When I moved to California from Massachusetts, I missed the embedded and concentrated layers of culture and history that New England had to offer over the American Southwest. Yet when moving to Israel, those hundreds of years of New England culture were overshadowed by thousands of years of civilizations that can be overwhelming to a resident as much as to a tourist exploring without a guide. I’ve half-kidded that with the right tour guide, you could easily walk every ten paces in Israel and have a history lesson of what happened here or there. Often in such a small country at the cross-roads of three continents (Asia, Europe and Africa) and trade routes, there are multiple stories of interest for every locale spanning at least four thousand years. I doubt there’s even one spot in Israel that doesn’t have dozens if not hundreds of captivating stories that could be told to have taken place in that spot; its just that some are more famous and better documented or lost in the passage of time.
As a Jew and recent immigrant to Israel, often I focus my own sojourns on sites that have more to do with the history of my own people although one could easily spend one’s recreation or vocation visiting or documenting Christian, Muslim or Bahai shrines, holy sites and places of interest that go back millennium or at least centuries. Never in the last 2,000 years has Israel been such an open place for religious freedom where former rulers and governing powers either actively or passively prohibited or oppressed any religion other than that of the foreign power. Israel today, even as a Jewish state, protects and celebrates its religious diversity better than any other country in the Middle East and rivaling the most liberal of Western democracies.
Such was the case when the Israeli government sponsored a trip for foreign journalists before Passover and Easter to visit two Christian shrines and two Israeli wineries. Although, I’m known more for my wine related articles today more than previous writing endeavors, I was a history and philosophy student in college so the Christian shrines intrigued me as part of the history of my new home and as we were visiting one familiar and favorite winery and one new one on the way all the better. So it was that we several writers hailing from the US, China, Germany and South Africa set off from Jerusalem for a day of potential cultural edification and inebriation.
Within a short drive east of Israel’s ancient & modern capitol, we first stopped at the Church of John the Baptist. This ancient site is thought to be where Jesus’s most influential disciple was born and raised in the house of his parents Zachariah and Elizabeth. Initially a Byzantine church was built on the site in the fourth century as a tribute to St Elizabeth before being destroyed in the seventh century by conquering Muslim hordes from the Arabian peninsula. The church would be rebuilt in the 16th century and survive under more tolerant Ottoman governors until today although signs of its ancient and older origins are evident to the trained eye or one listening to a trained guide. There is a vibrant neighborhood surrounding the church in Jerusalem’s outskirts so its a nice area to dine for lunch or as we did partake of some of Israel’s many amazing boutique ice cream and gourmet chocolate shops.
After soaking in the site and its tranquility, a welcome respite for anyone living and working in the hustle and bustle of modern Israel, we carried on to one of Israel’s most celebrated boutique wineries, Domaine du Castel, one of the first and one of the brightest stars in Israel’s recent renaissance of its resurgent wine industry. The Castel Winery, as its also called, was founded in 1992 by Egyptian born and European educated Eli Ben Zaken on what was then a family farm which raised chickens. The almost immediate success and recognition his wine was something special had him suspend his poultry production in 1996 and from then when he was producing about 2,000 bottles his winery now employs his two sons and daughter and now produces about 100,000 bottles a year of highly desirable and expertly crafted wine. Its one the most internationally recognized Israeli wineries producing principally three wines, two premium Bordeaux red blends and a Chardonnay and is often on most wine writer’s list as one of the top ten wineries in Israel and frequently mentioned as either one of the top one or two. Having written hundreds of articles about Israeli wine, when asked, Castel is always one of the wineries I mention as a favorite and it has been a benchmark for other aspiring Israeli boutique wineries to emulate for the last twenty years.
One such aspiring boutique is the Nachshon Winery, in the Ayalon Valley, located on Kibbutz Nachshon. This winery is still in its early stages and is currently making about 10,000 bottles of year although the kibbutz, a communal farm, grows most of its grapes for Israel’s 2nd largest winery and its largest exporter Barkan. They’re still finding their way but are showing promise experimenting with both red blends, which made `Castel famous, and with single varietal wines such a Cabernet Franc, a promising Bordeaux varietal, that about 20 wineries have released in the last ten years as an alternative to more typical Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot offerings.
As the Nachshon Winery is lesser known than Castel, so was our second shrine, Emmaus Nicropolis, lesser known than our first stop of the day. Adjacent to the ancient hot springs for which is was named (which have since dried up) is the site, though disputed, where Jesus’s apparition was first sighted after he was to have been resurrected on Easter three days after his crucifixion on Good Friday. The sprawling grounds and church were a serene respite for anyone out in about in Israel the week before the week celebrating Passover, the celebration of ending 400 years of bondage in Egypt and the Jewish people returning to Israel after 40 years in the wilderness.
All in all, the excursion was a welcome reminder of not only what I and other Jews value about Israel, or why I and other wine lovers are applauding Israeli winemakers but why such a small country like Israel is on the minds of so many in the Western world, Jews and Christians alike.