Israel’s surprising history of high and low film


If someone asked you to name a popular shooting location for films, most of us would go with the easy answers. Downtown Toronto, Central Park New York, or maybe Venice Beach in Los Angeles. The movie buffs among us might show off by mentioning Vancouver for low-budget Canadian sci-fi, or Atlanta’s current popularity as an inexpensive alternative to those pricy big city productions. Few of us would think of Israel… and that would be a mistake.

Israel has a rich history as a premier film location for some of Hollywood’s best productions (as well as some of it’s schlockiest worst).

The Juggler


It’s impossible to talk about film in Israel without acknowledging The Juggler. Shot and released in 1953, The Juggler was the first Hollywood feature film shot in the relatively new state of Israel. Director Edward Dmytryk thought it was important to film the movie in Israel given the intense subject matter – a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust coming to grips with his psychological trauma and new life in Israel. Starring Kirk Douglas, the film portrays German Jew turned refugee Hans Müller’s difficulties dealing with the loss of his family, his misplaced sense of survivor’s guilt, and his attempts to re-integrate into society. It’s notable for its depiction of kibbutz life and the restorative communities that welcomed so many survivors after the war, a rare topic in 1950’s American film.

Shooting in the newly established state was not without its difficulties. For one thing, the pace and demands of a Hollywood production far exceeded what the Israeli crews were used to, so much so that it generated some complaints (which Dmytryk took as a compliment). There were also issues with the interior shots. The equipment and personnel just weren’t there to accomplish some of the more demanding shots, and many interior shots needed to be re-done in a Californian soundstage.

Despite these issues, The Juggler was a milestone in Israeli film production. It opened up the nation as a shooting location and set the stage for several movies to come.

The Age of Schlock 

The Juggler was a very serious movie, and you would be forgiven if you assumed other western productions in Israel followed a similar tone, but that wasn’t exactly the case. While many native Israeli filmmakers had lofty artistic aspirations at the time, western producers saw a different opportunity. During the 70’s, Israel was the place to go for schlock films.

Untested stars, bizarre passion projects, shoestring budgets – all classic hallmarks of a B-movie production, and Israel was the place to film them. The economic conditions of 1970’s Israel made it a cheap and inexpensive place to shoot, especially compared with major American cities. So, crafty producers and directors set their sights East. In fact, we can put a pair of faces to this phenomenon, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, known better as the minds behind legendary B-movie house Cannon Films.
 
In 1975, Golan and Globus (at this point operating under AmeriEuro Pictures) produced Diamonds, a heist film starring Richard Roundtree fresh out of his leading role on Shaft and looking for any film to help him make the jump from TV to the big screen. This was where they found the formula to their success. A recognizable but not A-list star with niche appeal, a pulpy aesthetic that focused on genre movies (heists, action spectacles, sci-fi oddities), and budget shooting conditions in Israel. From that point forward, it was off to the races for Golan, Globus, and the newly christened Canon Films. They spent the 70’s and 80’s pumping out a series of B-Grade classics in the country, going so far as to create their own Golan & Globus film studio in Neve Ilan. 

Success always brings imitators, and it wasn’t long before other low-budget productions caught on to what Cannon Films was doing and brought their own productions to Israel. This is why truly wretched bombs like American 3000 (a look at post-apocalyptic America shot in the Negev desert), franchise flops like Rambo III, and bizarre oddities like Jean-Claude van Damme’s The Order, all came to be filmed in Israel. 

It’s a strange legacy for sure, but an important one for film. While it’s hard to say with a straight face than many of these movies were good, they all possess a kind of unique energy. A strange mix of ambition and creative vision that exceeded the talent and budget they had to work with. An off-beat enthusiasm that can be a joy to watch (so long as you don’t try and take any of it seriously). Many of these strange gems wouldn’t have been possible with Israel as a welcoming home for oddball productions.

A Proud Tradition of Film

 

Of course, today Israel has its own thriving film culture depicting uniquely Israeli stories from their own perspective, as well as a proud tradition of American film productions shooting in the country. 
Sometimes, Israel is used as a backdrop for the world’s most pressing conflicts. Rambo III used locations all across Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Eilat to stand in for the war-torn fields of Afghanistan. The much more high-brow 1999 drama The Insider (nominated for seven Academy Awards to Rambo III’s zero) would pull the same trick, simulating the dangerous streets of Lebanon by shooting in an Arab town near Haifa. 

