Branching out

From the Arava to Ein Zivan, shady picnic spots are a part of the country’s history.

Cyprus (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt.... Tell the whole community of Israel that on the 10th day of this month, each man is to take a lamb for his family... all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.... That same night they are to eat the meat....
Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire – with the head, legs and internal organs.” – Exodus 12:1-9 Whenever possible, Israelis pack up their portable grills and head for the great outdoors. Indeed, the mangal, or outdoor barbecue, is often called the Israeli national pastime. And it all dates back to the first Passover, when God commanded the Israelites to slaughter a lamb at midnight, and told them exactly how it should be cooked.
Personally I prefer a picnic lunch to a barbecue, but here in Israel, you can enjoy either one – under trees that not only offer shade, but either commemorate or have witnessed important events in the country’s colorful history (just be careful not to start a fire).
Four stone plaques, leaning against a wall of basalt rock, stand in a Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL-JNF) picnic and recreation area at the entrance to Kibbutz Ein Zivan. Inscribed on the plaques are the names of 35 fallen soldiers from the 134th squadron, which fought the Syrians and Iraqis in the first weeks of the Yom Kippur War.
Cedar trees, a symbol of courage, were planted here to express the continuity of life; a bench thoughtfully placed nearby offers the opportunity for quiet contemplation. Scattered among the basalt rocks are pieces of cannons, and turrets from tanks that took part in the battles.
Follow a path through a field to reach a tank pointed directly at Syria, and climb up the platform on which it stands, for a tremendous view of the region (ironically the platform once belonged to a Syrian army base). Then picnic beneath Cyprus oaks; they shed their leaves in winter, letting in the warming rays of the sun.
How to find it: Across from the entrance to Kibbutz Ein Zivan, Route 91
Until 1992, Poriya Spring was just another overgrown tangle of weeds with a clogged-up spring. That year, the KKL-JNF hired unemployed workers from Tiberias and nearby settlements to clear out the brush and clean up the spring. The result is a charming recreational site where slightly brackish water flows all year round.
Unless it rains this Passover, the weather should be perfect for a picnic among its enchanting footbridges, canals and attractive stone tables. You can delight in the sight of date trees and ornamental Canary palms brought from Ein Gedi; developers were careful not to obstruct the breathtaking view of Lake Kinneret, which these days is brimming with water.
How to find it: Follow Route 7677, off Route 768.
If you stop at the KKL-JNF’s Recreation Area in summer to picnic beneath its giant eucalyptus trees, all you see are a footbridge and benches surrounding an enormous shallow hole in the ground. But come on Passover, and you will find the site transformed.
Waterfowl flutter above a huge pond, which shelters all kinds of tiny amphibians. Best of all, dozens of tall, leafy trees and marshy foliage are stunningly reflected in the water. The woodsy ambience is amazing – and you may not want to leave. Called a “winter puddle,” the pond at Natur fills up every year, providing a habitat for salamanders, newts and other little creatures. One could say it’s a magic pool: Now you see it, now you don’t.
The site is wheelchair accessible, with a gravel path to the picnic tables.
How to find it: Off Route 808, near Kibbutz Natur
Muslim holy man Sheikh Ahmed was known for his mystical ability to help women with fertility problems.
After his death long ago, a small house of prayer was built in his honor. Today the site, located in the Aminadav Forest near Jerusalem, is known as Hirbet Sa’adim, perhaps because sa’ida means “happiness.”
Hirbet Sa’adim has been declared a nature reserve, since the area features oak trees hundreds of years old.
They were left untouched even by the Turks who ruled the country and required vast quantities of firewood.
This was probably because oak trees, often found next to the tombs of venerated Muslim sheikhs, were considered sacred.
Still standing as well inside the reserve are several of the structure’s walls and arches, and the remains of an oil press. Also at the site: lots of picnic tables.
A wheelchair-accessible circular path runs through the forest.
How to find it: The site is West of Moshav Aminadav, off Route 3877.
Called a katlav in Hebrew, the Eastern strawberry tree looks as if it has been doused with red paint, as its limbs are a warm reddish-brown.
Among the plethora of legends that have sprung up around the tree, my favorite is the tale of the dove and the katlav that fell in love. To prevent a marriage between the two, the dove’s parents commanded the tree, which grew in the valley, to climb the slopes and ask for their daughter’s hand. They gave it until noon. The tree did its best. But when the clock struck 12, it was only halfway up the mountainside. Red with exhaustion, the tree could walk no more. This explains both its unusual color and the fact that it is generally found on mountain slopes.
