Old World, new horizons

From fava beans to flea markets, a hands-on immersion in an ancient land brings history alive for young minds

Melanie, 10, guides sheep at Neot Kedumim nature reserve. Melanie, 10, guides sheep at Neot Kedumim nature reserve. (Lisa Levitt for The Boston Globe)
By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / May 10, 2009
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LOD, Israel -- One of the prerequisites to becoming a leader of the ancient Israelites was the ability to herd sheep. Abraham, Moses, and King David were all former shepherds, but these are the parts of the Bible we tend to skim over. That is until your family is trying to lead a flock on a hillside in the middle of Israel.

Standing in front, I tried to corral the animals to the lower slopes under a shaded fig tree. Thankfully, my son, Jake, 12, quickly proved his mettle by leading from the back. "This isn't so hard," he said with renewed confidence.

We were on the first day of a two-week trip around Israel with my extended family. Half our group was four children ages 10 to 13 who had never even set foot in Europe and thus had only grasped world history as it revolved around New England and its past dating to the Pilgrims. That pales in comparison to this cradle of mankind, a small parcel of land the size of New Jersey that seems to have been conquered by every imaginable culture and religion - Philistines, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, the British, and now the Jews again.

We wanted to touch on the history without overwhelming the kids with dry facts. Being Jewish, I also wanted them to be proud of the one nation where their religion is the majority without forsaking my love of multiculturalism and craving for Arabic foods, desserts, and souks.

We learned quickly that if you can keep the kids active, they will be much more receptive to the history. Neot Kedumim, a 625-acre "biblical" nature re serve nestled in the hills and valleys between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, was the perfect start. After trying our hand at shepherding, we walked to an ancient cistern. The kids took turns pulling up water and our guide, Michal Kaufman, had us touch the grooves formed by the constant movement of the pulleys bringing up the bucket.

"The wise Rabbi Akiva once touched these grooves and said if a stone can change, I can change and hopefully for the better," said Kaufman.

We also planted oak trees on a hill that overlooked the arid terrain and pounded the local spice, hyssop, with a pestle in a mortar bowl to make the popular delicacy, za'atar. Our version tasted like dust. My daughter, Melanie, 10, spit hers out, asking, "Is this lunch?" No, just a small teaser to the tasty Middle Eastern fare we would soon devour back in Tel Aviv.

If you want to taste the city's best hummus, that creamy concoction of mashed chick peas scooped out with warm pita, then follow the taxi drivers to Abu Hassan in the old section of Jaffa. Plop down on one of the plastic chairs and the dishes of hummus soon arrive, some topped with ful, a blend of fava beans. It was a late lunch and the kids downed the food quickly.

Tel Aviv celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, which seems absurd as you walk atop the neighboring cobblestones of the 2,500-year-old port city of Jaffa. We ambled through the bustling flea market, watching Orthodox Jews recite afternoon prayers and, shortly afterward, listened to the sounds of the muezzin chant from atop the 200-year-old Mahmudiya Mosque. This Mediterranean hub is a mix of Jew and Arab, old and new, especially when you leave the maze of Old Jaffa and walk the wide streets of modern Tel Aviv, admiring the Bauhaus-style apartments shaded by tall office buildings.

From Tel Aviv, we continued north along the Mediterranean, stopping to tour the amphitheater, hippodrome, and other Roman ruins of Caesarea. We took a quick peek at the terraced gardens of the Bahai Temple in Haifa, and spent the afternoon wandering through the streets of the picturesque fishing port of Akko. The kids looked bored strolling through tunnels created by the Crusaders, becoming far more animated as they practically ran through the marketplace, smelling the exotic spices, buying bags of pistachios, boxes of sticky desserts like kadifah and baklava, and taking photos.

The terrain became greener and ringed by taller peaks as we moved inland toward Hula Valley. Here, hundreds of cranes descend on the grasses in mid-winter, a highlight of the trip for both children and adults. We opted for a night in Safed, known as the birthplace of the mystical Kabbalah movement, and now a worthy stop to visit synagogues from the 16th century and to stroll on cobblestone streets to find paintings, photographs, and sculptures from artists living in the hilly region.

