Paint your own piece of Jerusalem

August 29rd, 2019Category: Family
In a small art studio near the bustling Mahane Yehuda market, a table is covered with freshly-painted ceramic coffee mugs, mezuzot, and tiles. Paint brushes dipped in pale green, pink and purple paint are also scattered on the table.
That’s the messy table, things still in progress,
said Shifra Pendrak, founder of JClay Pottery Studio, where anyone can paint their own ceramics. Soon, these items on the table will be glazed and fired in a kiln. The glaze and intense heat of the kiln will transform the pale colors into bright and shiny hues
People always are so eager to see their pieces after they are fired, to see what happens with the colors
Pendrak said.
I also love seeing what people make, what they come up with.
Visitors to JClay can select from dozens of different ceramics----ranging from mugs and plates to Judaica items like hand-washing cups, Passover Seder plates and Hannukah menorahs. They then sit at the tables in the studio, where large windows look out on residential streets, and paint the pieces in whatever color and style they choose.
And you really don’t have to be artistic at all. People come in and say they have no art experience, but they create beautiful things,
Pendrak said. After the pieces are painted, Pendrak and her staff glaze and fire them in a kiln, a process that can take up to a week. When that is done, the pieces are ready to go home.
A former high school teacher from London, Pendrak opened JClay not only as a space for people to do art, but also as a place to let visitors make something of their own in Jerusalem to take home with them to remember their time in the city.
I really wanted to give people a chance to make something to take home,
she said. Many of the pieces are connected to places and traditions in Jerusalem and Israel, including pomegranates, picture frames resembling the Western Wall and even a miniature model of Rachel’s Tomb.
Participants range from small children to families to couples on dates, she said.
We also really want to have a welcoming atmosphere, where people can enjoy quality time together and relax and talk while they work
Pendrak said
That’s one of the most rewarding things to see.
The cost for painting ceramics ranges from 30 shekels to 180 shekels, depending on the size of the piece. In addition, there is a 20-shekel painting fee for each piece. Reservations are recommended, and tourists are advised to allow at least a week for their pieces to be finished in the kiln. JClay can deliver finished pieces to the hotel for an additional fee.

An urban wildlife refuge

July 14rd, 2019Category: Family
In the middle of Jerusalem, a large expanse of wild grasses, trees and ponds is now once again home to a growing herd of gazelles. This spring, 11 babies were born, bringing the total number of gazelles to 38. Nestled between the central Katamonim and Givat Mordechai neighborhoods, and bordered by the busy Menachem Begin Expressway, Jerusalem’s Gazelle Valley is a rare patch of nature in the city.

“This place is like the Garden of Eden, a real treasure,”
said Tal Perry, who lives in Givat Mordechai, just a few minutes walk from the park, and was one of the local residents who worked for more than a decade to create this place. The park is open daily and features walking paths, shaded sitting areas and wildlife observation stations. It also hosts children’s activities and other events. Along with gazelles, the park is also home to birds, frogs, and several kinds of wildflowers.
Mountain gazelles have long lived in the hills and green spaces surrounding Jerusalem, and are even mentioned several times in the Bible. For decades they have wandered the open land that eventually became the Gazelle Valley, Perry said. But in the early 2000s, a plan to build hundreds of apartments in this area threatened to bring an end not only to the habitat for local gazelles, but also to one of the relatively few green spaces in the city. These open spaces, sometimes called “green lungs,” are important to keeping the city’s air clean, and also provide areas for people to connect with nature, according to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which manages the park along with the Jerusalem municipality.
Perry was one of dozens of local residents that worked with SPNI to help stop the development through public demonstrations and petitions that resulted in the municipality declaring that the area would become a nature preserve.
““This is the fruit of that struggle,”
Jerusalem’s former mayor Nir Barkat said when the park eventually opened in 2015.
There were only three gazelles when the park opened, as a large part of the herd that had been living in the area was killed by cars and eating plastic trash, Perry explained. The park brought in a few more gazelles from zoos around the country, and they soon began to produce babies, resulting in the larger herd today.
“That means they feel very good and live well here,”
Perry said. Now, a fence protects the gazelles from running out into the road and staff and volunteers make sure the area stays free of litter. While visitors can sometimes catch glimpses of gazelles, the park also contains large areas that are off-limits to people, in order to make sure that the animals have ample space.
Winter rains keep the park green and lush, and in the spring it is covered with colorful wildflowers. During the hot summer, the best times to visit the park are in the morning or early evening.

