Even in the Jewish state, it is hard to escape Christmas in the land that is also the birthplace of Christianity.
This is especially the case in the Galilee, home to the majority of Israel’s Christian Arabs and, of course, Nazareth, the city most associated with Jesus.
One local non-profit organization, Western Galilee Now, has taken upon itself to bring Israelis of all three major religions together at this festive time of year, to celebrate and cement bonds of brotherhood, while promoting tourist tourist attractions in northern Israel.
Western Galilee Now (WGN) is also the ideal organization for the job: a grassroots organization of Arab and Jewish entrepreneurs, it represents every facet of the tourism sector, from tour guides and artisans to restaurateurs and winemakers. In short, something for everyone, including activities for families with children.
“This is the eighth year of our annual winter festival,” says WGN executive director Michal Shiloah Galnoor, “which has now grown to encompass some 30 events, taking place over the course of three days. This year, we attracted nearly 2,000 participants, with many of our events sold out.”
WGN’s partner in developing the tourism and economic potential of the Galilee is the Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF), whose Go North campaign has set the ambitious goal of attracting 300,000 new residents to the region.
Together, WGN and JNF have established a visitors’ center in the old City of Akko designed to raise awareness of tourist attractions throughout the Western Galilee.
WGN and JNF have identified the culinary sector as a major driver of tourism to the Galilee, so that became my focus during the festival, which took place the weekend of December 19-21, 2019.
A nice mix of special dinners and visits to specialty shops awaited me -- and along the way, I would enjoy decorative holiday lights that brightened up such towns as Mi'ilya, Kfar Yasir, and Fassuta.
The first holiday dinner was served at Aluma Galilean Bistro in Tarshiha, a restaurant that has made a tradition of the festival’s opening night feast.
Muslim owner and chef Alaa Sweitat decorates his premises with wreaths and a Christmas tree, as he hosts Muslims, Christians and Jews for a nine-course feast washed down with shots of arak and glasses of sparkling wine.
The waitresses wore Santa hats, and the atmosphere was truly joyous -- without any overt feeling that non-Christians were celebrating a religious holiday that was not in their tradition.
I confess that I was skeptical of what Sweitat calls Arabic-French fusion cuisine, but I was more than pleasantly surprised by the meal that ensued -- from Mughrabiya chicken soup with chickpeas, fattayir turnovers, and zucchini stuffed with mutton in yogurt sauce, to tuna sashimi with labane ice cream and pomegranate, chicken moussakhan with pine nuts, and mixed grill featuring lamb chops and filet mignon.
The memorable dessert was a worthy finale: a classic Beirut Nights that was far and above any of the pale imitations I had tried in Tel Aviv.
Interestingly, Sweitat is also the co-owner -- with a Jewish partner -- of Buza ice cream, a thriving Galilee business that is in the process of franchising nationwide.
A tasting visit to the factory is one of the most popular events of the WGN winter festival.
The following morning picked up right where the evening left off. First stop was Kibbutz Lotem and Shirat Ro’im, the boutique dairy and cheese shop of Michal Mor Melamed, whose goat and sheep cheeses have won first prizes in Europe’s most prestigious competitions.
The master cheesemaker told her audience the inspiring story of her rise to international prominence, as we sampled her masterpieces -- which are certified kosher.
Right across the way from the cheesemongers’ is the eponymous Lotem Winery, whose organic wines have also won international awards.
Each weekend, the winery serves gourmet tapas along with tastings of its fine wines, from refreshing low-alcohol whites to crisp rosés and full-bodied reds.
And the best part is eating the delicious food and sipping the great wines while enjoying the breathtaking view -- one of the most panoramic of the Galilee, extending all the way to Lake Kinneret and the Golan Heights.
Even the welcome light exercise of that afternoon turned out to be food-related: picking tangerines and pomelos on the grounds of Bar-On Holiday Homes, a terrific perk at one of WGN’s recommended places to stay while enjoying a Galilee vacation.
The organization’s website lists accommodations to fit all budgets and needs, from romantic B&B’s to chic boutique hotels. Bar-On Holiday Homes -- comprising a cluster of houses, the smallest of which sleeps nine -- is ideal for families, or even groups of families.
With both indoor and outdoor game areas, and a library with hundreds of books, there is plenty for adults and children to do if the weather turns inclement.
There are also fully equipped kitchens, including all major appliances; but if you’re not interested in cooking, the management has an arrangement with a local chef who will cater breakfast -- or any other meal, for that matter.
Naturally, there is cable television, with English programming available on request.
Another special meal unfolded that evening, this one at the Stern Winery, on Kibbutz Tuval in the Tefen Bloc.
Host and winemaker Johnny Stern, one of the pioneers of WGN, had prepared a seven-course wine pairing meal, the highlights of which were goose breast on Jerusalem artichoke cream and slow-cooked thigh of lamb.
Dessert was a real treat: decadent sufganiyot from one of the Galilee’s premier bakeries, capped off with a rare experience -- a trip to the cellar to drink port wine straight from the cask.
The jovial mood of the evening was enhanced by the fact that many people knew each other from the same event in previous years and greeted each other with warm hugs, as if it were a reunion.
According to Stern, “Our wine-pairing event has grown so popular that this year we had to expand it to two nights, in order to accommodate everyone.”
Of course, the superb quality of the wines has much to do with this success: the framed awards they have won in international competitions cover two walls of the tasting room.
Many people took advantage of special direct-from-the-winery prices to purchase wine to take home.
The next morning was a change of pace: a vocal concert by Alma, an all-women’s choir, at the WGN-JNF visitor’s center in Akko -- yet another sold-out event.
This was followed by a unique tour through the alleys of the timeless city, where the guide pointed out some of the lesser-known gems of the city.
These include the Al Madrasa stone carving school and preservation institute; a covered alleyway that has been transformed into a gallery; the Zidan hospitality suite with mini-hamam; and an artisan’s studio, where ancient coins are transformed into contemporary jewelry.
I concluded my sojourn at the festival with a late lunch at Elmarsa, where Chef Alaa Musa’s Michelin-star training influences his interpretation of the Arabic cuisine of the Galilee.
Not surprisingly for a restaurant overlooking Akko’s marina,it specializes in fish and seafood, caught fresh daily and brought in from the sea on the colorful boats that are visible through the window from your table. A favorite here is the seafood kubbeh.
There is much more to enjoy at the festival -- from workshops in natural medicine and cosmetics to secrets of distilling whiskey and making chocolate -- all of which are on my list for when I return next year.