ZICHRON YA'AKOV, Israel — Wooden windows, tiled roofs, stone posts and old-fashioned street lamps line the restored main street of Zichron Ya'akov.
This charming town on the southern hills of the Carmel mountains is still reminiscent of the small farming village established in 1882 by a group of idealistic Romanian immigrants to the Holy Land.
Driving up the green, forested slopes of the mountain, it is easy to understand how the first settlers fell in love with their new home. Whatever hardships had to be endured, the settlers were revitalized by the clean air and breathtaking view of the sea.
Originally called Zammarin, the struggling new settlement was rescued by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who took a personal as well as financial interest in its future, and renamed it Zichron Ya'akov, or Jacob's Memory, in honor of his father.
Not only did Rothschild introduce and subsidize the local vineyard-growing industry, he also built the largest winery in the land, established in 1882. His personal attachment to Zichron is evident from the impressive synagogue he built in 1886, Ohel Ya'akov, or Jacob's Tent, also named for his father.
"He built it at a time when the Turks were not allowing the construction of places of assembly because they feared rebellion," said Shuki Sukerman, a local tour guide. Refurbished in the 1960s, the synagogue is still used for daily and Sabbath prayers.
Rothschild also built Zichron's first water tower, another historical site on the main street. Called Brichat Binyamin, or Benjamin's Well, the structure's facade is designed in the style of a synagogue. Although the giant copper water vessels on top are no longer in place, it is worth climbing the stone stairs to enjoy a magnificent panoramic view of the area.
The scenic road that encircles the town takes one past Gan Yisrael, which faces the sea. This is a wonderful vantage point from which to view the Mediterranean coast and the shimmering fish ponds of Kibbutz Ma'ayan Zvi.
Many of Zichron Ya'akov's residents, especially those who live on Hameyasdim Street, are still farmers with wholesome, hardworking, early-to-rise, early-to-bed values. Walking down the street, you can see courtyards containing hand tools that were used before being replaced by more modern methods, and horse stables at the back of residential houses, which are now used for different purposes.
Zichron is a town whose past hovers in the present. A visit to Aaronson House on the main street reveals the Aaronson family's remarkable story. Aaron Aaronson was a well-known agronomist, known for discovering the wild wheat known as the "Mother of all Wheat."
His own personal experiences of the evils of Turkish rule prompted him to found NILI, the secret intelligence organization that relayed information about the Turks to the British during World War I. His source for the acronym NILI was "Nezah Yisrael Lo Yeshakker," or "The Strength of Israel will not Lie" (1 Samuel 15:29).
Sarah Aaronson, Aaron's sister, is Israel's favorite martyr heroine. An eyewitness to the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians, she left an unhappy marriage in Turkey, where she had gone to live with her husband, and became a fearless recruit to NILI. She was responsible for relaying information to the British in Egypt.
In April 1917, she managed to visit Egypt secretly and although she was warned not to return to Zichron Ya'akov, she went back two months later.
In September 1917, learning that the Turkish authorities had apprehended a carrier pigeon that revealed their espionage network, Sarah dispersed the NILI members. When arrested by the Turks, she refused to reveal any secrets although her interrogation was brutal. She saw no alternative but to shoot herself. Her brother was killed in a plane crash in 1919.
A trip to Zichron Ya'akov is not complete without a visit to the beautifully landscaped gardens of Ramat HaNadiv, or the Benefactor's Height. It includes the Rose Garden, the Waterfall Garden and the Scent Garden.