Jerusalem’s secret garden

March 26rd, 2019Category: Family
From Jerusalem’s bustling King David Street, the tiny Elimelech Admoni Street leads down hill to reveal a sprawling green park, shaded with palm, pine and olive trees. Rather than city traffic and honking car horns, here it is quiet, with birds chirping in the background. This magical hidden park in the center of Jerusalem is called Bloomfield Garden, and is tucked between King David Street and the Old City. In addition to a quiet atmosphere, filled with stone paths and benches, there are also sweeping views of the Old City Walls.

Other hidden treasures include a walkway covered with arches of grape and rose and vines, streams and water fountains. There are also sculptures scattered throughout the park, including several bronze lions, donated to Jerusalem by Germany in the 1980s. Like almost every other place in Jerusalem, the park also contains a window into history and stories of the past. Here you will find an ancient cave on the face of a grassy hill. Only the entrance is visible to the public, but this cave leads down to a five-chamber underground burial complex. According to some archaeologists, this place is possibly where King Herod, famous for building up Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, had his sons and other family members buried. Other scholars dispute the connection to Herod, but all agree it was a significant monument, dating back at least 2,000 years. Researchers are still working on solving the mystery. Although the burial cave is not open to the public, the presence of its adds to the secret and undiscovered atmosphere of this park.

Sweet Ein Kerem chocolate-making

March 26rd, 2019Category: Family
Along the street up to Ein Kerem’s famous St John the Baptist Monastery is a small shop with a glass case full of handmade chocolates and gourmet ice cream. Called Sweet Ein Kerem, this little space is what owner Ofer Amsalem calls the “window” to his business’s larger location, which includes a chocolate factory and cafe, another 100 meters up the street.

The small shop is a good place to grab a coffee to go, sample a piece of chocolate or indulge in an ice cream cone while exploring Ein Kerem, a village-like neighborhood in the hills on the western edge of Jerusalem. But if one has more time, the larger Sweet Ein Kerem location offers a cafe, serving breakfast, pizza and other vegetarian fare, along with another larger case of handmade chocolates and ice cream. If one has even more time, there are chocolate-making workshops here almost every day. “If you have a minute you can grab a chocolate to go, if you have an hour you can make it yourself,” said Amsalem, who founded Sweet Ein Kerem more than 10 years ago with his former wife, who remained his business partner even after they divorced. The large location consists of three 500-year-old stone houses that have now been renovated and connected together. Downstairs, chocolatiers oversee pots of melted dark and milk chocolate, pouring the sweet liquid into molds to make chocolates shaped like hearts, stars and shells. Added flavors include sea salt, spicy chili and cinnamon. This is where the daily workshops take place. “Just call us at any time, even at the last minute and we can probably make you a workshop because we are always making chocolate here,” Amsalem says. Workshops can be arranged for anyone, for couples, families and groups of business colleagues, he says. “It’s a beautiful thing to do together,” he says. “And you get to leave with a hundred shekels worth of chocolates.” If the weather is nice, there is a large patio, covered with grape vines and other flowers, which is the perfect setting to enjoy the chocolates, a cup of coffee or a light meal. Workshops are 400 per couple, or 88 shekels per person in groups of 5 or more. Reservations are required, and can be made by calling 02-77-200-6660. Chocolates and the restaurant are certified kosher.

Jerusalem by the light of the moon: segway tours

March 26rd, 2019Category: Family
As the sun sets in Jerusalem, a small group of people glide along the city’s sidewalks on Segways, exploring the city by the light of the moon. Leaving from the First Station complex, these nighttime segway tours explore the picturesque Yemin Moshe neighborhood with its sweeping views of the illuminated Old City Walls, as well as the vibrant Mamilla outdoor shopping corridor, and several alleyways inside the Old City itself.

