Tag Archives: tourism

Negev Ostrich Farm

Tsofia van Grevenbroek shows off some eggs laid by the ostriches at her farm in the Western Negev.
Tsofia van Grevenbroek shows off some eggs laid by the ostriches at her farm in the Western Negev.

An ostrich farm in Israel? Sounds about as realistic as US cavalry patrols on camels.

Except that both really happened.

It is not widely known that camels were imported to the US in the mid 19th century for use by army cavalry in the Southwest. However, as the Civil War heated up, the army abandoned many of the forts, and the camels were let lose to wander freely until they died out. There just weren’t enough camels in the wild to sustain a viable population .

The ostrich ranch also raises turkeys, chickens, and ducks in the Negev
The ostrich farm also raises turkeys, chickens, and ducks


In the first decade of the 21st century, ostrich farming was a thriving industry in Israel, but due to changing market needs and agricultural laws, today only the original farm still exists. It has been converted from an ostrich breeding endeavor to an educational one. Its owner, Tsofia van Grevenbroek, spoke of its history to our group from Pardes Institute of this week.

A city girl from Tel Aviv, Tsofia was learning agricultural skills at Kibbutz Yotvata in the southern Negev when she met Mike van Grevenbroek, a Dutch agriculturalist. He was the original manager of Chai Bar, the first wild animal sanctuary in the country, founded to reintroduce into the wild once indigenous species, such as the oryx, vulture and fallow deer. In 1978, with permission of the Shah of Iran, he captured four Syrian Fallow Deer from a small herd that lived near the Caspian Sea. Until this herd was discovered in the 1950s, Syrian fallow deer had been thought extinct. He brought them back to Israel on the last El Al plane to leave Tehran in December 1978, at the height of the Iranian revolution. The does were pregnant, and along with a male Syrian Fallow deer purchased from a European zoo, they thrived in Israel. Today, besides the herd of over a hundred at Chai Bar, fallow deer have been successfully released into the wild in the Carmel and Jerusalem forests.

After many years at Chai Bar, Mike wanted a change. He left the nature reserve, and he and Tsofia traveled to South Africa, where they worked at friend’s ostrich ranch for a year. Ostrich ranching is a big industry there; the large birds are grown for their feathers, meat, and leather. Because the government wants to keep a monopoly, it was illegal to export ostriches or their eggs. Since Mike and Tsofia wanted to start their own ostrich farm in Israel, the night before their return home, Mike went to the incubator room and looked for ones that were about to hatch. He found a dozen, which he and Tsofia carefully packed into their hand luggage.

Anxiously, they carried their hand luggage through South African customs. A few hours into the thirteen hour flight, Tsofia turned to Mike and said, “Your bag is making noise.”

Mike had chosen well—the birds were hatching.

You can’t keep baby birds in a handbag. To the delight of the other passengers, they let the birds out to run around the plane cabin for the rest of the flight. She did not tell us how they managed to round up all the birds when they landed at Ben Gurion. I imagine it would have been only slightly harder than trying to round up a dozen toddlers who don’t want to leave the playground.

Mike informed his friend of what he had done, in coded language so the South African authorities would not know he had broken the law. The friend invited him to return and pick up twenty more. This time he put cellophane tape around the egg so the chicks could hatch and breathe, but not escape the eggs. Tsofia and Mike now had almost three dozen baby ostriches running around their apartment.

Ostriches are big birds. They grow from being small one pound chicks to six and a half foot, 200 pound birds in a year. Luckily, Kibbutz Urim was willing to take care of the birds in its children’s zoo.

What the Grevenbroeks really wanted was some land to build a farm for ostriches. Most land in this country is owned by the Israel Lands Authority. The ILA does not sell land, but leases it to people for 49 or 98 years. The bureaucracy, like most other bureaucracies, moves slowly. Meanwhile, the ostriches were growing rapidly. So Mike called General Avraham Yoffe, the first head of the Nature Preserves Authority, the man who had sent him to catch the fallow deer. General Yoffe called his good friend, Ariel Sharon, and told him about the Grevenbroek’s plight. Sharon, then the Minister of Agriculture, was promoting development of the Negev, so he in turn called the Land Office and told them to give the Grevenbroeks some land.

They received a lease for an area in the Negev, near the borders with Gaza and Egypt. The land was unsuitable for agriculture, but worked for ostriches. Although they had permission to use the land, Mike and Tsofia could not build a house. They solved their housing problem by buy three old Turkish railway carriages, which they moved into in July 1981, without water or electricity. Somehow, they managed.

After twenty-five years, they finally received a permit to build a house. The railway carriages are still there, now converted to a beautiful home. I could see traces of the original railway cars in some of the outside walls.

The ostriches thrived and the Gevenbroeks started selling them. By the year 2000, they had eight hundred breeders; twenty-two ranches in Israel were raising ostriches. Most of the products—feathers, meat, and leather—went to the export market.

Then demand for ostrich products decreased. Prices fell. The worst blow was the outbreak of bird flu in Israel in 2006—ostrich ranchers could not export anything. Then ostriches were declared a protected species. Commercial ostrich farming in Israel died.

Today the original farm has only about forty ostriches. Each male has his own large pen which he shares with two females. During breeding season he digs a nest in the ground, in which both females lay around fifteen eggs. They all share incubating duties. The male sits on the eggs during the night,the females in the daytime.

Tsofia told us that ostriches have a long history in the land of Israel. Paleontologists have found remains of ostriches from the time of dinosaurs. A few years ago, a rancher in the Sharon, the area between Tel Aviv and, found four ostrich eggs that were estimated to be around 5500 years old. Ancient pictures of birds that look like ostriches have even been found etched on stone plaques uncovered in the Galil, near Nazareth. And the ostrich is also mentioned several times in the Bible, in the books of Leviticus, Isaiah, Job, and Lamentations. The birds roamed wild in the country becoming extinct in the 1920s.

The ostrich’s long legs and two-toed foot enable it to run up to seventy kilometers per hour, for most of a day, and tends to run in circles. It’s not a very smart bird. How could it be, when its eyes are bigger than its brain?

Side view of male ostrich, showing the relatively large eye
When an ostrich show his profile, you can see how large its eye is compared to the size of its head.

This surprised me until I really looked at the tall bird standing a few feet in front of me. Its tiny head and big eyes do look out of proportion. I started wondering about how it sees. Vision in mammals requires a large proportion of the brain to interpret signals from the eyes. How does that work, precisely, if the eye is bigger than the brain? Yet the ostrich is known to have acute eyesight both during the day and at night.

When checking the history of ostriches in Israel, I discovered that Tsofia’s tale of smuggling ostrich eggs from South Africa may not have been entirely accurate. There were too many inconsistencies in the reporting of how the ostriches came to the Negev. Nonetheless, my mental image of a dozen ostrich chicks running loose in an airplane cabin is one that will no doubt stay with me a long time.

