It’s a quiet morning on a hillside in the ancient village of Ein Kerem, perfect for enjoying a breakfast of home-made goat’s milk cheese and freshly baked bread. This is the home of Efrat Giat, a shepherdess turned tour guide who lives in the house her husband was born in, tending to goats and their five children, not necessarily in that order.
Giat tells the story of her husbands’ parents, who moved to the Yemenite Valley and Ein Kerem in 1949 during Israel’s war of Independence. Her in-laws lived in a small house with no electricity or running water. Since then the house has expanded. The family raised goats and chickens and Giat wants to keep the tradition alive, even if it’s not for monetary gain.
“It’s not a business, it’s just for us,” Giat said while holding a two-week old baby goat in her backyard. While raising goats is not for money, Giat’s tourism business is, and it’s booming. Giat joined after the Israel Ministry of Tourism approached her five years ago.
The Women and Tales in Jerusalem project started with 28 women, including Giat, in Ein Kerem. Today, there are close to 60 women participating, in Jewish Orthodox neighborhoods and Arab neighborhoods around Jerusalem. The goal is to help women start a small tourism business in their homes while offering tourists a unique Jerusalem experience by showcasing their day-to-day life and culture.
Each woman’s home offers a different experience, from learning how to make traditional Kurdish food with Dalia Harfoof to singing Jewish lullabies in the oldest house in Ein Kerem with Shoshana Karbasi to making traditional baskets and weavings with Hadar Klidman.
Sitting on wooden benches in a Byzantine-era home, Klideman passes around work done in her shop, everything from naturally dyed wool baby clothes to traditional French embroidery.
“Here we try to combine the old world with the new world we are in,” Klideman said.
She comes from a family of artists and married an artist. It was only logical for her to continue on the path of creating and open her own shop “so women can be together and make things together.”
“We need to collect knowledge from the world,” Klideman told The Media Line, “It will take time; we need to remember.”
Many participants in the program, like Klideman, have centered their experiences around women. Some participants only allow women into their homes or on their tours. In both ultra-Orthodox and Arab culture it is not appropriate for women to interact with men who are not part of their family.
The projects in these neighborhoods offer tourists a chance to see a part of Jerusalem that is harder to access.
A year and a half ago Naomi Miller began to open her home to tour groups in a joint effort with the Jerusalem Heritage Experience. Miller did not want to run a business by herself, so she teamed up with other women in her neighborhood through the local community center in the Bukharan quarter of Jerusalem.
At 46, Miller has 12 children and 13 grandchildren, with three more on the way. She still makes time to host a group at least once a month. For $32 per person, Miller will cook a three-course meal, complete with traditional Jewish dishes and dessert. She shares her story of coming to Jerusalem from England with her husband at 18 and shows off pictures of her large family.
The Women and Tales in Jerusalem Project was founded on the idea of recruiting a diverse group of women to showcase the lives of the local community. With some help, these women would each build their own small business, centered on their life stories and talents. Women would invite tourists into their homes and provide a truly immersive Jerusalem experience.
“People want to come to a community and meet with local people,” said Orly Ben Aharon, the Advisor to Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat on the Advancement of Women. “This project is very unique.”
Aharon said that Barkat wants to increase the number of tourists to the city, and Aharon, along with the Senior Director of Policy and Planning Strategy for the Israel Ministry of Tourism, Mina Ganem, saw an opportunity to exhibit the best Jerusalem has to offer through the diversity of its women.
The Jerusalem Municipality and Ministry of Tourism said they would pitch in by supplying workshops to help get these small businesses started, advertise the tours on their website and help organize meetings between the women two to three times a year.
“It was a win win win situation,” Ganem said. When the project was first announced organizers expected about 20 women to show up to the informational meeting. But 200 women came and the initial meeting was extended to two days.
Aharon said it wasn’t hard to get women interested in the program because they understand that they can earn money.
“Most of the women have never worked before or are retired,” Aharon said, “But they still want to work.”
Depending on how much a woman in the program works, she could make between $1,000 to over $2,000 a month, about the minimum wage for a full-time job in Israel.
One of the main points of the project is to empower women around Jerusalem. Mayoral advisor Aharon said there is no competition or animosity between those who participate in the project. “They are doing it together, it creates a stronger community,” she told The Media Line.
Samira Aliyan, an Arab Muslim woman living in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa, is one of nine Arab women who participate.
Aliyan and her husband moved to Beit Safafa when she was 17. Their home, now several stories, was originally just one room with the bathroom and kitchen outside and no running water or electricity. The house grew to accommodate their growing family, and Aliyan’s style grew with it, turning a once stone single room into an ornate home. It is decorated with leather couches, Arab art and extravagant vases and table settings; perfect for wining and dining a visiting group of travelers.
As guests eat home-made baklava and sip freshly brewed coffee from tiny serving mugs, Aliyan talks of falling in love with her husband and moving to Jerusalem. Unlike many women who start the program, Aliyan didn’t attend a course in hospitality. Her husband worked as a head waiter in hotels around Jerusalem and helped Aliyan learn everything she needed to know.