Revealing an Israel that goes beyond the headlines

07/14/2007 2:51 PM

07/14/2007 3:04 PM

Whatever you imagine Israel to be, it probably isn't this:

Buttery local olive oil, hinting of spice, sampled on a breezy afternoon beneath a cardamom tree. Chardonnay so crisp you can almost smell the vines. Couples in plush cotton robes wandering the manicured lawns of a mountain-top spa. Cozy coffee shops, cutting-edge art galleries, designer fashions, sleek boutique hotels, cuisine rivaling any South Florida menu.

This is the Israel Lin Arison wants people to know. Not just the Israel of labels - Holy Land, Cradle of Civilization, powder keg - but a living, bubbling land of pottery makers and glassblowers, savvy chefs and Wine Spectator-worthy vintages.

In this Israel, the Gaza Strip strife that dominates headlines seems a world away.

"Everyone who comes here says the same thing, that it feels so safe," said Arison, who splits her time between Miami and Tel Aviv. "There's normal life here. That's the thing that's so hard to get people to understand."

It was a surprise to her, too. When her late husband Ted retired as chairman of Carnival Cruise Lines, she said, "I didn't want to come." But she saw that it was best for Ted, who was born in Israel. They moved in 1991, to Tel Aviv, the capital of finance and secular life.

He quickly slid into a new business life, establishing a major real estate and construction company and leading the purchase of Bank Hapaolim, Israel's largest. "Linnie" - as Ted always called her - felt like an outsider. She abandoned efforts to learn Hebrew. "I realized at best I would sound like a child," she said.

To get comfortable with her new home, Arison began exploring and writing about Israel, first for a business magazine called Link, and later, in her privately published book, "A Love Story in Mediterranean Israel." (A second book about France, "Travels with Van Gogh and the Impressionists: Discovering the Connections," with photographer Neil Folberg, will be published by Abbeville Press this fall.)

What she discovered was an Israel unknown to Jews, Muslims and Christians on sacred journeys. Unknown by most secular tourists. Unknown even to some Israelis.

The reluctant Israeli found herself so enthralled that after Ted died in 1999, she decided to stay, splitting her time between Tel Aviv and Miami.

With corporate days behind her, Arison keeps a low profile, going public only to support favorite causes such as the New World Symphony and the Young Arts program of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts - both charities founded by the Arisons.

One of her missions: To share the secrets of her new world with her old. When a reporter suggests Arison play guide, she's enthusiastic.

So here I am.

As a first-time Israel visitor and non-Jew, I expect our tour will be insightful, instructive _ perhaps, even meaningful. In my pre-trip mind, Israel is a place of history, faith, politics - a Bible-story setting twisting with intrigue that-dates from the birth of man. "Enjoyable" isn't on my adjective list.

But Arison's is a different kind of tour. Her itinerary bypasses the historic bastions of Jerusalem and Acre and Caesarea and leads instead into a landscape of olives and wine, art and artisan foods, laced with a touch of history.

She's done this before. "Linnie's Nooks and Crannies Tour," it's called. For the past several years, Arison has led annual visits for winning bidders at an auction benefiting the Miami-based Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education. The trip is based on her book and the familiar-feeling places so reminiscent of France that helped her find a sense of comfort in her early years here. American-born guide David Perlmutter keeps the Toyota Land Cruiser gassed, the bellboys hopping and the travelers on track.

For seven days, Arison, Perlmutter and I will drive from the beaches of Tel Aviv to the Syrian border and back to the old Burma Road - Jerusalem's supply line during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. On our route: Small museums, breezy boardwalks, wineries, herb and cheese farms, boutiques, gardens, spas _ a scenario that seems so familiar, but with distinctive twists.

We check into our hotel, the stylish beachfront Shizen in the upscale neighborhood of Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv. It's a hotel-within-a-hotel, a soothing adults-only zone separated from the family-friendly Daniel Hotel by low lights, spa music and earth-tone decor that quivers with feng shui. Though Herzliya hugs the Mediterranean Sea, this is no cramped and rocky sliver but a generous, sand-cushioned strand crowded with kite boarders, surfers, retirees, families.