Pharaoh in Canaan

Poster for Pharaoh in Canaan exhibition at entrance to Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Poster for Pharaoh in Canaan exhibition at entrance to Israel Museum

On  Sunday during Passover, Allen and I went to the Israel Museum to view the special exhibition ,”Pharaoh in Canaan.” The exhibition focuses on the second millennium BCE, the period during which Canaanites migrated and settled in the Nile Delta area of Egypt and the Egyptians conquered and ruled much of the land of Canaan. Archaeologists refer to the time as the middle and late bronze ages, the time in which Jacob and Moses lived.

Anthropoid sarcophagus covers from the 13th century BCE, found in Israel Photo: Yocheved Bernstein
Anthropoid sarcophagus covers from the 13th century BCE, found in Israel
Photo: Yocheved Bernstein

I had gone through the exhibit a week earlier with my nine-year old granddaughter Yocheved. Her approach to museums is somewhat different from mine. She moves quickly, sometimes stopping to look at an artifact. Letting her use my camera slowed her down a little as she stopped to take multiple photos of things she found interesting. Thus, I ended up with several photos of anthropoid sarcophagus lids, some of which are in focus.

My approach to museums is slower paced. I read the labels on the artifacts and the informative signs. I look carefully at the artifacts, comparing them. And sometimes I take a photo or two of something I find particularly interesting, if photos are allowed. Flash photos are often forbidden because the light can damage some ancient artifacts.           

Yellow limestone statue of Pharaoh Akenaton, who ruled Egypt from 1340 - 1335 BCE
Yellow limestone statue of Pharaoh Akenaton, who ruled Egypt from 1340 – 1335 BCE

One exhibit I found particularly lovely was a small statue of Pharaoh Akhenaton carved from yellow limestone. In the photos advertising the exhibit, the statue looks large and golden. Surprisingly, it is only about two feet high. The lighting makes the yellow limestone look as if it is gold. What I like about this statue is that it makes him look more human than most statues of Pharaohs. I wonder, however, what he thought of the sculptor’s showing his pot belly.

The statue was originally of two people,

Queen Nefertiti's arm around Akhenaten 's back. Statue on loan to Israel Museum from Louvre Museum, Paris
Queen Nefertiti’s arm around Akhenaten ‘s back. Statue on loan to Israel Museum from Louvre Museum, Paris

Pharaoh and his wife Nefertiti. Unfortunately, all that remains of Nefertiti is her left arm draped gracefully around Akhenaton’s back. From the back, you can see he is leaning slightly towards her, a depiction of marital intimacy not often shown in royal portraits.

Two cases were full of gold jewelry found in archeological digs in Israel. Although the rings did not appeal to me, many of the earrings were similar to ones you can see in today’s jewelres’shops. It’s strange to think that styles over four thousand years old would still be appealing, but many of the earring I would enjoy wearing myself.


Magdala update

Eyad Bisharat views the bronze incense shovel being held by Arfan Najar, at Magdala where it was discovered. Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority
Eyad Bisharat views the bronze incense shovel being held by Arfan Najar, at Magdala where it was discovered. Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority

Allen opened the Jerusalem Post Wednesday morning and said, “Look! There’s an article here about Magdala!”

Articles about archaeological finds are not unusual. A relatively large number of archaeologists work in Israel. Given the area’s long history of building, destruction, and rebuilding, it is not surprising to read of important new discoveries. Almost every week the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) announces some amazing find. What is surprising is to learn that this week’s announcement is about something unearthed at the dig you visited less than a week ago.

Last Wednesday, Arfan Najar talked to my class about his work at Magdala (Migdal). This week his photo is in the newspaper. He is one of the three supervising archaeologists who found a bronze incense shovel and a jug on the floor of a storehouse near the dock at Magdala.

The bronze incense shovel found at Magdala, after it was cleaned. Photo: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority
The incense shovel, cleaned up. Photo: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

The dock? When we were there last week, he only mentioned the dock in the context of the local fishermen, who brought their catch to the marketplace.  He had waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the Kinneret, visible behind him, and said that much of the fish was salted before being sold. Residues of salt had been found in the small pits hollowed out of the stone floor of some of the shops.

The  IAA does not announce finds until they are authenticated. When Arfan talked to our group last week, he knew about the bronze shovel and the jug but he did not mention them. He knew how important they were. Only ten other incense shovels have been found. But they were easily identifiable because of descriptions in the Bible and Talmud. They are pictured in the mosaics of early synagogues.

How hard it must have been for him to refrain from saying anything. He didn’t even hint about recently uncovering something significant. Not even “watch the news for an IAA announcement about our dig.” Arfan described Magdala for us, talking about what they had found with expertise and humor. 

And all the time, he kept his secret.

Magdala on the Kineret

Archaeologist Arfan Najar at Migdal synagogue. The strange carved stone is behind him.
Archaeologist Arfan Najar at Migdal synagogue. The strange carved stone is behind him.

Father Juan Solana was impatient. He had started a project to build a center for religious tourism at Migdal (Magdala).  The Legionaries of Christ had bought the land by the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and received approvals from national and local authorities. All they needed was certification from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) that nothing of historic value would be disturbed.

“When will you finish?” he asked Arfan Najar, one of the supervising archaeologists sent by the IAA in 2009.

“Two, three months,” replied Arfan. They would dig a couple trenches, find nothing significant, and leave.

Arfan chuckled as he related that story. He was standing in the middle of the archaeological excavation at Migdal where he is still working, seven years later. ”Father Juan keeps saying, ‘Please finish. Please finish.’”

Everyone in my class from Pardes on life in the Second Temple Times laughed. We were at Migdal this week to learn about the Great Revolt (66- 70 C.E.) which ended the Second Temple Period. We’ve heard a similar story in several other places. In order to construct something new in Israel, the builder must obtain a permit from the IAA. Thinking there is nothing interesting at the site, the IAA sends a relatively unknown archaeologist to conduct a salvage dig. A salvage dig, the archaeologist reassures the builder, doesn’t take too long. He digs for two months, maybe three. Then he writes his report that there’s nothing important at the site, and the permit is issued.

But once in a while the archaeologist finds something interesting, something of historical significance and the dig continues for years. Some of the most important recent archaeological finds have come out of salvage digs. These include findings from the Givati parking lot and the Kishle in Jerusalem. That’s what happened at Migdal.

Replica of the Magdala stone, on display at the Migdal synagogue. Note the menorah in the middle and the oil jugs to each side of it
Replica of the Magdala stone, on display at the Migdal synagogue. The menorah with oil jugs to each side of it can be seen on the end. The original stone is in the IAA storehouse.

Arfan and Dina Avshalom-Gorni, the other supervising archaeologist, and their team started digging a trench. They dug through the earth about a foot and a half and found a large rectangular stone. As they brushed the dirt from the stone, they became more and more excited. It is about the size of a large foot stool, and has short legs. The four sides and the top are intricately carved with incised religious symbols from the Second Temple era.

Within two months the archaeologists had unearthed parts of walls of what looked to be a decent sized building. The salvage dig was extended, and then became a full-fledged archaeological dig sponsored by Anahuac University of Mexico, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the IAA.

