We were out on tiyul when the tour guide sprung what still seems to me, years later, the biggest whopper of religious cognitive dissonance I’ve ever heard.

“Dinosaurs,” he stated derisively, looking over the desert landscape. “How does Torah understand these kinds of fossils if, as we all know, the world is less than 6,000 years old?”

The hike participants snickered. Dinosaurs! Who could believe in enormous ancient reptiles that supposedly lived millions of years ago when it’s clear that God created the universe much more recently?

The year of that outing was 1984. I was attending Ohr Somayach, a yeshiva for the newly religious. Those of us on the hike eagerly devoured any and all things ultra-Orthodox. But the explanation we were about to receive strained credibility for even the most wannabe supplicant.

“God put those fossils in the earth so you would think the world is billions of years old,” the tour guide said. “There were never actually dinosaurs. God simply wanted to supply us with a believable ecosystem.”

The other students nodded appreciatively, but I was incredulous. Paleontology, geology and all the other “ologies” of science have long formed the backbone of my own belief system and, despite my growing interest in Jewish philosophy and law at the time, this was pushing things too far.

I left the yeshiva a few days later and enrolled in a more balanced religious program.

I had assumed that this story was an outlier, unique to our impressionable group of young twenty-something seekers. 

So, I was flabbergasted to hear the same twisting of pseudoscience from 21-year-old Na’ama who has been in Israel for two years now studying at an ultra-Orthodox women’s seminary.

I tried to argue. 

“Why would God need to come up with such an elaborate ruse?” I asked Na’ama. “It doesn’t fit with Occam’s Razor.”

Occam’s Razor is a famous proof proposed by Franciscan friar William Ockham in the 13th century in which he posits that, if there are two explanations for a particular phenomenon, the simpler one is usually correct.

“How is something like evolution simpler?” Na’ama responded. “If anything, the solution with the least assumptions is that God created everything, including the fake dinosaur fossils.”

Despite Na’ama’s assuredness, I was curious whether the God and dinosaur coupling was still canon amongst the ultra-Orthodox. I checked the Ohr Somayach website. In an article for the yeshiva’s “Ask the Rabbi” series entitled “Jurassic Judaism,” the existence of dinosaurs was raised.

“Dinosaurs aren’t a matter of belief. The fossils really exist,” the unnamed author writes. 

I breathed a sigh of relief. 

“How one interprets these fossils is a different matter,” the article goes on.

The author then does some serious mental gymnastics, wondering, “How do you measure a ‘day’ [in the book of Genesis] when the sun was only created on the fourth one?” 

According to this creative melding of science and fiction, each of those first four days of creation could have spanned billions of years – an “era” rather than a mere 24-hour-period – thus enabling the possibility that the fossils are real.

That was at least a step back from “God wanted to trick us.”

My dinosaur conundrum might seem an inconsequential thought experiment, but it has real-world implications. In Jerusalem, for example, the Natural History Museum has taken to hiding its dinosaur exhibit behind a curtain when ultra-Orthodox youngsters visit.

“The museum should decide whether it is a scientific museum presenting the truth or an institution with self-censorship that seeks to tell its visitors half-truths and complete lies,” chastised Uri Keidar, executive director of Be Free Israel, a group promoting religious pluralism, in 2018. 

There’s no such equivocation at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky where founder Ken Ham has constructed a $35 million facility including a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark featuring (wait for it) dinosaurs coexisting with humans.

“Sixty-five million years ago, a giant asteroid entered the earth’s atmosphere and crashed into the surface, destroying the dinosaurs and the majority of the species in existence at that time. Or did it?” the museum’s promotional material asks.

And what happened to the dinosaurs that survived the flood? 

“Dinosaurs could have gone extinct any time after the ‘two of each kind’ got off the Ark, just like many other animals have gone extinct since the Flood,” the site states.

Don Stewart, writing for Blue Letter Bible, an evangelical Christian website, adds that “dinosaurs would have had to have lived at the same time as humans because they were part of the animal kingdom created by God” on the sixth day in the book of Genesis. 

“Why can’t you just live and let live?” my wife, Jody, challenged me. “Na’ama has her point of view and you have yours.”

