A toast to the pioneers

A day in Zichron Ya’acov offers plenty to do – so much that you might have to come back a second time.

Carmel winery 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Carmel winery 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)

We have all heard stories about the hardships that early settlers had to face when they arrived in the Land of Israel in the late 19th century. But do we really understand what they went through?

For a graphic, gripping description of those first pioneer years and the revolution that changed the face of Israeli settlement, your best bet is the First Aliyah Museum in Zichron Ya’acov. Located in a historic building in the center of the city’s oldest section, the museum tells the story of the earliest modern-day immigration to the country. Short movies, multimedia exhibits and displays teach who these pioneers were, what life was really like in the wilderness where they landed, how they suffered and how some of them, at least, persevered.

Besides the museum, a day in Zichron Ya’acov offers plenty to do – so much that you might have to come back a second time. You can spend a stirring hour at the Nili Museum, walk up and down the town’s oldest street to shop in restored early buildings, dine at street-side cafes, and even take part in a paper-making workshop.

If you feel like gourmet food, you can try President Shimon Peres’s favorite restaurant in Zichron (Adama), visit the Carmel Winery, or take a tour of the new and delightful Pavo Brewery. The earliest pioneers to settle Zichron Ya’acov came from Romania. Mainly traders, they knew very little about farming and nothing at all about growing things in the boondocks. But they had little choice: They had lost their Romanian citizenship and had to try to make the best of their situation.

Then, when things were at their blackest, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, known in Israel as the Great Benefactor, decided to lend a helping hand. A banker who had lots of ideas for making money in the Land of Israel, he was thrilled to be contributing to its redemption.

Unfortunately many of his European underlings had no idea how to deal with Romanian settlers and a Middle Eastern wilderness. They did, however, know how to live well: The museum is housed in the beautiful villa they built as a residence for themselves (the settlers lived elsewhere).

After many failures, they discovered what the land could produce generously: grapes. Thus Rothschild set up a fantastically successful winery in the town.

But economics, disease, living conditions and rocky soil were not the pioneers’ only problems. In one of the museum’s movies, settlers passionate about learning Hebrew and getting a rounded education are soundly opposed by equally passionate Yiddish-speaking pioneers.

The final movie on the tour shows contemporary stories interspersed with actual footage of the pioneers that is worth a visit in itself.

These short items are from a film produced in 1913 for screening at the Zionist Congress in Vienna; over the next few years, it was also shown in Europe and the US. After World War II, the film disappeared, along with the original negatives. Fortunately, in 1997, the negatives were discovered in Paris’s National Cinema Archives – four boxes containing 172 reels. Eventually Yaakov Gross, a director, researcher and preserver of Hebrew films, restored the whole hour-long film under the auspices of the Israel Film Archives.

Another of Zichron Ya’acov’s attractions that should not be missed tells the story of Jewish underground organization Nili, which operated during World War I. An acronym for “netzah Yisrael lo yeshaker” – a passage from the book of Samuel loosely translated as “the Jewish nation will live forever” – Nili was led by Avshalom Feinberg, along with agronomist Aharon Aharonson and his sister Sarah, whose parents were among the first settlers in Zichron Ya’acov.

The group’s 30 to 40 members believed the British would be better masters than the Turks. Aharon Aharonson, who in 1906 had made the momentous discovery of a wild grain called the “mother wheat,” was prominent enough to hold special travel permits that helped him pass vital military information to the British; his experimental farm near Atlit served as communications headquarters for British ships off the coast. Sarah Aharonson headed the spy ring in Palestine when her brother was away.

Nili was discovered after a carrier pigeon that the farm had sent to the British ended up in the Turkish governor’s front yard. Sarah Aharonson was captured by the Turks in 1917 and tortured, but refused to reveal information about her comrades in the organization. When she heard that she was being sent to a military tribunal in Damascus for trial, she attempted to commit suicide, injuring her spinal cord and dying four days later.

Feinberg, who was engaged to the Aharonsons’ sister Rivka, disappeared in the Sinai sands after traveling to Egypt to make contact with British Intelligence. Aharon Aharonson died mysteriously in 1919; he was on a peace mission between London and Paris when his plane crashed over the English Channel.

The Nili Museum was one of the first historical museums in the country.

Renovated just over a decade ago, it encompasses the house in which the Aharonsons were born and raised, the home in which Aharon lived as an adult, and a third structure built in the courtyard in 1956. That’s when Rivka, who had lovingly preserved the Aharonson family homes, founded the museum.

Visitors can learn the incredible story of how Feinberg’s body was found,read the poem he wrote to his fiancée – which was transformed into a well-known Israeli song – and hear how a few dozen young people helped change the course of Jewish history.

The land on which the pioneers of Zichron Ya’acov settled was purchased from a wealthy Christian Arab who lived in Haifa. Before they arrived, a dozen or so fellahin (poor farmers) had been squatting on the land, called Zammarin, in huts made of dirt and branches and mainly living off wild produce. Zammarin is Arabic for “shepherd’s flute,” referring to reeds growing in the region which produced a fluty sound.

