A Slightly Rarefied Circassian Day Trip

Get a glimpse of another world in Israel’s two Circassian villages before heading up to the peak of Mount Tabor for a little perspective.

When I ask Zuhair Thawcho, the director of the Circassian Heritage Center in Kfar Kama, why he isn't wearing the traditional Circassian cheraska, he laughs. It takes days of preparation to put on, he explains.

I assume it must be a complex and heavy costume, not exactly the latest wrinkle for the blistering Israeli summer. But a moment later, tracing a slender hourglass shape in the air, he explains that even his slim frame would not fit into a Circassian belt without some heavy dieting.

“Our traditional costume is made for a man with a hip measurement of 50 centimeters [about 20 inches]," he said. "I couldn't wear it today. Circassian men is supposed to look different.”

This conversation reminds me how little I know about Circassian culture and tradition. Even though I have passed by the entrance to this Lower Galilee village dozens of times, I never did go inside.

My ignorance is not uncommon, Thawcho says.

“The village was established here 150 years ago, but very few people know about it, and still fewer know about our special identity," he says. "Circassian culture doesn't get the attention it deserves, and we deserve much of the blame for that. We tend to keep to ourselves, but we're trying to change."

Kfar Kama is one of two Circassian villages in Israel. The other village, Rehaniya, is in the Upper Galilee and has its own heritage museum. There are about 3,000 Circassians living in Kfar Kama and 1,000 living in Rehaniya.

A brief tour of Kfar Kama reveals a very foreign and somewhat incomprehensible place.

“People see the high dome of our mosque and think this is just another Muslim village with a mosque in the middle,” says Thawcho. “They don’t bother to look deeper.”

The homes in Kfar Kama – particularly those in the center— are old, modest and built of black basalt. There are high stone fences and the streets are conspicuously clean.

“If anyone who lives here saw me walk by a piece of paper on the sidewalk without picking it up, God forbid, I’d get a bad reputation in the village,” says Thawjo. “That’s unacceptable here. They’d say that I’d picked up some very bad habits.”

Visiting the museum without a guide would do little to elucidate the mysteries of the village. Fortunately, a museum employee accompanies every guest, explaining the items on display and providing background on Circassian culture and tradition.

Thawcho says the Circassians – who call themselves Adyghe, meaning one who is noble and whole – are not an ethnic group but rather a Caucasian nation made up of twelve warlike tribes that live today in the northern Caucasus, Turkey and the Middle East. Most of the inhabitants of Kfar Kama are members of the Shapsugh tribe. Members of the Abzah tribe live mostly in Rehaniya.

The Circassians are considered one of the most ancient nations in the world, with a rich heritage and a reputation as formidable fighters. At the beginning of the 19th century, about 1.5 million Circassians were killed in the Russian–Circassian war and about 90 percent of the survivors were exiled.

“I’m fifth generation in Israel, but I’m living in exile, like the Jews in Poland,” says Thawjo.

He says it is easy and very tempting to assimilate into Israeli society, but that the Circassians' insular lifestyle prevents this from happening. Whereas in Jordan and Syria, traditional Circassian culture has been almost entirely lost, in Israel, the Circassians have protected and preserved their culture with great care.

The residents of Kfar Kama speak both Circassian and Hebrew, and many speak English and Arabic – the language of their religion – as well. More than 90 percent of people who are born in the village return after completing their studies and all marriages take place within the community – no easy task considering that there are only about 4,000 Circassians living in Israel.

Thawjo eloquently praises the beauty and independence of Circassian women. He also confirms that the custom of kidnapping the bride before marriage is still practiced – one of the few things that Israelis tend to know about Circassian culture.

“We have an ancient and strong tradition, and we preserve it carefully," he says. "Kidnapping the bride before marriage is part of this tradition, and today it is a symbolic ceremony that allows women to marry whom they wish even if the family is against the match. In any case, our customs in this area of life would seem a bit odd to you. For example, I wasn’t invited to my sisters’ weddings, and I didn’t attend them. That’s how it is. To me it seems natural, and to Israelis it seems insane.”

For the last two years, the Circassian Heritage Center has operated in Beit Shammai, a large two-story building with a lovely inner courtyard and vestibules. Built entirely of black basalt, its blue-framed and shuttered windows and red-tiled roof provide brilliant splashes of color. The building, which is more than a century old, once served as a well-known flourmill and an inn. The interior features decorative tiled floors, painted ceilings and a gorgeous view of nearby Mount Tabor.

The items on display in the museum include traditional warriors’ dress, embroidery work by women, weapons, musical instruments, kitchen utensils, farming tools and furniture. While a visit to the Circassian Heritage Center provides some insight into the nation's customs, it does little to diminish the sense of mystery that shrouds the village. The Circassian’s ancient culture seems in no hurry to reveal itself.

Onward and upward

The drive from Kfar Kama to Kfar Tavor takes less than five minutes, but it bridges two completely different worlds. Kfar Tavor, a smallish farming village with about 2,500 residents, has at least four museums: the Marzipan Museum, the Kfar Tavor Museum with its display of farming tools, wineries and – at the nearby agricultural moshav, Shadmot Devora – apiaries with honey for sale.