Offered most evenings, Smart Tour Israel’s evening Segway tours are especially popular with couples, families and other small groups. “It’s very romantic to see the city this way at night,” said Assaf Polivodor, a founding partner of Smart Tour Israel, which offers nighttime Segway tours along with daytime Segway tours, bike rentals and culinary tours. “The tours at night are more intimate and with smaller groups than during the day.” The nighttime Segway tours, which cover about 5 miles, are led by guides who not only deliver explanations and stories about the sites along the way, but also make sure the participants are enjoying themselves. About half way through the two-hour tour, groups stop for a break at Kikar HaTzahal, near Jaffa Gate, and one of the points where the new city of Jerusalem meets the old city of Jerusalem. Guides offer the group cups of steaming hot tea to drink while watching the passers by and taking in views of the Old City walls. In the winter, guides also offer scarves, gloves and extra coats to keep participants warm. “We provide everything we can to make sure it’s a special experience,” Polivodor said. Meanwhile, the city does the rest, offering scenery and views that can only be found in Jerusalem. Reservations are required for nighttime Segway tours, and can be made by calling 02-561-8056. In the winter, nighttime Segway tours leave First Station at 6:30 p.m., and in the summer at 8 p.m. Tours are offered in Hebrew and English.

Out of the blue

May 23rd, 2017Category: Family
Inside a glass case at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum, a stone tablet from the 13th century BCE reveals how some people in the lands of ancient Canaan paid their taxes not with gold or silver, but with bundles of wool dyed in blue.
This is just one example of the important and surprising spiritual, cultural and financial role that the color blue played in the ancient world.  Examining the origins of the color blue, a new exhibit called Out of the Blue takes visitors on a journey through thousands of years and thousands of miles, from the blue sky to the blue sea; from ancient Afghanistan to the modern state of Israel, where blue defines the state’s flag and many other symbols.
You can say it’s just about a color, but it really takes you so many places,
says one of the exhibit’s curators, Oree Meiri, as she walked through the exhibit on a recent morning.  “I learned so much in the process of organizing this exhibit that I can’t even begin to tell you.”
Although it is the color of the seemingly endless sky and sea, blue held special significance in the ancient world because unlike shades of green, yellow, or brown, it could not be picked up in the form of leaves, grass, stone or animal fur.

One of the few tangible sources of blue that occurred in nature was the lapis lazuli stone, found in what is now Afghanistan.  In fact, these rare and valuable stones are likely what the Bible refers to when it refers to the sapphires that decorated the Ark of the Covenant and the garments of the Temple’s high priests, Meiri explains.

But it was not until the time of the Phoenicians, who lived along the ancient Mediterranean coast, that a reliable source of blue fabric dye was discovered. They found that the glands of certain sea snails contained a liquid that stained fabric different shades of blue and purple.  The tedious process of making dye from these snails was such an integral part of this trade-oriented society--and likely their source of wealth -- that many of their coins contained a picture of a sea snail.
It was really a complex process to extract this dye, and it was a big deal that the color stayed, and didn’t fade or wash out,
Meiri says, as she looks at a case full of ancient sea snail, or murex, shells found at archaeological sites.  This so-called “tekhelet” was also the color that the ancient Israelites were instructed to use to dye the fringes that hung from their four-cornered garments.

The exhibit goes on the trace how the industry of making blue dye from Mediterranean sea snails eventually collapsed, causing the fringes of the tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl, to once again have only white strings.  But blue had become such an integral part of Jewish identity that people began putting blue stripes on the fabric of their prayer shawls, and this was what inspired the design of the flag of the modern state of Israel. The exhibit also tells the story of how the blue dye of the murex was rediscovered in modern times, leading once again to some Jews having blue strings hanging adorning their prayer shawls.
Today blue is something we take for granted,
Meiri says.  “But the story of how it came to be this way is really amazing.  It really is a deep color.”

Ein kerem

May 23rd, 2017Category: Family
An ancient wine press sits in a deep indentation in one corner of Shoshana Karbasi’s kitchen in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Kerem.  The wine press is more than 2,000 years old, but was discovered only about 250 years ago when the stone home was built, Karbassi explains.  The home’s first owners, Turks who lived here when the Ottoman empire controlled the city, used the wine press as a water cistern, she explains
This house is full of stories,
she says.  They are stories that she is eager to share with visitors.  That’s why several years ago, she and about 15 other women founded Nifleot Ein Kerem, which organizes visits for both individuals and groups of tourists and business travelers to homes in Ein Kerem for meals, cooking lessons, musical performances and other cultural activities.

