anyone who has visited the holy land knows, Israel is a thoroughly modern country with decidedly unholy traffic snarls, ubiquitous cell phones and all manner of other urban ills.
For some pilgrims, Israel’s highly developed, Westernized culture is a disappointment, as it masks the sights and sounds of biblical times. Jerusalem, for example, may be the holiest city in the world, but it can be hard to envision Temple times with the roar of buses nearby and the smell of pizza in the air.
For those who want an interactive window into the life of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or into the lives of other ancient peoples who lived in the area, several sites in the Galilee and in the Negev offer holistic experiences including regional foods, camel rides, storytelling and pita baking. It is possible, if one knows where to look, to press olives and make one’s own cheese, to go on a donkey ride and then sleep in Bedouin tents, or to take a three-day camel caravan along the Silk Road.
The Jewish Week identified six of the “living” ancient sites that cater to English-speaking tourists. Although some focus on biblical or Mishnaic-era life, while others focus on Bedouin life, some highlights are common to all six: camel rides, kosher meals made of local foods and served on trays while guests sit on cushions; and the opportunity to eat or sleep in regional-style tents. Which site to choose depends on whether one is traveling to the north or south of Israel, and whether one seeks a specific experience such as a Bedouin coffee ceremony, or biblical costumes, or a full three days with one’s camel.
Genesis Land (www.genesisland.co.il) is located just a 15-minute drive outside Jerusalem, near Kfar Adumim, and boasts stunning views of the biblical hills of Moab, in Jordan. Visitors dress up in what the guide calls “the latest fashions of Ur and Haran” before being led by “Eliezer” — Abraham’s loyal servant — on a camel train to Abraham’s tent. There, the patriarch helps guests to wash their hands and feet, before providing a meal of lamb, beef, or chicken and dried fruits. Workshops are available in ancient Hebrew script, ceramics, and pita-baking, or join a camel caravan; one might witness the courtship of Rebecca and Isaac, or the plotting of tribes against their brother Joseph. Entrance fees vary according to the meals and activities; parties for up to 350 guests are also possible. English-language presentations should be arranged at least one week in advance.
Further north, in the central Galilee town of Hoshaya, is Kfar Kedem (www.kfar-kedem.co.il), which offers a full menu of Mishnaic-era activities, including donkey rides; sheep herding, shearing and milking; cheese-making, olive and wine pressing; and wheat plowing and grinding. Unlike the other sites, Kfar Kedem loans turbans and four-cornered garments to each visitor. Also unique is the opportunity to leave with a homing pigeon, attach a note to its leg, and release it from one’s hotel. When it reaches Kfar Kedem, the staff will e-mail back a copy of the note to prove that the bird got safely home. Director Menachem Goldberg recommends that for the busy summer season, families make reservations two months in advance to avoid conflicts with large touring groups.
Heading into the Negev, one can reach Sfinat Hamidbar (www.sfinat-hamidbar.com) just 20 minutes outside Beersheva. They offer kosher Bedouin meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a full highly ritualized Bedouin coffee ceremony with explanations, accommodations in Bedouin tents or in bungalows and camel rides lasting one hour.
To the west of Masada lies Kfar Hanokdim (www.kfarhanokdim.co.il), a “Bedouin-inspired site that is connected to the area without being too harsh for tourists,” explained co-owner Dani Roded. “We worked with Bedouins to create the fantasy.” The “fantasy” includes camel and donkey rides and Bedouin meals and coffee ceremonies. This manmade oasis offers overnight hospitality in a choice of Bedouin-style tents or air-conditioned cabins. It was designed as an event space, but can cater to families when their calendar allows. Kfar Hanokdim is a great place to stay the night before a hike up the Masada fortress.
A more authentic Bedouin experience is offered by Chan Hashayarot (www.shayarot.com), located a few miles south of David Ben-Gurion’s home of Sde Boker. There, while visitors eat their traditional Bedouin hafla (dinner), an actual Bedouin named Shiek Salem regales visitors with stories of desert life and Bedouin customs, and explains the Bedouin coffee and tea ceremony. Shiek Salem speaks both English and Hebrew. Camel rides of up to 90 minutes are also available, as are sleeping accommodations in the tents (there are modern showers nearby). Visitors must bring their own sleeping bags, towels, and toiletries.
Near the ancient Nabatean city of Nitzana, on the Egyptian border, is Chan Beerotayim (http://www.beerotayim.co.il/index2.html), which offers the most intensive, immersive experience of all: a three- to 10-day trek, on a camel caravan, on the same route which the Israelites are believed to have taken into the Holy Land on their way from Egypt. A spokesperson for Chan Beerotayim said that the trip is best suited for adults who “do not insist on showering every day,” and that families with children, or real city-slickers, stay at the Chan (Hebrew for inn) for up to two days. There, in the evenings, the organizers serve the same “desert” meal offered by other businesses, though they are careful to point out that “we are not trying to be Bedouins. We learned a lot from them but this is not about Bedouin culture, or about the Nabateans, it’s about all authentic desert life.” Chan Beerotayim also offers camel rides of varying lengths, starting with one hour, and sleeping accommodations on hammocks. Due to their isolation, Chan Beerotayim relies on cellular internet service which is unreliable, and suggested that potential visitors call them at 972-8-655-5788 to make sure contact is established