Israel, Days 4 – 6: Amirim

 

Beautiful views of the Galilee

Beautiful views of the Galilee (click to enlarge)

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA From Moreshet we traveled only 30 minutes away to Amirim, located in the central Lower Galilee.  Like Moreshet, Amirim is sited high on a hilltop, 2100+ feet above sea level, with expansive views of forests, agricultural fields, and Arab villages in the distance. There are two things that make Amirim unique.

Amirim is Israel’s first designated  “tourist village.”  Amirim was the first place in Israel to inaugurate the European concept of the “zimmer” (pronounced “tzimmer” in Hebrew), way back in the 1960s.  Zimmer means “room” in German; its equivalent in English is bed & breakfast or guesthouse, although unlike a b&b, a zimmer does not automatically include breakfast.

In Europe a zimmer is often just an extra room in someone’s house that is rented to the occasional traveler passing by for a price much cheaper than one might pay to stay in a hotel.  In Israel, however, the zimmer has become a whole new industry, often as small ells or even cabins built on private lands within villages known as moshavim.  Moshavim are collective settlements similar to kibbutzim, but people live independently (ie there is no common dining hall, and personal income is not communally managed or restricted); yet certain public areas and services are controlled and budgeted by the equivalent of an “association” similar to those regulating gated communities and condominiums in the US.  Unlike city dwellers, moshav residents have more land allotted to them  – – originally intended for agricultural use – – but today many Israelis are finding the hospitality industry more lucrative than agriculture, so they are building lovely wood cabins, dachas and outbuildings on their plots.  (And we noticed ads for zimmers in Druz and Arab villages as well.)

At least 25% of Amirim residents operate zimmers.  They range not only in price and size but also in architectural style and accoutrements.  All have kitchenettes, an eating area, and a bedroom and bathroom alongside a lovely, landscaped garden with outdoor seating.

The garden parking spot for our zimmer at Nofesh Ne'eman in Amirim

The garden parking spot for our zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman in Amirim

The private garden outside our zimmer

The private garden outside our zimmer

another zimmer at Nofesh Ne'eman

another zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman

our zimmer's kitchenette

our zimmer’s kitchenette

our zimmer's bedroom

our zimmer’s bedroom

en suite jacuzzi in our zimmer

en suite jacuzzi in our zimmer

the sitting area of our zimmer looks out onto the garden

the sitting area of our zimmer looks out onto the garden

Some offer multiple bedrooms and ensuite jacuzzis, expansive porches, and spa services including various types of massage and alternative healing, yoga, reiki, etc.

an outdoor jacuzzi at Nofesh Ne'eman

an outdoor jacuzzi at Nofesh Ne’eman

But what makes Amirim truly unique is that it is a completely vegetarian village.  All zimmer guests must agree to abide by vegetarian eating habits while they reside in the village; even bbq grills are banned.  Many but not all of the permanent residents within the village don’t simply abstain from meat; they are vegans and eat no fish, dairy or egg products.  Some of the strictest adherents also abstain from honey and “live” plants, and refrain from using anything made of silk (to learn more about the philosophy behind this more extreme form of veganism, click here). There are several restaurants within the village, many of them organic, although currently none are certified kosher.

This was not a problem for us personally, since I prepared simple meals in our kitchenette of fresh pita and hummus with salad and fruit that I had purchased from a supermarket on our way to Amirim, and it was more than adequate.  (In case you are wondering why a strictly vegan restaurant needs kosher certification:  it is unlikely that any products used are not kosher; however, there are certain Biblical mitzvot (commandments) that are observed only within Israel, including the tithing of all produce grown in Israel, and if these vegan restaurants use produce that has not been tithed, it is forbidden for religious Jews to eat it.  Kosher supervision in Israel not only checks that meat and milk are not mixed and that the products used are indeed kosher, but it also ensures that Israeli produce has been properly tithed.)

Within the village are many artists and musicians.  Free concerts are given Friday afternoons until the onset of Shabbat.  There are many galleries filled with paintings, ceramics, jewelry and fiber art created by Amirim artisans for sale.  The village also has a small food market, and community swimming pool which also offers both mixed- and separate-gender swimming hours.  A small synagogue is open for Shabbat services, although there is no daily minyan.

