Pacific Paradise, With Gefilte Fish

11/21/2011 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week

Koror, Palau — “Sharks are in a losing battle,” says Tova Harel Bornovski, the Israeli president of the Micronesian Shark Foundation.

These “kings of the ocean,” as she calls them, started 100 million years before the dinosaurs, but it’s very likely, she adds, that they will disappear because of human abuse.

An Israeli heading a Micronesian shark foundation may sound surprising, but for Tova Bornovski, it comes with the territory.

She and her Israeli husband, Navot, operate Fish ‘n Fins dive center and Barracuda Restaurant on this idyllic Pacific island archipelago, just north of the equator.

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The site of the “Survivor” TV show, Palau is renowned for scuba diving and snorkeling, and its waters hold sunken World War II Japanese ships and seaplanes.

For the Bornovskis, Palau was “love at first sight.”

“We spent a year in Palau in 1986 to 1987,” Tova said, “crewing on a live-aboard (used on extensive dives), and we totally fell in love with the island.”

The couple then returned to Israel, where Navot studied for an engineering degree at the Technion, but when an opportunity opened up to run another live-aboard on Palau, they eagerly returned.

By then, they had two of their four children, 4-year-old Yarden, and 3-year-old Udi.

“We sailed with the children through the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, and through the Pacific to Palau,” said Tova, who is also a trained Israeli tour guide, “and since 1993, we’re here.”

In 1998, the couple bought Fish ‘n Fins from Francis Toribiong, a famed member of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame and the brother of Johnson Toribiong, Palau’s current president.

Fish ‘n Fins also specializes in fascinating underwater dives to World War II wrecks.

“In 2000, we found the USS Perry, the only U.S. ship that sank in Palau during World War II,” said Navot, who was born on Kibbutz Merhavia, Golda Meir’s home.

When I met Tova, she really surprised me with a serving of gefilte fish, made with Palau reef fish.

Next came warm pita, accompanied by flavorful Israeli classics — falafel, hummus, babaganoush, Moroccan pumpkin dip, and eggplant in balsamic and rosemary.

The title of her cookbook, “Taste of Rainbow’s End,” reflects the country’s many rainbows — hence, Palau’s motto: “Rainbow’s End.”

I arrived in Koror, Palau’s main town, at night after flying here from Los Angeles via Honolulu and Guam, and I awakened the next morning at the five-star Palau Pacific Resort, whose palm-lined beach is simply postcard-perfect.

The tiny constitutional republic, population 20,000, has a free association with the U.S. and is strong on preserving its natural beauty, like Jelly Fish Lake, where I swam with gentle jelly fish; Milky Way, a hidden “lake,” where white deposits are said to act like beauty cream; Ngellil Nature Island Resort, a pristine, eight-room hideaway with sweet orange coconuts growing alongside thatched huts; and Carp Island Resort, where I woke up to a spectacular sunrise.

Probably my most unforgettable island activity was snorkeling at Blue Corner reef, one of the world’s premier underwater dive sites, with an incredible 1,000-foot drop.

On my way to the reef, I joined a group in a tarpaulin-covered speedboat, zipping around Palau’s Rock Islands — some spread out over the calm waters like giant strings of pearls, while others took on the appearance of giant mushrooms.

Divers in my group, attached to a thin rope wound up on anchoring loops hooked to the edge of the reef cliff, also saw thousands of fish, including white- and black-tipped sharks.

Back at Fish ‘n Fins, I was curious about a Jewish presence on Palau?

Yes, Tova noted, there have been other Jews here from time to time, but they usually come to work under contract and then leave.

“Since we’re the only Israeli or Jewish people on the island,” she said, “I made a vow that for my kids ... for tradition every Friday night we have a family dinner and we light the candles, and I bake challahs.”

The Bornovskis’ third and fourth children were born on Palau and have Palauan middle names: Liam Lmall, 16, and 15-year-old Gayle Dilmowais (“Girl of Dawn” in Palauan).

Their daughter Yarden, now 23, studies medicine in Italy, and their son Udi, 21, is in college British Columbia.

All of their children, Tova noted with pride, “have the easy island personality,” and, being “Palauan at heart,” are divers, too.

Tova’s father, Yitzhak Kallenberg, was the mayor of Tivon, Israel, for 17 years and later went to Vienna for the Jewish Agency to manage the wave of Russian Jews coming out of the Soviet Union.

Navot believes that Palau offers an additional allure for Jewish visitors.

“I think that nowadays, with growing tension in the world,” he said, “with Jewish and Israeli people not welcome in many countries and facing danger, Palau is a great escape because it’s very friendly, very safe, you can fly here directly from the U.S.

“You don’t stop in any countries that are not comfortable to be in. So I think for the U.S. market, and the Israeli market and Europe, I think it’s a very good escape.”

Over falafel, Navot also reflected on the warm political relations between Palau and Israel, including visiting Israeli medical teams. (Micronesia, along with the U.S., of course, reliably votes with Israel at the United Nations.)

All of this leaves a good impression about Jews in general because “for a lot of people in this region, Jewish and Israeli is the same.”

But beyond everything else, said Navot, living here is “paradise.”

“It’s a good place, very quiet; people are very polite, very friendly. They deserve a lot of credit for what they’re doing here.”

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Tova and Navot Bornovski, above, in front of their houseboat.


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