Born in Hungary 176 years ago, Rabbi Akiva Yosef Shlesinger had very strong opinions.
He was even something of a fanatic — especially concerning the dangers of the European Reformed Movement and that of the Neo-Orthodox, who combined strict adherence to Jewish law with Western cultural influences.
Indeed, Rabbi Shlesinger considered modern thought dangerous to the continued existence of the Jewish people, and decreed that the solution was an end to the diaspora and mass immigration to Israel.
Accordingly, and against the express wishes of his extended family, Rabbi Shlesinger moved to Jerusalem in 1870. Soon he began riding his donkey all over the country and speaking out strongly about the importance of Jewish settlement and farming the land.
In 1875, while touring the region identified as the Judean town of Tzaanan (Micah 1:11 and Joshua 15:37), west of Hebron, he discovered what he had never dreamed of finding in the land of Israel: “Fertile mountains and forests full of trees and between the mountains a flowering plain . . . I prayed. . . with more heartfelt feeling than even on Yom Kippur. . . and wept at what we had lost. It is impossible to describe these places, deserted by our people for thousands of years and now, at our return, full of joy.”
Together with Rabbi Eliahu Meni, head of the Jewish community in Hebron, Rabbi Shlesinger formed an organization called Restoring Past Glory. It was dedicated to creating a society based on Jewish values, the renewal of the Hebrew language, and redemption of the land.
The group operated in secret for two years. When eventually it made itself known, the country’s traditionalist religious establishment — whose men were supported by charity from diaspora communities, enabling them to devote their time to pious study — was appalled.
They ostracized and excommunicated Rabbi Shlesinger, who was even physically attacked on a Jerusalem street. Not surprisingly, when the rabbi attempted to purchase the fertile lands of Tzaanan for a group of daring young men from the Hebron yeshiva, the religious establishment made sure that his negotiations failed.
Eight years ago, on Tu Bishvat, members of the observant Moshav Nehusha planted a grove above the Govrin Riverbed, near ancient Zaanan.
The Jewish National Fund had just finished rehabilitating the riverbed, whose banks had been destroyed by unwise farming, and had prepared the adjacent fields for planting.
At the ceremony, Nehusha’s rabbi told the gathered group about Rabbi Shlesinger and his attempts to purchase this very land for Jewish settlement.
The Nehusha grove flourishes along a delightful scenic route inside the JNF’s Maresha Forest. Five kilometers east of Nehusha Junction, on Highway 35, a sign points to the forest and a blue arrow leads to the scenic route: Pine Nut Way (Derech Tznobar), developed by the JNF’s Talila Livshutz in conjunction with the community of Nehusha.
The 900-meter route crosses the Govrin Riverbed and then continues along its banks. Maresha Forest is to the right, named for an ancient Israelite town that was located only a few kilometers away. In winter, masses of flowers in stunning variety blossom in the forest, from blushing pink cyclamen to tall white asphodel.
Even without flowers, the sweetness of the air and the peaceful atmosphere along this scenic route make the trip more than worthwhile!
Reeds flower in the riverbed, drinking in its waters. The lone tree on the left is a centuries-old carob; on the right stand Atlantic terebinths that have also been around for hundreds of years. Just now deep purple mandrake flowers are in bloom; so are lovely blossoming almond trees.
Almond trees are the first of all Israel’s trees to flower. Masses of flowering almond trees in the middle of an Israeli winter is an absolutely dazzling sight. Then, while other trees are still deep in winter sleep, the almond offers up its fruit.
Golden almond-shaped flowers decorated the Menorah (seven-tiered candelabrum) that stood in the Temple. “Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms were on one branch, three on the next branch and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand. And on the lampstand were four cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms (Exodus 37:19-20).”
Saplings planted in 2006 have begun to sprout branches and leaves at Nehusha Grove. Nearby, the Nab’a Well is 25 meters deep. Perhaps as old as the Israelite village of Tzaanan, it features a plastic container tied to a rope. The ancients brought water up in a bucket whose ropes carved deep slits in the stone. There is still plenty of water down there, runoff from the Hebron Hills before you.
Tzaanan Pool, a small portion of the riverbed developed by the JNF, fills up in winter and lasts through October; summer visitors (and those who come during our very dry winter this year) find it a refreshing respite from the heat. Benches are strategically in front of the pool in a delightfully tranquil setting. If you are here in Israel, and savoring this wonderful route, sit down and contemplate the landscape. Can you smell the mint growing on the opposite bank?
Pick some, to find it far more fragrant than the species in your neighborhood grocery store — and perhaps even in your garden!
Here ends the official scenic route. If you walk — or drive — on the tractor trail that continues next to the riverbed, you will pass on an olive grove. And you will eventually also get a look at Tarkumiya Crossing, a relatively new, enormous, international terminal for people and merchandise moving between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of 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.