The building they unearthed is a synagogue, dating from the first century. Because a few coins were discovered in the foundation, the archaeologists know that the building was built about 30 years BCE. In 67 CE, when the Romans conquered Magdala during the Great Revolt, they destroyed the whole city. However, this building was not buried in rubble of its upper layers. Here, at the edge of the city, no destruction layer was found. The foundations, lower walls, mosaic floor, and the mysterious stone remained intact under a layer of earth for almost two thousand years.

Magdala had been built by the Romans as an administrative and commercial center for the whole Galil and served that purpose for years. The Temple in Jerusalem still stood; it was the religious center for the country. Very few synagogues existed at the time—there was no need. In 2009, when Najar and Gorni started digging, only six synagogues had been found in the whole country dating from the Second Temple period, all in the south. The only evidence of synagogues in the north came from the Christian Bible, in the stories of Jesus’ preaching. Magdala was the first Galilean synagogue to be discovered.

Like the other synagogues of the time, it is built with stone benches on its perimeter, and faces Jerusalem. The floor is decorated with a black and white mosaic in a geometric design, which reflects the great wealth of the community. Since all the pieces of the support columns have been found, the archaeologists know the ceiling was about three meters high. The main room was large enough to hold 120 people. Two small rooms on the southern side had shelves and were most likely to have held Torah scrolls.

Herod, the great builder of Caesaria, Masada, Herodyon, and the Temple, was also a great despot. He managed to hold on to the Roman province of Judea and keep everything under control. The Judean kings who came after him were not so strong, and became puppets of Rome. The real power was held by the Roman procurators, who tried to extract ever more taxes from the country. The Jews were not going to tolerate so much Roman interference and they rebelled. The Great Revolt of the Jews started in the Galil and spread south to Jerusalem.

Magdala is built on the flat land between the Kinneret and the cliffs of Arbel, just north of Tiberius. It had no natural defenses. Joseph ben Mattityahu, better known by his Roman name Josephus, was the Jewish commander of the Galilee. He ordered a wall be built around the city. The Jews of the city realized it would  fall to the Romans. They did not want the synagogue desecrated so they decided to carefully dismantle it. The stones of the upper walls and the top two-thirds of the columns that supported the roof were used to build the defensive wall. The bottom third of the walls and the furnishings, including the Stone, were then covered by a thick layer of earth. They were holy and would not be subject to destruction—the layer of earth would protect them.

And protect them it did, until two thousand years later an Arab and a Jewish archaeologist dug and swept it away.

Magdala is a town of significance to Christians because of its association with the life of Jesus. Mary Magdalene (Mary from Magdala) may even have been the wife of Jesus, according to a minority interpretation of scripture. This association is what brought Father Solana here. He wanted to build a hotel to house religious pilgrims and a spiritual center that would be open to all faiths. The spiritual center, called Duc in Altum, has already been built close to the Western shore of the Kinneret.

The synagogue was found where the hotel was supposed to be built. After being redesigned, construction has finally started. As Arjan told us about the excavation, he occasionally had to stop speaking for a moment or two because he could not be heard over the construction noise. The new design incorporates the synagogue and other elements of the ancient city into the hotel. One wall of the lobby will be glass, offering hotel guests a close view of the ancient synagogue. A wing of the hotel is built right up to the eastern side of the synagogue.

Up to now it has been thought that early synagogues played a different role than today’s synagogues do. The word for synagogue in Hebrew is Beit Knesset, House of Gathering. People came here to meet friends, study Torah, and attend community meetings. Communication with God was through sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue only became a Beit Tefila, a House of Prayer, after the destruction of the Temple, when people had to find a new way of communicating with God.

Archaeologist Arfan Najar and the Magdala stone (replica). Note the rosette on top, which may refer to Ezekial's vision of the heavenly chariot. Photo courtesy of Renee Hirsch
Arfan Najar and the Magdala stone (replica). Note the rosette on top, which may refer to Ezekial’s vision of the heavenly chariot. Photo courtesy of Renee Hirsch

The Magdala stone may have served as a resting place for scrolls, such as a Torah scroll. It is the right height for a seated person to read. Or perhaps it was a reminder of the Temple, designed to give the building an aura of holiness. Many of the incised designs—the menorah, the table, the oil jugs, the arches—are fixtures or architectural elements of the Temple. The rosette design on the top of the stone might be a reminder of the heavenly chariot, as described by Ezekiel. One thing is sure—it was found in the oldest synagogue ever discovered (so far).

One feature that always helps identify a building as a synagogue is a nearby mikve. So it was natural for someone in my class to ask Arjan where the mikve was. He said that four mikves had been found in the town. Then he turned and pointed to his right. “But we have here the Sea of Galilee,” he said with a smile, “the biggest mikve of all!”

For many years the town of Migdal, ancient Magdala, was of interest only to Christian pilgrims. Thanks to a Catholic priest’s desire to build a spiritual center, and the work of both a Muslim and a Jewish archaeologist, one of the earliest synagogues has been discovered. As more artifacts of life in first century Galilee are uncovered, it may well become a site of interest to more Jews as well.

Location of Migdal:

Shopping at the Shuk

Profusion of colorful vegetablles for sale at Mahane Yehuda stand
The profusion of vegetables for sale at a Mahane Yehuda stand makes a colorful display

The Mahane Yehuda market, the shuk, this week is particularly appealing to a produce-lover like me. Huge perfectly white cauliflowers sit atop displays of rough dark green broccoli, shiny dark green cucumbers, dark red beets, black radishes and white ones, creamy white parsnips, orange carrots, pale green cabbages and purple ones, orangey red tomatoes, and eggplants such a shiny dark purple they look almost black. Next to the vegetable booth is a fruit seller who has on display baskets of pink strawberries, bright yellow lemons, pale yellow grapefruit, and orange oranges. Until the recent cold weather caused the skin of the citrus fruits to turn color, they were all Kelly-green.

On my way home from classes twice a week in Talpiyot, I have to change buses. I’ve developed the habit of doing so at the shuk. It’s so much fun to walk through and observe the changes through the seasons. Most produce here is grown within the country and the market is seasonal, the way it was when I was growing up. Strawberries in January? Well, if you were willing to fly to Florida, maybe. Asparagus in November? Don’t be ridiculous.

Pomegranates and melons on display at Mahane Yehuda
The pomegranates are big, the melons small, and they’re both delicious

I’m become accustomed to this seasonal cycle of produce. I no longer plan menus based on what I feel like cooking, but do so based on what is available. Three weeks ago I made an orange and olive salad for the first time in months, two weeks ago I served cauliflower, and last week I served strawberries. I’ll serve them frequently for the next few weeks, because their season is fairly short, although not as short as cherry season.

The Mahane Yehuda market is such an integral part of Jerusalem, it’s hard to remember that it is less than 150 years old. When Jerusalem started expanding beyond its walls in the late 1800s, people did not want to go all the way back to the city to shop. The Arab farmers in nearby villages realized it would be easy to bring their produce closer to these new customers. They came from Sheikh Bader, Deir Yassin, and Lifta to an open area between the Jewish settlements of Mahane Yehuda and Mazkeret Moshe. They spread blankets on the ground and displayed their wares.

