Standing in a lovely one story Ottoman period home, overlooking the picturesque valley of the Yemenites, in one of the most enviable locations in Israel, it is hard to imagine that when the original residents of this community came to their homes nearly 70 years ago, the area was an abandoned village without electricity or water, situated in an undesirable area isolated from population centers, grocery stores and other services.
But today the area breathes tremendous life, culture and art. Twelve of the twenty four local families living here are participating in a project, Women and Tales of Jerusalem, that seeks to bring tourists to discover their village and along with it, the special foods, hospitality, culture and unique handicrafts that have brought much prominence to Ein Karem and the surrounding villages connected to it.
The Woman and Tales of Jerusalem is a special social tourism initiative spearheaded by Orly Ben Aharon, Jerusalem Mayors advisor for the advancement of women. According to Orly, the project started four years ago in an en effort to empower women and promote women businesses. It began with 28 women and now there are a total of 60 different women that host in their homes. Of these 8 are Orthodox and 52 are secular including several Moslem and Christian Arab residents of Jerusalem.
Tour participants have the opportunity to delve into the life of locals, to taste their foods, hear their stories and become familiar with their fascinating folklore. The project offers a variety of different types of tours around the city and includes tastings, cooking workshops, visits with artists and other talented local residents in their homes. The city supports project participants by providing regular training to teach home hospitality and business skills and acts as a administrative headquarters to many project participants.
The unique at-home hosting is a part of a worldwide trend of “social tourism” which allows tourists to go deeper and engage with locals on a very personal level .he city’s women.
Efrat Ginat’s home is situated just outside the heart of Ein Karem, in an area known as the Yemenite Valley. In 1949, in the secret operation known as Operation Magic Carpet, some 49000 Yemenite Jews were airlifted to Israel. They Yemenites traveled by foot across the desert where they eventually made their way onto ELAL flights that took them and their few belongings to Israel. Upon arrival, some of them were taken by bus to a small valley outside of Ein Karem, where a number of Ottoman period homes lied vacant. They were told that these abandoned homes were to be their new home and that they should take their families and get settled.
So they did.
Efrat described the story of her grandparents arrival. “They had no electricity or water. The Jewish Agency gave them the house, two goats and one chicken and were told that with that they would never go hungry.” And with that, this small community began to take shape.
Today the primary residents in this picturesque community are the descendents of the original families and with the lovely surrounding landscape ,they enjoy one of the most enviable locations in Israel. Efrat’s family still raises goats not so much for their cheese and milk but rather for what she calls ‘the health of her own family”. Taking care of the goats, feeding and milking them and keeping them healthy teaches many important values to her children.
In addition to giving us a tour of her farm and meeting her goats, Efrat prepared a tasty breakfast for our group. One of the highlights was the Yemenite specialty bread known as Kubane, which is generally only prepared on Fridays for Shabbat.
After visiting with Efrat, we made our way to the home Dalia Harfootf, a Kurdish mother of five boys. Her parents arrived to Palestine in 1921 from Kurdistan.
With her lively demeaner Dalia had us dancing and then had us try some of the delicious sambusak she had prepared for her next group that was soon to arrive. An engaging story teller, we learned about how she did not have electricity even into the early 1970’s. She ultimately authored a letter to Leah Rabin in 1974 asking her if she had to wash her husbands laundry by hand. Within days the remaining homes had electricity.
Over the last three years Dalia has welcomed over 3000 people to her home from all over the world. Her most recent group was from China.
So far the programs have primarily attracted local tourists, however, there is a strong desire to expand the project and to be included in tours organized for tourists from abroad. One tour operator, Breaking Bread Journeys, has been including a hallah making experience in a local Haredi home that was borne out of this program. The company offers such engaging experiences with locals in Israel and the Palestinian Territories each day as part of their tour. According to founder Christina Samara, tourists are seeking authentic experiences to meet locals and learn about the many cultures and narratives present. Participants go into the homes and cooperatives of residents in both areas and enjoy daily “breaking bread” opportunities. By going deep into the home and lives of locals and fostering understand, the project builds itself as a bridge for cooperation.
The Israel Tourism Ministry supports the initiative with training sessions for the women, as well as helping them with marketing. The program is still in its infancy, primarily serving local tourists from all over Israel. The Israel Tourism Ministry is working hard is to expand the project to international tourists from abroad who tend to have a very narrow view of Israel.
If you go: for more information on the Wonders of Jerusalem programs, click here.