The Last Jew of Peki’in

 

Last Friday my husband and I visited the village of Peki’in, about 40 minutes from our home in the Galilee.  It was incredibly moving to meet Margalit Zinati, the 86-year-old lone surviving Jew of Peki’in, as well as visit the cave where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai hid from his Roman oppressors.  I love that every single corner of Israel not only has such a wealth of geopolitical and religious history, but that we feel a genuine spiritual connection and link to the Land we now call home.

When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, there were a few families who survived the starvation and massacres; they managed to flee to other areas in Israel.  Twenty-four families of Kohanim (priests) thus settled in different parts of the Galilee, including three places near where I live, but these villages today (Kfar Yasif, Shraram, and Arrabe) are strictly Arab (Muslim, Christian or Druze).

Peki’in, high on a mountaintop in the Galilee, is another village settled by Jews from the time of the Second Temple.  Three now-unemployed families of Kohanim (without a Temple to serve, the Kohanim were without work) came to live there as well.  The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yehoshua ben Haninah transmitted Torah in Peki’in, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (who was one of Rabbi Akiva’s greatest disciples)  would hide there.  The synagogue served as Rabbi ben Hanina’s house of study.  It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1837, but rebuilt in 1873.  Two stones in the synagogue are said to have been brought by the Kohanim from the destroyed Second Temple, and there they can be seen to this day.

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Second Temple relics

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There is a discussion in the Talmud with Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (also known as the “Rashbi”), who was a strong opponent of the Roman regime.  Rabbi Yehuda praised the Romans for their architecture and engineering.  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai retorted that the Romans were self-serving, and brought immorality and hardship.  When the Romans got wind of the conversation, they sentenced the Rashbi to death for sedition.  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai avoided capture and spent several months hiding with his son Rabbi Elazar in different places in the Galilee, finally settling in a cave in Peki’in where he hid for 13 years.  The cave  was close to a spring and a carob tree; both provided their sustenance.

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The spring.   The statues are of Druze leaders.

To preserve their clothes, they buried themselves naked up to their necks in sand, only wearing their clothes on the Sabbath, and learned Torah all day, every day.  It was in this cave that he studied Kabbalah (Jewish mystical thought) and wrote the holy Zohar, the original book of Kabbalah. With the death of Emperor Hadrian, the decree against the Rashbi and Rabbi Elazar was nullified, and they finally, after 13 years, emerged from the cave that had served them so well.

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The carob tree

Today considered a holy site, the cave and a huge carob tree (likely an offshoot of the original) are visited  by Jews and Arabs alike.  The Arabs refer to the place as “Bnei Yakov” (sons of Jacob). Candles, coins, oil and hastily written supplications are placed at the entrance to the cave by pilgrims and tourists.

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Notes and candles left in the cave by pilgrims

The opening is narrow and the cavern mostly blocked off by boulders – – said to the be result of a major earthquake.

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The narrow entry to the cave

Over time, much land was stolen from the Jews.  In modern times, things did not get any better.  Surrounded by Druze, Christian and Muslim neighbors, some years were, however, peaceful. The Jews assimilated, not in religion, but in adopting Arab dress and language and generally influenced by Arab culture.  These Jews were known as “Mustarabim.”

Unfortunately, Jewish homes and land continued to be misappropriated.  In the 1920s a Jewish school was built, and there were 50 families still in Peki’in.  In the1930s, several Arab pograms during the Great Arab Revolt resulted in Jews being terrorized and murdered, and many surviving Jews fled Peki’in in 1938 – 1940, never to return.  This was the only time in Peki’in’s history that the town was devoid of Jews since the days of the Destruction of the Temple.

Ironically, almost all of the remaining Jewish property was legally sold to Arabs in the 1940s by the Jewish Agency/Jewish National Fund.  Disregarding Peki’in’s important historical Jewish legacy, they  decided for the remaining Jews’ own safety, it was best for the them to settle elsewhere, and they used the money from the property sales to buy land to establish “Peki’in HaHadasha” – a “new” Peki’in  village located a few miles away.