Israel doesn’t always play stand-in for a nearby and more dangerous state however, it often is used to portray the unique nation itself. This was the case for the 1960 Paul Newman film Exodus based on a novel by Leon Uris. The film is expressly about the formation of the Israeli state and is said to be responsible for a rise in popularity for the US Zionist movement at the time of its release. During production, the filmmakers realized they would need at least 20 thousand people extras for a pivotal scene where the partition of Palestine is announced. To fill this monumental need, the filmmakers held a lottery promising twenty thousand Israeli pounds and six free trips to the New York City premiere, hoping it would at least rope in a few thousand people. Instead, 40,000 people showed up, almost a quarter of Jerusalem’s population!

Today, Israel has a booming film scene that produces top tier artistic and commercial successes. Films such as Waltz with Bashir (2018), an animated documentary of director Ari Folman’s experiences in Lebanon War, Broken Wings (2002), a look at a family struggling after the loss of their father, and the satirical comedy Zero Motivation (2014) have propelled Israeli film to the world stage. From B-movie haven to award winning films in less than 50 years, Israel is quite the study for any fan of the silver screen.  

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The mysteries of Tel Hazor

 
Viewing it now, you might not believe that Tel Hazor was once known as "the head of all those kingdoms.” Measuring about 200 square acres, the Tel is all that remains of the once bustling city described in the Book of Joshua.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005 along with Tel Megiddo and Tel Beersheba, Tel Hazor is the largest of the three. If you’re not familiar with the term, a Tel is a specific kind of archeological site. Distinct from ruins, Tels are small hills or mounds created over 100s of years of civilization. As mudbricks from buildings built, razed, and rebuilt accumulate along with the refuse, items, and sundries of generations and generations of human lives, the land literally swells with them. It’s an astounding phenomenon. Even thousands of years later when most surface level artifacts have been destroyed, archeologists with a keen eye can still identify the probable presence of a historic site thanks to these swells!

A truly ancient site, the oldest parts of Tel Hazor date back to the early bronze ages, around the 28th and 24th centuries. Back then it was (based on the evidence we have today) a relatively small community. While pottery shards and even an early brass monument from the period have been found, it is suspected that this early settlement was smaller in scope, consisting of only a few hundred people in a dense area. 

It isn’t until the era of the New Kingdoms that Hazor would rise to prominence. It is during this period that Hazor would become a major and important hub of trade and where most of the Tel’s most unique and impressive artifacts are sourced. 
These artifacts include the Solomonic Gate, a large six-chambered gate which implies a complicated and busy flow of traffic that needed to be carefully managed. What is interesting about these gates is that they are designed and constructed nearly identically as the gates found at both Megiddo and Gezer. This implies a sophisticated level of standardization of construction and trade policies between the sites. An ancient building code designed to make the experience of traveling from one city to another familiar and routine by following similar conventions and queues, not unlike traveling to different airports today.

Then there is the ancient water system we can still observe today. One hundred and thirty feet deep, a massive shaft reaches into the water table below the Tel. An incredible feat given the technology of the time! Imagine trying to dig 130 feet deep with bronze tools and simple pullies. It also shows that this wasn’t just some fly by night city, one of the thousands of nameless sites across the world that once held people and then held none. This was a sophisticated city with infrastructure and civic planning. 

This is the Canaanite strong hold we read about in Joshua, the seat of Jabin and the power behind his confederation against Joshua, a bustling and massive city that commanded trade that was home to thousands. This is the Hazor that we can read about in Joshua that was attacked and razed to the ground by the Israelites - an incredible connection to biblical history!

Discovered in 1926 and first excavated in 1955, the mysteries of Tel Hazor are still being explored today. Ongoing excavations are held annually, plumbing the depths of this ancient land and discovering what else it can teach us about Israeli, and biblical, history!

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Step into history at the Tower of David!

 
Jerusalem is an incredible city with a powerful history. We are blessed that so many of its streets, buildings, and sites have survived into the 21st century so we can explore and experience them today. Even so, a lot has changed in the old city since the time Jesus walked its streets, wouldn’t it be amazing to actually see what the city was like back then?

Unbelievably, thanks to cutting-edge VR technology, we can!

The "Step into History” tour at the Tower of David Museum is designed to accomplish this lofty goal. The museum in partnership with the ToD Innovation Lab and Lithodomos VR have produced Israel’s first virtual reality tour. With the aid of portable 3D goggles, visitors will be able to see the walls, streets, and buildings of the city exactly as they would have appeared 2000 years ago. 

