a gross understatement for the more than tasty and colorful lunch demolished by your Metro correspondent. The jovial Dalia, whose four children and 10 grandchildren nearly all live in Amirim, pops from table to table, making sure that guests are enjoying their food. No complaints are heard. "Yoffee, yoffee (great, great)," repeats Dalia, a larger-than-life personality who says she is a vegetarian on humanitarian grounds first and, secondly, because vegetarianism is healthy. Nowadays, Dalia's Vegetarian Restaurant is as synonymous with the name Amirim as are the breathtaking views - one or another of which can always been seen wherever one sits in her hilltop restaurant. Dalia's place, however, isn't the only attraction. Dozens of signs at the moshav entrance advertise artists' studios, galleries, practitioners of alternative medicine, walking and jeep tour guides, and sellers of organic foodstuffs and wines. Also, there doesn't seem to be a local family that doesn't have a "guest house" - or two or three - on its property, and on weekends the place is bursting with folks who come to get away from it all. Among the families offering bed and breakfast facilities are Phillip and Alit Campbell. A charismatic man who loves nothing better than to guide guests who really want to see, feel and taste his beloved Galilee, Phillip is also a fascinating storyteller. He became a vegetarian in his early twenties after stumbling across a slaughterhouse. He was one of the first members of the Jewish Vegetarian Society, which was founded in Britain but these days boasts branches in many different countries, including Israel. On a visit to Israel in the sixties, Phillip heard about Amirim, decided to pay a visit and met his wife, Alit, whose parents, Dora and Gidon Lamdan, were among the community's founders. Lamdan and his wife often gave up their bedroom to stranded visitors, opting to sleep in the kitchen. Thus the idea was born to open a guest house. In the early 1960s, the Jewish Agency helped 10 families build their first "zimmerim" as the guest chalets are known in Hebrew. Ron and Alona Keidar are relative newcomers to Amirim, as are their friends and business partners Avital and Uri Levi. Both couples moved to Amirim five years ago, captivated by the tranquility, beautiful scenery and a wish to have their children grow up in a safe environment. The couples run what looks from the outside to be a highly unusual and ramshackle complex of café-restaurant, small shops and two zimmerim. Curiosity got the better of me, and I entered Simsala, named after an animated television series featuring well-known Brothers Grimm fairytales. Basically created from what were originally a number of uncompleted buildings, what Alona, Ron and the Levis have to offer visitors is quite out of the ordinary - a large, homey, den-like space that offers peace, simplicity and friendliness as well as the de rigueur amazing view. The Keidars moved to Amirim from Jaffa, where they ran an artistic woodwork studio, after the first of their three children was born. "We were very much part of the Jaffa-Tel Aviv scene, but when Yally (now seven) was born, life in the city no longer seemed appealing," explains Alona. "We hadn't been to the Galilee for almost 20 years and friends who had moved to Amirim invited us to come and visit. We were really taken in by the natural pulse of life here. Friends told us of a property up for rent, we decided to take it for three months and see how things went. We rented out our home in Jaffa and basically - as you can see - we didn't return to our previous way of life," says Alona with a broad smile. Partners Avital (a chef) and Uri (in high-tech) Levi made "aliya" to Amirim from Hod Hasharon at around the same time the Keidars did. The couples met at the local kindergarten in Amirim. "We were chatting over a cup of coffee one day and that's how Simsala was born," says Alona as Ron enters. This writer's visit to Amirim ended at a public park that features benches arranged almost on the lip of the cliff, proffering a - yet another - magnificent view of the Kinneret, the Golan, and the lower Galilee hills. The park memorializes Amirim native, pilot Menahem Kashtan (shot down over Egypt during the Yom Kippur War) and other IAF casualties. The overwhelming scenery, the silence broken only by a few twittering birds, sums up Amirim - a place between heaven and earth that leaves one physically, emotionally, and spiritually richer.