When the pioneers arrived, the name sounded so much lik Samaria that they were certain they were living in that biblical region. Indeed, they continued in this belief for years, although soon after Rothschild became involved, he asked that it be renamed after his father Jacob (Zichron Ya’acov means “a memorial to Jacob”).

Although the first settlers set up house on a lovely hill in Zammarin, the baron moved them to the area that is today the pedestrian mall on Hameyasdim (the founders) Street. The transfer enabled construction of the Carmel Winery, cellars and the winery shop. The tour is a bit long, but we enjoyed most of the explanations – and of course, the wine tasting at the end.

More interesting is a visit to Pavo Brewery, also on Zammarin Hill. Nachi Bargida is a successful businessman who used to travel all over the world. Not long ago, he decided he wanted his children to grow up in his native Israel, and wanted to do something to help the country at the same time. His great-great-grandparents, the Applebaums, were among the first settlers in Zichron Ya’acov, and on the hill where they had put down roots, he and his associates built what has become a highly successful brewery.

The building dates back to the settlement’s beginning, and in order to preserve its integrity, he adapted the brewery to the existing edifice. Visitors are invited to take a 30 to 45-minute tour of the brewery.

Bargida’s explanations about the process are fascinating, and you may also learn some tidbits about the positive qualities of beer.

Indeed, he claims that not only is beer low in calories, but drinking 330 ml. of it every day gets your metabolism moving and helps you lose weight. (At my skeptical look, he reminded me that people get that famous beer belly from what they eat with the beer.)

The kosher Pavo – Latin for “peacock” – opened in December, began marketing in February and is already selling all over the Dan region. Besides four premium standard beers, Pavo produces two others that change every month.

In warm weather, there is a delicious breeze on the hill, where the view will take your breath away. From the brewery balcony, you can see the University of Haifa, the Druse village of Usfiya, Daliat al-Carmel, the Mukhraka and the Mediterranean Sea. In spring and summer, a beer garden is set up outdoors, and packed with happy people.

Deganit and Rafi Azulay own an unusual restaurant called Adama (earth) Culinary Cabin, also located on Zammarin Hill. The couple originally worked in international hitech, traveling around the world and dining in a wide variety of excellent restaurants. Thirteen years ago, they moved to Zichron Ya’acov because of its pastoral atmosphere; 10 years later, having decided to lead a less stressful existence, they bought a house on Zammarin Hill and began work on a restaurant.

Adama opened two and a half years ago as a family project. Half a year later, the couple’s 19-year-old son, Gal, a navy commando, was killed during a diving exercise.

Though stunned and grief-stricken, his family decided not to abandon the enterprise and managed to carry on.

Using the diverse herbs grown in their garden, the restaurant chef creates gourmet dishes that we enjoyed immensely (and we were not guests of the owners). Located in an abandoned cowshed that the original settlers built in 1892, the restaurant oozes atmosphere that adds spice to the cuisine. Local artists produced the ceramic dishes on which the food is served, as well as the paintings exhibited on the walls.

During your visit to the city, allow yourself time to wander through the colorful, lively pedestrian mall on Hameyasdim Street. At No. 39, hidden behind the street’s charming galleries, coffee shops, restaurants and boutique stores, you will find the Tut-Neyar paper mill. The bark of the tut neyar, or paper mulberry tree, provides raw material for the cottage industry owned and operated by Timna and Yizhar Neumann, who produce a fine quality paper in a shed next to their home.

The process begins with steaming the branches after the leaves fall off and cooking the result with sodium bicarbonate. The resulting fibers are used to manufacture stunning wall hangings, lampshades, invitations and a variety of other items available in their shop.


First Aliyah Museum: 2 Hanadiv Street . Open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 9 to 2, Tuesday 9 to 3. Excellent English explanations and subtitles. Entrance fee: adults NIS 15, children NIS 12. (04) 629-4777. Call before you come if you also want a guided tour in English (additional fee).

Nili Museum: 40 Hameyasdim Street. Open Sunday-Thursday 9 to 4, Friday 9 to 1. Entrance fee is for the guided tour: adults NIS 18, children NIS 14. Call (04) 639-0120 to reserve a place on a tour – especially if you want one in English. The last tours take place one hour before closing.

Carmel Winery: Call to reserve a place on the standard tour (NIS 30 per person). If you are really into wine, however, go for the NIS 50 tour, in which you get far more elaborate explanations while seated around a table, with bread and olive oil along with your wine (minimum 10 people, or pay NIS 500 and divide the fee among a smaller group). (04) 639-1788; www.carmelwines.co.il/en.

Pavo Brewery: Brewery and tour hours: Sunday-Thursday 9:30 to 6; bar and viewing balcony hours: Tuesday- Thursday 9:30 a.m. to midnight, Friday 11 a.m. until Shabbat, Saturday