A few minutes south, Tel Aviv awaits.

The city is a mishmash - in places, a dingy, commercial hub whose once-sleek Bauhaus buildings badly need a whitewash. An arts center and wide, grassy boulevard look fresher. Endless coffee cafes - the three homegrown brands chased out a Starbucks incursion - feel like a welcome mat. Day and night, young women walk alone, often with cockapoos and English bulldogs and Lhasas - not guard dogs, but the friendly canine faces of lazy afternoons.

We stop at the fashion house of Gideon Oberson. Turns out his sophisticated evening wear and designer day collection are just as impressive as the swimsuits he manufactures in Miami. His daughter, Karen, has her own line. More casual, hipper.

At the Rubin Museum, director Carmela Rubin sketches a verbal mural of the times in which the museum's namesake artist, the late Reuven Rubin, painted. How the Romanian came to Palestine in the 1920s with idyllic visions of connecting with the land and the Arabs who lived here, and how difficult it proved to feel - and become - "Israeli."

There's more wide beach here, crowded with umbrella-shaded bars and sun lovers and families pushing strollers along the Burle Marx-style chattahoochee sidewalk. A few miles away, in the former Port of Tel Aviv, a boardwalk links one-time warehouses-turned seafood houses, spa-bars (bar in front, spa in the back) and a women-oriented shopping center home to a paraphernalia shop called Sisters - Doin' it for Themselves. Someday the boardwalk will stretch all the way to Jaffa.

But the highlight of our Tel Aviv jaunt is Neve Tsedek, the city's up-and-coming version of South Beach. Founded in the late 1800s as a Jewish enclave in the sand dunes outside the crowded port town of Jaffa, Neve Tsedek became the foundation of Tel Aviv.

Today Tel Aviv towers over the district's few square blocks - homes, gourmet bakeries, pottery shops, eateries, a day spa, a performing arts space. The living room of one three-story house has been transformed into a sales space for antique linens; another homeowner sells second-hand toys, a third hand-blown glass bead jewelry.

Artist Leah Majaro-Mintz restored her crumbling family home into a museum dedicated to Neve Tsedek's early days; her grandfather founded the community and her brother was Tel Aviv's first mayor. In the corner sits the trunk once filled with her mother's trousseau; during the War of Independence in 1948, when they had no money, the fine linens were remade into clothes for her children.

The rubble-to-renaissance story reminds Arison of sitting at the News Cafe along Miami Beach's Ocean Drive. She takes pride in seeing the new shops. "The quality is really coming up."

After our city fix, we head north, past fields of soybeans and bananas and grapes, beyond dunes and grazing sheep and an aqueduct built in Herodian times. The hillsides are draped with Arab villages, distinguished from a distance by minarets and rebar poking from unfinished upper floors. As each family gets more money, I'm told, it builds an upper story for the next generation.

Down a winding wooded lane we come to Amphorae, one of the best of the boutique wineries that have sprung up here in the past decade.

"When we moved here, I was going to import French wine," recalls Arison. "I wasn't going to serve that icky sweet wine I had been served when I visited for 22 years."

But Israel is no longer the locus of Kool-Aid reds. During our week, we'll taste wines from a half-dozen top Israeli wineries; each has me scrambling to figure out which are sold in the U.S. and how many bottles of the others I can safely cram into my suitcase.

Amphorae's Gil Shatzberg is rated among the country's top young winemakers. Trained at University of California's Davis campus - the intellectual center of the modern wine world - and in other Israeli wineries, Shatzberg and partners released their first Amphorae vintage in 2000. He's looking to make wines that are distinctly Israeli, designed to complement local ingredients without getting overpowered by the local spices.

We try the `05 chardonnay; this is not oaky or buttery but something altogether lighter, crisper, more ethereal. The `03 cabernet is woodsy and dry, hinting at coffee and chocolate. Not his ultimate wines, he said, "but we're getting there."