That was fine in the dry season, but not in the four to six month season of cold wind and rain. The farmers started to build themselves stalls and shacks, rickety shelters with tin roofs. There was no plan.

This lack of organization disturbed the British when they took over administration of the area during the Mandate. They knew the market was vital to the character and well-being of the city. Charles Robert Ashby, the city planner, developed a design for the market with the help of an architect. Their design included sanitation, streets, running water, and a central square with a fountain, bordered by a row of trees. The British plan never came to fruition, probably because of budgetary issues.

Selling tea at Mahane Yehuda
Several shops sell their own mixtures of herbs and spices for tea

In the 1930s the British took responsibility for sanitation and street cleaning in the market. By this time the Etz Chaim Yeshiva had bought land extending south from Jaffa Road. The founders of the Yeshiva built a row of shops along its wall whose rent helped sustain the school.

The character of the market changed during the 1920s and 1930s, as Jewish merchants began to open shops. Some rented from Arabs and some bought land outright. A group of merchants convinced a local bank to extend six-year loans to those who wanted to establish permanent shops in the area. Today, if you look above the store sign at the corner of Hashaked and Mahane Yehuda Streets, you can see the plaque designating the area of 81 shops as Shuk Halva’ah V’Chisachon—Loan and Savings Market. Another permanent area of the shuk built around the same time was closer to Jaffa Road. Most of the shop owners were Iraqi Jews. Today, it is still known as Shuk HaIraqi, the Iraqi Market.

After Israeli independence, Jerusalem continued to grow, and so did the shuk. Today its two main streets extend from Jaffa Road south to Agrippas street, connected by smaller streets named for fruit and nut trees. Shops extend for two blocks on Jaffa Road as well as several blocks along Agrippas street. To the newcomer, it is a confusing mass of shops and alleys, which is no doubt why so many people offer walking tours. My friend Renee, who has been in Israel for almost twenty years, walked me up Mahane Yehuda street a few months after our aliyah. She told me about things to look for, pointing out valid kashrut certificates and certifications that appropriate tithes had been taken. Allen and I also took a tour that went through almost all the streets, while the guide explained both the history of the shuk and why she preferred certain olive, meat, spice, and produce shops. On one corner an olive merchant would sell as little as 50 grams of olives. A certain spice merchant knew the English names of spices, a skill I am still grateful for.

In the 1970s the city paved the streets and improved sanitation in the area. Additionally, it installed the first permanent roof over Mahane Yehuda street, leading people to start calling that area the “covered shuk,” as opposed to the “open shuk on the parallel Etz HaChaim street. This was later replaced by a translucent curved roof that covered many of the side streets as well. That roof, in its turn, was recently replaced by a better one.

Nuts and seeds for sale at Mahane Yehuda
Did I mention they sell a several varieties of nuts and seeds?

In some ways the shuk is what it always was. The clerks in food shops loudly try to attract customers. “Watermelons for Shabbat!” yells one, while across the narrow street, another screams out “Sweet red watermelons.” The halvah man, wearing a gilded paper crown, stands in the middle of the street in front of “The Halvah Kingdom” offering passersby a taste of coffee bean halvah. The spice shop clerks routinely give  tastes of their unique mixtures for rice and salads to anyone who stops. Shoppers pick up an olive to eat without breaking stride as they walk by. Women push baby buggies overflowing with groceries, the baby now being at school; men wear bulging backpacks with long skinny celery stalks peaking out the top. Soldiers walk through nibbling on a bourekas, a cup of coffee in one hand and a rifle on their back. Yeshiva students, in their black suits and white shirts hurry through, talking about their latest lesson as they go. And the beggars still sit at the entrances, asking for a coin or two to help pay for food for Shabbat, a kidney transplant, or to support a poor widow with eight children.

But nothing in the world remains static. Every week it seems like there is something different. The olive merchant on a corner is gone, replaced by a coffee bar. A fruit and nut stand near the entrance has replaced the spice seller who has moved halfway down the street. What the spice seller replaced is a mystery to me. Several clothing stores have opened in the covered shuk, as have two high end jewelry artisans. A new pottery cooperative sells lovely handmade dishes, cups and trays on one of the tiny short streets near Agrippas street. A couple of nice bars seem to be doing a brisk business. And now several

Fish and Chips at Mahane Yehuda
The Fish and Chips stand offers diners a place to sit outside

sit-down restaurants have opened. I hesitate to give a number, because every time I check my count, I find another one. These are in addition to the falafel stands, juice bars, and fish and chips place (yes, its sign written in Hebrew letters reads “Feesh and Cheeps”).

The shuk has a weekly rhythm. Sunday and Monday it is almost empty of shoppers but by Friday it is so crowded, you can barely squeeze through. Many tours bring visitors on Friday afternoon to get a feel for the “real Israel.” But harried storekeepers moving as fast as they can to weigh bags and make change for three different customers at the same time, no matter how fascinating to watch, are not the whole picture. Nor are the shoppers, pushing, cutting in line, and elbowing their way through to the last ripe avocado or nice melon. Friday’s pre-Shabbat frenzy of last minute shopping is only a small slice of the life of the shuk and of Israeli life. I much prefer the picture of Israel presented on Tuesday or Wednesday: the sheer variety of produce, the bright colors, the beggars who give you a blessing for health, long life, and learned children, and the storekeepers who let you taste their wares and will tell you why theis are the best.

            In the end it doesn’t really matter when you visit—the shuk is always fascinating. And stimulating to the appetite.

Map of Mahane Yehuda

Philistines and philistines

Pottery produced by the Philistines in the 10th to 9th century BCE, at  Museum in Ashdod
Pottery produced by the Philistines in the 10th to 9th century BCE. Reproductions on display at Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod


To those who have read the Bible, the Philistines were a major enemy of the tribes of Israel. Judges and Samuel describe constant warfare between the Philistines trying to conquer the land and the Jews trying to defend it.

Today, the word “philistine,” has nothing to do with a person’s ethnic origins. Describing people as philistines means they lack taste and do not care about culture or refinement. They are boors.

On a recent trip to Ashdod, we visited the Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod. There we saw examples of their pottery and other artifacts, and learned about their culture. The word “philistine” has now taken on a whole new meaning for me.

As one of the Philistines’ five cities, Ashdod is a fitting place for a museum dedicated to their culture and history. Their other cities were Gat, Ashkelon, Gaza, and Ekron. The locations of Philistine Gaza and Ashkelon are known. Archeologists are fairly sure they have identified ancient Gat and Ekron as well.

The Philistines were the sea people. They arrived on the southeastern rim of the Mediterranean from Crete or Cyprus around 1200 BCE. This was same period that the Tribes of Israel came to the area from the desert on the east. Both groups wanted to take over the land from the Canaanite kings. Conflict was inevitable.

