Jewish Continuity

Every once in a while you come upon a place that moves you in inexplicable ways.  Its not its beauty, nor its history, or its people or the food… its the combination of it all that makes you pause and think  “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this place!”

Well, Pki’in is one of those places.  This village of about 4,500 inhabitants lies high above the Pki’in Valley, the geological divide between the Western and Central Upper Galilee in Northern Israel.

The mountainous Upper Galilee has always been somewhat remote, more so in the past, where those who wished to get away escaped to in their time of need.  Many found refuge in these gorgeous mountains and their out-of-the-way villages; Jews, Druze, Muslims and Christians.

The Rashbi’s cave – not much space for two people for 12 years + 12 months, but its a good story

The Talmud tells the story that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi) hid here with his son Elazar as they escaped the wrath of the Romans after the Bar Kochba rebellion of 135 ce.  They lived in a local cave for 12 years, where the Rashbi composed his famous kabbalist work, the Zohar, and were fed by a secret spring and a carob tree.  Elijah the Prophet came to tell them of the death of the Roman emperor and to encourage them to emerge.  However, as they looked around and saw that the village people were going about their daily business, they complained and became very annoyed and in return for their arrogance, were punished by being commanded to return to the cave for an additional 12 months.

And yes, you too can pay a visit to this legendary cave! Follow the signs down the hillside stairs and with LOTS of imagination you can re-enact the whole story…

Archaeological evidence  shows the first permanent settlements here began during the Iron Age (circa 1000 bce) and the first recorded Jewish inhabitants begin to arrive towards the end of  Second Temple times (1st century ce).

As a matter of fact, what put Pki’in on the map, so to speak, was that very Jewish presence…  In the early 20th century, as Jews started returning to the land of Israel, trying to build their Zionist dream, a call went out to document continuous Jewish presence in the land for the last 1800 years, from the exile of the Jews till the 20th century.

A lovely, colorful, picturesque village

Yitzhak Ben Zvi, a historian who later became the 2nd President of the State of Israel,  leads a research project to find these pockets of Jewish continuity. He believes that the obvious choices would be Jerusalem, Safed, Jaffa, Nablus, towns with hundreds of years of Jewish presence. However, he soon realizes that none of the bigger cities qualify, since at one point or another, Jewish people were forbidden from living there.

Turns out that only two places had a continuous Jewish presence for 1800 years, the southern Judean hills, around Hebron and Arad and the small villages of the Eastern Upper Galilee, such as Pki’in.  Ben Zvi decides to concentrate on Pki’in because in the early 1920’s, it still had a small Jewish community.  (In 1931, the British census counted 52 Jews living in Pki’in among its 799 inhabitants).

In 1922, Ben Zvi publishes a research paper called “The Jewish Community of the Village of Pki’in” and in it he declares that Pki’in was indeed a symbol of Jewish continuity in the Land of Israel, a symbol of survival, longevity and steadfastness.  Pki’in receives instant celebrity status, and becomes a pilgrimage destination for youth organizations, school field trips and curious travelers.

The village center square, where the ancient spring still flows

Whether Yitzhak Ben Zvi was correct in his assertion that Pki’in has had a continuous Jewish presence for over 1800 years is still controversial, and adds to the mystique of this place.  However, we do have the writings of Italian Rabbi Moses Basola, who traveled to Jerusalem from 1521-1523  and on his way documented his meetings with the Jewish people of Pki’in.

Pki’in’s first Druze inhabitants arrive around 900 years ago with the birth of their new religion and its dispersal around the the mountains of the Galilee and the Golan.  The village’s first Christians arrive in the 14th century.

Margalit Zeynati, Pki’in’s last Jewish resident

Life  in the Upper Galilee during the 19th century was harsh and many of its inhabitants, including the Jews, leave for better pastures. In 1900, only twenty Jewish families remain in Pki’in and after WWI the number dwindles to around twelve.  During the 1936-1939 Arab rebellion, the Jews are evacuated and only three families return.  As of 1949, the Zeynati family is the only Jewish family left in Pki’in, desperately clinging to  hundreds of years of Jewish continuity in the village.

Today, Pki’in is a mixture of cultures, 70% Druze, 28% Christians, a few Muslim families and one Jew… an elderly woman named Margalit Zeynati.

Margalit is the sole remnant the Zeynati family. She has been taking care of the ancient Jewish sites and the synagogue for years, and now she is tired. Very tired.

She has never married and has no children.

Now what?  Who will keep the doors of the synagogue open? Who will sweep the courtyard and welcome the tourists with large tubs of berries from the overgrown tree?

Will this really be the final chapter of  the ‘symbol of survival, longevity and steadfastness’ of Jewish continuity?

Kinda breaks my heart… I am sure Yitzhak Ben Zvi is quite upset as well.

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