The tour, available in both English and Hebrew, takes visitors on a 3-hour journey across different neighbourhoods and points of interest in the city. Starting in the Tower of David Museum and snaking down into the narrow streets and rich history of the Old City, VR reconstructions of the Western Wall, Robinson’s Arch, and the Jewish Quarter can be seen and explored. These three-dimensional displays can be viewed from any angle and convincingly "place” a person wearing them in that space and time. 
The idea is to "draw the city” out from the walls and pieces that remain of its legacy. To take what is there and make it omnipresent, giving visitors a deeper understanding and appreciation of what it would have been like to see the city during Jesus’ time when it was undergoing one of its most important and historical building periods. 

The tour takes visitors back 2000 years ago to the time of King Herod. Herod oversaw one of the most radical redesigns and expansions of Jerusalem in its history including the rebuilding of the second Temple and Herod’s palace itself. The tour places you in a time while those buildings were new and allows you to see the city with all the awe and wonder as a pilgrim from those times would. 

This is accomplished with a Samsung Gear VR headset and accompanying Samsung Galaxy 7 phone and personal earphones. The technology is cutting edge, designed to not just present a 3D image that can be viewed by any angle, but to present the image with such authenticity that it creates a sense of what VR developers call "presence.” This is what they call the feeling when someone feels like they are actually in the virtual world. It’s a sensation that goes beyond simply viewing the images as presented but tricking the brain into buying into the world and suspending your sense of disbelief to fully absorb what is around you.

As impressive as this is, the Step Into History tour is only the first of many projects the Innovation Lab is working on. This Christmas season will also see the soft launch of the Holy City project which will be comprised of VR representations of other major sites in Jerusalem, like Rachel’s Tomb, the streets of the Old City, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to further expand the experience. 

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The Best Souvenirs from Israel

Israel souvenirs are cherished around the world and make great gifts for friends and family. Most people who travel to Israel want to remember their visit for years to come, so they look for gifts that reflect its unique cultural and religious identity. Whether you're looking for gifts in Jerusalem, from particular significant sites, or are searching for something on your friend's gift registry, you're sure to find plenty of stunning souvenirs.

Israeli souvenirs are no longer limited to products from the Dead Sea and other recognizable landmarks and sites. You can still get those of course, but today souvenirs from Israel range from tasty treats, olive oil, and handmade crafts, to wood decorations, toys, and jewelry from all areas of the country.

In this list, you'll find both traditional and unique souvenirs from Israel for your shopping cart. Knowing what to buy in Israel will save time and money and let you explore your options before your trip. With so many authentic souvenirs to choose from, deciding what to buy from Israel is easier when you know what to look for. 

What Can We Buy in Israel?

Israeli merchants sell a wide variety of high-quality gifts and souvenirs that tourists can purchase, including gifts from Jerusalem. Since Israel is home to many different religions, cultures, and people, tourists often stumble upon products they can't find anywhere else.

These souvenirs combine tradition, skill, and modernity that you can display, that have a practical use, or that you can eat. Some products famous in Israel include olive oil, olive wood carvings, jewelry, and cosmetics made from Dead Sea products.

Ben Yehuda Street is a popular tourist area located in downtown Jerusalem. It's usually packed with visitors in its cafes, and you'll find no shortage of souvenirs there. Some items found on Ben Yehuda Street include goblet drums, intricately carved chessboards inlaid with pearl, copper lanterns hanging among miniature Israeli flags, and plush toy camels (great for the kids).

Visitors can also buy spices like zaatar and sumac, fragrant frankincense and myrrh, and sweet treats like halva and bisli. Souvenir shops in Tel Aviv cater to all types of customers, especially since they host up to 3.5 million tourists every year.

A vibrant metropolitan city, visitors can expect to find an extensive selection of jewelry, and other trinkets. Medjool dates, sesame seeds, clothes, wares, and oils also make fantastic edible and wearable Israel souvenirs. The variety and bustling activity set Tel Aviv apart from other cities, and the many gift options available make buying a souvenir in Israel a unique and enjoyable experience.

The jewelry and diamond industry in Israel is booming, and visitors have several options ranging from inexpensive keepsakes to valuable and rare gems. You can find elaborate, original pieces crafted by master jewelers so unique you won't see them on any gift registry.

Options include rings, necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and precious stones with modern and traditional designs to suit anyone's taste. Popular materials include gold, diamond, and silver, and you have customized options such as inscribing names in Hebrew or English on necklaces. If you're looking for a special kind of souvenir, you'll find it here.

What Souvenirs Can You Buy in the Holy Land?

The Holy Land is the area situated between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea. It has a complex and rich history that holds deep meaning to millions of people around the world. Several religious souvenirs tie into Israel's unique society and culture.

Souvenirs from Israel differ based on the region and, in some cases, from one street to the next. For example, the Old City in Jerusalem is best-known for selling religious memorabilia. There, tourists can find ornate candelabras, detailed miniature sea scroll replicas, wooden or bronze crosses, rosaries, and other religious figurines.

