Photo Feature: Hilltop Restaurant Bridges Shades of Old and New
In the heart of a forest where once stood a thriving Jewish collective, destroyed during the War of Independence, an old-time restaurant and tavern has sprouted up – bridging the old and the new.
Gavna, which is Aramaic for “shades” (as in shades of color), is the name of the restaurant. It is in the Gush Etzion region, south of Jerusalem, atop a forested hilltop overlooking Beitar and even Ashkelon’s Mediterranean seashore on a clear day.
The restaurant is made of colorful wood and surrounded by stone terraces and a red stone patio. Everything was built by hand by the eleven-member Tal family. It overlooks vineyards and natural springs and the air is sweet. It is a place where hareidi-religious Jews from Beitar Illit sit alongside secular Jews from Moshavim in the Beit Shemesh region, and “hilltop youth” from the Hevron hills.
Together, Jews of all streams enjoy the atmosphere and the authentic nature of the food and the place.
The restaurant serves creative dishes and some of its customers look like they stepped off Tel Aviv’s bohemian Shenkin street, yet it is located at the end of a winding dirt road in the heart of the Judean Hills, with its owner and many of the employees from the nearby ideological community of Bat Ayin.
The forest was once home to the community of Massuot Yitzchak, founded in 1945 by young pioneers, mostly new immigrants from Hungary and Czechoslovakia who had escaped the Nazis. They constructed terraces on the rocky terrain and planted thousands of trees, relying on the trickle of local springs for water. Massuot Yitzchak had 111 inhabitants, including 12 children. In a short time, they made significant strides in strengthening their community as they transformed a desolate site in the Judean Hills into a promising agricultural settlement.
When Arab armies attacked following the establishment of the state in 1948, Massuot Yitzchak was the last community in Gush Etzion to be destroyed, its remaining members taken captive by the Jordanian army. The members of Massuot Yitzchak, eventually released, reestablished their community near Ashkelon. (Click here for a thorough history of the region.)
When the area was liberated in 1967, a national park was established on the site. Only some smashed remains of the kibbutz homes remained as a reminder of the life there just 19 years earlier. The forest is now used by campers and the region is rich with Jewish farmland tended by farmers from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion and Bat Ayin.
Five years ago, three wooden pre-fab trailers were brought to the edge of the forest. One family moved in and another family, the Tal’s from Bat Ayin, decided to continue a dream they had once achieved and subsequently relinquished: to open the perfect tea shop.
The Tal family, before they became observant, ran a tea house in the Negev town of Arad. “It was very special,” recalls Uria, who manages Gavna with his older brother, Ben. “It inspired us to turn this restaurant into what it is becoming.”
The restaurant has undergone a transformation in the past six months. Once a trailer with an ornate deck, it now has the appearance of a country inn, with a man-made waterfall filling the quiet night air with the sound of rushing water and an eclectic mix of tunes whispering through the quiet forest surroundings.
“Old Massuot Yitzchak sought, as one of its functions, to be a vacation site for those with asthma and other health issues treated by the fresh mountain air,” Uria says. “Now, we sometimes host members of the old community and their children. They are pleased to see it being turned back into a place where people connect.”
Old Zionist ideals are alive and well at Gavna as well. Every aspect of the restaurant operates upon the Zionist ideal of Avoda Ivrit, Jewish labor.
“A creative spirit rests upon the chef during the twilight hours,” reads a passage at the bottom of the hand-made wood-covered menus, urging guests to engage the wait staff so the chef can personalize and enhance any Gavna experience.
The entire restaurant is decorated and designed by members of the Tal family, particularly the two who are studying at Jerusalem’s prestigious Betzalel Art Academy. The sugar holders were designed by Uria’s sister-in-law, the ornate door by his brother and the paintings on the wall are all by his mother.
As much care goes into the food as the decor.
The fresh bread served is made from organic wheat grown and ground in nearby Bat Ayin and all of the fine wines are from vineyards in the Gush Etzion region. The restaurant is preparing to begin using eggs and cheeses from local farmers as well and the fish served is delivered daily from Ashkelon’s Mediterranean port.
The finest chocolate and coffee are used in the array of hot beverages that dot the tables of satisfied customers deep into the night and during Gavna’s famous Friday morning breakfasts. Fifteen different teas are available as well.
The beverages, like the rest of the menu, are local creations, with pieces of melted chocolate joining caramel to warm up even the coldest mountain night. Gavna also features a bar, serving local beers as well as Guiness and Leffe.
Uria Tal’s cocktails are known far and wide. One is called Tikkun Hatzot, named for the midnight prayer lamenting the destruction of the Holy Temple and subsequent exile. It is made of coffee liqueur, amaretto, chocolate, cream and cocoa. Another, named Electro-Melonade, is made from frozen melon, lemon, dried apricots, apple sauce, triple-sec and white wine.
Though many customers come for coffee, drinks or dessert, the food is spectacular. Fresh mushrooms stuffed with cheeses and walnuts are delightful and the sweet potato gnocchi, invented by Gavna’s former chef, is one of the most popular items. A wide variety of pizzas, pastas and salads are available too, as well as fresh fish dishes and soups.
Desserts are presented with garnishes such as cinnamon sticks and fresh mint leaves that grew just outside the kitchen. Hot apple pie and chocolate cake come with rich ice cream on the side and the other less-conventional desserts certainly look tasty as well.
Secret is Out
What was a well-kept secret of Gush Etzion locals has become a destination from as far away as Tel Aviv and Beer Sheva. “We had 6,500 customers in the past three months,” Uria says.
People come to the restaurant after hiking on nearby trails, taking dips in local springs or biking up the dirt paths all along the mountainside. A zip line, the longest in Israel, runs from the Deer Land Ranch across the valley to just below the restaurant. In the near future, a second line will be built, zipping harnessed dare-devils from above the restaurant back across the wadi.
Gavna continues to evolve and a brand new chef has arrived, with 15 years of experience working at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel and then the gourmet 1868 restaurant. The menu will undergo a transformation in October and Uria hopes to continue to build as well. He envisions a stage where musical acts can play under the stars, as well as an additional terrace for extra seating.
“Even if you have never been over the Green Line,” Uria says, referring to Israel’s pre-1967 border, “take a map, make your way to the Kfar Etzion Junction, bring your bicycles, bring your hiking boots and come. Explore the area and then join our regular Friday crowd.”
Tal laments that Friday, Israel's day off instead of the Western Sunday, has become lost in the rush to prepare for the Sabbath. "In Tel Aviv the cafes are full on Friday, with people relaxing and enjoying a break from the week. We have created that here as well and have a very enthusiastic crowd of regulars that visit us each week," he says. "Religious Jews should take advantage of what Fridays have to offer as well - do some of the preparations for Sabbath Thursday night and relax with us a bit on Friday."
Uria and all the wait staff obviously love what they are doing and are excited to keep on building. “This place is my family’s Shlichut,” he adds, using a term associated with a spiritual or Zionist mission to the masses. “We want to give people a break from the routine and get them back in touch with what life here in the Land of Israel can be.”
Follow signs from Kfar Etzion Junction toward Bat Ayin and turn into Old Massuot Yitzchak
Sunday-Thursday: 5 PM – Midnight
Friday: 9 AM to 4 PM
Saturday: From an hour after the Sabbath deep into the night
02 533 6036
054 762 2733
Kosher Mehadrin, Rabbi Eliyahu Abba Shaul, Gush Etzion
(Photos: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist)