Off the beaten track: Yardenit walk

The Jordan river is famous for its powers of purification, but who knew that it offered such a great tour through Zionist history?

yardenit 224.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
yardenit 224.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
On the shores of a flowing stream just south of Lake Kinneret stands a large tombstone with a beautiful engraved picture. Also chiseled into the stone is the following touching inscription: "Here lies Booba, who faithfully plowed [the fields] . . . May she long be remembered in the history of [Kvutzat] Kinneret." Booba, in case you haven't guessed, was a horse! Visit Booba's grave on a fabulous walk along sparkling waters that begins at the Yardenit baptismal site on Highway 90 northwest of Tzemah Junction and ends at the Kinneret Cemetery above the lake. If you don't have two cars, walk back on the road about a kilometer back to Yardenit to pick up your vehicle. Over the centuries, the Jordan River came to symbolize ritual purity and holiness. This belief dates back to the works of John the Baptist, whose followers "went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River" (Matthew 3:5-6). John is also believed to have immersed his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, in the Jordan River - somewhere between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The traditional site of Jesus's baptism (Katzer el Yehud) is located near Jericho and the point where the Children of Israel crossed into the Promised Land. However, until recently, this area was out of bounds for security reasons. As a result, the Yardenit Baptismal Site near Kibbutz Kinneret became, and remains, a focal point for hundreds of thousands of modern pilgrims. Clad in flowing white robes, they completely submerge themselves in the water as their priest or minister offers up a prayer. While a relatively simple site until the year 2000, today Yardenit boasts a large, beautiful stone Visitors' Center with a souvenir shop, restaurant and several baptismal areas. Popular gift items include bottles of holy water: three for ten dollars! The area is beautifully landscaped, and there is wheelchair access into the water. Now for your walk. Cross the road across from the parking lot and head into a eucalyptus grove - one of the oldest in the country. Brought here from Australia long ago, the trees flower in winter, so you will have to return another time to find that the bloom is located within a bill-shaped pod whose top falls off to expose the light green blossom inside. Pick a leaf and roll it up to make a great duck call! A favorite story suggests how eucalyptus trees got their name. It seems that farmers in the Jordan River Valley built tin roofs on their shacks and at night, when the trees banged on the rooftops, the noise was so frightening that the women would cry "oy - that knocks" (oy, klipts in Yiddish). This eucalyptus grove is famous as the inspiration for the late Naomi Shemer's song of that name. Indeed, a large rock is engraved with words from Shemer's song - along with a second, written by the poetess Rahel. The building under the trees dates back almost a hundred years. Called Beit Hamotor (The Motor House) in Hebrew (!) this restored structure was constructed in 1910 and housed the first pumping station in modern Israel. Three pioneers from Kinneret Farm/Courtyard (a "school" for new immigrants who aspired to become farmers) resided within; using the water they pumped from the Jordan River they grew vegetables, cotton and wheat. Kinneret Farm not only prepared young immigrants from Eastern Europe for a life of physical labor, but also acted as a breeding ground for revolutionary concepts. Indeed, Kinneret Farm was a hotbed of socialism and Zionism, and its pioneers founded the first kvutza (small collective farm) Deganya, in 1911, and the first moshav, Nahalal. It was at Kinneret Farm that the Hagana was born, and out of Kinneret Farm came the Histadrut, consumer cooperatives and more. One of the most unusual innovations was the agricultural school for women, run by an early feminist. Women learned to raise chickens and run a cowshed, skills that took them out of the kitchen and into the fields with the men. Now for an absolutely enchanting nature walk, where birds abound and all kinds of trees and water foliage are reflected in gleaming waters. Water from the Jordan was once pumped into the pools you pass on this jaunt, and glossy rivulets and shimmering streams belong to the river as well. Enjoy the sight of spur-winged plovers, stunning birds that hang out between the pools and streams. Some people call them "diplomats" because they are coated in black, wear white "shirts" and sport black "top hats." When they stand, they even appear to bow! The spur-winged plover has a quill on each wing to fend off its enemies and enjoys an interesting lifestyle. Once a couple mates, the