“It’s because I find this way of thinking offensive.”

“Offensive? Really? That’s what you’re going with?”

“It’s just that it flies in the face of everything I hold dear: logical thinking, respect for research, consideration of experts.”

“All this over a few fossils?”

Yes. Because it’s a short distance from dismissing dinosaurs as facts to dismissing the most important policy issues facing us these days: climate change, vaccines, masks … heck, the entire pandemic itself. Anti-science conspiracy theories are reaching the corridors of power all over the world. 

It’s for these reasons that this seemingly small issue is emblematic of a much bigger problem, one that threatens the very fabric of our fragile society. (A little over the top, I know, but that’s how I feel.)

We can’t simply agree to disagree. There’s too much at stake. 

It’s not just about dinosaur bones anymore. 

Na’ama and I first argued about dinosaurs at The Jerusalem Post.

Image from by Fausto García-Menéndez on Unsplash

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“I almost didn’t recognize you without your mask,” Shifra said as we bumped into each other at the park while walking our dogs. 

Shifra Jacobs (pre-nose ring)

“Same,” I replied. 

It’s an ice breaker greeting I’ve been hearing a lot lately. In addition to addressing the face-ensconcing awkwardness of the last year, it serves as a knowing acknowledgment of the strange transition we’re in, as we lurch from full-on Covid crisis to a new post-pandemic normal. 

Truthfully, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do when Israel’s Ministry of Health eliminated the outdoor mask mandate on April 18. (Masks are still required indoors although, as with the CDC’s new guidance for the U.S., that too may be set to change shortly for the fully vaccinated.)

My first thought was, “Nah, I’m used to it by now, I’ll just keep wearing mine.” After all, it’s still not clear what’s happening with the growing number of variants. Nor do I know to what extent my cancer impacts the vaccines’ efficacy. 

An alarming Israeli study found that for patients with certain types of blood cancers (like mine) who were sick but not currently receiving treatment, only 55% developed antibodies against the SARS CoV-2 virus, a significant drop from the 95% protection Pfizer promises for healthy individuals. For those with blood cancers in active treatment, it can plunge as low as 16%. 

And yet, as soon as the new rule was issued, to my surprise, my mask was off. That’s led to another epiphany: a pent-up desire to socialize. 

I had assumed that a year spent in and out of isolation would have blunted my social skills, pushing me more to my introverted side. Would I remember how to make small talk? Would I even want to?

Any worries vanished the first time I returned to synagogue. Mind you, I’m not much of a shul-goer, but being back in our community – outdoors at Jerusalem’s Nature Museum for now – I was practically in tears. 

When services were over, I wanted to talk to everyone. All at once.

There’s a concept of “skin hunger” where people who haven’t been touched in a long time desperately desire physical connection. That’s how I felt about socializing. I had a year to make up and I didn’t want to miss a single opportunity.

That’s not necessarily what the pundits expected.

We all have a finite amount of social energy, notes Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter. “We have been under such a cognitive load over the past year or so that there just may not be the space for [us to handle] two things in one day,” she told National Public Radio in the U.S. 

The BBC’s Christine Ro framed the problem in a different way. “Have our social muscles atrophied in some way and do we now have to ‘retrain’ them?”

Prolonged isolation, for example, affects memory and verbal recall. So, if you’re finding it hard to remember certain words, lockdowns may be the culprit.

Headlee recommends that, rather than jumping back whole-hog into socializing, try to do more listening than talking. Ask open-ended questions that take the pressure off you and allow the other person to shine.

Prof. Jane Webber of Kean University in New Jersey suggests we might be better off reconnecting first with people we already know. Ask yourself, “Do I really want to do a blind date? Do I really want to join a new club?”

“Increase your social interactions one small step at a time,” writes social worker Amy Morin in the “Ask a Therapist” column at VeryWell.com. “After all, you probably aren’t going straight from quarantine to a rock concert. Instead, you can start with meeting a friend outside for coffee.”

“Isolation was not in any way fun. We survived it, but we still don’t feel [entirely] human,” Webber adds. “Life is full and fresh when we’re with other people.”