Like all farmers, winemakers wage a nonstop battle against unpredictable elements and pestilence, and here, high sugar contents created by a surfeit of sun. But last year brought a distinctly Israeli challenge. Shatzberg's vineyards are located in the country's north, near the Lebanese border. When fighting broke out last July, the vineyards were trampled by tanks and ravaged by local pigs. By the time the war ended in late summer, more than 40 percent of his crop was gone.

"We're calling the `06 release the Grape of Wrath," he said. "To be a farmer, you have to be stubborn."

Israeli winemakers face another unique challenge, I learn during our week when we visit two other top wineries, Golan Heights and Castel. Should they go kosher?

Getting a "kosher" designation requires fulfillment of strict growing and production practices. The most difficult of these, I'm told, revolves around the handling of the wine itself. Only Sabbath-observant Jews can handle the wine from the time it is pressed until after it is bottled. Unless the winemaker is observant, he or she can't even tap the barrel for tastings during maturation - both a frustration and an expense. (Israeli wines often cost more than similar-quality wines produced elsewhere.)

Then there are marketing issues. When wine is shipped abroad, being kosher evokes images of sugary sweetness. But though only about 30 percent of Israel's population keeps kosher, nonkosher wines aren't served at events and even in many restaurants, for fear of offending observant Jews. Bottles can't even be served by nonobservant catering staffs.

Ironic. "Wine is supposed to bring people together," said one vintner.

Though wine has been made in Israel since Biblical times, it got a jump start in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when 52 Jewish families from Romania and Russia established settlements near today's town of Zichron Ya'akov. The Promised Land proved harshly unpromising; land billed as rich and fertile turned out to be barren and swampy. Malaria threatened will and survival. Dozens of babies were buried before they even earned names.

The settlers appealed to French Baron Edmond de Rothschild, whose overseers came to Israel and set up various industries. One of the most successful: grapes.

The story of those early settlers is told in The Museum of the First Aliyah. It was built by the Arison Foundation and dedicated to Ted Arison's grandparents, Moshe and Sara Arisohn, among the region's early Jewish settlers.

It's one of the few historical stops on the tour - but one that connects dots, sketches a circle. This is a small land with history both infinite and ongoing. Jews are exiles and immigrants in every sense, both original settlers and newcomers.

Much of that is lost on the students and visitors who come to the museum and other historical sites that have made the cobbled village of Zichron Ya'akov a required stop for Israeli school groups. It's a cozy hillside town of cafes and galleries - a harpist offers regular concerts- as lulling as any country town could be. Still, the school groups are accompanied by armed guards. It's a requirement of all school groups since 1974, when Arab terrorists attacked a group of students on a field trip.

We drive into the Carmel hills south of Haifa, to manicured and serene Carmel Forest Spa. It's a full-scale retreat: comfortable guest rooms, exercise classes, pools indoors and out, billowy gardens, lavish but healthy buffets, and the latest in spa treatments - at half the price of an American resort. The worries of the world - any world - lie far away.

Our journey takes us on, through wide fields of land now drained and tamed and increasingly forested, thanks to government programs. Through the fabled Plains of Armageddon - covered not with blood but with sunflowers and cotton.

In an olive garden we taste oils, hinting of grass and spices; Israel produces 6-7,000 tons annually. An herb farm offers a lesson on medicinal herbs; the calendula, said to heal imperfections in skin, can't be resisted. Lunch one day is at a goat cheese-making farm owned by a former Texan struggling to deliver cheese without the benefits of FedEx. Another day, we chow on massive burgers at a real cowboy restaurant - complete with wooden saddles as bar stools - looking out a paddock of mares and foals; it is run by kibbutz that raises cattle and offers guest rides.

We drive through farmland - some fields marked with signs warning of mines, others advertising U-pick fields and wild gazelles crossing - into the Golan Heights, a strategic lava highland of wineries and military training camps. On a clear day, you can see both Lebanon and Syria.