Only a single determined, heroic Jewish Peki’in family returned in 1940: the Zinati Family, who were direct descendants of one of the 3 priestly families who came from the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem to Peki’in so many generations ago.  The patriarch Zinati had been rounded up by a gang of Arabs and taken to the town square.  The mob said he was a waste of a bullet and prepared a bonfire and kerosene to burn him alive.  It was only through the intervention of a Muslim neighbor that saved his life at the last possible moment that he survived.  Life became increasingly difficult, and when the school closed down, the Zinati children were sent to boarding school in Jerusalem, with only the parents remaining in Peki’in.  The son eventually married and left to raise a family elsewhere.  Only the Zinati daughter, Margalit (born in 1931) who by now had finished school, remained in Peki’in with her parents.  At that point, she decided her own fate:  she would never marry.  She felt obligated to care for her parents as they aged, and she knew that if she would get married, she would be forced to live with her husband outside of Peki’in.  She was determined to keep a Jewish presence in Peki’in alive, no matter what the cost.

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Firebrand Margalit Zinati, age 86
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Exterior of synagogue
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The synagogue interior

Margalit Zinati, 86, the priestly daughter whose forefathers served in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, is the Last Jew of Peki’in.  She still receives visitors daily.  She wakes early and hobbles to the synagogue, greeting her neighbors in Arabic along the way.  There, she takes a broom and begins sweeping the synagogue interior, as well as the courtyard with its enormous mulberry tree.  She loves the tourists and Israelis who flock there to see a living testament to a nearly forgotten era.  She entertained us in her heavily-accented Hebrew, reminiscing about her childhood, her neighbors, and Jewish life in Peki’in.  She points out the artifacts in the synagogue that were brought by the displaced and exiled priests from the Holy Temple over 2000 years ago when they fled Jerusalem.  She explains that she is still getting over a bout of pneumonia, but she bends without much difficulty to pick up some fallen mulberries off the courtyard ground, walks to an outdoor sink and washes them off, offering us a handful of the fruit.  Her eyes twinkle and she beams with pride over her role as caretaker of such an important place.  She is an icon, and she knows it.  She shows us pictures from numerous awards ceremonies where she was honored, and brags that she was chosen to light the torch for Israel’s 70th Independence Day celebration earlier this year.

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The synagogue courtyard.  Long ago, this mulberry tree’s silkworms provided material for a silk-making factory

She showers her visitors with blessings, and they repeatedly wish her “good health, until 120.”  Because she is Margalit Zinati, the last Last Jew of Peki’in, and she is not going anywhere.

As we get ready to leave, she escorts us from the courtyard.  “Of all the Jews, only we returned,” she says.  “The other families were too scared.  We’re not afraid of anyone.  We fear only G-d above.”

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a typical narrow street in Peki’in

 

 

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Down Under

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On Friday I visited two attractions just outside the town of Beit Shean.  I almost didn’t get there, as unbeknownst to me, there was a marathon race going on and many of the roads were closed to traffic.  Waze (the traffic and map navigation app) took me a roundabout way, telling me to go on dirt “security roads” that bordered kibbutz agricultural fields and Arab villages.  Instead of taking an hour from my home, it took nearly 2.5 hours’ travel time and I got lost repeatedly! I finally passed a concrete bus stop where a soldier was waiting for a bus to take him home in time for Shabbat.  I gave him a ride which he gratefully accepted all the way to his home on Kibbutz Nir David (where his mother anxiously and proudly awaited his return with all sorts of special treats and foods for Shabbat; I think every Israeli mother gives her son a hero’s welcome when he comes home on weekly leave).  He had come all the way from south of Eilat, so this final leg of his long journey was a big relief to him, and he was of course a big help to me in finding my way.

The first place I stopped is called Gan Garoo (which is next to the aforementioned kibbutz).  It’s an immaculately kept zoo that is dedicated to Australian-Israeli friendship, and all the animals within are those found in Australia.  There are many different unusual birds large and small, but the real highlight is the “mob” of different varieties of kangaroos of all ages and sizes – some 53 in all – who roam freely in a large enclosure where humans can not only interact with them, but oblige the ‘roos with a much-appreciated back scratch or neck massage.

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lorakeets
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neck rub

What a delightful experience!  The kangaroos were as tame as one’s pet dog, and each one had its own look and personality.  The joeys (baby kangaroos) were adorable, but my favorite was actually the oldest and largest, a red kangaroo with the expressive face of a donkey (others had faces that looked like rabbits, hares, deer and goats).  They reacted equally well to being petted by a 3-year-old little girl as they did an adult human.  It was truly thrilling, and I hated to leave, but on a short winter Friday, I wanted to leave time for a swim at the three spring-fed natural pools of Sachne (also known as Gan HaShlosha).

