Hi, all! Regular programming for Travelogia is on hiatus while I complete my upcoming travelogue, An Armada of Cats: Travels in Israel. Thanks to all who donated and who have offered feedback. The book is a firsthand exploration of my newly adopted country, sometimes following in the footsteps of my first visit on a 2011 Birthright tour and sometimes reminiscing on the travels of my late bubby (grandma).
While I spend the next week turning my notes into readable prose, here’s a chapter from a portion of my book written in Summer 2018, during the northern leg of my journey.
The Golan Heights
On Birthright, Tiberias was the base from which we explored all of northern Israel, and everyone was immediately struck by how shabby it looked– a Grimsby on the Galilee. Even native-born Israelis have since described it to me as a “shithole.” But as I got off the bus from Nazareth, that no longer seemed to be the case. Unfortunately, whatever memories I had of the place were long gone, so it was impossible to tell whether Tiberias had cleaned up its act or other Israeli cities had simply put it into perspective.
It was still Shabbat when I arrived, and the city was utterly quiet but for a mysterious booming noise, echoing erratically from across the lake. I knew the area was in the midst of a wave of earthquakes that, while mostly too small to feel, had elicited a panic among the locals. But the few pedestrians milling about paid this bizarre sound no attention, as if they had lived with it for years. In fact, they had.
Tiberias is the third holiest city in Judaism, both chronologically and in overall importance. When the Romans exiled the Jews from Jerusalem in the second century, the 120-member council of rabbis known as the Sanhedrin relocated here, and for nearly five centuries, most of the Talmud was written here. The Jews of Tiberias were mostly wiped out after one last attempt to regain statehood, but the city took on a new significance in the late Middle Ages when the Maimonedes, the last great rabbi that almost all Jews can agree on, was buried here.
Although Maimonedes had never lived or possibly even visited Tiberias, his grave site became a major draw for Jewish pilgrims, and having already visited his birthplace in Spain, I was excited to check out his final resting place. Like most holy sites, it had a security guard, but he never gave me or my overstuffed backpack so much as a look. Surprisingly, the site had recently been converted into an elaborate, modern open-air synagogue. The tomb itself was split between the men’s and women’s sections, and above it all sat a giant ceiling fan which resembled– and may once have been– the rotor of a helicopter. Only one worshipper was present, and he paid me no attention.
Although it was only a couple of blocks to the lakeshore, the total deadness of the town had a dulling, almost hypnotic effect, and I began thinking of something Nura the bartender had told me in Haifa. She had begged me not to swim in the lake because a friend of hers had recently vanished and presumably drowned, and that this had happened a lot recently. On the other hand, another friend from Haifa recalled swimming in the lake a lot as a kid and insisted there was nothing to worry about as long as you heeded warnings.
At this moment I had a thought: what if instead of walking on water, Jesus just knew where to swim safely, and that was the miracle? But the miracle was too regionally specific, and the Bible already had too many niche references, so the Biblical writers’ room decided to simplify things?
It must be said I was pretty hungry, and the total unfamiliarity of my surroundings was starting to raise uncomfortable questions about my state of mind. But when I arrived at the promenade, memories came flooding back. I stared out at the outlying pier on which sat Choco Bar, where I had once drinks with the coolest girl in my group of friends for the trip– the same one who later returned to Haifa and became a lawyer. I had had an aqua velva, a hideously sweet blue concoction lifted from the movie Zodiac, while she had a shot of something on fire followed by an Amaretto sour. We were chatting amiably, feeling very sophisticated, when the DJ suddenly began his set with a techno rendition of “Hava Nagila.” Seemingly the only person not into it, I recoiled as if witnessing the Jewish equivalent of shuck and jive, and was painfully reminded that this so much a globetrotting adventure as a really elaborate version of Spring Break.
Not having returned since then, I waited for the bar to open for the evening, but it never did. But as I waited, the sun set and the lake transformed. Throughout its length, the Jordan River sits below sea level, born from a fault line dividing the African and Arabian plates and buffered on both sides by the soaring highlands of their continental shelves. During the day, the view across the water had only been that of a huge, grassy plateau, the Golan Heights. But in the dark of night, the lights started to come on from the kibbutzim on the other side: half on the shore, half high above, revealing the true mass of the Golan. The booming noise continued to emanate from that direction and echo across the bowl of the lake. I would be headed there soon.
I took lunch at a nearby fish restaurant. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, or its the inevitable consequence of a labor shortage, but the moment you choose to go to a restaurant in Israel, you must accept that you’ll be there for a while. Strangely, it doesn’t take long for the waiters to take or bring your order, but try to pay and they’re nowhere to be found. In my early days as an Israeli, I would confound my then-girlfriend by simply giving up and leaving what I thought to be the correct amount plus tip, so reluctant were waiters to be paid. But despite the occasional lapse of memory in trying to get a quick meal before an important meeting or doctor’s appointment, I’ve learned to live with it. The locals call it savlanut. And anyway, the local buses hadn’t started running yet, so there was nowhere to go.