Some products sold in shops come from sacred areas in Israel, and they make thoughtful, symbolic presents. For example, religious pilgrims can buy Jordan River water souvenirs, anointment oil, menorahs, prayer rugs, crosses, theological books, and other religious items from the Holy Land.

Jerusalem souvenirs are usually well-received and have a spiritual element attached to them. Furthermore, presents from Jerusalem are especially cherished due to their social and religious significance.

Many places have now recognized the international demand for their wares. Through the internet, they can now sell to international clients by having gift registry options you can ship throughout the world.

Are Things Cheaper in Israel?

Souvenirs from Israel are made to last. Israel souvenirs are not necessarily cheaper than they would be elsewhere, but they are often of the best quality and made with skill.

Food items can be inexpensive but vary even if they look the same. Spices, for example, can be cheap or costly, depending on their quality. Woodwork is priced based on size and type. The cost of a large wood carving will differ from one the size of your hand.

With plentiful ceramics, you'll have no trouble distinguishing exceptional quality (like Armenian ceramics) from those of lower craftsmanship. However, jewelry and other precious metals are not cheap. 

Due to the variety of choices, Israeli markets have wares suitable for all budgets. There are cost-effective souvenirs from Israel that come in the form of gift packs or limited quantities of popular items. Other souvenirs are more intricate and can be more costly due to the detail, skill, and materials needed to make them. Buying a well-crafted Israeli souvenir means having a lifetime keepsake that stands the test of time. 

What is Israel Known For?

Israel is known for its historical religious significance, diverse cuisine, and its wealth of attractions. Its food has become popular across the world due to the varied cultural influences that have influenced and shaped its truly unique flavor and charm.

Israel also has a vibrant nightlife and a wealth of cafes, restaurants, and shops that stay open well past midnight. Individual and packaged chocolate souvenirs from Israel are sold in every shop and city.

Enjoy any perishable Israeli food in the city, so you don't miss out on the fresh flavors and delicious seasonings. You can find fresh produce in stalls and markets, and popular dishes such as Baba Ghanouj, hummus, Bamba, and shawarma to satisfy you on your travels.

Healing and beauty products from the Dead Sea are highly sought-after by visitors and residents alike. Famous for their rich mineral content and healing properties, they are sold in different forms like creams and scrubs. You can find them in gift packs conveniently bundled for travel.

Dead Sea salt and mud are popular Israel souvenirs both for Israelis and international tourists. Food items are popular as well, both perishable and otherwise. While you can't purchase hummus as a souvenir because it spoils quickly, other items like honey, oils, spices, and dates are long-lasting.

You can find religious items in places pilgrims frequent. Since these items are tied to the Holy Land, they become valuable possessions and heirlooms that you can pass down through generations. Souvenirs and memorabilia from each one of Jerusalem's ancient quarters act as an homage to this diverse land.

Since they combine authenticity, heritage, and culture, souvenirs from Israel are sure to be crowd-pleasers and make valuable gifts for others. Whether you're searching for items from a gift registry or for your own home, you'll find plenty of souvenirs from Israel to bring back home for everyone in your life—including you.
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The Shrine of the Book

 

In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem there is a special wing. An entirely separate building that is part of the museum but exists on its own for a very special purpose. A single white dome contrasted by a black, basalt wall behind it, the building looks like something out of a dream. This is the Shrine of the Book, and it is a library that contains some of the most important religious texts in the world – including the Dead Sea Scrolls.

While the exterior of the Shrine may seem odd, there is a deeper meaning behind it. The domed design, marked with striations is reminiscent of the clay jars the scrolls were found in. The pure white of the dome starkly framed by the pitch-black wall behind it was specifically done to evoke a passage from a specific scroll that references the "Sons of Light” and "Sons of Darkness,” represented by the contrast. Inside, the Shrine is much larger than you may expect, descending into the earth and revealing a wealth of treasures collected inside.

Racks of glass displays house several priceless texts. In its displays you can see a collection of historical Bibles in different translations and from different corners of the world, as well as the Aleppo Codex — the oldest, most complete, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible, but it is the Dead Sea Scrolls that steal the show. Displayed in glass on a central column designed to resemble the handle of a scroll, various fragments (including the famous Isaiah Scroll, the most complete and undamaged of the scrolls) can be viewed. Due to the incredible fragility and importance of these texts, the scroll fragments are carefully cycled in and out of display on three to six-month rotation periods.
 