As the Philistines expanded their holdings in the area, they fought the Egyptians, who at the time were the major Middle Eastern power. Much of what we know about them, apart from what we read in the Bible, stems from Egyptian sources. An Egyptian wall carving

A Philistine warrior in full battle dress greets visitors at Ashdod museum
A Philistine warrior in full battle dress greets Allen at Ashdod museum

depicts a battle in the time of Pharaoh Thutmose, who is thought to be the Pharaoh of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. The carving shows the Philistines, in full battle dress. The design of the Philistine metal helmets show impressive metal working skill. So do the fragments of their weapons that have been found. A metal statue of a Philistine in full battle dress stands in the foyer of the Ashdod Museum. Like almost everyone else who visits the museum, Allen and I stood next to it for a photo.

The Philistines tended to adopt things from all the cultures they came in contact with. We can see that in their names. In their early years in Canaan, names were of Indo-European origin. In later centuries they had more Canaanite names.

The assimilationist habit also show up in their pottery. The Israel Museum has almost all the authentic Philistines antiquities. What we see in the Ashdod Philistine museum are accurate reproductions of representative finds. From these reproductions we are able to see

Reproductions of Philistine pottery on display in Ashdod museum
Reproductions of Philistine pottery on display in Ashdod museum

and appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of the people. Jugs dating from the 12th to 11th century BCE are northern Mediterranean in style. Later pottery show the influence of other trading peoples. The vessels in the photo are from the 10th to 9th century BCE and show a distinct Aegean influence. The red color and shape are local style, but the black color and horizontal bands are Aegean.

Ashdoda, a small Philistine cultic figurine, Ashdod museum
Ashdoda, a small Philistine cultic figurine, Ashdod museum

An approximately six inch tall clay figurine from the 12th century BCE caught my attention. She was found in Ashdod, and named Ashdoda by those who uncovered her. Half woman and half chair, she is thought to be a 12th century BCE cultic figure. When the sculptor Henry Moore visited the museum, he remarked that if he had known of her existence, he would have made her his muse.

Ashdoda’s true role in Philistine culture is only speculation. We know very little about their religion. The Bible says they worshiped Dagon. Whether he was a grain god (from dagan, grain) or a fish god (from dag, fish) no one today knows.

The discovery of a two-horned altar and an incense altar only emphasize how little we know about their religion. Many altars of the time had horns at their corners, but why does this one have only two? Did the two horns have a specific cultic meaning, or has only half the altar been found?

If they created and used all this beauty, how did their name become a label for boorish and uncultured? The worshipers of one God looked down on those who worshiped idols. They ascribed many bad traits to the idol worshipers, including a lack of appreciation of the finer things in life. Thus Philistine evolved to philistine.

For several centuries, they were the dominant people along the Mediterranean Coast. Then the Israelite kingdoms expanded. Still later the Egyptian and Assyrian kingdoms strengthened and expanded, and conquered the Philistines. They assimilated into new cultures, and disappeared from history. 

But history has a way of reviving and reinventing peoples in unexpected ways. When the Romans put down the Great Revolt in 70 C. E. they were sure they had destroyed the Jewish state for all time. Fifty-five years later, during the Bar Kochba Revolt, the Romans had to destroy it again. Determined to destroy all traces of the people who had fought them so long, the Romans gave the area a new name. They named it Palestina, after the Philistines, the ancient enemy of Judea.

After World War I, the British received a mandate to administer a large swath of the dismantled Turkish Empire. The Turks had called it South Syria; the British called it Palestine. 

Once the Philistines had been proud rulers of a large portion of today’s Israel. Today we think of them as  philistines, uncultured people lacking in taste. The re-inventions of history are not always kind.

Har Eval: The Mountain of the Curses

Near the top of Har Eval, where Joshua built an altar
Near the top of Har Eval, where Joshua built an altar

From where we were standing, near the top of windy barren Har Eval, we could not see any towns, houses, or farms. All we could see were the gently sloping ridges of the mountain top. It was noon, and we could hear the muezzins’ calls to prayer in Nablus.

“Listen,” said Eve Harow, our guide. “Standing up here, as B’nai Israel did when they entered the land with Joshua, you can hear what is happening in the valley on the other side of the mountain.”

I had always read the story about the blessings and curses in the Book of Joshua with skepticism. How could people standing on two mountains hear and respond to what priests were declaiming in the valley between them? Yet I was standing on one of those mountains, listening to the sounds from that valley.

We had driven an hour and a half north of Jerusalem on this One Israel Fund trip into the territory once held by the tribe of Menashe (Menassah). In Shavei Shomron we had stopped to meet up with our army escort. Har Eval, on the outskirts of Nablus, is within Area A which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Because we would be traveling on roads which are both illegal and dangerous for Israeli cars to drive on, we had received permission from the IDF for our excursion and would be accompanied by an IDF escort.

Nablus was originally built by the Romans on the site of ancient Shechem, the town near which Jacob and sons lived and pastured

The Old City of Nablus, from Har Eval.
The Old City of Nablus, from Har Eval. Joseph’s Tomb, which can’t be seen from this spot, is in front of building with gold-colored dome.

their sheep. Joseph’s grave is located there, in the oldest part of Shechem. In the 1980s a yeshiva was established at Joseph’s Tomb but it came under attack by the Arabs during the Al Aksa Intifada. When violence erupted, it became increasingly difficult to protect the students. The Yeshiva was evacuated. After the Palestinian Authority, as stipulated in the Oslo Accords, guaranteed police protection for the tomb, the IDF also left. That very day, the Palestinian Authority police watched a mob burn the tomb. Today, Jews can visit what is left, as long as they do so in a protected group escorted by the IDF. 

Like almost all Israelis, Allen and I had never seen Har Eval. All I knew about it was from the Bible. It was first mentioned in Deuteronomy (11: 29) when Moshe tells B’nai Yisrael that when they enter the land, blessings and curses would be read to them by the priests standing between two mountains. Half the tribes would stand on Har Gerizim. When they heard a blessing, what would happen when they obeyed G-d’s commands, they would answer “Amen.” The other half of the tribes would stand on Har Eval. When they heard the curses, the consequences of flouting G-d’s laws, they would answer “Amen.” 

The Book of Joshua describes the people crossing the Jordan, walking up a broad valley, arranging themselves on the two mountains, and hearing the blessings and curses. Joshua then had an altar built (8:30), sacrifices were offered, and the people left.

The mountains themselves were neither blessed nor cursed by the ceremony. Nevertheless, somehow the tradition arose that the mountain on which the people stood to answer “Amen” to the curses was itself cursed. The two altars built there, one on top of the other, were each used only one time. There is no archaeological evidence of any settlement, building, or farm anywhere on Mt. Eval.

As we drove towards the mountain, we could see much of the town of Nablus. It spreads out in the valley and winds around the feet of the mountains, and up the slopes of Mt. Gerizim. Nablus looks prosperous, with large well built houses featuring intricate stone walls that let light on to the patios and balconies, yet prevent passersby from seeing any women who might be sitting on them.

And then we were on a narrow winding dirt road ascending Har Eval. Fairly high up, a turn took us to the other side of the mountain, and Nablus disappeared. Our escort stopped and the bus parked in a small area cleared of rocks.

The hill around us was littered with large stones. Between them were smaller stones, pebbles, and small plants and grass. We older people carefully walked down the dirt track towards the altar, while the children with us raced down the hill, sure footed as gazelles. 