“Our project is about cooperating between women, but also about sharing our history and our city,” says Karbassi, who shares stories and poetry written in the now dying Ladino dialect of Moroccan Jews with visitors to her home, and sells homemade jam.

The project now part of a larger city-wide home hospitality program called Women and Stories in Jerusalem, includes about 30 women from Ein Kerem, a Jerusalem neighborhood that was once its own pastoral village.  As the wine press in Karbasi’s kitchen--as well as other archaeological discoveries, including those of ritual baths-- show, Ein Kerem was once home to an ancient Jewish community.  Over the years, it was populated by many other groups, as evidenced by the numerous churches and monasteries that dot the green and rocky landscape, attracting many Christian pilgrims today.  With the establishment of the state of Israel, Jews once again began living in Ein Kerem, including large groups of immigrants from Yemen.  This is just part of the history that visitors can discover through entering homes here.

Mazal Motell’s parents settled in Ein Kerem after arriving to the newly-established state of Israel from Yemen.  Motell, dressed in the traditional clothing her grandmothers wore back in Yemen, uses a stone to grind garlic, cumin, hot pepper, coriander and salt.  Soon she will add tomatoes to the mixture to make schug, a classic Yemenite dip for bread, she explains to a group of visitors.  Motell, a 67-year-old mother of five was a kindergarten teacher until recently retiring, when she began to participate in this project.  She feels it strengthens her connection to her past; to her Yemenite roots, but also to her childhood, when her family made a living selling milk and cheese from their herd of goats that wandered the grassy hills of Ein Kerem.
It brings out everything I had inside of me,
she says.  “I really enjoy talking about the old days.”
Because real life, revolving around family and work, continues in these homes, the visits give visitors authentic experiences that are often hard to find.

“My place is not made for tourism, I live my own life,” says Ruth Havilio, an artist who makes hand-painted tiles in a studio attached to her refurbished stone house in Ein Kerem, and hosts groups to tell them both about her art and her parents’ key roles in Israel’s War for Independence in the 1940s. 
But once in a while I open my door.
Prices for in-home tours vary from 30 shekels per person to more than 200 shekels per person, depending on the activity and number of people.  For more information and to make a reservation, email or call 02-6298154 or 054-2550505.  Or contact the individual hostesses here

Searching for hidden clues in Jerusalem

May 23rd, 2017Category: Family
Ten years ago, a Jerusalem tour guide asked educator Tali Kaplinski Tarlow to organize a scavenger hunt for a group of tourists who had already seen practically everything in the city.  So she put together a route through Nachlaot that took visitors down the lesser-known alleyways and introduced them to the hidden stories of the neighborhood surrounding the Mahane Yehuda market.

Bringing king david to life

May 23rd, 2017Category: Family
A red-headed boy leads his sheep across a grassy field, interspersed with trees.  The music of a flute plays and the rolling, rocky hills of Judea rise in the background.  These are the opening scenes of the new evening sound and light show King David, which transforms the 1,000-year old stone walls of the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City into a surround-sound movie theater five nights a week.  Once the sun sets, David and his story come to life in this Crusader-era citadel via 18 laser projectors and 20 speakers.

