Flowing out of the southwest corner of the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River has come to symbolize ritual purity and holiness.

This belief dates back to the works of John the Baptist, whose followers “went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matt 3:5-6).

John is also believed to have immersed his cousin Jesus of Nazareth in the Jordan River, somewhere between Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea.

The traditional site of Jesus’ baptism (Katzer El Yehud) is located near Jericho at the point where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land. Until very recently, security considerations made it out of bounds to civilians.

A view of the Yardenit nature walk. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A view of the Yardenit nature walk. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Thus, for decades, the Yardenit Baptismal Site near Kibbutz Kinneret became a focal point for hundreds of thousands of modern pilgrims.

Dressed in white, they slowly submerge themselves in the water as their religious leader offers up a prayer.

While a relatively simple site until the year 2000, today Yardenit boasts a large stone Visitors’ Center with a souvenir shop, restaurant, and several baptismal areas. Popular gift items include bottles of holy water: three for ten dollars.

Pilgrims immersing themselves in the Jordan River, associated with purity and holiness since the days of John the Baptist. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Pilgrims immersing themselves in the Jordan River, associated with purity and holiness since the days of John the Baptist. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A totally different experience awaits the visitor who crosses the road leading to the parking lot and heads for one of the oldest eucalyptus groves in the country. Brought here from Australia long ago, the trees flower in winter, so unless that’s when you take this walk you will have to return another time to find that the bloom is located within a bill-shaped pod whose top falls off to expose the light green blossom inside. Pick a leaf, and roll it up to make a great duck call.

A favorite story suggests how eucalyptus trees got their name. It seems that farmers in the Jordan Valley built tin roofs on their shacks and at night, when the trees banged on the rooftops, the noise was so frightening that the women would cry “oy — that knocks” (oy, kliptss in Yiddish).

This eucalyptus grove is famous as the inspiration for the late Naomi Shemer’s song of that name. Indeed, a large rock is engraved with words from Shemer’s song – along with a second, written by the poetess Rahel.

The restored structure under the trees, called Beit HaMotor in Hebrew, was constructed in 1910 and housed the first pumping station in modern Israel. Three pioneers from Kinneret Farm/Courtyard (a “school” for new immigrants who aspired to become farmers) operated within; using water they pumped from the Jordan River they grew vegetables, cotton and wheat.

The restored motor house, or Beit HaMotor, which was built in 1910. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The restored motor house, or Beit HaMotor, which was built in 1910. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Kinneret Farm not only prepared young immigrants from Eastern Europe for a life of physical labor, but also acted as a breeding ground for revolutionary concepts.

Indeed, Kinneret Farm was a hotbed of socialism and Zionism, and its pioneers founded the first kvutza (small collective farm) — Deganya in 1910 — and the first moshav (Nahalal). It was at Kinneret Farm that the Haganah was born, and out of Kinneret Farm came the Histadrut labor union, consumer cooperatives and more.

One of the most unusual innovations was the agricultural school for women, run by an early feminist. Women learned to raise chickens and run a cowshed, skills that took them out of the kitchen and into the fields with the men.

Now for an absolutely enchanting nature walk, where birds abound and all kinds of trees and water foliage are reflected in gleaming waters. Enjoy the sight of spur-winged plovers, stunning birds that hang out between the pools and streams.

Some people call them “diplomats” because they are coated in black, wear white “shirts” and sport black “top hats”. When they stand, they even appear to bow. You will probably see little white egrets as well. Watch them in the water or flying above it, their long black legs ending in startling yellow feet.

A spur-winged plover spotted on the bank of the Jordan River. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A spur-winged plover spotted on the bank of the Jordan River. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

You will probably see little white egrets as well. Watch them in the water or flying above it, their long black legs ending in startling yellow “feet.” Little egrets are very sociable and hang out not only with their fellow egrets but with birds of another feather as well. They spend most of their time hunting for food in shallow water. Unlike other species of heron, which stand frozen until they locate their prey and then pounce, the little egret will locate a delicious mollusk, frog or teeny tiny fish and run after it.

Look for the little arrow next to a rock to find a large tombstone with a beautiful engraved picture. Also chiseled into the stone is the following, touching inscription: “Here lies Booba, who faithfully plowed [the fields] . . . May she long be remembered in the history of [kvutzat] Kinneret. Booba, in case you haven’t guessed, was a horse. Isn’t the picture of horse and plow a delight?

Your easy walk ends at Gan Rahel (Rahel’s Garden), a beautiful date grove developed in 1933 as a memorial to Israel’s national poetess: she had died of tuberculosis two years earlier. The stunning date trees here were the first to be planted in modern Israel, and were the forerunners of this country’s flourishing date industry.

Gan Rahel. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Gan Rahel. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

———————————————————————————————-

Adapted from two chapters in Israel Travels from Metulla to Eilat, one of Aviva Bar-Am’s seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.