Locals dub the region of kibbutzim and moshavim around the town of Kiryat Shmona, most of which is in the Upper Galilee, “the Valley” – short for the Hula Valley. This area, also called the Galilee panhandle or, in Hebrew, the “Finger of Galilee,” abuts the Lebanese border and is one of the farthest places away from Tel Aviv in the country. But it’s precisely the latter region – Israel's center – that increasing numbers of young people are abandoning in favor of life among the green and quiet of the far north. One sign of this trend is the fact that these “new immigrants” now have a big variety of eateries, bars, parties and other activities to choose from, especially on weekends.
Nineteen years after the last Israel Defense Forces troops pulled out of Lebanon, there is a palpable, if hard to verify, feeling that something is happening in this region. Central Bureau of Statistics data don’t help in this case, says Doron Lavi, dean of social sciences and humanities at Tel-Hai Academic College, who himself resides in nearby Kibbutz Kfar Giladi. The bureau conducts its surveys on the basis of Israel’s six administrative districts, and in the case of the Northern District, the decline in the number of residents of older urban areas outruns the growth of populations in kibbutzim and moshavim. However, he estimates that in recent years about 5,000 newcomers have migrated to the panhandle and surrounding area, a large portion of them returning residents who come to live in the expansion projects of local kibbutzim and moshavim.
Surveys conducted by the college, Prof. Lavi notes, show that about 80 percent of its graduates say they are interested in remaining in the area, although ultimately only about 4 percent do so. What is the major obstacle facing the grads? “Before anything else, the problem here is employment,” he says.
Still, Gavri Ben David, who’s in charge of renting out units in Kibbutz Kfar Szold, speaks of an ongoing influx and a 100-percent occupation rate.
“People come here all the time, but in the past two years, there’s been even more demand. Usually everything we have is rented out,” he says. “The demand is always greater than the supply. I could rent every house that becomes vacant four times over.”
Amos, Ben-David’s counterpart at Kibbutz Dafna, also discerns heightened interest in living in the north: “There’s been an awakening in the past few years, and we’re seeing greater demand. Our kibbutz is close to Tel-Hai College, and we have a stream of people. All 60 rental apartments are occupied. The problem in this area is that there are no jobs. If there was a way to make a living, the awakening would be far greater.”
The population influx hasn’t generated the establishment of cultural institutions like theaters and concert halls, but veteran businesses have grown stronger. For example, the lovely activist cooperative café in Kiryat Shmona was picking up business until it burned down last March. In the past couple of years, however, Tabula Rasa, a community space and restaurant, and Café Cashew, which started as a cooperative, have both opened in the northern city, and Café Blooma – which is also an art gallery – has opened in Kibbutz Kfar Blum. There are also a variety of Valley-based regular parties, with names like New Border and Spring Journey. The hippie vibe is pretty intense, with all kinds of sing-along groups and treatment workshops. In Metula there’s Between Earth and Sky, a center for music and Judaism, and also a Mahayana meditation center. But a great deal of the action takes place not in structured establishments but in private homes.
Who, then, are the people who, instead of heading for Berlin to flee the high cost of housing in Tel Aviv, find themselves dipping in the “hidden lake” at Kfar Szold and paying monthly rent as low as 2,000 shekels ($560), or sometimes even 1,500 shekels ($420), way up north?
Maya Velazquez, 44, runs a hairdressing salon out of her modest trailer home on Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, south of Kiryat Shmona, where she lives with her two children. She grew up in Herzliya, lived for 15 years in Tel Aviv and was the photographer of the Cupid site, during the glory days of such dating sites, where she made “piles of money.” She moved to New York, where she worked as a wedding photographer for ultra-Orthodox women and also got married.
“The New York urbanism killed me,” she recalls. “Enough! I wanted to burn down the subway. I started to think that I wanted only blue and green – water and flora. I had an insane longing for Greek salads. All my life I wanted kibbutz, because when I was 4 my grandmother took me to Kibbutz Amir for a week and it stayed with me.”
Velazquez and her husband moved back to Israel, though their first stop was south Tel Aviv. “Filipinos and Sudanese – we felt like we were at home in Brooklyn,” she says. When their first child, Gal, was born, nine years ago, she decided she wanted to go north.
“I said that as soon as Gal started walking, I wanted him to be able to run barefoot on the grass – I didn’t want him to see syringes on the street,” she says. “We lived for a while in Kiryat Shalom [a relatively pastoral neighborhood in south Tel Aviv]. But I said to myself, ‘Who are you kidding? This isn’t the real deal.’ A girlfriend told me about a neighborhood of mobile homes on Ayelet Hashahar. A truck stopped and dropped me off here and since then, for the past eight years, I’ve been here with the feeling of being in a B&B. I feel like it’s India, we’re surrounded by nature, the kids make campfires. Leaves get tracked into the house.”
