Zichron Ya'acov: Historical drama, good wine

Many dramatic events in the turbulent days of the early Yishuv were played out in this community.

Zichron Yaacov 88 224 (photo credit: Ann Goldberg)
Zichron Yaacov 88 224
(photo credit: Ann Goldberg)
Visitors to Zichron Ya'acov who are curious to know how the town - founded in 1882 - got started should visit the the First Aliya Museum, which pays tribute to its early pioneers. Housed in an impressive building that was originally Baron Edmund de Rothschild's administrative headquarters, the museum consists mainly of a series of video films that tell the story of a young family who came to the Carmel Mountains from Romania in the late 19th century in the wake of pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism. The films hold nothing back about their living conditions, as the immigrants had no agricultural experience, insufficient water and worked the relentless soil day after day with little to show for it. Adults and children died of malaria and suffered terrible eye diseases. Truly desperate, they applied to the well-known philanthropist Baron de Rothschild for help. But the baron's agents persuaded many of the settlers to go into various industries that proved completely unprofitable, such as perfume making. When they were finally offered financial help with their agricultural endeavors, it was with the proviso that they sign over their farms and equipment to the baron. Not surprisingly, this condition met with great opposition and resulted in much bad feeling and demonstrations against de Rothschild's agents. Some "troublemakers" were expelled from Zichron, and others who refused to sign over their property were left to fend for themselves. Many claim that de Rothschild was unaware of the bad feelings his policies caused, and there is no doubt that his generosity made a tremendous impact on the life of the early Yishuv. Most of the places he founded were in memory of his parents. Next to the museum is the synagogue he built, Ohel Ya'acov, named (as was the town) for his father, Jacob Rothschild. He intended it to be the most beautiful shul in the country, and even now - refurbished and repainted, with its attractive stained glass windows and blue ceiling with golden stars representing the sky - it is a very impressive monument. Take a stroll along the quaint cobbled roads, with old-fashioned building facades and gas-style street lamps. Or take a break at a sidewalk café or in one of the courtyards along the two main roads: HaMeyasdim and HaNadiv. Part of this charming area is for pedestrians only, and the old-world atmosphere belies the fact that this is a 21st-century Israeli town. Further along HaMeyasdim Street is Beit Aaronsohn, the site of another historic drama. The Aaronsohns were one of Zichron's founding families and central players in the Nili spy ring that aided the British in their fight against the Turks in WWI. When the ring was smashed, the Turks descended on the Aaronsohn home. Sara Aaronsohn was held captive and tortured, but she managed to get hold of a gun that was hidden in the bathroom and shot herself rather than give up any other Nili members. The Aaronsohn home, still very much as it was then, displays many photos, documents and memorabilia of the family and their espionage activities, and an audiovisual presentation narrates their story. Baron Edmund died in France, but specified in his will that he wanted to be buried in Israel. In 1954, he and his wife, Adelaide, were re-interred in a specially prepared mausoleum in the Ramat Hanadiv Memorial Gardens at Zichron's edge. The imposing crypt stands in the center of 17 acres of expansive lawns and immaculately cared-for individual gardens, such as Cascade Garden (which boasts waterfalls), Rose Garden and Fragrance Garden (designed for the visually impaired). These beautiful gardens form the center of a sprawling 1100-acre nature park with many marked hiking paths. Maps and self-guided tours can be purchased at the entrance. But perhaps Zichron's best-known claim to fame is the Carmel Winery (formerly known as the Carmel Mizrahi Winery). A visit there is fun and enlightening, especially when it culminates in a tasting session - although there were few surprises for those of us whose tables are regularly graced with its vintages. At the entrance to the winery there is a very large paved area detached from the rest of the grounds. Beneath this is a scale, and when trucks come in, laden with grapes, it's weighed and the quantity of grapes aboard is calculated and noted. Visitors can follow the winemaking process around the plant: samples are taken to test the grapes' sugar content; rollers gently remove the twigs and leaves; machines remove the skins and then the fruit is turned into red, white, sweet and dry wine and grape juice. The winery's enormous vats used to be cleaned out by children, but the strong alcoholic fumes sent them to sleep. So a rope would be attached to one of their ankles, allowing winery workers to pull the children out. Nowadays, the vats are machine steam-cleaned. The cellar, lined with oak casks, is what visitors might picture when imagining a winery, but Carmel Winery only matures its top-of-the-line wines here, as the process is very costly. Each expensive cask can be used only four times before the wine starts to absorb the taste of the oak. Nothing of the grape goes to waste, we learned, as the seeds are made into cooking oil and even the leaves and twigs are used for compost. This delightful rural town has a lot that's worth seeing, but plan to get there in the morning, as many of the sites close for the day at 2 p.m. For information on these and other tourist sites, contact the Zichron Ya'acov Tourist Information Center: (04) 639-8892, Sun-Thurs 8 a.m.-1 p.m. The office is located at Yad LeMeyasdim on HaMeyasdim St.