 

Hidden for almost 2000 years before being discovered by a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib in a cave, the scrolls are the oldest surviving copy of writings from the Bible. They are perhaps the greatest historical discovery of the modern age. Not only are they an incredible piece of history on their own, as any document that has survived for almost two millennia would be, they are also of unfathomable cultural and spiritual worth. The texts directly link to the days of the first Church and provided accurate and historically verifiable tradition of Biblical texts. Before the Dead Sea discovery, a Masorectic text written in Hebrew from the 10th century was the oldest Biblical text thought to exist. The Dead Sea Scrolls predate that text by a millennium, providing a much stronger tie to the foundations of the church and verifying that the text and spirit of the books we can compare to the Dead Sea Scrolls have remained consistent through the years and various translations.

While obviously the books of the Bible found in the scrolls are the most important texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls also contain several non-religious texts. These sectarian documents cover a wide range of topics, from what can be considered judicial documents to songs and practical manuals. These texts offer incredible insight into the culture and lives of the ancient Jewish people. It is a historical resource that scholars still depend on today to contextualize and understand this history of one of the most important nations on Earth.

While on display, physical access to the documents is strictly controlled. It is a miracle the Dead Sea Scrolls still exist today and the stress of time weighs heavily on the documents, so all steps must be taken to preserve them. Only four specially selected experts are allowed to handle the extremely delicate parchment and do so only under the most scrutinous safety precautions. For anyone else, even touching the glass case housing the various samples of the Scrolls is forbidden. 

The Shrine itself is specially temperature controlled with humidity levels carefully monitored. Even the lighting of the Shrine is designed to place as little wear and tear on the documents as possible. It should go without saying, but if you ever visit the Shrine, remember that flash photography is expressly forbidden.

Even with all these precautions, the Scrolls are still incredibly vulnerable, which is why they have also been painstakingly preserved digitally. The Israel Antiquities Authority along with the Leon Levy Foundation, the Arcadia Fund, and Google poured hundreds of hours into developing new scanning and digitization technology to ensure that the Scrolls could be accurately, and safely, scanned and displayed virtually. The results of the project speak for themselves, with an expansive digital library of the Scrolls available online for all to browse.

Still, there is no substitute for the real thing. If you find yourself in Jerusalem, you owe it to yourself to visit the Shrine of the Book and view these magnificent, ancient connections to the past and the Christian faith, up close and personally.  
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Living a full (spiritual) life

Modern life can be harrowing. As millennials age into an uncertain economy, a "gig” based job market that promises no stability or long-term prospects, and are met with grim news every evening, many are feeling the strain. In a world that feels like it’s falling apart a little more every day, what can we hold on to?

The answer has to be God.

There are no easy solutions for the problems facing us today, but we can always depend on God as a guidepost. By focusing on Him and listening close for His plan for us, we can still find peace and fulfillment in a world where those qualities are increasingly scarce. Keep the following tips in mind for living your best life, one that is both directly and spiritually fulfilling. 

Listen for your calling

What should your priorities be? As Christians, we know that our first and primary responsibility is to God, after that our families, but what about after that? What should you be doing with your life? This is where it is important to be receptive to what your heart is telling you and allow God to guide you towards your calling.

All of us will feel a different call. Some may be called to ministry. Others may feel as though they should be doing more in their community. There are many of us who feel like we should be doing something else with our lives, that our jobs are not creating anything of spiritual worth (or in some cases might be contributing to harm in our community and society). And still, there are those who may honestly feel like they are already doing exactly what God wants for them, that’s perfectly valid as well. But if the reality of who you are isn’t matching up with the image of who you should be, it’s time for a change. We are only given one life to lead in service to our Lord, make sure you are spending it wisely. 

When you do hear your calling, be ready to pursue it passionately. Life is hard, we all have bills to pay and mouths to feed, and it can be incredibly difficult to make changes or pursue a new path when you come home exhausted and beat. But if you really feel God calling you to make a change in your life, you can’t ignore it, it’s something that must be done. Remember that has hard as this feels now, you will feel so much happier and more fulfilled when you are doing what God has called on you to do.

Cut out the distractions

Sometimes when people feel they have no direction in life, it has more to do with being pulled in several different directions at once. One of the dangers of modern living is that there is just so much to see and do and take part in. Too much for anyone really. Technology like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix mean we’re connected every single second to ongoing conversations with our friends, the never-ending onslaught of news and opinion, and more content than you could hope to watch in several lifetimes. We spend so much time treading water just keeping up with these (and other) distractions that it shouldn’t be a surprise we don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere spiritually or emotionally.