Maya and her husband were divorced “quite happily” five years ago and have maintained good relations since. So good, in fact, that Maya suggested that she and he have another child – and Libby was born. “I’m a girl with lots of strange stories. I live at full throttle. I don’t like going with the herd,” she says.
At one point Velazquez underwent vocational retraining and branded herself a “natural hairdresser”: “It’s a lifesaver for the clients,” she says. “I’m a professional ‘hair gladdener.’”
These days, to survive as a single-income parent, Velaskez has also gone into cosmetics, and manufactures a line of products “for happy hair.” But like many of the people I met up north, much of her income still comes from working in the country’s center: Once every two weeks Velaskez travels to Tel Aviv, where she rents a chair at a hairdressing salon: “That’s my sanity, getting a little bus exhaust. It’s a different life. There’s more awareness of style in Tel Aviv. Here they tell me, ‘Make it look cool but don’t touch the length.’ There I do blue mohawks.”
Velazquez says she thinks the demand to live in the north is growing. “I was really lucky to get this trailer. There’s a waiting list here, and it’s the same on all the kibbutzim.”
How’s the nightlife and culture?
“We have a gallery on the kibbutz called Tel Aviv, and there’s also a gallery on Kibbutz Amir. On weekends there are cool pubs in the area. It’s not Tel Aviv, but maybe it’s just as well – it’s something else. The main form of entertainment is going to a spring or a stream, all the rest is a bonus. And to raise children here is a dream. On the way back from Tel Aviv, once we pass Golani Junction, my heart opens up.”
But life in the boondocks is no paradise. “The health services are a problem,” Velazquez admits. “They keep cutting back. Another ER gets shut down. If someone in Kiryat Shmona is injured, he has to be taken to Ziv Medical Center in Safed.” And there are other serious problems: “To live here alone, without being in a relationship, is clinical death. A bit lonely, I would say. The big problem is that there are no men here. In Tel Aviv the men talk about music; in the north they tell you about tractors that broke down and about field crops.”
Tel Aviv withdrawal
One of the better-known people who’s made the move north lately is the musician Alon Eder. He’s living on Kibbutz Amir with his wife, filmmaker Shani Eder Gabay. They’re raising two sons – David, 7, and Rafa, 4. (At the time of our meeting, Shani was in her ninth month of pregnancy, and gave birth a few days later to a girl.) “We moved when we started to have children suddenly – by mistake,” says Gabay, who, like her husband, is Tel Aviv born. “We always wondered when we’d have the courage to leave Tel Aviv.”
This is their second try in the north, after an unsuccessful attempt at Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi a few years ago. “I had a hard time leaving Tel Aviv then,” says Eder. “We were living half and half – in the north and the center – and it wasn’t didn’t make sense.”
“We hadn’t really fallen in love with the place 100 percent,” Gabay adds.
The couple returned to downtown Tel Aviv, but found themselves missing the streams in the north. Little David refused to go outside. “The only place he agreed to go was the fountain next to Suzanne Dellal [dance center],” says his father.
They decided to try Tel Aviv withdrawal a second time. “I agreed to move to Givatayim,” Gabay says, referring to a nearby suburb, “and then the radius moved a bit north, to Herzliya.” Eventually, the couple landed at Kibbutz Amir.
“It’s totally the end of the world here; to move here doesn’t seem like something you’re meant to do,” Eder admits. “But it’s next to an academic institution, Tel-Hai College, so there are young people and there are intellectuals. The interesting thing is that people who live here don’t feel like they’re in the hinterlands. A lot of communities are located near each other. There are concerts, parties, dance performances. But what triumphs here is nature. As soon as we got here, David took off his shoes.”
Alon Eder mentions the financial aspect: “It’s an ideological decision not to live in Tel Aviv – a city that doesn’t make it possible today to create and be an artist who can choose whether to do something commercial or esoteric.”
Meanwhile, he is performing around the country, and Gabay is directing her clips along with others for local directors while homeschooling Rafa. They’ve also co-written a musical – and joke that they’re now undergoing couples therapy to recover from that joint effort.
Doesn’t the distance make things difficult?
Eder: “I enjoy being in the car; it’s a time for writing. But I miss walking around the streets of Tel Aviv for hours at night. Seeing masses of young people. I’m missing my past. It’s scary not to return to Tel Aviv, it’s scary to return to Tel Aviv. Culturally speaking, there’s a gap here. Things happen here, but more’s happening in Tel Aviv.”