As if to prove that point, over the last few weeks, my socializing has been near insatiable. I’ve been to shul (twice now!); attended a party with several dozen people (mostly maskless, outside) as well as a concert (at the Tower of David, also outdoors); ate at three restaurants (sitting indoors in two of them); and accepted our first invitation to a Shabbat meal at friends since the pandemic began. 

Our social muscles “are fairly resilient,” Ro writes, noting that “accounts from places that have been less affected by Covid-19 suggest that it doesn’t take long to return to some version of a social normal.”

Israel was not exactly “less affected by Covid-19” over the past year, but we managed to pull it together at the last moment. We are now the international “beta country” for not just one but two grand experiments: What happens when you vaccinate the majority of adults in a short period of time and how quickly will socializing bounce back? 

While each of us is essentially just a “sample of one,” from what I’m seeing, at least among genetically gregarious Israelis, my individual experience of jumping back on the Sting-Ray seems fairly common. That should provide hope for countries still in the thick of their own Covid response.

The dogs were pulling us to their preferred next sniff stop when I spied something on Shifra’s face. 

“Did you always have a nose ring?” I asked.

“No, I got it over the last year,” Shifra replied with a slight Bewitched twitch in the spot where I had noticed the piercing. “You just haven’t seen it because it was always under a mask!”

I first outed Shifra’s nose ring at The Jerusalem Post.

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For Israel Independence Day this year, we did something a bit off the beaten track. Rather than organize a Yom Ha’atzmaut barbecue in some national park, we found ourselves eating our way through Nazareth, the largest Israeli Arab city in the country and one which, despite living here for nearly 27 years, we had never been to.

Mona at Elbabour spice mill

We had been looking for a rental large enough to house all seven of us that wouldn’t break the bank. The Airbnb we found in Nazareth was gorgeous and reasonably priced and, although not in the center of town, it was close to the “Jesus Trail,” a hiking route that runs from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. 

Nazareth, of course, is one of the highlights for Christian pilgrims who come to Israel (and will hopefully return soon, now that Israel appears to have Covid-19 under control). Just like the old joke that about the Jew stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues – one he prays at and the other he would never set foot in – in Nazareth there are two “churches of the annunciation,” as the Catholic and Greek Orthodox communities can’t agree on where the angel Gabriel is said to have announced to Mary she would conceive a son.

We hired a tour guide, not so much to take us through the Old City – we could explore the churches on our own with a printed or online travel guide – but rather because we wanted to chow down. Mona el Abu-Assal, our energetic guide, knew just where to take us.

The last year has been tough for Mona, with incoming tourism reduced to a trickle. We could feel Mona’s joy getting back to work with our group, as well as the shopkeepers’ delight as, one after another, they effusively acknowledged her lengthy absence.

Mona’s Nazarene tasting tour has five stops, each more decadent than the one before. 

We stopped first at El Mashhadawe – a hole-in-the-wall establishment that Mona insisted makes the best fatayer sabanekh, a spinach pie dipped in labaneh and sumac, that is popular around Ramadan (the holiday began the day before we arrived). Popeye would be delighted with this Lebanese nibble.

Then it was off to the Elbabour spice mill to try the freekah – a cracked wheat dish similar to quinoa. Even without the tasting, Elbabour is a must-see stop on any tour of Nazareth. Housed in a Templar-built structure from the 1800s, you can find just about any spice imaginable. Locals come bearing large bags of fresh za’atar leaves which they empty into a grinding machine that Elbabour’s proprietor offers for a fee.

Next, we tried a special kadaif made from Ramadan pancakes cooked up at Abu Ashraf’s shop. One was filled with sweet, salty cheese; the other had walnuts and cinnamon. 

Abu Ashraf shop

The store’s owner nearly died of Covid-19, so he is no longer allowing entrance into his elaborately decorated workplace bursting with knickknacks and antiques. Instead, he brought our kadaif to us outside. We planned to find a bench to sit down and eat them, but temptation beckoned; they were devoured before we turned the corner.

