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Amid the Turmoil of Israel, Guesthouses Offer Hospitality

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Israel
By Lisa Singh
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Our hostess's exasperated voice crackled into the cellphone: "My husband will meet you at the gate." Click. For the past two hours, we'd been driving through Israel's Negev desert, on a pitch-black highway, searching for a guesthouse that had come highly recommended. But its address didn't register on our GPS, and our only landmark was a gas station, leaving us no choice but to call our hostess-to-be several times from the road. Her growing annoyance had begun to show.

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Turning left at the station, we proceeded down a narrow, unlighted road, looking for "the gate." Ahead, the road terminated at a severe metal gate illuminated by two floodlights that bathed our rental car in a stark-white glare. Peering through the windshield, we made out a compound complete with a guard's post, heightening the feeling that we'd arrived at the entrance to a prison rather than a gateway to a guesthouse.

We were about to turn around when a car appeared on the other side of the gate. The driver's-side window rolled down, an arm waved and the barrier slid open.

That was our introduction to the world of Israel's zimmers, or guesthouses, where you never know what you'll find until you show up.

Ever since a friend and I had arrived in Israel three days before, we'd been looking for something this land of flashpoints and falafel isn't exactly known for: down-home hospitality. But as Israel turns 60 this summer, something unexpected has happened: The country has quietly been shedding its image of yore -- think "sabra," the prickly desert pear after which native-born Israeli Jews are nicknamed -- and brushing up on hospitality. Israel is now home to a booming cottage industry of zimmers -- part bed-and-breakfast, part home stay -- run by everyday Israelis. Named after the Yiddish word for "room," some zimmers are unspectacular chambers in someone's house. But most of the 8,000 zimmers (pronounced "tsimmers") are rural cabins -- sometimes one, sometimes multiples -- built alongside the owner's main residence, with guests treated to such perks as shiatsu massage, homemade bread and jam, and Jacuzzis.

Our compound offered a fascinating glimpse into desert agriculture, but the zimmer itself was a little . . . cheesy: Fake rose petals lay scattered around the Jacuzzi, while air freshener hung heavy in the room. Meanwhile, our breakfast was awaiting us in a mini-fridge: packets of jam and butter, along with out-of-the-can tuna covered in plastic wrap and a store-bought baguette.

Had it really been worth braving a military-style checkpoint for this?

* * *

Military accouterment, as I found on the way to another zimmer, is simply par for the course when driving around Israel. About three miles from an army base and missile batteries, a roadside sign read in Hebrew, "Naot Farm."

Surrounded by desert mountains, we drove down a gravel path. At the bottom were trailers, a dairy and pens filled with dozens of goats. Dogs barked up a storm nearby.

It hardly looked like the place for a guesthouse getaway. But nearly every weekend, several mom-and-pop farms in this central area of the Negev -- scattered along a trail known as the wine route -- are booked solid. In between harvesting grapes and olives and, in the case of Naot Farm, making goat cheese, these farms run zimmers.

A woman came toward us, tall and tan, her graying blond hair pulled back in a single braid. After a word or two of "Shalom," she invited us to our zimmer. "I will leave milk in your room," said Lea Nachimov, who runs the farm with her husband, Gadi. She directed us to a cabin on the other side of a hill.


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