Our base in north Galilee is a historic farmhouse-turned-deluxe B&B in the artsy village of Rosh Pina, overlooking a wide valley that leads to the Golan. The inn, Pina Barosh, offers cozy suites of stone walls and welcoming Jacuzzi-style bathtubs. The stone terrace rimmed with geraniums recalls the south of France. The inn was the dream of a local artist Nili Friedman. The well-known restaurant, Shiri Bistro, is the work of her daughter, Shiri, who studied with Bernard Loiseau in Burgundy and Daniel Boulud in New York.

We linger over one of her famous breakfasts - fresh cheeses, yogurts, salads, herring, smoked fish, olives, eggs - as she and Arison catch up on Shiri's mother - traveling in India; on friends who live down the road - the wife is doing much better after a stroke; on business - finding good employees is difficult; on Shiri's children - how many hours per day should she leave them in day care?

The conversation brings to mind something Shatzberg, the winemaker, said a few days earlier - a sentiment repeated here often:

"The most important thing for me is to show people there's a normal world here. People make wine, go to school, have a nightlife. It's a living place."

Living, certainly, and normal, yes - but in the Israeli sense. In the distance, we hear the boom of cannon fire, soldiers practicing at a Golan Heights military base. At home and abroad, it's jarring to realize that security and normalcy come at a price.

Did we mention the food? Oh, good heavens. Loosen your waistband. The food.

"When Ted was growing up, it was all falafel and hummus," said Arison. Service was brusque and dismissive.

By the time she and Ted moved here in 1991, the situation had improved significantly - and it's only gotten better, said Arison. Now service is knowledgeable and friendly, if not always sharp. And the food ...

One meal is more spectacular than the next. Duck foie gras, bouillabaisse with lemongrass foam and baked marrow at trendy Messa in Tel Aviv. A splendid country spread of bulgar wheat with aubergine and tahini, cabbage in pastry and a casserole of tomato and onion topped with poached eggs at Il Baccio - better known as Hanishika, the Hebrew word for "the kiss" - in Zichron Ya'akov. A refined meal of smoked goose breast and smoked spare ribs marinated for a week, spicy stuffed grape leaves and grilled portobello topped with artichoke hearts at Auberge Shulamit in Rosh Pina. A fresh, memorable chef's tasting of California-style dishes-- oven-baked breads, ceviche with sesame and cracked pepper, salmon with silvers of radish and melon and bean sprout, sushi with beets, pumpkin risotto with cardamom, tempura zucchini flowers stuffed with parmesan - at Lechem Erez in Tel Aviv.

Artisanal foods, too, have taken hold. One of the best-loved farms is that of Shai Zeltzer, about 30 minutes south of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills. Not so far from where David killed Goliath.

Dusty lanes around the hills and through an olive grove lead to a simple, rocky patch. Without the pictographs of a goat pointing the way, you'd never find it.

Here Zeltzer - famous among European and American cheesemakers - keeps 140 goat mothers and crafts his tomme and chevre and hard, manchego-style cheese, aging them in a chilled cave cut into the hillside. He's a charismatic figure, looking like a Bedouin in beard and amazing clean white. The place is open to the public only on Fridays and Saturdays. By happenstance, our Thursday meeting matches a monthly event: artisan bread maker Yiftah Bareket has come to bake in Zeltzer's wood-fired oven. Today he will make more than 100 loaves for friends and family.

"Bite and chew it," Zeltzer urges. "You will hear the voice of the bread."

The bread, cheeses and dried tomatoes soaked in date honey are matters of art, science and medicine. Talk revolves around enzymes, aging and curative powers of the cheese, influenced by seasonal growth in the grazing pastures. One man buys only cheese from milk culled in January and February, when the goats eat a plant that has been shown helpful to people with diabetes.

Talk inevitably turns to Israel and how it is changing.

"It's beautiful. It's complicated," said Zeltzer. "It's our way of life to be confused."

A glass of Castel wine is raised - not the first. "To life. L'Chaim."

A light breeze ruffles the olive trees as the full moon rises above them. The first of the loaves comes off the fire, and we toss aside our plans of an Arab dinner in favor of cheeses, fresh bread, plums and peaches just off tree.

"We live here according to the seasons," Zeltzer said. "And with the seasons, everything changes."

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