No trip to Nazareth is complete without a visit to the Abu Salem coffee shop. Founded in 1914, it claims to be the oldest café in the country. The treats here were a hot drink called inar that is festooned with nuts and cinnamon, and a refreshing cold beverage consisting of three layers: pomegranate concentrate on the bottom, hibiscus on the top, and a center filling of lemonade. The three layers somehow stay separate as you drink them. The building itself is 400 years old and a haven for local backgammon addicts.

At Abu Salem cafe

At this point, we were already stuffed, but the final, irresistible treat was still coming: knafeh from what Mona assured us was the best in Nazareth: Mahroum’s pastry shop

I’m crazy for knafeh – a Middle Eastern dessert made with shredded filo dough and sweet cheese, soaked in sugary syrup and topped with pistachio nuts – and this was by far the tastiest I’ve had, served fresh out of the frying pan. Mahroum’s makes two types – a local Nazareth version which has the classic orange coloring of knafeh, and a white “Nablus-style” knafeh which we enjoyed even more.

Father and son knafeh!

Our culinary adventure actually started the night before with dinner at Luna Arabic Bistro, known for its fusion take on traditional Arab ingredients. Luna’s was named to Time Out’s 2019 list of the best places to eat in Israel.

Luna, the owner and chef, has put together combinations of spices I’ve never considered residing in the same dish – for example, al-ma’ashuka, meatballs and dates topped with pistachio nuts and drenched in rose water. The dish has its roots in 13th century Syria. I can’t say that I loved it, but it was so unusual, I had to clean my plate. 

My vegan wife, Jody, stuck with the maqluba, a popular “upside down” dish of rice and fried vegetables. 

We never made it to the Jesus Trail, but we did go hiking along nearby Nahal Tzippori, ending up at Ein Yivka, one of the area’s larger natural swimming holes. A paved promenade accompanies the river the entire way from Moshav Shimshit, which makes it an easy walk while not detracting from the natural beauty. 

Along Nahal Tzippori

We did the hike the day before our tasting tour de force, but now that we’re home, I think we’ll have to do some more trekking to work off all the food we ate in our non-stop culinary spin through Nazareth. 

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It was Zoom that finally pushed me to minimize.

My home office space had gotten cluttered. That was fine when most of the article interviews I conducted were over the phone. 

But as Covid-19 led to the rise of video conferencing for, well, everything, suddenly I found the visual range of my computer’s camera showed my over-accumulation of “stuff.”

There was the stack of obsolete computer equipment sitting on top of a filing cabinet; a collection of aging media (audio cassettes with no working cassette recorder to play them, dusty CD-ROMs and even floppy disks); and piles upon piles of papers – annual summaries from my accountant, product design documents from 30 years ago and, most of all, thousands of newspaper clippings I had obsessively stockpiled from age ten until today.

All of these were packed into a dozen plastic boxes that had created an unattractive view my Zoom respondents could now see. 

I’ve not had a lot of free time over the past year of pandemic, but there was one point over the summer that I had a momentary break from my usual workload. 

I decided to use this as an opportunity to tackle the junk.

Anti-clutter guru Marie Kondo instructs followers to touch an item and if it doesn’t “spark joy,” discard or donate it.

None of these items particularly sparked joy for me – what enjoyment can you get from a tape you can’t play? – but the nostalgia factor was too much to make this a simple endeavor. The newspaper clippings in particular – these are visceral reminders of what was important to me 10, 20, 40 years ago. How would I remember all of that if I tossed years of saving?

And yet, the clippings had remained in their boxes for so long, the chances that I’d ever review them were slim. Maybe when I retire, but nah, probably not then either. 

This is not the first time I’ve had to consider what to do with my memorabilia. In 2007, my parents moved from the home where I grew up into a smaller apartment in a retirement community. 

I ended up minimizing from the 31 boxes stashed in my childhood closet to just four cartons of the most important documents, which I shipped to Israel. 

I haven’t looked at them since.

“How is a museum like Smaug?” asks Malcolm Gladwell in his podcast, Revisionist History, referring to the dragon from The Lord of the Rings

Both are hoarders. They derive meaning from things being in their possession, even if they have no interest in “doing” anything with the treasure. 