Cutting down on the noise in your life will help you hear what you’re supposed to do more clearly. This doesn’t mean you need to go cold turkey on technology and live like a monk, but it does mean you might need to set limits in your life. Simple rules like "No Facebook/Twitter after 6:00pm” can do wonders - so can making peace with not seeing every major series or movie that drops in a season. Getting over your fear of missing out or not being able to contribute to water cooler chat will free you up to pursue more meaningful things in your life.

Find the people who will support you

One of the best things you can do for your life in general and your spiritual life in particular is to surround yourself with people who understand and support you. Cut out the distractions and bring in the people who truly matter. Take the time to focus on your family, grow and strengthen those bonds. Connect with your friends who want the best for you and take genuine interest in what you care about.  Find fellow travelers who also love the Lord and share your values in the field or area you want to be in. Make friends with people who are smarter than you, more experienced than you, who have been through more. Learn from them and be challenged by them, grow with them.

If your life is feeling empty or if you feel you’re not on the path God wants for you, don’t ignore it. The most tragic thing you could do would be to continue down a road that leaves you numb and disconnected from God’s plan for you. Live up to your priorities, listen for God’s calling, and when you hear it, pour your faith and energy into it.  When you feel like you’re doing what is right, both your worldly and spiritual life will bloom.
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The beauty and wonder of The Mount of Olives

 

One of the most glorious places on Earth, the Mount of Olives is a special site in a land known for landmarks and history. It is a direct connection to the life of Jesus and his ascension into Heaven. As a Christian, it is one of the most impactful and spirituality engrossing locations on the planet.

Also known as Mount Olivet, the Mount of Olives does not refer to one specific location, but a larger mountain range with three separate peaks. The ridge runs approximately 3.5 kilometers across, which makes sense for the number of times it is referenced in the bible as a key route from Jerusalem to Bethany. According to the Bible, Jesus wept for Jerusalem from one of these peaks and indeed even today the mountain offers a suburb view over the ancient city. The mount runs down into the Kidron Valley where the Dome of the Rock is located, overlooking a massive area of land.

Dotted across the ridge are a variety of incredible holy sites and places of worship. Over half a dozen churches, many of which celebrate specific periods of Jesus’ life, can be found spread across the Mount, but that is only a start. 

The Mount of Olives is also home to the Garden of Gethsemane, a site Jesus and his disciples visited many times and where Jesus was betrayed by Judas. This is where Jesus prayed to his Father in distress before being taken away for crucifixion. It cannot be overstated how important this site is to the Christian faith and how remarkable it is that we can still stand here millennia later and feel a connection to Christ on Earth. 

While there, you can also see The Church of All Nations. This Catholic church enshrines a section of bedrock where Jesus is said to have prayed before his arrest and contains olive trees that date back to the time of Jesus. It’s an incredible piece of history still with us today. 
Also along the foothills of the Mount is the Tomb of Zechariah. This austere tomb is carved out of solid rock. This monument (there is no actual burial chamber to speak of) commemorates the priest Zechariah referenced in Chronicles in the Old Testament – 
And the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, which stood above the people, and said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the Lord, that ye cannot prosper? because ye have forsaken the Lord, he hath also forsaken you. And they conspired against him, and stoned him with stones at the commandment of the king in the court of the house of the Lord – Chronicles 24:20-21

And of course, there is the Church of Mary Magdalene, a Russian orthodox church of astounding beauty. The majesty of its golden domes is a sight to behold. It is also an active church, with more than 30 nuns living and practicing in it today.
 
 

This is all without even mentioning the Mount’s importance as a sacred burial place. The Mount has functioned as a Jewish cemetery for more than 3000 years. Thousands of graves dot different areas of the Mount, including many historical Jewish kings, priests, and prophets. While modern conflicts have disturbed the graves before, there are still new burials on the Mount today. To avoid the mistakes and losses of the past, Israel has embarked in a process of digital preservation, documenting and recording the graves spread throughout the mountain so that every name and site will be remembered. 

This incredible area of history is open and free to all. There are no passes needed, no fees to pay, though a guided tour may be a good idea if you’re looking to get the most out of your time on the Mountain. If you’re already in Jerusalem it is so close you would be doing yourself a disservice not to go and see and experience this special place yourself!
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Children in Jerusalem learn to confront the strange with the Mifletzet

It’s a hunched beast the size of a small home. With a spotted hide like a melting cow, it menacingly leans over its territory, fixing its eyes on all who pass. Those eyes, one bulbous and all black, the other concave and bloodshot, the kind of gaze you instinctively don’t want to match, the kind you can’t hold for very long. And it’s mouth, it’s terrible, massive mouth. Three long slovenly tongues loll out of that mouth, bright red and hungry, razzing the entire world. 

