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'You can't find a more free-spirited place than Tekoa'

West Bank settlement keeps it light and bubbly with beer festival

Tekoa’s bevvy of budding brewers are just a sample of the artistic talent at community south of Jerusalem

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Mickey Birnbaum (L) and his father Eli selling their "Beer'nbaum beer at the Tekoa Beer Festival on July 6, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Mickey Birnbaum (L) and his father Eli selling their "Beer'nbaum beer at the Tekoa Beer Festival on July 6, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

It was perhaps no coincidence that most of the brews on display at the Tekoa beer festival were light and fruity.

Some believe they reflect the nature of the West Bank settlement just south of Jerusalem, known for its eclectic mix of religious and secular residents.

“Sure they do,” said Eitan Baum, 35. “You can’t find a more free-spirited place than Tekoa,” said Baum of the family-run Yanshuf (owl) brewery. His father Michael, 64, is something of a mentor to many of the community’s 15 beer makers.

Beer festivals have sprouted up from Haifa to Eilat over the years, but Tekoa’s, held Thursday, is unique for its family atmosphere, and for the fact that there are almost no commercially available beers on offer.

This is the third year the festival is being held, an initiative of the settlement’s brewers who refer to themselves as the “Parliament.” It has nearly doubled in size each year, with 1,500 guests attending this year.

Members of the Baum family selling their Yanshuf (Owl) beer at their booth at the Tekoa Beer Festival on July 6, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Members of the Baum family selling their Yanshuf (Owl) beer at a booth at the Tekoa Beer Festival on July 6, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The NIS 40 ($11) entry fee let visitors taste a diverse range of beers (with the first cold one on the house), accompanied by a live musical performance from the up-and-coming Israeli rock band, Jamaya.

“The beers have been improving each year,” said the elder Baum, who boasted of mentoring nine of Tekoa’s brewers, his son included.

Some of the whimsy of the place can be seen in the names of the beers. The Baum’s Yanshuf was named for an owl that landed on their roof one Saturday morning while they were trying to think of how to brand their new beverage.

Several booths away a pair younger brewers displayed a beer that evoked the settlement’s reputation for outreach to their Palestinian neighbors, most famously as home to the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, known internationally for his outreach — at times controversial — to Arab leaders in the name of making peace.

They named it “Samer” after a Palestinian contractor whom they have worked with and befriended over the years. “There’s nothing particularly special about him, but he represents a population that is an integral part of life here,” explained Yair Maimon, the founder.

Not every name for the breweries required as much careful thinking, however. For Eli Birnbaum, 67, a retired psychologist, the BeerNbaum was a no-brainer.

And while all the brewers are very serious about their craft, for most it is a passion and not their primary occupation.

A brewer at the Tekoa beer festival on July 6, 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)
A brewer at the Tekoa beer festival on July 6, 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)

“These are doctors, teachers and lawyers. This is not their profession. They brew because it’s their hobby and their passion,” said Reut Erlich, chair of Tekoa’s cultural committee and one of the event’s organizers. She said the festival was an effort to “share good vibes” with Tekoa locals, area residents and visitors from around the country.

In a thick Brooklyn accent, Birnbaum proudly described being among the first families to move to Tekoa in 1979 after arriving in Israel a year prior. “We heard about the place from Ariel Sharon,” he explained.

Then agriculture minister, Sharon was approached by Birnbaum along with a group of American immigrants looking to start a new community in Israel. The former prime minister recommended they team up with a band of Russian immigrants to establish a mixed secular-religious settlement overlooking the desert. Tekoa now counts over 900 families as members.

The manner in which Birnbaum began brewing was another story proudly recounted by the father of five. He explained that he had tried to do something special with each of his children when they finished the army. “When my third son was discharged, I asked him if he wanted to travel, and he said ‘No, I want to make beer.'” They took a three-month course in Jerusalem and have been brewing for over two decades since.

Jamaya performs at the third annual Tekoa Beer Festival on July 6, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Jamaya performs at the third annual Tekoa Beer Festival on July 6, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“Evidently, it has been successful because people have asked us if we could go public and sell, but I don’t have the strength for it,” he said.

Birnbaum went on to explain how brewing in Tekoa brought an even deeper meaning to the experience. “We have more musicians and artists here per capita than any other city in Israel. People here are so creative, but are also so willing to share.”

While many of the beer booths offered pretzels or popcorn for guests to nosh on with their beers, the Baums had a more traditional Jewish pairing of herring and kugel.

Visitors came from far and wide. For some the beer provided a rare excuse to visit a West Bank settlement.

“My parents were a little worried when I told them I was going to Tekoa, but it’s worth it for the beer,” said Adam Mayerson, 20, who was visiting Israel from New Jersey.

Yonit Melachi, 31, from the nearby settlement of Efrat said that the settlements needed more light-hearted events. “This has immediately become my favorite event in Judea and Samaria,” she said referring to the area by its biblical names. “I had to stay home with the kids last year, so my husband could go, but this time it was my turn.”

And for some it was about local pride.

“The beer festival proves once and for all that we’re the most fun settlement in Judea and Samaria,” said one local resident who only identified herself as Dana. “Where else can you get so much beer?”

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