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, owns more than two million works in total – 75% of which are settled in storage.

A museum might be expected to hold onto art, but what about the woman who hoards empty ATM envelopes? The woman had written on each envelope what she spent the money on, Gladwell reports, and the thought of throwing them away brought her to tears. “It feels like I’d be losing that day in my life,” she explained. “If I lose too much, there will be nothing left of me.”

There’s a difference between hoarding and clutter. A hoarder amasses large amounts of items that have little value. “They don’t have one can opener, they have 40,” says Regina Lark of the National Association of Professional Organizers.

Collectors, on the other hand, receive real pleasure from their stuff. 

Ask yourself, “Does your stuff prevent you from having people over or having enough money?” writes Paula Spencer Scott for WebMD. “Are you late paying bills because you can’t find your bills?” 

For my 2020 attempt at minimizing, I had an idea about how to preserve memory while simultaneously freeing up space. For anything I planned on throwing out, I would first write down a description on my computer. For newspaper articles, that would be the title, author and date of each. If the piece was online, I’d include the URL in my entry. 

What topics captivated my attention over the years?

In the 1970s, it was movies and music – reviews of concerts I attended, from the Tubes to Pink Floyd and ELO – with a solid smattering of politics. (Remember John Anderson’s presidential campaign?) 

By the 1980s and 1990s I was already living in Israel, so my attention became more local. 

There were inklings of where my religious sensibilities would evolve (an article critical of Orthodoxy entitled “By modesty obsessed”); food (“Yuppie falafel”); terror (“Dating in difficult times,” on romance during the Second Intifada, eerily appropriate for pandemic times); a decade’s worth of taste tests of Jerusalem’s best Hanukah sufganiot; and Shlomo Brody’s “Ask the Rabbi” column in The Jerusalem Post (“Do demons exist?”)

I was making good progress and had managed to discard several garbage bags full of clippings when, alas, time was up. New assignments came in, my workload returned to normal, and it hasn’t let up since.

I moved the remaining boxes to a corner in my office, so they were hidden from Zoom, waiting for the next downturn which (hopefully) won’t come. 

But if it does, do you think the Israel Museum would want to buy my old poster of Richard Nixon sitting on the toilet? Or a complete collection of TV Guide’s “Fall Preview” issues from 1970-1979? (Wow, there’s the Partridge Family not yet in reruns!) 

For now, though, I will comport myself as a kind of “woke Smaug,” a dragon who has enough self-awareness to know he’s amassed too many valuables but isn’t willing to give them up, even if he has to host a webinar from inside the Lonely Mountain.

I first wrote about dragons, museums and minimizing for The Jerusalem Post.

Photo of cassettes from lilzidesigns on Unsplash

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The return of choice

by Brian on April 11, 2021

in Covid-19,Health,In the News,Science

Jodi Rudoren doesn’t want to go back to the old normal.

The editor-in-chief of The Forward writes that while “of course I desperately wish that not one more person would die or even suffer a single day from this deadly virus [and while] I cannot wait to hug my friends again,” Rudoren nevertheless worries that we’ll snap back to our old ways without “truly learning the lessons this crisis has brought.” 

Her hope? That “we find yet another new normal rather than returning to the one we used to know.”

What might some of that new normal be for Rudoren? No more five day a week commutes. Continued quality time with her children even when they go back to in-person learning. More virtual meetings, events and conferences. 

“I do not want to return to the habit of spending two hours shlepping across town to meet someone for overpriced salads when we could do our business in 30 minutes” over a video meeting, Rudoren says.

Even Zoom shivas have their benefits, Rudoren notes. Smaller groups online enable a more intimate space between mourner and those coming to provide comfort. Ditto for Zoom weddings and bar mitzvahs which allow a greater number of people to attend virtually. Congregations offering Zoom Shabbat services have seen their numbers swell and are not rushing to shut down their live streams so fast.

“There are so many things I don’t want to go back to,” writes Allison Hope for CNN.com. “Coworkers sneezing in open workspaces. Crowded weekend malls. Obligatory birthday brunches. Or cocktail hours of any kind where we have to mingle and make small talk with strangers.”