We saw down to the flat green Tirza Valley, winding through the rocky mountains toward the Jordan River. Tirza is the only valley wide enough to enable thousands of people to walk from the Jordan to the mountains in one day, and it leads directly to Har Eval and Har Gerizim.

Although pagan altars were always built on the highest place around, Jews were commanded to build their sacrificial altars in lower places. Whenever the ancient prophets wanted to turn straying people back from idol worship to the worship of G-d, they cried out to destroy the Bamot, the high places.

Remains of Joshua's altar on Har Eval
Remains of Joshua’s altar on Har Eval

So we walked from a high place on Mt. Eval down towards what is believed by some to be Joshua’s altar. Adam Zertal, the archaeologist who, with his students, discovered this altar, is sure of its identity. It is definitely a Jewish altar, made of unhewn stones. approached by a ramp. Only bones of kosher animals—sheep, goats, deer—have been found in its vicinity, despite the plenitude of wild boar in the area at the time of its construction. It was used only two times, around 1250 and 1200 BCE, which puts it in the period of the entrance of the Jews into the land. The pottery shards found here date from that time or earlier.

The evidence against this being Joshua’s altar? It faces the wrong direction. Mt. Gerizim, the holy site of the Samaritans, is on the other side of the mountain, on the other side of the city of Nablus.

This does not bother Zertal. He says the traditional Mt. Gerizim is not the actual site of the blessings. According to him, despite their unbroken tradition going back to First Temple times, the Samaritans offer their Passover sacrifices on the wrong hill top. Zertal claims that Tel Kabir, the mountain that can be seen from the Mt. Eval altar is the real Mt. Gerizim.  

Others have suggested that the traditional Mt. Gerizim is correctly identified. The Bible does not say that Joshua’s altar was built where the people stood to listen to the curses. They could have listened while facing Mt Gerizim across the valley, and then walked to the other side of Har Eval to build the altar and offer the sacrifices.

Until further evidence is uncovered, the question remains unresolved. It is likely to remain so for a long time. The two mountains are in Palestinian Area A. No Muslim authority will grant an archaeologist permission to conduct a dig which might support the authenticity of the Jewish Bible or evidence that might support Jewish claims to the land.

Even if the authenticity of the altar is in question, seeing places like Mt. Eval makes them real. When reading the stories in the Bible, we believe them because we want to believe. Actually seeing an altar that Joshua may have built helps make a visceral connection—it makes the story physically real. Seeing the valley that probably served as a highway for the Jews crossing the Jordan into Canaan and hearing the Muslim calls to prayer from a valley far below us turn the Bible story into an event that actually could have happened the way it is written.

Which is why we go on so many trips around the land. Having seen so many Biblical sites, I read the Bible with different eyes than I used to, eyes more open to how the stories unfolded. It is endlessly fascinating.

Exploring Hazor

From the top of the tel, overlooking the Hazor Valley and the mountains of the Galil
Springtime in the Hazor Valley, looking towards the mountains of the Galil from the tel.

The story of Biblical Hazor starts in the Book of Joshua. The Israelites had conquered the Canaanites in the south of the country, from Kadesh-Barnea to Gaza. “And it happened that Jabin King of Hazor heard” (Joshua 11: 1). He sent messages to all the other kings in the north, who gathered with their armies to fight the Israelites. But with G-d’s help, the Israelites won the battle. Joshua then captured Hazor, which had been the leading army of the Canaanite forces, and burned it. .

Allen and I visited Hazor as part of my Tour with Text course. We had been studying the first book of Kings since the end of October. Three weeks studying a section of the text were coupled with a bus tour to see how the story played out against its geographic background. On our last trip we went to the Galil, to the northern part of the country to see cities Ahab, King of Israel, had built or fortified. Hazor was our last stop.

After ascending the tel, we entered the ancient city through a six-chambered gate. By this time, everyone in our group recognized its significance. Although most cities of the time had four rooms in their gates, three cities built by Solomon had six rooms: Gezer, Megiddo, and Hazor. These three gates are mentioned in Kings (9:15). Today, the only ancient cities in which Israelite six-chambered gates have been found are these three from the Kingdom of Israel and Lachish, which was in the Kingdom of Judea.

We entered a large Canaanite structure, which is thought to have been the palace of the Canaanite kings. The entrance is flanked by two stone columns, as was common among many of the earlier cities of the area. These columns reminded me of the columns between which the Philistines chained Samson, much to their regret.

Wall of large Canaanite building, showing strip of burned wood between stones and mud bricks
Wall of large building, showing strip of burned wood between layers if stone and mud bricks

The foundation of the building is stone and above the stone the walls are mud brick. At one time, a strip of wood lay between the layers of stone and brick. Now wood ash sits in that space. That wood ash is evidence of a terrible fire that burned the city in the 13th century BCE, around the time Joshua was leading tribes of Israel in their conquest of the land.

In front of this structure is a large bamah, a high place or altar used for religious purposes. A large statue of Ba’al was found here, decapitated. Decapitated statues of gods are signs of religious wars. When the god of a place is unable to protect it, its worshipers lose. The winners then destroy god the losers had worshiped.

In our travels around the country we have seen the remains of many stone and mud brick buildings, but this was the first time we had seen such detailed evidence of the Israelite conquest. The soot that has marked the stones and brick for over 3200 years is a direct link to our past. Joshua and the Jews who came out of the desert into the land become more real to me with every bit of evidence I see.

Hazor did not just suddenly spring up in Joshua’s path. At that time it had already been an important Canaanite city for over 500 years. It occupies a strategic location at the eastern end of the Via Maris, the route near the coast used by ancient traders and armies moving between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Besides being mentioned in the Bible, it is referred to in the Egyptian El Amarna letters and stela. To the north, the archives at Mari, a Babylonian city along the Euphrates River, also mention Hazor. 

Strategic sites retain their importance no matter who rules the area. After each conquest, sooner or later, destroyed cities are rebuilt by new rulers. That’s how tels develop, as each new city is built on top of the ruins of the previous ones, until a small hill along a trade route becomes a prominent height overlooking much of the route’s length, or even a whole valley.

Historic periods often mingle on a tel, as the basement of a later structure is dug down into the main room of a an earlier one. At Hazor, we saw that the middle chamber of one side of the gate rests on black stone. The stone is basalt; Solomon’s gate was built atop the threshold of a basalt Canaanite temple. Or building stones in good condition become incorporated into later walls. At Hazor, this secondary use of materials is evident in several places. The midsection of an Egyptian basalt statue of a lioness became the door jamb of an Israelite house.

Such secondary use of materials and intermingling of historical periods is not restricted to the ancients; we see it in Jerusalem today. Today’s Damascus Gate into the Old City, built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century stand on the remains of the Roman gate and the rooms where the Roman guards rested between their shifts. Under the Hurva synagogue, paving stones of a Byzantine era street partially cover an even older mikve, a ritual bath from the Second Temple period.

