Even in trying times, visitors to Israel can retrace history

JERUSALEM — While guiding a group of Americans through the City of David, the original "old city" below the gates of Jerusalem, Yehudit Tayar stops to take a call on her cell phone. It is from her 18-year-old son, in a combat unit in Gaza. He is fine, but she is anxious.

Yet she picks up where she left off, showing visitors the Gihon Spring, the source of water that enabled the biblical forebears to build the city of Jerusalem more than 3,000 years ago, and the compounds where 26 Jewish families are living today amid their Arab neighbors.

"Why are Jewish people here?" she asks. "To connect with our past and our heritage. Here it's not a matter of theory."

Israel may be a nation of worried Jewish mothers with sons stationed in Gaza and the West Bank. But it is also a nation of people like Tayar who are determined to preserve the past and keep the stories alive for the future — and tourism alive for the present. Here it's a matter of survival.

Despite "the situation" (what Israelis call the intifada), those who visit during these difficult times will find the journey a rewarding one. They may also rediscover the resilience of a people determined to keep their legacy alive.

What visitors can do is probe a little deeper, with knowledgeable guides who will gladly answer their questions about Israel's antiquities and its more recent history. In addition to pilgrimages to the Western Wall and the Old City, they can also revisit some of the spots they didn't have time to experience properly on a previous visit or on a tour bus.

Among them: the City of David and the nearby Jerusalem Archaeological Park; the Aaronsohn House in Zichron Ya'akov, the home of a family in the first Hebrew underground at the end of World War I; and the Ayalon Institute, the site of an underground munitions factory between 1945 and 1948.

At the City of David, Tayar looks out at Mount Moriah and the Mount of Olives in the distance, the Kidron Valley below and the old stones surrounding her. "Can you put a price tag on what we have here?" she asks.

In the last two years, archaeological excavations have revealed new information about the Gihon Spring and how water was supplied to the city of Jerusalem. Archeologists now believe it was probably transported by channels, refuting the belief of more than 140 years that it was carried up the hill in buckets.

During my visit last month, Eli Shukron, one of the archaeologists involved, was supervising the excavation. Others who venture to the City of David can view the work in progress.

One discovery Tayar points out among the digs is that idol worship did not end with Abraham or even Moses. In fact, the ancient Jews continued to retain their household gods.

The Davidson Center of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park is just up the hill from the City of David, by the Dung Gate to the Old City. With an interactive computer and a program created by a student at UCLA, a guide reconstructs the Old City at the time of the First Temple, showing the arcades where trade took place and the area where a warning sign forbade non-Jews from entering, upon penalty of death.

Those who don't have time to visit can experience the wonder of Jerusalem's past at www.archpark.org — a first-rate site if your software can access it.

Over a falafel lunch in the Old City, another guide points out that the area is becoming more accessible, thanks to the efforts of the Hymie Moross Community Center of the Jewish Quarter, which offers a "Wheelchair Friendly" tour and wheelchairs that can be borrowed. Audiotapes for the blind are also available. For information, call (972) (2) 628-3777 or (972) (2) 628-0024.

But those who want to explore the rural side of Israel, and learn about its history as well, will need a car or a guide. Heading north from Jerusalem, about 15 minutes from Caesarea, I spend a pleasant morning in the town of Zichron Ya'akov, a charming cobblestone village founded in 1882 by Baron Edmund de Rothschild. But Zichron Ya'akov is more than just quaint buildings.

The village is home to the Aaronsohn House, which was a center of operations for the Nili, an underground operation that spied on the Turks at the end of the World War I, providing the British with intelligence material. Visitors to the house can enjoy a film that reveals the heroism of these early settlers and then see the bathroom in which Sarah Aaronsohn took her life rather than face deportation and execution for spying.

For those who are interested in Israel's more recent past, here's an underground gem that few tourists have discovered: the Ayalon Institute in Rehovot, a short drive from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

In late 1945, a couple of dozen settlers — spurred by the Haganah, Israel's pre-state army — created a munitions factory to aid in the fight to establish a Jewish state. On Kibbutz Hill, not far from a British encampment, they built an underground factory in three weeks. They concealed the operation from the British, the public — and some of their own workers — with a ground-level laundry and bakery that hid the noise and operations.

Stories of such heroism — from the days of the ancient kings to the formation of the Jewish state — abound in Israel. And those who have already seen the treasures of Yad Vashem and the Israel Museum should venture a little farther afield on a return visit.

But is it safe? While I was there at the end of February, I found out about incidents from CNN and from the newspapers, or from talk in the hotel lobby.

Perhaps I was lucky; perhaps I was cautious. But I dined at restaurants and strolled through markets, enjoying myself.

One thing that is not normal is the dearth of tourists and the closed shops.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].