Eat Your Heart Out

Beyond Masada / Crazy Sculptures, Chiseled in Marzipan

In the shadow of Mount Tavor, an Englishwoman recreated a delight she'd known in childhood.

A first-time visit to Israel generally includes a kibbutz or moshav. That almost always ends with an opportunity to buy its own very special vintages of wine and olive oil. Indeed, vines and olive trees are native to Israel, and have been part of the local diet for thousands of years.

So have almonds, whose trees are instantly recognizable by their pink-white blossoms and small stature, rarely exceeding four meters. Surprisingly, they are not included in the Biblical list of the seven species characterizing the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 8:8), although almonds were certainly around at that time. They have only recently been commercially grown in small plantations, such as on the east side of Mount Tabor. This explains why the almond’s tasty product, marzipan, is a shy though welcome newcomer.

Kefar Tavor began as a Baron Edmund de Rothschild-supported farming village in 1901, and its population today is around the 3,000 mark. Most visitors race through it on Route #65 in the comfort of the express bus to Tiberias from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, with their eyes on the huge hump that is Mount Tabor. That puts the Marzipan Museum beyond the tourist trail.

English-speaking travelers are especially recommended to stop for an hour or so, in order not miss out Kefar Tavor’s vital London connection: the remarkable career of Gillian Peled.

The Israel in which Gillian settled in the 1980s did not produce the elaborate marzipan fruit-and-flower decorations of the birthday parties and weddings of her London childhood. Housebound as the mother of young children, she began to make them herself. But Gillian did not stop at birthday parties. What started as a cottage industry graduated to edible sculpture.

After workshops in Sicily, the leader in the field, she developed her own style in applying the ductile and malleable characteristics of marzipan to producing likenesses of Israeli personalities. In London, it is Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, at Kefar Tavor it is marzipan-works. But Israeli politicians gave her little encouragement. Not one would attend a personal sculpture modelling session, so she had to base her work on their photographs instead.

That was not the only setback. Her marzipan fruit-and-flowers business had become an immigrant enterprise success story by 1998, but in that year, her distributor went bankrupt. Gillian was left with masses of marzipan and no one to take it off her hands. In due course, she was approached by the mayor of Kefar Tavor with an offer she could not refuse. Would she help extend the village’s small local history museum into a working center of local products, including marzipan?

The rest is history. The marzipan enterprise soon grew out of its two rooms and relocated to the larger premises on the eastern side of the village, which are about ten minutes’ walk from the main road. There, Gillian is in her element as the marzipan models, some of which you will view on your visit, have become larger, bolder, and even more appetizing.

Allow a good hour for your visit. You can take a chance and just turn up. However, it is best to telephone in advance to ensure that you arrive at a time that the Marzipan Museum is operating to the full.

Get a feel for the place by starting with the English version of the short movie, which will certainly raise a laugh or two. Then, following a taster of the factory’s almond juice and marzipan (included in the admission fee), proceed slowly through the main exhibition, all tantalizing behind glass panels. The themes change regularly. Visitors during 2012 were regaled with the women in the Bible and history. Following the museum’s annual marzipan sculpture competition last held in the Purim season of 2013, the current theme is the world of animations. My favorite is marzipan-crafted workshop with Geppetto in the act of crafting Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who dreamed of being a real boy. The two runners-up were scenes from Alice in Wonderland, and Rapunzel’s extravagantly long plaited hair absurdly too long for her body – all crafted in marzipan to the last painstaking detail.

Take part in one of the museum’s workshops to enjoy it to the full. All ages from children to senior citizens are welcome. The instructors will introduce the delicate art of crafting items from marzipan. You may take home what you made, though you will probably end up eating it on the way. And if you wish to pursue this new-found hobby to a higher level, think about entering the next annual competition with a marzipan sculpture of your own. The exhibits of previous events indicate the extremely high standard involved, if you are set on being a winner.

And yes! Exiting the museum regales you with a sea of most seductive marzipan products from the small factory viewable from the exhibition. They make excellent presents for those back home, showing an authentic, but unexpected reality of modern Israel.

Kefar Tavor is on Route #65. Buses 830, 835, and 841 from Tel Aviv, 962 from Jerusalem. Allow an hour for the visit, and considerably more if you plan on trying do some marzipan sculpture yourself. Alight from the bus at Kefar Tavor center, walk southwards for about two minutes at Bank HaPoalim, and immediately turn eastwards towards the industrial estate. The Marzipan Museum is about eight minutes walk, on the left.

The museum is open from Sundays to Thursdays from 09:00 to 17:00 (18:00 in summer), Fridays from 09:00 to 16:00 and Saturdays from 10:00 to 17:00. Entry fees: NIS 15 to the visitors center only; NIS 35 to include the marzipan workshop, and NIS 43 for the marzipan and chocolate workshop. Telephone: 04 677 211. Fax 04 676 0027.

Gil Eliahu