As early as the 10th Century B.C.E., during the reign of King Solomon, the Jewish people celebrated the fruits of the vine.
“The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of pruning has come; The song of the turtledove Is heard in our land,” wrote Solomon in Song of Songs (2:12), referring to the little lettuce-like blossoms of the first grapes of the season.
More than 10 centuries later, the Jews have returned to their ancient and everlasting homeland. In the ancient hills of the Biblical heartland, vines are sprawling across the fields, fulfilling the ancient prophecy of Jeremiah 31:4: “Again you shall plant vineyards on the hills of Shomron; Men shall plant and live to enjoy them.”
Meet Aaron Katsof, the founder of The Heart of Israel program and a father of six. Originally from Los Angeles, today he lives in the hilltop community of Esh Kodesh, equidistant between the ancient Jewish capital of Shiloh and the Palestinian community of Duma.
On a windy Friday morning at the beginning of spring, just one week before the Passover holiday on which Jews drink four cups of wine to symbolize freedom, Katsof is driving through the hills of Samaria, pointing out the dunams of grape vines.
“That was 100 dunams of vineyards coming down that hill,” he said. “Across there, that’s another five. There’s another 20, another 2,000.”
The vineyards in early spring are exactly as the Bible described – brown, with little lettuces the size of your thumb sprouting from the roots. It’s pruning season. Soon, they’ll be bunches of lush grapes.
“The younger vineyards come out earlier – they are eager,” Katsof said with a smile. “The older ones take their time.”
The land is thorny and desolate, a sign said Katsof that it was never worked.
“When people build in this area, they are accused of settling someone else’s land,” he explained. “But we are building on empty land, we are building businesses and roads and power and roads with lights. We are bringing Samaria back to life.”
The grapes are an obvious sign.
Katsof kicks his foot into the mud and hits bedrock. He said that when the first Jewish settlers came to Samaria, they wanted to fulfil Jeremiah’s prophecy and plant vineyards. But they were discouraged.
“People said, you cannot plant on bedrock – you just cannot do it,” he recalled. So, settlers would plant one or two vines just to say they had fulfilled the words of the Bible.
“The story goes that there was one settler on top of Har Bracha (Mount of Blessings) who made a little vineyard,” Katsof described. “One year he harvested the grapes and made a little wine from it and sold it and entered some competition. It won gold medals.
“That was in 2002. Now look at the hilltop of Har Bracha, it is covered in vines.”
The grapes of Samaria today are considered among the best in the country. There are several wineries in the area, but farmers also sell their grapes to major wineries across the country. Because of the bedrock, the grapes must work hard to grow, which according to Katsof toughens their muscles. The harder the grape works, the more intense and sultry the flavor.
“The grapes have worked so hard to thrive,” said Katsof. “When you pick them and make win, you get a really special wine.”
Most of the boutique vineyards in the area keep irrigation at a minimum and managed. The idea, said Katsof, is that the vines receive sufficient water during the budding and flowering period, but irrigation is then scaled back during the ripening period so that the vine then respond by funneling more of its limited resources into developing the grape clusters instead of excess foliage.
The effect he said is a smaller, berry-size grape with a somewhat higher sugar content.
For Katsof, living in a home on a hill in Samaria and planting the land – he only has his small vineyard and collaborates with a handful of others – “is a dream.”
As a child growing up in the States, he said he always knew he could come to Israel and plant the land. He considers himself a modern-day pioneer.
His Esh Kodesh home overlooks the valleys below. Katsof has planted each of the seven holy species – wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranates, olives and dates – around his house. He said that when he moved into Esh Kodesh seven years ago, the community was 10 caravans. Today, there are more than 60 families and 200 children, and Katsof is working on a new project to bring the last Ethiopian Jews to Israel and its Biblical heartland.
Only kilometers away is the first new Jewish community built with official sanction in more than 25 years, filled with the residents of Amona, who were expelled from their homes 14 months ago by order of the Supreme Court. The new community will be called Amichai, which in English means my nation lives on.
“We live here, surrounded by history,” he said. “We are in the middle of everything – ancient and modern history.”
Written in cooperation with The Heart of Israel.