The Galilean cradle of religions

Druse, Christian and Muslim towns make for eye-opening lessons and good eating.

galilee forest 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
galilee forest 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
I have to admit, although I run the risk of being politically incorrect, whenever I drive through Galilean roads and pass Arab towns or villages, a slight fear grips me. Since the level of distrust among Jews and Arabs has increased since the intifada, I suspect most Israelis would probably think twice before entering an unfamiliar Arab town to catch a bite or change a tire. But that doesn't have to be the case. Walking tours within non-Jewish towns and villages - with or without guides - can be eye-opening and tasty experiences. During a recent tour in Western Galilee, I meandered through Muslim, Christian and Druse towns, as well as Baha'i landmarks, only to discover cultural richness, friendliness - and some surprises. Olive Country We begin the tour at the visitors' center of the only Jewish olive press in Lower Galilee, Avtalyon - named after the tannaitic sage who migrated there after the destruction of the Second Temple. A quaint café serving olive oil-rich, Arab-style foods overlooks the neverending groves of olive trees belonging to the Arab town of Arrabe, which is part of the "axis of olives" in Lower Galilee, along with Sakhnin, Deir Hanna, Marah and Rama. Avtalyon offers year-round tours, tastings, and lectures on the production and health benefits of olive oil. Even though I felt nervous passing through the town, Elbaz assured me it was safe and our tour guide, Morris Zemach, author of Traveling with Morris in the Galilee, slammed the myth that Arrabe residents are stingy and not friendly. But we didn't stop to find out. We continued to Deir Hanna, a mixed Muslim-Christian town with some of the country's oldest olive trees. Every home there once had a working olive press, but industrialization made them obsolete. "Many Jews don't like to come here," Zemach explained as we stood under an Ottoman stone gate where Muslim elders of the adjacent mosque often meet after prayers. "They're afraid, but that comes from lack of knowledge. You can feel welcome to come on your own." Zemach, who is friendly with the locals, took us through a Muslim home whose backyard contains the remains of a Byzantine fortress built by Daher el Omar, Ottoman ruler of Galilee in the 1700s. The residents, an elderly couple, didn't seem to mind that we passed through, although when we left and wished them a good day, they didn't exactly smile and wave back. But gregariousness was not lacking at the Houris, a Christian family that have made their centuries-old olive press a tourist attraction. The father of the house, Mutlak, and his wife entertained us with a darbuka and violin; the music wasn't exactly the most melodious, but it was endearing. The Houris sell homemade olive oil and carob honey in the same room as their refurbished ancient oil press. "The building is 1,500 years old, the press is 250 years old, and the donkey that pulls the press is 1,007 years old," explained Mutlak with a joke he probably reserves for all visitors. Further northwest, in Kafr Yasif, Muslim, Christian and Druse communities open their mosques and churches to Jewish tourists. Jews once lived here too, back at the turn of the first millennium, and an ancient Jewish cemetery is sadly hidden among dying weeds at the side of the main road, across the street from a Superpharm. An ornate, medieval-style Greek Orthodox church is open to the non-Christian public, and nearby is an Evangelical church. The felafel and humous joints along the main road are said to be among the best in Israel. Our tour guide, Amnon Gofer, encourages visitors to wander through the village, and even knock on doors and have coffee or tea with the locals, to find out more. Druse Hospitality The hassidic man with peyot walking around the Druse village of Sajur seems like an anomaly, but a hassidic presence has existed in Sajur for the past five years - ever since Ibrahim Riad decided to make his family Druse restaurant kosher. The Riads' "The Sultan's Feast" began in a handsome, Oriental living room. Ibrahim's decision to go kosher was strictly business - and a smart one at that - judging by the religious tourists enjoying the food. Mrs. Riad and her children are the chefs, making fresh, authentic Druse dishes like majadra, a dish of lentils, bulgur and onions; and "groom rice" with meat and cinnamon, served to a Druse groom on his wedding night to give him "strength." Ibrahim has three sons serving in the IDF, and his sweet, well-spoken daughters were on hand to give us some insight into the restaurant, the village, and the basics of the Druse faith. Further west, in the Druse village of Julis, more clues into the Druse faith can be provided by Nabia Tarif, the grandson and personal assistant of Sheikh Amin Tarif, the "Lubavitcher rebbe" of the Druse community. Sheikh Tarif was given the rare Druse privilege of a private burial place, now a Druse holy place. "During his tenure as head of the community, there wasn't any split within the Druse community," Nabia Tarif explained, bearing a noble stature, Druse headdress, friendly smile and sparkling blue eyes. The wall of the visitors' center is covered with pictures of the sheikh and 20th-century notables: David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Jimmy Carter. Naji Abbas, who lives near the entrance to Julis, claims that his father was the first Druse to serve in the IDF in 1948. In honor of his parents, he planted a marvelous, fountain-filled garden in his backyard called "Fountains of Faith." He has opened it to the public for strolling, relaxing, and meditating - and also for wedding portraits, for which he charges a fee of NIS 100. Baha'i Gardens In Israel, the Baha'i faith is most famous for its stunningly landscaped administrative headquarters in Haifa, where the prophet-herald of the faith, the Báb, is buried at the Shrine of the Báb. But the religion actually took root in Acre. The founder of the Baha'i faith, Baha'u'llah, an early follower of the Báb, declared himself in 1863 to be the messenger of God foretold by the Báb. He was banished across the Middle East, until he was thrown into the Acre prison by the Ottomans. When he was released under nominal house arrest, he remained in Acre to continue to document and reveal his message of monotheism and global unity. Now, six million Baha'is are spread throughout 200 countries. Only about 700 of them live in Israel at any given time, caring for Baha'i landmarks and welcoming pilgrims. The Bahji Mansion in Acre, the burial place and shrine of Baha'u'llah, is the focal point of Baha'i prayer. Its structure is more modest than the "Shrine of the Báb" in Haifa, built by Udi Khammar, a prominent Acre resident in the 19th century, but the gardens bear the beauty, geometry, and lushness that has become a signature of the Baha'is. A visitors' center at the mansion offers a brief history of the religion, including key figures and teachings.