Most spas have names that conjure up an atmosphere of bliss and tranquillity. So I am a little taken aback by the sign outside the spa in the orange groves of northern Israel. It reads, ADA BARAK'S CARNIVOROUS PLANT FARM. Barak makes most of her income by showing off her plants, which eat everything from insects and reptiles to small mammals and schnitzel. She started grabbing one of the little snakes slithering in and out of the hungry plants' jaws and passing it around to visitors at the end of her act. And that was how she hit on the snakes' therapeutic value. "Some people said that holding the snakes made them feel better, relaxed," she says. "One old lady said it was soothing, like a cold compress."
Traditionally, snakes have gotten a bad rap in the Holy Land--just ask Eve--so I am surprised that Barak's technique has found acceptance here in modern Israel. After some experimenting, she eventually settled on a combo of big snakes for a deep massage (the king and corn snakes are heavy enough to produce a kneading sensation) and little ones, whose passage over the skin is a trembling flutter. "People either like it a lot or they hate it," says Barak. She makes this remark as a busload of Israelis arrives, and an 18-year-old with flowing brown hair agrees to lie down and let the snakes--all nonvenomous--make themselves at home on her bare belly. The little ones move over her neck and face like caressing fingers. She looks enraptured.
I decide to get the $80 spa treatment, since I am dubious about both its calming and its curative effects. Barak's cousin Dr. Nava Becher reminds me that Moses coiled a bronze snake around his staff and thrust it upward to the sky ("to remind people of the Almighty," she says) and that the snake is a symbol for medicine ("meaning that what kills you can also cure you"). Many of Barak's regular clients claim that the snakes help ease migraines and soothe sore muscles.
She leads me into a bright room with tropical plants. I strip off my shirt and trousers and lie on a massage table. (Just as I am psyching myself up for the treatment, I see one of the little snakes, with a string of brick-colored diamonds along its spine, open its mouth impossibly wide. Is it going to strike? No--it coughs up a half-digested mouse, leading me to assume that the snake is as queasy about giving me a massage as I am about getting one.) When Barak plops a writhing tangle of snakes on my belly, their first reaction, and mine, is panic. They race away in six directions, and she patiently plops them back, braiding them together to slow their getaway.
Once my panic subsides, I can focus on the snakes moving across my skin. They're cool, dry and smooth. It's not unpleasant, except when a tiny one stops to nibble on my eyelashes. Their presence stirs something deep and peaceful in me. I come away relaxed and curiously light-headed, though I don't feel the urge to buy myself a python to continue this therapy at home.
It's a lot to ask a tourist to be swarmed by snakes. For a more traditional massage, many visitors head up to the Sea of Galilee. Secluded in the pine forests is the Bayit Bagalil, a boutique hotel offering tasty Mediterranean cuisine, views of the water Jesus supposedly walked on and a variety of massages for those who prefer a human's touch to a reptile's. It's also worthwhile to splash in the mineral-laden Dead Sea, renowned as a health spa ever since the Queen of Sheba raved about its medicinal properties 4,000 years ago. (Hint: resorts like the Mövenpick on the Jordanian side are more luxurious and, because they are less traveled, far cheaper.) Around the Dead Sea, though, stay away from the snakes: their touch might soothe, but their bite is fatal.
Watch 'Em Wiggle To see our (fearful) correspondent get a serpentine spa treatment, visit time.com/snakespa