The heat and mild illness prevent me from visiting all these places. But I make it to the Kfar Tavor Museum, mostly because it seems like a logical next step after the Circassian Heritage Center.

Kfar Tavor was built in 1901, almost 30 years after Kfar Kama, and still during the First Aliyah. During this period, from 1992-1903, an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe and Yemen, immigrated to pre-state Palestine. Like many of these immigrants, Kfar Tavor's braved unbearable heat and harsh living conditions.

The friendly man at the museum entrance apologizes that the air conditioners are not functioning that morning and refuses to take an admission fee. With a smile, he agrees that the founders probably did not enjoy the weather much either.

The Kfar Tavor Museum contains several wings that appear largely unconnected. At the center of the museum stands a large new building with a modern display documenting the settlement’s history. It is well organized and attractive, but not particularly interesting. Its large courtyard is more slightly intriguing, with the obligatory tractor on display, together with a farmhouse from the turn of the 20th century.

And then I discover a surprise. Hidden in the courtyard, deep in the museum, is a spa, describing itself as “a gift for body and mind.”

The Spa in the Courtyard's website says, “Its unique location provides a natural, calm and tranquil atmosphere.”

That description sounds a bit ridiculous to me as I stand in the sweltering heat. But I find myself thinking that perhaps after a century of hardship, the old-time farmers of Kfar Tavor wanted a spa where they could pamper themselves a bit, rest, and put some cream on their calloused hands. How can one draw a connection between a commercial spa that offers massage therapy and the history of the settlement’s founders? Only the people of Kfar Tavor know the answer.

After the spa, I am not surprised to discover a crystal and mineral shop among the well-preserved old houses in the adjacent courtyard. The shop is located in a lovely old stone building that for decades was the home of Rabbi Ben-Zion Levin, a student of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook.

It is at this moment that I understand the refrain from Haim Hefer’s song about Kfar Tavor, which he composed for the Israeli band HaTarnegolim in the 1960s: “This is life along the street in Mes’ha [Kfar Tavor’s previous name]. Yes, my friend, this is how it is; in just a bit, we’ll go out of our minds.”

The summit

Needing some fresh air, I decide to head to one of my favorite places in Israel, the summit of Mount Tabor.

The short road from Kfar Tavor to the mountain runs through the Bedouin village of Shibli, where I remember a center for the preservation of Bedouin heritage operating. Unable to find it after several passes through the village, I inquire with the pretty young woman in the grocery store.

She succinctly explains, “The owner died, and there’s no more Bedouin heritage.”

The winding road to the summit is exquisite. The yellow-green expanses of the Jezreel Valley and the Lower Galilee appear around every curve. The monastery at the summit is surrounded by a beautiful garden that creates a feeling of genuine tranquility. There is no spa at the monastery yet, and even the small café to the right of the gate, with its sign stating that only pilgrims will be served, is closed.

The Church of the Transfiguration at the summit of Mount Tabor is a white stone building planned in 1924 by the Italian Franciscan monk and architect Antonio Barluzzi (1884–1960). Barluzzi later built, among other things, the Church of the Beatitudes on the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount and the Dominus Flevit chapel on the Mount of Olives – each one an exemplary structure that is well worth visiting, even on a hot day.

A long dirt path gives visitors to the church on Mount Tabor the time they need to absorb its beauty. The oleander bushes, whose pink blossoms are in full flower, emphasize how symmetrical, clean and splendid it is. Two balconies allow visitors to look out over the Sea of Galilee and the valleys, but on this day a heavy layer of dust almost entirely obscures the view. The monk sitting at the entrance to the church in his long robe insists the heat is not so bad.

“Here, look: A light breeze is blowing, and the world is beautiful,” he says.

Getting there             

Kfar Kama: Take Route 65 to Kfar Tavor. Turn east (right) onto Route 767 to the village entrance. The Circassian Heritage Center, located at the center of the village, is open every day. Telephone: 050-575-7640. www.circassianmuseum.co.il.

Kfar Tavor: Located on Route 65, east of Mount Tabor, between Afula and Tiberias. The Kfar Tavor Museum is open on weekdays from 9:00–14:00 and on Saturdays from 10:00–15:00. In June and September, the museum is closed on Saturdays. Telephone: 04-676-5844. www.kfar-tavor-museum.org.il.

The Marzipan Museum in Kfar Tavor is located on Keren Kayemet Leisrael Boulevard. Telephone: 04-677-2111. www.shakedtavor.co.il.

The Dvorat HaTavor Silk and Honey Farm: Telephone: 04-676-9598. www.dvorat-hatavor.co.il.

The monastery at the summit of Mount Tabor is open on weekdays from 8:00 to 11:45 and from 14:00 to 17:00. On Saturdays and holidays, it is open to visitors until 11:30.

Gili Eliyahu