Tiberias, forever anchored to the Sea of Galilee.
In very ancient times, Tiberias was a Jewish village. Then the Romans moved in, developed the area and named it after a Caesar. Arabs, Crusaders, Egyptian Mamelukes, Ottomans, and the British ruled the city. Jews moved in and out over the centuries. Their presence in Tiberias depended on wars, earthquakes, the Inquisition, and the friendliness or hostiliy of rulers.
It’s now a modern Israeli city, drawing on lakeside beaches, hotels, pleasant restaurants and archaeological remains to attract tourism. Yosef and I spent our honeymoon in Tiberias. We’d eat grilled fish and salad and walk over to the promenade to watch the sun set over the Sea of Galilee. Somewhere, in an aging photo album, there’s a picture of us at the tomb of the great sage, Maimonides, who is buried there.
It’s a city of open water where fishing and motor boats and the occasional ferry split the mild waves on the sun-glittering lake. The Sea of Galilee is always at the edge of your consciousness as you walk through the lower city or tour archaeological sites.
It’s a city of secret waters under the sidewalk, under your feet, where hot springs flow. Those thermal springs have been known and enjoyed since ancient times. You can soak in one even today, in one of the hotels who built spas around them. I used to take the bus down from Safed to the spa, spending a morning in the large, dim, humid room where Jewish and Druze women bathed in hot and hotter thermal pools. Men also use the spa, on separate days.
Tiberias has other strange, little-known waters. Do you know about the well of Miriam the Prophetess? It was a stone that rolled along the ground, accompanying the Jews as they camped in the desert before entering Israel, and it brought forth water as needed. Folklore says that the well of Miriam migrated to the Sea of Galilee when we entered the land, and that on Saturday nights, the stone opens again and its water pours forth inside the lake, so people can come and drink of it. They say that if you stand at the summit of the Carmel mountain, you can see a sieve-like rock in the waters of the lake, and that’s Miriam’s well.
Up in the surrounding hills, amid the dry brush and ancient caves, a hidden hot spring bubbles up from the rocks. You have to be young and agile to climb up to it, and it’s on no map that I know of. So much is hidden, kept close, in Tiberias. Only the archaeologist’s persistent curiosity will uncover a whole Roman theater, or a stone Crusader gate, coaxing them to emerge from their mysterious pasts for the sun to shine on them again.
This ruined watchtower is the remains of a fortress built by Sheik Zahir al-Umar, a powerful ruler who controlled the Galilee region in the mid- to late 1700s. He established his seat in Tiberias and was friendly to religious minorities, building synagogues for the Jews and reducing their taxes in order to encourage immigration. Does anyone pay much attention to the ruins? Probably not; it’s just part of a traffic circle in Tiberias.
Rulers, scholars, and the simple people that have come and gone left their marks on Tiberias. In the customs, folklore, Jewish scholarship, Christian tradition, historical ruins and landmarks – and even cuisine. On a press tour with chef Avigail Aharon, a 10th-generation Tiberian, I learned all kinds of surprising things about how Tiberians eat, and why.
First of all, there’s St. Peter’s fish, also called blue tilapia (in Hebrew, musht). Once thriving in the Sea of Galilee, it’s becoming rare from overfishing. Most of our St. Peter’s Fish is farmed these days. Here’s Avigail showing some of the differences between farmed and lake fish. The most obvious one is the local fish’s silver tail, as compared to the colored stripes on farmed fish.
Avigail says that every Tiberian knows musht as a birthright. “Blindfold a Tiberian and feed him pond-farmed musht and musht from the Sea of Galilee. He’ll taste the difference immediately.”
Then, there’s black pepper. In the mid-16th century, trade in black pepper was key to the city’s economy. The taste for it remains to this day. Avigail says that the seasonings of traditional foods are usually just salt and plenty of black pepper.
Traditional foods? Lunch at any of the little eateries and restaurants near the lake consists of dishes found anywhere in Israel. Fish, naturally. Steak and fries. Salad, humus. The cafes serve the usual omelets, quiches, bourekas, soups. Where’s the tradition?
Aha. Tiberians keep their family recipes close to home. Maybe it’s living between mountains and water, which kept the residents semi-isolated. Maybe it’s historical upheavals and wars. But Tiberias is alive with secrets, customs taken for granted but not made public, foods that appear only the tables of family and friends.
Much of Tiberian food is based on Sephardic tradition, or Sephardic interpretations of Ashkenazic food. Even the famous Jerusalem kugel, a peppery hot noodle pudding bathed in caramel syrup, is transmogrified with layers of chicken. It seems that when Eastern European Jews came to live in Tiberias in the 18th century, their Sephardic neighbors couldn’t accept all that starch without adding some protein to it.
Here’s sofrito, a typical, homey, Sephardic braised chicken dish.
Fish is cooked simply, with lemon and celery, or grilled, or made into fish balls not at all like gefilte fish but seasoned with cilantro and plenty of pepper.
Calzones, a savory pastry stuffed with cheese like ravioli, are served every Shabbat. “We say that if there are no calzones on the table Shabbat afternoon, it’s cause for divorce,” jokes Avigail.
The great sage Maimonides left a salad recipe that Tiberians make till this day. It calls for lots of vegetables, dressed simply in olive oil and lemon juice, and a healthy sprinkling of sumac. And you eat it for breakfast, in order to clean out the kidneys and digestion. Jewish health food.
Strolling through the market street, I saw this refrigerator standing outside a shop. “All kinds of cheeses,” proclaims the sign on it. Good cooks pick up their cheeses from such humble-looking sources, although a supermarket is only a few minutes away.
I ate Avigail’s meat and fava stew, where the meat is cubed, pre-cooked simply in water with bay leaves, celery leaves and onion, then stewed with green fava beans and seasonings. No hoverings over the stove adding pinches of this and a soupçon of that. Simple, simple, and delicious.
Aharon’s father was a local fisherman, and Aharon herself occasionally still fishes on the Sea of Galilee. As a tenth-generation Tiberian, she knows every corner of the city and how people cook there.