Eder doesn’t think that living at the end of the world is hurting his career. “My most successful songs were born in the north. At one time, maybe, I was considered an idol on a few streets in Tel Aviv, but I was full of despair and rage. And then I released ‘A Little Love Won’t Hurt,’ and suddenly there are interviews and Galgalatz [Army Radio’s pop music station]. I don’t feel that living here is inhibiting my career.”
Gabay, who is less inclined to solitude than Adar, sees the area developing around her. “There’s a feeling of renewal, new restaurants are opening all the time, along with new initiatives. There are community screenings in Metula. Everyone who comes here is on a mission, everyone thinks about how to create a community. There’s something simple here, but also a ton of creative people. In Tel Aviv, there is a great deal of activism in art; here the ‘activism’ takes the form of buying a crate of cucumbers from a farmer friend.”
When I showed up, the couple was in the midst of a crisis involving their apartment. The owner wants them to leave, and they have to decide where to go – and thus again, thoughts of living closer to the center of the country are cropping up.
“We’ve lived in this place longer than anywhere else. In Tel Aviv we moved every year, sometimes less. The prices keep going up, and there’s a wild demand here for rental apartments. The solution is to buy. But I am of the mindset of someone who doesn’t buy a home,” Eder says. “Everyone here is talking real estate all the time.”
Are you in touch with your friends from high school?
Gabay: “They talk about coming to visit, but it never happens.”
Alon notes that his parents, musician Yehuda Eder and actress Miki Kam, grew up on kibbutzim and don’t understand what their son sees in living on a remote one – and also aren’t eager to visit.
“We live here modestly,” Alon says. “In the center you’re always spending money. Here you can go a whole day without spending a shekel. This is the first year I haven’t had an overdraft.”
Three rooms and a balcony
I know Meital Bar Natan, who’s 36, from Midburn. In the middle of the desert, at the Israeli version of Burning Man in 2015, Bar Natan created a kind of zone called the “garden of vulvas,” with comfortable sofas modeled after the female genitalia. Amid all the hullabaloo, it was pleasant to find a furry place.
A graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Bar Natan lived in Tel Aviv for five years and then took off for East Asia: “After India I went on wandering around Israel for half a year, staying with friends. I was a nomad, I took care of dogs for people, and I just ended up in the north. I’d always had a fantasy of living there, amid nature. And then, a year and a half ago, a trailer became available in Moshav Beit Hillel, and I stayed on.”
Bar Natan eventually moved and currently lives in a lovely apartment on Kibbutz Kfar Szold. The problem is that it’s remote even when relative to Kibbutz Amir. To survive, she is learning how to drive.
“It’s 180 degrees different from life in the center,” she says. “I feel that I’m living a double life. At first I was in a journey mode, and the disconnect served me. I had no desire to move away from here. Now I understand that I have a powerful connection with the city. So I’m leading a double life. Both here and Tel Aviv. Each time, it’s a very sharp transition.”
Bar Natan actually earns her living in the center. She teaches at the College of Design in Tel Aviv, is planning an exhibition that will be held Jaffa, and exhibits her comics at a hummus place in the Levinsky market. “I don’t feel it’s right for me to exhibit in the north. I don’t think my art is appropriate here. I’m not wild about exhibiting in galleries in the north.”
Is the public in the north conservative?
“It’s a bit patronizing to say that. What I do is simply niche art.”
Bar Natan says she tried to work at a design studio in the north, but couldn’t find her place there. These days she gives private lessons in graphic design. “The pace of life here is completely different, it’s like the pace of the streams. You need to reinvent yourself – a lot of people talk about having to do that here.”
During our conversation, heretical thoughts of leaving overcome her: “I teach in Tel Aviv, my friends are in the city, the family is in the center, things aren’t very balanced. It takes a whole day to recover, after I come back from there. That’s because there’s no movement here, the pace is very slow. Things happen here, but mostly for students. Whenever I hitchhike, I’m asked if I’m a student. Now I’m starting to learn the lingo. I used to speak Tel Avivan. I’m happy I’m here, but on the other hand – what’s keeping me here? It’s a bit of a fantasy to live in the north.”
Bar Natan says she is addicted to the workshops she has found in the area: She’s studying aromatherapy and vocal development, along with taking driving lessons: “My life is very full, and for a three-room apartment with a balcony, five minutes from a lake, I’m paying [only] 2,150 shekels [$600]. Life here is also less expensive because you eat out less.”
Inbal Rokah, 34, grew up in Ashkelon, studied filmmaking at Sapir Academic College, in Sderot, and tried to find a place for herself in that industry.