What is this beast? Some ancient creature of antiquity? Some monster dreamt up in a special effect lab? No, it’s only the Milfetzet, a beloved piece of children’s park equipment!

The Rabinovich Park in Kiryat HaYovel Jerusalem is where the Milfetzet calls home. How it came to be is an interesting story with a distinctly Israeli twist. The idea for the Milfetzet was famed sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle’s. Saint Phalle’s work is characterized by bright colours, abstract shapes, and sometimes confronting images. It is no surprise then that when she initially approached the Jerusalem Parks Commission, it did not go over well. Originally conceptualized as a Golem from Jewish folklore, the idea was to install a piece of art into a park that could also be used as a play apparatus by children. Rather than the typical swings and slides featured in any park, the idea was to integrate art, play, and history into one large piece of equipment in a bold and unique way. While the commission could not be swayed, Saint Phalle found a surprising ally to assist her.

Mayor Teddy Kollek went to bat for the piece. Teddy, a former special intelligence agent who coordinated with MI6 during World War 2 to support Jewish partisans and Israel’s nascent military was an immensely popular mayor, elected five times over the course of his political career. He was a community builder with an eye for tradition and Israeli culture saying of Jerusalem "I think Jerusalem is the one essential element in Jewish history. A body can live without an arm or a leg, not without the heart. This is the heart and soul of it.” But he also had a soft spot for the odd, the interesting, and the strange. He was a man who saw value in both tradition and experimentation at once, doing much over his tenure to help build the Jerusalem we all know and recognize while also quietly taking other odd projects such as Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo (once ran out of a private home, now a national place of pride) under his wing.

Teddy backed up Saint Phalle’s justification for the Mifletzet, that it was important for children to be able to confront and adapt to the strange and grotesque in a safe way. By adding such a bizarre and even frightening piece to an ordinary park, it would allow children to process and deal with the imagery at their own pace. The idea was that children would slowly learn to understand the equipment and it would turn from an unsettling sight into a welcoming one. With Teddy’s backing, the Commission re-evaluated the piece and eventually approved it in 1971.

It turned out that Saint Phalle and Teddy’s predictions about how the piece would be received were more on the nose than they even thought. The "monster” instantly became a beloved element of the neighbourhood. Fondly enjoyed by children and treated as a whimsical and unique landmark by adults, Kiryat HaYovel embraced the strange creature as a kind of unofficial mascot of the neighbourhood. When a light rail expansion threatened the Mifletzet, a wave of successful petitions were circulated to save it, and a nearby co-op pub and community center has adopted its name and likeness. Truly, the monster is part of the town. 

The Milfetzet has enjoyed decades of local celebrity and multiple generations have grown up sliding down its many tongues and climbing its sloped back. And Teddy Kollek? He retired to Kiryat HaYovel living within a stone’s throw of the monster he championed so long ago until his death in 2007.
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Explore the Biblical Museum of Beit Shemesh!

Located in the industrial city of Beit Shemesh, you might be forgiven for not noticing the Biblical Museum of Natural History. After all, it doesn’t look much like a museum from the outside. In fact, it looks more like a warehouse than anything. But there is a reason for that - the museum needs warehouse sized space for all the wonders stored inside!

The Biblical Museum of Natural history is exactly what it sounds like, a one of a kind mix of Biblical study and zoology. Like a museum, it has static exhibits that aim to educate and inform, including artifacts, pieces of art, and taxidermied animals. But it is also a living zoo! Live animals great and small have a home in the museum and children and adults alike are encouraged to come, see them, and learn about both their place in the environment and in biblical history. 

The museum is the brainchild of Rabbi Natan Slifkin. Slifkin’s theory is that today’s world frequently places barriers between people and the natural world. Our lives are increasingly mediated through technology and abstraction while nature recedes into the background. Conversely, in biblical times nature was a direct and constant part of everyday life! 

When we read the Biblical passages that refer to encounters with animals and elements of the natural world, it’s hard for us to truly understand what those encounters were really like. The object of the Museum is to provide context for those passages. To create a better platform to understand the Bible and a greater appreciation for the world God has made for us.

Many of the exhibits and animals featured might surprise you. Sure, you might be expecting to see some camels and maybe some sheep in an Israeli zoo. Afterall, those are the kinds of animals one pictures when thinking about the area. But what about a full-sized elephant? Or maybe a lion?! That’s right, while we might associate those animals with the African veldt or Sahara, those are also animals that could be found in Israel during the time of the scriptures as well!