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a punim only a mother could love
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joey with child

Sachne’s waters are a crystal-clear turquoise blue and maintain their 84 degree F temperature year round.  The swimming there is fantastic.  The springs, part of Israel’s national park system, are visited year round by an extremely diverse group of people: Israeli Jews (Sephardi, Ashkenazi, religious and secular, and lots of Russian, French, and Anglo immigrants) and Arabs (Christian and Muslim) families, along with a sprinkling of tourists, who are seeking an enjoyable, relaxing and beautiful way to spend the day.  There is plenty of picnicking alongside the water in park-like grassy areas, and this is just one of many places where tolerance and cooperation between peoples defies the anti-Israel propaganda promoted by world media.

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As the sun started to get lower, I regretfully said goodbye and continued on another 5 or 10 minutes by car to the town of Beit Shean, where I would be attending a special Shabbat weekend with other Anglo immigrants to Israel who are associated with Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that facilitates aliyah to Israel from North America, and provides many helpful services to help olim navigate the bureaucracy that challenges every newcomer.  This annual gathering is specifically for olim (immigrants) who’ve chosen to make their permanent home in northern Israel (the Galilee and the Golan Heights).  We stayed in a government-run youth hostel that was newly remodeled and expanded, with attractive if simple dorm-like rooms and a general dining hall where the dozens of Anglo immigrant families shared meals together.  It was a great opportunity to meet and make new friends, and encourage one another with a deep understanding and empathy about the joys and challenges of living in Israel.  Everyone was nice, but I was especially excited to meet some new potential friends and we have already made plans to get together next week.

On Saturday afternoon, the entire group meandered over to the Beit Shean archeological dig, which is located about a block away from the youth hostel.  I was wondering why I had never visited the remnants of old Beit Shean and the subsequent Roman city of Scythopolis, which at one time housed a staggering 40,000 residents, when I lived in Israel many years ago!  The beautiful amphitheater, which has been partially restored, had seats for 7,000 Roman citizens.  You can wander down the Cardo (the shopping lane, lined with many stores), visit the arena where gladiator games were held; you can see the remains of a fountain, a temple, a brothel, and several restored mosaic floors.  Perhaps most amazing, Scythopolis had only been aggressively excavated in the 1980s and 90s – – before that is was mostly unexcavated and buried completely under the ground (the city was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 749 AD) and the extent of its size until then was unknown – – which also explains why I hadn’t known about it when I lived in Israel in the early 80s and it was not yet open to the public.

Overlooking the ancient city, which was a half-way point for trade between Damascus and Caesarea, is a huge tel (mound) which was first excavated by archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1930s.  Eighteen different civilizations were uncovered from the different strata, including Crusader, Muslim, Roman, Greek, Philistine, Israelite and Canaanite periods.  The relics were shipped mostly to Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was constructed especially to house the extensive finds (and is still in operation today).  A small portion of the finds were donated to the Israel Museum where they can been viewed.

But for me the most meaningful events of Beit Shean occurred years before the Roman conquest.  For it was at nearby Mt. Gilboa that King Shaul fought his final battle against the Philistine king.  Three of Shaul’s sons were killed in that battle, and King Shaul himself was gravely injured. Rather than face capture alive, he threw himself upon his own sword, ending his own life.  The Philistine king would not permit the corpses of Shaul nor his sons to be buried, and instead decapitated them and took their bodies to the gates of the city of Beit Shean, where they hung on those walls as a final humiliation.

It never fails to amaze me that I am walking on the very ground where my forefathers walked, lived, loved, prayed, fought, and died.  Everywhere – everywhere! – in Israel, the ground is rich with the holy blood, sweat and tears of the Jewish people.  I am not only reliving that history, I am part of it and it is part of me.  The connection to the past is palpable, and the realization that I am part of its future fills me with humility and awe.

Only in Israel could I go from a modern Australian zoo to a natural oasis to an ancient city where Biblical battles were fought, all within a few minutes of one another.

Not a day goes by without me pinching myself that I merit living here on a daily basis, something my great-grandparents could only dream about in the most surreal of fantasies from their pogrom-ridden shtetls.

This new life of ours is very good indeed.

(I do not use a camera on Shabbat, which is why I didn’t take pictures of Beit Shean, the youth hostel, and the archeological park.  Please feel free to click on the highlighted links for pictures taken by others.)