“I worked as an assistant director for a few months, and then I was offered something really worthwhile in television, something that logic said I should take, but my gut said I should do what I really want to do,” she says, adding that she ignored the advice of family and friends, and began working in the kitchen of a vegan restaurant in Tel Aviv for 25 shekels (about $8) an hour. “My family thought there was something wrong with me – what did I have a college degree for? But when I tied the apron strings, I felt tears in my eyes.”
She became a sous-chef, and then was put in charge of the kitchen, before she panicked from all the pressure. “I realized it was too much, I felt that Tel Aviv wasn’t for me. I love culture, but mentally I couldn’t stay there.” She traveled to India, and two and a half years ago went to visit a friend in the north. “I sat by the stream and said, ‘I feel like living here.’ She said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Why not, indeed? I’m coming.’”
She had to start from scratch professionally, after moving first to Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch and then recently to Kibbutz Amir, where she is now. “They told me to peel potatoes [at the new restaurant that hired her]. A kid of 26 explained how to peel carrots. I had to keep my mouth shut. Ego wouldn’t get me anywhere.” At the same time, she decided to open a vegan catering business called Aniba, which was her grandmother’s nickname for her.
The catering business is flourishing, mainly during the wedding season. At the time of our meeting, she’s preparing food for a “social wedding,” where guests help bring some of the food. She can survive financially on two events a month, she says. She tries to use local suppliers of vegan products. “As a self-employed woman in Upper Galilee, I will first of all choose a female supplier – not that I don’t love men, but in order to balance things out.”
According to Rokah, “There is a serious flow of people coming here from the center, many of them artists,” she says, sitting in her attractive apartment. “Many people who came here have found a platform for creativity. If Tel Aviv is the heart of the country’s art scene, here there is more space to engage in art. Many people I know here are former Tel Avivans of my age. And also young couples. I still have the occasional event in the center, but my goal is to focus on here. To say ‘I am here.’ I had a moment when I said, ‘Inbal, enough hiding.’”
As a former filmmaker, she finds something missing in the north: “There are a lot of musical events up here, but not much in the way of film. I’d be happy to bring a film festival here.”
What’s your take on the dating world in the north?
“Write this down: Ha, ha, ha.”
The livelihood of Niva Haim, 37, is an example of the entrepreneurship that the north makes possible. A flamenco dancer born in Yokne’am, not far from Haifa, she moved to the far north five years ago, after living in multiple places, notably Tel Aviv and southern Spain. She now lives in a former B&B in Moshav Beit Hillel and runs a flamenco center on Kibbutz Amir called Luna’s Salon, which offers lessons and is a performance venue.
“This is a pioneering period in the north with regard to culture,” Haim says. “People have cultural centers in their yards, there are houses where people live venue, people are taking the initiative and establishing study circles. People have started to find themselves. You can take in art and music every day of the week. It’s become chaotic here, and I’m not someone who gets excited. There’s a lot happening in Metula. There are all kinds of performance venues – here [at Amir] in the Drunken Carp bar, at Kfar Giladi, Dan, Hagoshrim, Rosh Pina – there are six or seven events every weekend. And ‘outies’ like you also show up.”
“People who speak Florentinian” – referring to Florentin, a trendy Tel Aviv neighborhood – “people from outside the north. The whole party scene is just now developing, and there’s nothing I like more than parties. Parties liberate you more than anything else. The more parties, the better. There didn’t used to be good parties, there were more policemen than regular people. But people here are getting ‘stronger’ [using a word usually applied to newly religious people]. There are many who come to learn, not only at Tel-Hai, also at Maqamat [Academy of Eastern Music] in Safed.”
Her salon also constitutes what Haim calls a “center for mindful sexuality,” offering a host of workshops. “We are born male and female,” she explains, “and we talk about our processes as sexual beings – the goal is to live sexuality pleasurably and not shamefully. I myself am just a student; I arrange workshops for teachers. Mindful sexuality is where everything starts. We also have Arabic classes here. I want to turn the place into a center for creating social peace.”
It’s hard to get here from Tel Aviv without a car.
“Not at all. One of the lovely things about the north is the lifts: I don’t have a driver’s license and I hitchhike with all the people who live here; it makes no difference what religion they are. Everyone is really amazing. They all stop for hitchhikers. There’s always joking around. We don’t use only money to pay. There’s extensive bartering, including offering lessons.”
Wouldn’t you prefer to establish a flamenco salon in the center of the country?
“For me living in the Galilee is the best. Only there aren’t enough single guys here. There are in the center, but they’re more confused.”