Hazor was a large city under King Solomon, and King Ahab enlarged it. But it never again reached the size it had been when the Canaanites controlled it. Then it had been a huge city with an estimated population of about 15,000. Although it was smaller when rebuilt, nonetheless archaeologists have found several large buildings, temples, granaries, and city walls and gates dating from the time of King Ahab. The site is the largest tel in Israel and it has not been excavated completely Archaeologists still hope to find a Canaanite or Israelite archive.

Walking around the site, we came across a roped off shallow pit in

Israelite matzevot (sacred standing stones) at Tel Hazor
Israelite matzevot at Tel Hazor

which stood many upright stones of various sizes. A standing stone is called a matzevah, or monument, and differs from an altar, or mizbe’ach, in that an altar is built of many stones. Today, matzevot are erected as small memorials to an event or used as tombstones, but in earlier times they had sacred purposes. For example, the temple on Tel Arad contains a matzevah within its holy of holies. These were acceptable in early Jewish history, but later were much less so.

Any city has to have a good source of water. In ancient times when water was not pumped over long distances, the water source had to

Descent to the water tunnel at Tel Hazor, discovered by Yigal Yadin
Descent to the water tunnel, discovered by Yigal Yadin

be close to the city. Many of the most strategic locations for cities were on hilltops, but the nearest water source was in the valley. For many cities, such as Jerusalem, Megiddo, and Hazor, this situation caused a large problem in time of war. One solution to this problem was to build a tunnel that starts inside the city walls so the people could retrieve water without exposing themselves to the enemy. The tunnel and wall around the water source also protected it from being captured or used by the enemy. We’ve walked through such tunnels in Jerusalem, and at Megiddo and Tel Sheva. In Hazor, we stood at the top of the shaft and looked down. It was late afternoon on a very hot day, and no one had the energy to descend hundreds of metal stairs into the water tunnel, no matter how cool it promised to be in there. The walk back up would not have been worth the effort.

Instead, we slowly walked down the path on which we had ascended the hill, admiring the view of the Hazor Valley.

Where this Biblical site is located:

Ein Kerem

Stiars to Ein Kerem ceramics studio
The cat watches for visitors to an Ein Kerem ceramics studio

Ein Kerem means Spring of the Vineyard, which reflects its role as a wine producing town in the Second Temple Period. At that time, it was a small town, a long four and a half mile walk from Jerusalem through the mountains of Judea. Today it is a neighborhood within the city known for churches and its artists.

To get to Ein Kerem, you head west on Herzl boulevard, one of Jerusalem’s major thoroughfares, past the military cemetery, and turn onto a small road that winds its way through the Jerusalem forest. At certain points, almost hidden by trees, you can see the golden domes of the Muskovia Church that sits on the southern slope of the neighborhood. The church, built in the 1900s, is visible for great distances, identifiable by the golden light reflecting from its domes.

Tile by Ruth Havilio
Tile by Ruth Havilio

I went to Ein Kerem not to see a church but to visit Ruth Havilio, a ceramicist who specializes in making decorative tiles. Many of her tiles feature the flowers and birds she sees around her. She feels a deep connection to Ein Kerem; she loves the ancient terraces on which the grape vines grew and draws inspiration from the unspoiled Biblical landscape. The bright colors and open feeling of her tiles distinguish them from the more common Armenian tiles one sees on display in tourist shops and as nameplates on doorways all over Jerusalem.

A sabra, she relates how her father, Shlomo, almost missed his own wedding. As a young man, he had been an officer in the Haganah, the precursor to the IDF. In 1948, he was commander of the Jewish forces assigned to the defense of several neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Not blessed with the gift of prophecy, he and his fiancée had decided to get married on the day the War of Independence broke out. He was so busy organizing and checking the city’s defenses, he forgot what else he had been supposed to do. Although later in the day, he did remember the important event he had scheduled, he arrived late. His bride, also a Haganah officer, waited.

His service to Israel did not end with the establishment of the state. For many years, he was Israel’s ambassador to Cameroon. Ruth grew up in Africa, and then studied art and architecture in Paris. Her work shows an African influence, reflecting her childhood.

The major influence on her art, however, is the landscape around her. She and her husband bought the building she lives and works in 27 years ago. Before 1948, Ein Kerem had been an Arab town. Buildings were constructed on top of the ruins of what had been built before. Houses were not planned; as more space was needed, rooms were added. During the renovations to their house, which they bought from a Moroccan family, Ruth and her husband discovered it had been built on top of Byzantine ruins.

David Kroyanker, an architect who has studied and written about the architecture of Jerusalem, has described Arab rustic architecture. Originally one story homes were built, with one large arched room. The residents lived in this room with their animals, which were brought into the house for warmth. As the family grew, and the people could afford it, a second story was added, where the people lived, separated from the animals.

Ruth describes how they removed a hundred truckloads of dirt from under their salon on the entrance level to reveal the original room. For a while their salon had no floor; they walked on a plank from the doorway to the kitchen. Her mother was too afraid to enter her house for months. Gradually they discovered the large room below. She showed photos of the excavation in progress, and what it looks like now. The once filthy walls are painted white, and they curve near the top to form the high arched ceiling. The photos show a lovely room, but visitors are not allowed in because it is her teen-aged daughter’s bedroom.

On the outside of the house, stairs follow the curve of the arched entry and lead to the flat roof, which is vital part of the home. Here food was stored. In hot weather, people slept on their roofs to be cooler. For security reasons, the stairs do not go all the way to the ground. Every family had a ladder to get to the roof, and at night they would bring the ladder in so no stranger or thief could get into the house.

Many houses were built with special niches in the outer walls to attract doves, which were raised for food. The niches are still visible in the walls. Although doves and pigeons occasionally nest in a the niches, Ruth’s family does not dine on their meat.

Often a guest room was built on an additional floor. It would have its own entrance with stairs leading up to it from the inner courtyard. This is the room that Ruth has converted into her ceramics workshop and showroom.

The story of her home is the story of many houses in Ein Kerem. The town has been continuously inhabited for over three thousand years; layers upon layers of buildings and ruins have been excavated and rehabilitated. Just last week, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a Second Temple Period mikve under the living room of a family that lives nearby.

During World War II it was a very busy town, with a population of over 4000, making it one of the largest Arab towns in British Palestine. A center of Arab nationalism and terrorism, it was approximately two-thirds Christian and one-third Muslim. After the Irgun attack on Deir Yassin, another Arab town just outside Jerusalem, the Arabs panicked and fled. The only residents who remained were the monks and nuns.

After the War of Independence, the state of Israel took possession of all abandoned Arab properties. Houses in many formerly Arab neighborhoods in and around Jerusalem became homes for immigrants. The Jewish Agency brought bus loads of new olim, primarily from Morocco, Yemen, and Romania to Ein Kerem. The new olim, however, took one look at the town as they were driven through it, noticing how rundown and neglected it was. They refused to get off the bus. Then, one day, an elderly Yemenite man stood up and declared, “This is Jerusalem!” He descended from the bus, followed by the rest of his family.

Others followed them, and Ein Kerem became a thriving community. He received a heavenly reward for his pioneering spirit. He fathered a child at age 90, and lived to the age of 102.

