Neot kedumim
Courtesy of Neot Kedumim
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The biblical story of how the Jewish people came to Israel is well-known: Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, across the Sinai desert and right to the doorstep of the Promised Land. There he stopped and, as God instructed him, sent ahead some scouts to check out what lay ahead.  

“We came to the land,” they reported upon their return: “…and it flows with milk and honey" - an oft-repeated description that has since turned into something of a synonym for Israel.

But what did those scouts actually see?

Was it a land of plenty - as that phrase has come to mean - or was it rather, as many scholars believe, actually just a place of thickets, forests and wild flowers on which foraging goats roamed and bees fed?

In today’s Israel, filled as it is with high rises and highways, water parks and ski resorts (well, one ski resort), a so-called Silicon Wadi and not one, but two behemoth IKEAS– it is sometimes hard to conjure up the look, feel and smell of the flora and fauna of the biblical land.

Why for example, one might wonder, did that forefather of all forefathers Abraham camp under the “oak of Moreh” when he, Sarah and their nephew Lot first came to this land?  Is there significance to the oak? A deeper story behind the simple tale?

Have you always wanted to know why the children of Israel used the hyssop plant to brush paint on their doorposts when leaving Egypt? Or maybe you are one of those ancient history buffs more interested in why the Roman soldiers used the very same hyssop - dipped in vinegar - to quench Jesus’ thirst when he was on the cross?

And where on earth could one look for the answers to such questions?

Look no further than magical Neot Kedumim, Israel’s biblical landscape reserve, where the physical setting of the bible has been recreated on 625 acres teeming with everything from the majestic cedar of Lebanon to the scrappy hyssop bush.

The idea to set up such a reserve began in the 1920s with Ephraim and Hannah Hareuveni, immigrants from Russia who came to the holy land with a love of the ancient texts and a dream of building a place, as their son would later put it, that “embodied the panorama and power of the landscapes that both shaped the values of the Bible and provided a rich vocabulary for expressing them.”

It took the continued energies and determination of that son, a physicist named Nogah who died just five years ago, to turn that vision into a reality.

Leaving his studies behind, Nogah spent his life dedicated to the project, which finally took off in 1964 with the help of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who allocated land for the project.

Thousands of tons of soil were trucked in and spread on eroded hillsides, reservoirs were dug to catch runoff rain water, ancient terraces were restored and hundreds of varieties of plants were planted alongside reconstructed wine presses and ritual baths.

Today, visitors can either take one of Neot Kedumim’s organized tours run by knowledgeable park guide (which need to be booked in advance) or wander around on their own, with one of the park’s detailed maps, and preferably also a bible (bring one), in hand.

The reserve is situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a ten minutes drive from the Ben Gurion International Airport (making it a convenient stop on arrival or just before departure from the country) and a hop and skip away from the “Green Line” - the demarcation between Israel and the territories captured in the Six Day War, including the West Bank and Gaza.

Straddling both old Arab villages and a big army training ground, it is quite normal to hear a cacophony of the gun fire drills and the Muezzin’s calls to prayer ringing out throughout the day here.

But yet, Neot Kedumim manages to offer an experience which detaches visitors from the present day geopolitical discussion or debate and transports them to long gone times when shepherds roamed the hills and Torah scribes set up shop among the Palm trees.

The four proposed self guided excursion trails, as well as the various guided tours on offer, crisscross through sections of the park with names such as Isaiah’s Vineyard, the Dale of the Song of Songs, the fields of the Seven Varieties and the Hill of the Menorah. Some of the trails are handicap accessible.

One can rest in the shade of a willow around “Solomon’s Pool,” traipse around “Jotham’s Garden”, draw water from an ancient cistern, and then stop for a biblical themed lunch (which needs to be organized in advance) at “Abraham’s Tent.” Don’t expect tomatoes in your salad here, or any eggplant dishes, or, for that matter, any food not around when Rachel and Rebecca were in the kitchen. Sorry kiwi enthusiasts. And no surprise here: the restaurant is kosher.

Depending on the season, other activities offered at Neot Kedumim might include harvesting grain on a threshing floor, plowing and sowing a field, and plucking olives or operating an authentic olive press. Some activities such as shepherding, learn to write likeTorah scribe andparchment preparation, and tree planting involve extra charges.

Neot Kedumim is open Sunday-Thursday 8:30am -4pm.Friday 8:30am-1pm. Closed Saturday. 

Prices: Entrance for the self guided tour, including the map and an explanation leaflet is 25 NIS per person (students, soldiers and elderly: 20 NIS). Guided tours must be arranged in advance and can be done in Hebrew, English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, and Russian. The price is 700-800 NIS for groups of up to 20 and the tours run approximately three hours.

Naot Kedumim is also a popular place to hold weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and other events. Contact them for more information. Telephone: + 972 8 9770782 e-mail: tourism@neot-kedumim.org.il  website: http://www.neot-kedumim.org.il/