Biblical roots at Neot Kedumim

These 625 acres of majestic trees, grapevines, shrubs and flowers were once barren territory used as an army training ground.

neot kdumim 88 (photo credit: )
neot kdumim 88
(photo credit: )
In summer, fig trees bear their succulent fruit; in autumn, boughs of olives suggest the impending harvest; by winter, citrons hang heavy with scent. This is Neot Kedumim, Israel's biblical landscape reserve. Here, relevant biblical passages and other ancient texts are paired with each living exhibit to create 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 that was used as an army training ground. Thirty-five years ago, a visionary sabra Jerusalemite named Nogah Hareuveni, now in his 80s, conceived of reclaiming this land and returning it to its lost glory. His simple but profound idea? Looking at biblical and other ancient "text(s) in context," says Beth Uval, Neot Kedumim's native English-speaking guide and writer, a former American who moved to Israel in 1970. "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 said. 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. And corresponding texts quoting Jewish sources are posted throughout the park. For example, next to a massive trunk, a quote from Isaiah reads, "A staff shall grow out of the trunk of Jesse and an offshoot shall flourish from its roots." The land for this park was first acquired in 1965. At the time, the property lay barren and neglected. Development started in 1970s. But it took a long time to find water, and prepare the soil and landscaping, and Neot Kedumim didn't officially open until 1984. Workers trucked in thousands of tons of soil to spread on the eroded hillsides. They dug reservoirs to catch runoff rainwater and restored ancient terraces. They planted cedars evoking the snow-covered mountains of Lebanon and date palms from Sinai desert oases. The job wasn't complete until hundreds more biblical and talmudic plants were brought in, along with wild and domesticated animals, ancient and reconstructed olive and wine presses, threshing floors, cisterns and ritual baths, all designed bring to life the literal roots of the biblical tradition in the soil of the Land of Israel. As a result of Hareuveni's vision, Neot Kedumim's appeal is now widespread. So treasured, in fact, that in 1994, the founder and his staff received the Israel Prize, the highest honor awarded by the State of Israel, for their special contribution to Israeli society. During our last visit in autumn, we each picked a green olive off a branch and gently squeezed a drop of oil out with our hands. It tasted extremely bitter but the oil was deliciously emollient to the touch. Uval then reached into her bag to reveal a replica of an ancient oil lamp of clay, a project kids enjoy creating during Hanukka visits. This region of Israel, the Modi'in area between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is believed to be the ancient home of the Hasmoneans, the leaders of the rebellion against the Syrian Greeks that led to the miracle of Hanukka. "When we say a great miracle happened here," Uval said, "it truly was here. That very much brings Hanukka alive." During hag urim, the holiday of lights, as Hanukka is also known, young visitors experiment with creating olive oil, used in the biblical Temple to light the menora. Guests 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 Mishna. 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 a vat below. Other Jewish holidays are similarly hands on: shortly before Succot, the park welcomes guests with its annual holiday-themed exhibit. A two-story succa, a succa on the back of a camel and a succa on a boat are all recreated according to the text of the Mishna. Uval escorts a small group through the park's "Four Species" section, which relates to the four flora used in the holiday's commandment pertaining to lulav and etrog - binding branches of willow, myrtle and palm with citron fruit. "We get people here with an open Mishna and many people who enjoy nature," Uval said. "That's one of our aims, to find common ground among all Jews... Anyone living according to the same calendar experiences this as a very unifying force." Continuing our tour, Uval points out a fascinating replica of ancient technology that looks like a large screw. A long wooden cylinder with iron supports is positioned between the pond and a small stone pool a few feet away. Between them, running beneath the uppermost end of the cylinder, is a small stone channel. When we turned the crank at the top of the cylinder, we could clearly see the screw-like structure turning and hear the water moving inside. After a few minutes, a rush of water pours out of the cylinder, filling the channel and running directly into the stone pool, symbolic of a mikve, or ritual bath. 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." This is just one example of the numerous fascinating displays throughout the park. During all the festivals, children's activities dot the park's many trails. For the three pilgrimage holidays of Succot, Pessah 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. Around Pessah and Tu Be'av, visitors tour a "Song of Songs" path. The foliage and texts relate well to love and romance, themes of both holidays. Further along in the park, at another interlocking landscape, is the "Seven Species" area. The last stop for us was the "wedding trail." As an almost 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. n