Sukkot, Samaritans and wine

Samaritans pray during a pilgrimage marking the holiday of Passover at Har Grezim. [Flash90 photo]

In Israel this year, the four weekdays after the first day of Sukkot were packed with concerts, lectures, parties in the parks and happy celebration by both those referred to as “religious” and those regarded as “non-religious” alike.

Jerusalem was host to a “walk” of thousands, which snaked around the city, guided and protected by armed and unarmed guides. Also, the International Christian Embassy was host to a week of celebrations, culminating in a march through the capital by visitors from a hundred countries, waving and dispensing to the watching crowds small national flags.

Woe betides anyone who falls sick during this period. There is hardly a doctor to be found and the emergency wards of the hospitals become jammed.

The opportunity to travel across the country was seized upon, and the roads in and out of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were clogged with traffic.

We took a highway, much unused by both tourists and “ordinary” Israelis who visit the multitude of historical sites in the country. Our destination was Har Grezim

Road 60 leaves the northern suburbs of Israel’s capital and winds its way through the hills and valleys of Shomron (Samaria).

Apart from such communities as Ariel, Beth El and Ophra, which dot a rather barren, but beautiful, landscape, the inhabited areas are all Arab. There is even one Bedouin encampment alongside the road. The Arab towns and villages include many beautiful, relatively new, substantial homes and apartment buildings, alongside older and more rudimentary habitations. The white private car licence plates and the green taxi licence plates, issued to Arabs living in the territories far outnumber the orange ones of Israelis as one travels farther on this road.

An hour and a half driving leads to a side road, which climbs through a small Samaritan/Arab town to the top of the mountain, which is some 886 metres above sea level. It looks down on the busy Arab town of Nablus – ancient Shechem. On the other side of the town rises Har Ebal.

Nablus is the site of the wanton destruction of the Tomb of Joseph, a site that can only be visited now by special arrangement and a military escort.

Both mountains are referred to in the Torah. The Children of Israel are commanded to carry out blessings on Har Grezim and curses on Har Ebal, after having entered into the Land of Israel.

Extensive archeological excavations on Har Grezim have revealed ruins of a series of large towns and sacred precincts dating from the Second Temple period, though the fifth to the first centuries BCE.

Successively, the Hebrews, Persians, Greeks, Samaritans, Muslims and the Byzantines contributed to what was built there. Perhaps most interesting is the history of the Samaritans, who still carry out worship on the mountain.

The Samaritans regard themselves as the true Israelites of the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Levi, who survived the exile of the children of Israel to Babylon. Except primarily for their calendar and the lack of the use of tfillin or mezuzot, they maintain all of the mitzvot of Judaism. To this day, they sacrifice the Paschal Lamb at Pesach, on Har Grezim.

At one time, the Samaritans spread over the whole of Samaria, causing concern to the Christians of the area. The Byzantines erected a fortified monastery and church within their sacred precinct. During some 100 years of rebellion by the Samaritans, resulting in exile or conversion to Christianity, their numbers tragically dwindled. By the early 20th century, their number was reported to have dropped to 146. It is estimated that there are now more than 600 Samaritans, split almost evenly between Har Grezim and Holon.

The site was crowded with visitors. At most historical sites in Israel, the visitors present an amazing cross-section of the Jewish, and sometimes Christian, world.  One normally hears so many languages.

Har Grezim was different. 

On the day we were there, virtually every visitor spoke only Hebrew and were clearly Orthodox – but not haredim. It seems that the only people prepared to travel through Arab-inhabited land are either residents of this part of the country or their families. The reason is likely fear of travelling through the territories. It is rather sad that there is no variety of visitors to what is, perhaps, one of the most important historical sites in the land.

An Israeli guide, dressed in the garb of a Samaritan, who outlined for the visitors the most salient parts of the mountain and the excavations, had remarkably good English. On enquiry as to his fluency, he said he had been a shaliach in Australia and the United States. When I remarked that he hadn’t referred at all to Canada, he surprised us by telling us about his times at Camp Ramah in Utterson, Ont., and his visits to Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto. A further example of the amazing coincidences in the Jewish world! Leaving this remarkable site, we turned back on Road 60.

Only a few kilometres south, there is a sign to a moshav, Rechelim, and the Tura Estate Winery.

Rechelim is home to some 50 families. It is named in memory of two Israeli women, both called Rachel, who were murdered near there by Arabs some years ago. For us, it provided a sukkah in which we could eat our lunch. In addition, the moshav’s claim to fame is one of the best boutique kosher wineries in the country.

Vered Ben Sa’adon and her husband, Erez, first planted grapes on nearby Har Bracha, which can be seen from Har Grezim. They raised a wonderful crop and sold them to a large winery. Soon, however, the winery discontinued buying the grapes, because they were grown across the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border. Desperate, because cultivating the grapes and selling them was their only livelihood, the Ben Sa’adons decided to attempt to make their own wine using whatever capital they could find.

They started by producing 100 bottles the first year. They used Erez as a logical name for their wine. The wine was excellent and started to be known farther afield. Not terribly sophisticated in business, they did nothing to protect the name and were dismayed to learn that another, much larger and wealthier vineyard had started to use that name. Unable to contest this use, Vered and Erez created a new name, Tura Estate Winery, with the motto “Patience and Inspiration.”

Tura Estate Winery now produces more than 1,500 bottles of kosher wine annually. Among its products are a full-bodied Merlot, a light and dry Chardonnay and – difficult to find in Israel – a Port, which challenges any of the Portuguese wine we have tasted. They now also produce olive oil and honey.

A cleverly designed, modern tasting area welcomes visitors, and the wine barrels are stored in cellars, which themselves give the impression of being inside a barrel, with the walls and roof being the same type of wood used for barrels.

The story of the Sa’adons is truly one of patience and inspiration. They are representative of the modern pioneering spirit that abounds among the Israelis.

Donald Carr, a lawyer and community activist, is the president of The CJN.