For many years Ein Kerem remained a small neglected town outside Jerusalem. Its residents were primarily poor olim who arrived in the country with no resources. The town had poor roads and homes lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. Very gradually it was modernized as the standard of living increased.

Today, although incorporated into modern Jerusalem, Ein Kerem retains some of its rural feel. The hilly streets wind through the town, down to the valley and up its hills. 

Mary's spring in Ein Kerem
The spring in Ein Kerem

On the southern end of town the original spring, now channeled  into a fountain, still flows. The house where the Sheikh used to live is nearby. After being used by the IDF for many years, it has been turned into a music center, which holds concerts on most Friday and Saturday afternoons throughout the year. Hadassah Hospital, one of the largest medical centers in the Middle East, sits on the neighborhood’s southwestern edge.

Many artists and craftspeople work in Ein Kerem, in studios attached to their homes. Periodically, real estate developers put forth proposals to build large apartment complexes in the area, with the backing of the city government. So far, the residents have been able to block these projects, because even one such building would destroy the views and rural feeling that give the area its appeal.

For the artists like Ruth, who take their inspiration from the forest and hills around Ein Kerem, that is just fine.

Spies in Zichron Yaakov

Standing in front of Aaron Aaronsohn's house in Zichron Yakov
Standing in front of Aaron Aaronsohn’s house in Zichron Yaakov

Today Zichron Yaakov is a beautiful small city, known for its shops and history. But at one time, it was known to the British as the home of a small organization of Jewish spies in World War I, centered on the Aaronsohn family. Their story is one of great bravery and tragedy.

When Malka and Fishel Aaronsohn made aliyah to the land of Israel in 1882, much of it was unsettled and wild. The leaders of their group bought a large tract of land in Zamarin from an Arab landowner who lived in Beirut. They thought the land was lush and fertile, but reality was different and it grew very little. Starvation and malaria killed many of the young children.

At that time, Baron Hirsch, a rich German philanthropist, established farming communities in Argentina and the United States for Jews from Eastern Europe. His agent in the land of Israel offered the Zamarin settlers money to go to Argentina or back to Romania. The story has two versions: in one the men answer, in the other version Malka Aaronsohn does. But the words are memorable, “We will eat rocks before we go back.”

Their reply so impressed the agent that he gave them access to free medical care in Haifa and enough money to feed them all for several months. He also told Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the French banker and philanthropist, about their plight.

Rothschild bought the land from the farmers in exchange for financial support, farm equipment, medical care, and agricultural management. As with other places in the country that Rothschild financed, he renamed it for one of the members of his family. Zichron Yaakov means “the memory of Jacob,” in memory of his father.

Rothschild paid for Aaron, the Aaronsohn’s oldest son, to study agronomy at a French University. Aaron’s international reputation was secured when he found strains of triticale, the ancestor of today’s wheat. He then established a research station in nearby Atlit. Aaron’s assistant was Avshalom Feinberg. Both Aaronsohn daughters fell in love with Avshalom, and he became engaged to the younger one, Rivka. Her sister Sarah then married a Turkish Jew and moved to Turkey. The marriage was not a success, and she returned to Zichron Yaakov a year later.

In 1915, the Turkish government asked Aaron to head the fight against an invasion of locusts. In working as a Turkish official, he witnessed the government corruption and Turkish oppression of minorities throughout the Ottoman Empire.

By now World War I had begun. Sarah had seen the suffering of the Armenians and feared the same would happen to the Jews. She and Avshalom convinced Aaron to join with them and form a clandestine group to gather information about the Turkish army and pass it on to the British. They called the group NILI, taking the name from a phrase in the first book of Samuel: Neztach Yisrael Lo Yishaker—the eternity of Israel will not be falsified, or, the Eternal One of Israel will not lie.

At first the British did not trust Aaron. Why would this important Turkish official spy on his own government? But they grew to trust him and found the information valuable.

Usually the information was passed to a British ship which periodically anchored off the Mediterranean coast at Atlit. But in 1917, the ship did not show up. Avshalom Feinberg decided to take the information to the British in Egypt himself. Bedouins attacked and killed him in the Sinai. Bedouins attacked and killed him in the Sinai.

When a pigeon carrying a message was found by the Turks, NILI was exposed. Sarah was arrested and tortured. When told she was to be moved to jail in Damascus, she asked to go home and change her clothes. They took her to Aaron’s house and allowed her to enter alone. Afraid she might betray the others under further torture, she took Aaron’s pistol from its hiding place and killed herself.

Aaron continued to help the British until he died in a plane crash over the English Channel in 1919.

Aaronsohn house plaque, Zichron Yakov
The outside wall of the Aaronsohn’s house is the original pink colr. Photo: Renee Hirsch

The three pink stucco houses in the Aaronson courtyard have been turned into a museum dedicated to the history of NILI. The first house holds an exhibit of photos of the area and the family. Several frames exhibit pressed specimens of the triticale Aaron discovered. Downstairs we viewed a film on the history of NILI, which was very well done, using a combination of photographs and actors. A tall bookcase, full of thick volumes labeled “Do Not Touch” was built into one wall. Most of the books were records of Aaron’s agricultural work. I would have loved to look into one to see the details of what he had done day to day, but I doubt I would have understood his notes. English was not yet the international language of science. He would have been more likely to write in French, the language he was educated in, or Hebrew or Arabic, the languages his associates spoke.

Across the courtyard stands Malka and Fishel’s house. It was built in 1884, and probably enlarged later to the size it is today. Although Malka had died before WWI, Fishel lived here until his death at age 92 in 1939. All the furnishings in the Aaronsohn homes are original, from the dark red patterned rugs to the china on the shelves of the heavy dark wood cabinets. The table is set with white flowered china, as if the family is expected to come in for dinner any minute. As we walked through the dining room, several people said, “That looks just like my grandmother’s china!”

Niche by door, where Aaron's gun was hidden. Photo: Renee Hirsch
Niche by door, where Aaron’s gun was hidden.
Photo: Renee Hirsch

 Across the courtyard, we went into Aaron’s house, built for him by his parents twelve years after their own house. The major difference between the two houses is that his house has a bathroom inside. The guide opened a small panel next to the door to show us the compartment where Aaron hid his pistol.

Aaron spoke, and read, fourteen languages, and had owned books in almost all—30,000 books in all. Although much of his library was been lost, 5,000 books remain. They stand in packed bookcases in every room.

The last room before the exit is the bathroom, the room where

Bathroom in Aaron's house, where Sarah shot herself. Photo: Renee Hirsch
Bathroom in Aaron’s house, where Sarah shot herself.
Photo: Renee Hirsch

Sarah shot herself. It is a large stark room, containing only the bathtub, sink, and toilet. But at the end of the 19th century, it had been a great luxury.

NILI disappeared with the deaths of its leaders. But its legacy lives on, because its work helped the British defeat the Ottoman Turks. The British paved roads, built sewage systems, and modernized Palestine. In thirty years of rule, the British accomplished more good than the Ottomans had in their 300 years.