Let the Biblical Times Roll

Dressed as an Israelite, Bible Times Center's hostess uses hand-baked bread and olive oil to teach about the Patriarchs.

Before she moved to Israel, Hannah Trasher used to be a professional fashion designer. Today, she spends most of her days dressed up as an ancient Israelite, sporting sandals, a robe and a turban-like head wrap worn by upper class Jewish women during the Second Temple period.

Two years ago, Thrasher, 57, came from the United States to Ein Kerem, the picturesque village in southwest Jerusalem, to become the executive director of the Bible Times Center and Heritage Garden, which she founded and built largely with her own savings. Nestled in the green hills surrounding the capital and tucked away between small streets and rustic churches, the center allows groups of tourists and curious Israelis, tourists and school children to travel back in time to experience how Jews - and non-Jews - lived in the land of Israel in biblical times.

"You can get a lecture online or go to a university," Trasher told Haaretz during a visit at the center earlier this month. "But when you are in Israel, you should feel like you are immersed in the culture. That's what this place is all about."

Trasher gives most of the tours herself. "Just yesterday morning, we had a group of six- and seven-year-olds from a local school. They were in the garden and saw where Sarah sat when Abraham heard from the angels that they would have a son [Isaac]," she said, pointing to a tent that has a division in the middle.

"They also learned about Rebecca at the well," she continued as she walked by an ancient water hole, slowly moving on to an area with an olive press and an ancient oven, which is nothing more than a wok-like inverted metal bowl that is held over fire. "The kids made their own bread and olive oil, and later got to eat what they made together with the biblical herbs we have here in the garden," she explained. "Then the kids can go home, with greasy hands, and talk about what they learned today at school," she laughed.

The center, which is housed in a ten-room multistory building from the days of the Ottoman empire, also includes a threshing floor, a stone quarry, a stable with mangers, a wine press, a watch tower, a wedding canopy and a replica of an ancient gravesite.

Trasher, who was born in Louisiana but lived in Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Texas before settling in Jerusalem, started learning about Jewish history about 30 years ago, and has since led many study groups from the U.S. to Israel. On her tours, she often stopped by at the World of the Bible Archaeological Museum and Pilgrim Center, which until 2006 operated in the same house where she later built the Bible Times Center. But when the director of the old center, biblical archaeology and history scholar Jim Fleming, was given an enormous grant to build a similar project in Atlanta, Thrasher suddenly found the site abandoned.

"I was just crushed, as were many people, that this place wasn't available anymore," she said about her decision to move to Israel to establish her own bible center. Although she had always appreciated her predecessor's work, she found that he approached the topic too intellectually. "It was a place that attracted many scholars from all around the world," she said, "but that was not my vision for the place."

While rooted in serious research, she didn't want her project to become a dusty museum. "We can pull from the scholarly if we have to, but it is really more user-friendly," she said. "We are really just teaching a lot of very basic things," she added.

"What I found when I started [guiding historic tours] in the 70s is that especially when people are touring in Israel, they don't have the capacity to sit down for long lectures. If they come as pilgrims - whether they are Jews or Christians or just interested secular people - they are tired. So when they come here they can enjoy the storytelling as the rabbis have always taught: by telling parables, by telling stories and by being involved in hands-on things like making bread. At the same time they can talk about how Sarah and the women may have done this, and what was the attitude of Abraham."

Before Thrasher rented and remodeled the building and finally opened the center last year, the house was avoided by many Jews - particularly observant ones - because its previous inhabitants were engaged in a great deal of New Testament scholarship. "Religious people would not have crossed the threshold," she said just a moment after two ultra-Orthodox youths walked in and asked for some information. "They [religious Jews] used to consider the [old center] to be Christian outreach, and with the history of Christian anti-Semitism I don't blame them."

Today, the center is less focused on religion but more on getting a glimpse of Israel in ancient times. It is equally popular among evangelical Christians and Jews, Orthodox or secular. Perhaps surprisingly, a large number of "Christian Chinese Zionists"- as Thrasher calls them - visit the center, too, as well as some religious Muslims. Thrasher fondly remembered one evening when, as it started to get dark, a group of observant Jews asked her to point toward the Western Wall so they could pray the afternoon service.

"That wasn't unexpected," she said. "What shocked me was that at the same time, from the same group, a number of Muslim men came and asked me which way is Mecca. That I had never been asked before," she said. "This isn't a religious place; you come here to learn history."