Lisa Alcalay Klug
In summer, fig trees bear their succulent fruit. In the fall, boughs of olives suggest the impending harvest. By winter, citrons hang heavy with their magnificent scent. And by spring, flowers call forth the arrival of Passover.
This is Neot Kedumim, Israel’s biblical landscape reserve. With relevant selections from the Bible and other ancient texts paired with each exhibit, this beautiful, tranquil place puts a new spin on the idea of a “biblical theme park.” These 625 acres of majestic trees, grapevines, shrubs and flowers were once barren territory, used as an army training ground. But 35 years ago, a visionary named Nogah Hareuveni, now in his 80s, conceived of reclaiming the land to its lost glory. His “simple yet profound idea was to look at ‘text in context’" according to Neot Kedumim’s native English-speaking guide and writer, Beth Uval, a former American who moved to Israel in 1970.
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“If we look at the text in relation to the climate, the nature and the harvest, we find the nuance, depth and power of Jewish sources,” Uval says. As a result, Neot Kedumim’s appeal is now widespread among visitors who love exploring the natural beauty of Eretz Yisrael as well as students of the Torah, Talmud and halakhah, or Jewish law. So treasured is Neot Kedumim, that in 1994, it received the Israel Prize, the highest honor awarded by the State of Israel, for its special contribution to the society and the nation.
Neot Kedumim features a series of natural and agricultural landscapes bearing names from textual sources, including the Forest of Milk and Honey, The Dale of the Song of Songs, Isaiah's Vineyard, the Fields of the Seven Species and many more. Corresponding texts quoting Jewish sources in both English and Hebrew are posted throughout the park. Next to a massive trunk with a thin plant growing from it, a quote from Isaiah reads, “A staff shall grow out of the trunk of Jesse and an offshoot shall flourish from its roots.”
Next to a pond near the main entrance, the park displays a fascinating replica of ancient technology. A long wooden cylinder with iron supports was positioned between a pond and a small stone pool a few feet away. Between the pond and the pool, running beneath the upper most end of the cylinder, was a small stone channel. As visitors turn the crank at the top of the cylinder, an oversized screw-like structure turns water inside. After a few minutes, a rush of water poured out of the cylinder, filling the channel and running directly into the stone pool, symbolic of a mikve. This “water screw” is discussed in Tosefta Mikvaot 4 and 5: “Archimedes screw does not invalidate the mikve because the water is not disconnected from its source. The mikve is kosher, the water comes in one continuous flow.” It’s just one example of the many fascinating displays throughout the park.
Kids activities dot the park’s many trails. For “Aliyat HaRegel,” the three pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, young visitors have the opportunity to make sandals and robes, as well as coins reminiscent of those once used as the half-shekel tax in the ancient Temple. They also participate in musical processionals to a threshing floor for a light snack. Around Shavuot and Tu B’Av, visitors tour a “Song of Songs” path. The foliage and texts relate well to love and romance, themes replete in both holidays.
The “Seven Species” area features an authentic olive crush and press. During our visit, we picked a green olive off a branch and gently squeezed a drop of oil out with our hands. The taste was extremely bitter but the oil was deliciously emollient on my hands. During Hanukkah, guests are invited to pick black olives and place them under a massive crushing stone powered by a mule. The resulting mash is placed in a flat basket positioned under a large log hanging horizontally. The log is lowered with weights, as described in the Mishnah. The log is on display to show how oil was produced in ancient times. These days, a 200-year-old iron press is used to press the oil out of the crushed fruit. The oil drains out of the basket into vat below.
Other Jewish holidays are similarly hands on: shortly before Sukkot, the park welcomes guests with its annual holiday-themed exhibit. A two-story sukka, a sukka on the back of a camel and a sukka on a boat are all recreated according to the text of the Mishnah.
Our last stop was the “wedding trail.” It had been a very hot day, and as the sun set, the air felt particularly soft and fragrant. As a nearly-full moon rose, we proceeded along a romantically-lit path, taking in the last views of crimson pomegranates, their crown-like stems nearing the end of their reign.
When you go:
Neot Kedumim, The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, is located off Route 443 near Modi’in. It is wheelchair and stroller accessible. For more information, call 011-972-8-977-0770, visit www.n-k.org.il or write email@example.com. Neot Kedumim needs financial support for its continued development and programming. To make a tax-deductible donation, contact American Friends of Neot Kedumim (a US 501(c)(3) charity) at (518)296-8673 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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LISA ALCALAY KLUG is a widely published freelance writer, photographer, editor and writing coach. A former staff writer for the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Jerusalem Post, Forbes.com, Shape, Self, Men's Fitness and many other publications in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. To learn more visit www.lisaklug.com