Hope quotes Tori Neville, a communications professional, who says she “loves working from home and not having to do things just to ‘show face.’ My life is so calm, my anxiety is way down.” 

Indeed, a recent Pew study found that more than 50% of employees don’t want to return to office life.

The pandemic has also been a blessing for introverts. 

“Some of my patients who struggled with social anxiety began flexing their muscles of communication during Covid-19,” clinical psychologist Judith Zackson told CNN. “Being in their own space [at home] increased theirconfidence, openness and reflective thinking.”

It’s also helped with setting priorities. “We know more than ever that our time on this planet is limited,” writes Hope. Is it really “worth meeting up with that old college friend we never really liked so much anyway?”

On a personal level, I was fortunate that my workload never really changed during the pandemic – if anything, it went up as clients with more time on their hands decided to pursue long-delayed book projects and turned to me for ghostwriting.

Still, the immediate period ahead of us heralds the rapid “return of choice” – what to wear, where to go, who to host – and that can be stressful. There are concerts to attend, restaurants to visit, culture to soak up, friends to see.

When everything could be accessed from the comfort of my home computer, I felt very little FOMO (the fear of missing out). Remember all the free Torah classes, yoga lessons and cooking demonstrations that were the rage in the initial months of the pandemic, many of which were recorded so you could watch at your leisure?

The return of choice is, for me, best exemplified when it comes to planning a trip. Now that my wife, Jody, and I are fully vaccinated, we’re eager to visit our families in California whom we haven’t seen since 2019. 

But there are so many parameters to consider. What’s the fastest and/or least likely to be canceled route to take when flights remain inconsistent? Which airlines adhere to Covid-19 safety standards the best? Where can I go for a PCR test before flying? 

When I get overwhelmed by choice, I start to spin. I try to hold all the options in my mind at once and I get stuck making a decision. 

Swarthmore College professor of psychology Barry Schwartz writes about this “paradox of choice” in his 2005 book of the same name. Schwartz visited his local supermarket and discovered on the shelves some 85 varieties of crackers, 120 different pasta sauces, 285 types of cookies, 175 salad dressings and 22 different types of frozen waffles.

All of this choice increases the pressure to make the “best” or “right” decision. But we are happier, Schwartz asserts, when we have only a smaller number of choices. Not no choice, but fewer.

Schwartz advocates consciously limiting one’s options. In my travel case, if there are 20 ways to fly, pick the three or four best routes and don’t search beyond that. If you’ve decided on basic economy, don’t flirt – even for comparison’s sake – with Comfort Plus. 

As we come to the hoped-for end of the pandemic and choice returns, we don’t have to retreat to the old normal of FOMO and spinning. We can – and we must – learn from the experience of the last year. 

“I don’t want to go back to packing in as much as I can, rushing between three parties on New Year’s Day or from store to store,” Rudoren writes. “I am not eager to return to the fear-of-missing-out days where I feel badly about what event I’m not invited to or why our vacation plans aren’t as interesting as the next family’s. I want to buy less, own less, travel less, do less — because I’ve learned that less is more than enough.”

I first wrote about new and old normals for The Jerusalem Post.

Jodi Rudoren’s picture is from her Twitter profile.

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Does God still demand “costly signaling?”

March 26, 2021

Pre-Passover reading: Does God still demand “costly signaling?” How halacha evolves and why that can help us lighten up this Pesach.

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Convincing the anti-vaxxers

March 13, 2021

Israel is the leader in terms of vaccination speed. What can the world learn from this vaccination “beta country” on how to flip anti-vaxxers?

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Adventures in medical cannabis

February 27, 2021

When my chronic insomnia took a turn for the worse, I began searching for an alternative to pills. I found the answer in medical cannabis.

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Dystopian fiction cuts close to home

February 14, 2021

The haredi “autonomy” we’re seeing in real-world Israel today is strikingly similar to the fictional “Autonomies” on TV. What can we learn?

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Tuesday tiyulim and Wednesday walks: Prescription for a pandemic

January 31, 2021

With international travel off the table for the last year, Jody and I have been exploring what’s closer to home. 8 short treks near Jerusalem.

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