In addition to telling the story of the life of David--the shepherd boy who became a Biblical King--the show also illuminates the citadel walls with hundreds of works of art made throughout history that have immortalized David.  So viewers see Michelangelo’s famous carved marble David statue and Chagall’s bright painting of David with a harp, among dozens of others, as David is one of the most portrayed people in the art world.
My idea was to take people on a walk through a gallery of art,
said Renee Sivan, the museum’s archaeologist who curated the show.  “Seeing these works of art lets people have a different appreciation and see the appreciation different people had for David.”
Sivan, who previously created the museum’s other sound and light show, The Night Spectacular, which tells the story of the history of Jerusalem, wanted to present a fuller picture of David.
King David is not only a king, he’s a musician, a poet and also very very human,
Sivan said.
But producing the life-like images of David and the other historical figures that illuminate the walls was not simple.  Sivan wanted them to be historically accurate, in every detail, from what they wore to how they moved.
“And that’s difficult because we have very few indications and pieces of archaeological evidence from the era of King David,” she said.  She spent months researching what fabric dyes were available in the region at the time in order to portray David and others in authentic clothing.  And she scoured museum collections around the world for visual evidence of historical events associated with David.  For example, she relies on stone carvings found in Egypt to know what the Philistines, who fight David in a battle, looked like.
“This is how I knew exactly how they moved and what they wore,” she said.
Her goal was also to create a show that would appeal to a wide variety of audiences.  And this one has something for everyone, she said, from beauty, to history, to art to action. She said she knew all her work was worth it when she recently took her 7-year-old grandson to see it.
His eyes were wide open, just looking the whole time,
she said.

Tickets to King David are 55 shekels for adults, 50 shekels for senior citizens and 45 shekels for children ages 3 to 18.  Combined tickets for both the museum and the show are 70 shekels for adults and 55 shekels for senior citizens and children

Catching birds

May 23rd, 2017Category: Family
Every morning Alen Kacal arrives just after sunrise to the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, near the Knesset, to see if any birds were trapped overnight in the large nets that cover many of the trees and bushes here. On a recent March morning she found a blue and orange kingfisher, a bright yellow warbler and an owl that usually lives in Siberia.
There are always surprises, especially in the spring,
says Kacal, an Israeli immigrant from Trinidad who has been bird watching since she was 8 years old, and is now the director of the bird observatory, operated by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and located in the middle of Jerusalem, between the Knesset and Gan Sacher park. Every spring about 500 million birds fly over Israel, making their annual migration from the southern hemisphere back to the northern hemisphere. They stop to rest at various places around the country, including in this little 1.5-acre patch of nature, making Israel one of the best places in the world for bird watching. For most birds, this is their first stop in a lush and green area after many nights of flying over the Sahara and Negev deserts, where there is almost nothing for them to eat.
The birds get here absolutely famished and exhausted,
Kacal says. After landing, the birds spend about a week among the trees, flowers and lily-pad filled pond here, eating various plants and animals. Small birds will usually double their body weight before they fly off for the rest of their journey, Kacal explains. On this March morning, about 100 birds were trapped in the observatory’s hard-to-see nets, which catch birds without hurting them. Kacal and other staff members gently pluck the fluttering birds out of the nets, and put them into small cloth bags. They then spent the rest of the morning attaching small metal rings imprinted with contact information for the Jerusalem Bird Observatory to the birds’ legs. These rings help scientists around the world track bird migration patterns. Some of the birds trapped here arrived with rings from landing here during previous migration seasons.
We see a lot of returning birds,
Kacal said. And many birds arrive each day with rings from other bird ringing stations in Europe and Africa. A group of school children watched intently as a staff member put a tiny ring around the leg of a chiffchaff, a small brown bird weighing about 6 grams. “This is usually a bird you never see because it spends most of its time in the bushes, where it looks just like a leaf,” Kacal explains, saying the bird spends it summers in northern Europe and its winters in Africa. After the ring was attached, the bird was released, flying up into the trees. Through the end of May, visitors can come each week day between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. and watch up close as staff put rings on the birds. Sometimes visitors can hold the birds after they receive their rings and release them into the sky, Kacal says.
For us, interacting with the people and teaching them about birds is very important,
Kacal says. She then makes her way over to a small hut with benches where visitors can look out over the pond and watch birds. A kingfisher is hunting for fresh-water crabs, pausing every few minutes to sing out in search of a mate. Visitors can borrow binoculars, and sit here for free, as long as they want. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, visitors can also see butterflies and turtles; and at night there are porcupines, hedgehogs and bats. “Or, of course you can just sit here and pretend you are not in the middle of the city,” Kacal says. “It’s a great place for everyone, and another way to get to know the city and the country.” In addition to the always open bird watching area, and daily bird ringing, the observatory offers special activities during Passover, including hikes during the day and at night, and viewing of films and an art-exhibit in its visitors center. For more information, see