Our sparkling clean but simple family-friendly zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman, designed to sleep 4, cost $100 a night, truly a bargain in light of its beautiful surroundings, ensuite jacuzzi,  kitchenette, comfortable beds, and private garden.  Also included in the price was a daily doorstop visit  by best friends Lobo the German Shepherd and Geula the cat.  How can one not like a cat named Geula?  (The name means “final redemption” in Hebrew.)

Geula the cat and Lobo the dog greeted us at our zimmer doorstep

Geula the cat and Lobo the dog greeted us at our zimmer doorstep

 You don't really want to wake me up so you can enter the room, do you?


You don’t really want to wake me up so you can enter the room, do you?

Gentle giant

Gentle giant

It didn’t hurt that our particular zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman (they have 5 different zimmers to choose from at this particular establishment) included a lovely bottle of merlot along with a bar of dark chocolate (both Israeli made). There are larger and more luxurious zimmers, of course — some cost as much as $500 a night – – but we were completely satisfied with our little gem.  The tremendous privacy it afforded makes it ideal for either honeymooners or families, or just people looking for a little quiet (no wonder so many Israelis rent zimmers in Amirim!)

Although Amirim is not a consideration for us as a permanent place to live, it s a great place just to relax, regenerate, and recoup from the stresses of jet lag and intense travel.  It is also a wonderful location from which to venture out on day trips around the Galil.  The Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) is 12 miles from Amirim and the ancient holy city of Tzfat is only 10 miles away.  In order to maximize your sightseeing time in the Galil, renting a car is highly recommended, although a few eco-conscious zimmers give room discounts for guests who arrive by bus or bicycle.

One village we were interested in checking out was Bar Yochai.  Within walking distance of the small town of Meron (the main site of Lag B’Omer celebrations in Israel, Meron attracts as many as 500,000 people from all walks of Israeli life on that particular day, who celebrate the holiday near the tomb of kabbalist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

At Bar Yochai we met with a lovely couple from Detroit who were in the process of making Bar Yochai their permanent home.  He is a professor of math at a US university, but his schedule allowed both vacation and research time in Israel.  Originally they rented zimmers in different villages throughout the Galilee for a month at a time until they found a place they might consider “home.”  Now they were renting a house in Bar Yochai for several months, and were nearing a decision to settle there permanently.

Although the village did not appeal to me personally, it just proved the mantra, “different strokes for different folks” – – if you look hard enough, there truly is a place for everyone who wishes to call Israel home.

Since we were so close to Tzfat, we decided to take a quick detour into the town.  Tzfat is known for its beautiful ancient synagogues; its cemetery where many holy Jewish kabbalists are buried; and its artists’ quarter, which though charming, is very touristy.

The next day we continued to explore the Galilee.  At my husband’s former hi-tech workplace in the US, he worked with an Israeli ex-pat living in the Boston area.  Now they are both working at different jobs, but have maintained contact over the years.  The co-worker has since moved back to Israel,  and now lives in the upper Galilee in a magnificent town called Kfar Vradim (Village of Roses), close to the Lebanese border, and just down the road from the small Israeli city of Ma’alot – – and Ma’alot was one city we wished to investigate.

Kfar Vradim is full of secular Israelis who have made it big in the hi-tech industry.  Most of the single-family homes looked as if they were plucked from Beverly Hills (or Calabasas, for my California-savvy friends).  My husband’s friend, who graciously invited us for coffee, had just built an infinity pool in the backyard, along with a jacuzzi and lovely landscaping with many newly planted fruit trees.  The views were magnificent, too.

A view from Kfar Vradim into the valley below

A view from Kfar Vradim into the valley below

My husband's friend's house in Kfar Vradim

My husband’s friend’s house in Kfar Vradim

A view of the friend's garden, in Kfar Vradim

A view of the friend’s garden, in Kfar Vradim

My husband's friend's house in Kfar Vradim.  Private pools are considered the ultimate luxury in Israel.

My husband’s friend’s house in Kfar Vradim. Private pools are considered the ultimate luxury in Israel.

That said, Kfar Vradim is on the cusp of some very big changes.

In order to encourage Israeli citizens to live in less central areas of the country, the government gives incentives such as reduced income and property taxes for outlying areas and development towns.  And outlying it is – – Kfar Vradim is located only 8.7 miles from the Lebanese border.