Visitors at the museum are directed through the exhibits on guided tours (English or Hebrew). After a brief introductory presentation, visitors are given a hands-on learning experience with taxidermy and anatomical samples such as skulls, bones, and horns, including what Slifkin claims is one of the worlds largest collections of shofars. These shaped horns are an essential part of the Jewish faith and a cultural icon of Israel. Even today, holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are noted by the loud blowing of these horns.

From there, other exhibits featuring the "wonders of the world” (exotic, strange, and beautiful animals), predators famously portrayed in the Bible such as hyenas and cheetahs, and of course, an extensive look at reptiles. The most intimidating subject of which is a real live python inspired by the Garden of Eden. Visitors are encouraged to touch and (if they be so brave) wear the python like a shawl!

Of course, the tour doesn’t end on such a potentially frightening note. There is also a petting zoo area featuring the cuddlier animals mentioned in the Bible such as rabbits, lambs, and chickens.  The goal is that by the end of the tour, the animals of the Bible will no longer be abstractions or curiosities to the visitors, but real, living and breathing things - a direct connection to what is depicted in scripture. It’s a worthy goal and a truly delightful surprise to check out in Beit Shemesh!
[Comment]

We need to be the ones who stop

The Good Samaritan is one of Jesus’ most striking and effective parables. It’s a story you can tell a child and it will be instantly understood. It works because it is so simple, so direct. It’s a story you can sum up in a few sentences and still be struck by the moral clarity of it.

One day while traveling the road to Jerusalem, a man is assaulted and robbed. His money is stolen and he’s left beaten and near death, unable to move or help himself. Along comes another man, a priest. He sees the man lying in the road and quickly decides he doesn’t want to get involved, so he passes by on the other side of the road. Soon a Levite stumbles on the man and makes the same decision. Then, at last, a Samaritan (a person who would have been abhorred and hated by the dominant powers of the time) finds him. He is moved with compassion for the beaten man. He stops what he is doing, cleans and dresses the man’s wounds, puts him on his animal, and goes out of his way and spends his own money to take the man to an inn where he can heal. 

The lesson here isn’t difficult to discern. Of the three passers-by to stumble across the wounded man, who treated him like a neighbour? Which one of these men acted in accordance to God’s will for us and which of them abandoned their responsibility and turned their back on God in the process? Is a person’s worth or moral standing determined by their titles and positions, or by what they will do when nobody else is watching? Again, even a child knows these answers, the Samaritan is the good guy here. 

So why is it so hard for us to live up to this expectation?

How many of us have passed by someone who was in need? Not just someone lying beaten and robbed, or homeless and panhandling. How many of us have known of someone who was hurting, who we have seen is having real trouble with something and our response has been to not get involved? I’d reckon all of us have at one time or another. For most of us, we’ve probably done it more times than we care to admit.

It’s not always because we don’t care, or don’t want to help. There are an endless number of justifications and rationales, some better than others, we use to excuse us from this fundamental responsibility. Sometimes we feel it’s not our place, that "there are institutions or programs for that.” Sometimes we’re hurting ourselves and don’t feel like we can spare the time or effort to help someone else. Sometimes we don’t feel like we’re even capable of doing anything, especially when problems seem large and unassailable. 

But we have to. As Christians, we have to be the ones who stop. We don’t get the luxury of ignoring the suffering of our fellow man. We can’t just pass-by on the other side of the road. We have to stop and do what we can to mend, help, and protect those in need. 

Consider the Samaritan himself. In the original context of the parable, Samaritans were considered an underclass, an unwanted people who often found themselves on the receiving end of prejudicial treatment. Most Samaritans at the time didn’t have enough to pay for their own needs, let alone extra money to go put a stranger up in an inn. 

They were often targets for robbery themselves, or even worse, the potential scapegoat for a robbery. How easy would it have been for the authorities of the time to see a Samaritan carrying a beaten and bloody Israelite on his animal and assume the worst? Helping the man lying in the road was not some trivial matter of basic decency for the Samaritan, it was a sacrifice. He had to go out of his way from his journey, give up his own comfort and safety, and spend his own money that he may or may not have been able to afford.

And for what? To help a stranger who, if the shoe was on the other foot, probably wouldn’t have helped him? A stranger who helping was unlikely to earn him any distinction in his own community (why waste time saving someone that probably hates your people) and may even be risky to help. There was no personal benefit to be gained by helping, no angle or reward. In fact, he lost quite a bit helping the man and could have lost even more. But he still did it. 

When we look at that example, our justifications for looking the other way in our own lives seem pretty thin, don’t they? 

If we want to live our lives as Christians who follow the word of the Lord, we have to be the Samaritan in this story. We need to replace fear with compassion, self-interest with love, and convenience with justice. We have to stop, bend down, and help whoever we can, whenever we can. 
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