There was a map of the Holy Land on the front flap of my mother's Bible. It was colored in pale pinks and blues and it showed Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Galilee and the Jordan River. The names told the story of the life of Christ, but to me the map made it real.
Older now, I have graduated from dreaming over maps to visiting places embedded in my consciousness, above all Israel.
It is just a sliver of a country about the size of New Jersey but deep in terms of time. I had only a week to devote to the trip, so I had to be selective.
The Sea of Galilee was a priority, one of Israel's most haunting landscapes, where Christ's ministry began. On the northern shore of Palestine's great freshwater lake, which is fed by the Jordan, he performed miracles, Christians believe, and recruited disciples, including Simon Peter the fisherman and Matthew the tax collector.
After spending a few days in Tel Aviv, I rented a car and set out with my friend Penny Kaganoff from New York, who was in Israel for a wedding. We put snacks in the back seat and headed for an eight-room country inn about 60 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.
Pausa, as owners Einat and Avigdor Rothem call it, is a getaway place for Israeli foodies, surrounded by collective farms, or kibbutzim. Set among orange and olive groves, near 9,232-foot Mt. Hermon and the headwaters of the Jordan, it promised fine food in a bucolic setting as long as all remained quiet on the nearby Lebanese border. This was a flash point for hostilities between Israel and the pro-Palestinian Hezbollah in 2006, when bombs rained down on the Pausa garden.
We followed the coast north, gradually leaving behind the urban sprawl that is rapidly filling in the empty spaces between Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, turning central Israel into one big metropolis. It felt good to be on the road, and I quenched my yearning for classic biblical vistas of rocky hills where shepherds kept watch over their flocks.
When we turned inland at Hadera, I got landscape -- first a barren plateau around Nazareth, then lonely Mt. Tabor, thought to have been the setting for the Transfiguration of Christ described in the New Testament.
An hour or so from the coast, the highway contracted into a series of hairpin curves leading to the town of Tiberias, a hot spring resort built by Herod Antipas, the Jewish king who governed Palestine for the Roman Empire during Christ's lifetime. While rounding a turn, I let my eyes drift past the road and suddenly saw the Sea of Galilee, seven miles wide, 13 miles long and almost 700 feet below sea level.
It was a milky shade of blue that I'd swear existed nowhere else on Earth, but at the moment a torpid cloud hung over it, obscuring the Golan Heights on the far shore.
Penny and I lunched at Decks, a restaurant on the Tiberius waterfront whose dining room is big enough for the tour groups that board Sea of Galilee excursion boats nearby. We had barbecued organic beef from the Golan, but I barely noticed my meal. Instead, I watched a lone angler on the rocky shore, presumably pursuing St. Peter's fish, a local delicacy. He made me think of Jesus telling his disciples where to cast their nets.
Then Penny started telling me about her family's recent trip to a resort hotel on the other side of the lake, part of the wedding celebrations. Besides attracting busloads of Christian pilgrims, the Galilee is a favorite weekend getaway spot for Israeli families, yuppie couples, hikers, mountain bikers, windsurfers and other latter-day walkers-on-water.
One morning when the sky was clear and the light newborn, Penny found her father, a rabbi, gazing over the lake's glassy surface.
He remained silent for a moment, then turned to her and said, "Now I get Christianity."
The Sea of Galilee could make anyone strain to see a man in a robe, standing in the bow of a boat, calming the water.
We followed the shoreline from Tiberius to the ruins of Capernaum, the home of Peter, Andrew, James and John, also thought to have been the scene of Christ's miracle of the loaves and fishes.
The Mount of the Beatitudes looms above, surmounted by an octagonal church built in the 1930s that looks like a dreidel, the top that children spin during Hanukkah. Though there is no decisive evidence to prove that any significant New Testament event took place here, it is the traditional site of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. In any event, the view over the Sea of Galilee is stunning, which to my mind, makes it the right place to remember the transforming Book of Matthew passage that begins, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
By then the light was fading so we headed north on Highway 90, which parallels the Jordan between the Golan Heights and the coastal mountains that spill into Israel across the Lebanese border.
Pausa is just east of the town of Kiryat Shmona in a small gated settlement about two miles from the border, which is as close to a battle zone as I ever want to get.
"It's a very peaceful place, unless there's a war," owner Einat later said.
The inn consists of several banks of guest rooms around a covered patio with long tables where a breakfast buffet is served on a Lazy Susan mounded with local cheeses, meats and vegetables. Penny and I arrived late on a Thursday, the only guests that evening. We went to an Italian place in town for dinner, anticipating better fare the next night because Avigdor, a gourmet chef, makes elaborate, multicourse dinners for guests on weekends.
Our rooms were simply furnished, and clean and comfy. They were a short stroll from the inn's hot tub, where I sat in the dark, feeling as if I had landed on the far side of the moon.
Dawn's light revealed I was still in Israel. I saw farms fed by tributaries of the Jordan in all directions. To the east I could see the hilltop ruins of Nimrod Castle, an ancient fortress dating to the times of the Crusades. In the dew-washed garden, I found strawberries, peppers and eggplants in colors from purple to yellow.
Over breakfast, Einat gave me directions to favorite local tourist spots, including Agamon Lake in the nearby Hula Valley, where she said the annual crane migration was at its peak.
Penny and I spent most of the day visiting the mountain town of Zefat, an artist's colony and center for Jewish mysticism about a 45-minute drive south of the inn. We saw the Ha'Ari Synagogue, dedicated to Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, a 16th century Jewish sage, and Messiah Lane, where, according to town lore, an old woman sat every day for decades, drinking tea and patiently waiting for the Messiah.
It was nearing sunset as we passed through the gate at the Hula Valley nature reserve, not realizing that only golf carts were allowed inside. But no one stopped us and the compact car I'd rented easily navigated the paved lane that approaches the lake.
The track followed a drainage canal, part of a massive land reclamation project completed in the 1950s that turned a malarial swamp into one of Israel's most productive agricultural regions. Later, the reserve was set aside to protect an estimated 500 million birds that migrate over the valley every year -- night herons, ibises, pelicans and storks.
But the stars of the show are the cranes from northern Europe and Russia. They pass through the area in the fall, though tens of thousands of them find the Hula Valley so hospitable that they stay there instead of continuing on to Africa.
We got out of the car near a golf cart full of Hasidic birders, complete with binoculars and tall black hats, then waited in a thicket of swamp grass, swatting mosquitoes and smelling manure.
Finally, the cranes began to arrive, floating across the darkening sky in precision ranks that crossed paths, merged and subdivided. Close up, the blue-gray birds look gawky, but in flight they are as graceful as an F-16. It was a miraculous display that filled me with exaltation.
By the time we got back to the inn, a flock of Israeli weekenders had arrived, most of them mountain bikers with a full complement of gear. They filled every seat at the dinner table.
Einat and Avigdor poured a Shiraz from the Golan Heights and toasted in English and Hebrew. Then the feast began: stuffed eggplant in kiwi-pepper sauce, Norwegian salmon baked in a 10-pound crust of coarse salt, dill potatoes, beans and, finally, white chocolate mousse for dessert.
I chatted with a nice man from Haifa and didn't retire until almost midnight, the convivial sound of people still at the table following me to bed. I felt sure that if I had dreams that night, they would all be good. I was hoping for cranes.