Because of these incentives, people built enormous homes dripping with affluence. Unfortunately, it appears that Kfar Vradim is now a victim of its own success.  The government has announced that it will end incentives and tax discounts as of 2015.  People who built McMansions will suddenly be burdened with increased tax bills they hadn’t expected to pay.

This has resulted in a panic sell-out.  The problem is that so many homes are now up for sale, that it’s caused real estate prices in Kfar Vradim to nose-dive – – probably one of the few nice areas in all of Israel where the prices are actually going down rather than rising.

Perhaps the most surprising result of this fallout is the interest Kfar Vradim has garnered by haredim, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.  Until now the town has been completely secular.  But haredim with large families are eyeing the huge, luxurious homes, which can better accommodate their ever-growing families (typically haredim have between 6 – 12 children) for a price that would be unattainable anywhere else in Israel.

There are currently a group of 20 haredi families slated to buy in Kfar Vradim, and surely more will follow.  This will cause seismic cultural and religious changes in the previously all-secular town.  It will be certainly be interesting to see how this plays out!

Next we drove to the small city of Ma’alot (population 20,000).  Like many towns and cities in Israel today, Ma’alot has its own immigrant absorption office and works closely with Nefesh B’Nefesh, the immigrant organization responsible for bringing so many Jews from English-speaking countries to Israel on aliyah.  We spoke with a caseworker named Julia, a young Russian immigrant who has lived in Ma’alot for many years.  She offered to escort us on a brief tour of the city and get an overview of the many different neighborhoods there.

We were most impressed with Ma’alot:  it has every possible city amenity from an educational, religious, cultural, recreational and commercial perspective; the city was extremely clean and well landscaped; the views were magnificent (it sits 2000′ above sea level), and many of the neighborhoods are truly lovely, with parks and bricked walkways and courtyards between buildings that encouraged neighbors to stroll and socialize yet maintain a sense of privacy.

Our favorite was the new Savyonim neighborhood, which is also conveniently close to major shopping.

The population of Ma’alot is extremely diverse culturally, and included immigrants of all ages from all over the world.  The concert hall regularly featured world-class international performers (dance, music, symphonies); Ma’alot also sponsors an international chess tournament as well as an international documentary film festival and jazz festival.

Truthfully, there would be little reason to leave Ma’alot once one put down roots there; but the perception that Ma’alot is at the end of the world means that friends from other places may think it an inconvenient place to visit regularly if at all (in fact, it’s 30 miles from Haifa and 7 miles from Karmiel).  It could get lonely.  But we thought that if our attempts at acceptance to one of Israel’s vetted villages didn’t work out, then Ma’alot would be a beautiful place to consider more seriously, provided we could find a social niche there.

The northern city of Maalot, which is practically on the Lebanese border, is filled with parks.  It even has a man-made lake where there is a paddleboat concession.

The northern city of Maalot, which is practically on the Lebanese border, is filled with parks. It even has a man-made lake where there is a paddleboat concession.

A quiet lane in the Savyionim neighborhood of Maalot.

A quiet lane in the Savyionim neighborhood of Maalot.

The Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

The Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

Another neighborhood park in Maalot.

Another neighborhood park in Maalot.

Homes in the Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

Homes in the Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

So-called "development towns" are rapidly losing their poor, backwater image.  In Maalot Israelis pay a fraction of what they'd pay in a major, more centrally located city for housing, and many argue that the quality of life is much nicer as well.

So-called “development towns” are rapidly losing their poor, backwater image. In Maalot Israelis pay a fraction of what they’d pay in a major, more centrally located city for housing, and many argue that the quality of life is much nicer as well.

These Israeli websites are great for finding accommodations throughout Israel, although the translated English text is a bit rough around the edges.  Type “amirim” into the search option.

http://www.zimmeril.com

These sites are specific to Amirim:

http://www.booking.com/searchresults.en-us.html?aid=336408;label=amirim-Jbk3yIGCCFpoo7uGlJnJPAS35468182556%3Apl%3Ata%3Ap115%3Ap2%3Aac%3Aap1o1%3Aneg;sid=88b78d9bfb9d86a953a72972fc60e132;dcid=1;city=-779193;hyb_red=1;redirected_from_city=1;src=city

http://www.havilot-nofesh.co.il/eng/ZimmerList.asp?MenuID=337

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