In retrospect, Tiberias may have been where I first took notice of Israel’s cats, because they were all over the promenade– scouting for fish on the shore, skittering away from passersby, mostly mothers with packs of kittens– and as I waited for the check, a herd of very young kittens rushed to my table in the hope of scoring some leftover fish. I meagerly obliged, though the restaurant might not have been happy. One, a black kitten with big mellow eyes, merely stared. He was one of the few cats I saw in the North who lacked a painful-looking eye infection; weeks later, news broke that the entire region was suffering from an outbreak of leptospirosis.
Finding Tiberias’ food and diversions preposterously expensive, I had elected to sleep at a guest house overlooking the southern end of the lake in a lifeless string of suburbs known as Poriya. I arrived there late, terrified that the eightysomething owner, Elli, would be cross with me. In the event, I was far more tired than he.
“Los Angeles, eh?” he asked, in an unusually clear accent for a man of his age. “You know, I worked there for forty-nine years in the travel business.”
Exhausted but intrigued, I grilled him to find out if he had ever known my grandparents (no), and he turned the conversation back to me. “So what are you doing all the way out here?”
“I live in Tel Aviv,” I said, “I’m an oleh.”
“What?” he asked, “I didn’t hear that so well.”
I switched to Hebrew. “Ani gar beTel Aviv. Aliti lifne rov shana.”
“I’m still not getting it,” he said. “It’s late. We can talk at breakfast.”
I retired to the closest thing to an actual hotel room that I had ever seen in a personal home– little wrapped soaps, travel brochures, unusually thick mattress that’s far more comfortable than yours will ever be– and almost immediately fell asleep.
I awoke around 7:00, feeling more eager to head out than at any time since perhaps Caesarea. After showering and dressing, I found Elli on the porch with a full breakfast.
“I wanted to ask you,” I said warily, “if you lived in the US for so long–“
“–Yes, all my family are there now,” he said, “mostly in Colorado.”
“So why come back?”
He laughed. “I grew up here. I was born in Jerusalem, but only because my mother was from there. On my father’s side, I’m sixth-generation Teveryan.”
My eyes widened. “You’re part of the Old Yishuv!?” I asked, referring to the small Jewish community that had lived here continuously for centuries.
He nodded. “I would have been born here, but my mother was with her family in Jerusalem when I was born. But after that, I grew up in Tiberias.”
“Then you must have been here during the War of Independence,” I said. In militaristic America, asking someone about their war experience might have been disrespectful, but Israel had disabused me of any such notions.
“Oh yes,” he said. “I was fourteen, and there was fighting all around in the hills. The Army– well it wasn’t the army until halfway through– they used to have us be runners, because that was the only way to communicate between the units.”
“You didn’t have radios?” I asked.
“No radios or anything,” he said. “In that war, everything was local. we had no support back then, not from France, not from America, the only way to get in weapons was through smuggling. You could forget about radios, so they had to use us. We had no idea what was going on in the cities, on the coast. All we knew was that in Tel Aviv they had already won the war.”
I thanked him for his story and hospitality. On his advice, I walked to the end of the street and arrived at the edge of the Jordan Valley basin, overlooking the very first kibbutzim at Deganya. Someone had even put a little couch there, presumably to enhance teenage makeout sessions there. It was unusually windy for morning, and hazier than the previous night, so the Golan was not as clearly in view. The booming continued.
While gathering my things to move on, Elli brought over a photograph of him with three other men. “My brother– he’s already gone, as well as one of the others,” he said, pointing to two in the figures. “This one though,” he interjected, pointing to a man in a black shirt, “he’s still alive. He used to be Mossad. Fought with the Peshmerga in the mountains, the army of the Kurds.”
“Nice,” I said, sympathetic to the Kurdish cause if slightly distracted by the deteriorating state of my backpack, and shortly headed off.
Arriving at Tiberias’ central bus station, I went on Google Maps to find a suitable route to Merom Golan. Until now, there had been such a wealth of bus options that Google sometimes had difficulty handling it, wildly changing the recommended route by the minute. The Golan Heights turned out to be a different story: just 48,000 people live there, scattered across thirty-four villages and hamlets, and outsiders usually drive or charter tour buses. After some careful parsing of timetables, I realized with horror that my only option was to get on a bus that was about to leave, get off in an empty field, and pray that I didn’t miss the connecting service to Qatsrin, the main market town, from which I could find a local bus to my final destination.
Miraculously, it worked out. Arriving late near an unseen industrial park, the bus to Qatsrin pulled into view even further behind schedule, just as I had begun to lose hope and again heard the booming noise from the day before– but now less echoey and much louder. The bus was packed, almost entirely soldiers heading to their posts on the Syrian frontier after a weekend off.
Passing through the largely featureless high plains and deep florid canyons of the Heights, I became amused, much as I had been on Birthright, how similar it looked to the Gold Country of California. At the time, our guide was quick to point out the presence of ruined concrete bunkers, always accompanied by eucalyptus trees. After a longish hike through the startlingly beautiful waterfall canyons of Jilabun, she rounded us back up to explain why the trees were important.
