Yehuda Avni came to the Galilee in the 1950s, from his native Chicago. His dream was to build a horse-ranch above the Sea of Galilee, where visitors could ride in the area of the Ministry of Jesus and enjoy the historic scenery of the lake and the surrounding mountains. The idea of tourism in general, and a ranch in particular where not exactly clear to the authorities in Israel in those early years of statehood. Tourists did not come to Israel, and the few that did were not interested in the view from the Mount of the Beatitudes. The fate of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli immigrants living in tents and makeshift huts was what interested them. But Avni persisted, and managed to receive grazing land and a site for his ranch overlooking the lake.
Sixty years later Vered Hagalil ranch is one of the most sought after travel destinations in Galilee. Horse ranch, country lodgings and a famous restaurant that serves Philadelphia style pancakes with real maple syrup are the results of six decades of perseverance. Avni’s visionary character, even in his eighties remained unchanged. Millions of pilgrims will come to the Galilee if only we realize the immense importance of this landscape, and preserve it in its pristine condition, was his motto.
I have known Avni for nearly four decades, our mutual interest in the historical Jesus and geography of the gospels, together with a wish to see Israel finally realize its full tourism potential led to many long conversations over pancakes and maple syrup. In 2005, when I was charged with planning the Sea of Galilee Heritage Park, I drove up to Vered Hagalil to see the old warrior. It was early May. The scorching desert winds that turn the landscape to brown hadn’t done their full damage yet, so we decided to take a jeep trip down the riverbed of Nahal Corazim, an area that Avni wanted to incorporate into the park.
Nahal Corazin drains the grazing grounds of the massive basalt piedmont that separates the Hula Valley from the Sea of Galilee. During the Roman Period, at the place where the riverbed begins to deepen and create a serious dent in the landscape, the small town of Corazin was built. A small part of it was excavated in the 1970s and turned into a National Park. The remains include an ancient synagogue, mikveh, streets, houses and “industrial area”, where olive oil was produced and animal hides turned into leather. The town is mentioned in the gospels, as a place that did not accept Jesus – “Woe to thee Corazim”, Jesus laments, as if in despair at the towns in that were not ready to understand.
The deep part of Nahal Corazim starts immediately after the town. Avni put the jeep into a screeching first gear and engaged front-wheel drive as we descended straight down the steep slope into the ravine. Traveling along an old dirt track, long covered with bushes, created when a pipe line was embedded into the ravine, we slid our way down to the riverbed – dry by now, as the rainy seasons was long gone.
The riverbed of Corazim is dotted with thickets of Accacias, trees of the African Bush that had made their way up the Syrian-African Rift, all the way from Ethiopia. This is one of the northernmost places that they grow. Zizyphus Spina Christi is the scientific name of the tree – Christ’s Thorny Crown. Traditionally the crown of thorns was made up from the branches of this tree – the only plant in the world that mentions Jesus in its name. The slopes of the ravine were covered with the last spurts of winter flowers – flowers that Jesus and his followers knew well. Thousands of yellow mustards– full of the proverbial seeds, tumble-weeds, almost ready to detach from their roots and start dispensing their seeds in the wind, and clumps of wild wheat waving in the wind between the stones. Of course the “Parable of the Seeds” immediately comes to mind. A farmer, Jesus tells his listeners gathered around him, sowed seeds in his field. Those that fell on the rocks –were eaten by birds, those that landed in the shade of the trees, withered away, those on the trodden paths, could not penetrate the earth. Only those that landed on good earth managed to grow and flourish.
“Blessed is he who planted his seed inside me”, recited Jesus’ Jewish listeners, as Jews do today, every morning in the prayer of the 18 benedictions. But, admonishes the Rabbi, if you are not ready to receive the seed it will not take root. The clumps of wild wheat on the slopes of the riverbed, growing between rocks, trees and paths, make this parable clear.
As we approached the end of the riverbed, just before it reaches the road around the shores of the Sea of Galilee we found remains of an ancient hamlet, maybe a small village of goatherds. A huge old fig tree grew out of an ancient cistern; a venerable Pistachio Atlantica spread its leafy branches over another ruin in this nameless village of ancient Galilee.
We ended up at the eucalyptus grove just south of Amnon Bay on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Meadow grass grew softly under the trees and the land, clear of rocks and boulders, sloped gently toward the lake. Evening was falling, and Avni and I stood on the shore and watched the mountains of the Golan change color. Shadows began to form between the trees. “Like people walking”, Avni said, mentioning another Gospel story: The healing of the blind man of Bethsaida, just down the road from where we were standing. “I see trees that look like people walking” said the blind man, thinking that he had already been cured. “Your faith has healed you”, said Jesus to the man, once he had restored his eyesight and the trees came into focus again.
Over the years I have had a few mentors who understood the details of the gospel parables and the events of the Ministry of Jesus from the ground up. Galileans, who had crossed all the valleys, stood on all the mountains of this beautiful. They were farmers and priests, entrepreneurs and scholars, imbued with a love for this land that made them special.
On Monday, February 27, Yehuda Avni passed away, at his home in Vered Hagalil. He was surrounded by his friends and family, and the view of the lake and mountains that he loved so much.
He will be sorely missed, and his memory will be cherished by all who knew him.