Here are a few shots from our fam trip to Israel (educational tour for travel agents), which just wrapped up today.
Shakshuka has roots in North Africa but is practically the national dish of our Middle Eastern mystery country. This country is a cultural melting pot, with Eastern and Central European, Mediterranean, North African, and Middle Eastern culinary influences (not to mention Balkan, Ethiopian, Yemini, North American, Iberian…)
There are many variations on Shakshuka, but basically it is a stewy mix of peppers and tomatoes in which eggs are poached. Eaten with good, crusty bread, it’s nutritionally balanced, with complex flavor that manages to be intense and mellow at the same time. Click here for a recipe.
This mystery country is increasingly known as a food and wine destination. See our Culinary Tour for a glimpse of the possibilities.
Can you name that country?
See below for answers.
Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains. It’s home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities, now about 40% of the population, but once around 85%. It’s a small city of about 25,000, with tourism as the main industry.
Besides being the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and the site of the tomb of Rachel. Rachel’s tomb, on the edge of town, attracts Jewish and Muslim pilgrims, but Bethlehem’s star attraction, by far, is the Church of Nativity in Manger Square, in the center of town.
The original church was built upon orders from the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena around the year 327. The emperor Justinian rebuilt the church a couple hundred years later, and that church still stands, the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land. Beneath the church is a cave believed to be the actual spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The earliest written accounts of Jesus being born in a cave date from the 2nd century, but the oral tradition is likely much older. Many houses in the area are built up against caves, which were used for storage and animal shelter.
Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Most scholars think not. Two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, place the nativity in Bethlehem, although the details differ. The other two Gospels, Mark and John, don’t address Jesus’ birth at all. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah would be descended from King David, and David was born and raised in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. It could be that the writers of Matthew and Luke symbolically placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in reference to that prophecy. Journalistic accuracy was not intended or expected.
Personally, I don’t think it matters where exactly Jesus was born, but I do find it interesting to think about the context in which the Gospels were written and their intended audiences. Although they carry an eternal message, the form that message takes tells us a lot about the world of the first Christians. Matthew cites the genealogy of Jesus back through David and ultimately to Abraham. That would have been meaningful to a Jewish audience. Luke’s genealogy goes right back to Adam to encompass all of humanity and he exults the newborn Jesus as savior of the whole world, not only of the Jews. Luke was writing for a Greek, gentile audience.
Getting to Bethlehem is easy, just a short drive from Jerusalem. Tourists pass through an Israeli check-point from Israel to the West Bank Palestinian Territories. Israelis are not allowed to enter, so if you’re on a guided tour, a Palestinian guide will meet you on the other side.
Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is held on December 24-25 at the Roman Catholic St. Catherine’s, next door to the Church of Nativity. Tickets (no charge) are required to attend the service. Christmas is celebrated in Bethlehem on January 6-7 for the Greek, Coptic and Syrian Othodox Churches and on January 18-19 for the Armenian Orthodox Church.
As the cradle and world center of the mystical Kabbalah tradition, Safed (also spelled Tsfat, Tzfat, and a number of other ways) is one of four holy cities in our mystery country. Located at and elevation of 3,000 feet in the far north of the country, the town’s sweet air, crystalline light and mountain views attract many artists as well as spiritual scholars and pilgrims.
Can you name that country?
See below for answers.
Deborah was a heroine of the Jewish people during the time of Judges, around 1,100 BCE, 100 or so years after the Israelites entered the promised land of Canaan. We don’t know much about Deborah, least of all how she came to be a leader in a time when women generally had very little power. The Bible tells that she would sit beneath a palm tree to advise her people.
While Deborah was growing up, the people of Israel were dominated and harassed by the Canaanites all along their borders. Filling in the blanks a bit, we can imagine how an intelligent, determined and unusually assertive girl might be shaped to take action, if given the power. According to the story, she was given the power and she did take action. She ordered her general, Barak, to assemble an army. For some reason, Barak did not want to go into battle unless Deborah went too, so she did.
Although outnumbered, Deborah, Barak and their troops prevailed, thanks in part to heavy rains that bogged down the Canaanite chariots in mud and swamped them with flash floods. The Canaanite general Sisera was the only survivor of the battle. He took off on foot.
When Sisera came to a Bedouin camp, he asked a woman there, Yael, for some water. She gave him milk instead, which, on top of a terrible day of combat and fleeing for his life, made him drowsy. When he lay down for a nap, Yael nailed his head to the ground with a tent spike, in one temple and out the other. That was the end of Sisera and, apparently, the Canaanite threat as well.
After the victory, the people of Israel enjoyed 40 years of peace under Deborah.
Read about Deborah in Judges 4 & 5.