two birds stay together for as long as they live. When one dies, the other does not mate again. Should you hear it make an incredible amount of noise, you will know that another bird has invaded its territory. You will probably see little white egrets as well. Watch them in the water or flying above it, their long black legs ending in startling yellow feet. Little egrets are very sociable and hang out not only with their fellow egrets but with birds of another feather as well. They spend most of their time hunting for food in shallow water. Unlike other species of heron, which stand frozen until they locate their prey and then pounce, the little egret will locate a delicious mollusk, frog or teeny tiny fish and run after it. Look for the little arrow next to a rock pointing to kever booba (Booba's Grave) and walk to the site. Isn't the picture of horse and plow a delight? According to the inscription, Booba worked hard for decades tilling the soil. Your easy walk ends at Gan Rahel (Rahel's Garden), a beautiful date grove developed in 1933 as a memorial to the poet: she had died of tuberculosis two years earlier. The stunning date trees here were the first to be planted in modern Israel, and were the forerunners of this country's flourishing date industry. Carefully cross the highway to reach the Kinneret Cemetery, dating back to 1911 when one of the area pioneers died and there was nowhere to bury him! Members of Kinneret decided on this beautiful spot above the Sea of Galilee for their cemetery. From that time on, labor leaders and famous philosophers, socialists, communists and Zionists who were critical in molding the country's institutions were buried here, as well. You may recognize some of the names, like that of A.D. Gordon, whose actions and writings emphasized the need for physical labor to connect the Jews to the Land of Israel; Moshe Hess, socialist activist; Ber Borochov, an intellectual who believed that the Jews needed to establish a proletariat in their homeland in order to achieve true equality; Berl Katznelson, a leader of the workers' movement and founder of many Histadrut institutions - including Kupat Holim Clalit. Until a few years ago, people stopped at the Kinneret Cemetery to visit the grave of Rahel. The Russian-born poetess, who was only 41 when she died, studied agriculture at Kinneret. It was here that she met Zionist leader A.D. Gordon, to whom she dedicated her first Hebrew poem: "Halach Nefesh." These days, however, Rahel's grave tends to be ignored for a more recent one: that of the woman many Israelis consider to have been Israel's No. songwriter - Naomi Shemer. Born at Kibbutz Kinneret, Shemer died in 2004 of cancer at the age of 73. If you hear singing when you walk through the cemetery, head for her grave: On both of our last visits there, we found a guide reading Shemer's poems to small groups and then leading them in song. The most famous of Shemer's songs, of course, is "Jerusalem of Gold." It was written in 1967, a short time before the Six Day War reunited the Holy City. Immediately adjacent to the cemetery, this being Israel, you will find two typically Israeli sites. The first is a monument to Theodor Herzl; the second, ruins from the ancient city of Beit Yerah. In 1908, on the fourth anniversary of Herzl's untimely passing, pioneers from Galilee settlements gathered on a hill above the Kinneret for a memorial ceremony. Kinneret Courtyard was still in the planning, and, obviously, they had not yet prepared a cemetery. The hill was covered with stones and rocks, and at the end of the eulogies the pioneers placed stone upon stone to create a memorial pile. Every year, after each ceremony, the pile grows higher... Although it doesn't look like much now, Beit Yerah is a hugely important site that was first settled thousands of years ago. During the Early Bronze Age (3500-2300 BCE), when it was one of several dozen heavily fortified cities, it positively thrived. It owed its good fortune to its favorable location: Beit Yerah sat on a major crossroad that led north to Damascus and Mesopotamia and south to Megiddo, Jerusalem and Egypt. The road leading west went all the way to Acre; to the east it led to both today's Syria and Jordan. During the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods, Beit Yerah prospered as well. Archeologists found ruins of both a synagogue and church at the site. You may wonder about its name, which means "House of the Moon." Its Canaanite inhabitants, like those of the similarly named Jericho (Yeriho in Hebrew), probably worshiped the moon. The Bible relates to this practice in Deuteronomy (4:19) "... and lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, thou be drawn away and worship them, and serve them..." From here, you can walk back to your car or walk through Moshav Kinneret to view houses dating back almost a century. Kinneret Farm, recently restored, is located in the heart of the moshav.