Sunday, January 3, 2010

Haifa to Tel Aviv

Yesterday our most important accomplishment needed to be getting from Haifa to Tel Aviv. My dad and my brother are flying back to St. Petersburg at dawn tomorrow, and Dave, Karen, Phil, and Mike are flying out a few hours later -- and they didn't really get a chance to tour Tel Aviv and Jaffo yet. Anyway, we had a room reserved in Tel Aviv and not in Haifa. But there are many different ways of getting from point A to point B. We did it road trip style, caravaned in two cars and used Google Maps on Dave's Blackberry to show us the way. We split the group into two cars based on music preferences, anyone who could possibly imagine themselves enjoying Audioslave and Muse with only occasional Billy Joel and Enrico Iglesias in one car, and those who didn't suffer excruciating agony when deprived of music altogether in the other.

Our drive took us along the coast of the Mediterranean. The shore seemed mostly abandoned in the winter, and on the outskirts of Haifa we drove past Palmhenge: a strip of the beach overgrown with dead leafless palm trees. There was also a bizarre sculpture garden a few kilometers further down the road, thin blocks of sandstone shaped into geometric tin men. "It's much too much too much too much too much," sings Bonaparte in a similarly entitled song. Finally, we turned off the highway at the town called Binyamina and went to the wrong winery. We were going to go to a small family winery called Tishbi, but ended up in the largest Israeli winery called Carmel. It was originally set up by Baron de Rothschild in the 1880s and helped to create Palestine as a place where Jews wanted to settle. At the time, the tour guide told us, it was the largest winery in the world. And the vines came from Kashmir, India (because the French grapes were already diseased at that point).

These days, Carmel Winery owns four different other wineries in Israel and most of the grapes grown on Golan Heights and around Tiberia. Their goal in the last 15-20 years has been to create kosher wine that's respected around the world as good wine (i.e. not like Manischevitz). There are many rules involved in making a kosher wine, and according to our gude, the rules are more complicated in Israel than anywhere else in the world. First of all, they have to donate 10% as a tithe and every 7 years let the vines rest. Of course, this company doesn't literally let the vines rest, but on the holy year they take no profit on their sales. Wine is a holy drink, used to make blessings while reading the Torah, and Only Jews can handle the grapes from the moment they are crushed to the moment they are bottled. The bigger problem is that to keep the wine's kosher status, only Jews can handle the wine once the bottle has been decorked and is being poured. To solve this problem, many wineries "spoil" the wine by heating it -- a pasteurizing process -- before bottling. A damaged wine is not so holy anymore, and can be kosher even if not handled by Jews. But of course pasteurizing the wine that has been aged in oak barrels destroys the effects of aging. So I don't know how the catering companies get around this problem when they want the really good wine: maybe by hiring more Jewish waiters?

After ample tasting, we got back on the road and drove a few more kilometers south back towards Kesaria, Caesarea, Qisaryyia or Quesareia (invent your own combination of letters to go with the sounds). We had unfinished business there: singing at the Roman Theatre. There's a spectacularly well-preserved Roman theatre there (built at the time of Herod two millenia ago), with two cavea (sitting sections, one above the other) and a skena (a stage) with passages underneath (I found a small room equipped with a porcellain bowl surely used as a toilet as far back as the Roman times). The stage and the seating galleries all made of a weathered white stone glittered in the cold winter sunset. A score of tourists climbed to the higher rows of the theatre to enjoy the view of the blue Mediterranean waters and of the birds flying south for the winter. On this peaceful pastoral setting we unleashed our three tenors. My dad sang the song of the Napoletan boatsmen ("Santa Lucia") that he sings at every Roman theatre where he happens to be around the world, an Armenian song "The Swallow" that he's been practicing ever since his trip to Armenia this past August, and a song of Volga boatsmen (I think). Phil sang a theme song from the movie "Exodus." And Kostya sang "O Sole Mio" and Judas's aria from Andrew Lloyd's Weber's "Jesus Christ Superstar." After that we surrendered the stage to the Japanese school girl choir and went to have dinner at a sushi restaurant on the beach.

Our last stop on this road trip to Tel Aviv was Dave's cousin's Ryan basketball game at a kibbutz behind a McDonalds and Ace hardware store. The kibbutz sponsors the basketball team for which Ryan plays now and they were playing a team from Haifa. We showed up a little early, maybe 40 minutes before the game started, and watched the teams warm up, and then only had enough energy to stay for the first half of the game. Ryan's team was winning by about 15 points by the time we left, and later Ryan called to report that they ended up winning by more than 30 points.

Dave's post is here:

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