When Israel became independent, the Golan was part of Syria, whose government in the mid-1960s attempted to divert the Jordan and kill the Israeli water supply. The international community intervened, but Syria continued to build up their military presence there– including the bunkers– in preparation to join forces with Egypt and Jordan and wipe Israel off the map by 1967. But when the soldiers stationed in the area complained endlessly of the lack of shade, an up-and-coming Syrian defense official named Kamel Amin Thaabet instructed them to plant eucalyptus trees. Incredibly, Thaabet, who had been considered for a cabinet position by President Amin al-Hafiz, was soon outed as a deep-cover Mossad agent named Eli Cohen and promptly executed. But the story doesn’t end there.
Cohen was just one of dozens. By Spring of 1967, Mossad knew who was going to attack, where they would strike, and when. Vastly outnumbered, the Israeli Air Force flew dangerously low to evade Egyptian radar and wiped out all of that country’s planes before they could leave the ground, then turned around to cripple the Syrian defense in the Golan. The Syrians, who mistook the incoming planes for triumphant Egyptian forces, were blindsided as nearly every bunker in the sector was hit.
They had been specially marked with eucalyptus trees.
Despite this trouncing, and the total collapse of Jordanian and Egyptian forces, the Syrian officers not only refused to retreat, but chained their men’s feet to the bunker floors to make surrender impossible. It was to no avail; following what then-General Yitzhak Rabin had modestly dubbed the Six-Day War, Israel had conquered the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai peninsula, and of course the Golan Heights.
Unlike any of those other places, the Golan was formally annexed into Israel proper in 1981, an action which provoked widespread indifference from both the international community and the people living there, which is why it’s in this book and the West Bank isn’t.
And on that note, let’s return to my increasingly alarming journey to the front lines of the twenty-first century’s bloodiest war.
Out the window, I saw warning signs in Hebrew: beware cyclists, beware crossing animals, beware leftover Syrian landmines. This wasn’t going to be like anything that had come before; even the main highway was so windy that the force against the side of the bus frequently flung passengers out of their seats. Several kilometers after turning down a smaller fire road, the bus hit a police roadblock. Bewildered at what could cause traffic on a two-lane road so far from any inhabited place, I pulled out my phone and looked up the local news, Ynet. It didn’t disappoint.
The IDF completed overnight Saturday an operation to rescue nearly 800 Syrian civil defense activists, along with their families, from a war zone area in southern Syria, the German newspaper Bild reported on Sunday. It was the first such Israeli intervention in Syria’s lengthy civil war, now in its eighth year.
I skipped further down.
The mission was conducted in secrecy in order to avoid potentially harming the lives of the activists in light of the Syrian Golan Heights being partially recaptured by President Bashar Assad’s forces.
“Oh shit,” I thought, realizing why there were quite so many soldiers on the bus as it began a very long detour to Qatsrin. Just hours before the evacuation of the White Helmets, Assad’s government forces had finally begun to break through the paper-thin lines of the remnant Free Syrian Army. Within a week they would control the entire line.
I reached Merom Golan at what should have been lunchtime. The kibbutz sat nestled within the collapsed crater of Mount Bental, one of many dormant volcanoes that dotted the area. Realizing there was no shuttle or gondola to the top, I trudged to the summit and found it much bigger than I remembered: scattered amidst the remnants of old bunkers and trenches from the 1970s were a large café, a lone man selling honey from a stand, coin-operated binoculars, and sculptures made from rusted old ordnance.
In 2011 there were only tourists here; now soldiers were running around the place, officers leading new recruits on instruction about what to do in the event of a Syrian invasion. Though I couldn’t spot them in the sky, two planes could be heard circling nearby: a jet on our side and a propeller plane on theirs. Mortar fire could be heard to the north, but the booming from earlier was gone– artillery strikes against one of the remaining pockets of the hardcore extremist group ISIS, now far south of us.
I looked through the binoculars to see if there was any fighting going on, my sights landing on the long-abandoned village of Quneitra and its church, three kilometers away. In the daylight, nobody seemed to be out except for a handful of shadowy figures going back and forth on motorcycles– runners for the rebels, I would guess. I also noticed some orange tarpaulins laid over smaller outbuildings, probably aid stations for the White Helmets. Sadly, not all of them had been evacuated.
As the binoculars shuttered, I turned back around to see tourists everywhere– families, school groups, Americans mostly– and became profoundly weirded out. Should they have been here? Should I? If it had truly been unsafe to come, I would never have been allowed this far, and it seemed like my visit to the front was of a more serious nature than the others, but it wasn’t clear. Last I was here was July 2011 and the war was days from beginning. Now it looked to be days from ending. Every hour Assad’s forces came closer to our frontier, and at some places they had already reached it. The UN observers who had once kept the peace between our two countries had since retreated behind our line, and the entire region was on alert. What then? It seems that to travel in the 2010s is to see places before they get blown up on television.
On the other hand, brinksmanship between Israel and Syria was nothing new. In 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed a suspected nuclear reactor in northern Syria, and there had already been months of tension before that. Days after this visit, Israel would shoot down a Syrian jet that had veered across the border further south. Neither situation ever escalated, and doubting it would now, I returned down the mountain, caught yet another bus, and left the Golan.