Majestic fig trees bear their succulent fruit amid enormous leaves. Boughs of olives suggest the impending harvest as their color changes from green to black. Massive citrons emit their magnificent scent.
You've just entered Neot Kedumim, Israel's biblical landscape reserve. With relevant selections from the Bible and other ancient texts paired with each exhibit, this beautiful, tranquil place puts 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, used as an army training ground.
Thirty-five years ago, a visionary named Nogah Hareuveni, now 81, conceived of reclaiming the land to its lost glory. His simple but profound idea? Looking at "text in context," said 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.
As a result, Neot Kedumim's appeal is now widespread among visitors who love exploring the natural beauty of Eretz Yisrael as well as students of the Torah, Talmud and halachah, or Jewish law. So treasured is Neot Kedumim, that in 1994, it received the Israel Prize, the highest honor awarded by the State of Israel, for its special contribution to the society and the state.
Shortly before Sukkot, I had the pleasure of touring this inspiring landscape on a trip sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism and El Al. Neot Kedumim was already well on its way to welcoming guests with its annual holiday-themed exhibit. A two-story sukkah, a sukkah on the back of a camel and a sukkah on a boat are all recreated according to the text of the Mishna. Uval escorted a small group of us 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 Mishnah and many people who enjoy nature," Uval said. "That's one of our aims, to find common ground among all Jews. If we try to look for a broad common denominator, anyone living according to the same calendar experiences this as a very unifying force."
Near the pond hosting the floating sukkah, Uval pointed out a fascinating replica of ancient technology. A long wooden cylinder with iron supports was positioned between the pond and a small stone pool a few feet away. Between the pond and the pool, running beneath the upper most end of the cylinder, was a small stone channel. When we turned the crank at the top of the cylinder, we could clearly see a screw-like structure turning and we could hear the water moving inside. After a few minutes, a rush of water poured out of the cylinder, filling the channel and running directly into the stone pool, symbolic of a mikvah, or ritual bath. This "water screw" is discussed in Tosefta Mikvaot 4 and 5: "Archimedes screw does not invalidate the mikvah because the water is not disconnected from its source. The mikvah is kosher, the water comes in one continuous flow."
This is just one example of the many fascinating displays throughout the park.
During holidays such as Sukkot, Chanukah and Passover, children's activities dot the park's many trails. For Aliyat Haregel, the three pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot, Passover 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. They also participate in musical processionals to a threshing floor for a light snack.
Around Shavuot and Tu B'Av, visitors tour a "Song of Songs" path. The foliage and texts relate well to love and romance, themes replete in both holidays.
Further along in the park, at another interlocking landscape, is the "Seven Species" area. This section features an authentic olive crush and press. We each picked a green olive off a branch and gently squeezed a drop of oil out with our hands. The taste was extremely bitter but the oil was deliciously emollient on my hands.
Uval reached into her bag to reveal a replica of an ancient oil lamp of clay, a project kids enjoy creating during Chanukah visits. This region of Israel, the Modiin 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 Chanukah.
"When we say a great miracle happened here," Uval said, "it truly was here. That very much brings Chanukah alive."
During Chag Urim, the holiday of light, as Chanukah is also known, young visitors experiment with creating olive oil, which was used in the biblical Temple to light the menorah. Guests pick black olives and place them under a massive crushing stone powered by a live 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 Mishnah.
The last stop was the "wedding trail." It had been a very hot day, and as the sun set, the air felt particularly soft and fragrant. As a nearly 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.
Neot Kedumim is located off Route 443 near Modiin. It is wheelchair accessible. For more information, call 011-972-8-977-0770, visit www.neot-kedumim.org.il or write firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to cuts in recent government funding, Neot Kedumim is seeking support for its programming. Contact the American Friends of Neot Kedumim at (914) 254-5031 or e-mail email@example.com.
Lisa Alcalay Klug is a former staff writer for The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times.