We would spend the next five days in Jerusalem. Saturday is Shabbat, the day of rest in this Jewish country, when most of the city shuts down, so we wanted to arrive here by Friday morning, a day of festivity as locals prepare for sundown. We dropped our bags at the hotel and walked inside Jaffa Gate, one of the entrances to the Old City. Immediately, the labyrinthine narrow stone walkways took us back in time. Merchants line the pedestrian-only streets selling everything from chess sets to shofars, the ram's horn used as an instrument to sound the arrival of the New Year.

Several quick turns and we followed the Franciscan monks in brown robes, Greek Orthodox priests, and tour group after tour group as they made their way inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered by pilgrims as the site where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.

We left the Christian Quarter and the bazaar behind on David Street and entered the Jewish quarter where streets are wider and feel more relaxed without the constant peddling of merchants. We were soon looking down at the Kotel or Western Wall, the most revered site in Judaism, and the golden dome that rises above the wall known as the Dome of the Rock. This is the heart of Temple Mount, where believers say Abraham almost performed a sacrifice of his son Isaac and Muhammad ascended to heaven. The kids grabbed their cameras to take photos, but we saved the large stone plaza in front of the wall for later in the day.

We were all getting hungry, so we hopped in a taxi over to Mehane Yehuda Market and dealt with wall-to-wall people purchasing groceries before Shabbat. Merchants shouted out their wares, selling freshly baked challah, chocolate rugelach, dates, figs, pomegranates, and spices. We grabbed a table at Ochlim B'Shuk, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant tucked away in the market, surrounded by pots full of tasty beef goulash, matzo ball soup, grilled fish, potato stew, lamb kibbeh, and, of course, hummus. Plate after plate arrived on the table as my nieces, Ami and Tali, 13 and 10, respectively, called out for more.

Then it was back to the wall by sunset. Crowds had already gathered to sing songs and say prayers for Friday night service. We split up by gender, covered our heads with yamulkes, and made our way down through the masses, illuminated by light. People of all faiths are encouraged to write prayers on scraps of paper and wedge them into the cracks, and Jake and I did just that before reuniting with the group and tracking down Jeff Seidel in the swarming mass of humanity.

Seidel, head of the Jewish Student Information Center, does a wonderful mitzvah (good deed) of providing out-of-towners, be they Jew or Gentile, singles, students, or families, with a home-cooked Shabbat dinner. A large group was gathered around Seidel, who was wearing his trademark saddle shoes, as he pointed to the various people: "You go with Bronfman, you go with Soronson. Jermanoks follow Hippie Joe." Off we went through the Old City to the apartment of a 21-year-old rabbinical student. When we arrived, tables were set for 25 people.

We said prayers over the candles, wine, and bread, washed our hands and dug into a feast of homemade bread, Israeli salads, chicken, and salmon. But the food was no match for the conversation, especially when the group talked about their diverse backgrounds. Ami talked about having her bat mitzvah a month prior and how special it was to be in Israel for the first time.

On our final day, we drove south of Jerusalem into the rolling hills of the Judean desert. Melanie counted all 865 steps as we climbed Masada, the last sanctuary for the Israelites who committed suicide rather than be massacred by the Romans in 73 AD. As a reward for the hike, we brought the kids for a swim in the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. We floated in the salty sea, staring at the mountainous ridges of Jordan on the opposite shore.

Then Tali got scraped by a rock and started crying as the salt started seeping into the wound. Decades from now, all those historic sites will blend together into one vague tapestry for Tali, but I doubt she'll forget that first swim in the Dead Sea.

Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels .com.

If You Go

What to do

Neot Kedumim

Route 443, Lod


This Biblical Landscape Reserve is not a theme park but a great model of restoration ecology, creating a park out of an eroded hillside. Admission starts at $6 per person, with guides and the opportunity to shepherd extra.

Where to stay

Dan Boutique Hotel Jerusalem

31 Hebron Road, Jerusalem


A 15- to 20-minute walk from the Old City and the more modern neighborhood of Emek Refaim, known for its restaurants and shops. Rates start at $302 a night for a family of four, including buffet breakfast.

Where to eat

Abu Hassan

1 Dolphin St., Jaffa


Dig in with gusto. Lunch is less than $10 per person.

O'chlim B'shuk

Mehane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem


Worth the wait. Simply point to the pot and they'll ladle out the goods. Lunch $10-$15.

To have dinner with a local family in Jerusalem, visit the website and fill out the Shabbat Hospitality form.