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by Rachel Thimangu

I doubt that our guide at the Biblical Landscape Reserve, Neot Kedumim, knew that Mark Twain hailed from Missouri — or that we do — when he quoted the renowned writer to us in the hills overlooking Tel Aviv.

Mark Twain, as it turns out, declared this land “a desolate country … given over wholly to weeds — a silent mournful expanse” when he visited in the 1860s.

That’s hardly how you’d describe a land of milk and honey. But for the wandering Jews, who simply needed water and plants to sustain their animals and themselves, that’s exactly what it was, said Yair as he guided our jet-lagged group through the reserve.

Rain water was collected in cisterns, which became the center of family compounds and small towns.

He drove home the importance of that water by asking me and Aaron to quickly don rough brown garments over our clothes, to act out the scene of Jacob and Rachel meeting at the well. Her kindness in offering water not just to Jacob, but also to his camels — played, in this case, by the rest of our motley crew — won his heart.

We felt silly, but the point hit home. The native shrubs and trees, bearing olives, dates, pomegranates and figs, sustained their community for generations … until deforestation and the planting of pine trees took over.

Neot Kedumim, the reserve, was founded to replant those native species and restore the land to the way it was in Biblical times. Groups of children and teens, plus tour groups like ours, buzzed around a small portion of the 650-acre reserve.

Frequent rounds of sniper fire — shot by Israeli Army soldiers practicing nearby – at first startled and then became part of the background. When we first heard it, Yair assured us it was the usual, and when he hears it, he feels safe and protected.

It’s clear that we have a lot more to learn and see in this country of contrasts. After the reserve tour and lunch, we headed to the cosmopolitan boardwalk of Tel Aviv and the art district of Jaffa. We learned to ride SegWays without crashing into anyone, or anything. We rode past the Orthodox Jewish beach, where women and men are admitted on alternating days; and we saw sunbathing couples showing off physiques that made clear the benefits of being more active than many Americans.

It was an exhausting, whirlwind day, with eight more to go.

Desolate, it wasn’t.