Dozens of katlav trees line a wheelchair-accessible nature trail inside the KKL-JNF’s American Independence Park. Benches are almost hidden under shady trees, and the wonderfully fragrant scent of sage fills the air. Below flows the Katlav River, while Mount Giora towers above the wadi. Finish up your walk with a Passover picnic at the adjacent recreational area.
How to find it: Route 3866, at the Ness Harim Junction
According to a Scandinavian legend, there were terebinth trees in the Garden of Eden. Here in the Land of Milk and Honey, they are also a common sight. Indeed, a few of the country’s terebinth trees are immense and, when untouched, can flourish for hundreds of years.
The Bible mentions terebinth a dozen times, always in connection with significant events.
Three species of terebinth (ela) grow in Israel: the bush-like mastic terebinth, the resin of which smells like gum and was used in the past as toothpaste; the thicktrunked Atlantic pistachio; and the Land of Israel terebinth, with banana-shaped gallnuts.
You can view all three in the KKL-JNF’s British Park, located between Beit Guvrin and Beit Shemesh. Begin and end the Terebinth Trail at the Terebinth Recreation Area (Henion Ha’elot) – the ideal picnic site on a spring day. Special tables allow wheelchair access.
How to find it: Take Highway 38, turn at Li’on/Srigim, pass the village, and follow signs to the scenic route.
Yehuda Kenan was a farmer at Alumim, a kibbutz founded in the Negev in 1966. One brisk October dawn in 1969, he and a friend headed for the kibbutz fields – just two kilometers from Gaza City. The 24- year-old Kenan drove a jeep, and his friend rode behind him in the tractor they would use for plowing.
The night before, two Arab terrorists had planted five mines on a curve in the dirt road leading to the fields. Kenan’s jeep struck one of the mines, leaving him fatally wounded. His mangled jeep remains rooted to the spot where the tragedy occurred, next to the KKL-JNF’s Be’eri Forest. A picnic table stands beneath a shady mesquite tree (Prosopis in Latin and prozofis in Hebrew), surrounded by a small eucalyptus grove.
Known as Givat Yehuda (Yehuda Hill), the memorial site offers an excellent view of Gaza City.
How to find it: One kilometer south of Kibbutz Alumim, on Route 232, turn right on a dirt road and follow it to the site.
Passover is a great time to look for flowers. But if you are searching for a picnic site, try the area south of Beersheba, where there are flourishing eucalyptus groves that the KKL-JNF prepared in structures known as limans. These small shady groves, which add color to the Negev landscape, serve as picnic sites for visitors and rest areas for soldiers and Beduin shepherds.
Limans are always positioned in low areas like small wadis and are irrigated only by the Negev’s scanty rainfall. A special technique entails encircling drainage basins with partial or total embankments.
Look for additional limans in the Negev sporting tamarisk, acacia, pistachio, carob and date palm trees. Local Beduin have also begun building limans for fruit trees like pomegranates, dates and almonds.
How to find them: Just south of Beersheba on Highway 40
Remember when your long drive to Eilat was broken only by a stop at the small Yotvata kiosk for ice cream? Kibbutz Yotvata, 52 km. north of Eilat, was established in 1957 as a Nahal outpost. It is the oldest kibbutz in the southern Arava. Even as a Nahal outpost, with everchanging soldier/farmers, it was the site of all kinds of agricultural experiments. Cowsheds were built in 1964, despite warnings that the Arava climate would make it impossible to run a dairy. The small kiosk grew into a large restaurant, and today Yotvata’s most important products come from cows.
A stunning picnic area behind the restaurant is studded with palms, striking trees that are perfectly suited to their desert environment. The Beduin saying that “its head is in the fire and its feet in the water” refers to the way these trees manage to withstand the sun’s glare, and the fact that their roots stand in deep, underground water. Since palms are often found next to a spring, their height makes it easy for a desert wanderer to find a source of water.
How to find it: Along Highway 90, about an hour north of Eilat.
St.-Sgt. Oren Lior loved folk songs, especially when they spoke about individual freedom, nature and simple lives. At home, he learned the value of working hard – and doing it well. He loved nature, animals and people.
His regular army service was spent in the Artillery Corps, where he excelled in all fields.
On March 17, 1989, Lior was killed in action while on reserve duty in the Arava. Arab terrorists lying in wait 2 km. south of the Hatzeva outpost ambushed him and the soldiers under his command as they patrolled the area. Lior, facing the terrorists head-on, saved the lives of his men.
A KKL-JNF rest area in the Arava is dedicated to his memory. Graced with a single cannon and sandy hills, it is notable for its startling quiet. A picnic table sits beneath tamarisks and a lone palm tree.
How to find it: Along the Arava Peace Route that runs between Moshav Idan and Moshav Ein Yahav.